I woke up this morning just before 9AM, almost exactly what I'd been shooting for after going to bed at midnight. When I got up, after Ruthie's usual visit to say hello, rub her face and beg for food, I noticed Valarie had decorated the kitchen with paper plates and hats that said, "Happy Fucking Birthday." Bless this woman.
And while I didn't have much time to spare before an 11AM meeting downtown, I decided to shower and read the paper fairly quickly so as to have time for breakfast around the corner at Johnny B's, a greasy spoon I love and visit often. It's literally a family business: dad and son in the kitchen, mom and daughter waiting tables.
Because I've eaten here so many times and love it, and because I grew up working in a restaurant and know these things can happen, I chose to more or less ignore the dead ant sandwiched between my two halves of pre-buttered toast. I don't mean ignore in the sense of still going through with eating the tainted pieces of toast, but rather in the sense of not making a fuss to the waitress. Luckily the shredded hash browns (a rarity in home fries-loving Portland) were outstanding.
Next it was off to a meeting with a friend at City Hall about the ongoing Memorial Coliseum and Rose Quarter issue. I had enough time to walk to the meeting over the Hawthorne Bridge instead of biking, bussing or driving.
As for the meeting itself, there's far too much to say about the whole issue here without it dominating the post. And I have a separate post on that coming soon. But being involved the last couple months with the preservation effort for Memorial Coliseum has been one of the biggest and most energizing experiences of my career.
Just a few weeks ago this architectural landmark and house of priceless Portland memories--a Blazer championship, concerts and appearances from The Beatles to Obama--was seemingly slated for the wrecking ball. Now we've won the first of a two-stage battle. Officially the Coliseum is not going to be torn down, say the mayor and city council. But we still have to protect the building from a so-called renovation that would ruin the building. (All my Portland Architecture blog posts on the Memorial Coliseum issue can be read here, once you scroll down.)
Today, though, I have license to stop and smell the roses a bit, as it were. And in my neighborhood, that's pretty easy, since every couple blocks there's a small park-like rose garden. It's turning out so far to be the kind of Oregon spring day that I love, with a rapid and continuous cycle of clouds and sun, maybe a shower now and then but mostly bright sunny skies with big white clouds herding along.
Because Valarie is unfortunately nursing a cold, we are postponing my official birthday dinner until probably this Saturday. But it's almost better this way anyway. I can have some yummy fast food of my choosing - probably pizza - and still have a nice dinner this Saturday at Le Pigeon or Sel Gris (whichever I choose - still undecided.
Even though it's beautiful outside, if I really want to treat myself, I'm often happiest in our basement editing video footage and listening to records on my parents' old Sony turntable. I loaded onto the computer some footage on tape that I shot last summer of the Vaux swifts birds that annually nest inside a Chapman Elementary School chimney for two weeks for a stopover while migrating south.
And as has been the case hundreds of times in the last few months, I listened to my 4-album collection "Eccentric Soul: Twinight's Lunar Rotation," featuring lesser-known Chicago-area soul acts from the late 1960s and early 70s. The songs have this incredible combination of warm, bright tones (especially the brass harmonies and supporting organ/guitar) and knowing melancholy. One band in particular, The Notations, stands out as the class of the bunch, but right now I'm particularly partial to songs by several artists:
Harrison & The Majestic Kind, "Tearing Me Up Inside"
To be a Greg Oden fan and pin your lifetime of hopes for a Blazer championship to his injury-prone knees is not an emotionally easy road.
First there was the micro-surgery that took his whole first season away. Then there was his shaky 13-minute debut at the Staples Center this year, in which Oden looked like a deer before a Buick's headlights before succumbing to another injury. When he first began playing regularly, it seemed like the Blazers' star center in waiting could either dunk the basketball or get called for traveling. With the ball in his hands, Oden has sometimes resembled one of those mini-AT-AT walkers from the Endor scenes of Return of the Jedi after the Ewoks place a bunch of legs underneath it so the walker wobbles and falls down: a huge piece of expert machinery rendered a joke.
As the regular season has inched along, Oden has taken a huge amount of criticism and mockery. On the Blazer blogs I visit, commenters routinely compare him to Sam Bowie and call him a bust. They predict he'll always be injured, or if he isn't, Oden will reveal himself--as #1 overall picks go--far closer to Kwame Brown, Joe Smith and Andrew Bogut than Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwan or Tim Duncan. Even Blazer fans wanting to give Oden the benefit of the doubt believe that Joel Pryzbilla is a better center.
All along, I have been Oden's apologist and cheerleader. From the moment Portland drafted him, I've been both giddy with excitement and worried over his chances of failure. Oden has the body and gifts of a potentially great, Hall of Fame NBA center. But those kinds of players arrive once or twice in a generation. Merely hoping a big 7-foot center will be a legend, even with the pedigree of being a #1 pick, won't make it a reality. Couple Oden's still relatively uncertain future with that of Kevin Durant, the high scoring forward Portland passed up to pick Big Greg, and you have the added pressure of the Blazers again making a big mistake with their selection, as happened in 1984 with taking Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. Durant, in his second season, now trails only LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade for this year's scoring lead.
It's come to the point where even a Blazer victory doesn't feel quite as satisfying if Oden doesn't perform. Sometimes it's because of foul trouble. Often, actually. Other times it's because of limited minutes due to coach Nate McMillan's decision making or Oden's additional aches and pains. This season, even after the joy of seeing him finally play after a year's delay, he has often been stifled.
Yet having said all this, I believe and will unapologetically argue that Oden is doing not just okay, but very well.
If you look at Oden's statistics this year, they don't initially seem very spectacular. For most of the season he has hovered around 8 or 9 points per game and 7 to 9 rebounds. As of today (March 29), he's officially at 8.8 points and 7.1 rebounds. But that is based on his playing an average of 22.1 minutes per game, less than half the possible 48 minutes of regulation time.
And when you switch from per-game statistics, which can be misleading because of varying minutes played, to the other principal statistical standard for the NBA, per-48-minutes, Oden emerges as already one of pro basketball's premiere centers in his first season.
Per 48 minutes of play, Greg Oden is averaging 19.1 points per game and 15.4 rebounds. Let's compare that to some of his Blazer teammates and fellow NBA centers.
In Portland, obviously Brandon Roy has a significantly higher points average at 29.2 points per game and 6.5 assists. But after that, Oden compares favorably to anyone on the team.
LaMarcus Aldridge, the team's second-leading scorer, averages 23.4 points and 9.5 rebounds per 48 minutes. His 18.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game are much higher than Oden's, but Aldridge averages 37.1 minutes per game to Oden's 22.1. Erase that minutes-played discrepancy, and Oden scores only 4 points less per 48 minutes but nearly 6 more rebounds. And Aldridge is viewed as a budding star on the cusp of making the All-Star team. How come our supposed "flop" of a center is more efficient?
Oden's fellow Blazer center, Joel Pryzbilla, averages more rebounds per 48 minutes than Oden (17.1 versus 15.4), but only 11.1 points compared to Oden's 19.1.
Now let us see how Oden compares per 48 minutes of play to some of the NBA's great big men. Shaquille O'Neal is having a comeback season with the Suns even if they may miss the playoffs. He's averaging 18.1 points per game and 8.6 rebounds. That translates into 28.7 points per game and 13.7 rebounds.
Greg Oden is rebounding better than Shaquille O'Neal. This year.
Then there's Yao Ming. He's averaging 19.6 points and 9.8 rebounds in 33.4 minutes per game. Switch that to per 48 minutes of play, however, and Yao's numbers translate to 28.1 points and 13.9 rebounds.
Greg Oden is rebounding better than Yao Ming. This year.
How about Tim Duncan? He's really a power forward as much as a center, but a premiere big man of his time either way. Duncan this year is averaging 27.8 points and 14.8 rebounds per 48 minutes this year.
Greg Oden is rebounding better than Tim Duncan. This year.
And then there's Andrew Bynum. Arrogant Laker fans and members of the Los Angeles media have thoroughly enjoyed forwarding the idea that their young center is the true heir to the great all-time centers, not Oden. Nevermind that Bynum, despite also being injury prone and given to long stretches on the bench in street clothes. This year the Laker center is averaging 23.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per 48 minutes of play.
Greg Oden is rebounding better than Andrew Bynum. This year.
In fact, the only premiere big man I found who is out-rebounding Greg Oden this year per 48 minutes of play is Dwight Howard, who averages 28.2 points and 18.7 rebounds. Howard is in his 4th season. As new-generation centers go, he is the gold standard. But I'd argue Oden, if he can keep his injuries under control, is already showing that he can be in the same league with Howard, and that he already is in the same league, when you even out the amount of minutes played, as the other great centers in the game: O'Neal, Yao, Duncan and Bynum.
To be fair, looking at these per-48-minute statistics, Oden scores fewer points than all the big-time players I mentioned. In the future as he solidifies his presence at center for the Blazers, I see Oden's career being distinguished by defense and rebounding more than scoring. Imagining a prime for him in a few years, I see Greg Oden still averaging closer to 15 points per game than 20. But he could very well lead the NBA in rebounding. Then there's what a mammoth presence, both physically and psychologically, that he already is as a defensive presence. Let Oden get comfortable and relatively pain/injury free, and he could be a strong candidate for the league's Defensive Player of the Year award--multiple times.
I'm not saying that Greg Oden is the second coming of Bill Russell or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain. But I also vehemently reject the idea that he is anything close to a bust.
Right now Portland has one of the two or three best guards in the NBA with Brandon Roy, a budding All-Star power forward in LaMarcus Aldridge, a young alley-oop and three-point specialist in Rudy Fernandez who showed in the gold medal Olympic game last summer that he can play against the best, and a talented deep and still-young supporting cast including lottery and first round picks like Travis Outlaw, Jerryd Bayless and Martell Webster. Greg Oden fits very, very well into that championship puzzle, especially with Pryzbilla there to relieve the pressure and provide a strong on-court role model setting screens and diving for loose balls.
One of the things I and many Blazer fans love about Oden is his gregariousness, his willingness to show his real self to reporters and fans with smiles and bouts of sadness alike. It's clear Oden was emboldened by the excitement of the draft, and resilient in returning from microfracture surgery, but has also been depressed and frustrated by criticisms. He understands people out there think he's a bust, and it gets to him - admittedly, perhaps more than it should.
But that's all the more reason I want to shout from the rooftops, "You're doing great, Greg!" Because you are. And you will.
Since late January I've been making a slough of entries on Twitter. The site allows 140 characters per entry, which is challenging, but in return I've wound up chronicling my goings on from moment to moment much more than with blogging.
This is going to be long, but here are my Twitter posts from February. I've eliminated the entries that were solely links to other stuff.
Memo to arrogant GMC pickup driver who made me brake and skid atop the Fremont Bridge: hang up, use your blinker and drive. Or take a bus. 2:31PM.
@djacobs Durant is a vastly more talented scorer and'll be 10x All Star. Oden is more likely to help Portland win games and championships. 1:13PM.
General Motors should dump Buick, not Saturn. Who under the age of 80 drives a Buick? And sell Saab back to Sweden so it won't be tainted. 12:43PM
Seeing a Star Wars trading card on my bulletin board made me wonder: Did Chewbacca ever comb his face? 12:32PM
Bryce Brown of Wichita, are you on Twitter? If so, come play RB for the Ducks! To twist the "Wayne's World" phrase, we ARE worthy! 12:28PM
Disappointing Oden is out not only tonight but Sunday's game. Much worse: so-called Blazer fans doubting his future. 12:26PM.
@zibapdx Paco Underhill is a brilliant analyst of shopping trends. Wish more architects studied their designs post-occupancy like this. 12:23PM.
Do The Doors constitute a guilty pleasure? Dusted off "Touch Me", "Unknown Soldier" and "LA Woman". Feel like I'm in high school. 12:22PM.
@propagandery I agree that "We Built This City" is horrible, but I stand up for the artistic value of "Everybody Wang Chung Tonight". 11:33AM
People are so bad at remembering to re-record voice mail greetings after the temporary "I'll be on vacation" one no longer applies. 4:55PM
Can't help but chuckle at "Hip Hop Hooray" coming on the stereo via iPod shuffle. What ever happened to Naughty By Nature? "Hey, ho, hey!" 4:24PM
Had a delicious lunch at Malay Satay Hut of bok choy with garlic sauce and Malaysian pork chops and roti canai flatbread. Cheers, Matt. 4:21PM
Blazers still can't get a win on their Texas Triangle road trip, but it's valuable lessons for our young Fellowship of the 2012 Ring. 10:34PM
Diners, Drive-ins & Drives is one of my favorite shows, but Guy's Big Bite with an audience and buffoonery leaves me as cold as Emeril does. 10:32PM
I can't stand those e-Trade commercials with the talking baby brokers, but I confess the FreeCreditReport.com jingles are a guilty pleasure. 10:29PM
"All Cats Are Grey" by The Cure playing on iPod shuffle as I fry sausage for a homemade pizza. Not huge Cure fan, but adore this song. 4:43PM.
Economy may be down, but Stumptown beans are now a dollar cheaper at New Seasons. Watched rolling clouds through a skylight while grinding. 3:57PM
Obama did great tonight, but the theater of presidents addressing congress is funny--so many standing ovations always cheapens their impact. 11:08PM
Doesn't Ruthie know I JUST cleaned her litter box? Can't I bask in a job well done for a few minutes? 1:59PM
Why do double-negatives and the non-existent word "ain't" have to be the accepted norm in all rock and pop songs? 1:56PM
Say what? Editors want additional work done after I turn in a draft? 12:17PM
I was entranced by Sonny Rollins' "Saxophone Colossus" & missed the first 30 minutes of Inter Milan vs. Manchester United. But still 0-0. 12:16PM
I jinxed yesterday's springlike rain-sun mix by mentioning it. Now it's just raining. Still better than ice and snow, though. 11:43AM
Making my signature spaghetti sauce and listening to Modern Jazz Quartet's "Concorde". Really I prefer "Django", but they're all sublime. 6:23PM
@nwfilmcenter I agree: Stanich's has some of Portland's most exquisite burgers. Also love The Red Coach and Skyline. 6:20PM
Spring in Portland is officially arriving: 5 cycles of alternating rain and sunshine this morning alone. 12:37PM
My new temporary favorite jazz tune: a cover of Brubeck's "Take Five" by Bahamanian saxophonist Ozzie Hall. Way more soulful than original. 11:15AM
Blazers quietly won 3rd in a row last night, and I loved reading Sports Illustrated's Brandon Roy profile: "New Star, Old Soul." 11:09AM
The Oscar telecast overall wasn't the major re-think they promised. Stroke of genius to have past winners honor all the nominees, though. 11:07AM
Steady diet of espresso and 70s Bahamas R&B to kick-start this Monday morning after some late-night writing to meet deadline. 11:06AM
Hooray! I was rooting for Danny Boyle even aside from "Slumdog". When I interviewed him a couple years ago he was super nice and genuine. 8:24 PM
I can just see the "Slumdog" score musicians' next project: a Paul Simon album. 8:00 PM
It's fitting Jerry Lewis is being honored at the Oscars. His telethons are the only broadcast that's longer. Of course I'm still watching. 7:46 PM
"Great, everybody's crying now and I have to go on," --Bill Maher after Ledger's win. Very happy he won, deservedly. Love RDjr & JB though. 7:20 PM
It's been 90 minutes and one major award (supporting actress) has been given out. So I have less patience for H. Jack's 2nd musical number. 6:54 PM
Still many a tad too many montages though. It's like a higher-class TV Guide channel. 6:28 PM
I can't believe what a great start the Oscars are off to. Jackman's musical number was fun, but the lead up to Cruz's win was fantastic. 5:51 PM
Seems like Slumdog is poised to win tonight, along with Ledger, maybe Cruz, Winslet. For me it's all about song medleys & accountant intros. 2:46 PM
"You know I gots to looked dipped in my fresh gear....who the hell you think I am, Mr. Belvedere?" --Phife Dawg 2:42 PM
A late start on the 3 stories I have due tomorrow after sleeping in until 11:30. Enjoyed friend Ned's b-day party Sat at Thatch Tiki Bar. 2:39 PM
@shawnlevy I'd give Professor Wegner as long as he wants - he's tenured. Any team whose down-year is 5th in Premiership is OK with me. 11:48 AM
Caught the first 20 minutes of "The Conversation" on TCM. Wow what a spectacularly great movie. That and "Apocolypse Now" are my FFC faves. 7:43PM
Busy w/work all weekend, but tonight it's slippers & track suit for NBA and Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives. "This apple butter is on point!" 7:42PM
Word has come from New Seasons that my Friday night pulled-pork sandwich with slaw is being assembled momentarily. Baking a box cake later. 6:46PM
"Don't Worry Baby" just played on my iPod. How angelic that B Wilson. Perfect accompaniment to starting a batch of frozen fries in the oven. 6:46PM
I love how Bond movies are showing almost 24/7 on cable now. Valarie's right that Roger Moore acts with his eyebrows. Connery's nastier. 2:44PM
Off to meet some Chicago Architectural Foundation people scouting Portland for a members' visit. Steered them to Ace Stumptown, naturally. 2:43PM
Paul is every bit the genius John was, by the way. Ringo, not a genius but love his simple root drumming. George very very good. 2:42PM
First "Magical Mystery Tour" and now "Rubber Soul" as I edit photos from this morning's visit to the restored Calumet Building. 2:34PM
Saw an ad in the paper for Regis Philbin coming to Spirit Mountain Casino. Even HE can't be enthusiastic about that gig. Final answer, Reg? 10:01AM
Suddenly out of nowhere, an insatiable urge to hear "Kings of the Wild Frontier" by Adam & The Ants. Actually, it's satiable--listening now. 4:22PM
I'm fine with the Trail Blazers standing pat as the trade deadline passed. Was worried about chemistry or losing Travis Outlaw anyway. 4:09PM
While a new door handle was being installed on my car, I took MAX downtown for delightful food-cart Bratwurst and a perfect Spella espresso. 4:07PM
One silver lining to the current economic cloud: Chrysler is reportedly discontinuing the PT Cruiser, the world's ugliest car. 5:28PM
After Art Blakey's "A Night In Tunisia" as work music yesterday, today it's St. Etienne's "Foxbase Alpha". 1:00PM
@propagandery You are SO right! Thank-you waves are mandatory if someone's let you into their lane. 10:26AM
Interviewed a developer and architect in Pearl/downtown earlier, now home roasting a chicken with rosemary & listening to Throwing Muses. 5:13PM
Couldn't help but stay up and watch Antonioni's awesome "Blow-Up" on TCM. I want to be the young David Hemmings character, only not a jerk. 11:38PM
Q-Tip, where have you been? Your first album in six years is terrific. All we need is Phife Dawg and Tribe Called Quest would be back. 9:42PM
Oh good, I've finished my story due tomorrow morning in time for Iron Chef and some highlights of Brandon Roy's 14 all-star-game points. 9:41PM
Why am I still not fully awake almost three hours after rising? Wasn't 10 hours enough, or was it too much? Hello 4th espresso. 1:08PM
Yum, cooked up fettucini with gorgonzola cream sauce (old fave), then brownies with fresh whipped cream for dessert. Avoiding tight pants. 12:02AM
Does a CD of Bahamanian funk from the early 70s classify as an impulse purchase? 12:00AM
Overheard at Powell's: someone confessing reticence over library books because of too many germs. Okay, Howard Hughes. 2:30PM
So Durant had 46 in the rookie challenge last night, Oden a DNP with a bruised knee. Still believe in Big Fella, but insecurity creeping in. 12:33PM
It's worth my current food coma to have eggs, sausage, and shredded hash browns (that's particularly key) at Johnny B's Family Restaurant. 12:32PM
Receiving a lift from listening to a demo of "I'm Down" on i-Pod shuffle. It's got to be one of the best early Beatles tunes. 2:12PM
I thought Lavazza espresso would do in a pinch at QFC, but after this it's strictly Stumptown, Portland Roasting or another local roaster. 1:21PM
1:30 meeting cancelled, so I'm free to stay in sweats listening to Thelonious Monk and the Pet Shop Boys (separately). 1:14PM
Listening to Tom Waits' "Rain Dogs" as I work. "They all started out with bad directions....All the donuts have names like prostitutes." 2:55PM
Durant drives the lane to the basket, slams into Oden and...offensive foul!!! 17 and 12 for the big fella, plus much more non-stat impact. 11:19AM
Blazers-Thunder rematch tonight. As the Clash sing, "Waitin' for the clamp-down!" Come on big fella, reject Durant and wag a Mutombo finger! 2:10PM
David Lynch: "We are like the spider. We weave our life & move along it. We are like the dreamer who dreams & then lives in the dream." 2:06PM
T-minus 48 hours until I have three different articles due. And for one, an architect profile I haven't even interviewed anyone yet! 11:34AM
I am so damn fed up with hostile anonymous commenters on my Portland Architecture blog. "Cronyism? Cocktail party banter?" FY, you MF CS! 3:31PM
iPod shuffle just played the "Happy Days" theme. Thumbs up and an "Eeyyy!" to that. Just wish I looked a little less like Ron Howard. 2:50PM
I can't believe it's fucking snowing again. This better not stick. (But actually I'm in a good mood otherwise - just made an espresso.) 1:36PM
The Ducks could win a coolest-football-player's-name award for a wide receiver recruit announced yesterday: Lavasier Tuinei. (Allez, TD!) 12:36PM
After perusing the NY Times website with another Obama headline (about the stimulus bill) tonight, I'm still pinching myself he's president. 10:33PM
@shawnlevy Scolari's firing says more about Chelsea's psycho owner than Blues' quality on the pitch. They never should have let Jose go. 12:39PM
If all the peanut butter is tainted, we should follow France's lead: the chocolate sandwich (no jelly required). 12:36PM
Grammy awards last night - the most irrelevant of all the irrelevant awards shows. Has the best album EVER won best album? 12:35PM
A little scared about Blazer trade rumors. Not ready to part with Travis Outlaw, and not sure how Amare or Richard Jefferson would fit in.11:08AM
Saw a work of true genius last night: "Ali Babba Bunny". "Open...Sasparilla? Duh, open...Saskatchewan?...Hassan chop!" 12:29PM
@shawnlevy Arsene and the Gooners will be back. But Jose Mourinho won't, I'm afraid! 12:22PM
The icing on the cake for tonight? Well, probably the fact that I'm literally about to ice the yellow cake I just made. 8:47PM
Durant wins this round (by an admittedly sizable margin), but Oden was still the right pick for Portland - absolutely no doubt whatsoever! 8:43PM
I feel vastly more let down by Christian Bale than Sam Adams (and not by Michael Phelps at all). 9:45AM
Recipe for lunchtime success: take 3 pork tacos from nearby taco truck, eat with plenty of lime juice and hot sauce. Kitty is jealous. 2:36PM
Not at all bothered by Obama appointee problems. Par for the course with a new prez. B-rock still walks on water in my book. Easily. 9:58AM
Blazers vs. Mavs tonight, and I desperately want to see Oden posterize Nowitski. Meanwhile, Clyde listed on ESPN as #5 dunker all-time! 9:57AM
Signing day arrives and Oregon nabbed 4-star receiver Diante Jackson, but overall class is disappointingly down. May not matter, a la OSU. 9:54AM
@tonyfaulkner Give Obama some time, Tony. WAY WAY WAY too early to be disappointed. I think he's doing superb. 12:25PM
Christian Bale: biggest jerk in the universe? First loved, now hate him. 12:18PM
Already watched way too much TV with game, but now my favorite show is on: Iron Chef. And a Batali episode, no less. Allez cuisine. 9:53PM
Wooo-hooooo!!!! My lifelong favorite NFL team just won the Super Bowl. What a roll - Ducks in Civil War, Obama, Holiday Bowl, now this! 9:52PM
The Steel Curtain riseth to claim gridiron glory. Go Pittsburgh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (I'm getting pumped for game time.) 2:52PM
Fellowship of the Blazer Ring continues ascendancy: easy win over Jazz last night. Oden in foul trouble, but Vanilla Godzilla stellar. 11:38AM
Damn it all, Oregon lost to OSU in b-ball. And I hate how the Beavers' coach is so flippin' likable! Where's that bastard Ralph Miller? 11:36AM
Wow, Nadal beat Federer in the Aussie final. Not a total surprise, but Fed seemed on a roll. Gotta love a guy (Fed) who sobs afterward. 11:34AM
Ah, 10 hours of sleep. It's not 11, but it'll surely do. And no recurring late for the airport dreams! 11:32AM
In today’s (February 24) New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope
reports on new research suggesting that play and down time may be as important
to a child’s academic experience as reading, science and math, and that regular
recess, fitness or nature time can influence behavior, concentration and even
The article reminded me that back in elementary school, the only
two times I was ever sent to the principal’s office were because of recesses
The first time, in fourth grade music class, the teacher
created a contest pitting boys against girls, with the winners getting an extra
recess. I don’t remember the contest, but I was absolutely livid that, through
no fault of my own, half the class was enjoying the bliss of being outside to
run free and play kickball while my half was trapped inside the classroom.
I was still upset that night about the lost recess when my dad
came up with a funny but ingenious and instructive suggestion: start a petition
drive to demand the boys be given a recess too. That’s what I did the next
morning. All the boys in my class were only too happy to lend their John
Hancocks. But our teacher, Mrs. Dye, was threatened by my initiative. She saw
me as a smart but brash trouble-maker and promptly sent me to the principal’s
office—a punishment in the highest order. Luckily Mr. Adams saw things
differently. He was impressed that a 10-year-old kid would start a petition
drive—as he should have been. It’s one thing for the music teacher to use
recess as a reward, but how could a fourth grade teacher be angered by
a little kid embracing nonviolent democratic protest? Apparently Mrs. Dye still
lives in town and eats at my dad’s restaurant; he says she still asks about me.
So I know she was a good soul—I know it now, that is.
The other recess-oriented time I got in trouble was at the end
of an otherwise normal morning recess. A couple students ignored the teacher’s whistle
and didn’t want to line up to go back inside. So Mrs. Ellingson, in a fit of
disciplinary action, announced right then and there, before we’d even made it
back to class, that the next day’s recess was cancelled.
I’d dutifully lined up at the end of recess, and so had about 28
of 30 kids. So without even thinking, I blurted out, “What a bitch!” Mrs.
Ellingson didn’t hear, but a smarmy classmate of mine, Johnny F. (I don’t want
to mention his last name, because he’s now an ex-con), tattled on me. And while
I was indeed guilty of using an expletive in reference to my teacher, it wasn’t
lost on me that Mrs. Ellingson was immediately willing to convict me based on
Johnny’s hearsay evidence.
That afternoon as lunch ended, the other kids headed out to the
playground and I stayed with Ellingson in her classroom as part of a detention
accompanied by her personal guilt trip. She also sent a letter to my parents.
It’s true I shouldn’t have called this poor elementary school
teacher trying to get a handle on her rowdy class a bitch. I can also
appreciate that the lost recess she tried to invoke was a lesson to us fifth graders that we were a part of society, and that one person’s ill-advised actions threatened the
harmony of us all.
Even so, recess was sacred to me as an elementary school kid. I
loved recess. I waited for recess. I needed recess. Badly. So reading today
that there’s scientific evidence backing up the cognitive, physical and
emotional value in recess, I felt vindicated. Maybe I was a little pain in the
butt to those nice teachers at Newby Elementary. My cousin Anna is now a
student teacher at that same school where I spent six of my formative years,
and I’d certainly sympathize with her if some bratty kid had the audacity to
call her a bitch. Hell, I’d want to drop kick the little one like I was Ray
Guy. But I still take pride in having the instinct to stand up for my recess
rights when, in both cases, I had them coming.
I'd seen several people's lists on Facebook and had decided not to do one myself. But then after Sara's article came about, I changed my mind and decided to give it a try. The list, like a lot of people's, I think, is a weird combination of unimportant small details with major cogs in the biographical machine:
1.I’ve slept with the same ratty, ugly leopard-skin
polyester blanket for over 30 years. My grandma made it for me when I was 5 or
6 years old, and I often wrap it around my head (with just the nose and mouth
showing) after sunrise to keep the light out. My college roommate used to call
me “Mother Theresa”.
2.I’m a descendant of both Civil War general Robert
E. Lee and first First Lady Martha Washington, but not George Washington
(Martha had children from a previous marriage.) Another descendant of mine,
Solomon Fitzhugh, was a signee of the Oregon constitution in 1859 that brought
US state status. But in 1860 Fitzhugh, also an election delegate, additionally
tried to hide out with a handful of other Democrats to prevent a quorum that
would give Oregon’s electoral votes to Abraham Lincoln.
3.My favorite piece of journalism I’ve ever written
is probably the interview I did with director David Lynch in 2001. He’s pretty
much my favorite director, and we got to spend a couple hours talking about movies
in the painting studio in his backyard. Lynch also urinated into a sink in the
studio during our interview.
4.I’ve been to the emergency room numerous times
for freak accidents, like a sliced finger (from a meat-slicer accident), facial
burns from French press coffee (the apparatus flipped into the air when I tried
to push down the plunger), and heart palpitations I thought were a heart
attack. But I’ve never had a broken bone or stayed overnight in a hospital.
5.One of my grandpas landed at Normandy in World
War II under George Patton’s brigade (albeit with a quartermaster’s typewriter
rather than a rifle), and the other served in the Pacific, including time on an
aircraft carrier sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and another ship before
the war that was part of the Emelia Earhart search party. During the Cold War,
my dad analyzed spy plane and satellite reconnaissance photos. I’m proud of
that heritage even though I’m more or less a pacifist.
6.Valarie and I met during my last week of college,
separated for 10 months when I went back to Oregon, and since then have been
together for 14 years and counting.
7.I’m such a rabid Oregon Ducks fan that at age 8,
after screaming my head off at the Oregon-Oregon State football game, I was
told by the Beaver fan in front of me, “Little kid, I hope you freeze to
death!” Sometimes I almost feel like my whole existence is about hanging around
long enough in this world to see the Blazers or Ducks win a championship.
8.It’s been said that I could subsist entirely on
spaghetti, espresso and chocolate chip cookies.
9.I dearly love travel and have visited something
like eight countries in the last four years, but I always get inconsolably
depressed right before leaving because I’m a creature of habit and it’s
traumatic changing my routine.
10.My favorite wardrobe item is Adidas track
jackets. Valarie works for the company so I have an embarrassment of riches in
that department. I can choose my track jacket color by mood – it’s yellow
11.I was the only child in my family and my mom’s
entire side of the family for the first twelve years of my life, and then my
mom and her two siblings had five kids between them over the next five years - including Sara, who wrote the article that inspired this post.
12.After Valarie and my immediate family, the loves
of my life are Charlie and Nancy, the tabby and German Shepherd I had as a kid,
Cindy, my sister’s childhood dog, and Ruthie, the fat tabby we have now. People
are over-rated compared to cats and dogs. Seriously.
13.“Star Wars” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” are
probably my two all-time favorite films, and yet I’ve never considered myself a
science fiction fan. I also got to write two of favorite film essays, both for Salon's short-lived "Masterpiece" series, on thesemovies.
14.I have a dangerous addiction to driving fast and
treating even the shortest grocery-store trip as a race with other drivers. In
high school I raced a friend in our mom’s family cars and almost took out a
family playing volleyball in their front yard when I slid into a corner at
70MPH. Instead, I went into a ditch and caught some Dukes of Hazzard-level air.
15.I am terrible at waiting for a table at a
restaurant. They could take all day once I’m seated to bring the food and I
wouldn’t care. But if forced to wait more than 60 seconds for a table, I start
to feel like a refugee that diners are ridiculing from the comfort of their
16.I used to be quite a sleepwalker or sleep-talker.
My dad once found me on the floor scratching at the back door, saying I was
“Looking for Nancy.” (Our dog.) In college, my roommate awakened to me standing
in front of his bed in the middle of the night in my boxer shorts saying,
inexplicably, “I gotta get out of here. It’s 62.”
17.As a kid, I was so obsessed with football that I
memorized not only the score of every Super Bowl, but the MVP and stadium too.
Super Bowl IX? Easy – Steelers over Vikings, 16-6 at Tulane Stadium in New
Orleans. Franco Harris the MVP with a then-Super Bowl record 158 yards. (And I
didn’t look any of that up.)
18.Although I work as an art critic, I was actually
diagnosed with a mild case of color blindness as a young child.
19.I’ve worn the same basic model of Casio digital
watch since the latter half of elementary school.
20.Last night on TV, Tony Bourdain was asking
everyone, “What taste reminds you of home?” I’d have to say the wheat bread at
my dad’s restaurant, The Sage, which he’s operated since 1977.
21.I have a phobia surrounding frogs, fish and mice
dating to weird early childhood encounters with each: a frog in my bathtub,
mice loose in the house, and a fish that flapped in my face from my dad’s pole
in our small rowboat.
22.When Tim Russert died last year, I thought back
to being in the elevator with him at NBC (while I was working an office temp
job) the day after the 1996 election. He accidentally got off on the wrong
floor and had to rush to get back in the elevator. “Long night last night?” I
asked. He just laughed and said with a big exhale, “Yeah.”
23. I've known a couple of my friends that I'm still in contact with regularly, Ned and Paul, for over 30 years now. Ned I met in preschool at Country School, on a farm outside McMinnville. Paul, pictured here in a shot from gradeschool, I've known since Mrs. McCallister's first grade class.
24.My western zodiac sign is Taurus and my Chinese
zodiac sign is the rat. According to one book I read that combined readouts for
both zodiacs, the deliberative, solitude-seeking Taurus nicely mitigates the
rat’s piano-wire nerves.
25.The first time I went trick-or-treating as a
toddler at my grandparents’ house, I was well coached by my mom to say “Trick
or treat,” but instead stammered and said, “I want candy!”
With about a four-minute run time, the film is the latest in a long series of short travelogues I've made over the last few years. When I'm traveling, I usually keep a small video camera handy to capture incidental moments. I never shoot any footage specifically intending or expecting it to be a film, but instead enjoy just shooting video as a kind of anxious traveler's pacifier, and then, sometimes months or even years later, playing around with the footage to try and achieve some sort of simple feeling or texture.
Across the Sound chronicles a ferry ride that Valarie and I took last summer from Victoria to Seattle, returning home to Portland from a long weekend. When we booked the ferry tickets, we were expecting some sort of ship large enough to hold cars and a couple hundred people. Instead, we climbed aboard the 'Victoria Clipper', a small cruiser that raced across the water. Suddenly Puget Sound and the Straits of Juan de Fuca were going by rapidly.
When editing the footage at home, I struggled with what speed to present it at. Sometimes I like to slow footage of the landscape going by (from a boat, train or car) at molasses-slow speed to emphasize how one is giving in to a different pace and environment. Other times I like using time-lapse to speed up footage and show the landscape going by quickly, to both quicken the feel of the film and to get a sense of the topography or weather changing.
With Across the Sound, I started by making the footage really fast, then slowed it down to near normal speed, which is what you see here. I also considered slowing the footage to slower than normal, and actually have still contemplated going back and re-editing the film to do so. What you see now, though, is the ferry traveling at about 125 percent of normal. The broader idea, though, is that as a viewer you are losing yourself in the meditative pattern and ambiance of the water going by. Even if you find this video really boring, my idea is for it to be a kind of lullaby. That's also why I used some existing music by one of my favorite musicians, French electronica artist Colleen. The music is from an album called Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique, in which she loops and combines several music boxes. I like the idea of the waves in Across the Sound combining with children's music boxes a world away to put the viewer in a kind of happy trance.
The film is part of a program called "Short Cuts II: Made In Oregon", screening at 11:45AM on February 8 and 21 at the Portland Art Museum's Whitsell Auditorium.
I love browsing at
Jackpot Records in Portland’s Hawthorne district. It doesn’t have the biggest
inventory, but the collection is well chosen and there are plenty of listening
stations to try music. That’s where I happened upon Brotherman, the 1975 soundtrack for a movie that was never
made. (The accompanying image was commissioned by the record company when the album was released for the first time in 2008.)
As one promotional blurb
put it, the character of Brotherman “was a pusher that became a preacher. A gangster pimp
serving soup from the trunk of his Coup Deville. A mutant cross between Robin
Hood and Friar Tuck. Everyman, our man on the street, Brotherman.” Prior to the
script being finished, the producers commissioned an original soundtrack to be
performed by The Final Solution, a fledgling vocal group from Chicago’s west
The Final Solution is an
unfortunate name, the one also given to Hitler’s extermination plans during
World War II. But, as with Joy Division, another band whose name recalls the
Nazis, the music transcends whatever you call it. Whereas Joy Division’s music
was morose, though, the Brotherman soundtrack is joyous. I’ve listened to the
entire album something like 25 or 30 times in the few weeks since purchasing it
on a whim at Jackpot, and I have to restrain myself from listening even more –
and this from a guy who usually never wants to listen to the same song more
than once per day.
Lots of blaxploitation
movies had better soundtracks than scripts. Other than authentic films of the
‘60s and ‘70s made by black filmmakers like Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet
Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,
most of the big classics like Superfly, Cleopatra Jones, The Mack and Shaft were the productions of white
Hollywood producers and filmmakers – hence the “exploitation” part of the
blaxploitation term. They were stronger on the style and charisma of their
stars, actors like Pam Grier and Fred Williamson, and got more out of their
driving funk soundtracks, than on artful filmmaking.
I wasn’t listening to
much funk or R&B when it was originally made in the early ‘70s. I was only
born in 1972. But my mom had an abiding affection for Stevie Wonder, and in our
house records like Talking Book
or Songs in the Key of Life
played more often than anything but The Beatles. Even if I never grew to love Stevie’s
music from later in his career (the ‘80s and beyond), those 70s albums,
particularly Innervisions and Music of My Life, have acted as a point of entry
into a lot more Nixon and Ford-era R&B and funk. At some point I fell in
love with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration
Information, The Best of The
Meters, and Funkadelic’s One
Nation Under A Groove. I’m certainly no expert on 70s funk, soul or R&B,
but I’ve realized it’s a passion. This music, along with disco, is a direct
antecedent to hip-hop. As a result, these are also some of the last years that
the majority of African-American musicians were focused on making some form of
singing verse-chorus-verse songs with instrumental backup. Believe me, the
arrival of hip-hop and the Pandora’s box of sampling that accompanied the
genre’s arrival have been wonderful. Where would I be without my copy of Tribe Called
Quest’s The Low End Theory? Or De La Soul, Sugarhill Records, Erik B & Rakim, Tricky, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys? (Okay, I'm dating myself.) But soon after
the 1970s, soul began a slow descent away from its place in the spotlight or,
in other cases, assimilated into saccharine top-40 pop music. I can’t think of
much music outside of hip-hop that has simultaneously this much grit and swing,
hopeful verve and real-world resonance.
To my ear, Curtis
Mayfield’s Superfly is the
gold standard of blaxploitation soundtracks, and Brotherman seems to fit in that tradition. There is a driving
beat with jangly guitars, banjos (!), and curvy, swinging drums. A few years
ago a musician friend described wanting to sample this certain style in a dance music loop. The word “curvy” was key in his description: the
idea of a drummer of that era of rock, pop or R&B/funk favoring what would
today be characterized as too many drum-fills and having a subtly fluctuating
tempo—the difference between a human and a synthetically produced beat. If you
like what Thelonious Monk does in his brilliant jazz tunes, for example,
playfully tiptoeing in and out of the tempo on piano, this kind of drumming
gives off a similar feeling. It’s by no means exclusive to funk, for drummers
like Keith Moon of The Who or Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix experience
typify the curvy, nearly out-of-control drumming style. But I appreciate it the
most listening to Brotherman.
One online review
described the Brotherman
soundtrack as “modestly constructed, featuring none of the indulgences common
in blaxploitation soundtracks. There are no orchestrations, horn sections, or
sprawling arrangements, and only [the title song] "Brotherman" itself
contains obvious blaxploitation signifiers, opening with ‘Runnin' game was his
thing,’ while ‘Where There's a Will’ acts as the requisite self-motivation
track. Most of the remainder deals in affairs of the heart. Everything is
conveyed with sweet group harmonies and gently churning arrangements where a
pleasantly flicking rhythm guitar is a near constant.
According to the Urban Dictionary,
the term “brotherman” is “a word used to describe an extremely ‘down to earth’ individual.
Brotherman can be used simultaneously with the first name of a person in an
effort to show they share a strong mutual bond. A group of cool people can be deemed
brothers as they share a strong brotherly bond. Brotherman, are you and
Brother Dabin going over to PQ's house to hang with the brothers from KBC?"
it’s crass of me, but even though I love the music for the music itself, I
can’t help but facetiously wonder if Barack Obama is on some level the
Brotherman hero of the song. The Final Solution came from Chicago and are part
of that city’s burgeoning funk and soul scene of the 1970s, when Obama would
have first settled there. And considering the astonishing sight of watching him actually become our 44th president certainly has elevated Obama to superhero status in my book – even
more so given the implosion of newly sworn in Portland mayor Sam Adams’
implosion in a sex scandal. Brotherman Obama—and I mean that term as a
compliment in the highest order, not a trite racial epithet, of course—is
definitely the guy to save the day: a man of great intellect and oratory skill
who is still in touch with the streets; his first job after graduating Columbia
was a community organizer in the tough streets of Chicago. I guess I can’t help
but imagine this political godsend’s rise with just a little bit of extra curvy
drumming in the background and a pulsating bass propelling the action.
Most of all, the Brotherman soundtrack feels joyous to me. Maybe it’s the gospel influence of the vocal harmonies
populating nearly all of the songs. Maybe it’s just the cumulative effect of
this up-tempo sound with an expressive Mowtown-esque array of instruments. But
somehow a record that most people would approach tongue-in-cheek (a
blaxploitation soundtrack-fun! And one never made—weird!) is to me a set of
songs that sink deep inside, like the heat from a warm bath. Inevitably a lot
of my affection for this period of music is based on it coming from those first
years of life when one’s brain is such a sponge. But you wait and wait for
albums that you love like this, that you start at the beginning as soon as the
last song ends, that you can listen to in a dark room, lying on the floor with
full attention devoted, or that can become wallpaper while you’re, say for
example, writing a blog post. For all I know, people reading this who listen to
Brotherman wouldn’t find it anything special. But for me, this
dealer-turned-preacher distributing soup from his Coup de Ville is, at least until I inevitably move onto another album, a kind of
For the last several days I’ve had a cheesy classic rock song stuck in my head, the kind that I used to listen to on KGON radio back in high school before I’d discovered indie or punk: “More Than A Feeling” by Boston. It’s because I have been compulsively watching and re-watching a highlight montage on YouTube of the annual Civil War football game.
Over the course of four minutes and forty seconds, this ordinarily cringe-inducing cliché of a song now suddenly sounds like Mozart to my years because of the footage it’s paired with: a 65-38 Ducks win against Oregon State.
As this highlight reel shows, it’s astonishing just how many big plays there are for the Ducks. And all against a Beaver team that was playing for their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1965.
There is Jeremiah Johnson’s 83-yard touchdown, featuring one last flawless rendition of his signature move over the last four years: a wicked stiff-arm to fend off the Beaver defense on the way to the end zone. It brought back memories of his textbook stiff-arm against Michigan last year in Ann Arbor. Johnson has been a superb back for Oregon but largely overshadowed in past years by Jonathan Stewart. I think he'll play on Sunday for years.
Following Johnson’s long touchdown a few plays later, as the Beavers try to come back from a 30-10 second quarter deficit, there is Walter Thurmond’s 40 yard interception return for another touchdown. I mean, it was 37-17 at halftime! Who scores 37 in a half, let alone in your rivalry game?
But it just goes on and on. There is Jeremiah Masoli’s 14-yard touchdown, Ed Dickson’s 45-yard TD reception after miraculously squeezing all but untouched between two OSU defenders, and then Spencer Paysinger’s interception return for a score to seal the game once and for all. There is even a flea-flicker where quarterback Jeremiah Masoli tosses the ball to backup quarterback Darron Thomas on a reverse play, and Thomas then stops to throw a successful 35-yard pass to Jeff Maehl.
In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined the Ducks erupting for 65 points in the Civil War against a Beaver defense ranked 2nd in the conference, all when Oregon State has the Rose Bowl on the line. And naturally, besides all the big plays that delivered Oregon’s domination, stitched into the experience is the shock and dejection of the Beaver fans seeing their conference championship slip away.
I’m not quite as much of a Beaver hater as I used to be. This game was for me much more about simply winning the Civil War, and reversing the tide of a two-game losing streak to the Beavers. But considering how media outlets were already projecting OSU for the Rose Bowl, and fans were already making plane reservations for Los Angeles, I had to laugh thinking of Oregon’s bruising running back LaGarrette Blount on the sideline at game’s end, yelling to the crowd in his southern accent, “Ain’t no Rose Bowl ta-day!”
Although “More Than a Feeling” plays on the YouTube highlight package, my mind has also returned often to the tune of the University of Georgia fight song playing on TV during their game with Georgia Tech earlier that same day. I don’t know what the actual fight song lyrics are, but they were to the tune of the old religious song "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" with its refrain, “Glory, Glory Hallelujah!” That seemed a more fitting expression as the final seconds ticked away in Corvallis.
For many seasons in Mike Bellotti’s tenure, Oregon has started strong only to finish with mounting losses, usually due to injury. Last year we were ranked #2 in both major polls before Dennis Dixon’s season-ending knee injury and ensuing three-game losing streak to end the regular season. In 2006 a #11 national ranking (again in both the AP and USA Today coaches’ polls) on October 2 gave way to being far outside of the top 25 after a string of losses culminating in an embarrassing Las Vegas bowl drubbing from BYU. In 2002 we started 6-0 and earned a #6 AP ranking, but wound up 7-6 and losing the lowly Seattle Bowl to lowly Wake Forest in pouring rain. Back in 1998 undefeated Oregon took a #11 Associated Press ranking to UCLA against the #5 Bruins but lost both the game and star running back Ruben Droughns; a Las Vegas Bowl thrashing of Air Force was the consolation prize.
So obviously when the Ducks go undefeated after November 1 in the home stretch like this year’s team, culminating with a Civil War win, it’s something to savor. The Ducks also hadn’t won in Corvallis since 1996, Bellotti’s second season as head coach. I remember listening to that game in my Jersey City, New Jersey apartment using my roommate’s newfangled “Internet” connection. (It was a real eye-opener at the time to what the Web could become.)
And Oregon didn’t just win the Civil War. They won big. They destroyed the Beavers. They broke their hearts. They toyed with them. They caused Beaver fans en masse to discard and trample the roses they’d brought to the game.
Maybe Oregon State does deserve to make it to the Rose Bowl some day. But I said it all along after they beat USC earlier in the year and began their much-hyped march toward a possible conference crown: the Beavers were a good team, but definitely not that good. They played one truly superb half against USC, thanks to the virtuoso talents of freshman running back Jaquizz Rogers. But otherwise, USC was clearly and easily the best team in the Pac-10, as evidenced by their ultimate 11-1 record compared to Oregon State going 8-4. The team OSU would have faced in the Rose Bowl, Penn State, already demolished the Beavers by several touchdowns earlier this year. If the Beavers should go to the Rose Bowl, it should be when they’re the best team in the conference. The 2000 OSU team that beat Joey Harrington’s Ducks en route to a Fiesta Bowl blowout of Notre Dame and #4 final national ranking, for example, was (Rogers notwithstanding) vastly better than this year’s Beaver team.
Meanwhile, thankful and elated as I am over the Civil War win, I can’t help but think what might have been for the Ducks had they not taken several games to get an experienced quarterback going. The year started in training camp with Nate Costa as the starter, then after his season-ending injury it became Justin Roper’s team, only to give way to junior-college-transfer sophomore Jeremiah Masoli for most of the campaign. After starting 4-0, Oregon lost 37-32 to Boise State (which finished undefeated this year) after being down to their fourth quarterback, freshman Darron Thomas—a guy who had never played college football before. The Ducks got pummeled by USC, and there’s no “what if” associated with that game. But soon after that game, with Masoli still struggling to learn the passing game, they lost by 10 against Cal. If you put an experienced, healthy Masoli or even Roper in for the duration of those Boise State and Cal games, it’s very possible Oregon would have won both—certainly against Boise State. Suddenly, that would have made the Ducks 11-1. They still wouldn’t have gone to the Rose Bowl, but might a BCS invitation have come? Or if USC had completed their comeback attempt against OSU and the Ducks had one loss, the Trojans would have gone to the national championship and the Ducks would have been back in Pasadena for the first time in 14 years (and only the second time in 41 years).
Even so, the way this season turned out isn’t about what might have been. It’s about some very impressive, cathartic wins culminating in the best of them all: a 65-point eruption to beat the Beavers in Corvallis.
I also can’t view this season without thinking about last season, which was both the most thrilling and the most tragic in Oregon’s entire 115 years of play. I’ll never forget coming home from Beijing, wowed and exhausted by the trip, and hearing Kirk Herbsteit say on ESPN, “Dennis Dixon is in the driver’s seat for the Heisman Trophy. It’s his to lose.” The team I’d followed my whole life with the passion of Patton and Travis Bickel was in line to achieve the impossible dream: not only a Heisman, but a shot at the national championship. The national fucking championship! For the Oregon Ducks. For the team that once opened the 1974 and 1975 seasons by losing 61-7 to Nebraska and 62-7 to Oklahoma. For a team that Sports Illustrated described in the 1980s, when the team experienced a brief flash of success, as saying, “Even the lowly Oregon Ducks briefly waddled into the Rose Bowl race.”
Last year’s season is also tied in my emotions to my cousin Steve’s untimely death from cancer at age 39, within days of Dennis Dixon’s injury. When I shed tears that night as he was carried off the turf, they gave me an outlet to mourn for Steve, who I not only missed but who was leaving behind three young children, not to mention the countless people he’d touched as a pastor and police chaplain. It goes without saying that Steve was and still is infinitely and incomparably more important than anything that ever happens to the Oregon Ducks. But we graft emotions about the important stuff in life, stuff we couldn’t ordinarily find voice to express, into the rise and fall of the sports teams we support.
So when I maniacally jumped up and down screaming in the living room in front of the TV as the 2008 Civil War hit zero, or when I rushed soon afterward downstairs to the basement to play Kool & The Gang’s hopelessly corny classic “Celebration” on my parents’ old record player, and certainly as I watch and rewatch this grainy little YouTube montage of the game with Boston playing in the background, it’s nothing short of rapturous.
A few days ago our living room TV shorted out and, with Valarie gone to bed, I decided to watch a DVD on my laptop. The choice was Bob Le Flambeur, a 1950s French noir by perhaps my all-time favorite filmmaker: Jean-Pierre Melville.
A forerunner of the French New Wave filmmakers, Melville was inspired by American crime movies of the 1930s and 40s: noirs, gangster pictures. His movies take place in France, usually the Parisian underground, during the 1950s and 60s. But the characters still don the fedoras and trench coats of classic noir characters, intermingling with scantily clad femme fatales.
To me Melville's best films came from the late 1960s, particularly the two great masterpieces he made with Alain Delon (the brooding but charismatic French actor nearly handsome enough to make me give up my heterosexuality): 1967's Le Samourai and 1970's Le Cercle Rouge. But his 1956 film Bob Le Flambeur is a delight as well, a heist film with a Gallic sense of poignant despair starring Roger Duchesne as an aging gambler-robber seeking one last job before he rides his Cadillac convertible into the sunset. But the surrounding din of cops, thugs and a young girl of course compromise that film.
One blogger ably wrote of Bob le Flambeur, "Melville's classic anti-heist film is so wonderful on so many levels that I don't know what to say. It's a flawless piece of construction that never feels mechanically contrived; a celebration of human singularity that never stoops to maudlin psychologizing. To say that the movie is all style is no slight to its depth. Soul and wit, compassion and irony are made indistinguishable."
When I sat down in the recliner for a late-night viewing, laptop on my lap and headphones plugged in, it turned out that my cheap computer couldn't read the DVD signal quick enough to keep up with the film's intended pace. The sound was unbearably choppy and the action was too slow, at maybe 80 percent speed.
At first I planned to turn off the movie, distracted by the frustrating notion that my laptop DVD player didn't work anymore. (We'd also unsuccessfully tried to watch I'm Alan Partridge earlier that night.) But instead I quickly got sucked into watching the movie without sound and at its reduced speed. The subtitles of dialog allowed me to still follow what was being said, and the slowness made incidental shots--walking in or out of a room, a car driving by, Bob's long drag on a cigarette as he contemplates his mortality--resonate much more strongly.
I only watched about 35 minutes of movie time, but that translated into almost an hour of watching the modified version. In the few days since, the movie has been branded on my consciousness more than most of what I watch. This experiment certainly wouldn't work with any old movie, of course. Most of them I want to go by more quickly, not less, although back when I was reviewing lots of bad box office fare for Willamette Week, I surely would have preferred some have muted sound.
Even so, I find myself now wanting to watch other pictures with great cinematography and atmosphere--mise en scene, to the French--like Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love or Claire Denis' Beau Travail--on that same crappy Compaq laptop, the surprise engine of revelation.
At about 11PM on Monday night, I felt an ominous discomfort in my stomach and a suddenly throbbing headache. Within moments, I was on my knees in the bathroom vomiting, the first of about ten times over the next six hours.
My mind immediately flashed to a decision made while cooking dinner earlier that night: to use a package of dried prunes even though they were a month past the expiration date. I don’t make a habit of eating dated food, but I thought there would be a bit of a buffer zone. Plus, the packet was still sealed and I’d be cooking the prunes, in a sauce with Dijon mustard over chicken. But I learned my lesson the hard way.
Wretched as the food poisoning bout felt, alternating chills and sweat as I’d sleep for fifteen minutes, scoot to the bathroom, sleep for a half hour and return, it occurred to me at some point that perhaps I this was my body’s way of purging eight years of the George W. Bush administration. My six hours of nausea, after all, had stretched into the first few hours of Election Day.
Later that morning after a few hours’ solid sleep, I felt much better and my stomach was settled enough to have a piece of toast and watch election coverage on TV. I quickly became engrossed by a phone interview on CNN with an elderly Illinois woman named Velma Pate. As a young child, her father and other family members had marched with Martin Luther King. Today, Velma wept while casting a vote for Barack Obama.
After a few minutes, the anchor was clearly trying to wrap up the segment, and began thanking the interviewee for her time. But Velma persisted, saying she wanted to tell the American people that today they were moving from darkness into the light, just as god had prophesized.
As I describe the episode and the moment, I’m of course aware of how maudlin or melodramatic it might sound. Yet it’s a testimony to what an extraordinary moment Barack Obama’s election as president really is that my usual cynicism, and that of so many others, has for a time cleared away like a rainstorm giving way to sunshine.
I’ve been thinking today, this glorious day after the victory, of exactly when it was I lost my faith in the country. Was it 2004, still to me the most baffling choice by the American electorate? Was it 2000, when the election very well may have been unfairly taken from Al Gore? No, I think for me it went back to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. I don’t know, and frankly today don’t want to know, what disappointments and tragedies lay ahead. But it’s not time for those worries and threats just yet. First I want to listen to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” without apology.
It would be cause enough to celebrate merely having the Bush-Cheney era come to an end. Or to see a Democrat elected president. But this is something more. Granted, I thought that was the case with Bill Clinton, too. His election was transformative for me in a personal way, going from my conservative upbringing to left-siding political views. It was also a generational change, and the joy of watching such an effortlessly brilliant politician at work. Even for me, though, with the hindsight of history, Obama's moment feels like the greater opportunity to make a new history for the United States that is bright and promising as the last eight years were horrific and shameful. Regardless of Clinton's fans like me, he was a divisive figure. But with Obama, ironically, given his heritage and the racism that stil exists, it's clear that a greater power to unite exists.
Today I visited the Portland Art Museum to see two exhibits: a collection of historic 19th and early 20th century Columbia River Gorge photos, and M.K. Guth's "Ties of Protection and Safe Keeping", an installation that premiered earlier this year at the prestigious Whitney Biennial. It featured a single very long braid that contained hundreds of felt strips onto which people had written their ideas about what, either literal or conceptual, was most worth preserving. In both exhibits, I was moved by the notion of a river as a metaphor for the day, a narrative continually flowing with ideas. It feels better thinking of the country, and the democracy here, as a livng organism we can still renew and restore when it is needed.
During my bout of nausea, it was the middle of the night and I kept only a small nightlight on in the shadowy bathroom as I purged the prune sauce. By the time Obama’s election was secure as the clock struck 8PM Pacific Time it was dark too. But as I stood under a streetlamp outside our apartment in the rain, my slippers soaking up water like sponges and yelling “Woo-HOO!” like a gleeful child at a winning football game, or as I watched Jessie Jackson cry and cry on television, or Obama himself looking so exquisitely presidential at Grant Park making his acceptance speech, I thought for this night at least that Velma was right: that we had indeed made it from the darkness into the light.
And less than 24 hours after being KO’d by bad prunes, I was already back on cheeseburgers.
Four years ago the presidential race was neck and neck, with an utterly despicable George W. Bush fighting back from a small deficit in the polls to the pathetically un-charismatic John Kerry, which would ultimately lead to a narrow if unbelievably insane victory on election day. If America was stupid enough to re-elect a man who stole the election of 2000 and then used September 11 as justification to attack Iraq without real cause, I wouldn't dream of saying that this year's presidential race is over.
But Obama's lead is substantial. According to today's numbers at www.ElectoralVote.com, if the election were held today the Illinois senator would command roughly 357 electoral votes to McCain's 181.
Although politics are always important, particularly surrounding the economic crisis this year, I think voters see an unmistakable difference between the even-keeled Obama and his opponents. In fact, Christopher Hitchens summed up the Republicans' problem in Slate a few days ago in just 17 words:
"Vote Obama. McCain lacks the character and temperament to be president. And Palin is simply a disgrace."
Even so, McCain and his rifle-wielding beauty contestant granddaughter from Alaska could unquestionably still win. I mean, Barack Obama is black for one thing, and America is still a racist country. Can we really act progressively enough to elect this man after four years ago choosing his antithesis?
Many swing voters and Republicans have in the past felt loyal to McCain because he seemed like his own person: the "maverick" brand he's exploited to the hilt. But watching McCain in this campaign, it's become increasingly clear that he is a exceptionally dangerous risk taker. Anyone who would choose Sarah Palin, for example, is willing to make a deal with the devil in order to win. And if McCain himself weren't the candidate, you'd expect a "maverick" like him to admit the obvious: that regardless of policy convictions, she isn't even in the same zip code as a qualified vice presidential candidate, let alone someone next in line for the presidency itself. And because McCain is clearly old and frail, that'd be a very major worry.
15 years ago the idea of a President Quayle was enough for t-shirt makers to co opt the famous painting "The Scream" as emblem of potential disaster waiting to happen. And Dan Quayle was actually far more qualified to be president than Sarah Palin. And maybe even less ignorant. (You know, just stupid instead of really stupid.)
It's as if the GOP has to have some kind of ridiculous extreme in the vice presidential candidate. Dick Cheney, VP for the last eight years, has acted almost as a lone coup d'etat within the US government. He is to the GOP what the NSA is to the CIA: more dangerously covert than the dangerously covert.
First when Bush got the nomination in 2000, Cheney was called upon to choose a running mate for Bush, and summarily treated all the candidates as personal enemies, using private investigation to undermine all of them and nominate himself for the running mate's slot.
Then after the election, Cheney came to epitomize what the New York Times recently called "an administration that is a quicksand of deceit." Bush had come into office as a moderate Republican, but with Cheney leading the selection of a cabinet, the administration took a much more conservative turn. Worse yet, much of the vice president's machinations were even done behind the back of George W. Bush himself. In my mind, Cheney is the Emperor Palpatine to Bush's Anakin Skywalker.
But Palin is more like C3PO, charming but totally clueless amidst the struggles going on all around. And the fact that she's a woman makes it all the more painful to watch, as if the strides made by Hillary Clinton have spit at by the GOP.
When a sports team I support has a fourth quarter lead, it's a time for tense optimism. Obama doesn't hold a multiple touchdown lead here, either. More like a one touchdown lead. (Kerry was leading Bush by a point or two at this point.) But something as big as a terrorist attack between now and November 4 or some other wild card initiated by the increasingly desperate Republicans will at this point be required for them to win.
Obama taking the White House seems almost too implausibly wonderful and reason for optimism to actually come to fruition. But maybe, if things hold for another three weeks, it will have taken one of the worst presidencies in American history to produce the conditions for one of the best.
A little over five years ago I had just had my first and only photography exhibit at a gallery in Portland when I got a call from the publisher of a senior newspaper based out of Keizer, Oregon. She was looking for a new photographer to take portraits of the senior citizens, baby boomers and others profiled in the paper. Someone had reccommended me to the publisher, which I've never understood. After all, the review of my show in The Oregonian (pre-dating my being a visual arts reviewer there) made special note that there wasn't a single human being in any of the 25 photographs on display.
I took my first portraits for the paper that month. I didn't like having to drive all over the metro area to meet up with the subjects. And as I'd appear for the assignment with a tiny pocket-sized digital camera with no lighting equipment, I felt silly having to explain to the subjects that I wasn't really a professional photographer.
Even so, taking portraits for Northwest Senior News afforded me the chance to focus on portraiture (if you'll pardon the pun) in a way I never had before. I'd always wanted to take pictures of my friends and family and explore the challenges of capturing people in a flattering way, but usually resisted out of shyness. My sister Sara is the only person I've ever taken a lot of pictures of. Now, suddenly, I had people expecting to sit down with me and pose for as long as I wanted.
Many of the subjects turned out to be fascinating as well. Initially I was a bit arrogant about the journalistic content of a regional senior citizen newspaper. But they did their homework and found lots of worthy people to profile, and I relished taking their picture.
One of the first people I photographed, for example, was a longtime antiwar activist who had co-founded the Oregon Peace Institute with Elizabeth Furse, the Oregon Congresswoman in whose US Capitol office I interned in 1993. Another guy was a volunteer for Northwest Medical Teams and, once I found his house way out in Clackamas, told me stories about going to Third-World countries all over the globe.
A favorite portrait of mine was of this woman; her name I can't remember, but she is the co-owner of Flying M Ranch in Yamhill County. Growing up there, my family often headed for this rural restaurant and horse stables.
Like many, she was uncomfortable about having her picture taken, but unlike most she wasn't nervous. Beside the corduroy shirt and old-school beehive hairdo, I like her sense of disinterested self confidence in the picture. It practically feels implied that she'd call anyone "Hun". I decided not to tell her, though, of the raucous all night kegger some friends and I threw at one of Flying M's cabins to celebrate high school graduation back in 1990. Or how one of the windows was damaged when a party crasher tried to steal our keg.
Another favorite, both in terms of the picture and the personality of the subjects, was this husband and wife from Vancouver: Jim and Tonnie.
The two regularly and proudly celebrate their Norwegian heritage, not by wearing Viking horns or inventing new and better cell phones, but by regularly dancing in the Norse Runderdanske troupe of traditional Norwegian dancers at a local church. The couple possessed not an ounce of self-consciousness when they agreed to meet me at their home in full dance costume. Jim even gave me a copy of some of their Norwegian music when I half-jokingly told him it'd make a good soundtrack for one of my short films.
Often there seem to quietly be people moving to Portland to retire from other places on the west coast, particularly California. This man I photographed in his new condo, whose name I believe was Walt, had been a TV producer and screenwriter. As we talked, he showed me a couple of his old TV screenplays. He wasn't an arrogant guy at all, but I could tell he enjoyed showing me the fruits of his labor in that galley-bound screenplay on his bookshelf. After all, as much as I long for time off, it must be hard to give up your life's calling one day, move to a condo in Portland, and have very little to do. I'm not usually one to frequent senior centers or do a lot to reach out to others who used to be in interesting businesses, but I could have sat with Walt for hours and listened to stories about the golden age of television. I also loved the guy's ascot.
One afternoon I was also sent to a community center in Multnomah Village to take pictures of three retired magicians. The backdrop didn't offer much: just a middling interior with offices and meeting spaces. But luckily these guys each brought a magician's prop of some sort. The guy pictured here, whose name I believe was Duane, had a perfectly debonair marriage of a floral bouquet pulled from out of his sleeve and a suit to go with it. I love old men in suits, by the way, especially when they're worn by men who didn't necessarily dress so formally in their earlier years, like Allen Ginsberg.
The reason I'm writing about these photographs now is that after five years I've decided to finally give up my monthly photography gig with the paper. Lately it's felt like every photo assignment I go to is rushed: speeding there to make the appointment, trying to get the shots without dragging the subject through tons of angles, trying to Photoshop a bad photo into being a serviceable one. Even so, I cherish the time I had taking the pictures, and if Trude were to call me in a jam, with some octogenarian ready for his or her close up and nobody to take the shot, it's not out of the question that I'd reach for my camera again.
Until last night, not once in my life had I followed a preseason NBA basketball game with much interest. But the Trail Blazers' first exhibition game of the year had me jumping up and down with joy in the living room as I watched the highlights.
A professional sports fan can spend an entire lifetime rooting for a team without feeling something really special is in store. Look at the poor Milwaukie Brewers fans, whose team just made the pro baseball playoffs for the first time since the early 1980s, and quickly got swept. Or fans in Cleveland who haven't had a major sports championship since the 1950s.
The Portland Trail Blazers have given fans much to cheer about in the past: a world championship in 1977, NBA Finals appearances in 1990 and 1992, the league's best record in 1991, a 20-year streak of playoff appearances that continued into the first part of this decade, and numerous other trips to the Western Conference Finals.
But watching the 2008-2009 Blazers take the court for the first time last night--even if it was only on video replay, with no live coverage--I saw a team with more than enough talent to go all the way in the very near future. This team is ridiculously young; all its best players are 25 or younger. But dear God what talent!
And that was true even before Greg Oden took his center's spot on the court after a year delay. Seeing him in there at all would have been a treat. But the guy dunked with tremendous authority in the first two minutes of the ballgame. Then he dunked again. And blocked shots. 13 points in 20 minutes, on a team surrounded with All-Star and All-Star-caliber talent.
At every single position the Blazers have talent, depth and flexibility.
Brandon Roy is already an All-Star as a shooting guard after one season, and yet he's equally talented as a ball-distributing floor leader. Behind him is Rudy Fernandez, also new to the Blazers and making his debut last night. Rudy was the high scorer for Spain in the gold medal Olympic basketball final against the United States: maybe the most talented basketball team ever assembled in the history of humankind.
At the point is Steve Blake, a more workmanlike player who is solid at best. But Roy can and does often take over the point, and that'll be even easier now with a virtuoso like Fernandez. Did I mention Rudy not only dunked numerous times last night, but had five assists and a pass through the legs of an opposing Sacramento player?
Then at power forward you have LaMarcus Aldridge, who was the #2 pick in the draft a couple years ago and averaged 17 points in just his second year last year. You have Travis Outlaw, who is tall and fast enough that his quick-release jump shot is virtually un-guardable. You have Jerryd Bayless, the rookie point guard who was the MVP of the Las Vegas NBA summer league and turned pro from the University of Arizona after just his freshman year. There's sharpshooter Martell Webster. There's Joel Prizbilla, who has played well as the starting center for Portland the last couple of years and now will back up Oden. Channing Frye, a former lottery pick, could be starting for some teams at power forward. Sergio Garcia is another Spanish phenom who, although he stagnated a bit last year, seems all the more determined and polished now; he was actually the leading scorer last night and also had several assists.
Should something change, the Blazers have in Kevin Pritchard a general manager who has quickly become known throughout the leage for the slurry of moves assembled this astonishing blend of young talent. See his six draft-day trades in 2006, including getting Aldridge, Roy, and the rights to Fernandez. Then there's the trades that netted Bayless this year. Then there's Nate McMillan, who seems to be a disciplinarian coach that, quite crucially, is able to balance that hardness with a bond of affection with players. Hell, even Maurice Lucas, Portland's leading scorer in the '77 championship season, is the assistant coach working big men like Oden!
Believe me, I'm all too painfully aware of how having promise far from guarantees a trip to the promised land. The memory of Dennis Dixon and the Oregon Ducks, #2 in the nation last year with the leading Heisman Trophy contender until Dixon's injury and an ensuing tumble, is still a sensitive bit of scar tissue. And so, of course for all of us Blazer fans, was Oden's injury last year before the season even began. But it's all the more because of that kind of sports tragedy, that it's so wonderfully satisfying to see Oden dunking in the Rose Garden with power, grace and ease.
When I think of #52 slamming home the basketball in a manner that at once recalls Shaquille O'Neal's muscle and Hakeem Olojuwan's grace, all in the context of a young team that was already 41-41 a year ago before adding Oden and Rudy Fernandez, it's a lot more cathartic and joyous than you could ever rightfully hope to feel about an exhibition game. It was nothing less than a revelatory moment, as if that first slam-dunk two minutes into the game was thrusting not only the ball but an era of Blazer basketball from one era to the next.
When Dennis Dixon tore his knee against Arizona last year, ending his front-runner status for the Heisman Trophy and Oregon's reign as the 2nd ranked team in the nation, I thought it couldn't get any worse as a Duck fan. And while that remains true, how could anyone predict that the team would, in the last four games of 2007 following Dixon's loss and first four of 2008, go through eight different quarterbacks?
Quarterback is usually the one position that doesn't change out very much. But for Oregon, it's a once-in-a-century rash of injuries has cursed a team otherwise as talented as any in college football.
After Dixon was lost last year, the Ducks turned to Brady Leaf at quarterback, who also quickly got injured. By the time of Oregon's season ended with the Sun Bowl on New Year's Eve, Cade Cooper, Cody Kempt and Justin Roper had all seen action as well.
This season, Nate Costa was slated to be the starter, but was lost for the season to a knee injury in practice (for the second year in a row) a few days before the 2008 campaign began. Roper then became the starter, but partially tore his knee in the third game against Purdue. Last week against an inarguably inferior Boise State team, the new Ducks starter at quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli, left the game with a concussion. He was replaced by freshman Chris Harper, who can run well but can't yet pass very well at all. So with Oregon trailing 37-13 after a succession of self-inflicted mistakes, coach Mike Bellotti replaced Harper with another freshman, Darron Thomas. Playing his first minutes of college action, Thomas led Oregon to three fourth-quarter touchdowns as the team nearly pulled off an astonishing comeback before losing 37-32.
The silver lining in all of this may be that in Darron Thomas the Ducks have found, along with Justin Roper, a talent who can fulfill the dream that Dixon began. "It's one loss. Not the whole season," my friend and Ducks blogger Bob Rickert told me. "They found a QB. Thomas is the man. Play him." But in both the Thomas and Roper cases, the coaches turned to these kids only after trying out several others. Is it that impossible to tell the difference between who looks good in practice and who will perform in a real game?
Granted, it can be ambiguous or counter-intuitive. When I interviewed former Oregon coach Rich Brooks for my history of Ducks football, Tales from the Oregon Ducks Sideline, he recalled how in the late '80s, quarterback Bill Musgrave had always looked less talented in practice than Pete Nelson. But he had a gut feeling Musgrave was still the right choice, and Brooks was proven right. However lanky and assuming he may have appeared, Musgrave was magical as an Oregon starting quarterback. The times he was injured and Nelson played in relief, calling Nelson's performance mediocre would have been charitable.
Brooks was no soothsayer, and in making Musgrave starter he went against the recommendations of his assistant coaches. But the head coach was able to discern in practices from how Musgrave played in scrimmages versus how he looked in isolated drills, and made what he described to me as a "gut decision". Mike Bellotti is Oregon's all-time winningest coach, despite having been at Oregon fewer seasons than Brooks. But if Roper and Thomas were his fourth or fifth options, does he lack Brooks's ability to make the right gut decision?
Far be it for me to say definitively. And certainly one can't blame Mike Bellotti for a rash of injuries that even the most hackneyed fiction writers would shy away from as a plot complication. Even so, when a team is as talented as Oregon, with all the resources the program now enjoys, it sure is frustrating to see the Ducks continually tripped up season after season.
The lower-tier bowls Oregon now attends on a more or less yearly basis would have been a wonderful success to those of us who sat in half-empty Autzen watching the team lose during the 1970s and 80s. But no sports team enjoys great talent and resources forever. I just hope Oregon can take advantage of this window of opportunity before it's gone.
In the past, the opposite problem was often true. The Ducks had excellent quarterbacks like Musgrave, Chris Miller or Dan Fouts, but not enough of a supporting cast to be a great team. Today, Oregon is as deep and talented as any point in the program's history. Can we just keep a decent quarterback healthy? The hard part was supposed to be over.
When the Ducks made it to the Fiesta Bowl in 2001 as Pac-10 Conference champion, it was seven years after the team had played on New Year's Day in the Rose Bowl. Now that same period of time has transpired between 2001 and this season. The injuries and the Boise State loss have me in no mood to optimistically dream of a return to glory, but now still has to be the time.
Last night, searching for something to watch on TV while eating dinner, I happened upon The Empire Strikes Back running on cable. At first I wanted to turn the channel immediately, for fear of getting sucked in and watching long past dinner and dishes. But this was my des-tin-y. I decided to confront my fears and face the movie, alone.
The channel showing it, Spike TV, has the six films from the two combined Star Wars trilogies playing on constant rotation – one film each week. A few weeks ago, I’d caught the first half of Empire, savoring the battle on the ice planet Hoth between the rebels and the Empire with its gloriously gargantuan AT-AT walkers.
When I turned to Empire this time, though, it was during the climactic third act in the cloud city on Bespin. Luke abandons his Jedi training with Yoda on Dagobah to rush to the aid of Han, Leia & company after he experiences visions of their being in danger. But it’s all a trap so Darth Vader can capture Luke and bring him to the Emperor for re-assignment to the Sith and the dark side of The Force. After capturing Luke’s friends, Vader has Lando Calrissian freeze Han Solo in carbonite to test it before using it on Luke for transport to the Emperor.
Luke indeed is lured right into the trap but avoids the carbonite and, after dueling with Vader, getting his arm sliced off and then learning his opponent is his father, basically seems to commit suicide rather than joining the Dark Side. Of course Luke doesn't die, though, and instead falls through some kind of drainage system onto the very bottom-most antenna of the otherwise floating Cloud City. He could not look more totally screwed. But, in what is one of my favorite parts of the movie, he summons Leia with The Force—one of a couple foreshadowings that she is part of the same family—and she has the Millennium Falcon return for him. I love when she says, “Chewie, just do it!”, and then when Lando protests (because it’s basically insane to go ahead with the rescue) Chewbacca roars like the MGM lion. And Lando retires to have a Colt 45. However, once they do turn around and fly directly underneath where Luke is hanging from the antenna, I love the brief shot of Lando riding the Falcon's little elevator up to the ship's top hatch to get him. Lando effortlessly attaches a grappling hook to the ship while his small platform rises; it's a subtle reminder that now that he's joined up with the good guys, Lando's moves will be an asset. And while the Falcon is surely my hero Han Solo's ship, I do enjoy to this day how instantly comfortable Lando is in the ship after supposedly many years away from it.
Speaking of Lando, Valarie made what to me was an interesting observation: that as an adult she has more empathy for him as a kind of ambiguous grey-area kind of character, occupying different sides at different times, and being caught in the middle. That of course changes as Lando helps our heroes escape at the end of Empire and will eventually, in the next film, help rescue Han and leading another suicide mission: an attack on the under-construction new Death Star. The original trilogy is formed around these attacks, always against the odds in David-meets-Goliath fashion. There is hardly ever an evenly matched fight anywhere in the whole saga, except for maybe Obi-Wan Kenobi against Darth Maul in a duel from The Phantom Menace that is the silver lining of an otherwise very disappointing movie.
Empire is the most critically acclaimed of the original trilogy and, therefore, the whole saga. It always gets four stars whereas even the original Star Wars movie is often apt to get three. This is not to say such measuring sticks are gospel, of course. I have in some ways been less in love traditionally with Empire than the other movies, but it’s for the same reason other people hail the film as the saga’s best: that it isn’t a predictable good-guys win scenario. There is reason to be hopeful at the end of Empire, but really it’s a relief just to have all survived: even if one has been more or less frozen in concrete. Return of the Jedi isn’t a better film in a qualifiable, dramaturgical sense, but it’s more satisfying to me traditionally simply because the good guys, who were my most beloved fictional characters of any kind growing up (with apologies to “The Fonz”), finally won the whole thing and defeated the Empire. It’s very satisfying to watch your team win.
Even so, Empire Strikes Back is special for its very between-ness, if you’ll forgive my using a non-existent term. Darth Vader’s famous “I am your father” admission to Luke transforms the series from being merely a great popcorn series to something deeper, which is what ultimately allows, at least in my mind, for the silliness of the Ewoks in Jedi to be forgiven. It’s almost like after Luke resolves not to join Vader and the Emperor in Empire, it’s really all over right then. The Emperor and Vader, both in union and quietly mindful of the threat of each other, aren’t nearly as concerned with the rebellion and its military capabilities as they are with succession and leadership, in a way that recalls King Lear and of course hundreds of other legends, myths and stories following a similar template.
One other thought about Empire Strikes Back and the Star Wars saga: You could make a pretty legitimate argument that the real hero of this series is not Luke or Han or Leia, but R2-D2, who re-connects the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive in both of the first two movies, allowing the ship to escape, and then in Jedi vaults Luke’s light saber to him to save the day. This after R2 was also entrusted with the Death Star plans in the first film. C3PO is of course the bumbling idiot of the series, but R2 is arguably the real hero hiding behind all the blasters and light sabers. I also remember a recent online theory being bandied about, heightened by the characterization of the Wookie planet in Revenge of the Sith, that Chewie was much more a part of the rebellion's senior leadership than was ever let on. But somehow that kind of speculation also crosses a kind of invisible line of Star Wars geekdom. One wants to imagine a world that exists independently of the films, but to go too far in actually doing so takes part of the magic of the movie or movies away.
Needless to say, it's always enjoyable to have had the gift of a childhood favorite that holds up to an adult viewing. There's plenty of pop culture I loved as a kid that doesn't pass that test: The Dukes of Hazzard, anyone?
Thanks to Valarie for pointing out this link: a website where you can easily map out the US states, countries or (somewhat oddly) Indian states traveled to. Although I have a big fat zero when it comes to Indian states, I gleefully watched my other two maps fill out.
Which is not to say I'm exactly a world traveler with stamps from every country on an old leather suitcase. According to the map, I've visited something like 11 countries out of 227. But that's about seven more countries than I had been to five years ago. And in a way, I count it as 12 countries visited, because I think of Scotland and England as separate nations even though they're not. They have different national soccer teams and parliaments, after all. Still, I've never been anywhere in Africa, South America or Australia. Hell, I live in the western United States, and I've never been to Mexico!
In terms of states, my map mostly is a collection of east coast and west coast ones, excepting those visited on a cross-country drive from Oregon to Washington, DC in 1993 with my friend Joel. (I had an internship that fall during a year-and-a-half break from college.) It makes me think of a headline from The Onion several years ago: "'Midwest' discovered between East and West Coasts."
These maps may carry more significance for me than for some people. I don't own a home and I don't have kids. I place a high priority in life on travel. Not only is it the chance to see places, but going there provides endless material for my twin hobbies: taking pictures and making videos.
Looking at the US map, my next priority in terms of unseen cities has to be New Orleans. That would have been the case even before Hurricane Katrina, with its music and food and architecture. But now, I feel an added desire to spend my tourist dollars there, in a place that needs it. Plus, even though I feel slightly guilty for saying this, I'd like to see some of the remaining devastation. A couple years ago I interviewed a couple Portland architects who had gone to the Mississippi Gulf to help volunteer by advising homeowners about the status of their damaged homes. Some of the pictures she showed, particularly of large boats aground nowhere near any water source, were extraordinary enough to remain branded on my mind all this time later.
I'd also really love to see New Mexico, not only to visit my old friend Brooke (a very talented painter, by the way), but also the extraordinary desert and mountain landscape. And I'd love to see some of the American south, no matter how wrong they are about politics and a mountain of socio-cultural issues. I'd like to make a pilgrimage to Memphis, even though I don't think Elvis held a candle to The Beatles. And I'd like to visit the Clinton Library in Little Rock, or either of the Carolinas. And Maine, even though I don't eat seafood. It'd be fun to see that 'other' Portland.
And I really regret not adding Michigan to my states list last fall, by traveling to Ann Arbor to see Oregon beat the stuffing out of college football's winningest program before 106,000 of their fans.
Honestly, though, getting out of the United States is still what gets me the most excited. The flights there can be murder, but I still put Switzerland pretty far ahead of South Carolina in terms of traveling priorities.
Last Sunday evening I was flipping channels when I came across a broadcast that made me say, "Hallelujah!"
It was the first NFL preseason football game.
Although college football is really my favorite more than pro, after several weeks of withdrawal following the end of the basketball season (I don't watch baseball), the sight of the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins playing in the annual Hall of Fame Game had me glued to the television for the next three hours.
I've often wondered why I still like football by far the best out of the major sports. It's not the violence and physical contact I crave so much as the blend of agility, speed and chess-like tactics. It also makes a big difference that I played football as a kid, and basketball and soccer: the three sports I still follow.
Naturally, my obsessive and fanatical Oregon Ducks support means that I'll soon switch religious interjections from "Hallelujah!" to "God help us!" That would be true for any upcoming Ducks football season, but after suffering the worst trauma in the team's history last year, I'm not sure if I'm less nervous or more nervous now.
Last year, for the first time in 114 years of fielding a team, Oregon could claim it was the best college football team in the country, with the best player as well in quarterback Dennis Dixon. Don't take my biased word for it, though. Look at how the Ducks were ranked #2 in the nation with three games to go, all against lesser opponents.
I'll never forget hearing Kirk Herbstreit on ESPN say in an early November broadcast, "Dennis Dixon is in the driver's seat for the Heisman Trophy. It's his to lose." Or Craig James on CBS, when asked what team he expected to see in the BCS national championship game: "I like Oregon."
When Dixon went down with a knee injury, those dreams of a spot in the national championship game and a Heisman Trophy died, and part of me with them.
Dixon and star running back Jonathan Stewart are gone to the NFL now, and Oregon has some very promising players replacing them in quarterback Nic Costa and running back LaGarrette Blount, as well as countless returning starters with star potential like running back Jeremiah Johnson and defensive back Patrick Chung. But it's unrealistic to expect Oregon to be in the running again this year for a national championship or even a prestigious January bowl game appearance. What constitutes a success this year? Twenty years ago I'd have cried tears of joy over just a winning season for Oregon, or a victory against Oregon State. Now an 8-4 or 7-5 season feels like a disappointment, or at least only a mildly pleasant experience.
Just once in my life I want to feel that brass ring of a championship: either the Ducks or the Blazers going all the way. I was too young to appreciate the Blazers' 1977 championship, and now as an adult I saw the most heartbreaking house-of-cards collapse for my beloved Ducks in a lifetime of supporting them. But if that championship ever does come to Portland or Eugene, naturally all the suffering will be worth it.
So yes, to borrow from the excruciating Hank Williams Junior, I am indeed ready for some football.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of my friend Ned, five of my new short videos are now conveniently available for viewing online. I had a deadline of Friday for entering these into the Northwest Film & Video Festival, so luckily it was a chance to put them on Vimeo as well.
Three of the five films are travelogues, while the other two scrutinize everyday household environments. Of the three travelogues, one takes place in Beijing, one in Kyoto, and the third in London, all made using footage I shot in the last year or two while visiting these places.
The Beijing video is called Forbidden City Rewind and consists of footage I shot in one evening. Although the production values are low, and the action just a few staid shots, I think of this film as symbolizing the past, present and future of China: its imperial, Communist and democratic/capitalist eras. The piece is comprised of three parts: first in the Imperial Ancestral Hall inside the Forbidden City (where I attended a fancy banquet last year while on a press tour for a museum opening), then outside the Forbidden City at the famous Mao portrait overlooking Tiananmen Square, and finally outside a row of small retail outlets.
In the first section, I used some repetition and backwards-footage to render the costumes and pomp of China's ancient imperial times slightly absud. That techniqe stops in the second portion, although the key shot is a long zoomout from the Mao portrait, with the iconic dictator fading into the distance.
The Kyoto-based video, called Kyoto Diner, is humbler in its ambitions. It simply captures about three minutes inside a 24-hour restaurant where I was eating during a trip there last year. All the shots are taken from my table, and offers a very localized focus on the wait staff and kitchen workers. (Update, 10/8/08: This film has been chosen for the Northwest Film & Video Festival at the Portland Art Museum/Northwest Film Center in November.)
The London video, Battersea to Chelsea, is more like a montage of sites we visited along the Thames, from a ceremony at St. Paul's cathedal to skateboarders to a view of the stunning Battersea Power Station. I particularly like the St. Paul's moment in which the priest, unseen by the camera, asks everyone to pray for the world "...in all its glorious diversity." Christianity can be so much more attractive when it's inclusionary and not privy to an us-or-them mentality. Even so, the film's long shot of Battersea Power Station, decaying and empty, feels just as spiritual to me.
Web Swingers is the smallest idea and shortest of the films. Last winter, I happened to notice one day several huge spider webs outside my house, swaying back and forth in the wind and rain. So I spent about a half-hour filming them, and voila. There is the least amount of editing and filmmaking in this short, but its simplicity and subtlety, the way it captures nothing but pretty webs and then stops, has its appeal.
My favorite of these five shorts might be Range of Motion, which is the one I spent by far the most time making. A couple years ago I got the idea to try and film the burners on our kitchen stove coming on and off in the dark, so as to render them as an abstract pattern of four circular forms. Later, I wound up filming various foods cooking on the stove as I cooked dinner. The food you see in the film wasn't created solely as video props. Valarie and I ate all of it. Although I think I consumer all the bacon myself. The music was done by Elias Foley, who has composed music to several of my past shorts as well, including Above & Beyond, Hello Nassau, Avenue & Interstate, and Electric City.
Watching these shorts online, some of them look darker than I intended, especially Range of Motion. But it always feels very exciting to see the little video pieces I've tinkered around with for so long see the light of day.
About three and a half weeks ago I spent an hour cleaning out the basement: vacuuming, mopping. I felt pretty exhausted afterward, but otherwise no cause for alarm.
When I woke up the next morning, though, I felt a searing pain going from the middle of my upper back and down my left arm to the fingertips. It was hard to move around, but I figured it was nothing a hot shower and a couple Advil couldn't cure. But by that evening, I was considering a trip to the hospital. I spent a sleepless night tossing and turning with pain and then hit the Portland Clinic's urgent care facility first thing in the morning.
The diagnosis, courtesy of a doctor who spent several seconds inquiring about my case, was a pinched nerve. I was prescribed muscle relaxers, told to take lots more Advil, and sent on my way. I had to take a taxi to the pharmacy because it was too painful to walk. By that evening, it was too painful to brush my teeth, cut my own dinner with a knife, or put shoes on. Just taking a shower ellicited more grunts than a discus thrower.
It's often occurred to me in the last few weeks that my injury is actually a lot like Mr. Spock's famous Vulcan nerve-pinch on Star Trek. The pain comes from that same shoulder-neck border area. I never dropped to the floor unconscious like Spock's victims, but I also haven't awakened a few minutes afterward good as new. The pinch still hurts. A lot.
After the doctor visit I spent most of the next two weeks lying on my back. I'd wake up around 5 or 6AM, at least two or three hours before normal for this spoiled writer, and simply move my pillow and blanket to the living room sofa. If not for my i-Pod, Food Network and visits from our fat cat Ruthie, I'd have gone stir crazy. At the same time, having had my busiest work period ever during April and May, I couldn't help but feel fortunate that the injury came after my book deadline and a stack of other assignments. It seemed as if my body held out until the coast was clear, and then broke down.
Especially given that my injury happened through the course of fairly routine housework, I felt like the pinched nerve was somehow the inevitable flat tire or busted carbeurator on a car driven for too many miles without a stopover. I'm not normally given to lamenting getting older, even though at 36 it's clear my physical prime passed a few years ago. I like getting older because it brings, for the most part, more career advancement, more emotional contentment, and hopefully more compensation. Even so, I wondered: is this the beginning of something, of an era in life where physical breakdowns inevitably happen?
For several months, I've caught myself checking the time when it's either 1:11 or 11:11. In numerology the number one signifies change. Although I don't automatically believe stuff like this, it has still given me pause to wonder if there's a course change or chapter switch of some kind coming. I hope the end of good health isn't it. Although it'd be too simplistic to make it so cut and dry anyway. I've been having headaches for over 15 years anyway after a car accident the day after Bill Clinton was elected. My normal roommate who drove me to the subway station was home sick after too much champagne the election night before, so a different roommate, who had had her driver's licence only a few weeks, drove me instead. We never quite reached the station.
Even so, my headaches are now pretty manageable. This pinched nerve, on the other hand can totally lay a person out.
Although it's totally unrelated, I've also connected this incident in my mind to the apparent end of the affordable airfare era. In the last few years I've had a traveler's dream come true: four visits to London, two to Tokyo and Kyoto, and single visits to Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Bruges, Edinburgh, and Beijing. That on top of domestic trips to New York several times, DC, LA, SF, Houston, Austin, and Charlottesville. I'd really hate for chronic pain and unaffordable airfares to represent the end of this period of exploring the world.
It's now 25 days after the basement cleaning that pinched the nerve. I still can't sleep on my right side, but that's a big improvement over not being to sleep on either side after a lifetime of doing so. But a couple of accupuncture appointments have helped.
I've actually been able to measure the progress of recovery by the fingers on my left hand. When the injury initially happened, they all went numb. Over the next several days, the thumb got its feeling back, and that progress extended finger by finger across my left hand until all but the pinky had returned to normalcy. But the pinky has always remained numb. Overall I think the progress is the same. I'm probably 80 to 85 percent better. But will that last 10 to 15 percent ever come? Will I be in chronic pain the rest of my life?
I'm still inclined to be optimistic. And if I do get my health back completely, I'm going to count blessings. Since this happened I've talked to a lot of people, and been told several stories about friends and relatives who must live with chronic pain. The other day a gallery owner told me about a friend who begins every day swallowing four or five Aleve. I also think of my grandma who is up every night with arthritis pain. I don't want to be melodramatic about this, but good health is a real gift.
Continuing the theme of the last post, another article I wrote a few years ago that never ran, this one for the New York Times business section, was about a really cool vintage athletic apparel company based out of Seattle. It was for a section in the times called 'Grassroots Business', profiling smaller companies. But they discontinued the series before my piece was published.
Although I never got to see this piece published, the owner of the company did give me a Soviet Union baseball hat that I still cherish to this day (pictured below). Meanwhile, here's the piece...
SEATTLE--It is somehow fitting that Jerry Cohen was born in Brooklyn the same year that the Dodgers baseball team moved to Los Angeles. As the CEO of Stall & Dean, a Seattle-based manufacturer of vintage sports jerseys and apparel, he is in the business of celebrating and selling history.
“I grew up learning baseball from my dad, who was originally a Brooklyn Dodger fan, but also taught me quite a lot about the Negro leagues,” Mr. Cohen recalls from Stall & Dean’s headquarters, a warehouse around the corner from Safeco Field, the Seattle Mariners’ stadium. “Even as a kid, the two things that I like most about baseball, as opposed to my peers, were the history and the uniforms.”
Today Stall & Dean is a leading manufacturer of vintage athletic apparel, which has become a $2 billion per year industry. “Retro or vintage licensed apparel has grown pretty nicely over the last twelve to eighteen months,” says Noelle Grainger, an apparel industry analyst for JP Morgan. “I think when you’re looking at any type of change in the growth rate over and above low- to mid-single digits [as the vintage market is today], that’s more a reaction to fashion trends than something driven by the fan consumer, because the fan consumer is fairly consistent,” Ms. Grainger agrees. “At some point that growth will wane, but there will always be a core base there.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Mr. Cohen says he is, “very uncomfortable with trends and fads, even when it benefits us. I never approached it that way. We always sold the idea of timelessness.”
Mr. Cohen’s company began in Seattle as Ebbets Field Flannels in 1987, offering hand-sewn, button-down wool flannel baseball jerseys in an era when most Major League teams were still wearing pullover polyester. A former rock & roll musician, Mr. Cohen’s company started modestly, with catalogues made at do-it-yourself copy shops and word of mouth the only promotion.
As sole proprietor, Mr. Cohen could not afford licensing contracts necessary to produce major league team apparel, so he began to make jerseys of old Negro League and Pacific Coast minor league teams, which at the time were public domain. But before he could make the jerseys, Mr. Cohen had to spend thousands of hours researching their look at libraries and the homes of collectors and former players. “I was a bit of a history detective,” he says.
The company’s name change, made official XXX years ago, reflects Ebbets Field Flannels’ purchase of Stall & Dean, an athletic apparel manufacturer founded in 1898 that once produced jerseys and shoes for Major League Baseball, but has in recent years been reduced to producing special-order uniforms for small amateur teams.
“We convinced them that their future was in their past,” says Stall and Dean’s current chief operating officer, Joe Cuff. By taking on the Stall & Dean name, Ebbets Field Flannels was able to claim a century’s worth of history and a moniker that better reflected its expansion beyond baseball jerseys into apparel from a variety of sports.
Stall & Dean occupies a niche between retro athletic apparel makers who are more fashion-oriented, such as Blue Marlin, and companies who make replica jerseys of major-league teams, such as Mitchell & Ness. The focus is more on quality than quality, with Stall and Dean charging as much as $300 for a single jersey.
“We don’t make 100,000 of every garment,” Mr. Cuff continues, “and you don’t find it on every corner across the country. The fabric and craftsmanship helps to drive our price up, but so does the fact that it’s special.”
Indeed, Stall and Dean has grown significantly over the last few years. In 1998, it reported sales of $1.68 million. This year, the company is projecting $8.73 million.
Although in the past Stall & Dean produced a small amount of jerseys and other apparel of major league teams, today the company has abandoned that side of its business entirely.
“The problem with licensing is it’s a dual-edged sword,” Mr. Cohen explains. “When you’re dealing with an NFL or an NHL, they give you the opportunity to use their team names and marks, but you do all the research for them, and they turn around and give the contract to competitors two years later. They also tend to edit and sanitize the history, and I never responded well to being hemmed in and edited in that way.”
Although it would be anathema to larger manufacturers, Stall and Dean’s abandonment of major league licensing agreements may have been for the best. Not only are the teams it features—an assortment of defunct professional league teams as well as international leagues and college teams—more unique in identity and look, but they collectively also represent a more untarnished spirit of competition.
“We want that purity from the days when it was about sport,” Mr. Cuff says, “not corporate sponsorships and ticket sales. Negro League jerseys like the 1940 New York Cubans and 1942 Newark Eagles continue to be top sellers, as do the 1968 Portland Buckaroos minor league hockey team, and even a line of roller rink teams such as the lightning bolt-festooned Latin Liberators.
Stall & Dean also has a licensing agreement with Harlem’s recently reborn Rucker amateur basketball league, whose circa-1950s and 60s vintage jerseys have become some of the company’s most popular items while also tying into its urban youth demographic, one of vintage apparel’s most enthusiastic. “Everything comes from the streets, and everything comes from the community,” says Chris Rucker, who operates the Rucker league and is the grandson of its founder, Holcombe Rucker. The Rucker Shamrocks jersey is easily the most popular, worn by a host of celebrity rappers and professional basketball players.
Next, Stall & Dean will release this fall a line of early- to mid-20th Century Ivy League sweaters, akin to what one might imagine a character from a J.D. Salinger novel wearing. After that, Mr. Cohen would like to expand various lines of international league jerseys, complementing teams already represented like the Tokyo Giants and Mexico City Diablos Rojos. And special orders continue, such as the new Slim Shady line for rapper Eminem.
“The interest in retro is cyclical, and now it happens to be in a really high cycle.” Mr. Cohen says, “but when it’s not a trend anymore, we’ll still be here, and still be making stuff that I consider timeless.”
For quite awhile I've been meaning to go through some of the past articles I've written and see if there's anything from the batch of stuff that was never published but might be worth dusting off now. My first choice is this 2002 interview I did with chef Jamie Oliver.
The circumstances were weird. I'd been doing a series of Q&A pieces for Salon at the time. The magazine's Life section editor approached me about doing a recurring series of interviews with famous or otherwise leading people about parenting. I told the editor I didn't have kids, didn't want them and had no plans to do so, but she didn't care. For reasons long forgotten, the series never came about. I had a couple of these Q&As in the can, including this Jamie piece and one with a child expert of some kind, Penelope Miller, and then suddenly they decided to cancel the whole series. I was actually kind of relieved, because I had to send out a whole lot of requests out just to get these couple bites. And it's a pain trying to figure out the name and contact info, for example, for actors' publicists and agents and stuff like that.
Anyway, these were pre-written questions written by the editors, but it was still great fun to talk with Jamie. I'd sought him out to talk to because I was a huge fan of his first show, The Naked Chef, as well as (to a slightly lesser extent) his several additional shows. He was also, when I talked to him by phone, in the process of starting Fifteen, his London restaurant run by under-priviliged teens that he trained. Many celebrities are mean or insincere, just like people anywhere, but Jamie was right up there with the very nicest among the handful of famous people I've ever interviewed. I remember when we were hanging up Jamie saying, "Alright mate, best of luck." In fact, I'd say that Jamie and Michael Palin may be tied for first place. (Palin also said to be sure and say hello to my girlfriend after I told him what a big fan she was. "She sounds like a lovely person," he said.) Must be something about those Brits.
ME: Why did you choose to become a parent?
JAMIE: As soon as me and Jools formed a really serious relationship after a couple of years, we both were kind of well up for kids. But we didn’t have any cash to get married and were trying to get our jobs sorted out. We gave it five years and then got married about two years ago and tried to have a kid straight away.
Have you changed for the role?
Absolutely, like a slap around the head with a sack of potatoes. You can talk about how it’s going to change your life or this that and the other, but when that little thing comes out it’s almost like an instinct that takes over. When they’re that small and that dear, and obviously between you and your partner, it’s just an amazing experience. I think it can make you more levelheaded. It certainly makes you less selfish and definitely makes you more patient, because you have to be. I’ve found throughout the whole experience just trusting your instincts is the best thing.
What would you like your child to be when he or she grows up?
Happy and inspired are the most important things. That’s the greatest gifts in life.
What do you most fear your child will be when she or she grows up?
The impression I get is that it’s not one lesson to learn, but as you get older things constantly change. I think at the end of the day if you have the best intentions for your kid and a lot of love and time to talk, you’re pretty much on a good track.
What was the last book you read to your child?
I’ve read books to her, but being less than a year old she doesn’t really understand me. You get those books where when you open the page it makes a noise: That’s what it’s all about at this stage. I think I was entertaining myself more than her.
What do you fear about yourself as a parent?
Not noticing problems. How many kids have committed suicide and had their parent say, ‘I didn’t notice a thing.” I fear not being vigilant enough about both good and bad things: I want to be supportive.
What do you value?
I actually take quite a lot of pride in the fact that I’m a nice guy. That sounds really puffy to say that, but I know a lot of horrible people I get on with. I hate the idea of upsetting anyone. There’s so much stress in my line of work, and I think it’s important to tell people, “It’ll be alright.” I also think charity is really important. For example, we’ve set up this restaurant were we take on 15 homeless and underprivileged kids every year who want to cook. It’s fabulous to be able to give these kids the simple things they haven’t had: Being talked to, trusted, cuddled, and told, “Good job.” Any good kitchen will tell you their place is like a family. That’s something I take very seriously.
If you could protect your child from one thing -- forever -- what would it be?
I think drugs more than anything. I grew up in a lovely part of England, but there were always drugs all over the place. Now living in London and traveling around the world, you see all the problems it causes. No man wants his little daughter to get involved in that sort of thing. You kind of wish them luck, really, don’t you? If you try too hard to protect them everything, you end up with an insecure kind who never wants to walk out the bloody door.
What is the trait you would least like your child to inherit?
Trying to do things too quick. I try and do ten things instead of just five. I just want to get things done. I’m quite manic, which I suppose is why I’m a drummer. But I think it’s important to just chill out sometimes.
Who are your child-rearing heroes?
Definitely my dad. I always thought he was cool because he had the answers to everything. He’s also a massive doer: People would ask him to do stuff and he’d just get it done.
How do you answer when your child asks, "What is God?"
Organized religion has caused some of the biggest wars in the world. But as a synopsis of the philosophies of life and what you should do in terms of what you should or shouldn’t do, the Bible still relates today. I’m not really a very religious person, but I know what’s right and wrong. And maybe that is religion: knowing right from wrong.
If you could pick your child's mentors, who would they be?
I think real mentors are not people you see on the telly. I think it’s always lovely to think of local people as mentors you can draw from: family and friends. The whole celebrity thing can be good, but it’s a lot of bullshit too.
What cherished object will you bequeath to your child?
I’ve got a 1958 VW camper van. I’ve spent 5 years doing it up, and now it’s a beautiful thing. I never want to sell it. But maybe the best thing to pass on would be my pestle and mortar. Either that or it’d make a good gravestone for me.
How would you like your child to remember you? Just with a smile, really.
A few days ago one of the blogs I regularly visit, Bob Rickert's OregonLive Ducks Blog, posed this question: What are the top five sporting events you've attended? These were my answers:
(1) 1995 Rose Bowl, Oregon vs. Penn State, Pasadena, California: Yes, our Ducks lost this game. But when my dad and I entered the legendary Rose Bowl stadium that morning, we were overcome by the thrill of walking into the 'Grandaddy of them All' on a perfect 70-degree day, seeing our team run onto the field as Pac-10 champs for the first time in 37 years with the nation watching. We said to ourselves, 'This is what heaven must look like.' Plus, Oregon played the best team in the country very close for 3 quarters.
(2) 1996 World Series, New York Yankees vs. Atlanta, Yankee Stadium, New York. This was the game where the Yankees clinched their 26th World Series championship and first in nearly two decades. I was living in New York at the time, and my roommate camped out for tickets to Game 6. The Yanks lost the first two Series games at home, then won four in a row to take the series, winning it all as we watched from the upper deck. As a then-New Yorker, it was absolutely stunning in a way far beyond sports to see this city of millions come together in pure joy. I was slapping high-fives with homeless men in the Bronx late at night -- something that would normally have been pretty dangerous.
(3) 1992 Tournament of the Americas basketball: USA vs. Cuba, Memorial Coliseum, Portland. This was the first-ever game played by the "Dream Team" of professional USA basketball players, and their first exhibition was in Portland. It didn't even sell out! My dad and I saw a starting five of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing, which was incredible. But the best part was when Clyde Drexler came off the bench to a thunderous standing ovation. The US won the game by 79 points (!), but it wasn't about seeing 'competition' so much as a display of talent by the greatest basketball team ever put together.
(4) 1980 Civil War: Oregon vs. Oregon State football, Parker Stadium, Corvallis. This game isn't one for the history books per se, but it was my first Civil War game, and my dad and I were treated to a virtuoso display by Oregon quarterback Reggie Ogburn, whose talent at both running and passing pre-figured Akili Smith and Dennis Dixon. Oh, and Oregon won by several touchdowns.
(5) 1987 Oregon vs. Washington football, Autzen Stadium, Eugene. This 29-22 win for Oregon against Chris Chandler and the mighty Huskies was part of a magical freshman season for Bill Musgrave and a very cathartic victory against dreaded Washington after several years of losing. This game was also one of the first times as a Duck fan I really thought to myself, "We really can be good!" Within two years, the Ducks would not only make it to their first bowl game in 26 years, but would begin a streak of 15 bowl appearances in 19 years that continues today.
When I was in my early college years, aged about 19 or 20 in early 1990s New York, every once in a while I used to love visiting some of the legendary jazz clubs in Greenwhich Village near NYU, where I was going to school and living in a dorm on 10th and Broadway. A couple of times I went with friends to see Branford Marsalis at the Village Vanguard, where practically all of the greats have played from Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. When a friend visited from Oregon, we went to Sweet Basil, another great Village club, and saw the minor-legend of a trumpet player, Art Farmer. (My jazz guide lists one of his albums in their top 25 of all-time.) I also once turned down the chance to get a table at the Blue Note club to see Dizzy Gillespie the reservation cost $35 - plus a two-drink minimum ant tip! It haunts me to this day.
It was with those experiences in mind that I recently visited Jimmy Mak's jazz club in Portland to see Mel Brown and his trio play. Brown plays at Jimmy Mak's three nights a week, and has so for many years. He is a legend of the surprisingly accomplished and vibrant Portland jazz scene that he's been a part of for over forty years. And earlier in his career, he was a drummer for several Motown Records acts, as described on the Jazz at Newport website:
...later down the road it would be Redd Fox who, after hearing Mel’s drumming, made a call to Martha Reeves. Weeks later Mel would find himself at Whiskey a Go-Go in Los Angeles playing for Martha and the Vandellas. This you could say was his entree into the Motown family. Eventually, Brown was the staff drummer for Motown Music Corporation, working with the Temptations and Supremes. For ten years Mel Brown was the drummer for an impressive list of celebrities including Diana Ross, Suzanne Somers, Hal Linden, Connie Francis, Pat Boone, Smoky Robinson, Stevie Wonder..... the list of musicians Mel has worked with is unbelievable!
What finally prompted me to go see Mel Brown play was an assignment for the small regional senior newspaper that I take a handful of portraits for each month. It's my only regular photography gig; the rest is writing. But it's a fun little diversion each month. In the case of the Mel Brown assignment, it was more than a diversion. I'd meant to go see one of his different ensembles (he also has a quartet and a septet) long before now. It shouldn't have taken me a paying gig to go see Brown or another group play jazz. I was reminded of that as soon as the set started. However, having the chance to photograph the Mel Brown Trio playing live in a semi-official capacity was an extra treat; I was very aware of the long tradition of great jazz photography by Robert Gottlieb and many others. (Paul and Rosie also once gave me a terrific book of jazz photos.) Not that I consider my picture-snapping of jazz or anything else to be at that level, of couse. I just don't cut people's heads off like my mom.
I had actually come to the club the night before, when Brown was scheduled to play but wound up canceling, due to last-minute tax problems (it was April 14) according to the gentleman taking admission at the front door. When Brown took the stage the following night to the applause of a nearly full audience of jazz fans and Greek food patrons, he told about receiving a call at 10PM the night before tax day that there was some kind of problem with his taxes. He didn't elaborate, but I imagined some relative, maybe a nephew or a son in law, telling him he forgot to do Mel's taxes like he'd promised several months earlier. Talking on a hand-held microphone to the audience from behind his drum set before the music began, Brown said, "You might notice me taking a few extra drum solos tonight." How funny to think of all the tortuous emotions jazz greats have wrestled with over the years with drugs, race, etc. And this guy is fuming because he didn't go to H&R Block.
I can't say there was anything extraordinary about Mel's playing versus other jazz drummers I've heard. I'm also no expert. But in the brief time I spent talking to him before the set, he was warm and friendly. He wound up dedicating the set to a former student who came up to visit while I was supposed to be taking Mel's portrait - none of those shots came out; the closest thing is the funny he look he's making in one of the photos above.
I also enjoyed hearing Mel's trio immensely. As someone who doesn't go out to hear live music very much at all (and when I do it's usually classical), I was reminded of the unmistakable difference you hear in real instruments. Mel's trio had a little bit of amplification to augment things, I believe, but the drums, piano and bass all could be heard plain as day without them. I enjoyed the soft touch that Mel had with the drums, with a fluid but subtly very sharp sense of timing and beat. It's no wonder Mel's apparently known particularly for his brushwork, which requires more of a feathery touch.
As I was walking out of the club the night before, I ran into saxophonist Warren Rand, with whom I used to work in the kitchen at Nick's Italian Cafe in McMinnvile, for several months in late-1995, early 1996 right after I graduated from college. Warren used to play at Nick's a lot; he lived in McMinnville back then and commuted up to Portland for gigs. I remember him always improving with his saxophone late at night after closing if somebody else took a turn at the piano alongside Warren. He also made a wonderful album of songs composed by Tad Dameron. I also remember Warren loaning me his VHS copy of Roger and Me, but I guess that's less to the point. Which is that I feel bad thinking of all the year's I've spent living in Portland and never going to see Warren or Mel Brown play. I'm more of a home stereo and i-Pod person by nature. But I'm going to make a point of going back to Mak's. If I don't, Dizzy Gillespie will come after me in my dreams.
Back when I was running competitively in grade school and junior high, I used to take pride in finishing my races (usually the mile or the 800) with a strong finishing sprint. In sixth grade, I remember Cameron Ousley had about a 50-yard lead and I beat him on the last stride.
I thought of that finishing sprint this evening even though I'm in no shape to sprint. In fact, I'd just lain down after a heavy dinner of meat pie and felt practically comatose. But as I reclined on the bed, barely able to keep my eyes open, I put on my i-Pod and began listening to the second half of The Beatles' Abbey Road. Long before my food coma should have ended, I was suddenly drumming my hands on the polyester sheets, wiggling my feet, and singing along softly to myself.
Every time I hear the two medleys--first of "Sun King", "Mean Mr. Mustard", "Polythene Pam", and "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window", then with a brief pause "Golden Slumbers", "Carry That Weight" and "The End"--I wonder about how the idea of it came together. Why choose to play only a portion of each song and then fold it into another? On The Beatles Anthology 3 you can hear demo versions of these songs in their entirety, but it never brought the satisfaction I expected. I missed having the medley, even though for years before hearing the Anthology I longed for the songs to be separated.
I now think the medley is a perfect finale for the end of the last Beatles record. Let It Be is often called their last album because it was the final one released, but I always think of Abbey Road being the real swan song because it was the last one they recorded. So as the songs from the medley bunch up together, I think of it as a finishing sprint. Even though they're about to break up, there's an urgency there: let's jam in as many songs as we can for those last few minutes of the last record. It even ends, appropriately enough, with "The End" (excluding the few-seconds-long "Her Majesty" that follows, of course). I particularly love to hear them just jamming at this point, not going quietly at all. There's even a Ringo drum solo.
When the Beatles broke up in 1970, it was the dawn of the age of long, indulgent, several-minute-long rock songs, a la Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. And yet the Beatles closed out the '60s, as well as their own career, with a bunch of short fast rock songs more like the '50s. On the other hand, though, you could argue that this succession of short songs that fold into one another without pause like this is a suite, an idea dating to 17th century France that was popularized by Bach and Handel.
As it turns out, I recently read the answer behind the creation of the suite, whichc was arranged by McCartney and producer George Martin. It seems obvious in retrospect: the suite, some 16 minutes in length, was conceived as a way to utilize a lot of Lennon/McCartney songs that had been left over from the White Album and Let It Be sessions, many of which were incomplete; thus, in many cases, one song seguing into another.
Often I have resisted researching the stories and decisions behind Beatles records. I'm afraid of anything threatening the wonderful spell these songs continually cast over me as I listen to them hundreds of times over the course of my life. Luckily I play it over and over, "The End" never really must be one.
Last Sunday we had my parents over for Easter dinner and enjoyed a nice roast pork with rosemary, polenta, brussel sprouts and a simple tomato-avocado-corn salad in vinaigrette. Afterward, my mom took out a Ziploc bag full of old photographs of my grandma's; they were duplicates that she was giving to me.
Divided into two stacks of photos, one of me and one of my sister, there were shots from virtually every period of my life. My grandma was always a very prolific and enthusiastic picture taker, and there are whole albums at her house that say, "Brian 1973", "Brian 1974" and so on. The pictures of my sister, who was born when I was 12, show my awkward teenage years well documented as well. Mustaches seem to come and go from our dad's face, and my mom's hairstyles vary as well with the times.
My favorite shot, though, may be this one of my mom's college graduation in 1978 -- thirty years ago this spring. After leaving college at University of Oregon after her junior year to marry my dad in 1968, initially she'd been a stay-at-home mom when I was born in '72. But by the time I was headed to school, mom was pretty bored and wanted to develop a career. She enrolled herself at Linfield College in McMinnville, where we lived, on the same day she signed me up for kindergarten at Newby Elementary. A year later, she graduated with an accounting degree and a 4.0 GPA after initially being an English major. For two years she worked as an accountant at a helicopter company, but she's since been working at the same steel mill in McMinnville for something like 28 years.
I like this photo in part for nostalgic reasons, in part because it has a simple composition. Most of all, though, I like how this documents a key transitional moment for all three of us. (My sister would come six years later.) My dad had just quit managing a chain restaurant, where he was burdened by horribly long hours and a trough-like dining environment, to buy a small cafe in McMinnville that's still going strong today. My mom, although born into a conservative, patriarchal rural family where the women were expected to stay at home, embraced the times and entered the workforce - dependent on no one. I remember for years in her office my mom had some quote from a women's suffragist that said, "Make policy, not coffee." All this from a woman voting with the GOP. Meanwhile, I was in this picture a first grader, ending the early years at home with just mom and Sesame Street most of the time. There would be 16 years of school ahead, and that was just the start of things.
It was tortuous of me at the time to put on a shirt, tie and, worst of all, dark socks. But I enjoy so much now, these three decades later, seeing the three of us dressed up and ready to move on, together.
Growing up, I thought of Looney Tunes belonging more to the domain of after-school cartoons than the Saturday morning variety. But thanks to The Bugs Bunny Roadrunner Show on CBS, they had a presence on the weekend as well.
The show seemed a little strange to me then, because it took classic Looney Tunes cartoons I knew well and seemed to either redo them or somehow change the film stock and audio to polish their look. You could tell that some of Mel Blanc's voices for the characters were ever so slightly different -- the work of a man twenty or thirty years older. And the cartoons usually didn't have the intro wind-up of that familiar Looney Tunes theme with the name bursting out of a series of fat circles.
But there is one part of The Bugs Bunny Roadrunner Show that always stuck with me: the opening theme. "Overtures! Curtains, lights!" Bugs and Daffy Duck sang as they marched up and down the stage with matching canes, hats and beige tuxedo jackets in a sort of Vaudeville by way of the Sixties style. I also liked the instrumental mid-point of the theme, when all the supporting Looney Tunes characters march across the stage in a line, from Yosemite Sam to Pepe Le Pew, as trombones blared.
Just as satisfying is the second song that comes as part of the extended BB/RR Show beginning. "Road Runner, the Coyote's after you!" a sort of 50s rockabilly-ish jingle goes. "Road Runner, if he catches you you're through!" It also includes a montage of several botched attemts by Wiley Coyote to catch him, my favorite perhaps being the lit stick of dynamite in a slingshot that explodes before the Coyote can release it. Like a lot of my friends, at least half of me was rooting for the Coyote to catch the Road Runner, but I loved the spareness of the desert backdrop and, considering the verboseness of Bugs and Daffy and most other characters, the fact that neither pursuer or pursued ever spoke. (The exception, of course, being Wiley Coyote's appearance in a couple of Bugs Bunny cartoons in which he very memorably speaks of himself in third person: "Wiley Coyote - super genius!"
Meanwhile, all I know is that when I walk dowtown in a few minutes, there will be many renditions of "Overtures! Curtains, lights!" as I amble down the sidewalk.
One of the fun things about having an i-Pod and listening to it all the time is getting acquainted with old songs from one's collection never listened to much, or re-acquainted with songs of past affection.
I've always respected and admired the seminal hip-hoppers Public Enemy, from Chuck D's sermon-like rapping to Flavor Flav's comical punctuations. Obviously a song like "Fight the Power", used to such great effect in Spike Lee's great 1989 movie Do The Right Thing, is a classic. Public Enemy also has what may be my favorite album title from any artist: It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, a brilliant reverse-view of the oppression-ridden African American experience.
When the song "By The Time I Get To Arizona" came about, I received it with a bit of a chuckle. This was the early 90s, and the states of New Hampshire and Arizona were slow to enact Martin Luther King's birthday as a national holiday. People forget this now, but there was a bit of a practicality issue at play in whether to add another holiday to the American worker's array of days off, or to subtract a different holiday's apportioned time off such as Columbus Day or Presidents' Day.
Understandably, though, Public Enemy and many other African American leaders saw these two states abstaining from an MLK holiday as a racist act. As Sista Soulja (remember her?) says in the intro to the song, they seemed to find "...psychological discomfort in paying tribute to a black man who tried to teach white people the meaning of civilization."
What I love about the song, though, isn't its attention to the politics of national holidays, or even race itself. I find myself continually pumped up and energized by the more transcendent sense of righteous anger. We all have stuff that gets us angry now and then. We feel wronged, or that some person or entity close to us has. We feel powerless, frustrated, and want to act out. "By The Time I Get To Arizona" has a very strong, cathartic aspect that I can apply to any of my own feelings and motivations.
I also have a somewhat more specific, Arizona-related connection to the song, but it's nothing as noble in inspiration as race relations or Dr. King. I'm thinking of the football game a few months ago when Oregon's most successful season in its 113-year history--one with a Heisman Trophy and a national championship seemingly within reach--was ruined on the field in Tuscon at the University of Arizona. Nobody on the UA team caused Dennis Dixon's knee injury that evening, but it's far from the first time that turf has caused a major injury to an Oregon quarterback. Two years ago, NFL-bound Oregon quarterback Kellen Clemens broke his leg there, and Oregon (despite winning their last three games without him) was more or less aced out of a prestigious January bowl game because of it. A decade earlier, Ducks quarterback Bill Musgrave had an akle sprain in practice on the field that cost the team the game.
By the time I get to Arizona? I'm installing artificial turf. But only at night, because you'd have to be insane to go outside when it's 120 degrees.
Then again, it was just yesterday that my parents departed for a vacation in--where else?--Arizona. Apparently they and others seem to think walking onto the surface of the sun is pleasurable to a little light rain.
Of course, my listening to the song so regularly should also be a reminder that righteous anger is a dangerous emotion. When people are too righteous, they stop listening to reason. I think of the Winston Churchill quote we have on a fridge magnet in the kitchen: "A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." Unless it involves a sports team called the Ducks or Blazers, I don't want to be a fanatic or to be self-righteous.
But then again, it's always fun to blow off a little steam. And while I may be mellow on the outside most of the time, it'd take nation of millions to hold back my emotions.
Pardon the self promotion, but I wanted to put the word out that my short film, Demolition of the Rosefriend Apartments, will be playing this Saturday in the Portland International Film Festival as part of the 'Made In Oregon' shorts program.
As you can see if you watch it online, the five-minute film is basically just a collection of raw video footage taken of the building's facade being torn down by a giant crane. I considered putting it to music, or having voice-over interviews or other audio about the story behind the Rosefriend Apartments, which as many may recall stood at Broadway and Jefferson downtown across from The Oregonian and Higgins restaurant until being torn down last year. But ultimately I just decided to keep it as simple as possible and with no embellishment.
The Ladd Tower is under construction on this site now, and for those of us who had hoped the Rosefriend could be saved, I think now those passions are better directed towards the future. But I had an affection for the building and felt compelled to film some of its demolition.
In the film festival guide, the title was erroneously called The Destruction of the Rosefriend Apartments. I love the NW Film Center, and I don't want to split hairs, but I actually think that 'Demolition' is an important distinction from 'Destruction'. It's similar to how Return of the Jedi was originally set to be called Revenge of the Jedi, but George Lucas made the change from 'Revenge' to 'Return' because he decided that revenge wasn't a Jedi concept.
I'm certainly no Jedi. Probably more like C-3PO. And by no means would I compare myself George Lucas - although we do share a birthday. But I distinguish 'Demolition' from 'Destruction' in a similar way to revenge/return.
Even so, filming the demolition that day, as I stood in a very large crowd of men seemingly giddy to see the crane do its work, it seemed like I was surrounded by people with an appetite for destruction, to borrow from Guns & Roses (not that I'm a fan). I was one of the gawkers, of course. But I also felt a little guilty, like staring at a car accident as you drive by. Let’s face it, though: destruction is fun to watch. I guess it’s that weird irony that made me run and film that day. That and a desire, however corny it may sound, to not look away when the moment came.
The 'Made In Oregon' shorts program screens at 2PM Saturday at the Portland Art Museum's Whitsell Auditorium.
Last night I woke up at about 4AM and couldn't fall asleep for awhile. The reason couldn't have been more silly: I had a TV commercial that I can't stand playing continuously in my head.
A gravelly voice kept saying between my ears, "It's perfect with cola." It's the same voice I've heard in my head while showering for several mornings in a row. I feel outright tormented by it.
Years ago, my friend Chad told me a story of how as a child his younger brother had experienced a near nervous breakdown simply because the theme to the "Strawberry Shortcake" doll and cartoon was stuck in his head. ("Strawberry shortcake, my she's looking fine/Cute little doll with the strawberry smell.") I didn't believe it at the time. How could one innocuous jingle drive you crazy? But as silly as it sounds, "perfect with cola" is becoming my Strawberry Shortcake.
Although I hate to give them any additional publicity, however modest it may be coming from a little-read blog, the commercial was for Cuervo Black tequila. Apparently this darker variety of tequila is supposed to be ideally well matched with cola. But I have this thing about the word "cola". For starters, who even uses it? The brand names Coke and Pepsi have become synonyms for cola that are actually used far more often than the generic terms itself.
In other words, nobody says "cola". Except for my mom, of course, whom my sister and I tease and laugh at incessantly whenever we go to a restaurant and she says politely to the waiter, "I'd like a diet cola, please." It reminds me of that Simpsons episode when Mayor Quimby's young son goes ballistic because a French chef won't pronounce "chowder" as "chow-dah". "Say chowda!" he exclaims angrily. I want to do the same thing to the Cuervo people, only in reverse: Stop saying cola!
Apparently people usually drink tequila straight, or at least not mixed with soft drinks. Cuervo wants to challenge the traditional "rum and Coke" cocktail with its new tequila. But if they say, "Cuervo and Coke", they're plugging Coca-Cola. Or Pepsi were they to change the accompanying brand name.
My favorite part, also known as the part that irks me the most, is at the beginning, when the voice over says, "How to order a Cuervo Black and cola..." Next, a man steps up to the bar and says, "Cuervo Black and cola." Gee, thanks for the instruction - I never would have got that on my own!
An ad expert or a psychologist might point out that Cuervo Black's commercial has already achieved its purpose. People like me are blogging about it. No such thing as bad publicity, right? But as my friend John Jay, creative director at Adweek magazine's global ad agency of the year, Wieden + Kennedy, has said many times, little in advertising, art or culture matters more than authenticity. And even though it may be my own private affair, I find the Cuervo Black ad excruciatingly inauthentic. (Incidentally, WK's Coke commercial with a giant Charlie Brown the hero was my favorite Super Bowl ad. What if they'd replaced Charlie with another bald kid?)
If you really must try this new liquor offering, I urge you to try it with 7-Up or Sprite, also known as a lemon-lime carbonated beverage. And in case you need instructions on how to order, just tell the bartender, "Cuervo Black with lemon-lime carbonated beverage."
I never stopped loving the Portland Trail Blazers. Ever.
Not when they were ridiculed as the “Jail Blazers” for a string of crimes and misdemeanors. Not when they lost a 13-point fourth quarter lead in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals and a probable world championship along with it (Indiana would never have beaten us that year). Not when they went seven years without an all-star, or posted the league’s worst record.
The Blazers and Ducks are different from any other sports-team loyalty I have. The rest are friends. These are family. It's not that they can do no wrong, but that I refuse to abandon them under any circumstances. They're my teams.
But it’s a lot more fun to be a Blazer lover now than it was a few years ago. Or three months ago.
This is without a doubt the most entertaining, skillful, promising and likable group of players since the glory days of the Clyde Drexler-led squads of the early 1990s. They are an absolute joy of a team, comprised of likable personalities with great talent. As a fan, I'm pinching myself.
The late David Halberstam's magnificent book The Breaks of the Game, in which the Pulitzer Prize winner chronicles the Blazers' 1979-80 season, includes a passage about how the NBA championship winning team of three years prior symbolized a certain type of basketball. In 1977, the ABA had merged into the NBA, and with it had gome the ABA's greater propensity for street-style basketball: dunks, one-on-one play. I always loved watching players like that, particularly Julius "Dr. J" Erving, a poster of whom was pinned to my childhood bedroom wall for several years.
But the '77 Blazers represented the enduring beauty and unity of a basketball team that played together and unselfishly with precision. For example, then-Indiana University coach Bob Knight, whose 1976 Hoosiers had gone undefeated to win the NCAA title, was a huge Blazers fan. Despite the presence of a superstar like Bill Walton, Portland had a little bit of the still-to-come movie "Hoosiers" in them.
Admittedly, the current Blazer team hasn't risen to the level of the other three great Blazer eras/teams: Walton's in the 70s, Drexler's in the early '90s or Pippen's at the turn of the century. But after this second-youngest squad in the NBA won 13 in a row and 19 out of 21 after starting the 2007-08 season with just five wins and 12 losses, with reigning rookie of the year Brandon Roy emerging as not just an all-star caliber player but maybe even hall-of-fame worthy, the Blazers “Rise With Us” marketing slogan this year doesn’t seem far fetched at all.
It was ironic recently when Portland played New York. Earlier in the day Roy was named to the all-star team, which was celebrated that night at the game in front of Zach Randolph. The last four years, Randolph led the Blazers in both scoring and rebounding (something no one else in team history has done). His average of 23 points a game a couple years ago is higher than Roy’s 19 this season. But no two players better illustrate how there’s more to one’s game than stats. Roy is the leader of this team in ways that Randolph never could have been.
Still, I thought it was unfortunate that Blazer fans booed Randolph upon his return. If I were booing anybody in that building last night, it would have been Knicks coach Isaiah Thomas.
The success Portland has had this season is of course particularly astonishing given how tragically it began, with #1 draft pick Greg Oden out for year with a knee injury. I was so depressed a few months ago when it happened that I wanted to sob. But now, it’s almost as if Oden’s injury could be good for the franchise. If he’s even close to as good as he looks, Oden could be the Patrick Ewing or David Robinson of his time. Before then, though, the Blazers are learning to win without him, and showing the league that this will not be a one-man team. Or if it is, it’ll probably be Roy’s.
I haven’t even mentioned my favorite current Blazer yet: Travis Outlaw. Of course Brandon Roy is the MVP, and LaMarcus Aldridge would probably get the second-most votes. Yet Outlaw’s game is so exquisitely silky-smooth, the way his lanky frame can sink jumpers and dunk and play defense with the outstretched but effortless look of the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards. Add that to Outlaw’s rural Mississippi aw-shucks background, perhaps the best anecdote of all to Rasheed Wallace’s tantrums.
There's a TV commercial for the Blazers running currently in which Outlaw describes his game-winning shot against Memphis, which ignited the winning streak. Grooved into my memory banks and repeating whenever I think of the current Portland team is Outlaw recalling his winner: "Ooh my, there go the game!"
Again, even though I along with everybody else supporting the Blazers sheds no tears for Wallace, Wells and other malcontents being gone, it’s not fair to vilify them, because I would have been so jubilant had they won that 2000 championship. And they arguably had the best chance of any Blazer team that hasn’t won it all; even though Clyde’s teams advanced to the Finals twice, they were clearly the second-best team both those times. The 2000 Blazers were as good as any team in the NBA that year, and the only team that stopped them—the Lakers—went on to win three straight league titles after beating Portland by a hair’s breath. Wallace may have been getting technicals in those days, or threatening refs in the Rose Garden parking lot, or Damon Stoudamire might have been getting busted for drug possession. But the team’s leader Scottie Pippen was having a brilliant last flash to a hall of fame career with every aspect of the game—shooting, ball handling, defense, leadership—at full tilt. They probably never will, but I’d love to see Portland retire Pippen’s jersey someday. He was the MVP of that team, and he put up with a lot from his Jail Blazer teammates.
Even so, I knew there was something special about this team several weeks before the season began. In a move unheard of in Portland or any other NBA city, every member of the Trail Blazers voluntarily showed up weeks early to training camp. That might be what cost Greg Oden the injury to his knee, but it’s also what gives me reason again to hope for one of only two things in sports besides a Ducks football national championship that would for me connote paradise on earth. (And after the Ducks suffering their most tragic season in 113 years, the Blazer optimism is perfectly timed.)
Roy and company are still almost all in their early 20s, so there’s no pressure to jump through the window of opportunity as if from a burning building just yet. In fact, it’s the patience of general manager Kevin Pritchard that will be required in Portland rather than any smoking trades. Just let this team keep doing what they do, and the joys seem perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. In fact, it’s well under way.
For several months I wrestled with the choice of voting for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary.
My starting point was that I felt very loyal to Hillary, quite frankly, because she is Bill Clinton's wife. Bill will always be a favorite president of mine. He's who I switched sides for in 1992 after growing up in a Republican household as an aspiring Alex Keaton. I even got in a car accident the day after Bill Clinton was elected because the roommate who normally drove us to work called in sick, because we were hung over from drinking champagne in celebration the night before. And I still love the guy.
While other people may gripe or feel cynical about the partnership that she and Bill have always had politically, with her being his most important adviser even though she occupied no official role in the administration, I've always considered it a strength. Just as she was an asset to him when he was president, so too would Bill be an asset to her as president. Of course there may be differences between them as leaders, but I certainly wouldn't apologize one bit for essentially voting in both the Democratic primary and the general election to re-elect Bill and Hillary, or Hillary and Bill.
In fact, I think the elephant in the room of this entire campaign, as well as over the course of the George W. Bush administration, is that we as America's voters should have been able to keep electing Bill Clinton.
I've always been against the constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two terms. That's a matter of checks and balances that should be left to the voters. The Republicans ran through that amendment after the Franklin Roosevelt administration when he beat them in the general election so many times in a row. But that kind of multi-term presidency had always been the exception to the rule in American history anyway. It isn't as if FDR's extra long stay in the White House signaled some dangerous new era where presidents would grow into dictators with a permanent grip on power.
I think it's treating the voters like children to suggest that we can't be trusted to elect the same person president for more than two terms. It's one thing if you don't like Bill Clinton and don't want him to be president. Vote against him! But if the majority of the country would prefer him as president to any of the 2000, 2004 or 2008 candidates--and I believe that is the case--we should be allowed by the law to make that choice.
And as for Republican opposition to this idea, let me ask: What if Ronald Reagan had been twenty years younger in 1988. Do you really think the Republicans wouldn't wish he could run for a third term? And even as a Democrat, I say in that hypothetical situation that the voters should have had that option. I'd have rather won at the ballot box than because somebody was prevented from running.
But obviously Bill Clinton isn't going to return as president. So is Hillary the next best thing? Well, that's what I felt for a long time. And I would still love to have her as president. Absolutely positively. Hell, anybody would be an improvement.
Ultimately, though, I've come to see more of the young Bill Clinton who I fell for politically in Barack Obama than in Hillary. A cynic might say it's merely all about me being seduced by great male charisma. Obama is the first person in either party to come along since Bill Clinton who is just overflowing with it. But there's more to both guys than just charisma. It's about hope. And looking back the last fifty years, those from the left who have projected and radiated hope in that way are really maybe only Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and John F. Kennedy.
As president, Obama would probably require a learning curve that Hillary wouldn't. I really liked one of Hillary's campaign slogans: "ready from day one". She definitely would be more ready at the beginning than Obama.
Ironically, though, thinking about Hillary being ready and experienced from the beginning makes me think with great regret back to all the time wasted during Bill Clinton's eight years. First the years of learning how to get things accomplished without gridlock, then hemmed in by a Republican congress after 1994, and then that totally ridiculous Monica garbage. I actually keep a newspaper clipping on my bulletin board from last year with a headline that reads, "Gingrich admits Clinton-era affair" as a reminder of the gargantuan hypocrisy that led to Bill Clinton's impeachment, and how it all just didn't matter at all. I couldn't care less if Bill is a weasel in his romantic/sexual life. Better that than a perfect husband who makes America the world's biggest pariah, and all after that rarest of moments following the 9/11 attacks when all the usual political barriers, both domestic and international, faded away in an outpouring of goodwill. Can you actually think today of the semen stained dress that captivated the media during the Bill Clinton impeachment and not bust out laughing at the absurdity?
When I sat down to write this, the idea was to talk about why I intend now to vote, however reluctantly, for Obama over Hillary. But I guess you can't talk about those two without talking about Bill.
One other thing I've got to say about Hillary, though. Today, as I glanced at The Oregonian's opinion page and found what seemed like Jack Ohman's 10 millionth cartoon based around Hillary being a mean bitch, I started to feel like I wanted to vote for Hillary just out of spite to all those who vilify her. In all my life following politics, I've never seen anyone attacked so much as she and Bill, by the media and the general populace. Many millions of Americans seem to outright hate Hillary Clinton as if she's an Antichrist with an ever-changing hairdo. And after 16 years, I feel really fed up with it.
Yet unfortunately, it's that very hatred of Hillary that also may play a role in my not voting for her. Like I said, I'd love to see the first woman become America's president, and for it to be Hillary in particular. But in the general election, what I want is for "Democratic Candidate X" to defeat "Republican Candidate Y". And I'm not sure Hillary's baggage, however unfair to her it may be, will allow that. I don't know if that means America is just still too sexist, or if people just have it in for her. But I think history will remember Hillary Clinton as someone brave and tough who took much more flak than just about any of her male counterparts.
Meanwhile, a much greater specter awaits in November. After being left for dead politically as a presidential candidate, John McCain now seems like the most likely one to get the Republican nomination. It's true I'd have much preferred McCain to George W. Bush, but in 2008 he represents something that feels unthinkable even though it's extremely plausible: the Republicans keeping the White House for a third straight term.
Funnily enough, after all this talk of presidential politics, I haven't even mentioned that Barack Obama is black. The stunning possibility of a black American president—with apologies to Jesse Jackson, easily the closest we’ve ever come--has been muted somewhat, I think, by the fact that we also have a female as the other main Democratic candidate.
Given what a horribly tragic and tumultuous racial history this country has, maybe my almost forgetting he's black is the best compliment you can give Obama. I don’t mean that I need to forget he’s black to vote for Obama—just the opposite, actually. If anything, in a general election I'd be extra inclined to vote for an African American candidate. Maybe I'm even guilty of some small measure of benevolent racism in that regard.
Even so, I find myself wanting to vote for Obama because he's Obama, not because of his culture or race or anything like that. Much as those things make us who we are, and how we are perceived by others, I think Obama has risen up into a class of people whose message and sense of self demand to be counted as something beyond such knee-jerk labeling. I'm not sure I believe in Americans enough to make him president, but I'd sure love to be pleasantly surprised.
And regardless, January 20, 2009 is going to be cause for a party.
This morning my prodigous 23-year-old journalist sister has an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, the nation's most respected and prestigious newspaper along with The New York Times. In the essay, Sara responds to a ridiculous comment by the creator of HBO's "The Wire", a former Baltimore Sun reporter in the 1980s, that Americans don't care about the news anymore. She begs to differ, and as usual, makes a pretty airtight case, at least if you're talking about people with half a brain (you know--liberals, Duck fans).
A little over a week ago, Sara also had an op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. This one was more personal, about her struggles through the college financial aid process as part of a piece about Harvard deciding to give more aid to middle-class students.
Part of me is as astonished seeing Sara pen these pieces for the nation's great newspapers--she's also written op ed articles for the Los Angles Times on Gen Y and the Christian Science Monitor on the rising pop cultural cache of Barack "B-Rock" Obama--as I am watching our postman currently deliver mail in 36-degree weather while wearing shorts. But even though she's barely old enough to buy alcohol, Sara has been at this for a long time now when you figure in the six or seven years of college and high school newspaper work.
As if her op-ed pieces weren't impressive enough, Sara was also promoted from her copy editing job to opinion editor at the newspaper where she works, the Los Angeles Daily Journal. I just hope in her ongoing path toward world domination, she remembers the little people who used to give her piggy back rides and make her favorite fettucini with sausage and cream sauce.
Although a couple days have already past as I write this, I still have good memories of a day off Valarie and I spent on Monday. She had the MLK holiday, and I’d worked for about twelve hours straight on a story deadline on Sunday, so I decided not to work very hard on Monday.
We hadn’t been to breakfast for a few weeks, and Valarie had an inspired idea: Café DuBerry. This is a little hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop kind of place on Southeast Macadam that we’d meant to try for several years. Back in the late 1990s, there was a Willamette Week cover story about Brian Grant of the Blazers, and how he was a likable, law-abiding star in the making that fans could rally around. The reporter set one portion of the article in Café DuBerry, citing it as a favorite restaurant of Grant’s.
The place actually calls itself a “country French” restaurant, and the walls are painted yellow inside with a dinner menu that includes French onion soup and some of the other bistro staples. And the breakfast we had was fabulous. My order of eggs benedict, a dish I order frequently at brunch, was probably more flavorful than just about any I’ve had. The ham was particularly salty, and the hollandaise sauce over the poached eggs seemed to have just an extra pinch of lemon juice.
Valarie’s French toast was unlike virtually any either of us have had. More than the standard bread soaked in milk re-fried, its interior texture was so soft that it seemed to have only come from making batter from scratch. It reminded me of my treasured recipe for my Grandpa’s buttermilk pancakes, which is right up there with seared foie gras, chocolate-chip cookies a perfect diner cheeseburger among my all-time culinary favorites.
That evening we made the latest in a succession of trips to Biwa, a relatively new Japanese and Korean-oriented restaurant specializing in grilled meats as well as homemade noodles and broth. It sits on the corner of an old building in Southeast Portland that used to house the Pine Street Theater rock club (also known as La Luna) but now is home to the Simpatica restaurant/catering company and a couple other businesses. The building is essentially on the ground floor but sinks down into the ground about halfway toward being a basement. So it feels cozy with its raw concrete and sleek wood tables but there is still plenty of light peeking through if you come before dark. Biwa always smells incredible because of the grilled meats, and for a starter I returned to an old standby: pork belly, which of course is kind of like bacon only without the built-in smoky flavor. I also got a skewer of grilled garlic cloves. When properly cooked, garlic cloves are so incredibly sweet and soft, almost like candies.
Then for my main course was a noodle dish called “Tantan Udon”, which naturally made me think of The Empire Strikes Back. "This may smell bad, kid, but it'll keep you warm," I told Valarie in my best Han Solo voice. But the Udon didn't smell bad at all. It had stewed curried oxtail over thick homemade udon noodles. Yes, oxtail, a delicacy I've only had once previously at a now-defunct soul food restaurant and laundromat. I dreamt of my tantan udon for hours the rest of that night, and I’ve continued to think of it occasionally since. And my memory goes back to that smoky modern concrete half-basement. Admittedly the Sapporo accompanying dinner was a larger-sized one, so maybe that added a bit to the mellow euphoria of it all. But Biwa routinely sets us off blissfully like this.
And I haven’t even talked about the trip to our favorite local Mexican fast food restaurant, La Sirenita, on the Sunday before our double-whammy restaurant good fortune on MLK day. I feel slightly silly waxing poetic for too long about a shredded beef burrito and a pork taco, but save for the gut-bomb feeling that came afterward, they were nearly as blissful as the eggs benedict, the pork belly, and the Tantan Udon.
In between for much of Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights, we watched Australian open matches into the wee hours and ate a succession of snack foods. It wasn’t a three-day weekend for me, but that third day was definitely a holiday.
It’s 8:00PM on Christmas night and it feels like midnight. Which is not to say that I had a bad day overall. Quite the contrary, actually. But a few important seconds of it really sucked.
Driving home from my uncle and aunt’s house in the country near Forest Grove, Oregon, about an hour away from Portland my car suddenly slid on a patch of black ice. It had snowed at their house for several hours, but the main roads seemed to be relatively snow and ice-free (although it was accumulating in the shoulder) as I began the drive home. But as I was driving about 45 miles per hour down a straightaway (about five or ten miles under the limit due to the conditions), out of nowhere I came across the icy portion.
First I began sliding one direction, turned the wheel, and began sliding in the other direction. Ultimately I did a 360-degree turn and slid into a ditch. I wasn’t hurt, thankfully, and I was in cell phone range, and was able to call for a tow-truck. My sneakers submerged with icy water as I stepped out of the car, which was slanted with the driver’s side in a ditch. I also have retained this tactile sense in my mind of the feeling of coarse but icy, snow-covered tall grass on my hands, which I at one point was pulling out out by handfuls in hopes of wedging under the left back car wheel, the one stuck in a half foot of ditch water. But icy appendages were clearly the least of it compared to the accident I watched happen a few seconds later as I was on phone for the tow.
What really pains me is that it probably started because someone had slowed down to see if I was alright. I had the hazard lights flashing and was standing next to the car on the side of the road. A second car slowed behind the first car, and then I saw approaching a car that was, despite the snowy conditions, seemingly going at close to full speed. (But then again, so was I.) We often think we see accidents about to happen, or at least I do. There is that surreal moment when you believe you in a millisecond that inevitability of a crash, but there’s no time to do anything to stop it. And thankfully 999 times out of 1,000 they don’t happen. This one happened, in that same mind‘s eye slow motion, at least until you see and hear the crash.
The next thankful thing is that no one seemed to be too seriously injured. According to one of the firemen I talked to on the scene later, one person had chest pains and another had some lower back pain. But having been in a collision fifteen years ago that I walked away from relatively pain free, I know that down the road pain can suddenly arise. In my case, it’s stuck with me for much of those ensuing years in the form of recurrent head and neck pain. Certainly it wasn’t my fault if those people have any kind of mental or physical pain. But it’s still bothersome being even tangentially connected to it.
When the two fire trucks and an ambulance arrived on each side of me as I stood beside my ditched BMW, I was reminded of that familiar, maybe even cliché description of it being like a movie. The lights flashing on either side, the crunched metal, the freezing rain coming down amidst a handful of firemen who looked to be in their twenties. I thought of the slow-motion shot of flashing police-car lights at the end of Taxi Driver when Travis Bickel goes on his shooting spree. And since I’ve been at home, I comforted myself with a glass of wine and a high-volume listening of my favorite album of the moment, “Friend and Foe” by Menomena, which in many of the songs has this baritone saxophone in the background that I totally love, but also hearkens back to Bernard Herman’s heavily brass and horn-infused score for Taxi Driver. Thankfully the accidents tonight weren’t that violent. Worst-case scenario, somebody might eventually need a few chiropractor visits.
Incidentally, the lyrics from one of those Menomena songs seem fitting:
Should my soul should survive this fall, Then I pray if I pray at all, That I can catch my breath and, Come away unscathed, Away unscathed
To have been in an accident on Christmas night in the snow and ice, and then witness cars crashing into each other as they slowed to survey my scene, and still wind up at home in my sweat pants and slippers, with my beloved fat cat Ruthie now plopped on the top of the easy chair I’m writing this from, not to mention a more or less completely intact car, is in my mind extraordinarily luckily. I even had another uncle and aunt from the Christmas gathering in a car lined up behind the accident scene, ready to give me a lift home had my car not been drivable. Still, when I close my eyes, as I did sprawled out on the sofa just now with the hideous tattered leopard-skin blanket I’ve had since early childhood, I feel dizzy as if I’m still spinning. I still feel the car doing its 360 into the embankment.
But maybe there could be some good to come out of it. As anyone who rides with me knows, I tend to drive way too fast. Although I try hard not to cut off or otherwise annoy other drivers, on any multi-lane freeway or other road where you can go 55-plus, I feel alive weaving in and out of traffic and getting past the car in front of me. Tonight I wasn’t driving like that. I was driving slow and through no fault of my own I hit some ice, did a whirling-dervish routine and slid off the road. But whenever I’ve had a driving trauma like this, however unharmed physically I may have been afterward, it’s always been a bit like reset button that, even if temporarily, shocks me back into more prudence behind the wheel.
Naturally it’s way too early to tell, but I also can’t help but wonder if this could be the marking point I need to sort of turn the page on this period of the past few weeks. As I described in my previous “Steve and Dennis” post, it’s taken a long time to come out of the psychological, emotional mire after first losing a loved one to cancer (the first of my generation from the family), and then having the Ducks football team whose fortunes my emotions (including many non-sports-related ones) are so intricately bound to suffer its most tragic season in 113 years of play...Well, frankly it’s really sucked.
Believe me, I’m not saying this accident was anything pleasant. But such a jar to the system, even one ultimately so benign, is cause to reboot my system of tendencies, assumptions, and ways of seeing my little world. I think of the petty hostility I felt toward a Beaver fan who told my sister she was going to laugh in my dad’s face. Wasn’t that the same thing I’ve been doing to Michigan fans for the past few months when I see them? Who the hell was I to get righteous?
With the reset button deployed, though, I feel shaken up, which overall is not good, of course, but it reminds me not to worry about what Beaver fans or other people think. Things may feel fragile right now, but still something to cherish. In fact, all the more for having been through this wintry spin cycle on Highway 47.
I've already started to feel better, though, here at home again. I was comforted by some of my Christmas gifts, not because they were material objects but in spite of it. Two favorites had personal meaning, too. One gift, from my 90-something grandma whom we visited in Eugene on Sunday, was a 70-year-old certificate commemorating my grandfather's crossing of the Equator for the first time while in the Navy. Apparently it's a rite of passage. It was a kitschy certificate, signed by Neptune and with lots of faux-Ye olde type of writing in calligraphy. But it commemorated a moment that's quietly breathtaking to imagine, of my grandpa on July 14, 1937 at not only the Equator, but also at its precise intersection with the International Date Line at 180 degrees longitude in the Pacific.
And as if all that weren't enough, the whole thing happened while his ship was at sea as part of the search party for Amelia Earhart.
My other gift is slightly self-centered, but authentically meaningful. On Shutterfly.com you can upload your own digital photos and collect them into a bound book. I did so with just over 75 photos from my recent trip to Beijing. Getting me the book stressed out my poor mom because I deliberately chose a blurry photo for the cover (of a Mao Tse Tung portrait in Tiananmen Square), but she thought it was a mistake, and thus spent hours on the phone to Shutterfly in addition to printing out a bunch of 800 numbers I could call to fix it. After the accident tonight, I felt myself flipping through the photo book over and over again, as if to remind myself that if I hadn't been so lucky as I was tonight with my car losing control, at least I'd been able to put a few very memorable pins on the proverbial map.
And tonight's being Christmas is not insignificant. I like to think of the hopefulness that a birth represents. Certainly given how I came through the off road adventure with scacely a scratch, I didn't undergo anything resembling real suffering. I think it was more like our cat Ruthie when she gets startled (which happens about every three or four minutes) and, as Valarie and I call it, fluffy: her hair standing up so she looks inflated, electrocuted or just in from a hurricane. (Actually, she always looks inflated now that I think about it.) I guess I got fluffy tonight, and the fluffiness takes longer to work itself out of my mind than the actual experience was.
Really I just need to be more like my friend Paul, who in high school during snowstorms would happily drive us all over in his beige Volkswagon bus, even deliberately spinning us wildly back and forth diagonally across the road, howling with laughter as the rest of us saw our lives flash before our eyes to the tune of Van Halen songs booming out of Paul's prized Kicker brand speakers.
Oh, and here's one other cool part. It turns out my car had a tool kit for just such a roadside emergency, as if Batman is designing cars out in Bavaria. The tow-truck guy just unscrewed the little toolkit from the inside of the trunk lid, took out a big screw with a circular ring on the end, screwed it into a little port on my car's back bumper that had been hidden by a little plastic flap, and hooked it to his truck. The work-order description on my pink customer-copy receipt says it all: "Winch out of ditch." And there aren't too many ways in which I've been more enthusiastically willing to fork over $73.
This is the part where I think of a clever way to wrap this all up, but I'm afraid I don't feel like it this time. I'm sleepy, but my feet are now dry and there is a Looney Tunes DVD awaiting liberation from its shrink wrap.
Although it's not a regular part of my freelance writing work, every once in awhile I have reviewed videos in the past for The Oregonian and, before that, Willamette Week. They usually seem to wind up being releases I already had some kind of personal taste for or guilty-pleasure attachment to.
A few years ago, for example, I wrote a loving ode to Top Gun upon a "special edition" DVD release, admitting all the while that it was the most vacant kind of cheesy action movie but one with plenty of enjoyment, depending on one's attitude and, if you're the right age to have watched it as a teen like I was, a good dose of nostalgia. More recently, I reviewed a volume in the ongoing Looney Tunes "Golden Collection" series of DVDs. It was a chance to have a take not only on those cartoons within the disc, but also to wax about the genius of Warner Brothers cartoons made between roughly World War II and Vietnam.
I'm on an email list to receive press releases from a couple different video labels like WB. And today, for some reason, I found myself surprisingly susceptible to news of "The Smurfs: The Complete First Season" being released on DVD.
"The Smurfs" cartoon series was on a lot during my childhood. Yet I never considered myself a fan. It seemed too wimpy for my taste. No explosions! Not even anyone falling off a cliff! But as an unequivocally devoted Child of Television, I watched "The Smurfs" a lot anyway. Because that's what cartoon was on at that time of day. If it was a morning before school, an afternoon afterward, or a Saturday morning between about 7AM and noon, I was dutifully watching TV. And the preference was always for cartoons. Only a couple old live-action sitcoms in rerun syndication like The Brady Bunch or (to a lesser extent) Gilligan's Island could compare.
Staring at this press release about the Smurf DVD today, I'd like to think it was with more of a nostalgia-free lens than usual, because I have never yearned to be watching that cartoon again. I mean, it's actually one of the only children's cartoons from the era of my own childhood that seems weird and almost downright creepy to think about. (Strawberry Shortcake might also fit that definition, come to think of it.) Who are these Smurfs, anyway, with their blue skin and their replacement of every other word with their own name?
For some reason I can't completely put my finger on, there's something so downright surreal about The Smurfs that I find myself drawn to it in a deer-in-the-headlights kind of way. There's something so banal about the show, particularly the cartoon, yet it also had just enough of a fairy-tale theme that it could vaguely tap into our pre-existing notion of that kind of Hansel & Gretel world existing somewhere uncharted out there in the forest. Maybe because of that forest and the mixture of weirdness with banality, The Smurfs almost feel Lynchian.
Which was why, on a whim, I requested a reviewer's copy of the DVD and happened to look up "The Smurfs" on Wikipedia. Surprisingly, the Smurfs actually have much longer of a history than I would have thought. What's next, some kind of ancient Pac-Man game played in the dirt by Druids?
The Smurfs (originally Les Schtroumpfs in French) are a fictional group of small sky blue creatures who live somewhere in the forests of medieval Europe. The Belgian cartoonist Peyo introduced Smurfs to the world in a series of comic strips, making their first appearance in the Belgian comics magazine Le Journal de Spirou on October 23, 1958.
At the time, Peyo created a Franco-Belgian comics series in Le Journal de Spirou titled Johan et Pirlouit (translated to English as Johan and Peewit), set in Europe during the Middle Ages. Johan serves as a brave young page to the king, and Pirlouit (pronounced Peer-Loo-ee) functions as his faithful, if boastful and cheating, midget sidekick.
Johan and Peewit had the mission of recovering a Magic Flute, which required some sorcery by the wizard Homnibus. And in this manner, they met a tiny, blue-skinned humanoid creature in white clothing called a "Schtroumpf", followed by his numerous peers who looked just like him, with an elderly leader who wore red clothing and a beard. The characters proved to be a huge success, and the first independent Smurf stories appeared in Spirou in 1959, together with the first merchandising.
"Schtroumpf" is an invented word. The pronunciation of "Schtroumpf" in French is quite similar to the German word "Strumpf" (English "sock"), but there is no indication that this is more than a coincidence.
According to Peyo, the word came to him as he asked André Franquin for "salt" during lunch and, struggling to find the word that eluded him, finally managed to say "passe-moi le schtroumpf" ("pass me the smurf"). It would later be translated into nearly 30 languages and, in some of those languages, "Schtroumpf" became "Smurf" (see The Smurfs in other languages). The word "Smurf" was first used in Dutch, as the comics were simultaneously published in French (in Spirou magazine) and Dutch (in Robbedoes, the Dutch translation of the magazine).
The storylines tend to be simple tales of bold adventure. The cast has a simple structure as well: almost all the characters look essentially alike — male, very short (just "three apples tall"), with blue skin, white trousers with a hole for their short tails, white hat in the style of a Phrygian cap, and sometimes some additional accessory that identifies their personality. (For instance, Handy Smurf wears overalls instead of the standard trousers, a brimmed hat, and a pencil above his ear). Smurfs can walk and run, but often move by skipping on both feet. They love to eat smilax leaves, whose berries the smurfs naturally call smurfberries (the smurfberries appear only in the cartoon, in the original comics, the Smurfs only eat the leaves from the smilax).
The male Smurfs almost never appear without their hats, which leaves a mystery amongst the fans as to whether they have hair or not.
Of course, here in America we got a much more sanitized, antiseptic version of these characters and stories. But that's somehow part of what intrigues me now. The Smurfs have always had an arresting visual look because of their simplicity and sameness: white legs and hat, blue torso, repeated in every one of them except a select few male Smurfs and of course the lone "Smurfette". Can you imagine, by the way, being the lone woman in a Medieval village, surrounded by males? No wonder NBC sanitized the cartoon.
Somehow it just figures that The Smurfs were created by a French-speaking European. It's something about the look: it's as if knickers or liederhosen are somehow implied. The Smurfs definitely are more plausible as Belgians than as Americans.
But then again, as an American in love with traveling outside the country, maybe that inherent foreignness is what attracts me. Maybe in some crazy way the Smurfs represent the desire to get out of my comfort zone once in awhile and experience people who look different from myself.
Then again, though, to intellectualize too much about these little blue cartoon characters seems like total mother-smurfing bullsmurf.
Three Sunday evenings ago, I had one of the most blissful moments I’d ever experienced.
I’d just returned from Beijing an hour or two earlier and was very relieved to be home amidst familiar faces and surroundings. Valarie made chocolate cupcakes as a welcome-home treat, and Ruthie fell asleep on my lap. I knew I’d have to leave again in less than 36 hours, with a Chicago business trip scheduled for Tuesday. But the fleeting nature my time at home after Beijing made me appreciate it all the more.
Then it got even better. With jet lag keeping me awake and Valarie gone to sleep, I turned on ESPN to catch up with the goings-on in sports. It was just two days after Oregon’s victory over Arizona State, the first time two teams ranked in the top 5 had played at Autzen. With a nationwide viewing audience, the country had got another close look at quarterback Dennis Dixon and the thoroughbred-like Duck offense. After disposing of USC the week before and now the undefeated Sun Devils, the Ducks had risen to the #3 ranking in the country, a feat matched only once before (the 2001 season) in the team’s 113-year history. Although they would have the following week off, Oregon would climb the following week to the #2 ranking. They also received 22 votes for #1, the first ones the Ducks have ever received.
Still, what ESPN college football analyst Kirk Hirbstreet said next practically knocked me out of my chair: “Dennis Dixon is in the driver’s seat for the Heisman Trophy.” I even left Valarie a note on the kitchen table for her to read the next morning, full of exclamation points with the news. Having written the Ducks history that came out this year, Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline, I can confidently tell you that no University of Oregon player has ever been considered the front runner for this most prestigious of sporting awards. Not once in 113 seasons.
It wasn’t so much that Dixon’s Heisman candidacy was a bigger achievement from the team being 8-1 at that point, but I’ve always ached for recognition as much as achievement for the Ducks, and to hear Dixon and the team talked about so glowingly by the national media who once ignored them was a lifelong Duck fan’s dream come true. ESPN, Fox, CNN, ABC, CBS - they all covered Dixon and the team with great enthusiasm starting from the Michigan win on September 8, the showdown with Cal on September 29 through the victory over (and apparent dethroning of) USC on October 27, the ASU game that would be Dixon's last to start and finish on November 3rd, and past the bye week to the fateful Arizona game in which Dixon's mildly torn anterior cruciate ligament (hidden from everyone but the coaches and doctors, and called a strain to the outside world) was more thoroughly wrecked, putting him out for the season.
And besides the media attention it brought, the Ducks were walking the talk. As my longtime friend and fellow Duck fan Joel put it, Oregon's offense at full strength--with Dixon, running backs Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson, receivers Brian Paysinger and Cameron Colvin, and all the other now injured players--was quite simply "a thing of beauty--unstoppable".
In 1995 I travelled to Pasadena to see Oregon play in the Rose Bowl. The opponent was undefeated and #2-ranked Penn State (also undefeated Nebraska beat them for the top slot by just a few votes) behind quarterback Kerry Collins and running back Ki-Jana Carter, which at the time was called one of the best offenses in the history of college football. For 2003-2005 I watched my sister's school, USC, amass one of the greatest college teams of all time behind Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Lindale White, Lofa Tatupu, and Mike Williams. I have every faith in the world that Oregon's 2007 offense at full strength ranked with those great historic teams.
The next morning following the arrival from Beijing, my first at home in several days, I continued to feel wonderful. And if you ask Valarie, I normally never will admit to feeling even good for fear of jinxing myself. Usually on even the best days all you’ll get from me was that it was okay, or not bad. This morning I felt great.
But then I opened my email. A message from my mom broke the joyful spell: my cousin Steve, who had been battling cancer for a long while, was in his final moments. I thought about driving down to Eugene to see him, but before I could even spend much time reacting, the phone rang. My mom called to say that Steve had passed away.
He’d been battling cancer for awhile now, and the end wasn’t a surprise in that the doctors had declared it a terminal case some months ago. But Steve was only 39, and with his wife Theresa they had three young children. Steve was a police chaplain, and his very religious family, I’m told, clung until the very end to the notion that God was going to heal him. So even when what was in purely medical terms all but inevitable came earlier this month, it still somehow felt like a shock, to them even more than me.
Last Sunday was Steve’s funeral, held at the same church in Springfield where I’d seen him get married about a decade and a half ago. Back then, I remember laughing at how one of the wedding songs, Atlantic Starr's "Always", had been sung to recorded, or ‘canned’, accompaniment. Fifteen years later at Steve's goodbye, though, there was actually a live band. Four teenage boys played guitars softly as mourners entered the sanctuary, and later turned up the volume to lead some Christian songs during the ceremony.
What I liked best about the funeral was how several of Steve’s favorite items had been placed at the front of and upon the stage, from fishing nets and camping gear to cowboy hats (everpresent following his successful battle against cancer as a teen) and even his big black motorcycle in front of the first pews. The ceremony began with a playing of Johnny Cash's "Ghost Riders In The Sky".
As the riders walked on by him He heard one call his name, If you want to save your soul from hell Ridin' on our range, Then cowboy change your ways today, Or with us you will ride Trying to catch the devil's herd Across these endless skies
Although I appreciate a good Johnny Cash song--tears were mixed with a smile as this one played--Steve and I were very different culturally. He loved to hunt, fish, camp and fire his gun; I would go out of my way to avoid all the above. He was an ordained minister; I more or less never attend church. And of course, we held pretty different political views. But Steve was family, and more than that, it was abundantly obvious what a wonderful guy he was. By leaps and bounds his kids are the most naturally best behaved, and yet I’ve never even heard either him or Theresa raise their voices to them. It's naturally cliche after losing a loved one to say he or she was always smiling, but Steve seemed to be fearlessly positive right until the end. When I asked him at our grandpa's funeral earlier this year, in June, Steve (who presided over the graveside ceremony) described his illness as "quite a ride." That was the closest you could get to hearing him complain. He spoke with an endearingly forced but what was to me a still very genuine smile.
And you should have seen how many people stood up at his funeral to talk about him. Even just Steve’s former subordinates from Skateworld--the Eugene skating rink he managed for some 20 years on the side, moonlighting along with his chaplain duties--took up several minutes singing his praises. I didn’t think there were that many avid roller-rink skaters left in the world, let alone Skateworld employees.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, Steve was the oldest kid in the greater Libby family (including my dad’s two siblings, their families, and our grandparents) and I was third in line, with Steve’s sister Susie between us and their brother John a year behind me. (Various younger siblings came several years later.) Early on as a kid, I remember hearing how smart Steve was, and how his parents wondered if he might one day become a doctor. It’s actually only for the first time does it occur to me as I write this that, in a sad ironic twist, he could have used that expertise. But back in childhood, I both admired and wanted to beat Steve. He was very tough not to like, effortlessly charming but with a favoring for bad puns and cheesy ghost stories that made his very sharp intelligence--the kind that made him tough for even the adults in the family to beat at chess-- from ever being oft putting.
Since I was an only child in those days, many of our family camping trips included him, as we backpacked into places like the Strawberry Mountains in remote eastern Oregon. I recall Steve and I trying to find gold by panning the river by our campsite, as our great grandfather had done in the Black Hills of Dakota three quarters of a century earlier. We even made a divining rod out of a tree branch, and wound up finding a few inches underground an old animal bone. Somewhere in one of my mom’s photo albums there is a snapshot I always remember, of Steve in a golden velour shirt and a fishing net on his head.
When I was about eleven years old, Steve came up to McMinnville and stayed with us for a week. I’d been developing a crush on one of the girls across the street, who was a year older than me. Naturally, it was never acted upon. Steve, on the other hand, actually became her boyfriend during the brief time before his dad picked him up on his motorcycle.
But Steve is only half the reason I’ve been down. The other reason is not even remotely comparable to the tragedy of losing our 39-year-old cousin, husband, father, friend, grandson, son, brother, and all else that Steve was. It was just one meaningless football game. But no matter how ridiculous it may sound, it is the Oregon Ducks’ loss to Arizona a week ago this evening--and the related season-ending injury to their quarterback, Dennis Dixon--that pushed me over the edge into full-blown grief.
When something truly tragic or fearsome happens in real life, it’s a natural tendency, I think, to steel yourself. In Steve’s case, I thought not about my own sadness, but instead focused mainly on the young family he was leaving behind, or his parents losing their first-born. After that, losing Steve causes me less to feel outright morose than to sort of stare off into space and wonder how this alters the way I view the world. But after Oregon came crashing down to earth last week, when they’d over the course of the season risen to arguably the highest level of both on-field prowess and national media notoriety in the team’s entire 113-year history, I’ve spent the last seven days going through all the different stages of grief, from disbelief and anger to bargaining and sadness.
Each morning I stand in the shower shocked anew that it’s actually really happened. I just can’t get used to the fact that the glorious ride the Ducks were on to the national championship game and a Heisman trophy could turn out so suddenly just like I’d seen in nightmares crouched in the corner of my mind: in injury and loss. Lost games, lost awards, and the lost opportunity of a lifetime.
When Oregon defeated 5-time defending conference champion USC a few weeks ago, I remember Oregonian columnist John Canzano writing that Dennis Dixon's habit of pointing with two fingers to the sky after each touchdown was a message to his mother, who passed away when Dixon was young. Naturally her passing is a far greater tragedy than her son's injury, but pointing to the sky naturally felt as good to Dennis as it did to us.
But the days thankfully continue to roll on. And something my former colleague Zach Dundas said in a Willamette Week cover story on Oregon’s tragic demise (“A Ducking Shame”), though, has stuck with me. I actually figured prominently in the story, particularly in the second half when he talks about the loss. I talked about how even though you try not to get your hopes up in a situation like this, with the national championship and a Heisman unquestionably within reach, it happens anyway. And as I also said in the article, there’s no getting around the fact that this was shaping up to be Oregon’s greatest season since the team began in 1894. And now it’ll amount little more than a toilet bowl and an eternally lingering sense of what might have been. Yet one very simple phrase that Zach used to talk about sport and fandom, “continuing narrative”, represents my first glimmer of hope.
It’s helpful to remind myself that whether it’s Steve or Dennis, the chapter I and they just went through is over. But the narrative continues. Steve can’t come back, nor can the Humpty-Dumpty season Dennis and the Ducks experienced ever be put back together again. But the key to sports fandom in particular, which is also instructive for the rest of life, is to always look ahead to the next season. A season to continually celebrate Steve, to embrace his family all the more. And a chance to keep hope alive that someday the Ducks can fulfill this season of incredible promise.
Even now, I see how ridiculous it can look to put Steve’s tragedy beside a sports loss. Maybe what Zach wrote is true: "He is now subject to a level of neurosis that can only come through near-DNA-level identification with a team." But I’ve been reminded through this experience, and how Steve and Dennis Dixon have been paired in my thoughts and grief, how much sports exist for me and so many others as permission to hope and dream. No Heisman Trophy will bring back a loved one, but hoping for it--and the prospect perhaps someday seeing it come true--are an integral part of my DNA. Sports, and particularly the Ducks, are something to which so much of my emotions have, for better or worse, been grafted. Steve’s surviving family needn’t care what a college football team does on Saturdays; they’ve got enough to concern themselves with. But if I’m to carry on, whether in the name of Steve, his family or anyone else, I need to be able to envision that what Dennis Dixon and the Ducks lost can be someday won back again.
It is still nearly two hours until my flight, but I feel as though my spirits have been lifted.
I'm writing this from the VIP lounge for Air China at Capitol Airport in Beijing. I've been here since either Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on whether you mark from the day I left Portland or the day I arrived here. I entered the lounge profoundly exhausted. It's been a good trip, and I'm thankful for this incredible opportunity to see China for the first time. I am here on a press junket for the opening of the Ullens Center, a new contemporary art museum here in a renovated circa-1930s former munitions factory building. I've been to the Forbidden City, Tianmen Square, and even the Great Wall. I've been treated to countless dinners and exhibitions, whisked throughout the city as a VIP, put up in a 4-star hotel, and had the opportunity to take some five hundred pictures.
But trips like this can also be quite a long slog, even in the best of circumstances. Jet lag kept me from getting restful sleep until last night. The people running the junket have had us on the go from about 8AM to midnight most days. I'm also really fed up fending off people trying to sell me stuff. China may be a so-called 'Communist' country, but these seem to be the most naturally and most aggressively entrepreneurial people I've ever met. I even was accosted by people trying to sell me trinkets, t-shirts and copies of Mao's Little Red Book on the wall itself. And I miss my cat and girlfriend!
I'd never been in an airport VIP lounge before. And when I first entered this one, it did not impress. All the furniture seems left over from the 1970s, and the VIP meal consists of hot noodles in a paper cup. But then I sat down and was surprised to find something else on the television here than the usual ubiquitous airport CNN. On the plasma-screen TV a few feet away as I write this, Air China has a continuous loop of Tom & Jerry cartoons. And as it happens, this is precisely the tonic I needed.
As a child, I watched hours of cartoons each day. I'd begin with the local favorite Ramblin' Rod in the morning with his procession of Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes favorites (punctuated by smile contests and birthday songs), graduate to Star Blazers before scurrying off to school, and return in the afternoon for episodes of The Flintstones and Superfriends. In those days, I was never a huge Tom & Jerry fan. They always seemed like second-rate Looney Tunes, and for some reason I always rooted for Tom to catch Jerry even though I wasn't suppposed to. They even spelled their medium incorrectly: a cartune?
But as I sank into the worn, brown-orange seat of the lounge, clutching a Pepsi Light can with an old pull-tab I hadn't seen since the Carter administration, I found myself enraptured by Tom and Jerry's pursuits. I've heard various parents complain over the years that such cartoons as these are improperly violent and aggressive, but the absurd physicality of their exploits made me chuckle. In one, Jerry helped a seal that had escaped from the circus. Another pitted a black alley cat against Tom for the rights to a ham in the fridge. During a romp through a haunted house, Tom had nine numbered ghosts nearly sucked from his body as he clung frightfully to a stairway banister. Just now I turned from the computer to glance at the screen, and Jerry was dressed in a film noir trenchcoat and fedora while Tom negotiated barbed wire and mines in the living room (I have no idea what this means). I can't tell you exactly what was so brilliant about any specific moments, except that they all involve a series of sight gags that are as universal as McDonald's or converting oxygen into carbon dioxide. Most importantly, they made me smile on the eve of some 18 grueling hours of transit. Even now, hearing Chinese spoken all around me, with its odd musicality of odd consonants and inflection, I feel at home thanks to Hanna and Barbera's half-century-old cat and mouse. For that, they can call it a cartoon, a cartune, or a kartoone. And I will embark on my marathon of boardings, security checks, turbulence, baggage claim and a new round of jet lag as a decidedly happier customer.
The other day I was talking with somebody about brand identity, the way in which we form loyalties to company brands. 'Brand' is a term that gets thrown around a lot in business and marketing circles, of course, and it's long been a fascinating concept for me. That's probably because, particularly as a child but to a lesser extent even today, I've always been one to patronize certain products and companies over and over again. Sometimes there are good reasons. Sometimes there aren't - like when I pathetically resorted to duplicity simply to prove to the world that I preferred Coke to Pepsi. Which, as it happens, wasn't even true.
Many of us remember the successful marketing campaign Pepsi waged in the early 1980s. Challenging viewers to take a blind taste-test against Coke went at their more popular rival soft drink in the best way possible: by attacking the mystique itself. A recent study named Coca-Cola as the most popular worldwide brand, and I think it was probably true back then as well. A lot of people probably have been loyal to Coke over the years versus Pepsi for reasons other than the taste of the cola itself. Coke has always seemed like the more original and therefore authentic soft drink. Its very name is used as a verb denoting not just the brand, but the thing itself. A 'coke' means a cola just as to 'xerox' means to make copies or a 'kleenex' can mean any tissue.
As a kid, I picked up on and responded strongly to that undercurrent long before I knew anything about marketing. I was fiercely loyal to Coca-Cola versus Pepsi. I also felt the same about McDonald's versus Burger King, Ford versus Chevrolet, and a host of other corporate brand showdowns. I was an advertiser's dream, buying into certain brands unequivocally and committed myself to them like a teenager in 1941 eager to volunteer for the draft. And while today I'm of course a little less naive as an adult to the insipidity of the corporate machine and the sometimes not so inspiring realities behind brand making, I still am a sucker for certain companies' work, deserving or not, be it BMW or Sony or Apple.
But back to the Pepsi Challenge. Not only was this campaign waged on TV, where people were of course shown to choose Pepsi over Coke in mass movement taking place across America, but the company actually embraced a grassroots approach in which Pepsi Challenge booths were held at a host of festivals and fairs around the country. Each year in July my small hometown, McMinnville, held its annual "Turkey Rama", a three-day fair with main street closed to traffic and lined with stands from various local businesses, pronto pup (a.k.a. "corn dog") stands operated by local Elks, Lions and Kiwanis club members, and the usual assortment of Captain Funtastic carnival rides like The Scrambler (my personal favorite), The Sky Diver (a ferris wheel with spinning carriages), and The Spider (which I nearly barfed on during my one and only childhood ride).
I was very excited to see there was a Pepsi Challenge booth. This was the chance to show the Coca-Cola Company and its current spokesman, Mean Joe Greene of my beloved Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers (I carried his autograph around in a padlocked briefcase, but still managed to lose it), that I was a fellow guzzler of Coke. If I dared to willingly drink Pepsi, I reasoned, it would inevitably be a slippery slope until I committed that even greater horror of horrors: becoming a Dallas Cowboys fan. I had to show what side I was on.
But this was of course a blind taste test. After standing in line for several minutes, my heart beating out of my chest with nervousness before this moment of truth at Turkey Rama, I sat down at the little yellow booth with two unmarked Dixie cups of cola. ('Dixie cup' being another brand that's crossed over from proper noun into a catch-all regular synonym for any tiny paper cup.) I swirled the bubbly fluid of each sample in my mouth like a vintner sizing up his new batch of Merlot. I wasn't thinking about which I liked better, but which was more likely to be Coke. I remember the panic setting in as I realized I couldn't tell any difference. I'd have to just guess.
"You chose...Pepsi Cola!" I still remember the way the woman from the Pepsi Challenge booth jumped up an octave when she named her employer's brand as my selection. Her happiness at another conquest claimed for Pepsi burned into my young psyche like carbonated soda will corrode a penny.
But I hadn't worshiped the swirling red-and-white logo only to go down without a rematch. Heading to the back of the Pepsi Challenge line, pronto pup lunches and sneaker sales at Clubhouse Athletics be damned. This time I was determined to choose Coke.
And that's when you could say I either (a) caught a break, or (b) became even more desperate and diabolical. While standing in line, I noticed that the woman conducting the Pepsi Challenge was simply switching the Coke and Pepsi samples back and forth without any variation. As I neared the testing seat, I carefully monitored the rhythm of sample-switching with laser-like focus. I still was worried as I swirled the samples again, thinking I could be the case where she finally abandoned her simplistic switching pattern. But then I heard her voice say with a dourness that was music to my ears, "You chose...oh, Coca-Cola."
And with that, I had safely proved my mettle to my Coca-Cola overlords. But I'd done so with a George Costanza-like ruthlessness and amorality. Or maybe I should say George Bush-like. After all, what I did to Pepsi in about 1982, he did to the country in 2000, and possibly 2004. As it happens, I'm now drinking what seems like several gallons of caffeine free Diet Pepsi per week -- or whichever brand happens to be on sale. I'm not exempt from brand worship, though. As I write this post from an antique PC with the speed of a tortoise, I dream not of how the Apple I plan to buy will work more efficiently for me, but how cool it'll look on my desk, and how I'll be aligned with a perceived cooler, hipper, more loyal customer base than the likes of HP and Compaq and Microsoft. Or then again, maybe it all comes back to the fact that my first computer was an Apple II Plus on which I played many a game of Frogger.
Reading a week later what I wrote in flight from Dulles to Portland, I cringe a little inside.
To read about my trip, or at least the attitude I had coming home, you’d think I had a terrible time. But the trip was for the most part a total success. I had a wonderful time going to my friend Mike’s wedding near Charlottesville, Virginia, which I neglected to even mention the first time around, even though it was the whole reason I went on the trip.
After checking into a Holiday Inn in Charlottesville on an unseasonably hot sunny Sunday afternoon, I headed west on Interstate 64 for the evening wedding in my Saturn Ion rental car. The sudden beauty of the territory unfolding was a surprise. I’d driven for two hours the day before from Dulles airport near Washington down to Charlottesville. For the most part, it was not a great view, with the usual peppering of strip malls and gas stations. Even when I’d see a farm it never felt like I was truly away from the city. But heading west on the way from Charlottesville to the winery where Mike’s wedding was being held, it seemed in the golden late-afternoon light as if the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley were suddenly bursting onto a stage.
The wedding itself was a delight, too. It was very informal, with a cocktail hour before the ceremony on the deck of the winery, overlooking the vineyards and the mountains at sunset (groom mingled, bride stayed in hiding). There was so much good feeling at the wedding that it was hard to muster an iota of cynicism, which is a nice antidote to how I feel most of the time. It more than worth the discomfort of my tight-fitting suit trousers.
Before the ceremony I chatted with two old friends, Rich and John, with whom Mike (the groom) and I lived in Jersey City after college in about 1996. Along with a group of several others, we occupied two adjoining apartments that were part of a decaying three-story brownstone off Grove Street, about two PATH train stops from the World Trade Center in Manhattan. There was also a seemingly dopey guy who never remembered to flush and still (at 23) called his father “Daddy“ but seemed to be doing well in the advertising industry. I also remember a Jersey-girl (whose accent I ceaselessly immitated behind her back) working in the fashion industry whom Mike briefly dated, and an aspiring chef named Kate who ended up marrying a landscaper in Nantucket after a sojourn in dot-com-era San Francisco at a now defunct tech industry magazine. Kate also made some very yummy Sunday night dinners; one of which I remember contributing a risotto to after having just worked for a few months at Nick's Italian Cafe in McMinnville following graduation.
A couple years before Jersey City, Mike was a Godsend of a roommate after having a hellacious time the year before. Returning to NYU in January 1994 after a year and a half off from college, I'd been randomly paired with this absolute asshole from Tokyo who'd come into our room in the middle of the night when I was sound asleep, turn on all the lights, and begin snapping and folding his laundry, with the TV on in the other room loud enough that he could here it a few feet from my bedside. Then he'd call home to Japan and shout into Japanese. So finding Mike for my senior-year roommate at the Third Avenue North dorm at NYU - a guy for the most part likely to be OK with lights off and silence in the middle of the night, was great. I also gained a friend and even a fellow Oregon Ducks supporter. When Oregon made it to the Rose Bowl that year, their first since 1957, he got almost as excited as I did. I remember going out for a celebratory dinner at BBQ on 2nd Avenue.
Rich and John, who I talked with at the wedding, were both recent Syracuse grads and aspiring illustrators back when we lived together in Jersey City. I remember when Rich had his first career coup getting to illustrate the cover of the Fairfield County Weekly in Connecticut. This being the election year of ‘96, the illustration depicted Bob Dole giving a number-one sign with his finger, but with Jack Kemp holding up his arm. He soon went to work at a big NYC ad agency and, 11 years later, is married with a kid on the way. Jon freelanced his first drawings for the Wall Street Journal when we lived together, and now is on staff there. Rich and Jon also were the first people I ever met who designed web pages.
The reason I’d originally planned to stay until Tuesday after a Sunday-night wedding was to explore the area around Charlottesville, particularly the Thomas Jefferson-designed architectural landmarks at the University of Virginia and Monticello. But with the heat in the 90s and high humidity, and my having not even a hat or sunscreen to protect my Nordic, extremely heat-sensitive skin, I knew any visits I made would have to be brief.
The casualty of leaving a day early was that I had to pass up Monticello. But I did have time to see the university. At 10:00 in the morning, it was already so hot that sweat was pouring down my face like Robert Hays in Airplane! as he takes the jet’s controls. Luckily the quad I’d come to see had some built-in shading. The school’s library, with its massive circular rotunda and Roman columns, sits like the head of the household at a rectangular dinner table. All around the perimeter, clad in contrasting red brick with more white columns, are student residences complete with traditional old rocking chairs. When I wasn’t mopping my brow, it looked spectacular.
After that, though, I pretty much got in the car and drove to Dulles.
It’s when I got home from that aforementioned trip, though, that my thoughts of it began to change. It’s a pattern I see so often in myself and virtually anyone else that travels. At the beginning and end of it, you’ve got to get there. And particularly if it involves flying, you’re in for an enormous hassle, even if everything technically goes according to plan. Somewhere in the middle, you have the experience itself. But going into and coming out of the trip, one’s perspective is inevitably skewed by the combination of stress and boredom accompanying long trips.
Make no mistake: I feel profoundly fortunate and enriched by the chance to have gone to many different places over the last handful of years. Just don’t ask me about it while I’m enmeshed in it at 38,000 feet, in between places to sleep.
Before long, we will make our descent down from the plane’s cruising altitude of 38,000 feet. Four and a half hours have gone by in this 5.5-hour flight, and it’s gone by more quickly than most. Besides, the Romanian husband and wife next to me have been traveling for 24 hours straight. They’re loving the inflatable neck pillows right now as they snooze away. I just want the turbulence to stop. Every bump sends my mind a so-far mercifully incorrect message: we’re going down.
The flight I’m on wasn’t the one I originally booked. I was supposed to return from Charlottesville, Virginia, where I’d gone for my college roommate Mike’s wedding, on a flight tomorrow. But yesterday afternoon, huddled in my room at the Holiday Inn from the unseasonably 90-degree October heat gripping the East Coast, I decided parting with a C-note was worth it for the chance to be in my own bed a night sooner. But it wasn’t just the heat.
Travel is a constant push-pull effect in my life. When at home, I constantly look at my thousands of travel photos and spend hours in the basement editing video shot on various trips. For Valarie and me, imagining and planning our next destination is a constant topic. In the last three or four years, mostly with her but sometimes without, I’ve been to a host of countries, some of them multiple times: England, France, Japan, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, The Bahamas, Scotland, Sweden. (I suppose England and Scotland probably only count as one, Great Britain, but I still think of them as seperate. They do, after all, have separate soccer teams.)
But there are also times like last year, in the first stages of my Japan trip. We’d completed about two-thirds of the 11-hour flight from Portland to Tokyo, but a passenger’s medical emergency (which turned out to be nothing) meant that we had to turn around the plane and fly to Anchorage, Alaska for the night. In the couple hours it took us to return eastward, I actually got it in my mind that I wanted to catch a plane in Anchorage back to Portland. I’d been so depressed about leaving home that I was ready to turn down what to many (including myself) would be a dazzling journey. Japan is quite possibly even my favorite country in the world to visit. But the gloom that overcame me in the days leading up to the trip, and as we flew out of PDX, was incredibly difficult to overcome. Thankfully there was the surreal pleasure of watching a plane load of largely Asians taking photos in the empty Anchorage airport in front of a gigantic taxidermied polar bear.
On one hand, I’ve since an early age had a romantic sense of wanderlust. I’ve always had the mindset of a collector, and I think of the places I visit as my ultimate collection. Notice how eager I was to rattle off the list of countries I’d been to a couple paragraphs ago? I even add up the number of countries my parents, friends and Valarie have been to, as if it’s some kind of competition.
But I’m also an unequivocal creature of habit. I find solace in having a sense of how the day will unfold. I’m not fond of surprises. I can see in my mind most days a succession of espressos, walks in the neighborhood, cooking dinner, watching a little soccer on TV, and perhaps best of all, regular visits from our cat to a spot on my chest as I lay on the sofa. When I’m removed from my little lair on Mulberry Street, I often start getting depressed a few days before it’s time to leave.
Of course some of this has to do with the exhausting marathon of travel. When I was a kid, my dad would regularly leave his day job at the restaurant for Air Force reserve trips. (Talk about a schizophrenic existence: making turkey sandwiches and taking out the garbage to analyzing satellite and spy-plane reconnaissance photos.) I remember telling him as a kid how envious I was about getting on an airplane a few times a year, and clearly in some way that rubbed off on me a lot. At one point I remember him saying, “Once you fly a few times, it becomes just like a bus ride.” I strongly doubted I’d ever become that cynical. But air travel does really, really suck sometimes. The waiting is endless, the environments saccharine and confining. Even on a great international trip, at the beginning and end of it you always wonder a bit if it was worth it.
If there’s a silver lining here, perhaps it’s that I need both the push and pull of travel. There’s a born hermit in me, I think, looking to spend my days in the basement editing video with my parents’ old stereo playing the classical station. But what am I editing down there? Travel footage. And after every trip, I neglect several days of work to edit my still-camera pictures. You could say I’m obsessed with documenting these excursions. And if I stop traveling, I’ll run out of material.
Once on vacation I said half-jokingly to Valarie, “I can’t wait until this trip is over so I can remember it fondly.” Like, the trip to Charlottesville I cut short this weekend? I can’t wait to upload my photos of the Thomas Jefferson-designed University of Virginia rotunda. When I took the pictures, it was so hot even at 10AM that the sweat coming down my forehead and scalp began seeping into my eyes and making it difficult to see. But in the picture, I’ll only see the architecture, and the blue sky made even bluer by my camera’s polarizing filter.
In perhaps even better news, though, the captain has turned on the fasten seat-belt sign, and we’ve begun our descent. They hope we’ve had a pleasant journey. As always, I haven’t and I have.
A few days ago The Oregonian ran a story about what songs different noteworthy Portlanders listened to on their i-Pods. Two of them were friends, John Jay of Wieden + Kennedy and developer Randy Rapaport. And a third, writer Diana Abbu-Jabber, is a longtime colleague who I remember chatting with at many a movie screening when we were reviewing, her for The Oregonian and me for Willamette Week.
There was also a list from governor Ted Kulongoski, who favors Rolling Stones songs, and new Blazer Channing Frye, whose choices included Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me". (Hopefully his jump shot is a lot better than that song.)
I knew my friend Randy would choose at least one Flaming Lips song - the man is devoted to that band like jihadists are to the Koran. He actually went with two, "A Spoonful Weighs A Ton" and "Chewin' the Apple of Yer Eye" - the only person besides the governor to pick two songs by one artist.
It was also especially a treat reading about one of John's Choices, "The Breaks" by Kurtis Blow:
"I am just starting my career in fashion marketing at Bloomingdale's. New York is completely alive from the party music of hip-hop in the Bronx to the emerging art scene and new wave music. I am sitting in the studio of Antonio Lopez, the greatest fashion illustrator of our time, while 'The Breaks' fills the studio. Antonio introduces me to break dancers he has discovered and sent to Paris to perform."
The i-Pod is as relevant in my life as it seems to be in so many other people's. I'm listening to it as I write this (Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom is playing currently), and the ear buds are in for much of my day while I work, when I go for a walk, and when I drive.
There are of course lots of individual songs that I love, by artists ranging from Chuck Berry to Wham! to Sonny Rollins to Bananarama. But if you look at my top 25 list on i-Tunes, most all of them come from those albums that I listen to more or less start to finish.
Yesterday, imagining a kind of alternative list to those in the Oregonian feature, I sat down with my laptop in front of my CD collection, which numbers about 500. There are also Valarie's discs I pick and choose from, which are about the same in number. Out of those 1000 or so CDs, I made a list of the albums that I either listen to regularly and/or am reasonably likely to want to listen to in their entirety at some point in the not to distant future. Although any time I look at the list I wind up removing a record or two and/or adding some as well, my current list consists of 85 albums.
The first noticeable thing about the list is that there are more than twice as many Beatles albums as those by anyone else. I chose seven: Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's, the 'White Album', Abbey Road, and Let It Be. I really should have also added Help! and A Hard Day's Night, both of which I've listened to in their entirety scores of times. The #1 song on my i-Tunes list, "It's All Too Much", is from Yellow Submarine, which I don't really ever listen to all the way because there's a lot of scoring from the movie in the second half.
The next closest multi-album artist, of which there are three, has three albums: The Clash (Combat Rock, London Calling, Sandinista!), Elvis Costello & The Attractions (Armed Forces, Imperial Bedroom, Get Happy!), and jazz virtuoso Roland Kirk (The Inflated Tear, Volunteered Slavery, Domino). I could easily have added at least one to the Costello list (This Year's Model) if not three or four more. Same goes for Roland Kirk (Rip, Rig & Panic).
There are 15 artists with two albums on my list, and once again, many could have had more. For XTC, the English new wave band I fell in love with in college, I chose two seminal early albums, Black Sea and English Settlement. But I also often listen to Drums and Wires and several others.
The Police were also tough. I added Synchronicity and Outlandos D'Amour as start-to-finish listens, but on another day I might add Regatta de Blanc instead. With Nirvana I chose Nevermind and Unplugged In New York, only reluctantly leaving In Utero off the list. Fugazi also placed two, the later-career Red Medicine and In On the Kill Taker. All their albums are excellent, though. I could say the same about Thelonious Monk, whose albums Straight, No Chaser and Brilliant Corners I still listen to frequently.
Other artists seemed to more clearly have enough with two: A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory is a bona fide masterpiece, and Beats, Rhymes & Life is superb. But I'd argue their other records don't hit that same mark. I also liked American Music Club best after they moved into a richer, more complex sound with Mercury and San Francisco (made with the terrific producers Mitchell Froom and Joe Chicarelli) from the sort of industrial folk they'd been doing earlier - although there are some gems in that period, too, like California and Everclear.
There's probably no album I've listened to more in the last few months than The Shins' Wincing The Night Away, and their previous effort, Chutes Too Narrow, is great too. I imagine someday I'll get more into their first record, but it's not a start-to-finish, regular-rotation album for me right now.
But there are also plenty of cases where I chose one album by an artist, but I love that album a lot. Mingus Ah Um by Charles Mingus absolutely blows me away every time I hear it. If I had to pick the single greatest jazz record I've ever heard, this might be it. Yet Mingus tends to re-record many versions of the same songs, though, so I never feel quite as compelled to listen to, say, Blues and Roots or the excellent Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus all the way through.
Although I have absolutely zero-point-zero-zero (0.00) interest in Elton John's contemporary work, or even stuff he made in the last twenty-five or thirty years, when I was growing up my mom often played his first volume of greatest hits. Part of me wants to call it a guilty pleasure, but I never tire of songs like "Bennie and the Jets" and "Daniel". I also confess to loving Sir Elton's personal style in those days, before he was a fat old guy belting out songs for Disney soundtracks.
As I've been writing this post, after the Costello album somehow I started playing the Top 25 playlist upon looking for the spelling of one of the songs. In a couple of cases, the songs have stopped me from what I'm writing to either bob my head or just space out. Just a few seconds ago "Last Living Souls" from Gorillaz' Demon Days did that.
Years ago I remember watching a documentary on Damon Albarn. He was recording a string section and kept getting frustrated and surly with the classical players, because he was having a hard time getting to play in a different way, with more bounce like dance music called for and less of the strict sharpness that classical playing requires. In the show, Albarn looked like a pompous jerk in his Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and holier than thou rock star attitude. But I must admit: the strings on "Last Living Souls" have an exquisite circular sense of the looping beat that I've never heard from classical musicians before.
As much as I like lists and stats like the ones i-Tunes provides, or that I make myself with the laptop in front of my increasingly dusty CD shelves, I know they're never completely accurate. For example, there are only two classical albums on my start-to-finish list, a recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and one of Shostakovitch's Piano Quartet & Trio by The Borodin Trio. But I know I listen to a lot more classical than I used to. I guess it's still hard to make it through entire albums, though. And classical is much better to me live. On CD I feel like I'm always turning the volume up and down - it never sounds quite right.
The beauty of these stats, though, is that they're always fluid and subject only to my own whims and tastes.
This past Saturday, less than 48 hours ago as I write this, my beloved Oregon Ducks earned what is easily one of the greatest victories in their 113-year history. Playing on the road against Michigan, college football's all-time winningest program, the Ducks absolutely torched the Wolverines: 39-7. They did it before the largest gathering of people in America that day: more than 109,000 at legendary Michigan Stadium, the "Big House". And the game was actually even more lopsided than the score indicates. Oregon could easily have scored 60.
As most sports fans know, Michigan was having a tough time this year even before the Ducks came calling. A week before the Wolverines, then #5 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll, had become the first ranked team to lose to a lower-division squad in falling 32-31 to two-time Division 1AA national champion Appalachian State. So it's not as if the Ducks were facing one of the best teams in the history of the "Maize and Blue". But Michigan's offense is laden with seniors, and are still probable to rebound. This is largely the same Wolverine squad that was ranked #2 last year going into their season-ending battle with #1 Ohio State.
Besides, I'm not letting even a sub-par Michigan squad detract from how astonishing this win was. Year after year, Michigan's recruiting classes are ranked in the top five. They're the gold standard of college football, with 11 national championships and a legacy second only to Notre Dame (and perhaps USC). Nearly every game is on national television, and their every move gets more media attention than if Oregon were to play naked. (Wait, don't give Nike any ideas - I can already envision see burly nude offensive lineman with a swoosh tattoo.) Beating Michigan on their home turf, no matter what the circumstances, is incredible. And Oregon didn't just win. This game wasn't even close. It was over before halftime. I wouldn't have thought to even wish for an outcome like that.
Yesterday I happened to run across our next door neighbor outside, and she said, "I heard you screaming yesterday. Was that the Oregon game." Yes it was, I told her. Yes it was.
I waited to really yell until the game was over. I'd kept it internal up until then, so much so that I had to keep turning the TV on and off as the nervousness became unbearable. You'd think having a huge lead would make it easier, but that just sets one up for worrying about some colossal comeback by the other team. After all, in 1993 Oregon was victim to the biggest comeback in college football history, losing 42-41 to Cal after enjoying a 41-0 halftime lead.
When the clock finally hit zero, I screamed a long loud version of "Yeah!" that reminded me of that old Tears For Fears Song: "Shout. Shout. Let it all out!" It was really a primal scream, and it felt great.
It's really ironic for me to talk about yelling in a positive way, because I'm the most noise-sensitive person I know. I'm always crabby at the neighbors for the endless stream of noise coming from their assorted lawn equipment, home improvement tools and young children. But with my scream we're only talking about four seconds. I'm sure they were OK with it.
Besides, it's so rare in life that one feels such a moment of pure joy. I know, of course, that a football game is totally meaningless compared to real-life issues. But when you've supported a team your whole life, and now even written a book about them, and you experience a win of this magnitude that happens maybe a handful of times in a generation, then it's really something to savor.
For all I know, Oregon's season could be all down from here. That was certainly the case last year when another historic Ducks win, this time over Oklahoma in dramatic comeback fashion, was followed by a second-half collapse that saw them finish 7-5 and suffer a miserable Las Vegas Bowl loss. Controversy also tainted the thrill of beating the Sooners, because most people around the nation incorrectly believe Oregon benefited from a wrong onsides kick ruling.
There was no questioning who was the best team on the field at Michigan Stadium on Saturday. Dennis Dixon looked like a second coming of Vince Young or Michael Vick (the football player, not the dog killer), practically toying with the Wolverines as he ran in an out of defenders on some plays and completed perfect long bombs to Oregon's speedy receivers on others. Then there was Jonathan Stewart pounding the ball up the middle, and Jeremiah Johnson going around them. Johnson also made perhaps the best stiff-arm move I've ever seen, pushing a would-be Michigan tackler to the ground with one swipe.
That stiff-arm of Johnson's made the "Top Plays" countdown on ESPN's SportsCenter at #9. But even better was the #1 highlight on that same telecast: a pair of "Statue of Liberty" plays, one a fake and one the real thing, but both for touchdowns. Boise State made the old schoolyard play famous again in last year's Fiesta Bowl by beating Oklahoma in overtime with it. We doubled the pleasure on what is arguably college football's most hallowed ground.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go watch my video tape of the game some more. Hell, even Oregon's usually terrible uniforms looked great on this amazing day.
Last week when I was in Eugene for a reading, I stopped by to see my grandma, who wanted me to pick out some of my grandpa's clothes to take home (he passed away several weeks ago). I'm not very fond of wearing hats, and really only do so for sun protection while I'm walking. But I love collecting objects with special personal meaning, and I'm very glad to have the four or five hats I picked up of Grandpa's.
One of the hats I actually got on the day of his graveside service. The family had met at Grandma's house to drive there together, and it was sunnier than expected. I'd forgotten to bring a hat, and even if I'd remembered, it's not like I was gonna wear one of my baseball caps with a suit during my grandfather's funeral. (He got the most impressive 21-gun military salute and flag-draped coffin for his WWII service.) I'm reminded of a "Sopranos" episode when Tony approached another diner in that friend's Italian restaurant they always go to because the diner was wearing a cap at the table. "They took the bleachers out two years ago," Tony told him, veins popping out of his head with agitation. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one with that pet-peeve. But luckily Grandma let me wear an old houndstooth-fedora of Grandpa's that went well with the suit and saved my scalp from sunburn.
Another fedora I took home the other day was even snazzier although thinner and more worn. It had a little feather built into one side of the brim. I love to imagine how he must have looked in it. Grandpa wasn't usually a flashy dresser - he favored short sleeves for his oxford shirts, like a NASA engineer at Mission Control. But these were different times, and the average man walking down the street was sporting a suit and hat that would seem like the height of dress-up today. Back when I was working at temp agencies in DC and New York in the early/mid-90s, I got really sick of having an uncomfortable tie, shirt, slacks and loafers on. But when I see a guy wearing jeans and a Cosby sweater to the symphony, I'm almost ready to pull a Tony moment of my own.
That said, I also took three baseball caps of Grandpa's. One I'd never seen before, but I loved the vintage-style graphics of "Hawaii" written in cursive like the name of a little league team. Another had a white foam front with a drawing of a woodpecker. Who wears a baseball hat with a drawing of a woodpecker? I do remember it hanging on Grandpa and Grandma's hallway hat rack for many a decade, though.
Same goes for a Nebraska Cornhuskers cap I took home that I remember Grandpa wearing a time or two. No matter how much my dad and I worshiped the Oregon Ducks, Grandpa was never that into football or other sports. But since he was born and raised in a small Nebraska town, this cap remained in the house as various TVs, dining room tables and chairs were changed in and out.
Incidentally, it only now just occurred to me that all these caps are red and white. Must be kind of like how about two-thirds of my wardrobe is blue.
The hat of Grandpa's that I've actually worn regularly is a more casual brimmed job, kind of like Gilligan wore on Gilligan's Island. Or perhaps it's actually more like Truman Capote's. Anyway, it's perfect for wearing on my summertime walks, covering my ears and my neck better than the standard baseball cap. I also dig the brown and orange stripes going around the hat. I was actually about to order a similar one from the J.Crew sale catalog when Grandma gave me this one. Who knew Grandpa had such style? I loved the guy, but I was more used to a pocket protector and polyester pants. I'd love to have known the younger man in the fedora, or even the Gilligan hat.
On Monday night I had my first ever book reading and signing, at Borders Books in Eugene. It was indescribably flattering and fun, but also humbling.
I walked into the store about twenty-five minutes before the reading, and happen to catch sight quickly of where a head table and group of audience chairs had been set up for the reading. There was even a little placard with my name, a picture of the book and an announcement of the signing. And there was even someone sitting in the audience already. I couldn't believe it - someone here this early? Wow! A few minutes later, though, when the store manager asked me to sit down at the author table and sign some books for the store to sell later, I happened to notice that the audience member was a grown woman reading out loud to herself (in full voice) a copy of Cinderella and laughing maniacally every few seconds. I'm not a big believer in signs and omens, but it felt like a reminder that I was having with this first reading a kind of glass-slipper moment, but that taking any of it too seriously might turn one (or in this case just one's brain, apparently) into a pumpkin. Luckily, though, a few Duck fans eventually turned up, as did my uncle Bob, my dad's brother.
This has been a tough year for Bob, because not only did his dad (my grandpa) pass away in June, but Bob's son, my cousin Steve, is a pastor with what appears to be (without the help of a big assist from a higher power) terminal cancer. Bob also takes care of my elderly grandma and a gaggle of his own grandkids. So it was, like I say, humbling to have him come to the reading, buy a book and ask to have it signed, especially when I remember the guy doesn't even like Oregon football! I normally would never feel comfortable asking for such a thing, but if you're of a religious persuasion, please consider including a request for Steve next prayer around.
On a lighter note, I also wanted to pass on a podcast available online of a radio interview I did earlier this week with Portland radio station KEX. Two of the interviewers were former local TV news anchors Scott Lynn and Paul Lynman. When I first got on the phone with them, I said, "Am I on Channel 2 or Channel 8?"
I also have done a couple radio interviews by phone with stations in other states: first one in Sarasota, Florida and another in Rockville, Illinois. It was funny how opposite they were. The first one was more of a calm, one-on-one affair with this guy talking about Oregon in a flattering, inquisitive way. The second interview was with a couple of afternoon sports-talk guys. They good-naturedly but bluntly said things like, "Hey, I don't know nothing about Ore-uh-GONN out there. Have you had any good players other than Joey Harrington? Oh wait, he's not any good either." But I was surprised how much I enjoyed bantering back and forth. I may have been on their show, but the topic of choice was Oregon football, something they knew next to nothing about and I, well, know something. So I was like, "You guys are in Rockford, Illinois, right? Well, I could tell you about the couple of different times Oregon beat Illinois, in 1995 and 1993. Or I could tell you about how Oregon is ranked something like 6th all-time in the number of players it's sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Or how Oregon led the Pac-10 conference in wins in the 1990s." Luckily it never got hostile - I'd have hated that and felt bad to contributing to such unlikable radio. But the barbs were all done with Nerf weapons, so to speak, and that meant it was a hoot. Or perhaps a quack, I should say.
Courtesy of NBA-TV via YouTube, recently I discovered what I am hereby designating as the coolest two minutes and 12 seconds of basketball footage I'm ever likely to behold: the 10 greatest dunks by Clyde Drexler, the Hall of Fame guard for the Portland Trail Blazers.
While writing this, I just turned away from the computer a moment to glance at the autograph picture I have of Clyde on the wall here at the office of BJL Enterprises. In this shot, he's doing more of a finger-roll. But he could slam the ball as well as about anyone, even the two principal dunk-rivals of his generation: Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. Michael's free throw dunk? Check. Dominique's windmill slam? Present and accounted for.
And without further ado, I give you these gems from #22...
#10: Against the dreaded Lakers, after a James Worthy miss, Glyde catches an alley-oop one-handed and slams it at Memorial Coliseum.
#9: This time he dunks on the Pistons’ Bill Laimbeer, possibly in the 1990 NBA Finals. "He just exploded down the right base line,” says commentator Dick Vitale. (Vitale's done NBA?) This is a nice consolation prize for losing the series. Wish he could have dunked on Isaiah too.
#8: Clyde dunks on 7-foot-7-inch Manute Bol of the Warriors, the tallest player in NBA history. “Clyde’s not going to enter the Slam Dunk Contest this year,” the commentator says, “but the way to win that thing would probably be to bring Manute Bol and dunk over him, because that is incredibly impressive.”
#7: On a breakaway against San Antonio with no one within 10 feet, Clyde does an exquisite windmill dunk. Commentator: “He’s got 27. What a show by The Glyde!”
#6: Against the Lakers, Drexler drives right down the middle of the lane, squeaking between Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Nice.
#5: After intercepting a pass on the other end of the court against Houston, Clyde drives the length of the hardwood and weaves between three defenders, finishing off by dunking on former #1 draft pick Ralph Sampson. “There’s only two or three athletes in the NBA who can make that play,” the announcer says, “and Clyde Drexler is one of them.” Mmm-hmm.
#4: While playing for the Rockets (something I usually try to block from my mind), a now severely balding Drexler, once of the sweet Afro, takes a last-second fast break pass on the right wing and stuffs over the hometown Spurs. I do appreciate that there's a 9-to-1 ratio of Blazer/Rocket dunks in this list. Thank you, NBA-TV.
#3: Also against the Spurs but thankfully black in a Blazer uniform, in the blink of an eye, Drexler takes a pass from Jerome Kersey at the top of the key and delivers a thundering slam over The Admiral. “In your face David Robinson!” the announcer says.
#2: This one is particularly satisfying because of the context. In the 1992 NBA Finals against Michael Jordan’s mighty Chicago Bulls, Drexler dunks so hard over Bill Cartwright that the ball bounces off the aging center’s head. Marv Albert of NBC describes it with his signature phrase for such occasions: “Serving up a facial!”
#1: I get chills watching this one from the sheer physical artistry. It also doesn’t hurt that Clyde’s ducking in The Forum against the dreaded Los Angeles Lakers, and in the red away uniforms that I prefer. But really this one is all about the fact that Drexler takes off from the corner of the free-throw line and sails to the basket, his feet tucked under as if it’s part of some Olympic high dive. This judge gives it a 10.
In about 1994, while a junior at NYU, I went for a walk with my camera in SoHo. I took this shot looking down Thompson street at the World Trade Center. Of course I didn't know then that the towers would be gone within seven years. But the kind of contrast you see in this photo, between the smaller-scaled brownstones and tenements of SoHo with the soaring WTC skyscrapers, is one you'd often find walking in lower Manhattan. The Trade Center towered above everything, and was a constant presence.
What's also crazy about this photo is that it actually shows to the left on Thompson the apartment building that Valarie was living in at the time. We were still about a year away from meeting.
Another recent print I scanned from an old album, like the WTC/Thompson shot above, is this one from Nye Beach in Newport in 2000. It's a little postcard-like, I'll admit: picturesque, but just a little too cliche. However, since I was actually there at the time experiencing the real thing, it's a nice keepsake.
One of the photos I meant to include in my previous post about scanning old albums was this one from a 1998 trip to the Bend area. I'm embarrassed to say I can't remember and can't tell if this is Mt. Bachelor or Broken top, which are right across from each other. The upper portion of the frame is a bit over-exposed, but I like how the frame is comprised of several different layers or portions of the frame: water, then grass and a few scattered small evergreen trees, then the more solid timberline behind that, and finally the mountain peak and sky.
Two other shots from that same 1998 Bend and Bachelor trip I liked are of smaller details. Both were taken beside a creek flowing out of Todd Lake (itself fed by glaciers from the Three Sisters) with a strong current in the place I stopped. One photo is of a small little plant beside the white water, and the other is of the water a few feet away going over a log. Did I mention that Valarie and I find Todd Lake to be one of our favorite and most beautiful, peaceful places on the planet? I haven't been there for years, actually, but looking at these photos makes me yearn to go back. I've got a book reading tentatively set for late August in Bend, and I'm hoping we can scoot over to Todd Lake the next morning before heading home.
Finally there's this shot, taken of my sister sometime in the mid-90s when she was an elementary schooler. We'd gone to the Grocery Outlet in hometown McMinnville with one of our parents, and I remember staging Sara with this ridiculously huge can of beans. Better open a window, Sara! I also like the puffy yellow-green jacket. The Grocery Outlet, as its name suggests, was quite a hilarious amalgamation of cheap foods, with lots of off-brand and generic labels, chintzy knicknacks that didn't sell at other stores, and expiration date to be mindful of.
Over the weekend I spent several hours scanning some of the hundreds of photos I have in about 15 albums down in the basement. What I really should be doing, of course, is scanning the negatives rather than the prints. But my cheap scanner doesn't do that, and I was eager to start playing around with the images before the prints have a chance to deteriorate further; besides, I have some corresponding negatives, but probably not nearly all of them. Meanwhile, the edges of the album pages are getting pretty yellow.
I thought I'd be jumping around between albums a lot, but I didn't get that far. Most of what I have scanned now comes from two albums, one made in 2000 and the other in 1998. During that time, Valarie would often take weekend trips to either Newport on the coast or to Bend and the high desert area of Central Oregon.
This first shot was taken in Newport at a state-park beach just south of the Yaquina Bay Bridge. During those years we'd always stay at the Nye Beach Hotel, a delightful little place that's now closed. Most of the time we'd just walk there along Nye Beach, but this time we drove over to this new spot, which had, as it turned out much harder-packed sand for easier walking. Funnily enough, I also wound up shooting at this beach some footage on super-8 that would be part of my first film, Western Travelogue #1. But that came about three years later than this photo, which was taken in 2000.
This shot of a cow was taken in 1998 on the drive to Bend for a weekend trip. Instead of the more direct route, by way of Salem and the Santiam Pass through the Cascades via Detroit Lake, we drove east to Hood River, then over the mountains and down south to Bend by way of Madras and the Warm Springs reservation. We pulled over the car (a light green '73 Plymouth Valiant that originally belonged to my grandparents) after seeing several cows hanging out by the road, but this shot was the only one that seemed to come out OK.
Another photo, from a 2000 Bend trip, attracted me even though it was overexposed and almost even hard to make out at first. It was taken at Todd Lake, a stunningly pretty little glacially-fed lake in the shadow of the Three Sisters and Mount Bachelor. Of course most of my shots were of the mountains and the lake, the latter of which we walked all the way around, getting our feet soaked by the little stream that had spread out to soak a broad field of wildflowers.
Last night I was rummaging through the fridge and couldn't think of anything to make for dinner, despite the fact that we'd just been to the store. I hadn't bothered to buy any produce (we were at Fred Meyer shopping mostly for a lamp and various boxed cereals for Valarie), so there weren't any of my usual building blocks like tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, carrots, etc.
But then I remembered a recent New York Timesarticle offering 101 recipes that could be carried out in 10 minutes or less. Many of them seemed to rely on just a few simple ingredients. And more importantly, they seemed both doable as well as a chance to break me out of my usual and well-worn cooking tendencies. (I'm not the only one into the 101-recipe article; it's been the #1 most emailed story on the Times website for several days now.)
Although many recipes weren't right, calling for prosciutto I didn't have or fish I didn't want, I finally was intrigued by #52: "Grill or sauté Italian sausage and serve over store-bought hummus, with lemon wedges." I'd never have thought of Italian sausage going with hummus, or serving any cut of meat over hummus in the first place; I like hummus but think almost solely of dipping pita bread in it. A few weeks ago, though, at a Lebanese restaurant downtown with my architect friend Gene Sandoval I'd had the Lamb Shwarma Plate, which was basically just grilled lamb over hummus (scooped up with pita). And it was really yummy.
Luckily I had both an unopened container of hummus and several lemons. Although there was no sausage or lamb in the freezer, I did have a couple of thin steaks from New Seasons that would cook up quickly - perfecto! I basically just seared the steaks in olive oil with lots of garlic and coarse salt.
I tossed the couple tablespoons of garlic into the hot oil first, so it'd temper the pungent flavor and infiltrate all of the oil. After the steaks cooked up, I de-glazed the frying pan with a little lemon juice and poured the oily liquid into a small bowl; from there, I fished out the charred garlicky pieces and a little of the juicy glaze to go on top of the meat (after it rested a couple minutes), which went on top of the hummus. I put a few lemon wedges around the edge of the plate and squeezed them onto the steak and hummus.
The only slight screw-up was that, as you can probably tell, I got about half-way through dinner before deciding to take a picture. The cut of meat you see is intact, but that's my second helping. Before I began scarfing down, the presentation of the steak on the bed of hummus was much prettier. But I guess it's a good sign that I was too hungry and salivating to hold off for a few pictures. Not to sound too Rachel Ray, but Yum City! (Population: me.)
The other day, while at a press screening for the new Danny Boyle film Sunshine, I learned from Oregonian movie critic Shawn Levy that our mutual former colleague, Kim Morgan -- now a freelance Los Angeles print and TV film critic but previously of The Oregonian and, before that, Willamette Week -- recently appeared as a sub for Roger Ebert on Ebert & Roeper. In this brief YouTube clip of the episode, she tells Richard Roeper, "Severed heads are beautiful." Vintage Kim.
This is an aside, but coincidentally, I also met both Ebert and Roeper briefly a few years ago while covering their "Film Festival at Sea" on a Disney cruise to The Bahamas for a travel magazine. The article was rejected (quite unfairly in my opinion) but it was worth it for the free trip, and the total surreality of sitting in a bar called the 'Cadillac Cafe' (decked out like Caddy interior) with the show's producers and Roeper, as well as director Jim Sheridan and his daughter, and a loud tween dance happening in the next room over. (The Sheridans had screened In America, which Ebert & Roeper fawned over but I wasn't very into; I resented being pulled away from my first ocean swim.)
Kim's 15 minutes got me thinking about some of the other people who were working at the paper while I was freelancing there (from 1999-2006). Where they are now? Let's see how many I can remember.
For a couple years at Willamette Week, Kim and I were a two and then three-person review team along with Dave McCoy, both of whom I believe write for MSN now (in addition to Kim's TV stuff). Our overall arts editor at the paper in those days, Caryn, left for a fellowship at Columbia and then became arts editor for a new Associated Press entertainment website called ASAP. The theater critic at that time, Steffen Silvis, is now a critic for the Prague Post and a playwright himself. The music critic, Zach Dundas, is now freelancing for the Associated Press and Maxim. Reporters Bob Young and Maureen O'Hagan (also a couple) are both reporters at the Seattle Times, although Maureen has also been on staff at TheWashington Post since leaving WW. Christina Melander, an assistant arts editor I often wrote for, is now writing regularly for The Oregonian about food.
And my best friend from WW, Mac Montandon, has been an editor in New York at Radar and several other magazines while also editing a collection of reviews and essays about Tom Waits and writing for places like the New York Observer. One of the best concerts I ever experienced was going to see Waits in Eugene with Mac, his awesome wife Catherine (who recently edited a collection of reviews and essays about J.D. Salinger) and Valarie. I remember blissfully eating together at Denny's at about 1AM with our ears ringing and our conversation re-hashing the show. Years later, Mac and I also saw a great night of jazz in New York and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with Catherine. I remember taking a photo of the World Trade Center towers - it was exactly two weeks before they were attacked.
Anyway, there's also a ton of people who worked at the paper in other capacities (production, classified and personals) I knew. Valarie of course ran the personals section, and I've kept close track of her whereabouts. Two friends from classified and productions, Andrea and Steeler fan extraordinaire Scott, wound up getting married and having a kid. Another graphic designer from production, Valarie's pal Barb, is becoming an art therapist. Two other WW'ers who married, our friends Irene and Ben, are down in Oakland now, she getting her PhD in film and he teaching young kids. Our friend Becca, still another WW alumnus from the same group of friends, recently returned from grad school in London and is helping to organize this year's Wordstock festival.
A few others are still at the paper, like IT guru Brian Panganiban, who also competed recently on the VH1 game show The World Series of Pop Culture with his brother Paul. They are perhaps the only friends of mine who can top my knowledge of Flintstones and Brady Bunch episodes. Nigel Janquiss, an excellent reporter who was overshadowed by Bob and Maureen to some degree while I was there, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize reporting for the paper on Neil Goldschmidt's affair with a teenager while mayor. And he didn't ditch the alternative weekly after the big honor - Nigel's still there.
Not bad for a bunch of over-worked and underpaid twenty-somethings getting their start in late-90s fin de siecle Portland, huh?
Yesterday, with Valarie out of town and work having slowed down for the first time in awhile, I decided to make the hour's drive down to my hometown of McMinnville to see my parents, eat at my dad's restaurant, and put my new car (new to me, that is) through its paces a bit.
The road one takes most of the way, Highway 99W, is always crowded these days. It gets particularly slow between Newberg and Dundee, the two small towns one encounters before McMinnville. People have been clamoring for years for the government to build a bypass highway so through traffic can avoid the towns; Dundee especially backs up cars, sometimes more than a half-mile outside its borders. But taxpayers are too cheap to approve the funds, and now the transportation department is talking about a toll road. Ugh. Anyway, with Yamhill County flourishing with both wine-country tourists and bedroom-community new residents, pressure on 99W is terrible and I think they should just build the damn bypass highway no matter what it costs.
Until then, though, instead of dealing with the Dundee stop-and-go, I cut off at Newberg and took an alternate route on a smaller state road between Newberg and Carlton - although I cut off from that road to Lafayette. Along the way, I stopped to snap a few pictures of the local agricultural sights. Anything big and rusty seems to attract my camera.
The Chehalem Valley Mills site was right in Newberg, just a couple blocks from the Gem 100 Ice Cream Parlor, where my friend Reese and I used to often go in high school for chili dogs on our way to the Washington Square mall in Tigard. Newberg was always McMinnville's arch rival, but I guess they had us beat on hot dog cuisine, because Reese was also exceptionally fond of the Coney Island foot-longs at the Newberg Dairy Queen down the street; come to think of it, I wish I'd photographed those places too.
After heading out into the country towards Carlton and Lafayette, my next set of shots came under duress. I'd pulled my car over to the side of the road and put the hazard lights on, but two guys in a gigantic extra-cab Dodge pickup pulling a horse trailer slowed down as if there had been an accident, and then shouted something obscene as they drove by. Lovely to mix with the local folk, isn't it? I had a great time taking the photos, though.
Downtown McMinnville was a lot busier than usual. Third Street (the town's main street) was closed for Turkey Rama, the annual three-day street fair and festival. As a kid, I had Turkey Rama circled on my calendar every year along with my birthday and Christmas. It was almost agonizing waiting, but when it finally arrived, I'd head first for the Walnut City Lions Club trailer, where they sold the best burgers. Later, I'd head to the McMinnville Jaycees for the best pronto pups, crispy and hot with a dab of mustard. That was only a warmup, however, for the Captain Funtastic carnival rides. The Scrambler and The Spider and the ferris wheel were the same here as anywhere else, but to the pint-size me they were top-drawer entertainment.
But Turkey Rama (which, incidentally, was named to honor the turkey farms dotting the agricultural landscape here, before they were largely replaced by vineyards) has changed over the years. It's arguably cleaned up a bit, but a lot of it seems pretty boring, like the local businesses (insurance, the steel mill) distributing brochures at little booths. There are still food stands, but they're just the garden-variety traveling ones that come with the carnival. I can tell they're not the real deal because they call pronto pups 'corn dogs'. The last thing I remember seeing was a local girls' dance troupe doing their act to Barry Manilow's "Copacabana".
Not eating at Turkey Rama worked out for the best, though, at least in terms of my lunch, because I'd come to eat at The Sage anyway. I love how so little has changed about this place over the years: the wheat bread, the soups, the antique wood tables, the weak coffee. Then there's the employees, some of whom have been there over two decades. Shirley, the dishwasher who still washes everything by hand without any automatic dishwasher equipment, has now been working in the steamy, cramped back room of the Sage kitchen for 28 years. Without any molecule of patronization, we've always found her longevity to be nothing short of astonishing. And Shirley never complains or seeks advancement. I struggled to do her job as a teen for a week or two in the summer, scrubbing giant soup pots with cream of broccoli soup burnt to the bottom, hundreds of pieces of silverware and glasses and plates and bowls; she's done it for four-fifths of my life.
A great benefit of being the boss's son is you can just waltz into the kitchen and make a sandwich. I always make virtually the same thing: a turkey sandwich with cheese, avocado and lettuce, butter on the bottom and mayo on top. I also managed to sneak across the street to Union Block Coffee for four peanut butter bars to take home. "Are these all for you?" the woman at the counter asked? Uh-huh. My idea was to have one or two each day, but I wound up having three last night.
Before heading back to Portland, I spent some time over at my parents' house going through boxes of stuff in my old bedroom. Three of the seven boxes I loaded into the car to take home were full of newspapers I'd saved during big world events like the fall of the Soviet Union and various presidential elections. Jokingly, I handed to my dad a New York Times front page about the end of Gulf War I. "BUSH DECLARES VICTORY", it reads, referring to our current president's father. "IRAQIS CRUSHED" As I handed the paper to my dad (a Republican, unlike me) I said, "Remember the good old days?" Funnily, though, both parts of the headline I quoted could be from today.
Perhaps best of all, after years of trudging along Highway 99 through the suburbs back to Portland, I also took a different route home from Newberg and may have found my new permanent path, right past Champoeg Park and onto the freeway right after the Shell station in beautiful Donald, Oregon, with which my dad shares a name.