Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Another child is wailing at our front door. I think it's a girl. She's dressed up in a very cute ballet outfit. It's very cold outside. But that's not why she's crying, nor why the sidewalk leading from out house to the street will be known forever, after tonight, as the walk of tears.
The Deke had a bright idea. She handed out the CD you see pictured rather than candy. If I'd only known.
It's a good CD. A very good CD. The Deke teaches children music. She did long-term work with the Rural Art Center in a town outside Eugene, Lorane. The children kept singing better and better and so the Deke gave them the experience of working in a recording studio and they recorded "How Can I Keep from Singing".
And, I'm sure, tonight, children up and down the streets of Eugene are saying to their parents, "Don't make me eat my Snickers, Butterfingers, Milky Way, Reece's Peanut Butter Cup, Skittles, and all the treats they got from normal Trick or Treat destinations; no, I'm sure they are saying, "Mom, put on the CD we got on Madison Street. I so love music more than candy."
You might be saying to yourself, "Raymond. You should be proud of the Deke. She is a true progressive, going against the grain of an outmoded candy-driven, greed-feeding, sugar-frenzied tradition and giving children life's true treat, music.
She couldn't sell the damn things. She can't find people to take them willingly. She gives them as Christmas gifts and family members send them back with a note: "Thank you, Deke, but we got one last year." Two weeks ago she passed them out to all her fellow future elementary school teachers in her graduate school class "Classroom Communities." So far nobody has found the time to listen.
If How Can I Keep from Singing CD's were fiberglass, we'd be insulated against an Antarctic winter.
So the Deke perpeptuates a fraud: she gives them away at Halloween and tells the children, when they stop to breathe between sobs: "Listen to every song on the CD. It will change your life." They'd rather have a tooth pulled.
Many of the children in our neighborhood did not consider the Deke to have treated them. I hear them outside. I think we are going to be tricked. Splat! Crap. Egg number 1. Splat, Splat, SplatSplatSplat Splat SplatSplat. It's freezing out. I'll have to chisel the yolks off the house.
I fully expect these kids will next donate a year's worth of toilet paper to the trees out front.
Maybe it's worth it. Sure, kids cried, the house is a mess, the yard will be next. We'd call the cops, but they'll laugh, "You put what in their bags? What'd you expect them to do to your house?" But, maybe it's worth it.
I mean, the Deke teaches kids good songs. No Barney stuff. Nothing cute. Look at the songs the kids sang on this CD. They are worth SPLAT having your house egged for.
We buttered and salted our popcorn. The Gunderson's poured maple syrup or sprinkled sugar on theirs. I once said I thought this was weird.
Mom handed me a popcorn ball.
As I grew older, it seemed like each time I got in a serious relationship or marriage, I learned new popcorn toppings. One liked parmesan cheese. Another bakers yeast. Another liked pepper. Still another liked Scrabble with popcorn. Another always wanted popcorn with Barney Miller or Soap. She'd pop popcorn for poker parties, too. The Deke's dad popped popcorn in bacon grease. Popcorn varieties made failed love worth it.
I used to think, "You know. Popcorn makes America great. It's America at its most inventive, generous, and various. " But I hadn't quite seen the whole truth.
You see, in Spokane, there was the Viking Tavern. Before there were microbrews and 87 varieties on tap, and before it moved, the Viking Tavern sat near 6th and Washington, downhill from the Sacred Heart Hospital and on the way home for a lot of nurses getting off work. In late 1983 and early 1984, I lived a block west of the Viking at 6th and Stevens. Too often, I stumbled into the Viking for freezing schooners or pitchers of Bud and all the popcorn a person could eat. The Viking was my idea of tavern heaven: more than the nurses, more than the food, more than the happy hour, and more than the Viking's passable food menu, I loved the popcorn.
And I wasn't alone. I'll never forget one Friday night Dave and I went into the Viking and it was SRO and men and women were standing around, cold beer in one hand, plastic basket of popcorn in the other, raising the popcorn to their mouths, eating no hands, as if it were a popcorn trough. Man, I thought, not even in Kellogg is a bar this good, and then my life-long affection for the old Viking was secured forever when I heard the best, the most heartfelt, the most impassioned, most inspired proclamation of patriotism ever: he had a pitcher of Bud in each hand, surrounded by friends, conversation had to be yelled, when suddenly he arched his back, raised the pitchers shoulder high, and crowed: "You can't drink like this in Russia!"
Fuckin' A. I nearly cried. I mean, I'm as multi-cultural, anti-xenophobic, pro-UN as the next guy. I love America, and to have a $2.50 pitcher of Bud in each hand, stand on a worn down carpet crunchy with popcorn husks, raise your voice above the din of Gonzaga drop-outs, bed pan weary CNA's, foot weary RN's, and victory-starved Lewis and Clark High School booster clubbers and declare such a brazen love for such a star-spangled truth immediately elevated this guy to the status of folk hero.
For years, if Dave and I were in each other's company and if our conversation got steered toward complaints about our country, one of us, at just the right moment, would take our beer, hold it up, look the other in the eye and say, "Yeah, maybe we should leave Granata alone/finance national health insurance/cut down on our consumption of Arabian oil/etc.etc.....but you know what?"
"You can't drink like this in Russia."
Sunday, October 29, 2006
My Oregon State University stepson is in town, but spent the night at a Halloween party in Portland and is conked out elsewhere. My Eugene stepdaughter has moved out of our house. She's working this morning. The phone has rung twice, but no big deal. I have only spoken face to face with two human beings this weekend: one was an election canvasser who I got rid of by saying right away I was voting for his candidate. I would have said that no matter whose button he was wearing. The second human I talked to was my stepdaughter, working at Starbuck's.
This is a perfect weekend. I can write, read blogs, lie down and nap, run to the window and see which group of loud-mouthed, disaffected youth is walking by the house this time, watch my next-door neighbor in his head to toe camaflogue hunting outfit and rifle case return home from the hunt, and no one asks me what I'm looking at or what I'm doing.
I'm not a misanthrope. I enjoy people. In small doses. Anymore, my mind is so occupied with poems, stories, memories, teaching ideas, the state of my marriage, my health, finances, songs, more memories, well, I just want to be alone and let my mental stew simmer.
Right now the dogs are quiet. The cat is at peace. The refrigerator runs quietly. The fan in my laptop kicks up every so often. I can hear the water on the street whining under under tires as cars pass.
I think about Kellogg and how quiet it has become. I visit my mother. I sit in her back yard, overwhelmed by the variety of flowers and vegetables in her SmelterSmoke-free garden. And it's quiet.
Growing up, it wasn't quiet in Kellogg. Prosperity is noisy. Trains clanged in and out of Kellogg at all hours, straining under the weight of ore, their arrival and departure announced with a horn sound like a ferry boat, the rails squealing as the trains stopped and started. The Lead Smelter, Zinc Plant, and mine mill operated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Going down West McKinley Avenue in Kellogg, to where City Hall and the police station have now moved, the silence is almost eerie. I used to ride my bicycle out there and listen to the mine mill dynamos pound pound pound like the heart beat of a whale and that sound echoed throughout town, depending on the wind.
Walking through town now is eerily quiet, too. Miners with money drink. When Kellogg was booming, the sounds of juke box music, some live music, underground card games, laughter, arguments, clinking glasses, beer bottles being popped open, and back slapping comraderie poured out of the bars. Pay day was Friday. Fridays were festive. Bars had beer busts. The Sunshine Inn had a Friday night Fish Feed. Card games thrived.
No wonder I long for quiet. The first day I went to work in the Zinc Plant, the din shocked me. Men beating zinc-covered cathodes with chisels to strip the zinc. Fork lifts honking, dragging their forks along the cement floor, picking up pallettes of zinc. Men pounding crooked cathodes with mallets to straighten them out. Men yelling conversations. Huge firey furnaces whooshed with heat, ravenously eating the zinc the strippers had stripped and stacked.
I know that Kellogg was economically much better off when it was a noisy town. I relish how quiet it is now, maybe selfishly. And maybe it's selfish when the Deke goes away to teach the ukulele that I relish the quiet of being home alone. The fact is: I enjoy being home alone. I like people. But, in small doses.
*The plot thickens as Learning the Argentine Tango prepares for her trip to Argentina. I read her blog daily. It's become like a novel for me.
*Likewise, I daily read this blogging husband and wife. None of us outsiders know what's troubling Student of Life and Rapid Eye Reality. But as they sort things out, Student reflects upon her life and Rapid Eye takes us inside LEAF (Lake Eden Arts Festival) here and here in North Carolina and, in a wonderful video (scroll down), plays lovely guitar accompaniment to his little boy at the pumpkin patch. Rapid Eye loves poker. Read all about it!
*If you read my piece on Bar Fights, it's a minor league account in comparison to this fight recorded in Making Flippy Floppy.
*I'm always trying to sort out my Libertarian leanings as a Democrat. Bill Kauffman helps me and he is interviewed in a five-part 2blowhards feature: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five.
I highly recommend checking out 2blowhards daily. They write about and view everything from Tom Jones to remapping the USA, and a whole lot inbetween.
*George W. is trying to figure out a good war slogan at The Dubya Blog.
*Robotic Young Republicans bother Daniel McCarthy at American Conservative.
*It might require more effort than you want, but jbelle shares her no longer secret recipe for meatloaf, the king of comfort foods.
* Do you hear/read words like "woot" or "meh" that you don't know what they mean? Urbandictionary.com will help you keep current.
* I go to Rocketboom's vlog every day to see what Joanne Colan is up to, what she's wearing, what her hair looks like, and, well, whether she's wearing make-up (I always hope she's not). I wouldn't call it a crush. I simply find her lovely and fetching and very interesting.
*Every day, Clare lists and describes Three Beautiful Things from her day. It's an intelligent, insightful approach to blogging. And hopeful....and worth a try.
*Lastly, if you've been wondering, as I always do, what's going on in North Idaho and Eastern Washington, visit Huckleberries Online. You can discuss stuff, too, in this blog's always lively comments feature.
Saturday, October 28, 2006
This picture epitomizes what I remember most about my dad and what his friends in Kellogg are referring to when they see me and say, "Jesus Christ, I sure miss old Pert, that son of a bitch." I guess you can tell: son of a bitch is used as a term of high praise in Kellogg, as well as a way to demean some one. I never heard any one call my dad a son of a bitch in a mean way. It was always with affection.
I think I took the phrase "you'll go far" too literally. I think it meant that if I was going to succeed in the world, I had to go far away from Kellogg in order to do it. I learned this idea about the American idea of "going far" from Bill Kauffman. Kauffman has made me think a lot about this and, for now, I'm thinking about it this way, in relation to my dad:
When I was younger, I was guilty of throwing out the dishes with the dish water when I took my family's and community's advice and left Kellogg. I thought to leave Kellogg meant that I should leave behind all that Kellogg stood for to me. Chief among those things, for me, was what I perceived to be strong anti-intellectual strain.
Let me digress. I don't know if you've ever been bitten by the life of the mind bug, but its bite is very intoxicating. It's not like alcohol because it doesn't depress your functions. No. It's more like speed or cocaine, more like meth. The intellectual bug makes the world seem vivid, alive with new color, new light, new ways of doing things. It can be a born again experience to be converted to the life of the mind. This is the way I experienced it.
And, although I may not have said it outwardly, inwardly I felt, at one time, that Kellogg was an inferior place, lacking in sophistication and intellectual life. I had put on the blinders of book learning.
The blinders started to fall quite a bit when I came back to Kellogg for my 20th high school reunion, one of the best three days of my life. As I had the chance to talk with my classmates and as my dad and I hosted some of the boys in the back yard, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze, I felt this deep tie between me and my old friends. The tie wasn't intellectual or political. Far from it. It was a tie that had to do with decency, a way of seeing the world, a way of talking, a way of helping out others. I hadn't felt so good about my life, ever, as I did at that reunion and I began to realize that what I felt good about was rooted in Kellogg and rooted in my dad, the force in our family who kept us in Kellogg.
I had quit drinking in January 1985. I was deep into a long stretch of abstinence from alcohol at this reunion. I had a condescending and patronizing attitude toward alcohol. It wasn't so bad in relation to my peers, but was worse toward my dad and his friends. I so bought into the idea that to amount to anything you had to leave Kellogg, that I had lumped my dad and his friends together and looked at them with about four parts snootiness for every six parts of enjoyment.
I just didn't understand my dad. I didn't understand what all those days and nights drinking with men had come to mean. I saw my dad as having pissed away his life. He'd stayed in Kellogg. He'd stayed at the Bunker Hill. He lacked ambition. He hadn't gone far.
Then he got liver cancer. Mom called me in early May to say had only a month to live. I was able to make arrangments at Lane Community College and take a leave without pay. I came home.
Then my eyes were opened. Friend after friend, drinking friend after drinking friend, golf buddy after golf buddy, fellow sports fan after sports fan filed in our house and reached out to him in his dying days. I got it. Those days and nights of drinking, working hard at the Bunker Hill, bowling in league, and telling tall tales, watching football and baseball games, rooting hard against the Cougars and Notre Dame, drinking more, they hadn't been what some head up his ass 18th century moralist might have called idle recreation. I could see in the way these men comforted my dad and in the way his friends filled the church for his funeral and I see now in the reverent look his friends have on their face when they tell me they miss the old son of a bitch, that those days and nights were about making life-long friends. You can't have those if you go far. You've got to stay home.
That big open laugh you see on my dad's face in the picture above? It's because he's home. He's in our back yard. I'm not sure what is the occasion. It might just be having a few Heidelbergs or grilling some steaks. Sometimes I think this picture was taken the day of one of my two sister's wedding. I don't know. But it's a picture that could be captioned, "He didn't go far."
Nope. He stayed home. He enjoyed every benefit of not going far. That's why he looks so full of joy in this picture.
Happy 76th, Pert, you old son of a bitch.
Friday, October 27, 2006
When I was a college freshman at North Idaho College, my drinking habit interfered with my English Composition class, taught by Annette Bignall. Mrs. Bignall was the most striking, imposing figure this nervous, unsure kid from Kellogg (pictured above) had ever seen. Granted, it's been thirty-five years since I've seen Annette Bignall. I hope my memory of her is accurate: a shock of red hair, not straight, not curly, not messy, but not tightly controlled, flairing, as if she were the subject of Herrick's "Delight in Disorder"; her gait was purposeful, head high, high heels tapping, back straight. To my young mind, she seemed more French than American. I would imagine her walking imperially down the Champs Elysees, observant and impervious, impatiently making her way to a museum or to meet a fellow intellectual at a Parisian cafe.
Mrs. Bignall's mere presence triggered my imagination.
It was if an emissary from another land was teaching me English. I loved her. After a successful first semester in her fall English class, I reupped for the spring.
My second semester at North Idaho College started in late January of 1973. I lived at home in Kellogg the fall semester. The commuting got old and so two other guys and I moved into a motel kitchenette at the far end of East Sherman Avenue, near the Cove Bowl. Because the Idaho legal drinking age was nineteen, I could go to bars. Some late afternoons my mind would race. I'd feel tortured by my romantic failures or I'd revisit high school basketball failures or I'd want to think about poetry I was reading in American Lit. I walked. And drank. On these nights, I started drinking at the Steinhaus, near where I lived. I drank a beer or two, listened to the Moody Blues sing, "I'm Just a Singer (in a Rock 'n Roll Band)" and maybe have a hot ham and cheese sandwich on rye. I walked a few blocks west to Primo's Pizza, which became hooked up with the Blue Tooth Saloon. If I started walking and drinking early enough, I could get quarter schooners during Primo's generous Happy Hour. I went to Rathskeller's. I sucked on some gin or a ditch at the Iron Horse. I veered right to The Lakers.
By now it was about nine o'clock or so. I knew Rob and Bruce were home. I walked to their place, at the Cockroach Castle, and if Bruce's van, The Purple Pig, was parked nearby I knew I was in for an evening of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, National Lampoon, refrigerated Marlboro cigarettes, and more cold beer. Sometimes Duke and Sluggo and Liz came by. Sometimes I'd dig out Bruce's U.S. History book and we'd study for the next George (Rufus) Cook exam. Mostly, Rob and Bruce told stories about their failures at Walla Walla College and we drank, smoked, talked ideas, listened to progressive rock, and eventually passed out.
Consequently, I always fell behind in Mrs. Bignall's class. I never quite had short stories by Joseph Conrad or Herman Melville or Shirley Jackson read on time; I skipped class, hungover; I attended class, hungover, my eyes coin slots, dim vermillion cracks. After spring break, much of our emphasis in the course was a research paper. Being from the Silver Valley, known nationally for its whorehouses, I decided to do a paper on legalized prostitution. Mrs. Bignall got right behind my project. She recommended books, helped me find articles in the National Observer and the Rocky Mountain Observer. She helped arrange an interview with her husband, attorney Bliss Bignall. I couldn't believe how generous she was.
I couldn't believe how generous she was because I always thought she should have kicked me to the curb. Time after time, I'd be late with papers. I'd come to her office after missing class. I was wearing the clothes I'd passed out in. They reeked of cigarettes and stale yeast. My teeth were unbrushed. But always, always, each and every time she welcomed me into her office, took my work seriously, answered my questions, and never penalized me.
I know now that this must have been very difficult for Mrs. Bignall. For reasons I know nothing about, she would be fired from NIC at the end of the 1972-73 school year. I should have known something was up. The enrollment in our English class was very low. I think students were avoiding her classes. She was tough. She demanded good writing. I liked that, even while I skipped her class and handed in late papers. But, what ever bitterness she might have felt about what ever pressure she was under, I cannot remember it ever coming into the classroom (unless I was absent) or into our conversations.
Here's what I think: I think Mrs. Bignall knew that I didn't need to kicked to the curb. I think she knew I needed to get some heavy nineteen year old drinking out of my system. I think she knew that I needed grace. By accepting my late papers, welcoming me hungover and reeking into her office, by aiding me in my lame research project about prostitution, and by giving a second, third, fourth, fifth, and probably a fourteenth chance to succeed, Mrs. Bignall helped keep me in school. I didn't need punishment for my academic sins. I needed forgiveness.
Mrs. Bignall never got to read my best work. It came my next year at NIC when I buckled down, stayed sober during the school week (most of the time) and poured myself into my studies. But, Mrs. Bignall treated me with trust. She believed in me. She never told me that, but I know now. Her belief in me got me through my drunken spring semester. I've never forgotten her tough love: tough on my writing, but forgiving of my behavior.
Every day in my work at Lane Community College I see my nineteen year old self in many of my students. I do my very best to be for them, what Mrs. Bignall was for me: a teacher strong enough to know that despite the fact the student is being stupid, sometimes it's giving a student a sixth or seventh or fourteenth chance to succeed makes all the difference.
I was a pre-teenager when my dad came home early one night from tending bar at the Sunshine Inn in Kellogg. His white shirt was torn down the front, buttonless, ripped open, his chest red with scratches. My mother was aghast.
"I threw Jack out of the joint."
"I said something. Pissed him off. He reached across the bar. Grabbed me." He pointed to his torn shirt. "Pulled me toward him. Ripped my shirt. I came around the bar. Picked him up and threw his ass out the door."
"Did you call the police?"
"No. Shit. Jack's my friend."
Jack was my dad's friend since childhood. Dad was the best man in Jack's wedding. Only being away in Korea kept Jack from being my dad's best man. Jack had a short fuse. Dad lit it that night. The two didn't speak for a while. One night later Jack got thrown drunk in jail. Dad bailed him out. They were speaking again.
The Kopper Keg was where many of my friends and I drank beer and wine flips when we turned nineteen. Nineteen was the legal drinking age back in Idaho in 1972. I should italicize legal. Plenty of Silver Valley bars served and sold beer if a guy could see over the bar. The Kopper Keg was loud with young men laughing, shouting stories, picking up girls, playing air hockey and foosball and pool, and feeding the jukebox with quarters to play Charlie Rich, Charlie Daniels, Ray Charles, and sometimes some Crocodile Rock. Most of the guys in the bar were going to different colleges...North Idaho College, Spokane Falls, University of Idaho... many were home on weekends to work at the Smelter or the Zinc Plant and some were in the armed forces, home on leave occasionally. The Kopper Keg often had the air of reunion.
On night, in July, Lennie Curry was in the Kopper Keg. He was born the day before I was. We rode bikes and went to each other's house when we were grade schoolers, but went our separate ways in junior high and high school and he went into the army and became an MP. He and Jim Bachmeir and some other guys and I were talking. We could see that Bob Wintermute was in the bar. Normally, he tended bar. Not tonight. He was just getting loaded, all two hundred fifty pounds or more of him, sporting his new toupee, talking cocky.
Bob was one of those Kellogg guys that no one quite knew where he came from or where he'd been. He showed up. He drove a huge car. He got in with Lloyd Finley, one of the Kopper Keg owners, meaning he liked to gamble and deal illegal blackjack in the back room at the Kopper Keg. He was a good guy to have deal cards and pour beer. He was menacing.
Bob came over to us, standing near the end of the bar, and suddenly said something like, "You little son of a bitch" and clubbed Lennie across the chin, lifting him off his feet, knocking him flat on the floor. But, it was like the floor had springs. Lennie was right on his feet and punched Bob back. Cooler heads intervened, separated the combatants, and prevailed. We all went back to drinking. Bob went back to the bar. Lennie cursed him. We all went back to drinking.
It was March, 1980. I was new to Eugene. I'd been looking for a bar that I could feel at home in and found one in North Eugene, up River Road. I don't remember its name. Now it's a strip joint: the Alaska Bush Company.
Final exams were over. I went to a Kentucky/Oregon women's tournament basketball game. Oregon won. I decided to go up River Road and have a few beers. I settled in at the bar. Two mill workers to my left were playing a dice game for beers. It was pay day. They'd been in there since day shift ended, about five or six hours earlier. Soon two couples came in, two guys in their late forties or early fifties. All four were dressed in the Oregon Ducks' colors, green and yellow.
The mill workers were getting agitated with each other. They disputed who won their last dice game. They started getting very profane. One of the newly arrived Duck fans told the mill workers to cool it. The mill workers ignored him. The Duck fan got louder, saying there were ladies in the house and he wanted them to clean up their mouths. They ignored him. Behind the bar, one of the employees was on the telephone talking to her boyfriend. The young guy tending the bar sense trouble. Especially when the two beefy husband Duck fans got up from their table and got in the mill workers' faces, telling them to cool it. In a second, the millworkers were off their stools, started punching the beefy Duck fans and a wrestling match ensued, two tables tipping over, glasses of beer flying, and the bartender yelling, "Stop! Stop you guys! I've called the police!"
I watched. I figured the bartender was bluffing about the cops. The gal behind the bar had been on the phone the whole time, even giving her boyfriend a blow by blow account. Things cooled down. The millworkers got up and left. The beefy Duck fans set the tables and chairs back up and things were quiet.
Until, the doors blasted open and a swat team of Eugene police with clubs and weapons blasted into the bar, ready for action. They were armed and ready for nothing. The swat team chief approached the bartender.
"We got a call."
"It's over" the bartender replied.
"Over? You pushed the silent alarm. That alarm alerts us to an armed robbery in place. We have the road out there blocked both ways."
"Oh, shit. No, we just had a bar fight here."
"It's over. Didn't last long."
"Son." The swat team's chief's voice was very low. "Don't ever push that silent alarm again unless you are in dire trouble here."
By now the swat teams' adrenaline had slowed down considerably.
"You don't even want to know how much this operation cost the city."
The police left.
I went to pee. A guy came in and occupied the urinal next to mine.
"You come here often?"
"No," I said. "This is just my second time."
"It's not usually this exciting."
"Oh. Well, good."
We both went back and drank our beers.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Like I said, I like Mongolian movies as much as the next guy. I have nights, when to take my mind off of the next strategic plan to fundamentally redesign the college through a shared-decision making process sensitive to the voiced needs of all stakeholders so that streamlined institutional agility can be balanced with global deliberation so we can boldly confront the millineal challenges in the future that lies ahead, I watch Paul Pena (pictured), the blind blues guitarist and writer of the Steve Miller song "Jet Airliner" go to Tuva, just north of Mongolia, to throat sing in the movie"Ghengis Blues"
I'm the first to admit it. I got caught up in Mongolian Madness. I bought the DVD of "The Story of the Weeping Camel." I think of Paul Pena every time I hear Steve Miller.
But enough is enough. I swear, I know why Neil Diamond doesn't get booked in Eugene. He can't get booked ahead of the Throat Singers. It would be one thing if Throat Singing had stayed in Mongolia. But it's worse than blogging. Every one is Throat Singing. Inuits throat sing. Bulgarians. Laplanders. There are throatsingers in India, Sardinia, and Quebec. And they all perform in Eugene. Everywhere.
Sometimes I'd like to just go down to the Hilton's lobby bar and listen to the house piano player pluck out "The Way You Look Tonight." Can't. The Eugene Throat Singers of Peace are performing. Throat singers perform at the University. They come to the Hult Center, our largest performing hall. They come to a smaller venue, The Shedd. I expect that next the Harlem Boys Throat Singers will be formed along with the Mormon Tabernacle Throat Singers.
Just last night, I turned on the radio. I just wanted to hear some classical music. Couldn't. More Throat Singing.
I love it, but Mongolian Cinema has been the bane of my existence. It's become like the Cane Toad in Australia, choking out all the native species of music and song. I'm afraid that I won't be able to go to the Chinook Winds Casino and hear Wynnona Judd, or count on Paul Revere and the Raiders playing next years Lane County Fair, or trust that I can see Wayne Newton if I go to Vegas: I'm afraid they'll all be squeezed out by bloody Throat Singers.
It's why I need to move back to North Idaho. I need to go back to where I can call up a good friend, go down to the Happy Landing or InCahoots and count on singing some Aerosmith on karaoke night or listening to a bar band do Merle Haggard covers or just be able to play a set of Styx and ABBA and Asia on the jukebox.
I pray that North Idaho never falls prey to this Throat Singing fad. I pray I can look to North Idaho for sanity in a world that just can't leave a fad alone.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
I work in a world of thinkers, readers, and writers. I can stroll out my office door any time of the day and, within minutes, drum up a conversation about Iranian films, English Romantic Poetry, working class poetry and fiction, the films of Frederick Wiseman, the historical underpinnings of Shakespeare's Richard II; I work with feminists, post-structuralists, post-modernists, post-colonialists, specialists in ethnic literature and studies, speech communication experts, a magician, a gypsy moth trapper, photographers, experts in computers, Spanish, French, Native American languages.
I can walk less than 150 feet and find colleagues conversant in folk music, jazz, the Gateful Dead, the arcane minutiae of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball, the labor wars of Harlan County, KY, dog training and care, not to mention rhetoric, James Joyce, the films of Jane Campion, the novels of Willa Cather, parapsychology, the latest thoughts of Pope Benedict XVI, and the latest in urban tales, Sara Silverstein jokes, and the growth of the LDS Church in East Asia.
All of this, and what do I long for? Just one appearance in Eugene by Neil Diamond.
I want someone to come in my office and listen to a three song set of Journey and talk about how their world consciousness in 1981-82 was shaped by "Don't Stop Believin'".
I feel guilty because I love Elton John. I mean I like to hear the Grateful Dead's 6/23/90 Autzen Stadium Eyes of the World -->Looks Like Rain --> Crazy Fingers -->Playin' in the Band-->Uncle John's Band-->Playin' Reprise set after the break while light thunder from the Oregon Coast Range rolled by as much as the next not quite a Deadhead does, but if you want to give me goose bumps and a sentimental gaze, play "Candle in the Wind.
I am stirredby .45 Special and Scooter Jennings' Fourth of July and Shannon Lawson's Bad, Bad, Bad and everything I've heard by Big and Rich.
To get myself in the mood to play the role of Antonio last spring in our college's production of Much Ado About Nothing, I didn't go off by myself before the curtain lifted and listen to Vivaldi or Bach or Beverly Sills, I loaded my MP3 player with Guns and Roses, Patti Smith, and Supertramp.
It bugs my wife that I call my enjoyment of Barry Manilow a guilty pleasure. She wonders why I would feel guilt over something I really enjoy, like Taco Bell Chalupa Supremes or the Electric Light Orchestra or compulsively playing the Boot Scootin' slot machine at the Three Rivers Casino in Florence.
It's got to be John Calvin's fault. The guilt has to be connected to the fact that when I was in my mid-twenties I decided not to go to seminary, not to serve the church as a minister. Instead, I decided to study literature and in my mind I made academic studies holy. It's a classic case of displacement and compensation.
Consequently, I started to feel answerable to the arbiters of "high culture" in much the same way I feel answerable, in my moral and spiritual life, to God. In my mind, teaching the liberal arts became a priesthood. To remain true to the faith, I needed to give my time over to art, literature, classical music, and other such things. I did. And I loved it.
The problem, though, was I started to regard the more "common" pleasures of my life as sinful in a liberal arts, high criticism sort of way.
It's really a screwed up way to experience things.
So, tonight, with the blogosphere as my witness, once and for all, I hereby expunge the words "guilty pleasure" as a phrase I use to speak or think about myself. I will continue to study and enjoy 20th century Israeli and Palestenian poetry, but I won't stop enjoying Billy Collins and Phil Collins. I am not a priest. I am not a cultural sinner.
I'm just easy to please.
"Hey, Debbie! Is the stereo too loud? Should I turn down 'Weekend in New England'?"
I'm starting to think I have the perfect marriage. Each evening, I come home, take out my laptop, set up camp on our kitchen counter, and start blogging. My wife goes in the living room and puts another CSI Miami DVD in the player and absorbs another series of cases built around this ethic: "I'm Horatio Caine, and this much I know. At CSI Miami we never close." I know they never close. Or at least they never get fooled. Every forty minutes or so, while I peck away and remember stories, I hear the Who blasting out their revolutionary anthem, "Won't Get Fooled Again," and I know another CSI Miami is underway and I hear words like "semen" "laceration" and "swab the wooden handle of the pick-ax for trace" waft into the kitchen.
My wife quit drinking. So did I. I had to, once and for all, because of medications I take for psychological and physical ailments. Alcohol and these medications mix in subversive ways that rob me of my dignity and erode my wisdom if I drink. Wine became poison for my wife. It started to make her sick. So, instead of drinking wine in the evening, she knits and watches CSI Miami. I write. And read others' writing.
I haven't watched even a minute of CSI anything. But, having CSI Miami come to a conclusion and restart through the evening brings me a sublime pleasure, thanks to the Who. When I was a junior at Whitworth College, I took my first Shakespeare course. My love for poetry and fiction and drama had been awakened the school year before at North Idaho College, but I didn't know Shakespeare' s plays or anything about their impact.
I had no idea that Shakespeare dramatized the most essential conflicts of the human soul. I had no idea that his plays would bring me into stories of moral complexity, mystery, and human mayhem beyond my capability to imagine any one exploring human life this deeply and fully. I began to dream in iambic pentameter. I would listen to speakers at Whitworth and I'd hear the stressed and unstressed syllables in the cadence of their speech.
I read the King Lear heath scene for the first time while riding a Greyhound bus home for Thanksgiving and felt, underneath the tiny beam of the overhead reading light, suffused with the banana odor Greyhound used to fruit up the chemical toilet smell, that I had been transported out of the secure world I thought I knew into an unhinged world, stripping me to examine what I thought my life's foundation was, even as the proud King Lear strips himself of the last remnants of his kingly garments, and faces the pelting rain of the fierce tempest, freezing his naked body, but kindling the fires of his compassion, the fellow feeling that had been all but dead in him as a King.
I'd been through my own heath scene just fifteen months earlier. I fell to the bottom of a flash roaster in the Zinc Plant. I was gassed by sulfur dioxide and heavy metal dust. I lay down to die. I imagined the story of my death on the front page (how audacious) of the Kellogg Evening News. Lying down to die saved my life. I got under the poison. This accident turned my world upside down. I'm still trying to figure it out. But joining King Lear in that storm on that Greyhound bus took me more deeply into what that accident had meant and how stripped I had been of assumptions I'd had of life being a secure and predictable undertaking.
My brush with death was making Shakespeare rock for me, but near death wasn't going to help me much with Dr. Dean Ebner's final exam in the course. I had to get Shakespeare's work inside me in a different way for a grade. Somehow, I discovered that if I put headphones on, punched the recent Who 8-track *Who's Next* into my roomate's eight track, that that drive of Pete Townshend's knifing power chords, the orgasmic wail of Roger Daltry, and the manic edge of chaos drumming of Keith Moon meshed with the Elizabethan momentum of Shakespeare.
I loved the intensity of it. I built a stack of my Signet paperback Shakespeare editions, punched in Who's Nest, opened my notes, and got lost in the throb of rock 'n blank verse. I nearly cried at my desk as I reread Othello's suicide speech, Macbeth's last despondent soliloquy, Prospero's homage to grace and forgiveness, and King Lear's unbearable howling as he carries his dead daughter Cordelia after she's been hanged. And, somehow, the one pile driver song that drove Shakespeare into my deep guts the strongest was "Won't Get Fooled Again."
I'm going to try to figure this out. I'm clicking on my Napster icon and I'm going to let "Won't Get Fooled Again" hammer its way back into my life through my new Best Buy DJ Headphones and see if I have anything to say: What was the magic of "Won't Get Fooled Again" and Shakespeare and why does hearing it pound into the kitchen from the living room, always excite in me those days in my South Warren dorm room studying Shakespeare and feeling the course of my life taking a hard turn in a direction I never could have imagined?
Click. Click. Here goes: Oh yes. The epic. "Won't Get Fooled Again" is epic in its sweep. It begins with that watery tide of syntesizer rising to Townshend throttling power chords...it's those power chords....I could feel the power of Shakespeare's meter in those power chords. In the same way that Pete Townshend crashes and sustains the impulse for change and revolution into this song with his insistent, defiant power rhythms, the unrelenting meter of Shakespeare's poetry was pounding his sense of urgency, his sense of a revolution in language and theater into my inner most self, and the two were married, even as they still are as I listen to "Won't Get Fooled Again" thirty-two years later. The drive, the discord, the wailing, the dark danger, the sense of temporary triumph, the irony of not getting fooled again: of course we will, but the urgency of fighting complacency, of living on the edge of a new world drives the Who in a way I found so completely congruent with how Shakespeare was revolutionizing my perceptions of the world and my experience with language, that I began to feel that with Shakespeare's help, I would never get fooled again.
Ha! If only.
Sunday, October 22, 2006
I was fascinated with matches and we kept boxes of wooden matches in the basement and they were especially fascinating because I could strike them against the basement’s concrete walls, the concrete floor, my zipper, and any other rough surface and they would burst, like a shooting star, into flame, emitting a sweet sulphur smell. For weeks, when I would go to the basement to shovel coal into the stoker and claw cinders out of the furnace, I was satisfied to experiment with different surfaces to see if striking it would ignite the match. I tried the faces of different dolls, the side of a white toy fire truck, cardboard boxes, the tops and sides of Nalley’s chili con carne cans, canning jar lids, the embossed “Ball” on canning jars, cedar and pine scraps, the side of the utility sink, the washing machine control dial, the furnace door, and countless other surfaces, teaching myself match lighting as if it were an art. For weeks, I was satisfied to light single matches, but then I became fascinated with multiple matches, two at a time, three at time, working my way to a fistful at a time, in awe of the flash of indigo, scarlet, white, and yellow, as if holding the sun.
I learned one evening, though, in November of 1963, that pride does precede the fall. I crossed over from being pleased with lighting matches to quenching my thirst to light things. Mom had a cotton stringed floor mop in the basement and I leaned it against the wall and lit the white stringy tendrils. In a flash of flame that turned fascination into panic, smoke and stench billowed around the basement and I hustled the fire into the utility sink, trembled open the tap, and killed the fire. No further harm ensued.
Dad was out that night, most likely bowling. I crept up the basement stairs. Mom was on the sofa, grading schoolwork or studying for her night class or watching “Bewitched”, and I confessed, ashamed of the pall of fear that blanched Mom’s face. After going down to the sink to survey the crisped mop strings and opening doors to air out the house, Mom held me and told me about the infamous Kellogg boy, Paul Matovich, who had had a fascination with fire and several years earlier had burned Gault Hall and killed three students at the University of Idaho. She told me that he was a pyromaniac and an arsonist and was in prison and that I did not want to be like that.
Later, the following week, John Kennedy dead, we had a mournful Thanksgiving dinner at Jerry Turnbow’s house. Jerry took me into the master bedroom by myself and told me that he heard I was having a fire problem and to cut that shit out. He asked me if I knew about the infamous Paul Matovich burning down Gault Hall and did I want to be like that and be put in prison for arson. I told Jerry I did not want to be like that.
I did not want to frighten my mother. I did not want to anger Jerry Turnbow. I did not want to be an assassin or an arsonist. I did not want to burn down a university dormitory. I did not want to destroy with fire, but I loved the way a struck handful of matches flamed out. Something in me longed to burn.
Saturday, October 21, 2006
How intense was this hatred? Bob Turnbow, the oldest of the Cougar-hating Kellogg Turnbow brothers, was part of a Kellogg entourage about forty years ago at a basketball game at Bohler Gym. He and my dad left their seats for some pre-game rest room relief and on their return my dad suddenly saw Bob go to his knees, but continue walking.
"Jesus Christ, Bob! What the hell are you doing?"
"Goddamnit, Pert! We took too goddamn long in the pisser.... I can't stand for the Crummy Cougar goddamn fight song!"
Dad and Bob and the other members of this Silver Valley posse had tickets to see WSU play UCLA in Bohler because the Silver Valley Bogie Bread man, Mike Turner, had married UCLA assistant coach Denny Crum's mother. (Yes, that's right. Denny Crum got us Crummy Cougar tickets.) The seats were right behind the UCLA bench. I got one of these tickets in 1969, Lew Alcindor's senior year, before he became Kareem. Maybe there were fifteen or twenty of us from Kellogg, the only people in Bohler rooting, and rooting hard for UCLA.
If you haven't been to Bohler Gym, it was a classic old school gym that gave the Cougars a trememdous home court advantage. Seating started just beyond the out of bound lines on the long sides of the court, and the seats rose sraight up. Then, on one of the wide sides of the gym was a balcony, packed with huge signs taunting the Cougars' opponents. My favorite in 1969 showed a black player with a huge afro and read, "Sidney Wickes, you're so bush your mother was a tree." Classic Whitman County smack. (That sign would probably be removed today by the Enforcers of Appropriateness.)
The UCLA players were seated, waiting for player introductions. I couldn't believe my fifteen year old eyes. My dad had his hand on Lew Alcindor's right rib cage. Dad was talking in his ear. I thought, "Jesus, Dad. He's been the NCAA Player of the Year two years running. His coach is freakin' John Wooden. He's learned the Wooden Pyramid of Success. What are you telling him? Be sure to screen your man off the boards? Let the game come to you? I can get you a job at the Zinc Plant? Don't be like me!? " Whatever he was saying, Alcindor maintained his expressionless gaze, chewing calmly on a wad of gum, staring straight ahead. If he needed motivation to excell against the Cougs, I don't think my dad's pep talk was having that strong of an effect.
It wasn't long that night in February of 1969 before it became obvious to the three thousand fans rising up behind us, that this Kellogg gang was rooting boisterously for UCLA. Silver Valley men stood beet-faced to challenge every call that went the Cougar's way. When Harry Missildine walked to the press table he was showered with verbal abuse: "Sit down, Pencil Head." "Hey, Muscle Head, get out of the way!" "Sober up, Harry!" "Hey, Missildine, crawl back in your hole." "What tree did you fall out of!" The verbal abuse continued toward Marv Harshman and Jud Heathcoate. At one point, Dick Costa went to the concession stand and bought an ice cream bar and handed it to the famously animated Heathecoate: "Here, cool off, coach." Reporting that Heathecoate said, "Uh, gee thanks!", Costa inspired doubled over laughter from the guys from Kellogg.
It wasn't long that night before the Silver Valley mob got just what they wanted: peppered. Ice cubes, wads of gum, popcorn containers, pop cups, all hurled down on these UCLA boosters from Kellogg. Other abuse came pouring down. The Kellogg guys loved it. They knew they had the Cougar fans right where they wanted them. They'd got their goat. "What's the score, Crummy Cougars?" "Booger the Cougars!"
UCLA won. Silver Valley Cougar baiting and hating triumphed once again. As I sign off this post, the Cougars are beating the Oregon Ducks 13-3 at halftime. I've mellowed considerably toward the Cougars since moving away from the Silver Valley. But, any time I find myself wishing the Cougars well or feeling happy that they have defeated, say Oregon State or the University of Washington or have made it to the Rose Bowl, I can't feel that happiness immediately. There is a mechanism inside me, an emotional checkpoint, created by years and years of adamant formation, the Booger the Cougars filter that that good feeling for the Cougars must pass through, before I can feel good for them. But, I have no problem being on my feet when I hear the Cougar fight song.
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In 1964, all the World Series games were still played during the day. Many, many people were more serious about the World Series than about their day jobs. My dad always called the World Series the World Serious. I think that's why.
I don't know why I didn't have school on October 15, 1964. Maybe it was one of those days when our teachers had meetings in Coeur d'Alene. Moreover, I don't know why my dad was off that day. It wasn't like him to dump a shift at work. But, maybe, in order to watch the seventh game of the 1964 World Series between the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals with me, he skipped work.
Maybe Dad felt like he owed me one.
He and I had been in a heated battle over this World Series. Dad loved the Yankees. He loved Micky Mantle. His other favorite was Yogi Berra. In 1964, Berra managed the Yankees and Mantle was in the dusk of his career.
I had gone my own way. I became a National League fan in 1962 out of heartbreak. In the 1962 World Series, when the Giants' Willie McCovey, his team down 1-0, two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Felipe Alou on third and Willie Mays on second, smashed a screaming line drive into the desperate, spearing glove of the Yankees' second baseman, Bobby Richardson, it ended the seventh game of the 1962 World Series and my love affair with the Giants began. So did my love for the National League. So did my life-long love affair with baseball bridesmaids, second place teams, perennial losers, and underdogs.
As the 1964 World Series opened, Dad and I laid down a World Serious wager. I took this bet very world seriously. It was as if my Christmas gifts or whether I'd get to play Little League or whether I could put my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Denlinger on the trading block hung in the balance. I sorely, desperately wanted to beat my dad, even if the bet was only for a quarter.
He knew this.
Dad was confident the Yankees would win. He baited me, teased me, introduced me to the world of Silver Valley smack talk. After Mickey Mantle homered in the bottom of the ninth off knuckleballer Barney Schultz to beat the Cardinals in Game 3, I picked a throw rug off the living room floor and slapped the television. Dad siezed the moment. He went to Don Rinaldi's market on Mullan Street and made a taunting poster out of butcher paper and wax marker mocking the pitching efforts of Schultz. One problem: his poster called Schultz "Willie the Knuck" instead of "Barney the Knuck" and after I quit bawling, I taunted my dad back for his error and our World Serious war momentarily melted into roaring laughter.
After Dad made me cry with this poster, I thought I'd show him how tough I was. I went to the Public Library and checked out a biography of Yogi Berra. When the Yankees won Game 6 and dad started giving me the business, I opened the book to show him I could take it. The moment got lost, though. I was crying so hard at being teased, I couldn't read the words through my tears.
"Son, come on. You don't need to do that," Dad said, an air of new respect in his voice. I was determined, though, and continued to try to read the Yogi book, my throat sore from crying.
For Game 7, Dad took me to his favorite soda fountain and bar, Joe and Henry's (later to become Dick and Floyd's). Joe and Henry's was Yankee central. Sports pictures covered the wall opposite the bar, including one of Henry posing with Joe DiMaggio when DiMaggio had spoken at a sports banquet in Coeur d' Alene or Spokane. Dick Costa, the bartender, like many of his customers, was Italian, and the Italians in Kellogg felt like blood brothers with the great Italian Yankess: DiMaggio, Rizutto, Berra, and others.
I was in the enemy's lair.
Dad asked Dick if I could watch the game in the bar. Dick went to the back of the establishment and found a wood Pepsi crate and placed in on his side of the bar below the television. I was out of sight of any policemen or liquor board inspectors who might stroll in that afternoon. I had to crane my neck to look up at the television, but I got to watch the game without sitting at the bar. Dad bought me a hot dog and all the root beer I could drink.
The battle between Dad and me died. We had such a great time watching Game 7 that when the Cardinals, behind the power pitching of Bob Gibson and the hitting of Ken Boyer and Lou Brock, built a six run lead by the fifth inning and held on to win, 7-5, the smack talk was over and we left the bar together the closest to peers we had ever been.
Our days in Joe and Henry's/Dick and Floyd's had just begun. But that day, watching Game 7, settling our bet, putting down the verbal swords and the emotional machetes, sharing the company of Dad's friends on his turf, made the 1964 World Series the most memorable of many memorable World Series to come.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Today, in Huckleberries, D. F. Oliveria, the Huckleberries' executive editor and justice of the peace, wrote the following:
This day is a defining moment in my family's history. Thirty years ago exactly, my father (Franklin Simas Oliveria) was killed in a vehicle accident that shook the foundations of our family and extended family. He was small and stocky with massive arms, built from milking cows and hauling hay, and a wonderful ability to laugh. I inherited his sense of humor. And I remembered his one word of advice as I started out into the world: "I made my living with my muscles. In the future you won't be able to do that. You'll have to make your living with your brains." I was the first of my generation to make my way through college. If he'd lived, he would have been proud that his grandkids are becoming doctors, college professors, special-needs experts, geologists and more. Not bad for a man who never graduated from the eighth grade but had the street smarts to provide for six kids and his aging parents.When my Dad had imbibed a Heidelberg or ten beyond the limits of sobriety, he sometimes wanted to talk man-to-man with me. Sometimes he came down to the basement where I was shoveling coal into our furnace's stoker. He was a heavy man and I dreaded hearing the door to the basement squeak open and the stairs strain under his weight. Dad would hold me near him. He smelled of Camel straights, Alberto VO5, stale yeast, and salami, even if he hadn't been eating salami. My dad had salami body odor.
He told me he loved me. He told me he'd swim a river of shit for me. He was a strong man. His holding me near almost suffocated me. Then he would hold me at arm's length, his eyes filmed over, and say, "Son, don't be like me."
I was about eleven or twelve years old when these talks occured. I loved my father. He taught me to play baseball. He coached our very successful IOOF Little League team. Dad worked hard at the Zinc Plant during the week and, to earn extra money, he tended bar at the Sunshine Inn on Friday and Saturday nights. Friday nights featured the fish feed. It started at five o'clock. Dad barely had time to walk in the door after his Zinc Plant shift to get on a white shirt, shave, splash on some "foo foo" and start serving beers and well drinks at the Sunshine Inn.
I knew he worked hard. I knew he drank too much beer. But I did not want him to tell me, "Don't be like me." I wanted my dad to be someone I'd be the same as, that I could emulate.
As I grew older, I began to realize that what Dad meant when he said, "Don't be like me" was "get out of Kellogg" or "don't do what I did and spend your life in the Zinc Plant". I understood this even more when I turned seventeen and went to work in the Cell Room and worked as a stripper, pulling and replacing cathodes from electrolytic cells and then stripping and stacking the zinc from these plates. Dad had told me since I was about twelve or thirteen that I had to go to work in the Cell Room so that I would never want to stay "in that shit hole" and would be motivated to, in Franklin Simas Oliveria's words, "make a living with [my] brains." It was my dad's form of revulsion therapy.
I'll never know if the revulsion therapy worked. My days working in the Zinc Plant ended when I was nineteen and nearly killed in a Flash Roaster accident. That accident meant I'd never be like my dad. I would make a living with my brains.
I would get out of the Silver Valley. I became an honor student. I graduated from North Idaho College and Whitworth College and came to the University of Oregon and studied for many years at the graduate level.
I never felt at home. The part of the equation my father never understood when he said, "Don't be like me" and the part of the equation my Kellogg teachers never understood when they said, "You've got to get out of the Valley" and the part of the equation I never understood as I pursued and achieved my dream to become a college teacher was that my body and my mind might be in Coeur d'Alene or Spokane or Eugene, but my soul is always in Kellogg.
Home is familiarity with how people think and talk, even how they greet each other. In Kellogg, language and greetings and ways of thinking were (are) often coarse, profane. And I love it. A lot of it was (is) loud, gregarious, cocky, very friendly; today pop psychologists would say we people from Kellogg had (have) "boundary issues." I didn't used to be careful about these things when I began to move and live outside of Kellogg and in academic settings or in other social situations, I would embarrass myself and so I quieted down, got more careful, and became more, God strike this next word from our language, appropriate.
When Dad said, "Don't be like me", I don't think he knew how difficult that would be. He thought what we Americans tend to think: it's a free country; we are mobile; we can dream and achieve; we can be who we are where ever we are. This American story, however, doesn't seem to take into consideration the soul and where its home might be. I'll never know if I did the right thing. Am I better off as a successful college teacher, living in a mild climate, in a place where, after living here for twenty-seven years, I've never felt at home. Or would I have been better off to stay in the Valley, where my soul feels at home, but where I couldn't have made a living with my brains in quite the way I do now? When Kellogg parents, and other parents in similar small towns, tell their children to crawl out of the crab pot and get out of this backwater burg, in many ways, it's sound advice. On the other hand, it might be advising our children to break the bond with the very ground of their being.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
My wife hadn't gone to work that Tuesday morning. She didn't want to leave me home alone. By eleven o'clock she called friends of ours to take me to the emergency room and my appearance shocked them. I was dying.
I wasn't hungover. I didn't have the flu. I had bacterial meningitis. I spent Tuesday, Wednesday, and parts of Thursday in a coma. I had moments of consciousness and didn't know where I was or who was with me. I called for my mother. I kept repeating, "I just want Christmas." Immediate antibiotic therapy when I arrived at the hospital saved my life. I came to late Thursday and was fairly coherent, though exhausted, on Friday. I survived.
This all came to mind because the Inland Northwest blog Huckleberries reported that a nineteen year old Washington State University student had been diagnosed with meningitis. I immediately prayed for him. I prayed he live and that he be spared the aftermath of meningitis: the fatigue, for years; the clinical depression, for years, often paralyzing; the headaches, for years; the kidney damage (my kidney function is at 30%, but stable); the damage to family life, the complexity of it all.
More than the news about the WSU student brought my illness to mind. I teach writing at Lane Community College here in Eugene. We are four weeks into the fall quarter and I am beginning to read my students' first major essay. I've been talking with them in individual conferences about these essays. They tell me their stories. The common theme is perseverance.
X. writes about being homeless in Salt Lake City over ten years ago and learning she was pregnant, and deciding to have the baby and stay with the baby's father, against all odds, and they are still together. They have persevered through the loss of a second baby, through uncertainty about where to live, or how to make a living. X is very proud of her strength.
So is K. K is a gay man, between forty and fifty. He's HIV positive. He is clean and sober today after a life of addiction to meth and other drugs and alcohol. He's had countless sexual partners. Last week he contracted pneumonia. It scared the hell out of him. He left his house and went to the streets to buy a bag of meth. He stopped. He got on his cell phone. He called family and friends. He stayed sober and clean. He persevered.
Y. can't make it to class every day. She suffers from the trauma of her service in an American war. In war, she was brutalized, physically and mentally. Y is brilliant. She wants to serve the church as clergy. Seizures, fatigue, psychological paralysis interfere. She insists on keeping going. She perseveres.
My deaf student listens closely to all that my students and I say in class through the precise hand and finger movements of his signer. A gay student perseveres with her three children, the demons of depression, and the memories of a meth addiction. Not one of my African-American students had a father while growing up, whether in Oregon, California, Louisiana, or Georgia. Other men stepped in to guide and help them and have helped them persevere. Each of them wants to be a positive influence on others, because they are so grateful for the men who helped them.
The great mystery of life is suffering. Job tried and tried to understand suffering. He comes to know suffering more than he knows God. Finally the voice of Yahweh tells him that suffering is beyond human understanding. It doesn't seem fair. We are born, without asking to be, into a world we didn't choose, and suffering is the bond that we all share. Suffering is attached to everything: our pleasures, our love, our professions, our eating and our drinking. Our lives become a matter of persevering and my persevering students buoy me as I realize that we are in a situation together that is about much more than academic learning. It's about perseverance.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
I don’t know exactly when Woody Doom moved to the Valley to work at the Zinc Plant. Here’s what I do know. At first, he lived somewhere in Smelterville and then moved into a trailer home in a court just west of town near a big bend in the gray North Fork of the Couer d’Alene River, the Lead Creek. He didn’t have a wife. I know he had a daughter named Lily. Lily Doom. I know she went to Silver King Elementary when she first moved to the Valley and that somehow Woody got her into the
My dad took a liking to Woody. He had him over to the house sometimes for dinner and he and Woody would drink can after can of Heidleberg beer. Woody had the Vitalis look, the Johnny Cash look, with his deep black and gray hair oiled back. I don’t know where I first met Lily. Maybe she came to the house one time or maybe Dad and I went to the trailer home to visit Woody and Lily.
All I know for sure is that Lily was one of those girls who seemed about sixteen when she was in the sixth grade. Something in her face looked older, like she knew things the rest of us didn’t, and she was more developed in the chest and the legs and in her behind than a lot of other sixth grade girls.
The last time I remember seeing Woody Doom was when I started working maintenance at the Zinc Plant in May of 1973. I remember thinking he looked a little bit high and it was early in the morning. He was chewing
“You like that shit, boy?” Woody laughed.
“Uh, yeah.” I mumbled.
“Jack Daniels. It ain’t a chew if ain’t got some Jack to keep her moist.”
I didn’t think to ask Woody that day about Lily. She’d been out of town since at least the ninth grade. She wasn’t at junior high long after she finished the eighth grade at St. Rita’s. Woody never left, but Lily did.
My last clear memory of Lily was at her trailer home. She’d called me one evening to see if I’d come to a party at her place, that I’d be the only one there from the junior high, but that she really wanted me to come. She was having some friends over from St. Rita’s and didn’t I know Denice Rinaldi and Cathy Vergobbi and Tim O’Reilly. They’d all be there. I said sure.
I was naïve. It never dawned on me before Lily let me into her trailer home that this was a boy/girl, boy/girl party. I can’t remember who was “matched” with whom, but it became pretty clear by the social arrangement that I was to be Lily’s match that night. I wore my Sunday School white shirt buttoned at the top under a maroon V-neck sweater with black slacks. My mom gave me a ride to the party and it wasn’t long before I knew I had to get out of there. I can’t remember what we all did. The trailer was cramped and the windows were fogged up from the propane heat and maybe the oven where Lily baked some frozen pizza and we sat around, ate some snacks, talked about things. I don’t know what excuse I made up, but I said I had to go and that my house wasn’t too far away. It wasn’t. I walked home.
Mom wondered why I was home so early and I said I didn’t know anyone very well and wasn’t having a very good time. She wondered if I had hurt Lily’s feelings. I hadn’t thought about that. I went upstairs to my bedroom and did what I often did on Saturday nights after going to a high school basketball game or a failed party: I played Leonard Bernstein conducting “Rhapsody in Blue.” I took off my black dress shoes, my maroon sweater, my white shirt, my black slacks, and put on my pajamas. I listened as the “Rhapsody in Blue” built to its inevitable climax, the music carrying me away so that I quit worrying about Lily Doom living in a trailer with her dad, Woody, and probably never thought, as I went to bed, that I would never see or talk with Lily Doom again.
Monday, October 16, 2006
I wonder as I look at myself stopped in time almost fifty years ago, whether I was thinking back then what I tend to think now: just leave me alone. My first memory from this time in my life is getting beat up by Mike, one of the boys I get together with at Thanksgiving time in Lincoln City. I remember thinking while he punched me, "Leave me alone." I often wanted to be alone. I used to go out behind our house where scrubby plum trees grew and I'd find rocks and I'd hold them up to my ear and see if they would speak to me. I couldn't do this with friends. I had to do it alone.
It wasn't long after this picture was printed that I started to read. No one taught me to read. One evening my mother came home from teaching school and I picked up a book and started reading aloud from it. About that time my parents invested in a World Book Encyclopedia set. I took a fascination, before I was in kindegarten, in the states and capitals. I didn't set out to memorize them, but I did. I became a little party game: ask Billy any state and he can tell you the capital. To pore over the U-V volume of the World Book, with its list of all the United States and capitals and to find each of the states on the United States map and develop a sense of geography meant time to myself. I often wanted people to just leave me alone.
I did social things. I played a lot of baseball and basketball and football and hide and seek and rode my bike with the Gunderson brothers and we tried to figure out during the height of the Cold War which houses in Kellogg the Russians would bomb first. I once told my mother that I hoped I would be dead before the Russians attacked Kellogg so I'd miss all the bombing. I think I wanted the Russians to just leave me alone.
But even as I did social things, I liked to read and I liked to go by myself and imagine whole baseball games unfolding as I threw hard crab apples softly in the air and sent them over the Lenhart's fence with my baseball bat. To me, it was a lot more fun to march through the Yankees' and Giants' lineups by myself and make the game happen in my head than it was to play out these pretend games on fields with others. I enjoyed doing it alone.
When I leave Eugene and come back to the Silver Valley I enjoy the trip alone. When I leave the suffocating dampness and claustrophic closeness of the Willamette Valley and start east along the Columbia River with the whole basin widening and widening in tans, deep purples, and barren splendor, I feel liberated. The traffic on the Columbia River is light. The landscape is open, barely inhibited by mountains or trees. I want the stretch from The Dalles to Boardman to the I-82 interchange, north to the Tri-Cities and up and down the golden hills of the Palouse into Ritzville and on to the black pines of Cheney to last forever. I am alone with the grand open spaces of eastern Oregon and Washington stretching my mind and giving my spirit room to roam.
Once I've arrived in Kellogg, I stay with my mother and visit with my sisters and see my great friends and I love the company. But almost every day I do what I did when I was a teen ager: I walk, alone (well, with my dog) up to the high school, along the ever more grassy trail behind the hospital and on toward the narrowing of Jacobs' Gulch and remember how often I would slip out of the house at night to walk up to the high school, just to be alone. Back then I'd try to sort out my failures: basketball, baseball, lost student government elections, failed romances: I'd dwell on how I wasn't measuring up to what I'd hoped I would be.
Now, I try to achieve a state when walking alone in which I'm more like the young boy you see pictured above. I try to empty my mind and take in the trail to the high school, the bear scat on the trail, Jacobs' Creek trickling below, the clean, fresh air, and shade of morning and let it work on me innocently, without the interference of my inward voice babbling. My better self turns to that babbling, gabbing, overthinking part of me and says, "Just leave me alone."
Sunday, October 15, 2006
The ice was broken. Now Ed and Scott could talk about cancer.
Bruce has melanoma. Scott just had cancer surgery. They arrived with Ed in Portland for our first Thanksgiving weekend blowout. We arrived at our Marriott suite. Someone had to sleep upstairs. I said, "Scott, you and Bruce can have the cancer ward upstairs." The ice was broken. We could talk about their cancer.
Cancer is prevalent in the Silver Valley. My father died of it. My mother is in remission. My mother taught at Silver King school, located about a quarter of a mile right below the Zinc Plant. Almost all the teachers she worked with at Silver King have died of cancer. Dolly, Alene, Sylvia, Betty, we rattled them off one night. I expect to develop cancer. When I was nearly killed working to help overhaul a flash roaster at the Zinc Plant, what nearly killed me was inhalation of sulfur dioxide and zinc/cadmium/lead and other mineral dust. I listen to my upper chest rattle, the way it has for over thirty years now and I listen to my chronic cough and clearing of my throat and I can't help but think a cancer will grow in there some time.
It's serious business for those of us who have lived or do live in the Silver Valley. The mining of ore and the smelting of it meant economic stability for a relatively short period of time. Looked at even in relation to the short life of the USA (230 years old this past July 4th), the times of stable employment in the Silver Valley didn't last long. Sixty, seventy years tops. The impact of that short period of time, however, is much more long lasting. Health concerns remain.
This all came to mind over the weekend when the news broke that sportscaster Steve Lyons had been fired by Fox Sports. On air, Lyons joked, after fellow broadcaster Lou Piniella constructed a wallet metaphor, that his own wallet was missing, suggesting that Piniella had stolen it. Fox fired Lyons' for making statements that were "racially insensitive" and "inappropriate."
If Lyons joking was "inappropriate"(rather than wrong) , then those comments must also be appropriate if said in a different setting. In what setting would his comments have been appropriate? The baseball clubhouse, a place familiar to both Lyons and Piniella? The hotel lobby? The water cooler?
And, under these restriction upon speech, would Ed have been fired had he joked on the television airwaves about Scott and his Corvette? Would his joke have been oncologically insensitive? Testicularly inappropriate?
In the Silver Valley, everyone joked about everyone else's ethnic background or their disabilities. My father was blind in one eye. Dad's friends blamed everything he did wrong from missing a putt on the golf course to not having sex to his blind eye. His nicknames were Cyclops, Rooster Cogburn, and you fat, one-eyed son of a bitch. Called fat, my dad would retort, "You laugh now, pup. But at midnight this big old gut turns into cock."
Joking about cancer, about Italians with Italians, about Bulgarians with Bulgarians, about blindness, about religious convictions (he wouldn't say "shit" if he had a mouthful), made the Silver Valley a place, for me, of free speech.
I understand hateful speech exists. I understand that racial slurs and attacks are violent and aggressive and dangerous. I also understand that not that long ago, when a cancer patient underwent radiation treatment, the radiation irradiated the cancer, but often burned healthy tissue, too. I think we are at a stage of trying to erradicate offensive speech that is similar to the old radiation therapies. We are unable to pinpoint the cancer. We are not always accurate. We discourage and erradicate joking around and healthy teasing because we cannot distinguish between speech that is racially inflected and fun and that which is harmful. So we erradicate it all. As with cancer therapies, when it comes to speech, we have to be asking ourselves just what is the cancer and what is the cure? Could the cure be causing more longlasting damage than the cancer it sets out to eliminate?
PS (Added on October 17th. Piniella comes to Steve Lyons defense: