Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Snowfall


Time's running out.  2009 has a day left, so it's time to take stock a bit.  No, not to worry, this isn't one of those year in review pieces.  The media doesn't even wait till the end of the year to do that anymore.  How many times must we see Tiger's women, the White House party crashers, or hear the impassioned pleas of John and Kate?
No, time for another kind of review.  This one is simply to consider what happened in the last 12 months in a deeper way.  Looking at the big picture, I'd say it's all about the technology.  It's difficult to spot a real revolution when you are in the big middle of one.  No doubt, newspapers, books, TV shows, records, CDs music...it's all changing.  As we become closer to everyone through Facebook, Twitter and the like, we become farther away.  It's all about the unreality of reality.  
But sometimes, we get a break.  Like yesterday.  
On a day we expected to get a little rain and perhaps an hours worth of snowflakes, we got a couple inches of snow.  The city of Portland stalled.  It started at about 2:00 pm.  By 3:30, most of the freeways and thoroughfares were gridlocked.  Without chains, you can't...you should never try to drive up a hill or even a slight incline.  I was lucky, I had to pick up Katie from work at 3:00.  We hightailed it back home and only skidded once.  I'm getting good at this snow driving thing.  Others weren't so lucky; even buses skidded into cars.  Some folks spent a few hours crawling home in their cars.  If you had good music, it was easier.  All this because nobody could predict the amount of snow that fell in a short time.  
That's the point.  I went out for a walk last night about 9:00.  Someone made a snowman in the infield of a circular drive at the end of my street.  The roofs glowed white.  Even the squirrels in the large elm trees on my street were excited.  I slushed and crunched around for a few minutes on this little stroll and marveled at how wonderfully satisfying it can be when all the experts are wrong.  When all the technology doesn't get it right.  Oh, I'm not trying to hold back what's coming.  That's impossible anyway.  I'm fond, however, of knowing that unpredictability still exists.  That even the weather can still be spontaneous.  There comes a time in everyone's life when you realize that newer, faster, less expensive, bigger, fancier, doesn't necessarily mean better.  When you realize with progress comes a tradeoff.  On this last day of this year, I'm weighing that tradeoff, giving it a long look, fingering the grain, learning to appreciate.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Rough Ride



This morning there was a wonderful story in my hometown newspaper.  "Newspaper," you remember what that is/was?  I find that I enjoy buying one out of the little street racks because they will soon be gone. Anyway, the story, by one of the best feature writers in Portland, was about a very poor North Portland high school that is on the rise again because of the efforts of some alumni from way back in the day.  They dusted off their letterman's jackets, their yearbooks, and their memories and went to bat for the old school, encouraging clean up efforts and renewed interest in the school's needs given the current state of the economy.  
Most of the article focused on a fairly well-off suburban family who were helping the football team.  It seems that the mother had read an article one day about the team wherein the coach had mentioned that some of his charges don't eat every day.  In the middle of her daily treadmill exercise, that thought wrapped itself around her brain and she went into action.  After obtaining the coaches permission, she organized a pasta night dinner and essentially fed the team.  It became a weekly event even spilling over to a few basketball and volley ball players.  The "soccer mom" from whitopia was surprised at how polite the team members were.  She also mentioned how exciting it was when she told the guys they could always have seconds on the meal.
OK, nice story.  OK wealthy white family, African American school.  Can't be helped, it's what is here.  Now, truth be told, there are non-white folks living in this particular suburbia; there are whites and Asians, and Latinos on the aforementioned team.  A few, in both cases.  But what always comes back to me is how after basking in the glow of stories like these, seldom, if ever, do people ask the deeper, riskier questions.  Seldom, if ever, does someone express surprise or displeasure that these conditions still exist.  It's been 55 years since Brown v. Board of Education.  That's more than half a century.  Equity issues in education are still with us.  Unemployment, malnutrition, ineptitude, under-resourced.  Most high schools in Portland are still named for dead white men.  
I know the family that fed the football team meant well.  As Bishop TuTu used to say, when you are sinking in quicksand and someone offers you a hand, you take it, you don't question whose hand.  My wish here is for after dinner conversation.  Let's eat, and then talk about what brought us here.  Why it takes a newspaper feature to feed struggling students.  What we want to do about that; how much do we care that this is the way it is, or has been, or continues to be.  The school in question is Roosevelt High School.  Named for TR not FDR.  They are called the "Rough Riders."  

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Winter's Tale


In all the gift frenzy of the last couple of weeks, I was quickly reminded of the kind of gift that comes unexpectedly.  Being an urbanite most of my life, I tend to spend winter fantasizing about warmer weather adventures to come.  Living in Oregon has only fed that habit.  On very rainy days, like this one, I dream of cloudless mornings where the smell of sage and fir trees surrounds me like the water in a stream.  I imagine the underground springs that feel my favorite rivers.  I picture myself seeing the water for the first time since last fall and releasing a sigh of relief that the water levels are healthy.  I think back to those gray wet days of splashing through the city of Portland.  It's all worth it when the summer comes and there is plenty of snowmelt, the rivers are running high and clear, the mountains are green.  Living in Oregon means seeing more wildlife too; even in the city.  I once saw a bald eagle while walking over the Broadway Bridge.  But yesterday, I chanced to look up and hear a swoosh.  Directly above I saw a formation of geese heading south.  Their perfect V slithered over rooftops and then angled down, over and away.  The formation lost precision.  But only for a second or two.  What a wonderful gift.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Left To Our Own Devices


It's certain now.  The mountain has taken three more.  And in the wake of the most recent climber deaths on Mt. Hood an argument rages.  Why isn't it mandatory for all climbers to carry a simple tracking beacon?  Pitted against each other are folks who think that the small signaling device, which rents for $5.00 would not only save more lives, but would also same the cost of search and rescue/recovery missions.  They don't forget that it was not too long ago that a helicopter full of rescuers crashed on the mountain in a vain attempt to find missing climbers.  Seems like a no brainer, but the adventurous do make a few points that merit attention.  
They claim that part of their spiritual attraction to climbing the mountain is the risk involved; all the risk involved.  They claim that if everybody were "forced" to carry the beacon then people would take unnecessary risks.  
Others, who do a bit of risky climbing themselves, say that part of being well-prepared, being a professional, includes preparing for everything, even the possibility of being lost.  They advocate the use of a beacon.  Then there are those who have tried to make a workable compromise.  They argue if climbers feel that any governmental regulation infringes on their right to risky adventure, they should sign a waiver  allowing them to assume the risk they covet, but also assuming the financial responsibility for any rescue attempt, should one become necessary.  That might work...but is that really the issue here?
One of the most convincing arguments in favor of NOT carrying the device I've heard concerns the encroachment of technology on everything human.  These people feel that the true experience of being in the wild, unattached is truly threatened.  They want to go into the wilderness with no net at all times because to do otherwise means we are less human, less able to depend on human resources, human self-reliance, human qualities.  I get that.  But I also get that the mountain has claimed three more, three more who will not be around t give us their feedback in this debate.  Three more who might have  a change of heart given what they have now experienced.  
Nevertheless, the questions raised here are all good ones.  What do you think?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Koan Culture



Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.
Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

Sometimes, one of the best things we can do is to suspend our need to measure anything with logic.  Most folks, myself included, spend far too much energy being disappointed that our dealings with the universe often follow no logical path.  We have such a great desire to make meaning for all we encounter, that logic, or at least some sense of reason, must come along for every ride.  It ain't necessarily so.  
If we can't be 100% certain that the Weather Channel will get it right all the time, why then should we expect our intuition to pull us through even most of the time.  
It is all too easy to get lulled into a sense of security thinking that our lives and the people in them will always be ruled by constant principles.  We desperately want that.  We certainly need that, but learning to embrace the unexpected, the impossible, the contrary, the paradox, the last resort can be enriching as well as enlightening.  It's one of the things I love best about horse racing.  The experts can measure every statistic, test every surface, chart the entire pedigree, yet favorites win only 1/3 of the time.  Some things just can't be explained.   Yet.
The ancient Zen masters used the Zen koan, a parable or story that must be pondered for a lifetime until it's universal truth is revealed.  Just recognizing a koan when they confront us is half the battle.  Let's hear it for the contemplative life.  
One of the luxuries of experience is that it breeds patience and insight.  When I think back on the kinds of things that caused me great distress in my 20s and 30s, you know, interpersonal relationships, work crises, family responsibilities, and understanding personal identity, I often see an impatient, anxiety driven, all too accommodating person.  Sure that same person is still with me, but not without insight. 
 I try to find ways to use that insight these days.  One, of course, is my work with student teachers.  They often help me see things I take for granted; things that any teacher, over time will do or say intuitively.  Another gift I've received is to write with these little gems.  Since the entire art of memoir writing is being redefined, written more like fiction and less like autobiography, I've discovered a real vein of gold to mine.  Some of the riddles haven't been answered yet, but the stories are being written.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Two Words



I have a terrible habit of not only listening to other people's conversations, but entering them on occasion.  I wasn't always this way.  With age, comes wisdom, right?  Sounds nice, but I know it's really the teacher in me.  I've guided too many discussions, wanting them to be like works of art, hoping the right question or response will trigger something more, something deeper, something uncomfortable, something thoughtful.  If I think I can be helpful, or offer advice on something they are struggling with, I'll speak up.  If someone has something on the tip of their tongue and just can't remember a person place or thing, and I can help, I will.  
More often than not, I'll be invited into a conversation, at least momentarily.  I've met some cool folks, some curious, knowledgeable, passionate, empathetic, and most of all friendly people that way.  So it was the other day that I found myself listening to a coffeehouse conversation among three people who just met.  One was interested in a book the other was reading, and the third just happened to sit next to them.  It took the form of one man, two women.  The guy was certainly amiable, but definitely trying to impress the two women.  He was a bit too sure of himself, a bit too "foo-foo," too new age babble, too airy fairy. 
 Me thinks the emperor has no clothes. 
So they are chatting along and suddenly one of the women turns the conversation to poverty.  She sincerely asks, "What do you think it'll take to rid the world of poverty?"  It was a rather abrupt turn of events, but my ears perked up.  The questioner had earlier mentioned that she worked for a community service agency.  Clearly she had a social conscience and wanted to know "Mr. has an opinion on everything's"  thoughts on a bigger issue.  
He proceeds to deliver a rambling response that can best be boiled down to the statement, "If I don't become poor myself, I'll be doing the world a favor.  He actually believed that it was his responsibility not to become poor.  That was the extent of his thinking on the subject.  
That's when I couldn't hold my tongue.
"Excuse me," I chimed in uninvited.  "Can I give you a two word answer to your question?"
All three, plus another woman at another table who was listening to it all as well, turned around and smiled. 
"Educate women," I said.
 Somebody said, "that's a good answer," as if we were on a daytime quiz show.  The others nodded and mumbled uh huhs.  No questions, no comments, no real response.
That was the extent of our interaction.  I went back to my keyboard, they returned to talking about other things. Later on I even thought maybe they didn't get it.  What I said could be taken a number of ways.  But they didn't even ask.  Probably thought I was just an intrusive old man.
 The trio left before I did.  They exited without as much as a nod.  
So it goes.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Of Trees and Weapons



The picture in the window catches my eye.  It's old.  World War II ad of some kind.  I'm standing on the sidewalk looking in the window of a furniture store, but I don't see anything but this old advertisement.  Too small to be a poster, it must have been taken from a magazine from the time.   In the picture a GI sits in a trench with a small Christmas tree perched on a mound of dirt.  I mean small.  It's about 2 feet tall with small pieces of red yarn tied on for ornaments.  The soldier is reading a letter, I think.  I don't know because I can't take my eyes off a huge ammo clip for an automatic weapon that rests near the tree as well.  
Such a striking image.  The peaceful holiday and the weapons of war resting together on the piled mound of earth.  
A minute later I'm thinking about those WWI stories where Americans and Germans spent Christmas Eve together during a brief cease-fire and then went back to the business of killing each other the next day.  
So now the President wants to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.  If that's all we send, we're condemned to repeat the past.  Deja Vu all over again, as Yogi says.  
I keep thinking how those that participate in the organized murder that war really is rationalize it all in their mind, and with their faith.  
Today I searched for the image that had me wondering all this.  I couldn't find the exact one, but what I did find was probably better.  It's a German image from WWII.  These soldiers standing with this small tree are being thankful for all those who keep them safe.  It's the same religion, isn't it?  It's the same God, too, right?  Do they think of these things?  
I'm thinking now that it is such a basic question, but an essential one.  
And what about military chaplains?  Now there's a walking contradiction.  Do the people who go to church or synagogue or mosque worry about these things?  Do their clerics have these discussions?  What do they really think?  Just asking.