California From Afar

It’s odd looking south on California. It’s been almost a year since we moved to Oregon. I feel like an Oregonian (especially after what happened in my previous post). Yet I frequently find myself in a bit of a twilight zone between the two states, mostly because the first newspaper I read in the morning is the digital version of the San Francisco Chronicle, rather than the Portland Oregonian. (Please note that as a former journalist, I pay for all my digital subscriptions.)

There are legitimate reasons for this. I still look upon California fondly, though she’s really like a girl I had to give up because of her dysfunctional behavior. That is, the time we had together was wonderful, but no, I don’t need to spend the rest of my life with her. There are stories ongoing in California that I want to follow; my biggest regret about dying is not the actual dying but the fact that I will miss the next day’s headlines.

So I feel like I’m in a bit of a Twilight Zone, state-wise. In the Oregonian, as with any metropolitan newspaper, there are ongoing stories, progress reports about political escapades, trials, corruptions, feuds with the neighboring state of Washington. Reading them is kind of like walking into the middle of a movie, where you’re not quite sure what’s going on, and you really need to focus to figure out who’s who and what’s what.

I’m retired. I don’t have to focus anymore.

It doesn’t help that the Oregonian only prints on paper four days a week; the other three days are online-only. That isn’t conducive to forming a habit. I frequently have to ask myself what day it is to figure out whether I need to go out front and pick up the paper. But since the delivery person doesn’t wander around until seven or eight a.m. (I wouldn’t get out any earlier either if my work had been cut back to four days a week), I’m usually done with the online version even before I get to the print version.

Then there are the obituaries. As you age—and I know most of my readers will back me up on this—the obituaries become more important. I haven’t lived in Oregon long enough to know the people in the Oregonian obituaries. That’s one reason why I’m still devoted to the Chronicle—not that I know people in its obituaries, but I am more likely to.

And by reading the Chronicle, I get to follow all the sturm und drang that drove us out of California from afar: gas prices, traffic, taxes, traffic, drought, traffic. I was going to say that the only thing California has over Oregon is stricter vaccination laws, but then I read that it’s dealing with a measles outbreak too. Apparently you can escape drought and traffic, but not stupidity.

The question remains: when am I going to start reading the Oregonian first and the Chronicle last? That’s a tough question. I suspect it will be when I see the first obituary of someone I know in the Oregonian. Then I’ll know the time has come.

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Deer God

It took almost a year, but I finally found something distressing about Oregon.

As I noted in On Becoming An Oregonian, our home town is a cross between Lake Tahoe and Carmel. Somewhere between rural and suburban. Lots of trees … and forests … and deer. And we killed one this month.

It was traumatic. We were driving on a state highway just a few minutes from our house, a road we’d traveled a hundred times before. The foliage comes right up to the road, and there’s barely a shoulder. I had no time to react. It was just … there. Its neck whipped around and both of us saw those dark, plaintive, bewildered eyes. “Wait,” it seemed to be saying, “I’ve never done anything to you.”

We turned around, but by the time we got to where the collision happened, the deer was gone. I can only hope the impact threw it into the foliage, where it passed away. Neither of us could bear the thought of it suffering. We were on our way to Seattle for the day, and Monica worried that this was a bad omen.

I have realized in the interim that for something as traumatic as this, we experienced the best outcome (for us, anyway). For instance:

• If you brake for a deer, the front of the car dips, which tends to send the deer into the windshield. I lost a co-worker to a deer hit many years ago.

• If you swerve, you risk losing control. A few months ago, a local 21-year-old was killed in a single car accident; his parents suspect he was trying to avoid a deer.

• If the deer was hanging out that close to a busy road, its days were numbered; if not me behind the wheel, then someone else.

• I was less worried about the car that I thought I would be, and insurance covered everything without a raise in rates.

And yet …

I’m not Catholic, and don’t necessarily believe in the concept of penance. And yet, I had taken the life of an innocent woodland creature. I wanted to find an act of contrition somehow. Sending money to the Nature Conservancy just wasn’t going to cut it.

Fortunately, my Unitarian minister had a brilliant idea. We couldn’t save that particular deer, but we could help others. And that’s how Monica and I ended up deep in the state park a few blocks from our house, armed with wild rice, grain, and salt licks. It was a beautiful spring day—sun shining, light breeze, temperature comfortable.

We went off the trail, found a couple of hidden spots, and set down the salt lick and grain. Monica invoked the spirits of nature—fire for the east, earth for the south, water for the west, and wind for the north—and we prayed for forgiveness from the deer spirit.

We still love Oregon, but now we’re a little more cautious about fauna emerging from the flora.

 

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An Earth Day Conundrum

It’s been a long time – more than 50 years – since actor Walter Brooke said that famous word to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate: plastics. Then, it was a growth industry. Now, it’s a pariah.

If you read the feature in Sunday’s Parade magazine, especially the part at the end about the mother albatross accidentally killing her fledglings by feeding them plastics, you know the problem goes beyond the fact that China has stopped taking our plastics off our hands. The article immediately got me thinking about how to follow its tips (many of which I’d already done, happily) and cut down on my own household’s plastics consumption.

It also got me thinking of why we went in this direction in the first place.

It wasn’t because in the 60s we suddenly developed a devotion to the fossil fuel industry (yes, plastics are made from petroleum). It was because, as a society, we hew towards safety. If you’re a baby boomer like me, then you’re old enough to remember a time when shampoo bottles were made of glass, and dropping them onto a porcelain tub when your hands were wet set off a panic over whether you could find all of the shards or not. It was almost forty years ago that an unknown perpetrator panicked the pharmaceutical and retail industries by tampering with Tylenol bottles. The result: more seals and protective packaging, all made of plastic.

None of this is new, of course; the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the precursor to the creation of the FDA, came about because of unsanitary conditions in food-processing plants and the dearth of labeling laws that allowed unsafe ingredients in medicine. But the problem seems to be getting worse.

Some ways of getting rid of plastic are pretty easy. I’ve purchased both glass and metal straws, although at my age, I don’t always remember to take them with me. I have more canvas tote bags from trade shows than I’ll ever have groceries to fill. I give my dry cleaner my laundry in a cotton bag that is then reused – thanks to a hole in the bottom for the hangers to fit through – in place of the plastic that usually covers cleaning. Although I love my food preparation gloves, I think I’ll just wash my hands after I’ve prepared fish.

Others are more difficult. I can’t tell the newspaper delivery person not to put the paper in plastic, especially in rainy Oregon. I reuse produce bags until they’re disgusting, but you can’t forgo them entirely, especially when you’ve chosen a recipe that calls for several pounds of mushrooms. I’m going to try and stop buying any jars that aren’t glass, but that may not be easy if a glass jar isn’t an option. Plastic, after all, is lighter than glass, and using less fuel when transporting food is always a good thing.

Stepping back, the plastics conundrum is a sad metaphor for so many of our other problems. We live in an interconnected world, where pushing in one direction frequently creates pressure in another direction. We wring our hands over the homeless, but while one faction wants to get the mentally ill among them off the street, another faction doesn’t want to restrict their civil liberties, and still others don’t want to return to the days of “snake pit” mental institutions. We want to reduce traffic, but we don’t seem to be able to figure out how to build or fund mass transit systems that are just as convenient as cars.

Getting rid of plastics is just as complicated. A grassroots effort will only go so far. At some point, regulations have to push recalcitrant corporations to change their packaging, but that effort too will be stymied if industry can’t come up with safe and ecological ways to package what we eat and drink.

Was life really simpler when shampoo came in glass bottles, or does it just seem that way from this distance?

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Dear Bob

Last October, as I noted recently, I lost a dear friend of more than twenty years, Bob Burkhart, to cardiac disease. Unlike the tragic deaths of other friends, it was unexpected. Except, in a way, it wasn’t.

Dear Bob,

I miss you more than I thought I could. As I think back on our time together, I realize that you were really good at the true fundamental of friendship: you honored my strengths and ignored my faults.

Remember the drive we drove back from Kansas because Justin’s father had given him a car? We decided – because it was kind of on the way – to go through Vegas, but that meant crossing Hoover Dam and it was just after 9/11. The backup of cars being searched for security purposes stretched on and on, and turned me into a cranky toddler. When we finally checked into the Bellagio, you asked the desk clerk to immediately send a bottle of Veuve Clicquot up to the room “because my friend really needs one right now.”

You didn’t try and change me, because you never wanted to be changed yourself. You were a big man, wonderfully in heart but unfortunately in body too. When friends asked why you never dated anyone, you said it was because women always wanted you to lose weight. We got the message. Don’t mention the weight thing.

You lived the way you wanted to live. In fact, you lived the way the rest of us wanted to live, with everything from M&Ms to fine chocolates in crystal dishes scattered around the house. You knew all the great wines. You knew all the great restaurants, whether they served filet mignon or greasy breakfasts. You were a great cook, too.

When I lost six inches off my waist a few years ago, I hoped to be a role model to my friends. Not to you, though. I knew that was fruitless. I was both thrilled and saddened when I found out later that you had tried to lose weight, and hated how the effort made you feel. Really, I would have coached you.

But to our eternal discredit, we let you be obese. Because all your friends loved you as you. Because you loved us as us. It was part of the bargain we made with you.

But now, with you gone, I see the error of our ways. We kept our silence even as we knew that your size was putting a greater and greater burden on your heart. You were, in essence, breaking your heart day by day. And we thought it was okay because it was your heart and your decision, and we loved you so much.

If only I’d known you were breaking my heart too.

 

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The Downside of Happiness

nola_bin


Photo courtesy NOLA Doughnuts

As my most recent post explained, we have fallen in love with Oregon. However … to be as transparent as possible, there is a downside.

We fell in love with our house in large part because it was easy to walk to downtown Lake Oswego. The library, the bank, the supermarket, the florist, city hall, the farmer’s market, the barbershop – all within walking distance. Our gasoline bills are significantly lower than ever before.

But downtown also features some problematic retail establishments. There’s the Lake Oswego Creamery, which has locally made ice cream, sandwiches, and burgers. And when I say local ice cream, I mean milkshakes to die for. Ever had a bananas foster milkshake? I hadn’t, and they’re a real issue. Why? Because the amount of calories in a bananas foster milkshake is WAY higher than the amount of calories one burns walking from our house to Lake Oswego Creamery and back.

That’s not all. There’s also NOLA Doughnuts. NOLA stands for New Orleans, Louisiana. What kind of donuts do they make in New Orleans? Beignets. Fluffy pastries drowned in powdered sugar. We went to NOLA before we went to Café du Monde in the French Quarter this fall just to do a comparative taste test, and I have to say that the one here edged out the one in the French Quarter. Oh, and speaking of issues – NOLA Doughnuts has a happy hour, of all things. After 2 p.m., beignets are half-price!

Remember the freshman 15 in college? As much as I’ve tried to watch my weight, not surprisingly I’ve developed an Oregon tummy. I have the happiness 15.

This cannot be blamed solely on bananas foster milkshakes and beignets. If it could, I would just stay out of that part of downtown, make it mentally off limits unless it’s Mardi Gras or something. Not so easy.

Admittedly, this whole mess began back in the summer when we moved here. The moving van that was supposed to take two days took ten, and because I couldn’t cook, we had to eat out. Yes, I feel your sympathy. It flows across the Internet in waves.

But then, being in a new town and a new state, we had to try new restaurants. It’s the law, I think. We’ve been in Oregon six months and we’ve had one bad meal. One. It was an artisanal pepperoni pizza with four slices. I don’t just mean four slices of pizza – I mean four slices of pepperoni. It was like pepperoni was being rationed but nobody would admit it.

Every other meal has been fantastic. People say San Francisco is a foodie town – they ain’t seen nothing. This place is gastronomic heaven.

So now it’s the new year. Time to stop being so happy – or at least, time to stop celebrating with food. I’m not sure how to proceed. I do know the task would be much easier if I couldn’t practically smell the beignets from my front door.

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On Becoming An Oregonian

Welcome to Oregon Sign As we’ve sent out our holiday letters, some friends have been surprised that we’ve left California for Oregon. One said, “I was under the impression that once someone got to California, they never left” – as if being born there, as we were, was some kind of exalted prize never to be relinquished.

When people ask why we left, I’ve found one response resonates most deeply. It relates to income inequality. When someone cut us off on the freeway, were they a jerk, or were they going to be fined if they were late picking their kid up from day care one more time? It was impossible to tell. And because it was more likely the former, we found ourselves losing our empathy for the latter. When you find yourself growing harder toward your fellow citizens, not softer, it’s time to move on. Perhaps the Republicans who’ve escalated this inflexibility to a fine art could depart for … somewhere far away.

We flew back to California for the weekend before Christmas, to see family and friends, and nothing about being back affected our resolve that Oregon is now home. Oregon is different, even though it’s now full of Californians. I suspect that the state was completely empty up until five years ago because everyone seems to be from California. Perhaps for that reason, I’ve only gotten one set of raised eyebrows about where I’d come from, and that was from a retail clerk who should have known better.

How different? For one thing, it rains here. Not as much as it used to, we’re assured (even though there’s no such thing as climate change; yeah, right), but water does indeed flow out of the sky on a regular basis.

For another, people drive differently here. We were walking through the small downtown of the community where we live a few months ago, and someone honked their horn. We turned to each other and said almost in unison, “What the hell was that?” Oh, and here’s the weird part: when you activate on your turn signal, the driver behind you will actually slow down and give you space to merge. We’re still getting used to that one. And in a state with so much precipitation, it’s legal (unlike in California) to drive without your lights on in the rain.

Our little town is a delight. Where we live, just north of downtown, there are few sidewalks. The air is so amazingly crisp and clear and crystalline, I feel like I’m waking up in a cross between Lake Tahoe and Carmel every morning. There’s a state preserve a few blocks from our house that we still haven’t explored completely. It’s invigorating.

What’s strange is how many people have dogs here. I began to wonder if the city government just automatically issued dogs to people upon arrival (“Here’s your driver’s license, and your dog. Welcome to Lake Oswego.”). Apparently, we got the cat exemption.

There are some oddities to the state of Oregon, as well. Some things are cheaper, but others unexpectedly are not. Our utilities are cheaper, but our housekeeper isn’t. My barber is much more expensive, but Monica’s hair stylist is cheaper (and they’re married to each other). Massages are cheaper. Restaurants are cheaper. Parking is unbelievably cheaper. Property taxes are cheaper, but still more expensive than we budgeted. But there’s no sales tax, so the government’s got to fill the tills from somewhere.

Then there’s the quirkiness of political geography. In California, the liberals cluster on the coast and the conservatives cluster inland. There’s a mountain range separating them for each other’s safety. That’s not true here. We live just south of Portland, which is very blue. Our community is the northernmost one in the adjoining county, called Clackamas, which is mostly agricultural. The result is that liberals and conservatives intermingle here, so you have to be careful what you say about certain hot-button issues, like abortion and gun control. At the Clackamas County Fair, there was a cluster of vendors designated as Second Amendment Row. You wouldn’t find that in our old neck of the woods.

People ask us what we miss in California. Friends, of course. Sports, too. Portland only has professional soccer and basketball, so it’s a bit of a crapshoot come Sunday morning NFL broadcasts. I suspect the local affiliates just throw a dart at the wall to see what they’ll broadcast; there’s no other way to explain how many NFC East games they show. And not being able to go to baseball games, either Stanford Cardinal or San Francisco Giants.

But the food here is fantastic. The airport is an unexpected hotbed of efficiency. Regional theatre is wonderful. Hiking is unparalleled. Traffic is bad, but nowhere near as horrific as California. It may get there yet, but there’s also a terrific public transportation infrastructure that the mishegoss of BART, Caltrain, Samtrans, and Muni can’t even touch.

So we gave up the prize that is California. We got a bigger one in exchange. Oregon is the best Christmas present ever.

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A Christmas Memory

(with apologies to Truman Capote, who I think would have understood)

Bob BurkhartEvery year around this time, one of our friends cheerfully asks us to recount our favorite Christmas memory. Every year around this time, we have to remind her that people who grew up in dysfunctional families don’t have favorite Christmas memories. They have vivid Christmas memories, but those aren’t the same thing.

I wish we could have taken our cheery friend to a recent church service commemorating the darkest day of the year (that is not, as you might suppose, the Solstice – that’s the longest day of the year). The minister riffed on the fact that while Christmas is frequently about families getting together, exchanging gifts, preparing food, telling stories, making new ones, it’s not that cheery for everyone. Some people are lonely; some are ill; some are dealing with loss. Not everyone is happy around the holidays.

Certainly part of me isn’t this year. A few months ago, I made plans to visit my friend Bob (see photo) in Las Vegas for his late-October birthday. He had moved from Silicon Valley a couple of years ago, hoping to become a STEM teacher; it didn’t work out primarily because of Clark County’s ridiculous educational bureaucracy. And although he liked the weather in southern Nevada, it was clear that he was lonely. He warned me after I sent him my flight information that he’d had been fighting a horrible bout of the flu.

Except that it wasn’t the flu; it was the onset of congestive heart failure. He died a couple of weeks later, just days shy of his 59th birthday.

Bob was a big man, both in size and heart. I hate that the latter failed him. I miss him. I fear that the worst part of getting older, especially for those of us with really good genes, is accumulating more and more memories of departed friends and loved ones. It doesn’t help that one of Bob’s favorite activities was throwing an annual Solstice party. This year, we’re getting together on that day with some mutual friends to toast his memory.

That’s what’s hovering over Christmas present. There’s also Christmas past. Some people, like us, simply don’t have fond memories of those either.

For my spouse, whose parents were florists, Christmas was one of their busiest and most hectic times of the year, equivalent to Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Mother’s Day. Her parents had no energy left over for the yuletide. As for me, I remember my father yelling at my mother for paying $25 for the top-of-the-line Lego set for me one year. Even more vividly, back when I was around twelve, I remember the Christmas morning of the flashcube.

We were at our beach house (we were not destitute). My sister had received an Instamatic camera as a gift. It used those light-blue flashcubes to illuminate the subject. My sister was goofing around, and put her foot on an ottoman next to me; I took a picture of her big toe. In addition to setting off the flashcube, it set off my father. He started screaming about how expensive flash cubes were and how wasteful I was. He opened the front door and yelled at me, saying I might just as well have thrown thirty-five cents into the street. As my wife has gently pointed out recently, my father’s path in life was not to be my parent. (When we spread his ashes in the Pacific, even though it was illegal to do so, I added a quarter and a dime so that he would have the money in eternity.)

Don’t get me wrong – I love the holidays now. Our tree is adorned with ornaments from all the places we’ve visited around the world. My wife and I stuff stockings with each other’s favorite candy. We watch Miracle on 34th Street and Scrooge (the 1951 version). I love cooking Christmas dinner. I’ve made molasses gingersnaps using Bob’s recipe – twice – in his honor.

This is the lesson I will try and take away this year, and every year: The old memories will never completely dissipate. They’re here to stay. What’s important is to keep making new ones, nicer ones, so that one day, perhaps very soon, we’ll be able to recount to our friend that we’ve finally created our favorite Christmas memory.

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