Monthly Archives: December 2013

Face-Off With Fitzgerald, Part I

Through the years, I’ve never had much time for reading, unless the material could provide me with useful information. That’s why I’ve got to thank Miss Hopkins for junior AP English, where I was forced to read literature. No, hers wasn’t the first English class I took. I should swap my words around a little: nobody forced me to read anything until Miss Hopkins’ class. Up until junior year, I skimmed fiction and read salient points about the books in Cliff’s Notes, then made certain to debate every salient point in class, much to the distress of my teachers. It wasn’t that I didn’t like to learn. I did. That was the point. It was all about efficiency, as well as winning arguments.

In order to win arguments, I cut through all the bullshit, rather than getting bogged down in evocative language. This may sound like a lot of hot gas to you, but I assure you I’m not proud of my shortcuts. I’m just very aware of my constant impatience that drives me to cut corners. Miss Hopkins would have none of it. The first time I tried to force her into a debate, she told me, That’s nice, Little Grasshopper, but if you want to have an intelligent discussion, you’ll need to read the source text.

First of all, nobody calls me pet names, not even my mom. My wife can get away with it these days. Back in high school, where wife and I met, she didn’t dare initiate conversation with me, let alone call me names. After that bout of unexpected condescension from a priggish spinster [for all to witness, including future wife], I spent the night reading the assigned book, The Great Gatsby. I don’t think I impressed Miss Hopkins with my assessment of the text. Look, I’m sorry, but Fitzgerald was just wrong. Nobody needs to go back to the quiet life because the American Dream is dead. The quiet life, as evidenced by so many, IS the American Dream. That’s what it’s about. That kind of peace gives sons the impetus to leave the quiet life and create and build new lives, if not worlds, which then leads their grandchildren or great grandchildren to seek out the peaceful life once again. It’s all one grand cycle that some would seek to disrupt.

Carraway—or Fitzgerald—you were definitely wrong. For that reason, I’ve read your story about ten times now and still own my original dogeared, marked-up copy. Your story begins this way:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

My own story begins about the same way, just nix the word vulnerable.

In my younger [redacted] years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. We were outside, still wearing paint-smeared garb, relaxing in the shade of his cleanly painted carpentry shed. The shed was where the two of us would go to escape my mom and the assorted small ones known to me as siblings or half-siblings. None of us really knew. Well, we could guess by the looks which lover had fathered whom. But that was about it.

My dad rolled up a joint like the artist he was and lit it. Despite his generous nature, he didn’t pass it to me. On my sixteenth birthday, he’d passed it to me for the first time, and I’d hated the passive sensations it induced so much that I’d never accepted it again. I had no regrets over trying it. It made me understand why my dad needed it. He leaned his head against the now dry, blue paint coat I’d helped him slap on the shed.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world aren’t as strong as you. As soon as you begin to criticize others, you will discover you aren’t the strongest man around, and you’ll get the crap be at out of you.”

“Not a problem. You’re the one who raised me as a pacifist. I don’t get in fights.”

He chuckled with his dry, smoky breath. “Don’t lie to yourself. You aren’t a pacifist. I, personally, can’t wait for the day you realize that.”

I suppressed a laugh. My dad didn’t need to know the truth. I’d discovered a long time ago I wasn’t like he was and wouldn’t work his organic vegetable patch or milk his goats to make organic feta forever; I wouldn’t go to anti-Bush/anti-war/end-the-embargo/Greenpeace marches without his prodding, even though I’d done it without complaint to stay the hell away from my mom and her kids.

Instead, I smiled like the cat who all but disappears except for his grin. I knew I wasn’t a pacifist, but I also knew I didn’t need to fight to have my own way in the world. That’s the way it was, and it might have continued that way for all time.

That’s the start to my story: just like Nick Carraway, with lessons to learn. There the similarity ends. My advice came direct from my pothead dad, who lives the quiet idealized life his generation longed for. He doesn’t have to wear the Che shirts his friends wear. Nope, not when he can maintain control over his existence with no pretenses. See, he wasn’t and isn’t a pacifist, either.

Sometimes, appearances can be deceiving. What are appearances for?


Portland is a Dream Memoir: Life Seen Through a Tangle of Trees

DSCF0143Portland is a land viewed through shadows and trees. Portland is an image: a stark white house brilliant through the branches. It evokes a certain melancholia, a nostalgia for a life not lived–at least, not there. I lived there in an actual sense. Yet, I grew up with no real notion of how dense the shadows were, with no real understanding of what lay behind the dark windows of those houses–the ones lost in the trees. If I were to enter in through the gray door, what would wait beyond it? Would the house give up its mysteries?

Portland is a place of scenes. Everybody must belong to one. But for those who skirt the edges of society, observation is the only way in, and it isn’t a way in so much as it is a way through to the exit on the far side of the house. Last week, I visited Sellwood, which is a Portland neighborhood arrived at via the Sellwood Bridge. We crossed the bridge, my sister and her daughter and I, into a world of large old houses on a bluff. In the best spots, these houses are perched as beacons above the Willamette with clear views of the river and the city scene that lies across from it. As the afternoon was already darkening when we arrived there, a turn around a tight curve could suddenly open us up to the glow of the distant waterfront lights. If you’ve ever descended into Portland at night, you’ll remember the winding river lights, and you will–if you still carry a childlike joy–gasp at the memory. Portland, as seen from above the shadows of too many trees, is a place that glows. It glows because there’s a river below and heavy clouds above, and the lights in between reflect and refract in the water. And so it is in Sellwood when the streets take a turn to a view.

sellwood bridge

What kind of scene is Sellwood? Ten or more years ago, it was a place largely cut-off from Portland proper. According to my sister, who once rented a house in the area, the buses didn’t run there regularly, and there weren’t many stores. Nowadays, it’s an upscale neighborhood and very much a beating-heart-of-Portland with its New Seasons organic grocery, its antique shops, its yoga studios and sushi parlors and microbrew houses and espresso bars. While there, we visited a small but bright old house, where my sister’s homeschool friend lived. Just across the polished wood floor, sat a table decorated in lacquered pennies and, on top of that, a tray with homemade hummus and cut vegetables and dried chips made from various vegetable parts and seeds leftover from juicing. Next to that sat a glass tea dispenser that appeared to contain tea–and it did–except, of course, it was not the usual sweet tea, but kombucha. If I hadn’t recognized the feathery, floating mushrooms, I might have thought it was a homeschool experiment that involved caring for exotic sea-creature pets in a tea bath. I wouldn’t have been surprised; I can’t remember the last time I was surprised by anything. On the cookbook shelf all my questions were answered, as if they hadn’t been already: Nourishing Traditions. Every good homeschool mom has one, except the ones who don’t. This particular mom appeared and sounded to be the kind who would nourish you in any way she knew how, whether with food or words or pleasant laughter. Oh, yes, I can’t move on without mentioning that my sister has a particular affinity for people with silvery laughs. I loosely based my character Mary and her silvery laugh off one of my sister’s friends, who became mine, as well, when I worked with her at Coffee People. That’s, however, another story entirely; it serves merely to demonstrate my sister’s affinity for people with a laughing talent.

Still in Sellwood, we skipped from the tiny house of Nourishing Traditions to the New Seasons organic grocery for a few potluck items, to a million dollar home, complete with four stories. This was the meeting place for the homeschool Lego robotic group, where we watched the children perform a practice demonstration of their robot project before having a potluck. As one might expect, the potluck dishes were not casseroles. Rather, they were the dishes of middle and upper class Portlanders, which involved baked potatoes and trimmings, elegant salads and sauteed vegetable dishes and bean dips. Black beans are all the rage in Portland, to be found in mall food courts and even in the OMSI cafe, but if there were any to be had here, they were long gone before I arrived at the marble-top buffet island. Instead, I chose a white-bean and tuna salad.

I didn’t know any of these people, and so found myself standing in the corner studying everything as I usually do. I’ve been in fine homes before; this one had a particularly nice feel to it, as if the people there were just that–nice. And I think they were. Without overly assessing them by their Alaskan artwork and books in multiple languages–their stacks and stacks of Scientific Americans and their shelf that contained numerous biblical translations, I would say they were normal intellectuals who managed to work hard and make a lot of money. My last image of Sellwood, aside from the misty night trip back across the bridge, was of the father of the household peacefully relaxed on an expensive couch, watching the rambunctious children horse around in dangerously close proximity to expensive, breakable things, and smiling. Yes, smiling.

That was Sellwood, as seen through the trees–as seen in one door and back out another.

Photograph credits: The first is mine from the hills above Portland, not quite to Terwilliger. The second I found in Wiki Commons. I don’t know why, but I didn’t take any pictures the day we traveled to Sellwood.


A rumination on naughty talk: if the “f” word damages your brain, don’t read!

I’ve noticed a subtle shift in my generation as we’ve grown older. When we were younger, we tried to be polite–in context, and in general. As we’ve grown older, I’ve heard my give a fuck’s broken time and again slip from mouths that used to pretend fuck was a blaspheme against God himself. I don’t know that any of us have pondered very deeply why this internal shift has occurred in us; it just has. And, at some base level, we’re tired. We’ve changed, and we’re tired.

I, however, have given some thought to this because it’s a boring, repetitive argument within Christian writing circles. Aside from complementarianism, it’s the important talk of the day! And it doesn’t stop with fuck and the other seven deadly words. It’s all a matter of how much class and propriety the Christian readership has been raised in–how sensitive and deeply harmed some people are by offhandedly mentioning panties or farts. In polite society–i.e. Christian fiction readers and all those raised in upper crust families, as well as those who aspire to being upper crust–these matters are taboo. There also happens to be a consensus that women of any class ought not to be using these harmful words. I’m not certain exactly where this underlying assumption, that women are refined and men are coarse as a matter of natural law, came from. The myth of the angelic female who must civilize the savage male sounds a bit Victorian to me, and haven’t we moved past victorian mores? Regarding the divide of niceness in the Anglo sphere, one finds that it was not so sharp in prior ages. In fact, the pendulum often swung in the classic Greek direction, instead: women are coarse and material, while men are intelligent and spiritual.

In any case, this blog post was inspired by a friend who sent me a text this morning that read, “Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em all!” The text conversation had woken me up, and my morning-dream state floated into the kind of rumination I’m doing here. Twenty years ago, I can’t imagine the same person so boldly stating the same words. In the same way, my sister, whom I’ve been having many heart-to-hearts with lately, quite boldly uses emphatic language these days, when she would have been much more tentative twenty years ago. What has changed?

Language is powerful. Controlling language is part and parcel with controlling people. By the year I was born, 1973, comedians such as George Carlin had already questioned why certain words were censored from broadcasts, while other words were not. So I suspect, for my generation, that we grew up with the push and pull of obeying the censorship and acting out against it. We heard from those who wanted to protect our tender ears from words that would surely dement our minds, such as shit. When we realized that these words did not materially change us, that they were, in fact, powerful words owing to their censored status, we decided that we would not be held in bondage by a classist and controlling system. It’s an outer sign of rebellion against the control grid.

Maybe I’m making too much of this. Maybe. It’s just a rumination, after all. But I often wonder what would happen to those lulled to sleep, by supposed gentle language, if they were woken up by the simplicity of Our government wants to [fill in the blank]? Fuck that! broadcast on national TV or radio. It gets our adrenaline going and releases endorphines in a way that listening to hours of talking heads on CNN can’t. In fact, when I hear the talking heads speak words such as [What can we do to offset costs of the Affordable Care Act? We can all do our part. We can pull together to exercise for thirty minutes a day. We can take education courses on nutrition…] I turn my listening switch off when I should shout at the top of my lungs Fuck that!