My New Bike: At Least I Missed the Creek

You never forget. Just like riding a bike. Something I reminded myself as I extracted myself from an Alder tree.

In the memory fog, most of us have a rite of passage story about our first bike ride. It’s the moment we discover the alchemy of balance and forward motion. Finally, our little legs can escape our parents or siblings. The first unassisted bide ride is a parent letting go, maybe for the first time. The breeze in your face is a sign you are moving both further into and away from childhood.

As a new college student, I assumed I needed a bike. Coming from a family that fetishized automobiles, I don’t have a clue why. Perhaps it was the television shows and movies where every campus background had 10-speed bikes buzzing back and forth. I imagined I would ride my bike to class and to, well; no idea where. I bought a 10-speed. At school, I locked the pristine white bike into the rack on my dorm patio and never rode it. Not once. In fact, I didn’t know someone had stolen it until the police contacted me. Worse for wear, I locked the bike back on the dorm patio. No idea what happened to it. Maybe it was stolen again because it never made it back home.

The longer I was in Portland, the greater my ambivalence, if not hostility, to the entire concept of bikes. Well, not exactly the mechanical conveyance itself, but Portland bike riders. I get bikes are an elegant way to amplify human muscles. Unfortunately, there is a notion that owning Spandex and a bike helmet are an anointing. And with God’s anointment comes the belief that almost anything done on a bicycle is God’s work. And, given God’s grace, there was no reason to follow the traffic laws that bound the rest of us planet haters. I lost track of the number of times my quick reflexes at the wheel saved the life of a bike rider. The most common thank you was a middle finger. God’s work.

Middle-aged idiocy put me on a bike once more. At about 50, I decided that I finally needed to be a jogger. I got the right shoes, read the right books, bought the right clothes, then out into the night I went to aimlessly circle a Mt Tabor reservoir. As the gasping and wheezing settled, I enjoyed the solitude and the biting cold. Then my feet failed… badly. Seems that St John’s Bridge level high foot arches with a few decades of wear are not made for jogging. I damn near crippled myself. Ordered by a doctor to not do that again, he suggested that biking was a safer workout. Safer being relative.

So, there I was in a neighborhood without a single level street with my first bike since college. My first impression was that since I last rode a bike, they had gotten taller. I looked down at the passing asphalt and got a chill that never happened when I took my Mini Cooper out on high-speed racetrack days. But I stuck to it, making my way further and further up the park’s cinder cone and back. But that was it. I had no desire to go anywhere else. My new bike was medicinal. I got some fresh air and a little workout. After a few months, my feet healed. My bike sat in a rack at the back of our garage. One day, after a quick trip to the store, I pulled into the driveway to see it was gone. Two thoughts: Some asshole came up our driveway with Sal home and took my bike. Damn it. And… good riddance. I hope they get some use out of it.

Flip forward to a Social Security card and our move to Tigard. During the house search, I nurtured a new fantasy. I said to anyone who would listen, there’s an isolated bike trail along Fanno Creek, “I am thinking about a bike.” Laughing ensued. In my newly addled mind, I was highly motivated because just over a mile down that isolated, mostly flat trail, there were 3 taverns. Cold beer. A noble pursuit. Sal, who once commuted by bike, was thrilled. “We can ride together,” she gushed. Happy wife….

Armed with Google and YouTube, I dove deep to find the perfect old dude bike. As a modern hunter/gatherer, I was now an expert. After mowing the yard at our now old place one last time and heading to the new home in Tigard, I stopped at a bike shop, walked in, saw the bike I wanted, and pointed at it. “I’ll take that one.”

The young woman greeted me, looked confused. “You don’t want to look around? Can I ask you some questions? Let me help you.” 

“Nope, I’m good,” I said with unearned confidence. “I now live next to Fanno Creek Trail and this is what I need.”

“You want to ride it on our indoor track?”

“Nope,” I said, horrified that someone would watch this old man get on a bike for the first time in over a decade.

“Well, let’s at least size it for you.”

“And a helmet. And one of those water bottle things. A bell. I need one of those bell things. How many bell options? Good lord. No, let’s keep it simple. Can I take it all now?”

“Of course.”

“Easiest sale you have ever made I bet.”

“Different,” she responded.

I’m bizarrely stubborn, a trait for good or not. It’s important to know that as you read this next part. In the last few years, I have gained a couple of vestibular syndromes. Vertigo. Seems one inner ear doesn’t always sync with the other one. That means my world can get a little off. Turn my head quickly and it’s like my eyes are trying to catch up with what they are seeing. At its worst, I can’t drive. Doing hours and hours of PT and regular home exercises has taught my brain to mostly ignore the unsteady world when this new unbalanced feature kicks in. A rational soul might say I wasn’t the perfect candidate to take up bike riding. But a trail. But taverns. But new toys!!!

Our house has a steep driveway, so I pushed my new bike out to the sidewalk. I told (warned?) Sally that I was going for my first bike ride. She was almost gleeful. Was that the same reaction my folks had the first time I stayed up on a two-wheeler? Phone in my pocket, just in case. Helmet uncomfortably pulled down tight. I straddled my bike and pushed off. OH SHIT! While you don’t forget how to ride a bike, that doesn’t mean you are immediately good at it. Turns out, our street cascades down to the creek. Okay, not cascade so much as it leans. I gained speed too fast for my muddled reaction times. Hell, I didn’t know which brake worked the front or back. I kept looking down to figure it out. And the height. Good god, I am up in the air. Which gear? How many of those do I have anyhow? Where are those brakes? Damn it! Slow down! Cars? Are there cars at the intersection? I don’t think I can turn around and look back without crashing! Panicked, I pulled to the curb and stopped. Well, kind of stopped. Maybe bounced off the curb and dragged my feet. But I didn’t fall over, which I counted as an achievement. Assuming a nonchalant pose I had seen a thousand times, I reached down and pulled out my water bottle, took a swig, and looked around disinterestedly. I had ridden one block.

Braking constantly, I eased myself down to the trail. Ducks. I see ducks. Don’t look at the damn ducks!! I hadn’t counted on the fact that the paved trail would be so narrow. Okay, it isn’t narrow, but now I was horrified that some other biker would come at me from the opposite direction. The first time it happened, I almost rode off the trail as my arms locked like rusty steel pistons. I rode to the first trail exit and exhaled in relief; fiddling with the mystifying gears as I made it up the precipitous rise to my house. Right, maybe a gentle rise. Huffing and flush with victory, I walked into the house and loudly announced I was back. “Okay honey,” was all that Sally said, clearly not appreciating the magnitude of my victory over time and balance.

By my third ride, I had expanded my orbit. But nothing felt natural about riding the bike. I still glanced down at the brakes as I applied them and tried little memory tools to remind me how and when to shift up or down. For reasons that escape me, instead of looking around, I watched my front wheel. It was as if I was an enormous antibody attempting to isolate and kill the toxic invader between my legs. I came to a blind corner and thought about ringing my bell. I mean, I had a yet unloved bell. I looked down at the bell, then back up. At the apex of the corner, in the middle of the trail, was a small Latino man, his bike and bundles. He was tinkering with something. Have you ever watched your brain work? My noggin was saying: Brake? Front or back. Both? Go right and try to sneak by him? Bell? What? Hit him? Left. Go left and you will be fine. I did none of those things. Braking far too late, I went straight across the trail toward Fanno Creek plunged into an Alder tree. Face first.

Suddenly, there was no motion, just confusion and some pain. I looked down to see my front tire hit the trunk dead on. Well, at least I didn’t ride into the creek. My helmet was askew, glasses hanging from one ear. My body seemed fine, well, except for one knee caught in the briar. My face hurt as I scratched it in several directions. I yanked the bike back onto the trail. The small man, eyes red with some sort of substance abuse, stood next to me, almost face to face. In any other circumstance too close, but now vaguely comforting. He said nothing as he pulled bits of twigs and leaves off my face, brushing them away with the side of his hand. I recall he did so in the most delicate way. He stepped back, and I put the bike on its stand on the other side of the trail. It looked to be all in one piece. I thought to summon the little Spanish I know, but no phrase I knew would have been meaningful. I think we simple exchanged “Okay” back and forth a few times. Then he was on his way.

Still shaking, I rode home. In the bathroom mirror, I saw I had some scratches deep into my beard and a bump on my face next to my left ear. I said out loud, “Are you fucking kidding me? The third time. Are you fucking kidding me?” Uncapping the hydrogen peroxide, I asked myself if I really needed to be a bike guy. What in the world was I thinking? But here’s where being stubborn is a good thing. I know all about trauma. On the ride home, I felt familiar sensations erupting in my body. Icky levels of adrenaline. A certain recoiling away from harm. I had trouble sleeping as I replayed the feeling of helplessness as I lost control of the bike over and over. Slow motion self-torture. But the next day, with Sally at work, I said to myself, “No goddamnit. Not this time.”

I was determined to do the same ride. Back to the scene of my crash, before the blind corner, I stopped, parked the bike, and walked the trail. I ducked as a branch was hanging out over the trail at the bend. What? On my bike, that branch would have hit me in the face. Somehow, I had edited that detail out of my replays. I had to be ducking that branch as I rounded the corner. No wonder I had so little time to react. I walked to the place where the little man had parked and looked back. My god, even as slow as I ride, there was no way I could have avoided what happened. I shook a little, fighting back tears, took a few deep breaths and got back on my bike to finish the ride that had ended so abruptly the day before. Not this time trauma, not this time.

A week after the crash, my face had almost healed, except for that bump near my ear. One evening, I scratched the itchy bump and felt something hard. I looked at my finger there was a part of an Alder twig that had worked its way out my head. Bike rider and part tree. Perfect. I took rides the rest of the summer. On vacant streets, I practiced swerved around leaves on the ground reminding myself what the little boy me did naturally. The brakes and gears came more naturally. Still wary, I took the trails slowly. No need for this old dude to be in a hurry. But here’s the funny part. From August on, Fanno Creek Trail was closed north and south of our home by park and trail construction. I never made it to that tavern. Instead, I stopped to look for a Blue Heron who I saw now and again. I still clench a little when a bike or a walker comes toward me and let out a relief breath when I am by them. But I also share nods with the approaching strangers because that seems to be what bike riders do. My bike is tucked away for winter now. Come the spring, those taverns will still be there.

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My Improbable Dahlia Habit

Another happy surprise I took from Portland.

I am a dahlia guy. Growing up, I hated yard work. In the desert, it was a hot, nasty business that ended with me wheezing and sneezing nonstop in front of the air conditioner. No such thing as Claritin in the faded past. But when, in 1990, I bought my first little house on Mt. Tabor, everything about lawn work was different. I bought a big, used Reader’s Digest book of gardening and taught myself the nature of each of the plants I inherited from an elderly couple. Out front, under the dining-room window, were dahlias. I was smitten.

In bloom, the variety of dahlia flowers struck me as alien. Not merely alien, as the different, but something from another planet. The blooms do things that seem impossible. Geometric, honeycombed balls. Heavy saucers of rippling color. Purples are so dark that they may as well be black. Delicate stars that dance in the breeze and give up their petals almost as quickly as you notice them.

When Sally and I moved a couple of blocks up Mt. Tabor in 1977, I brought the dahlia tubers from that little first garden. It turned out that down our new block lived a frail, kind old man who was an expert in two plants: dahlias and fuchsias. One late summer afternoon, I saw he was sitting in a chair in his driveway, cane propped between his legs. As always, I admired his garden. This time, I had the privilege of thanking the gardener. As is sometimes the case, whatever aches and fatigue he bore disappeared as he beckoned me to follow him up his long driveway to a combination shed and greenhouse. Before I followed him inside, I was gobsmacked by what appeared to be reinforced clothesline in the shade of a tall tree. He had hung rows of different varieties of fuchsias. Purples, reds, pinks. The cascade of inverted flowers over the edges of each pot. On the ground beneath each plant was a puddle of faded color, wilted flowers returning to the soil.

He was eager to impart what he knew about his flowers. I am now old enough to know that impulse. He told me how he bred varieties, stored his plants and tubers, the secrets of his soil mix and what time means for a dahlia. I was an eager apprentice. As I parted, he pressed some cut flowers into my hands. I scooped the flowers into the crook of my elbow, offered my hand and thanked him. As I walked to the end of his driveway, I turned and watched as the electric charge of our meeting faded and he grew dim and seemed to shrink a little. It was a lucky encounter as he passed away soon after and two subsequent owners, lacking his passion, let his work fade away. One day, curious, I walked back up the driveway. The shed was abandoned and the fuchsia clotheslines were gone.

I created three front yard beds for my dahlias. While I was still a working stiff, I didn’t have the time to dig the tubers every season. Wet weather killed about a third of the flowers every year, which meant that we could make a fun trip to Swan Island Dahlias to pick new varieties to blend into the mix. There was one flower I watched for every year, a mid-sized purple beauty that added white tips as it matured. That variety came with me from our first house.

Living on retirement time, I kept a promise to dig and winter over my tubers in the basement. I divided them and dumped them into 2 milk crates. My system is simple. The containers were for either tall or small varieties. Each summer was like Christmas, with mystery dahlia packages under the tree for a month as they came into bloom. No two yearly gardens were the same. I had become the neighborhood old dahlia guy, educating my neighbors on how to grow them and providing starter tubers from the abundance of the division. When strolling folks admired my bounty, I cut flowers for them. The youngsters were especially fun. I told them the flower would keep for days in water. This news inevitably resulted in squealing children running down the sidewalk. Funny how they all thought getting the flowers in water was an emergency.

That leads me to the dilemma of our move to Tigard. I HAD to take my dahlias. When we found our new home, it had an awful 200 sq ft all St John’s Wort mess in the front. The sunny location was perfect for a dahlia bed. To get the house in the crazy market, we had to do a 60-day rent-back which put my flowers beyond the planting period in May and early June. I needed 2 things: a landscaper to remove the invasive wort and soil prepped for my flowers. I asked our agent to create a new condition to close the deal. I had to have access to the garden before we moved in. The two agents had never heard of such a thing, but the seller was a gardener and understood. And here’s the deal…. Our offer was not the highest, but the dahlia amendment penetrated the enforced anonymity of the transaction. The seller saw a human via a garden and later told me that the dahlias were one reason they took our offer.

Plants don’t have a calendar. The landscaper was hard to find. Time drifted out of my control. In the basement, the tubers sprouted. We couldn’t move until the middle of June. I was going to lose all the dahlias as the bed wasn’t ready. There was no good advice to be had for planting in the heat of early July. I created a solution. I bought two dozen 3 gallon planting bags and filled them with compost. Dahlias are delicate when as they sprout. The probing shoot is weak, and the tuber puts out a lacy network of roots. One by one, I moved the sprouted flowers from the crates to the bags. One each. Two rows of black bags in the new back yard: tall and small. My idea was to let the dahlias mature into reasonably healthy green sprouts, then move them to their new home as they matured. Other growers told me, “Maybe some will survive.”

I planted the first dozen. First, I dug their new homes and tossed in some bone meal. Then like a woman rolling down stockings, I revealed the new plants, carefully pulling down the sides of each bag. The network of fine roots filled the new ball of life. I wiggled my hands under the fresh growth and lifted the baby plants out, cupped in my hands. A curious intimacy happened each time I lifted a plant from its temporary home. I eased each one into the holes and snuggled new soil around roots. Given dahlia nature, there was no reason this should work. But it did.

Today, the tall varieties should be at least five feet high, exploding with blooms. My most robust plants are not yet three feet high. But, against the odds, here and there I have blooms. The picture above is the first one to arrive. I know that variety. In my last Mt. Tabor garden, it was at the bottom of my driveway, closet to the sidewalk. It was the star that beckoned passing eyes. That plant should be four feet high. Still, from a single, scraggly shoot, it did what even abused and stunted dahlias can do. It offered beauty. Here and there, very late in the season now, others have joined the parade.  I am a dahlia guy with a tradition. Every year, I take the last bloom, sometimes close to Thanksgiving, cut and dry it. I put the dried flower next to my meditation altar, a reminder of summer in the fleeting sunshine of winter days. In the spring, when I plant my tubers, I take that dried flower and blend it into the new soil. Continuity. An offering, of sorts, in an unknown religion. A month ago, I thought circumstance had broken the chain of my ritual. Happily, I was wrong.

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The First Portland Apartment Porch Mystery

Good grief, it has been a long time since I have had the time to sit down and write. The last 2 months of the move have been one task after another. I enjoy feeling productive and genuinely enjoy the time I have spent working on our new home and planting the big ass garden in the front yard. Still, having the old Mt Tabor house off my list of weekly chores is a massive relief. For Sally and me, we are just now feeling like we can center in this new place. Our choice of Tigard delights us. On Sunday, we went to a downtown beer garden. Our first observation: no hipsters, just folks of all ages. Above my head right now is the whack, whack, whack of roofers at work. That is the last big thing as the water of our lives seeks equilibrium.

A couple of months ago, I wrote I had happy stories about my decades in Portland. One of those tales appeared from the bottom of my top desk drawer. Under the dust and detritus was a small, yellowed piece of paper with a mostly unrecognizable scrawl. Except, the second I saw it, I got a happy shiver in my chest.

I landed in Portland at the city’s northernmost edge, a strange summer sharing a houseboat at Jantzen Beach moorage. I would take trips into the completely unknown city looking for an apartment. Having a goofy, epileptic Labrador named Dobbsie has my constant traveling companion made the search harder. But as a friend told me, “You wouldn’t really want to live anywhere that didn’t allow a dog, would you?” Yup, he was right. Finally, I found a lumbering 1906 family home that had been carved into 3 apartments in the now fashionable Buckman neighborhood. Buckman was down on its luck, as was I. The place had a small backyard for Dobbsie. $145 a month furnished, heat included.

The kitchen window looked out on the yard and the house next door. When I moved in, a slightly older lived there. I met them and chatted sometimes. He was an engineer of some sort who designed the first Widmer Brewery. That connection got me an invitation to the opening of the plant, where I met the now legendary brewing brothers. With time, the couple had two girls with memorable names: Mahonia and Lanea. Looking out over my kitchen sink, I watched the girls grow up warm season by warm season as they first sat in child seats watching mom, then with wobbling steps.

The line between observer and voyeur is wavey. The family at rest in their yard was perhaps something a bit too intimate to watch. I felt that, but didn’t stop looking. My place has a wonderful multi-step stoop and a big porch. I often took my newspaper (newspapers… sigh) out to the steps in the afternoon. Inevitably, mom with a stroller and Mahonia wandered by. We talked, mom rolling the stroller back and forth. Everyone has seen the cute, shy little girl routine. Mahonia’s unabashed curiosity struck me about me. Mom said, “Jim is our neighbor.” The Jim didn’t stick with the Mahonia. But from then on I was Neighbor.

Many kids walked by the house on the way to Buckman Elementary School. Dobbsie delighted them by galumphing up and down the low chain-link fence. Dobbs, with her odd hopping, never gave off a threat. The kids caught onto that immediately. Mahonia was no different. She loved to see Dobbs and when she talked to me, she asked about Dobbsie. On demand, I brought my dog down from the apartment for a hug. 

Somewhere in this flow, little things started showing up on the front porch. The two other guys who lived there left the flotsam alone. A Rock. 3 Rocks. A pinecone. A wilted Dandelion flower. Some arranged leaves and sticks. I looked them over and cleared them away when I got home from work. A mystery. Finally, on one of their walks, mom said, “She is quite fascinated with you and insists on leaving you things.” Mahonia slipped behind mom. I looked at the little one and told her, “Thank you very much, Mahonia. I really like your surprises.” Mom mouthed ‘thank you’ and Mahonia danced away home.

One day, something new appeared on the porch. It was a stack of small papers stapled together. There were odd drawings and pages of, well, scribbles. The next time I saw mom, I asked. She said that one day Mahonia insisted on making Neighbor a book. People had given me books, but this was the first time someone made one for me.

Then, as now, I am a loner by nature. I have the urge to make and keep friends, but my wicked strong introversion makes that a fool’s errand. Even as a child, I stood back and watched other people’s lives. From windows and stoops and benches and car windows, I let my curiosity flow as I watch generations ripple by. There was that one time in my earliest days in Portland where my watcher bubble was neatly pierced by a little girl.

When I moved from that apartment, I realized how much I was going to miss the porch mysteries. Of course, there would be a day when Mahonia would shed her fascination with Neighbor. But on the day before I moved, still that guy to a little girl, I took over a couple of gifts, a fairy tale book and a collection of stickers that I had seen she applied liberally to herself. Mom thanked me and explained to Mahonia that Neighbor was moving. I am not sure the little one fully grasped what was happening. That’s fine. I think for both of us, I was leaving at just the right time. I thanked her for all the surprises and waved goodbye.

And so, in the bottom of my drawer was one more surprise. A note from a friend on which she had written my name.

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Portland the First Time: My Euphoria Story

As Sally and I get ready to leave Portland, it occurred to me I have been clear why I am leaving, but not so revealing about why I came here. So, this tale will be one of a series of vignettes about how I got here and why I stayed for 40 years.  Here goes….

I came to Portland to stay in 1982. However, my first visit was in 1978. For almost a year, I lived in Salem for about a year with my girlfriend. I had been working in my home desert after school about as aimless as one can be. A college friend, who was doing graduate work at Willamette University,  sent me a postcard which suggested I come to Salem. I went to the library (yeah, pre-Google) and read about Salem, Oregon. On a river, which meant it was the anti-desert. State Capitol. Hey, I had a new degree in Political Science, maybe that could be a thing. I left the desert, without a clue, and ended up working graveyard shift at a freeway gas station and growing pot in a closet. Now there’s living large.

My college friend had a boyfriend who was at the law school. He was a car geek, who made moonshine in the basement and had a love of the blues music. I didn’t yet know blues, only knew it was the foundation of rock. We lived almost across the street from each other. One day, he walked over and said that Muddy Waters was going to play in Portland. Was I interested? Sure, I said. Great, he said. But I needed to drive us to Portland to score tickets because both his Porsche 356A and Austin Healey were not running (note: way cool cars, but running wasn’t their thing). Off we went in my little Toyota Corolla Deluxe. Deluxe was a relative term for the Japanese cars of the 70s.

My first time on the streets of Portland started at the Memorial Coliseum exit off I5. Mark had a little sheet of scribbled notes and an alarmingly positive attitude. I recall seeing the black box arena and how we seemed to go in circles. We ended up in a head shop/music store and parked in an alley out back. Smell being a powerful memory, I remember the overwhelming aroma of incense, then popular to cover the smell of still felony marijuana. We got the tickets but didn’t linger, as the price of gas and tickets had exhausted our entertainment budget for the month.

Funny thing about where we bought the tickets. Many, many years later, I pulled into the weird diagonal head in/back out parking lot behind my all-time favorite music store in Portland, Music Millennium. Standing in on the sidewalk, looking at my car, it hit me. This was where I parked when I came to buy the Muddy Waters tickets. By then, I had been in Portland for decades and made friends with the owner, Terry. By then I had been to about 100 blues shows, but only at that moment did I realize that this was where my connection to Portland started.

The show was in an industrial area at a club called The Euphoria Tavern. It had an unlikely entry up a few steps on a street lined with loading docks and parked trucks. (The place still exits behind the Office Depot on MLK. It has had a dozen venue lives, and I once saw the queercore Portland band Team Dresch there.) Once inside, the place was pure Portland hippie funky. Beat up wood chairs, a few wobbly tables, and some rows of church pews up front. I recall a little before the music started, but what I didn’t know then was that Muddy’s backup band was a collection of blues royalty. Pinetop Perkins on piano, Jerry Portnoy on harp, Bob Margolin and Luther ‘Guitar’ Johnson on guitar, Calvin ‘Fuzz’ Jones on bass and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith behind the drum kit. The band came out and played and played and played. Muddy Waters was nowhere to be seen. I mean, the music was great, but we came to see the man and I was getting antsy. Beers doing their job, I went to the restroom.

It was a two-urinal facility. I took my place and got about my business when an old, black man in a shiny purple shirt, black jacket and porkpie hat appeared at the urinal next to me. I could hear the band still playing (over the years, I have come to love taking a piss with live music in the background) and I had seen Muddy’s picture on Mark’s album cover. Yup, I was taking a whizz with Muddy Waters. Here is the bit of dialogue locked into my memory of my first trip to Portland.

Staring at the wall in front of me, with a slight head tilt and a little side-eye, I said, “Aren’t you supposed to be playing?”

Never looking my way, I heard his gravelly voice, “I’ll be gett’n there. I’ll be gett’n there.”

We finished our work and I hung back, so he exited before I did. Following him out, the small crowd saw him for the first time. The band switched to his walk-on music. People stood, clapped and hooted. One of the band members stepped to the mic and yelled, “Muddy Waters! Muddy Waters! Muddy Waters!” (I later learned that blues headliners always make the same sort of entrance after the backup band plays for a while.) That day, Muddy was the age I am now. Perhaps he was a prophet on that long ago night. Because what I didn’t know about Portland that night was that four years, and thousands of miles later, he had it right. “I’ll be gett’n there. I’ll be gett’n there.”

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Heading for the T-Places

I have an admission. From the mid-1980’s when I arrived here until a few months ago, I had no idea there was a difference between the cities of Tigard and Tualatin. I knew they were somewhere south of Portland. I got this intel from freeway exit ramps from I5 south bound. Since I rarely left the comforting street grid patterns of Portland, I absolved myself of any need to know about these cities by simply calling them the T-Places.

Now, because irony is my lifelong north star, my wife and I own a new home in Tigard. Turns out it is a city of 50,000 north of Tualatin and that the bigger city of Beaverton squats down on both the T-Places like a resting monkey on a branch. Come the end of June, we will abandon our longtime home “High Atop Mt. Tabor” and plant ourselves near the banks of Fanno Creek. This an outcome both as bizarre to me as it is natural.

As I have written here before, sadly, Portland has become a burden. While our neighborhood still has most of its former charms, the trip in and out of our few blocks is now an ugly affair as inner SE Portland is besotted with camps, crime and vandalized buildings. And perhaps our block on Mt Tabor isn’t what we want. The new wave of couples with baby strollers is friendly enough, but they now live in what recently became million-dollar homes. Google money has arrived. I suppose I should just get over it, but my blue-collar roots wonder how I ended up living in what is becoming an exclusive neighborhood. I don’t know if the slightly smaller house in Tigard will eventually have the same fate. I think it will feel different without all the history.

Another reason we are leaving is time. In the last few years, I have experienced how quickly aging can drastically alter one’s relationship with place. The most visible symbol on our street comes and goes. It’s the long aluminum ramp to the front door of these older homes. Our place has at least 3 steps in and out, and two stairways once inside. Turns out, especially as we age, a few steps can be a mighty impediment to living a functional life. The new place is a single level ranch style. Over the last year, we have been excited about potential homes only to open the garage door and see 4 steps to the main level. Sal and I are impossibly practical, but in this need, we feel prudent. Now, we won’t have to think about that outcome, should it be in our future.

Living in a big city, it is hard not to hear the phrase “walkable neighborhood.” In theory, that is where we live now. I can see Hawthorne Blvd from the front steps. I could walk to groceries, dining, coffee, and entertainment. Guess what. I don’t. I like to drive. I drive everywhere. You can take the boy out of Southern California, but you can’t get him out of his car. Everything I need, well Home Depot could be closer, is a quick drive from the new place. And even better, we are 5 minutes from the delicious GTI playground back roads in the Willamette wine country. This thrills me as going for a ride is one of my all-time favorite things to do. Was I a suburb guy all along? I wonder.

Still, early in our search, we concluded that downtown Portland needed to be less than 30 minutes away. I still need live music, baseball, cocktails with friends and vintage movies at the Hollywood Theatre. There is a vast difference if something is 20 minutes away and not 40 minutes. At 40, I know I will just blow it off. Portland is a different place if you are a visitor.

One last admission. I hate, yes hate, the privilege and smugness of bike culture in Portland. I had a bike when I injured my foot. Used it for exercise. It was stolen. I was fine with that. Truth is, biking on the street scared the shit out of me. Not my thing. Unbelievably, I am now looking forward to getting a bike. We are a block from the Fanno Creek trail system. Miles of isolated, improved bike/walk trails. And, 1.2 miles away (I checked) on those trails is a collection of taverns loaded with good cold beer. Now, at last, I have a motivation to try a bike.

Why did I use the dystopian photo for this piece? It’s a perfect example of life in Portland now. Less than a year ago, that building was a 7/11. I liked that store for ice cream bars, beer, and industrial strength corn dogs that spun on those hot chrome tubes. Almost immediately after it closed, the graffiti appeared, followed by a homeless camp followed by large piles of garbage. The owners painted over the graffiti, moved the camp and put up the fence. The next day the fence was breached and all the decay was back. A predictable, endless loop. Even occupied buildings are tagged. Last week, someone shot two souls outside of Gold Dust Meridian, a cocktail bar I like on Hawthorne. An arsonist attempted to burn down buildings at the little Christian college down the street. One was occupied by a family. My wife can’t use her office looking out on Dawson Park because of the gunfire and rounds that shattered the windows of her offices. The litany is endless. We are leaving for many reasons, many good ones. But in the end, we just couldn’t take it anymore. Compassion fatigue, Sal calls it. That’s about right. See you in the burbs.

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My Best Live Show… Ever

With over 1,000 shows on my list, as I watched the snow fall, I thought about which one was the pinnacle. I could go big, Bowie, Stones, Who, Eagles in the 70s. But as my memory pot simmered, and everything else disappeared with the steam, I had one night left. On April 15, 2013, I saw something transcendental in a little bar down in the inner eastside industrial district in Portland. I didn’t take any pictures, don’t have the ticket stub. They were out of t-shirts. All I have from the show is a little blue lapel pin that says “I AM HERE.”

My buddy Bob got a heads up from somebody that he really needed to see a band from London that was coming to town on a school night. Bob told me to meet him at Bunk Bar. This is a deeply odd place to see a show. It’s a small, former warehouse space that specializes in magical sandwiches and the mandatory row of Portland beers on tap. There is no stage. At some point, the wait staff pushes back an arch of tables, and a few monitors appear as a demarcation line, the illusion of a stage. No sound system. You get the sound right off the amps. No special lights, just a seemingly, randomly aimed collection of spots. There isn’t a green room. Opening bands blend into the crowd when they finish their sets and load out. There’s a hallway that leads to the restrooms and a door to the kitchen. That’s where the next band mills about, guitars strapped on, waiting to plug in.

One element that makes this show so special is that I almost didn’t see it. I was in a tough run, trying new medications to deal with my PTSD and panic disorder. That entire day, I had vacillated whether I could deal with a show, the people, the noise and especially the voices in my head. About the time I knew Bob was at the bar, I called him and said I was a goner. I simply couldn’t summon up the willpower to make it down the hill from my house. Being my pal, he both understood and gently encouraged me. I was disconsolate after I hung up, pacing about almost in tears. Time had ticked by for the opening band. Finally, as I have often had to do with the voices, I got punk rock on them and said, “Fuck it. Just go down and see what it is like.” That was the trick I often played on myself. Commit only to the parts. Drive down. Find parking. Mill around outside. Buy the ticket. One small step at a time. Each one with an escape plan.

Finally, inside the door, I looked for my friend. There couldn’t have been over 50 people in the place. He was in the back, beer in hand. I had surprised him. He came over and gave me a big hug and said, “Let’s get you a beer.” As the booze took effect, I knew I was there for the show. Conscious of the exit door, I motioned him down to lean on a table on the right side of the stage. He’s a short guy, so I am always conscious of his sight lines. I can see fine over his head. There was a manager looking guy sitting in a chair at the edge of the drum set staring at his phone. He gestured to the hallway and out came 4 women from London: Savages. We knew nothing about them. Never heard a song. But Bob and I share a minor obsession. We love women who rock. We seek those bands and singers. Too old coots, we are the most unlikely Riot Girl fanatics on the planet.

They looked rock band tough, all dressed in slick black clothes. Being eye to eye with a band in a small space means there is no place for them to hide. No antics. No posing. You get to see the band in what is little more than a practice space or a basement show. From the first slashing, high speed, almost surf guitar notes, I got that familiar chill as my body shed all anxiety and was fully present. Bob and I looked at each other, eyes wide, mouths agape. The singer, Jehnny Beth, was a blowtorch of charisma, seemingly in a trance for a moment, then exploding in swirling, dark lyrics. At the end of each song, as the room heated up with moving souls, Bob and I kept mouthing “what the fuck” at each other. Three songs in, Jehnny Beth talked to us. And here was where the intense fourth wall imploded. We were in awe, but so were they.

You see, this was their first American tour. They had driven all day to Portland from San Francisco. The first thing she said was almost adorable, “We did not know how big America is. What we drove today was the entire length of our country.” Looking at the faces of the four women, you could see they were a little exhausted, pumped on adrenaline, and a little lost in what was happening to them. I don’t think I have ever had the thought at a show before, but there was an innocence hanging in the air all around them.

There were no weak songs. Each one was an experiment. Challenging rock ballads. Full-on aural assaults. And, in each one, an ethereal challenge for the listeners. I looked around the room. Everyone was on the same ride, a shared journey of discovery. It was an experience you never wanted to end. When they finished, the applause and yelling was the most sincere demand for an encore I had ever heard. They came back out of the hallway and stood there, not plunging in. The drummer stood behind her kit. Jehnny Beth took the mic and said, “Uh, this is the first time we have done an encore.” The room went nuts yelling and clapping. She put her hand up to calm us down, “No, you don’t understand, EVER! We only know one more song. We could play that and one more again if that’s alright.”

Of course, it was alright. They ripped through the two songs, and all came out front to bow and thank us. I looked at their smiling faces and saw clearly that they were just kids who had stepped through a dream door and had only then realized it. Our great luck was to go along with them for a couple of hours. I stepped over to the mech table wanting a t-shirt. The woman behind the table said, “We didn’t know this would happen. We only have these buttons left.” For me, that night, that button said it all. I put it in my shirt and gave my friend a hug. Yea, I AM HERE.

I have seen them in headlining tours 2 more times. The photo is from a sold-out show at the Wonder Ballroom. Last night of their US tour where Jehnny Beth started by yelling, “You are getting everything we have left tonight!” We did.

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The End of Mystery

Surfing Netflix, I came across the 1998 movie, “As Good as It Gets.” If you haven’t seen it, just the on-screen time between Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, who both won Academy Awards, is worth the 2 hours. About 90 minutes in, I noticed something strange. Rather, I noticed the absence of something now ubiquitous. The movie appeared on the cusp of smart phones and the widespread use of the internet. I was highly attuned to that moment, as I was an early adopter of both. Leading an IT engineering team, we had a 24X7 on call rotation to support the company’s business servers and network. I didn’t have a rotation. As the boss, I was basically on call all the time. So, when cell phones became smaller than a valise, my team all got them to go with our pagers. It was a time when, if I was on my phone walking down the sidewalk, people did a double take. The movie is from the last gasp of an unconnected world. I couldn’t shake the feeling that may have been a better world because it was defined as much by what we didn’t know as what we knew. Everyone lived in their own mystery bubble.

Let me first be defensive and challenge the reflex that this essay is just another old man’s lament. We are now well into the second generation of ubiquitous, first world connectivity. Millions of people don’t know what they cannot know about the past. I am not saying pre-connection was better. That’s a silly way to judge history. However, layering context is essential. It this case, I believe there is a spiritual difference in the previous analog world based on what could and couldn’t be known. Every day, people were reminded of what they didn’t know. Simple questions like: ‘Where is she?’ ‘Where am I?’ governed our lives. We moved about in patterns that others could not know. We got lost and sought help, sometimes from a skinny kid at the local gas station like me. Resolving gaps in our knowledge started with a nearby person. “Hey, have you ever heard of… .” Stumped, the first thought was to pick up a phone and call someone who “just always knows.” Crowdsourcing information was a person-to-person, leisurely pursuit. Sometimes, the ultimate authority for a conundrum was an exchange of letters, snail mail, or even a trip to the library. None of this caused anxiety because we had faith that somewhere, someone had an answer. Mystery was ubiquitous.

I don’t have children, so have not been privy to the Borg-like intertwining of youthful minds and the internet. But in my work life, I saw an influx of Gens M and Z. One thing that startled me about their days was the need for certitude. If our conversations charted new ground for them, they would stop mid-sentence, reach for their smart phone, or turn to a screen and fire up the Google. Not surprising. Who hasn’t consulted the internet? What was different was the immediate need to end the discomfort of ignorance. Their’s is a world where mystery must be wrestled to submission. Oscillating between biological and electronic communication was second nature. Amongst their peers, the banter continued as eyes floated down to phones and back to other eyes. Having experienced a world where attention, focused personal presence was highly valued, I found the new digital habit first distracting, then frustrating, and finally, sad. Possibly more disconcerting is that I am now more likely to behave in the same way.

But I wonder, will the connected from birth ever feel the pure fun of an argument where facts are in doubt? I have spent hours with friends and strangers, engaging in the joy of pointless speculation. Among baseball fans, the beers came and went in long arguments about the relative merits of players or teams. We injected facts randomly based on the knowledge of hardcore fans. Everyone was an expert on something or feigned such expertise. Yea, we bullshitted each other. Most often, the discussion resolved amicably, if not inaccurately. In this way, we could revisit the same argument. Sometimes, the argument itself became a signifier for a relationship in the group. Should facts become critical, we consulted “the bible.” The bible was The Baseball Encyclopedia, a massive tome that collected all baseball stats from the beginning of the game. I have one. Page after page of the names of players and their careers. It’s an absurd book because it was obsolete the year it was purchased. Season by season, data marches away from the book. Now, Google solves all arguments because the internet it timeless. Is that a good thing?

Without accepting mystery, we are likely to fall prey to certainty. With a tap or some clicks, we are now sure we know. That need to know has become dangerous. Being addicted to certainty predisposes us to demand rapid answers, the endorphin hit of clarity. And once one is certain, repeatedly, a crack opens through which information can be altered to fill the need to know. We now see that truth has become relative. The quick hit of any sort of certainty is often more important than the muddy reality of nuanced and strained truth. Having lost the ability, or need, to live with a mystery, doubt becomes the enemy. People spouting the misinformed nonsense now swear that they “have done their own research.”

With no mystery, we fall prey to lies that feel like the truth. Feelings become facts. Any good behavioral therapist will tell you that the path to constant neurosis is an inability to separate feelings and facts. Look around you or look at your social media feed. How much of what you see is based on how people feel? How have they have substituted feelings for facts? And now, most dangerously, once anyone expresses a feeling on the internet, the algorithms spring to life to feed you more solace for your feelings. The algos don’t exit to provide facts because it’s feelings that sustain clicks and clicks make money.

When the movie ended, I sat for a time staring at the blank screen. For a couple of hours, I had been somewhere familiar. Clean is the word that came to me. The relationships portrayed were uncluttered by instant communication and electronic paths to false certainty. There was no need to clutter the screen with text bubbles into the virtual world. With no immediate digital outlet for self-expression, impulses had to be contained, questions pondered. Humans benefit from slow. Digital speed exceeds our ability to understand. Spontaneous feelings take flight thoughtlessly. In the crowded New York sidewalk scenes, everyone was looking up, out and around. Awareness extended only as far as anyone could see. Beyond that point in the distance, everyone shared the same limitation. The world was a mystery.

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Does America Only Have 3 Years Left?

I was awash in hope for the great American experiment. It is a wonderful notion, this idea that a wildly diverse collection of humans would gather to commit themselves to a creed, a collection of ideas. Through the flaws at its founding, the mechanism to correct those flaws and grow to the higher goods has served us well. But now we have learned there is a greater chink in the armor of our constitution. What was unwritten is as important as what is in the founding documents. The entire experiment always depended on the fealty of our leaders to the same understanding and desired outcomes. Tradition and the good intentions of people are the glue that held us together. That glue is gone. The unleashed passions and obedience to faction that the founders feared to their core now run wild. It pains me to write this, but I now believe the clock is ticking louder to the day which we will move from a representative democracy to an authoritarian rule minority. Here is the evidence that weighs heavily on my heart.

In my academic world, I have now spent decades trying to understand political polarization. I remained steadfast in my belief that the system, the people in it, would prevent a tipping of the scale. What I could not account for was the internet. Americans are now hermetically sealed into opposing narratives. Worse, as we have learned recently, the financial model of social media companies is to drive clicks by sustaining anger. They have studied our brains and know how to keep us apart for profit.

The other factor I could not imagine is the dissolution of one of our political parties. Republicans started their dance with the devil after the signing of the great society civil rights laws of the 60s. The polar flip of the south from Democrat to Republican was a racial response that has through line to today. I recommend: Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury by Evan Osnos. His analysis lives in a wonderfully nuanced story telling about 3 cities where he lived and revisited after living abroad for a decade. Core to the telling is how Karl Rove designed the Bush campaign’s takeover of solid Democratic West Virginia by exploiting race, class, religion, and culture. It’s a playbook the Republicans have repeated with brilliant success. What they hadn’t considered was that after inflaming the beast, it would turn on them with the appearance of a demagogue. Now, to maintain and accumulate power, they must hang onto the tail of the monster with all their might. And so, every traditional restraint has been abandoned. They now stand ready to fill out the power roles of an impending autocracy.

However, the Republicans have a willing partner in the dissolution of our liberal democracy, the Democratic party. The newly empowered progressive wing has no love for the American experiment. In fact, they are an engine for faction and division. Identity politics based on race and intellectual class are now their watchword. At the precise moment when we desperately need a doubling down on the constitutional creed, it is faction they seek, first within their party then as a utopian vision of how to reshape the core American beliefs. History tells us that all utopian communities fail. From the Shakers to Communism, utopias become dystopias, leaving the true believers shattered and angry. Witness the current argument over hard and social infrastructure. It is internecine warfare which Republicans watch with glee.

Let’s be clear, the election of Biden was not a mandate for a complete restructuring of the social safety net. This was not an FDR in the Great Depression moment where he swept into office with huge Democratic majorities in Congress. No, this was a rejection of Donald Trump. It was a plea to stop the daily insanity. Americans are, mostly, not programmatic voters. They vote for moods and individuals. Biden was a psychological salve. Progressive hubris is limitless. Democrats got killed in state and local elections in 2020. They barely hung onto the House. The wildcard of Trump gave them a 50-50 Senate by the slimmest of margins. To take the election results in 2020 as a mandate for a great social policy awakening is insanity. Biden is living an FDR fantasy, caught in the moment, and too weak to resist the hubris. Today, what Biden needs most in the world, a political necessity and wedge against impending autocracy is a big win. That win sits in the hands of progressives. The $1.2T infrastructure bill is a done deal. It would provide limitless political ammunition against Republicans now and in the midterms. Yet, there it sits, held hostage to Progressive hubris and utopian visions. Would more social programs be helpful? Yes. Did Americans vote for such programs? No. Especially in the suburbs and among independent voters? No.

What of Biden? He is the solace against the insanity of Trump. But he was always a transitional president. He said it himself. But we all see it. He is two steps slower now and fading fast. A powerful president would not dodge every opportunity to engage the media and make his case. He can’t do it. Every time he makes a teleprompter statement, then turns from the shouted questions; his weakness is on display. Republicans taste the blood in the water and are ruthless. Biden isn’t up for the fight. And in 2024? There is still no Democratic presidential candidate bench. Kamala Harris will never be President of the United States. She is weak tea with no innate political skills. Her public performances are even more cringeworthy than Biden’s. Reports are that her staff is a mess. She has hired new messaging gurus, a sure sign of the disarray. And here’s the truth that no one wants to hear. America might elect a woman president (too many women won’t vote or a woman) but, I’m sorry, America will not elect a woman of color. Obama taught us that the electorate is not post racial. In fact, his election super-charged the racial core of the current Republican party. In this pronouncement, I am not stating what is in my heart; I am being my best, most calculating, political hack. So, a thought experiment, who else do the Democrats have to take on Trump? Yea, I can’t think of anyone either.

Yes, Trump is running on 2024. It will happen like this. The Democrats cannot overcome their internal battles to defend the House in the midterms. The Republicans will pick up 1 or 2 seats in the Senate. Controlling Congress, Republicans will stop the 1/6 commission and unleash a blizzard of conspiracy theory-based investigations. Have you forgotten how Republican investigations work? My best guess is that, purely out of revenge, the House will vote impeach Biden. They will dominate the media landscape. False narratives will supplant truth, already in short supply and at the core of those narratives will be the reincarnation of Trump. He will ride the wave to announce his campaign. Democrats, in disarray, with no clear leadership and a still slipping Biden will be political roadkill. The state elections apparatus in every Republican state is now, or soon will be, designed to invalidate Democratic electors. They are busy rigging the game now. Close states Biden won will fall to vote suppression and tricks. Trump is the next president.

Once in power, the Trumpists will correct every mistake they made in his first term. There will be no guard rails, no protectors of the constitution. If there are riots and marches, he will invoke the Insurrection Act. (The Woodward/Costa book says we are very close in 2020.) Troops will deployed as the generals who saved us last time will be purged. Only loyalists will be in any position of power. The Republican congress will act in concert with the Trump administration, gleefully removing the filibuster to pass legislation at will. We have seen this show in Europe and Asia. Under the cover of “democratic” elections, America will be an autocracy. Three years left. Tick tock.

The only thing that will prevent Trump’s return is him dying or ending up in jail. Even then there are a willing crew of authoritarian Trumpists waiting in the wings. They may be more dangerous, as they are smarter and uniquely focused. The path is now open. The only question is who will set forth on the journey.

The only way to prevent this is for the Democrats, in the next 18 months, to be as relentless as the Republicans. Democrats don’t like hardball politics. Get over it. They will have put aside utopian dreams and realize than in the dystopian future, none of what they think possible will even be considered. Yea, what a bummer, but this is not a time for inter-party policy fights. The threat is upon us. Democrats need to align with every anti-Trumpist Republican they can in the battle. The enemy of my enemy…. This is now a game for cold-eyed political killers. The Democrats need their own Mitch McConnell. Only a beast can face down a beast. And yes, Democrats will need to suck it up and become unabashed patriots.

Thomas Paine said it long ago.

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.

            And, in our day’s vernacular, I offer this clip from a guy who was right about Trump from the beginning.

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Emptying The Boxes

Bodhi and Luna

The two small boxes could not have been more different. One was a neat, glossy, rectangular wooden box. Simple, but nicely made. The other was tin metal with a paisley flower pattern on the outside. In another life, it would have made a good tea container. Since January 2112, they had sat together, first on a shelf in our kitchen, then on a shelf in the basement above the dog’s kennel area. Sally had moved them. I don’t know when. But it was Sally who finally said it was time to scatter the ashes of our much-loved dogs on Mt. Tabor. I agreed.

I devoted a tear-soaked chapter to the passing of Bodhi and Luna in my memoir. It was there that I thought I had worked this all out, the sudden death of our dogs in the same week. When Sally brought the boxes up from the basement and put them on the dining room table, I mused on how strange it was we hadn’t done this sooner. How had we lived with the ashes for so long? Part of me thought it unkind to have not completed this circle. It turned out the act of omission was a conspiracy between the two of us.

Sunday morning, I took the wooden box down to my workbench to remove the screws that held it together. When I turned it over, I saw the printed label. Whoever did the label had misspelled Bodhi into Budhi. That evoked a flash of anger. Not annoyance. It pissed me off. Had I not seen this error before? Inside the opened box was a compressed grey cube of remains in a plastic bag. I had an odd thought. Do bigger dogs get bigger boxes or is this one size fits all? I put the Bodhi cube and the Luna tin in a Walgreens paper bag, and we got in my car to go up to a spot of Sally’s choosing.

Sally is the morning dog walker, has been since our first to dog Ziggy, whose ashes we spread on the little cinder cone hill a long time ago. I have never seen the morning dog walk. I hear about it. It’s an almost sacred time for Sally and the dogs. They roam the park in all weather. During winter, it is still dark when they get up there. The meticulous “doggie mama” puts blinking lights on the dog’s collars so that even off leash in the fog and growing light she can track them. I have heard tales of remarkable sunrise moments on bitter frosty mornings, just Sal and her dogs. So, naturally, Sally chose the ultimate resting place for Bo and Lu on the south side of the hill, facing the sun, just outside the large dog park. She told it was there she sometimes let them off leash to sniff and play.

Sal was emotional all morning. I was not. We walked up, and I pointed out a small tree that seemed the right place. There was a breeze. I reminded Sal to stay upwind lest we become a scene from the Big Lebowski and coat ourselves in the dogs. I took Bodhi, who was my constant companion. Sally removed Luna, the dog that stole her heart. Sally, in tears, said we should each spread half the ashes. Sal is wise like that. Ignoring my Lebowski caution, Sal began pouring the ashes standing in the wind. I eased her to turn as the first grey puff was already on her shoes. We both said how we liked that the inseparable pair of girls were mingling on the ground. It troubled me that the swath of remains seemed so large. Grey dust, speckled with shiny white bits of crushed bone, extended out from the tree trunk in the wind’s direction. I put the empty plastic bags into the paper sack, and we embraced. We said words over the grey swath, reminisced a bit. Then, as we departed, I became uncomfortable about how visible the ashes were. I am not sure why, but I kicked over some covering leaves. The futility of effort was immediately clear, and I returned to walking out with Sal.

Still near the tree, I looked over and emotion hit me like a thunderclap. You see, I made a mistake the day we lost my big dog Bo. I’ll not retell the entire story here, as I did it better in my book, but there was a point when it was clear she was dying and I decided we needed to go home to get Luna, so Bodhi’s companion knew what happened. I should have stayed with Bo while Sally got Luna. I didn’t. That regret washed over me as I looked at the grey line in the bright sunshine. We both walked in tears back to the car.

Blackwood men talk most freely while sitting in their cars. It turned out so do Blackwood women. Sally and I both had secrets we had held from each other for almost 10 years. Sally was alone when the cancer burst in Bodhi’s gut, causing her to bleed out internally. Sal called me away from an evening event I was at with the commissioner. I rushed to the emergency veterinarian. I always thought Bo’s crash had been fast. What Sally had spared me was how it was slow. That night, she had called the vet twice for advice and given her pain medication. Bodhi, the athlete, was always spraining something so that what we did all the time. But Sally had believed the drugs were the problem. Sally had spent hours watching and panicking over Bodhi’s decline. She never told me to spare me that pain, that image. She also said she should have forced me to stay with Bo while she got Luna.

While I had written in the past that I should have stayed that night, sitting in the car, I finally revealed the lingering depth of my shame. That awful night, I was having panic attacks and getting away from that pet hospital was, insanely, a relief, a chance to collect myself. My longtime mental health issue, not my love of my big dog, was calling the shots. And there was one more secret I kept. Luna had mouth cancer, but it was slow illness. A few days after Bodhi died, I woke to find Luna alone upstairs, in the middle of the floor, panting. We went to the same emergency clinic, same damn vet, and she coldly said Luna was dying. Sally and Luna shared a heart. What I didn’t tell Sally was that I never believed it was the cancer. I was sure that Luna died of a broken heart. Without her rambunctious mate, she just gave up. I never wanted to burden my wife with that thought.

Now, parked in the garage, Sally and I unburdened ourselves. She said she always thought it was best for Luna to be with her sister. Her immediate passing had given Sally comfort. I told Sally that it was all my decision not to stay with Bodhi. I was too deep in shock, and more afraid of Sally not being there with me. I told her she did her best that night. She told me the same. And then we looked at each other and knew. We finally understood why those two boxes had sat on shelves for so long. We both had secrets and lovingly avoided what would surely come if we opened those two boxes and set our dogs free. When we had exhausted the life of our secrets, we had another realization. Those boxes, symbols of pain and love, had become a silent anchor, holding us in this house and this place. Now, Bodhi and Luna are where they should have been all the time, and we, well, we are now also free to leave this place and make something new.

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Drake! WE ARE LEAVING!!!

Have you ever been to a show with a band you love and about halfway through the set you are done? Maybe the line-up changed. Perhaps the new album was an awful dance-beat nightmare? Or maybe, to your surprise, your tastes had changed, and the old songs didn’t give you the former buzz. About three quarters through the set, you think about what’s in the refrigerator at home. When the leftover lasagna calls, you take one last look at the stage and walk out. Well, that is how Sally and I feel about Portland now.

There are parts of my memoir that are a love letter to Portland. Or, are those sections a peon to a certain version of the city? I met Sally here, so I can’t argue with that. But about a year ago, we looked around and asked each other, “Why are we still here?” I think my big revelation was that as I roamed the city taking photographs during the depths of the lockdown, I realized that what I really liked was that all the people were gone. The quiet streets were seductive. The lack of traffic created a certain ease. The endless stream of hipsters dressed in black had disappeared. Stripped down, Portland became a list of things I didn’t need anymore. And, what remained, the grime, the homelessness, the narcissistic graffiti bubbled to the top. Covid meant that Sally no longer had to be here to work. The stars aligned.

I can’t live in a place without being well informed. I read online news, formerly newspapers, and stay plugged into the ebb and flow of politics and power. I was so committed to the city that I switched careers and devoted long hours to a job in city hall. However, it was in the last year there that I saw the city’s philosophy move away from me. A classic liberal with a streak of economic conservatism, I saw the first wave of dogmatic progressivism crash into city hall. Slowly, and now completely, thought became governed by a series of progressive litmus tests. I love to challenge narratives, question authorities, and encourage broad thinking in policy discussions. Merely having that mindset has become a problem in Portland. Viewpoint diversity evaporated in a new group think with its sanctions for violating the emerging dogma. Comity and negotiation, the search for balanced solutions, has been replaced with the certainty of the advocate. If I have learned anything in my years, it is that such absolute certainty is cutting the trail for hubris. It now pains me to read about our city’s government.

Last summer, in bed with the windows open, I heard the sound of attacks on the police office about 15 blocks from our house. Now, occasionally, I hear gunfire. There is a new game on NextDoor: Was that fireworks or gunfire? Streets I walked at all hours in our neighborhood, and even downtown, are dangerous. I am a city guy who loves to get a slice of pizza at 1AM after a show. I have a well-developed street radar to avoid trouble. I have seen a stabbing, fights, drunken stupidity and macho posturing but at no time did I think I didn’t want to be there in the clarifying flow of the night. No more. Being in the heart of this city, the chance to be in the wrong place at the wrong time is much higher. Formerly transitory homeless camps are now locked down mini sidewalk cities. Systems have failed. I look down to make sure you are avoiding human excrement and up to gauge the intentions of the violent mentally ill. Moments after a building vacant, graffiti locusts descend, adding to the dystopia. Even the attempts to bring downtown back to life seem forced and fanciful. Oh, it may come back, but no time soon.

When Sally and I drive around the city, we kvetch, sometimes in sadness, other times in frustration. A few days ago, we wanted to pop into a fast-food joint on Hawthorne. Sitting at the lights, we looked out at a spaghetti of lines drawn on the street. Red zones, green zones, dashed sections, solid blocks, lights for cars, lights for bikes, new humps in the street for busses and pylons poking up from the tarmac. Sally’s question was simple, “How do I turn right?” I began to complain, but stopped and we both looked at each other and said, “Drake.”

There is a scene in Aliens where the troops are desperately firing and running from the alien creatures. The troops are being slaughtered. Finally, the combat tank arrives and the doors open. Corporal Hudson, wounded, yells at the last guy in the fight, the rear guard. “Drake! We are leaving!!!” Moments later, the creatures kill the last guy standing, and the survirors escape just in time. Sally and I have taken that scene as our mantra. When frustrated and about to fall into another rant, we say, “Drake.”

We have requirements. To age in place (lord willing and the creek don’t rise) we want a single level home. I want a newer house. Almost 100-year-old homes are charming, but I am tired of keeping this one from falling down. We will not be within the Portland city limits. I don’t want to think about this place. However, we have agreed that we want to be 30 minutes to downtown. That is the outer limit of reasonableness to catch a show or a movie at the Hollywood Theatre. That also puts the Pickles and Hops in easy striking distance for medicinal baseball. Sally must replace Mt Tabor Park. Nature that close is soothing. Little things, room for my dahlias, light streaming into the kitchen, a covered patio eventually. We have the list.

For months, we have been throwing stuff away and making trips to Goodwill. We have a ‘not going’ list too. The new place will be smaller. But, for all our preparation and my grieving for what I will lose, Covid and a housing bubble have made it nearly impossible to find a new place. It’s crazy. Like everyone else, the wacky times capture our life change. For months, there is nothing to buy. We have gotten Zen about it, mostly. We have the happy problem of trading in one nice place for another when the right thing comes along. We have worked hard and been frugal, but we know we are fortunate. So, for the time being, here we are, anchored to our past and present, anticipating the future. There’s a word for that. DRAKE!!!

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