Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Small Moments Day

It is only midmorning, but it is clearly a small moments day. The very best days are small moments day, those moments strung together like beads.

Ohio is experiencing a stretch of cool, sunny weather. Summer is my least favorite season, so when weather like this comes along, I revel in it. It stirs me to do things, even given my widely disparate levels of energy on any given day. I had the week's laundry washed and hung on the line before 9:00. It is drying now, the sun baking its freshness into the fibers. Before I headed to the library to pick up a reserved book, I mixed a batch of bread dough and left it to rise.

Laundry and bread and the energy to do both: small moments.

I walked to the library slowly, taking note of the neighborhood. At the house in the next block where three young girls live, the front walk was covered in colorful chalk swirls, the chalk still scattered on the walk. A hula hoop of the same bright colors was tossed down nearby, probably dropped last night when they were finally called in. A little further on, a grandmother in her bathrobe leaned over her front walk railing to gently chide her granddaughter, who was delighting in riding up and down the sidewalk. "You can't ride so far on your bike. I can't see you. You went too far."

Hula hoops, sidewalk chalk, and a little girl on her bike: small moments.

The Bobbs rode by on their bikes, coming from the downtown and our local Farmers Market. He called to me, "there's a few things left!" I waved my book at them. "I'm headed to the library. Lots of things left there!" Two blocks later, I ran into a local attorney who, like me, had just presided over mock trials at a summer camp for middle schoolers. We compared notes: middle schoolers never fail to surprise you.  (Neither of us could top the tale told by my good friend Scott, who was a judge last week. On direct, the prosecutor asked the coroner, "So, did anyone bring in any frozen girls that night?" Kids!)

Friends on bikes, calling to you, and a colleague on the street corner exchanging camper stories: small moments.

The book was waiting for me at the library. As I headed for home, I stopped at the Symphony office, one block up from the library. Warren was working. He had left while I was hanging laundry this morning, and we had not exchanged kisses, which we do whenever one of us leaves the house. So I stopped and saw his morning's work, and got my kiss.

A fresh book in hand and a kiss from Warren: small moments.

Since starting this, I have punched down the dough and shaped the two loaves for the second rising. I have new books waiting. Warren is back home.

Small moments all.

A small moments day. Crystal beads strung together on a fine wire, catching the light, catching the day.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Land of Counterpane

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

The Land Of Counterpane, by Robert Louis Stevenson 

I have read a lot of Robert Louis Stevenson's poetry in my lifetime, although not so much in recent years. Stevenson seems to have fallen out of fashion among the nursery set. In looking back, I am not sure I read a great many of his poems to my children. Ben, maybe; Sam, certainly not. (Sam early on had a fascination with Longfellow's "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," and that was pretty much the extent of Sam's childhood poetry exposure. I probably read it to him nightly for six months when he was five or six.) (An aside: As I reflect upon what I have shipped out to Ramona so far, I shamefacedly have to acknowledge that very little poetry, let alone Stevenson, has been sent. What is wrong with me?)

So why Stevenson now, today? (Especially coming so hard on the heels of Robert Frost?) Stevenson is on my mind because lately I have been spending way too much time in the Land of Counterpane. My end of May trip to Los Angeles and this week's trip to St. Louis and Chicago (a three day, thousand mile excursion) both ended with me sick, sick, sick. Nothing critical, just my less than robust immune system falling on its face yet once again.

The Land of Counterpane is not so pleasant as an adult. I have no toy soldiers or fleets of ships to send in and out of the blankets. I don't even have any Legos to while away the hours. No, as an adult I have crumpled tissues on a nightstand, a book shoved to the side of the bed so it won't get lost in the bedclothes, my glasses perched precariously nearby. There are lone trips down the stairs to the kitchen and a desultory search of the cupboards and refrigerator (knowing in advance that there is nothing—nothing!—in the house, indeed the whole town, that I am even remotely interested in eating). There is the eyeing of the clock at random moments, resulting in my thinking one of two things: Is that all the later it is? or Is it that late already? 

No, the Land of Counterpane holds no charms for me. At least not as of late.

As it turns out, it held no charm for Stevenson either, whose short life was notable for both his prolific literary output and his stunningly poor health. A few years before his abrupt death at age 44, he wrote, "I wish to die in my boots; no more Land of Counterpane for me. To be drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse — ay, to be hanged, rather than pass again through that slow dissolution."

It is late Sunday morning. The last of the laundry has dried outside in the strong sunlight and I will go take it down shortly. I am not in the Land of Counterpane today, nor yet entirely of the world either. Like Stevenson, I am in search of my boots, preferably the seven-league ones.

Of Moonlight and Dead Poets

I sat out on the steps of the deck late last night, watching the clouds scud across the face of the almost full moon, the super moon. Most of the fireflies had already turned in for the night, there were few sounds besides the occasional swoosh of a car the next street over.

Watching the clouds brought to mind Robert Frost's poem, "The Death Of The Hired Man." Mary urges her husband to go talk to the hired man, adding:

"I’ll sit and see if that small sailing cloud
Will hit or miss the moon.”
It hit the moon.
Then there were three there, making a dim row,        
The moon, the little silver cloud, and she.

Those lines chased through my head as I watched the sky. Frost has been dead 50 years this year. He has been gone long enough that when a group of teens and young adults in 2008 famously vandalized the Vermont farmhouse where he spent his summers and falls in his later years, a number of them had no clue who Robert Frost was.

As I sat there longer, I thought of Sylvia Plath, dead also 50 years this year, of T. S. Eliot, whose death was 48 years ago. Dead poets all.

Anymore, the teaching of poetry in the state approved curriculum (the Common Core Standards) seems a hit or miss proposition. Poetry has been thrown into the chopping bowl with the other literary forms and all of it seems to have been diced, sliced, tossed, and then pressed into a suitable grid that meets the Common Core benchmarks. Poetry for the sheer sake of poetry seems to have slipped out the door. I wonder whether if I passed around a poem by Robert Frost in the juvenile class I teach any of them would recognize the name.

Warren joined me on the deck and asked me what I was doing, which I interpreted as what are you thinking? I tried to connect the dots from the moon to the poem to Frost to Plath and Eliot to the vandalism to the teaching of poetry. Somewhere between the moon and the farmhouse, I lost him. (Remember, this is the man who famously speculated where Proof Rock was located.) The moon was bright enough that I could see the bafflement on his face as to why his wife was yet again going down some rabbit hole of poetry as an answer to a perfectly simple question.

It turns out he was thinking of some simple domestic chore to complete before bedtime. We both laughed at the incongruity of our thoughts, then went in, leaving the moonlight behind.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Reflections on a City: Portland Revisited

Portland at night, from downtown
 "Keep Portland Weird!"

That was the slogan on a bumper sticker in the Made in Oregon shop in which Warren and I stopped during our February trip out there. I almost bought it for Katrina, who grew up in a close-in suburb of Portland, but thought better. Katrina would not have been amused, even knowing I was making a joke.

We were in Portland for eight days, the longest I have stayed in that city since moving away in 1983. While much of the time revolved around Ramona and her parents and Sam, Warren and I managed to explore the city a little bit in between baby snuggles and family meals.

Portland in 2013 reminds me of Sinclair Lewis's characterization of Paris in his novel Dodsworth (1929): "There are many Parises, with as little relation one to another as Lyons to Monte Carlo, as Back Bay to the Dakota wheat-fields." Portland is a city with a strong, often vibrant counterculture. Portland is a city with a small group of well-off citizens who pride themselves on their liberalism and give generously to their causes, but who also appear to be strikingly elitist. And then there is the Portland that the visitor does not see, the Portland inhabited by no one save a half million Portlanders. And to borrow from Lewis once again, "it is said that in this unknown [Portland] live bookkeepers and electricians and undertakers and dogs and other beings as unromantic as people Back Home."

The core of downtown Portland holds the government buildings, the large law firms, the banks, and the corporate offices of area businesses. It does not hold very much retail, a trend that was well underway 30 years ago when I was living there. You have to leave the downtown to find the small, vital community commercial areas that to me hold the hope and future of Portland. I am not talking about the Pearl district, a very upscale, "near in" community for the highly solvent just north of downtown. I am thinking of the east side of river, along the arterial streets. In these quieter areas, I saw a lot of small shops of many bents, a devotion to mixed used (residential/commercial), and great infill. As a
Green Bean Bookstore, tucked into a residential area
community, Portlanders seem to understand the need and necessity for a strong community fabric throughout the city and not just in the downtown. In that regard, it reaches back to an era in this country where many basic mercantile wants were met within small shopping districts interlaced throughout a larger community. Even my hometown, standing at around 5000 citizens for much of its first 150 years, duplicated that pattern. I give Portland credit for reviving it. When I left Portland thirty years ago, I would have said that the small neighborhood commercial districts were on their way out along with the downtown. Now I see them as Portland's greatest asset.

A food block near Portland State
Well, that and Portland's food wagon culture. I admit it, I was absolutely bowled over and delighted by the vast range of food wagons, food trucks, and food vans, some of which roam throughout the city and more of which have fixed locations. Around Portland State, which is embedded in the south end of the downtown, whole blocks were dedicated to the food wagons. I did not, alas, partake of Whiffies while I was there, but that is a mistake I will rectify next time. In fact, looking at the larger Portland scene, local food—locally grown, locally made—is a big deal, period. (I did not miss out on having ice cream at Salt & Straw.)

Portland struggles. There is a lot of poverty, much of it open. The transit system, which is extensive in the city, is slanted towards serving people with money. The much vaunted trolly system, which we rode and enjoyed, serves primarily the more upscale neighborhoods, as do the Max lines (the light rail). If you are poor or even working class "getting by" in Portland and do not have a car, chances are good you are taking a bus, which take a long time to get from one part of the city to another.
A Portland trolly that cuts through the PSU campus

We saw a lot of homeless and marginal people—mostly white, mostly male—on streets, sometimes begging, sometimes just sitting. While some were young 20-somethings, the vast majority were significantly older. Warren and I talked about this several times. "There is nothing easy about living on the streets," I said. Even if these individuals managed to have some benefits (food stamps, for example), that does not counter the reality of homelessness. The men I saw were tired and dirty and grim and hopeless. Their omnipresence belies the cool, liberal tones of the left and the harsh critics of the right.

Portland's slogan is "the city that works." What glimpses I saw of the homeless, the most searing of which was passing a church late at night and seeing men sleeping on the steps (and February nights in Portland are not balmy), I am not convinced that Portland works as well as it could, or should.

At times during our stay, I found myself strongly drawn to Portland. It has great housing stock, it has a good mix of shops, many within easy walking distance of strong residential communities. I wanted to be able to wake up, walk to a local coffee shop, meet a friend, and then buy something local, something artisan, something beautiful. Of course, as I pen these words, I am chuckling at my pretensions. I already live in a town where I can wake up, walk to a local coffee shop, meet a friend, and, if I had the money, which I don't, buy something local, artisan, and beautiful. Portland is just on a bigger scale, with more coffee shops and more baubles.

The reality is I don't live that life here, and I wouldn't live it there. Ben and Alise don't lead that life. Portland is not a chic, endless bazaar of clever purchases. Like so many others, they work, they pay their bills, they scrape by, as do I.  They find their fun in their immediate neighborhood, or with friends. They are part of the "unknown Portland" of people just going about their daily lives.
Salt and Straw, local ice cream

Portland has been a trailblazer in design and planning circles in the last two decades. Portland has lead the way in urban innovation, cutting edge designs, and the like. Portland has also been criticized (and studied) in those same circles for creating a city that is not child or family friendly. Its school-age population has fallen as families leave for cheaper and more child-friendly suburban neighborhoods. Ben and Alise do not see themselves abandoning Portland, but they are already discussing charter school choices for Ramona in four years, not trusting the Portland city school system to be intact. It is a discussion I understand and sadly endorse, balancing my belief in public education against the desire to see Ramona receive a good education.

It was good to be back in Portland, even discounting the real reason for my trip, my family. It was just as good to return home, being separated again from my family aside. Afterwards, Katrina and I exchanged views She takes a far harsher view of Portland than I, so we tacitly agreed to disagree. I don't see Portland as a socialist republic; she doesn't see Portland as a not atypical community in the early part of the 21st century. (Portlanders pride themselves on the city being atypical. Trust me, it isn't.)  What I would love to do is meet Katrina in Portland and the two of us explore and discuss, as dispassionately as possible, its strengths and weaknesses, rather than try to describe them in letters.

Keep Portland weird?

I think not. "Weird" is as exclusionary and exclusive as "patriotic" or "liberal" or "conservative."

Keep Portland livable. Better yet, make it truly livable and keep it that way.

Mt. Hood, which hides most of the winter, overlooking Portland

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Uncle Ski

Uncle Ski died this morning, months after receiving a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. He was fortunate in that for most of the time, he was not hospitalized much, had made it through both chemo and radiation with relatively few bad side effects, and, in fact, was still bowling until a few months ago. In recent weeks, however, he had transitioned from "doing good" to "doing okay" to "this is not looking good." Earlier this week, aunt Gail said "enough" to further treatment and the remaining time unwound very quickly.

Ski was married to my dad's sister (and only sibling) Gail. Retired navy, he and Gail had lived in Chula Vista (way southern California, below San Diego) for years. When I was a child, I found their occasional visits back to Ohio exciting. They were the glamorous California family members, even though a half century away first around the world on naval bases and then in Southern California never did erase my aunt's Kentucky twang or Ski's eastern (Maryland, I want to say) working class "d" in lieu of "th"—"dem guys," "dose people."

Ski's real name was  John. The only time you ever heard him called John was when my aunt was displeased with something he said or trying to rein in his exuberant personality. "John L.," she would say warningly, giving him a stern look. He would duck his head and say, "Okay, boss." But except for that occasional "John L.," we all called him Ski, a nickname derived from his last name, Rubinowski. Yes, he was Polish; he may have been a first generation American. (I do not remember, but I do remember him speaking Polish with more than passing fluency.)

Ski always told jokes, lots and lots of jokes. (Too many, and Aunt Gail would utter "John L.") His specialty was Polish jokes. Being Polish, Ski felt his heritage was his own best target. Even decades later, I can still remember some of the punchlines. He also told a lot of Catholic jokes, being Catholic, and when a Polish pope was elected in 1978, Ski was elated because now he could blend all of his Catholic and Polish jokes.

Both of my children were fortunate enough to meet Uncle Ski more than once in their lives. It was Ski and Gail who launched Ben's Geobear back in 1998.  Geobear was a 7th grade geography project where students sent out small stuffed animals in the fall and watched and waited for them to "check in" via postcards, with the ultimate goal being the animal returned to school in the spring. Gail and Ski happened to be in Ohio when Ben started the project and took GeoGeorge (Ben sent a Curious George) on the train west with them. GeoGeorge eventually made it to India and Europe before returning to Ohio the following spring.

Ben, Aunt Gail holding GeoGeorge, and Ski, 1998

A few years later, we visited them for a day in Chula Vista. Ski took us all out on a boat tour of the naval harbor. Enormously proud of his years in the navy, he pointed out and named the different classes of boats we saw. Their house was a little tiny house in Chula Vista, not far from I-5. It was full of handcrafts made by my aunt; the backyard was a large garden and orchard. Sam took great delight in eating lemons picked right off the tree that day.

Uncle Ski, Aunt Gail, Ben, me, and Sam (holding the lemons, of course),  Summer 2000

Wherever Ski saw children, whether it was me and my brothers, or, a generation later, Ben and Sam, and  whatever age he was, he never had any problem joining in the games and creating his own special silliness. That was a huge part of his draw. He was happy playing and joking with children in a way that was not patronizing or self-conscious. I suspect children's youthfulness helped keep Ski young. When I look at the picture above, I suspect, judging by the grin on Ski's face, that he had just made a quip about grabbing back the lemons from his tree.

I had been told that Ski at one time planned to be cremated and have his ashes spread at sea. The thought made me smile, given his love of the navy and of the ocean. The plans changed over the years, the result I suspect of my aunt saying "John L." and giving her husband that look that he understood so well and had lived with so long.

Every child needs an Uncle Ski in his or her life. Someone a little larger than life with a booming voice, someone a lot sillier than your parents, someone who'd just as soon play with you as talk with the adults. Someone who ate prodigiously and who lived prodigiously. 

My brothers, my children, and I didn't need an Uncle Ski. We had the original. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Old Haunts

At the end of May, my coworker Dodie and I flew to Los Angeles for a court conference. It was the first time I had been in LA since 2001.

It wasn't a very long stay. Most of the time we were sequestered in a very specific block of downtown. We were without a car, which makes most of the greater Los Angeles area inaccessible without either a great deal of time and difficulty or a great deal of money.

All the same, it was a trip that stirred memories deep within me.

Los Angeles is a town with which I have more than a passing acquaintance, having had two grandmothers by marriage living there during my first marriage, and then marrying someone who had moved to Los Angeles at age nine and whose family still mostly lived in the greater LA area during the duration of that marriage. As a result, I have never seen Los Angeles as a tourist and still do not think of it as a tourist destination.

This trip was no different.

We arrived the afternoon before the conference started, which gave us just enough time to go out a little bit. Dodie and I took the Metro (the LA subway, fabulously underused and very limited as to its routes) to Hollywood, and did some star hopping (the Walk of Fame and Grauman's) in the hot afternoon sun. While in Hollywood, my longtime blogging friend Ellen met up with us and took us on a whirlwind tour of parts of the city.

It was about then that the memories started raining down on me.

Ellen wanted to show us Cantor's, a deli-bakery-restaurant and longtime fixture of the Los Angeles Jewish community. As we were parking on Fairfax near Cantor's, I suddenly realized that I had been there many, many years earlier—not only to Cantor's but also to a number of the small shops nearby specializing in Judaica. I bought a mezuzah at one of those shops a lifetime ago, the very one we parked by.

Ellen gave us a choice of the Griffith Park Observatory or the Pacific Ocean. Which did we want to do, where did we want to go? I was torn; both hold memories. Water won out over height, and she headed to Venice. Soon we were out of the car and I was hearing the boom of the ocean for the first time in too many years, tasting the salt air on my tongue and in my heart.

Los Angeles was in bloom. The bougainvillea was in bloom, spilling deep purple blossoms over fences. The jacaranda was in bloom, dotting the landscape with light purple clouds caught in the trees. Dodie sighed and said, "I love the palm trees."

What I did not realize and had not prepared for was the overwhelming presence of my older son Ben on this trip. Ben spent almost all of the first five years of his life in California, and trips to Los Angeles to visit family were frequent. On this trip, I could all but reach out and hold him in my arms again, now an infant, now a toddler, now a little boy. Ben at the La Brea tar pits, Ben learning to walk in Abuela's apartment, Ben playing with his cousins. The LA Zoo, Zuma beach, Tommy's, Porto's.

Ben everywhere I turned.

There was so much I could not see or do this trip. I was there for a conference (an excellent one, at that), not for a vacation. It was not a time to go seeking out distant memories. Seeing my boy everywhere was enough. I wrote friends postcards, saying how I found it both enchanting and unsettling to be in Los Angeles again.

The poet Rilke wrote, "Rich in memory are those places from the past that can never be revisited." Oh, I can visit LA again. But I will never again have baby Ben in my arms, taking in the sights, reaching out to the future.