Thursday, April 10, 2008

WHO Is "All Of Me"?

"Hi, everyone!"

"Good night, everybody."

"I want to thank all of you...."

"Some of you may...."

Does this kind of thing bother you? I mean, who the hell are these people talking to, anyway? Just exactly who is "all of me," or even "some of me"?

OK, so it doesn't bother you....but it does me. Par for the course.

One of the main things I remember from my radio broadcasting training back in 1971 is that when we were on the air, or recording a voiceover on a commercial, we were supposed to visualize ONE PERSON we were talking to. Some students were really good at that and others weren't (I wasn't). For me and the other "visualizing-challenged" folks, it was suggested that we actually bring a photograph into the studio and talk to THAT.

The point was, this method was supposed to instill a kind of genuineness into our voices as we spoke. It made what we said REAL to our listener (notice I use the singular noun here).

Because in the final analysis, we were speaking to ONE PERSON......multiplied many times over. (OK, OK, in the radio markets I worked in, I am convinced that ONE PERSON was not multiplied very many times over at all......especially Wednesday nights at 10 PM.....especially for my show. Even when I had Shirley The Rooster as my guest. Or maybe BECAUSE I had Shirley The Rooster.....)

But it didn't matter!! Quality over quantity, right?? The ONE PERSON who was listening KNEW IN HIS OR HER HEART AND SOUL THAT I WAS SPEAKING TO THEM AND ONLY THEM!!

Cause I had a picture there with me....which I looked at when I spoke.

And, nowadays, it rankles......I (or someone like me) am continually addressed collectively as "all of you" or "some of you". By radio and TV people, by public speakers, in print, on the web. By people who should know better. By people who OBVIOUSLY did not attend the Ron Bailie School of Broadcast.

It is constant. And nerve-wracking.

I have news for you, people:

There is only ME out here. Not some of me, not all of me, not everybody.....just ME! 24/7.

Visualize me, or hang my picture on the camera/microphone/lectern.

C'mon, talk to me.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Color Comes To Michigan Avenue

Nigger. that over with!

I am a white person, and I hate that word. I rarely use it, and the only times I do use it are times when I am writing it. I never speak it out loud. That word is mean and hateful and is one of the lowest words in the English language. Yet it is a word, and its inherent power alone is no reason not to use's just that the deep, modern controversy about its use is a sad symptom of our failure as a society and as a culture to face down some deeply buried issues. And the longer we run from these issues, the more they fester and infect our collective sense of ourselves.

But you know what's truly obscene here? Not the word itself, but rather that euphemism for it: "The N-Word." God, we are pathetic. I notice that every now and then some genius will revisit this notion that we ought to ban the works of Mark Twain - especially Huckleberry Finn - cause it contains the word nigger. I have lately been reading the works of James Baldwin, which are rife with the word. I have never heard of anyone seeking to ban his work, at least not on those grounds. Is it because Baldwin was black?

That word was one of the very first words I remember hearing, and I heard it a lot in the company of my paternal grandparents, Douglas and Annie Pearl. (Douglas was the subject of an earlier eponymous post.) My earliest memories involve them, because in my infancy both my parents worked full-time, and they were my "daycare." Especially Annie Pearl, because Douglas had his own job down there at the Union Pacific Railroad. Which was fine with me, because I hated every minute of being "home."

Annie Pearl hailed from Texas, and she was an out-and-out racist, bred so. I don't know what Douglas' problem was around the race issue, whether he, too, was infected at birth or learned the sorry art from Annie Pearl and just fell in with her program to get along with her. Funny thing was, in the few situations I recall being with either or both of them during encounters with black people, they were always respectful and cordial. Maybe it was that class beat out race as they faced each other: the blacks in question were waitpeople, custodians, fellow busriders or customers, etc. Maybe out there in the world, my grandparents felt and showed a kinship with members of their lower-middle-class, regardless of race. I don't know, but we all seemed to get along in public.

Which rendered their private racial utterances incomprehensible to the little me. What was going on here?

Comes a blistering, withering hot summer day on Michigan Avenue.......6927 N. Michigan to be exact, in the Piedmont District of North Portland, sometime in the mid-1950's. Before the I-5 freeway sliced the neighborhood in half, Eisenhower's dream dressed up as our nightmare. (I recall Annie Pearl praying out loud that "they" would run the freeway right down Michigan Avenue, and cash them out for their one-bedroom bungalow and tiny lot. Alas, "they" did much worse - ran the damn thing two blocks west, which not only did not afford them a chance to start over somewheres else, but infested the rest of their days with construction racket, endless dust, and the perpetual drone of freeway noise. Decades after Douglas and Annie Pearl were dead, "they" made things "right" by erecting gray concrete noise barriers, which resemble nothing so much as the apartheid wall in modern Israel.)

Annie Pearl and I were passing the sweltering afternoon somehow in the triple-digit heat. Douglas was downtown, passing his afternoon at Manning's Restaurant, as was his wont. There were lots of Manning's in Portland then, friendly cafeteria-food-and-coffee-purveyors offering quivering jello squares, casseroles, and endless weak cups of their own brand of java to families and retirees hungry to be around their own kind. Cheap, decent, and clean were Manning's. On joint visits, as we slid our trays - a key rite of passage being when I got my OWN tray, as opposed to them loading my requests onto THEIR tray - down the shining stainless steel runners, I always ordered the mashed potatoes and gravy side, because I LOVED to watch the line server hollow out a pocket in the potato mound with the gravy ladle, then deftly tip the ladle and pour the gravy into the cavity. Now THAT was performance art!

(I will never forget one bright Saturday downtown Manning's visit involving the three of us. We had had our lunch, and had retired to Douglas' car - a 1952 green Ford, parked on this occasion at a meter right outside the restaurant door. We were just sitting there, all the car windows open, with Douglas Henry and Annie Pearl perusing separate sections of The Oregonian newspaper and me no doubt being bored, not being able to read yet.

I asked Annie Pearl why we, since we had left the Manning's, continued to sit in the car rather than go home or to a park or a movie, as we usually did of a lazy Saturday. "Your grampa paid for time on the parking meter, and we don't want anyone else to use it for free" was her answer. I still marvel at this logic, even as I am convinced it continues to affect me deeply on some level. In that moment, was I incoculated with a poverty mentality? Is this why I am not rich?)

But on this particular day, Douglas Henry was a solo Manning's habitue.

A knock at the front door. Annie Pearl answers. I can't see who is there. Some adult talk. Seconds pass, and Annie Pearl and I rush to the back door, where I see an elderly black man half-carrying, half-walking my beloved Douglas Henry across the shadowy threshold and up the few back stairs into the house.

"I was walking down the street and I saw him passed out in his car," I remember the old black man saying. Douglas Henry had always been a frail, thin man who suffered from asthma and various other sinus ailments from time to time. To my young eyes, the summer heat often seemed to go right THROUGH the man. But I had never seen him like this, his head lolling on this man's shoulder, obviously dependent upon him for his salvation.

A nigger.

I was frightened, astonished at what I was seeing. Was Grampa dead? Who was this man? I stopped feeling hot and started shivering.

They laid him down on the couch in the living room, and the black man left with our thanks in his wake. Annie Pearl placed a wet rag on his forehead and he started to come around. I stopped shaking. He was going to be OK. This black man found him almost dead and drove him home, way over to the other side of town. This black man, who in the abstract would have been called a nigger by both my grandparents, was a savior. What is going on here?

And the funny, ironic thing was..........both this savior and my Grampa were dressed EXACTLY ALIKE! Both had on dark blue suits of summery light material, jackets open at the collar, revealing white seersucker shirts, and both sported airy straw hats with blue hatbands. Both were downtown on their own that hot day. Were both escaping their wives for the coffee and crony-chatter oasis, maybe? (Many years later, I saw the bluesman Muddy Waters perform at a club in Seattle. He had on the same outfit.)

I remember thinking as my Grampa came around, "Don't you see? This nigger thing has got to stop. A nice man dressed just like you whose skin is black saved your life, for me. This hateful nigger word has got to stop. Otherwise, nothing makes any sense at all."

It didn't stop, and it still doesn't. Make any sense. At all.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Turning Over An Old Leaf

You really should have known me before I became politicized. No kidding!

You would have found me to be a much nicer person. Not NICE, mind you, but nicer. However, starting January 1, 2008, you too will have the opportunity to experience the kinder, gentler "me what used to be." The situation, you see, is about to change.....

Here's what led to me gaining my current, unsustainable level of political consciousness: some weeks after 9/11, I was driving to the bank while listening to NPR radio. A man with an unidentifiable voice was being interviewed, and the subject was the Global War On Terror. A question was posed to him, something like, "How can America end worldwide terror?"

Reasonable enough.

The man said, "The only way America can hope to end international terrorism is to stop participating in it."


Now, up to that point, I was pretty uninformed politically speaking. I was proud of being a nonvoter, but my reasons were shapeless and squiggly - something to do with what P.J. O'Rourke called "The Parliament of Whores," in reference to congress. "They're all crooked, so what's the point?" was about the beginning and end of my smug justification for being superior and uninvolved. Hey, I was above it all.

So what was this guy on the radio talking about? America was the VICTIM of terrorism, I thought, not a participant and sure as hell not a perpetrator. OK, OK, I had lived through that ugly Viet Nam thing. But surely that was an aberration. Then I recalled some icky, uh, developments going on in the 80's down in Central America. I even recalled the names and players in some of those "separate little countries down there," and I had participated in rallies and educational fora back then. Oh, yeah, Iran/Contra, too... But now? I mean, those evildoers had blown up some serious real estate Back East.

Well, the guy talking on the radio was Noam Chomsky, and it has all been different since that day when I decided to do my banking from my car in the drive-through line so as not to miss what he had to say. My "take-away" from that little interlude was this: in the post-WWII era, the USA is the number one terrorist nation in the world ACCORDING TO ITS OWN GOVERNMENT'S DEFINITION OF TERRORISM. This fact, as Chomsky would say, is noncontroversial.

Since then, I have made it my business to read, watch, and/or listen to most everything I could get my hands on by Mr. Chomsky and others of similar stripes. I watched Democracy NOW! I became a progressive after I learned what that meant. I patrolled the website called Truthout! I wrote to the editor - any editor. I subscribed to the Portland Alliance, a local muckraking monthly I later disavowed because they are such poor spellers. (I made this radical move ONLY after volunteering three different times to proofread their stuff for them, to no avail.) In short, I got interested, conscious, aware, informed, active, involved, up-to-speed, knowledgeable, passionate, cynical, hypervigilant, and politically hip. I learned that the Florida Fix was in for the 2000 election before the Supremes ever stepped up to the microphone.

What I did NOT get was wise. I said stupid things to people for which I later felt compelled to apologize (not that there is anything wrong with that). I became embroiled in futile political discussions from which I had about as much chance to extricate myself as those hapless kids who left the trail of bread crumbs to lead them back home. And those were my good days.

I had made the political, personal. Some famous person once said that the mark of a diplomat is to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. That is not me. I know that now.

Plus, quite frankly, my political consciousness of these last few years has stressed me out. It has NOT been to my benefit. It all comes down to one word: discrepancy. My dad was king of the living discrepancy, the gap between saying and doing. Drives me nuts. Gives me a giant headache. And that pretty well describes the difference between USA: THE PRINCIPALS and USA: THE PRACTICES. From the beginning and seemingly for all time, the principals and ideals upon which this great nation was founded and the actual things it has done are separated by a gap which dwarfs The Grand (or any) Canyon. I can't take it any more. The more I learn, the more I hate it. Hatred implies impotence, and it pinches around the toes.

So, beginning January 1, 2008, my New Year's Resolution is one of reversion to a state of political ignorance approximately equal to that of the average American Idol viewer. I cannot UNLEARN what I know, but I CAN shun news broadcasts, section A of any newspaper, any publication or program with the word "news" in it, new books and magazines with political content, etc., etc. (Already my new approach is costing me......I had just renewed my rather pricey subscription to Z Magazine, and have taken pains to switch it over to my political compatriot David K.)

So come New Year's Day and from that point forward, I don't know nuttin'. I don't get involved in political discussions, because I am not up on things. I don't know what country we are victimizing this week, or what society's hope for a better life we are eliminating in favor of our business interests. I don't know where we are destroying democracy, what ancient culture we are cutting off at the knees, what vicious dictator we are installing or propping up, or what new generation's mind we are forever poisoning against us, or whose blood we are spilling for oil (which, as intrepid BBC Reporter Greg Palast points out, most Americans think is a bargain).

I don't know what land our BRAVE YOUNG SOLDIERS are volunteering to destroy by murdering, raping, burning, gassing, mutilating, torturing, radiating, eviscerating, threatening, electrocuting, sodomizing, and scarring its women, children, men and animals for the sake of Hummers, 31 Flavors, Happy Meals, Whoppers, The Mall, Jerry Springer, three dollar gasoline, and their college tuition......while all the while claiming the High Ground Of Noble Purpose.

I reserve the right to keep and read my current books and other writings and to reminisce about democracy.

I just can't take it any more. Too many discrepancies for one small mind.

I'll see you on the other side.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Why I Don't Trust French People

Ed. Note:

I can't believe I actually have to write this here, but I guess I do. I get a lot of comments on my blog's various postings. (Warning: stupid joke ahead!) Most of them are from that famous person named Anonymous. (See? Hahahahaha!) This blog is set up so that comments go directly to my e-mail address.

This post generates more comments than the others. Today was the last straw. Anonymous wrote and told me how horrible it was that I trashed an entire culture, and how sorry s/he was for any French person who had the misfortune to encounter me.


I don't really hate French people. It is true that I have met very few French people. This is likely due in part to the fact that I have never been to France. But the ones I have met are just like anyone else. Some I like and connect with (like Andre the pizza guy below, whom I met in 1981 when he delivered fresh baguettes every morning to the coffeehouse I cooked for), most I don't. Same with the (fill in racial or ethnic group here) people I have met.

Allow me to repeat my message for all the future Anonymouses:


You may not laugh. That's OK.....check the rules of this blog at the top right. But at least see it for what it is before you send me that nasty e-mail. OK?

Let me begin by saying that I have never met a French person I have liked. Truth to tell, I have not met that many French people in my life, but with the possible exception of a Frenchman I know in Seattle, who makes one hell of a pizza, the ones I know I don't care for. When I first meet them, they are so diplomatic and all, but later their true nature comes out: arrogant, uncaring, cold, and they will sell you out in a heartbeat.

Their history is not much to recommend them. They caved to the Nazis at the first whiff of Hitler's cologne. They stole the Belgians' recipe for preparing potatoes and called it their own. (I will admit that the phrase, "Belgian Fries" does not exactly trip off the tongue. Still, it rankles.) They have never had a famous rock and roll band. They don't know how to make movies. And they spit upon any foreigner who does not speak their language impeccably. (I think they do. Or was it that Americans spit upon returning Viet Nam veterans? I always mix those two things up, probably because Americans replaced the French in trying to conquer Viet Nam.)

But I will tell you the real reason I don't like French people. It has to do with the French phrase, "je ne sais quois." (I know I am misspelling it, but it just goes to show how screwed up their language is, and how unreasonable the French are for expecting anyone else to be able to speak it correctly.) I can't tell you how many times I have innocently and honestly asked a French person what that phrase means in English. I mean, you see the phrase all the time, and I don't think it is unreasonable to ask what it means. Isn't this how we learn, how we expand our worlds, by asking questions? I know I learn a lot that way, and I suspect you do, too.

Invariably, this is how the conversation goes:

ME (to a French person): What does the phrase "je ne sais quois" mean in English?

French person: "Oh, that certain unexplainable something."

ME: I know that, that is why I am asking the question. What does it mean?"

French person: "That is what it means.......a certain something I cannot put into words."

ME: "Look, if you don't know what it means, why can't you just admit it, rather than fumbling around trying to confuse me even further??"

French person: "No, no, you misunderstand! That is the translation, as close as I can come.....that inexplicable something.....the, uh, I don't know......what is hard to describe."

ME: "Christ almighty, let's move on! Jesus, you French people! Just admit you don't even understand your own damn language!! Let's try this one: langiappe?"

Then a whole new round begins, and I end up feeling like I am on the losing end of an Abbott and Costello routine:

"Who's on first?"


I think our lives would be a lot happier if we all - French people especially - would just be willing to admit that sometimes there are ideas or concepts that we don't fully understand and cannot explain, rather than getting all hypocritical and acting like we know it all. I know I freely admit it when someone asks me something I don't know the answer to. Like, "Why are French people so haughty? What do they have to feel all superior about?"

Search me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Penance of Douglas Henry Harding

Ed. note: I love nothing more than stories about members of my family. I think this is partly true because from my earliest memory, I always wanted to be in the company of my grandparents and the other members of their generation, rather than in that of my parents or my contemporaries. However, there was a pretty solid wall between the generations.........I was constantly being admonished to "go out and play with the other kids." Thus, my juvenile insights into the lives of the people I admired most were always too few, gained only during precious moments of individual conversation with them, or during "story-telling" times at family gatherings.

As different as they were from each other, everyone in my grandparents' generation LOVED to tell stories of their earlier days, and I loved to hear them more than anything. I would feel so SPECIAL to hear a grandparent tell ONLY ME about some little part of his or her life. And at family gatherings, I would do my level best to sneak off from my boring cousins and sit within hearing distance of my elders. At first, I remember I would engage in some form of camouflage, and sit behind a chair or under a table so as not to be discovered and banished once again to the banalities of my own generation. (As I think back now, they MUST have seen me hiding there and just decided it was too much bother to once again chase this pesky stray back to the herd of little dogies.)

Later, as I grew older, and as cousins showed up less and less at these gatherings, I could openly claim what I always knew as my Rightful Place among The Wise Elders. It didn't hurt that my mom was the oldest of her generation and that I was in turn the first-born of wonder I was so bored with the "little kids" and so entranced with people that to my naive way of thinking must have come to the West on wagon trains, just like we studied in school!

One of the Cruel Tricks that life seems to play is that as I aged and became somewhat more adept at appreciating the richness of these narratives, three things happened: my parents kidnapped me and my sister and moved us away from my hometown and my beloved Elders; my grandparents became increasingly "uncool" to be around for someone as hip as me; and they started to die. As that same Life progressed, it took care of the two least limiting of those three factors: I got older, got jobs and cars (unlike my parents), and could go where I wanted; also I figured out that I could listen to The Beatles AND my grandparents at the same time without doing any cosmic damage to either my psyche or my image. But there was nothing I could do about that third factor, that my grandparents insisted on getting older and dying, ALWAYS too soon. And in the Cruelest Trick of all, my increasing mobility and my realization that my grandparents and aunts and uncles were Pretty Cool after all combined to render their respective deaths all the more poignant and heartbreaking to me. In my life, I could go to them and I WANTED to hear them, but they weren't there any more.

The story below is a bit different from the ones I might have heard as a hidden youngster. It is not so pleasant, it would never have been told (or perhaps even realized) by its protagonist, and it solves a mystery. It was related to me by my father, sometime in the 1980's, after Douglas Henry Harding died. It makes sense, and I want it to be true. Still, it was told by my father, and likely filtered by Annie Pearl, who survived her husband by a couple desperate years, and whose grasp on reality was somewhat slight even in more halcyon days, give or take.

In the cosmic lottery of "parent assignment," I came up snake-eyes. On the grandparent side of things, though, I hit the Powerball! I was blessed with four grandparents, two from each side of the family. My mom's parents were Lowell Coughtry Engelen and Nella Florence Engelen (nee VanderMuelen), and my dad's parents were Douglas Henry Harding and Annie Pearl Harding (nee Williams). (My maternal grandmother was apparently none too happy with her given first name, so jettisoned it early on in favor of Florence. I'm sure it didn't help that one of the cows in their South Dakota dairy was named Nellie.) From just about any standpoint you could imagine, these four people were as unlike each other as possible. Each of my grandparents was unique....and I say that from the perspective of someone who was a young man when they died, who was not as capable as he might be today of appreciating them and their qualities. (I can feel new posts brewing here, an homage to each of these wonderful people.)

Today, though, I think of Douglas Henry Harding......."Doug" to most everyone he knew, and "Douglas" to his wife of over four decades. (Actually, Douglas was my step-grandfather, in that Annie Pearl had divorced my biological grandfather in the 1930's and this was her second marriage. I recall meeting my "real" grandfather just once, when I was about five years old. As I recall, he was a decent fellow, but for all intents and purposes Douglas Henry was my paternal grandfather for all of my life.)

These are the things I know for sure about Douglas: he was born in Michigan, loved his mother above all other people, worked in a general store as a clerk in his youth, volunteered during WWI and served on a troop transport ship that plied the Atlantic between New Jersey and Brest, France, was mustered out in Bremerton, WA, and eventually settled in Portland, OR, to which a Michigan cousin had already migrated. I also know that his happiest days were spent serving on that troop ship, that he always regretted not marrying a young girl he met in Bremerton - the daughter of a shopkeeper there, whose picture he always kept - and that he spent virtually his whole adult life working a dirty job as a carman's helper for the Union Pacific Railroad. I know this last bit because after he died, I saw his laminated UP card with his picture on it. His lean young face was smeared with grime, and on the line where it said "occupation" was typed "carman's helper." I remember feeling a little sad for him then, that such a good, solid man - a Hero to me - spent his whole working life covered in grease and finally retired as someone's "helper." Even now as I write this, I get a little teary, just as he used to do when he told me about being on that ship and loving that Bremerton Girl.

Douglas Henry Harding came to Portland in the 1920's and got a job on the railroad - Portland being its western terminus. (To this day, Portland's Union Station is a National Historic Landmark, and a sight to inspire. It somehow escaped the national campaign to "update" America's beautiful but aging rail stations in the sixties and seventies, which resulted in some of the most hideous urban blight imaginable, right in the heart of our big cities. Seattle, for example, was not so lucky.) He bought a one-bedroom bungalow, coincidentally on North Michigan Street, in the Piedmont District, and promptly brought his beloved mother to live with him. A few cousins gradually moved west and also settled in North Portland, within blocks of Douglas. The dutiful son accorded his mother the bedroom and he slept on a cot at the northern end of the small living room. A tiny wooden armoire held his clothes, and a nightstand held the treasured family Bible.

At about 600 square feet, the home was......"cozy." It was heated with coal, with about half of the unfinished basement devoted to a coal bin. The earthen basement walls were augmented by a manmade partial barrier separating the pile of coal chunks from the furnace area. As needed, the coal delivery truck would pull into the narrow driveway, insert the chute through a basement window, and dump enough black, sooty coal to keep the home fires burning. (To this day, I recall the beckoning smell of the coal and my delight in playing down in that bin. Annie Pearl would continually clean me up, only to lose me again to the delights of that mysterious subterranean cavern.)

For several years, all was well in the peaceable kingdom at 6927 North Michigan Avenue, where the telephone number was Butler 5-5126, the dialing of which would cause the surprisingly heavy phone - black as the coal downstairs - to ring in the breakfast nook off the miniscule kitchen. Douglas worked the various and sundry railroad shifts as he was told, took care of his aging mother, and the extended Harding family circulated amongst themselves throughout the neighborhood. Then one day, as was his wont during the Depression, Douglas Henry went to the movies.

While waiting on line to buy a matinee ticket at one of Southwest Broadway's magnificent movie palaces, Douglas Henry Harding met one adult and two children who would come to define the remainder of his personal life, just as The Union Pacific Railroad defined his working life.

Annie Pearl Welsh had moved from El Paso, Texas, with her husband, Thomas Franklin, Sr., and two boys: George Gregory and Thomas Franklin, Jr. Like Douglas Harding, they had been preceded by various extended family members' relocation to Portland from their ancestral homes. (One particularly nefarious female cousin was reputed to have been the proprietor of a brawling saloon situated on the western bank of the Willamette River, which was the source of many a "shanghaied" sailor. The routine would involve the drugging of unsuspecting, heavy-drinking boatmen, who would in their stupor be secreted downward through underground tunnels directly onto ocean-bound ships moored at the river's edge. When they awoke, they would be miles out at sea, helplessly and unwillingly conscripted to weeks or months of hard labor on deck.) Their marriage had soured, a divorce ensued, and Thomas Senior hied himself back to the southwest. Devoid of treasure and options, after a time Annie Pearl - raised a devout Catholic - became desperate. Unable to provide for her children, she placed them in the care of the nuns at St. Mary's Home For Boys, a sprawling campus located a few miles west of Portland in the farming community of Beaverton. At the approximate respective ages of nine and seven, Thomas and George felt themselves to be lost, abandoned, and abused.....and neither of them - to their dying days - EVER forgave their mother for her bewildering (to them) lapse of judgement.

But rays of sunshine tend to penetrate even the most smothering fog. By hook and by crook and by streetcar, occasionally Annie Pearl would collect her boys for weekend jaunts to the downtown movies. And it was there - at The Fox or The Orpheum or The Blue Mouse or The Paramount - that the happy threesome encountered a bachelor named Douglas Henry Harding, who had driven his own car into town for an afternoon's celluloid escape. It is unclear as to who he was most charmed by - the shy urchins or the coquettish Southern belle - but quicker than you can say "aisle one," it was popcorn and candy all around courtesy of the handsome lad from Michigan. By the time the newsreels told them what they needed to know, Tom Mix rode to justice, and Mr. Deeds Went To Town, four fates were sealed.

The courtship proceeded. Douglas' car made visits with the boys easy and frequent, and to them he became that shining knight with a Ford. Eventually, Annie Pearl was able to reclaim and feed her boys on a regular basis. Douglas proposed marriage, Annie accepted, and a problem arose: Where would Mom go?

As my dad, Thomas Jr. told it, Douglas' beloved mother was shuffled off to a nearby cousin's house in favor of his new bride and her two boys. The cousin's house was none too large, and Mom, while she was well-integrated into her new household, was consigned to sleep in an unheated closed porch area. The months grew bitterly cold that year. Due to the unusual situation of Portland at the moist northern end of an alluvial north-south valley and at the west end of the Columbia Gorge, with dry winds blowing out from Washington desert country, some of our winters are marked by relentless ice storms. Frigid temperatures, along with severe accumulations of blowing ice on trees and power lines can mean - even in this modern age - many days without power in both urban and suburban areas. In the depression-era thirties, I can only guess what this meant to Portlanders.

In that first blighted winter, pneumonia took Douglas Henry's elderly Mother from him. In his mind, as he was faced by both his allegiance to his new family AND a too-small house, he forced his mother out into a literally cold, cruel world. In his mind, Douglas Henry was responsible for his Mother's death. His Penance began.

I don't know if her death caused his marriage to Annie Pearl to sour, or if its decline was brought on by the everyday garden variety boredom and frustrations suffered by most married couples. I do know that by the time I came along in 1951, among the first faces I recall seeing were those of Douglas Henry and Annie Pearl, and among the first sounds I recall hearing were of the two of them arguing. And I don't mean the faux-but-friendly bantering between partners who deep down love each other, like in the movies or in All In The Family.....polite disagreements as to whether the in-laws get invited to Thanksgiving and whom they sit next to. I mean Arguing. Fighting. Yelling. Screaming. Like Cats and Dogs. For over forty years.

Douglas Henry Harding: sweet, lanky, mild-mannered mama's boy who got greasy during every shift on the railroad with nary a cross word, who left each day with a full lunch bucket and a folded newspaper and returned home on time and relentlessly sober, and who was the kindest, most caring and loving grandfather any could hope for, whose asthma never gave him a break and who never smoked a cigarette or took a hard drink in his life, who adopted and raised two little Depression boys as his own, and who was loved by one and reviled by the other for the rest of his life.

Annie Pearl Williams: boisterous, roly-poly daughter of hard-drinking Texas railroad catholics who suffered unimaginable abuse as a girl, who snagged a husband, bore him two boys and migrated to this strange cold land with him, only to lose him and her boys and to descend into a personal netherland of eccentricity, confusion, occasional beer-drinking and tobacco smoking, and who doted endlessly on me and bought me cowboy boots.

This was Douglas Henry's penance: he had in effect murdered his mother and his punishment was that he had to stay with the shrewish, indomitable Annie Pearl for as long as he lasted on this earth. A self-imposed exile from whatever visions of normalcy might have informed his life plans. No matter how bitter or brutish his lot in life became, no matter how much of his hard-earned money his wife spirited away and gave to her younger son, who drank and whored it into oblivion, no matter how little she cooked for him or how much she taunted him, no matter how even in retirement from the Union Pacific, she forced him to retreat every day to the company of his cronies at the local Manning's cafeteria and sustain himself on coffee and jello, staying with her was how he made up for his supreme crime.

Still, they loved me.

And of course in the end, it became clear that they were living for each other and only for each other.

Douglas Henry died first, in 1980. Annie Pearl also died that day, it just took her a few months longer to make it official. She became so quiet, so resigned. Not like Annie Pearl at all. All her life's fuel was gone. No more sooty coal in that bin down below. No one to fight with. Like two opposing figures leaning one against the other, when one collapsed, so did the other.

For a few weeks, she tried to struggle on in that little house by herself. She shrank. She quit peeking through the gauzy drapes to spy on the neighbors. She gave up, refused to eat. She did not even know how to write a check, as Douglas had maintained the household all those decades. I would visit occasionally from Seattle and her elder son, my dad, would come up from LA. The estranged younger son, George Gregory, in Albuquerque for many years and perpetually stewed in three kinds of gin, somehow failed to return the favors of care bestowed upon him in his randier days. It was hopeless. The wind was out of her sails. No tack, no correction would restore her. There was nothing for it.

Later, I ventured south one last time in April, 1981, to put her on a plane for LA. She had gone from one Portland nursing home to another, and was "difficult to deal with." Every day on this earth was to be her last. She knew this even as she wished it to be true. Without Douglas in it, her life........wasn't. Her ghostly, emaciated body survived another couple of years in nursing homes near her LA son. To her end, she was animated by daily visions of horrors perpetrated on her by doctors, which she would gladly share with anyone within hearing. But the one and only set of ears to which her ramblings were forever directed was gone.

Douglas Henry Harding's penance was complete.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Living The Ristretto Life

I was captured by coffee in 1975 while sitting in a former funeral home. It was Fall in Seattle, my date (I was hopeful then) and I had just been to a Pops Concert by The Seattle Symphony, and we had at my suggestion decamped to Cafe Allegro. Allegro was the first of the "second wave" of Seattle coffeehouses, and was in fact established in a fomer funeral home directly across the street from the western front of the University of Washington. (Cafe Allegro would eventually have much to do with Starbucks' conquering of the coffee world, but that is another digression.) The then new cafe had been advertising on my favorite FM station and I was as eager to go check it out as I was to impress my date with my suave urbanity. We pulled up on that rainy night to a comely brick building covered with that kind of vine maple that goes all crazy golden in the Fall and transforms whatever hovel it might cover into a Venerable Establishment.

"Oh, yeah, I come here all the time," I lied.

Little did I know.

That was the first night of my short, weird relationship with my date AND of my long weird relationship with all things coffee. The years to come would find me lurking in, working in, managing, and escaping coffeehouses. Ah, the formative years.........

Come to the point!

Early on in my training as a barista (he or she who brews and serves the espresso), I learned about caffeol and The Ristretto Life. (Well, not exactly in those terms at the time, but this is what years of reflection and a serious caffeine addiction will get you.) In Italy, one must apprentice for years before one is allowed to extract and serve espresso. As you might guess, here in America it is, sadly, more a matter of minutes.

But I had training from the best! I will never forget my first lesson:

One day at The Grand Illusion, we were told to dose and pack a portafilter for extracting a double shot of espresso. (In English, you take the thingie that holds the ground coffee in your left hand, put it under the grinder where the coffee comes out, and pull the lever twice with your right hand in order to measure out precisely 14 grams of ground espresso, tamp the coffee down with a blunt heavy object, insert the thingie into the espresso machine, and either push the button or pull the lever to start the pressurized heated water coming down through the coffee and into the demitasse.)

We were told to "pull" three successive double shots into three separate demitasses: the first for ten seconds, the second for twenty seconds, and the final one for thirty seconds. We then tasted each demitasse in order of extraction. This proved to be a classic demonstration of what happens when espresso is made.

We learned that the first component of coffee to be yielded is caffeine: a tasteless, odorless liquid that is responsible for the buzz, the addiction, and - depending upon whom you believe - inspiration, motivation, energy, and smiles......or a hopeless descent into hell's own maw.

The second component that coffee gives up is caffeol: that for which we are ostensibly all gathered here. Caffeol is the essence of coffee flavor, the gustatory manifestation of coffee's virtue, the sublime mellow syrup that says Sumatra! or Colombia! or Harrar! or Mocha! or the name of whatever hallowed land those particular beans hail from.

The final ten seconds is devoted to tannic acid, and a little goes a long way. You want SOME tannic acid in there for brightness and complementarity, but not enough to strip off the protective layer on your tongue. So the idea is to extract your espresso for the Goldilocks Time. You're gonna get the caffeine first anyhow, so never mind about that. The magic comes between the final two stages of coffee's gifts: when the caffeol is all in there but the tannic acid is just saying hello. Because the fact is that while caffeol is soulful, nuanced, creamy, and rich - tannic acid possesses all the subtlety of brass knuckles. Two seconds too long, and tannic acid OWNS the party.

Yes, this is about BALANCE! This is about Cafe Ristretto as a model for happiness and achievement of all we yearn for.

All of the Italian I have learned, I have learned at an espresso machine. Buon Giorno! Arrivederci! Ciao! Il Giornale! Doppio! Trippio! Quadruppio! (Double, triple, and quadruple shots, respectively) Al volo (to go)! Senza schiuma (no foam)! And yes.............RISTRETTO!

Ristretto means "restrained." For the purposes of Coffee as Life, it means that in extracting our espresso, we aim for that Goldilocks Moment: not too short, or we forsake precious droplets of the ephemeral flavor delight that is caffeol. Not too long, either, or we end up with nasty, rasty, bitter dregs of what might have been..........and a sour stomach to boot.

Now, here in the aforementioned America, I don't recommend ordering a Cafe Ristretto. The three-minute baristi one encounters in this barren land will offer you looks both blank and irritated. Unless this makes your day, and unless you revel in the casting of pearls before swine, I say let's just keep this our little secret. Let's appreciate this as a Life Lesson and save our suave urbanity for Italy, where they invented it. We can live The Ristretto Life without uttering a word.

So, my friends, here's to The Ristretto Life. Here's to Goldilocks, and the bed and chair and the porridge and the coffee, all of which are Just Right.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Why Sinning Is A Bad Idea

(Editor's Note: this essay is the first of a series entitled "Reclaiming Spirituality From God: After Six Thousand Years Of Suboptimal Performance, Your Services Are No Longer Required. Clean Out Your Desk, See HR About Your COBRA Benefits, And Be Off The Property By 5 PM."

Unlike most people I know, I have the luxury of certainty around one of life's Big Questions. Indeed this may be THE Question for you......what happens when I die?

I entered this State of Knowing at the tender age of six or seven. (I'm a little hazy on the exact number because The Moment occurred during either first or second grade, when I attended what is now known as The Cathedral School, at Portland's St. Mary's Cathedral.) We all wore school uniforms, I remember - white blouses and navy blue skirts for the girls, navy blue sweaters over white shirts and "salt and pepper" corduroy trousers for the boys. Our teachers had uniforms, too.........this was in the days of nuns wearing habits: those starched black and white cloaks with the head blinders. None of this liberal stuff like we have now, with nuns trying to blend in like normal people, as long as they wear their hair like the banker's secretary on The Beverly Hillbillies.

From time to time, between penmanship exercises and "Duck and Cover" drills - to this day, I know what to do in case of a Russian missile attack, although I must say I get a little insecure whenever I am more than a few steps away from a row of thick wooden desks mounted on black cast iron rails - our class would be ushered outdoors to stand in line at the top of a flight of concrete steps leading underground to the Lavatories. (To this day, I wonder if the nuns took us out there according to some divinely-inspired insight as to when we might be about to pee our Catholic pants, or because the plain old clock on the wall said to. I persist in believing the former.)

The deal was this: first the girls, then the boys. When it came our turn, the boys would go DOWN the stairs, do our business, then come UP the stairs and file back into class. No talking was allowed at ANY time. But this business of going up and down the stairs was a highly regulated affair. It could not be left to any willy-nilly conduct as might be practiced by some giddy bunch of prepubescent boys. No, if this bunch of young louts was left to its own devices, it would undermine all the strict conditioning heretofore applied. And then, later, when we were older and expected to be compliant when it Really Counted - when the priests wanted to do Special Things with us - might we not rebel? No, this would never do. (Which makes me wonder, did the nuns do Special Things with the girls? I mean, you see Catholic diocese going bankrupt left and right nowadays to avoid paying adult males large sums of money for the (mortal) "sins of the fathers," but you never hear of adult females seeking payoffs. At least it isn't in the news.) (And another thing: the diocese now being forewarned, shouldn't they, out of fiscal prudence, be setting aside and investing large amounts of dough in a hedge fund - call it the Vatican Buggering Fund - to indemnify themselves against future awarded damages, as new generations step into the docket to claim their rightful amends for what the Fathers are doing Right Now? I think I heard the government has made it harder to claim bankruptcy than it used to be. I'm just asking.)

The nuns made it Very Clear: when we descended the stairs TO the lavatories, we marched DOWN the Right Side of the stairs. When we were ready to return to class, we marched UP the Right Side of the stairs. Just like riding a bike, always on the Right Side, no matter what direction you were going. Any talking or any diversion from the Instructions meant one thing: Hell. Eternal Damnation. Burning. Flames. Always and Forever.

Now, there are two kinds of sins in this life. There is your venial sin, which can be burned off in purgatory, which is your first port of call after you die; there is also your mortal sin, which cannot. The difference between the two is that with your venial sin, it was unintentional. You didn't know what you were doing. You were a chump and you went against God's will, but what the hey, you didn't know and can have the thing burned off. Kind of like you went to a nice party and spilled some wine on your shirt. You're a clumsy doofus, but with a little seltzer water and a quick trip to the dry cleaners, boom, good as new! (Come to think of it, this might be a good name for a chain of dry cleaners: Purgatory Dry Cleaning: "For All Your Venial Stains." Ha Ha! You can use that if you want, for free. I'm a Giver.)

Now, your mortal sin is a whole different proposition. With this baby, you KNEW it was wrong at the time. Whatever you did, you did it with the full knowledge that God would not approve. You don't get a do-over, a side trip to purgatory, a second chance, nada. Your metaphorical Goose is cooked. And cooked. Forever. You should have thought of this at the time, buddy.

Well, when I first heard this differentiation, in all my youthful exuberance, I took it as a challenge: could I, knowingly and with foresight, commit a sin and not get caught? Could I beat the immortal odds and fool Sister Mary Novena? I decided to try. My plan was simple: one day, on a pee break, I would PURPOSELY walk down the LEFT side of the stairs to the lavatory. BWAH-HA-HA-HAAAAAA!

I got caught.

And during my tongue-lashing and wooden-ruler-on-knuckles interlude, Sister wised me up. Turns out I had overlooked one important nuance in this sin business: even if I had eluded Sister in my rebellion, GOD Would Have Known! Of course, how silly of me.....

Fast forward about 25 years. It is the late seventies in Seattle. I am experiencing a series of workshops and seminars put on by a former Greyhound Bus Driver with delusions of becoming the new Jim Jones, of mixing up the medicine for a willing group of acolytes. What started as a wildly successful series of Real Estate Investment Seminars morphed into a wildly successful (and more expensive) series of How To Unlock Your Real HIdden Potential And Rule The World seminars. Naturally I was money is as good as the next sucker's.

At one seminar, I remember the Bus Driver told us the true meaning of sin: to miss the mark. Yes, the etymology of the word sin derives from archery. The distance between the bullseye and where the arrow hits on the target is called the "sin of the arrow." Morality aside, one might argue, to miss the mark you have set for yourself is to sin. Which puts things in a whole different light. I am still pondering the implications of this information for my own status vis a vis God and that Eternal Damnation thing. Seems like a loophole kind of thing to me, a technicality, like what gets horrible criminals off in these courts with these activist judges nowadays. I want no part of this kind of stuff. I'm a man, responsible for my actions no matter how horrendous, how threatening to the Natural Order Of Things. I can take a licking and keep on ticking, like a Timex Watch, buddy.

(Postscript to the Bus Driver seminar thing: many years later, a friend who had attended the same courses told me that the guy had committed suicide. Tragic. A Troubled Figure, obviously. A Man, Searching Alone In This Confused World, Seeking Eternal Liberating Truths To Share With Humanity, Offering Salvation To A People Otherwise Destined To Live And Die Without Knowing Why. Upon hearing this news, I recall my first reaction: I wanted my money back. This is the kind of thinking that sets me aside from Decent People.)

But for fifty years now, I have Known, while you have doubted your ultimate disposition. All is foretold for ME, if not for YOU. You go through your tenative life, always watchful, always mindful of potential future consequences of your actions. Is this a Mortal Sin, you ask? Where does the concept of Plausible Deniability come in here? Just exactly how far can I go, what can I get away with? Questions, worries, stress, ulcers, high blood pressure, strokes, bad skin, cold sores, insomnia, compulsive gambling, sex, shopping, drinking, erectile dysfunction, and skinny lattes. These are the hallmarks of your life out there.

But not me. (OK, except for the drinking part.)

Whether my corporeal body is violated by flame or worm, my immortal soul will burn in Hell and I know this. I am OK with this, because it is like a ride on a carnival or a plane ride. No matter how afraid I might get, no matter what might happen if the roller coaster slips off the track or if the plane crashes, THERE IS NOTHING I CAN DO ABOUT IT! It is completely out of my control. And not only that....for all of my earthly life, and I can SIN and SIN AGAIN, because I only have one body to burn.

The die has been cast. I may as well enjoy the ride, because it will be over soon enough, and the only question worth asking is: was it worth it? Was the game worth the candle? Did I get a big enough thrill, enough satisfaction in walking down the Wrong Side Of The Stairs to make up for what I know is ahead of me? Was the delight I felt, as ephemeral as it was, in performing this act, sufficient to compensate for an eternity of unrelenting agony?

Yes. It was.