Saturday, February 24, 2007

Self-indulgence on Joe Lieberman's birthday

Sixty-five years ago on this day, Sen. Joe Lieberman entered this world.

So did I.

A strange convergence of beginnings and beings, and one unworthy of comment, except that we are both Democrats (he, barely; me, with serious reservations) and we are both very much alive.

I wouldn’t normally remark on my birthday except that this one obviously places me at a mid-point between being 50 and 80—God-willing I make it to that age and in tolerable good health.

When you are 65, you are undeniably considered old. No more of this “late middle age” stuff. I’ve been receiving AARP mailings for 10 years or longer and have always shrugged them off.

No longer.

When I mount buses now, I have the status of an “honored citizen,” though I have no idea to what or to whom I owe the honor, save mere survival. I get to sit in those side-wise seats, all the easier to plop into, but I have to wrench my neck to see where I am headed. I’m not sure it’s an even trade, but I am sure it’s not worth worrying over.

I’m in much better shape than I ever imagined I would be at 65. Except for being near deaf without $4000 worth of gadgetry stuffed in my ears, I’m surprisingly fit. I run three miles three days a week and lift weights.

I undertook this mildly obsessive workout 18 months ago when I decided I wanted to stick around a few years longer. I really do have too much to do…and, yes, to write and teach…and learn.

I’m curious to learn whether I can make much of a difference. I still believe that’s why we are here—as delusional as we can be about it, what with suicide bombers, cigarette manufacturers and CEOs whose greed is beyond obscene.

They aren’t alone in delusion. A lot of us are living way beyond the planet’s means. Collectively we have made an utter mess of things for everyone. It is too easy to become fatalistic about life here.

I don’t know how much longer I have, a couple decades, tops, according to the actuarial charts.

Whatever it turns out to be, I’m ever more aware that I’m creeping up on the time when it will be enough.

Wonder what Joe thinks on our birthday....

Insert here a Garrison Keillor-like voice:

Here’s a poem by Stephen Crane:

The sage lectured brilliantly.
Before him, two images:
“Now this one is a devil,
And this one is me.”
He turned away.
Then a cunning pupil
Changed the positions.
Turned the sage again:
“Now this one is the devil,
And this one is me.”
The pupils sat, all grinning,
And rejoiced at the game.
But the sage was a sage.

That’s this writer’s almanac for February 24, 2007.

“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

Friday, February 23, 2007

"Thinking is entertainment"...sometimes

The other day I met a kindred spirit who works at Oregon Public Broadcasting, and she handed me her business card.

The front carried the requisite information (name, title, phone, e-mail), but the back was devoted to a neatly printed one-line come-on:

Thinking is entertainment

It got me thinking, and my thinking wasn't all that entertaining. Still, bear with me if you can stand an entertainment-free moment.

OPB’s message carries a lot of subtext, as we say in the Media Literacy community.

The notion that “thinking is entertainment” may be necessary to get an entertainment-obsessed, thinking-averse audience to think, or at least to consider thinking.

Heck, it may even get them to watch public broadcasting, though the Lehrer News Hour isn't exactly my idea of fun.

Let’s face it, a lot of thinking isn’t entertaining at all. It’s just head-scratchingly hard work. Rewarding, perhaps, even challenging, but no romp in the park.

Thinking is not something many folks would choose to do during prime-time, say as a replacement for “Survivor,” “Grey’s Anatomy” or “CSI.”

Something else needs to be said about this little OPB aphorism. While some, but not all, thinking is entertainment, most popular entertainment—unlike art—doesn’t entail thinking. (I know, there's something snooty about that "popular" and "art" bit , but I don't have the space to deal with it here. Another time....)

The fact is most mass media entertainment today requires no thinking at all. “Feeling” (sex, fear, revulsion, greed, envy) perhaps, but not thinking.

I'll go further: mass media entertainment (think about commercials, for instance) requires that you not think. There’s a term for this: Suspension of Disbelief.

Flick on the TV, go to the movie, play a video game. All require you to suspend disbelief. For advertisers (and, in one form or another, advertisers pay for nearly all media these days), such mental vacuity is pay dirt: an audience of media-numbed consumers no longer able to think critically.

Now imagine political advertising. It goes a long way to explaining the state we are in.

So my response to the OPB business card's “Thinking is entertainment” is two whispered words…

Let’s talk.

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OPB: "Nike Community Center" possible

It seems that we might get stuck with the "Nike Southwest Community Center" after all.

Parks officials assured a group of us a week ago that the proposed Portland Parks and Recreation corporate sponsorship/naming rights rule wouldn't allow for plastering a corporate name or logo on community centers.

Oh yeah?

Here is über-activist Amanda Fritz, who generally favors corporate naming rights sponsorships, quoted in an OPB story that aired yesterday.

Amanda Fritz is a longtime community activist who lost a recent bid for city council. She has weighed in on the policy and says there is room for a corporate logo in a parks building.

Amanda Fritz: "But there isn't a potential to have a 'Nike Park' anyplace in Portland. There might be the potential under the sponsorship policy to have a 'Nike Recreation Center,' or something like that."

Today is the last day to comment on whether you want our parks commercialized and our community centers named for corporations. You can comment here.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Can Hillsdale keep an anchor grocery store?

Just when I finally broke myself of calling the former Lynch's market "Wild Oats" instead of "Natures, "it is about to become "Whole Foods."

These adjustments become harder with age.

That said, the speculation has already begun over whether, and how, Hillsdale can keep an anchor grocery store.

Eamon Molloy, the Hillsdale Farmers' Market manager and an active Hillsdale resident, notes that the Hillsdale store space is much smaller than either Whole Foods or Wild Oats has built in the last eight years. It is likely too small for New Seasons as well, he says.

Unless there are major lands deals with the school district (something I favor), there simply isn't enough room in the shopping center for a store large enough to attraction any of the prime players.

Eamon suggests Eugene-based Market of Choice or a community-owned store, such as a co-op, might be the best way to go when the Wild Oats lease ends in 2010.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"Mr. Olson": The conclusion

I’ve decided to combine into one post the last two installments of Tom McTighe’s short story, “Mr. Olson.” For your reference, parts I and II are here and here.

Mr. Olson, Parts III and IV

By Tom McTighe

Downstairs, she found him holding Clarence and looking out the window. He looked over as she walked to the center of the room and raised an eyebrow in acknowledgment of the dress--she hadn't worn it for some time. She turned herself around slowly, and briefly extended her arms, and then she smiled at him and curtsied. Mr. Olson put Clarence down. A bitterness welled up from where his pride lay coiled inside him. He felt it was patronizing the way she thought she could use his heart to change his mind--to hell with that, he thought. He made his face calm, took a step toward her, then shrugged a shrug that answered "I don't give a damn" to every priest anywhere who ever dared to ask "Have you been saved?"

Mrs. Olson was crushed. The dress was them both, was their lives; it was the common face of their union that they showed to the world, and it was above the world, above their individual tastes, their individual concerns, even their individual beliefs. She saw him putting his resentment of the church above their love for each other, and it made her senseless with emotion. The room blurred. She took off the dress. She threw it in the kitchen trash. She went upstairs and put on the first thing she saw and then left for church crying.

Mr. Olson sat down on the sofa and stroked at his chin numbly; his anger was gone. He couldn't think of what this would all mean. He sat there for some time, and then went out to work, to see if he could begin to regain his balance. He went to the shed in back and got out the mower and wheeled it to the front yard. He bent and yanked the cord, looking forward to the solitude that the hammering engine always provided him. He pulled again. The engine wasn't catching. After a third try he checked the gas and the oil, but both reservoirs were full. The spark plugs were new. It occurred to him that he wasn't pulling hard enough. He bent and yanked the cord again and again, but he could not get the engine to turn over. He felt like a sick man struggling to open a bottle of pills. He sat down where he was in the grass, unbelieving, and his shoulders shook as he cried.

Returning from church, Mrs. Olson found him sitting on the front steps. The sight of him made her chest full again, but his peculiar aspect made the feeling less sharp. As she walked up the path, his expression made her stop, and he motioned for her to wait there. He went into the house, and returned shortly carrying a large bowl and a good clean towel. He led her the rest of the way to the front steps and sat her down there gently, as he crouched in front of her. He undid the buckles of her shoes, and she smiled, confused. He tenderly set her feet in the bowl. Her smile broadened, then she gasped as he lifted a large bottle of Chanel No. 5 out of the pocket of his overalls, and poured it over the tops of her feet. She heard the neighbor's rake across the street stop scraping, and then the pair of them laughed out loud for some time, as he washed her feet with the perfume.


A sobering critique

On Monday evening my monthly writers’ group got to me about my Red Electric writing before the New York Times did on Tuesday morning.

Each writer in our group of six invites comments from the others about our monthly submissions. My submissions in the past two months have been several Red Electric posts.

On Monday evening one of my fellow writers put her criticism directly, “Your writing in the blog seems harsher.”

Another asked, obliquely, but tellingly, whether I missed having an editor.

Someone else wondered whether I would write my newspaper column the way I do the blog.

I had to confess that I’m more guarded in the column.

My tone, they were saying, is strangely different on-line. I agree. It is blunter and, frankly, less sensitive to how those I’m writing about might react.

I’ve been particularly tough on those in government and bureaucracies in general. I believe in what I’ve written, often passionately, but the criticism has been coarse at times.

I was sobered by my colleagues’ critique and my own repentance.

The very next morning, I found some solace in an explanation in the New York Times Science section. The author, Daniel Goleman, wrote that when we compose for the internet, we lack the visual feedback (a raised eyebrow, a grimace, a frown) that we do when we communicate face to face. As a result, our writing is far less inhibited. At times it is downright rude. At worst, it becomes “flaming.”

Psychologist even have a name for the behavior: “On-line Disinhibition Effect.”

What to do?

First, for me, a few apologies are in order to anyone who has been offended.

Second, clearly I need to create a greater sensitivity in this solitary writing space devoid of social cues.

Goleman suggests the problem will be solved when we have video e-mail so that we can see how recipients are responding. Until then he believes some kind of visual reminder of caution and civility should be pasted to the computer monitor.

The best one I can think of comes from the Salem, Oregon-based Hands Project. It takes the form of a refrigerators magnet depicting an open hand holding a heart. The image is accompanied by the words “Hands & words are not for hurting.”

In the case of on-line writing, the pledge should apply to typing hands and the words those hands send into cyberspace.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Mr. Olson, Part II

This is the second of four episodes in the Tom McTighe’s story. Part I appeared on Sunday.

Mr. Olson, Part II

By Tom McTighe

The two usually spent their Sundays in the park with Clarence. But that spring Mrs. Olson's mother died, and after the funeral, a well-attended gathering of her mother's dear friends, Mrs. Olson began to dress up and go off by herself on Sunday mornings, to the neighborhood church. She said it was just a way to feel closer to her mother now that she was gone, but in truth she also enjoyed the kind of easy, purposeless talk that always followed mass. Mr. Olson took it poorly--he had no room for religion, having suffered in a Jesuit boarding school in the thirties.

And so Mrs. Olson paid for her new association with the friendship of her husband; not all at once, but gradually. One day she realized that more than a week had gone by without a word passing between them. On its own, this wasn't so odd, but Mr. Olson had begun to deny her his non-verbal kindnesses as well--and it began to hurt Mrs. Olson's heart.

His displeasure was there in his face, a gloomy shadow of his silent responses to her everyday questions. His nod said Yes, but also said, You let me down. His shrug said I don't know, and also said, I am not happy.

One Sunday morning, convinced that something had to change, Mrs. Olson decided to wear the special dress. The dress he had had made for her. The one she made sure she could always fit into. It was hand-embroidered with a beautiful pattern of red roses, which bloomed on an elegant black background. The dress meant a great deal to both of them. She took it off the hanger and put it on. On her way downstairs, she stopped in front of the mirror and toughened up a little to face him.


Monday, February 19, 2007

A local link for little ones and their moms

Hillsdale neighbor Heather Hawkins has put up a helpful website for moms of pre-schoolers in Southwest Portland. It's called readysetmom and lists helpful tips and timely events.

A chance encounter with Heather at the Southwest Community Center this morning led us to talking about TV Turnoff Week, which is April 23 to 29. Last year several of us were able to raise its visibility in Southwest by putting up a student-painted "Jigsaw" sign in Hillsdale.

Anyway, Heather has alerted her readers to my plans for TV Turnoff participation in the Wilson High School Cluster schools this year. Let me know if your family or your child's school is interested in participating as I have organizing materials available. An organizer's CD loaded with information costs $10, but one free copy is available for each cluster school.

You can also get more information at

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Salem update: Lawmakers check in

Today State Sen. Ginny Burdick left a message on my answering machine apologizing for an 11-week delay in getting back to me. Seems she has suffered disruptions from staff changes etc.

Anyway, we are now playing phone tag, but it looks as though we may have some traction on getting media literacy legislation introduced this legislative session.

Actual passage is an open question....

Rep. Mary Nolan has expressed interest in the subject too, and Rep. Larry Galizio, a PCC teaching colleague, has agreed to put forward legislation on my behalf. I've told him I'd like to persuade my fellow Northwest Media Literacy Center board members later this week to be primary backers.

Stay tuned.

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Big "O" to Coca-Cola: Back off!

Today's Oregonian editorial nailed it by telling Coca-Cola to let the Portland Public School district out of the its junk beverage contract with Coke.

Check it out.

The editorial would have had more teeth had it included reference to growing talk around town of boycotting Coke products (Dannon Yogurt, Odwalla drinks, Minute Maid etc.) if the food giant puts a $600,000 hit on our strapped schools for breaking the contract.

Hey, we'll take what we can get.

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Block branding in the parks

Before delving into this, I want to give you the place to comment on Portland Park and Recreation’s (PPR) proposal to sell naming rights to parks facilities. You have until this Friday.

Do it. Or read this, and then DO IT.

The alternative could be “Jockey” gym at the Southwest Community Center, or park swings brought to our children by “Nestles.”

I wish I could be as sanguine as my fellow blogger and activist Amanda Fritz about last week’s City Hall meeting on this sordid matter.

I found the two-hour session troubling in several ways.

Start with the fact that neither Parks Director Zari Santer nor Parks Commissioner Dan Salzman was present.

Then note that the meeting was the public’s one chance to comment in person on the proposal and its mushy language.

You’d have to be a PPR groupie to know that “the Citywide Parks Team,” the convening group, is not a closed cadre of parks managers but rather a diverse gathering of, well, parks groupies.

So when it was announced that the draft “Sponsorship Policy” would be presented and discussed, I figured I’d be an outsider looking in.

I wasn’t. That was reassuring until I realized that this would be a Q&A rather than a wholesome debate about underlying policy.

Those presenting the draft and fielding questions tried to give corporate sponsorships a “feel good” feeling. How wonderful it was to “form partnerships” with Nike and others, and “to leverage assets” (the public’s assets, by the way) and “develop diverse revenue streams” and “create win-win situations.”

The staff presenters often blurred the distinction between sponsors, who contract for something (a naming rights, primarily) in return for their cash “partnership,” and donors, who give with little (and even no) expectation of acknowledgement.

Definitions and words are important. At one point we were told that Columbia Sportswear had “adopted” Sellwood Park to help maintain it. Very nice, but just who is putting our parks up for “adoption”? Columbia Sportswear, a true donor, is to be commended, but I suggested a better choice of words lest we put the entire city up for corporate “adoption” of a worse kind—specifically naming rights sponsorship.

The chief presenter was PPR Marketing & Business Development Manager Bob Schulz, an affable fellow with a down-home PR manner. But when we got down to cases, he turned terse and defensive:

• What about Portland’s naming rights poster child, PGE Park? It isn’t part of PPR.
• Does its name create a city precedent? No, it was ad hoc.
• What about the large Nike logos on parks basketball courts Nike paid to have resurfaced? We wouldn’t do it that way if we had it to do again.
• What about Pepsi signs on scoreboards at community centers? We needed the contribution because we hadn’t budgeted for them. It won’t happen again.

And yet, here he, the "Marketing & Business Development Manager," was saying PPR needs corporate sponsorships (read "money") to keep the parks solvent.

The fact is that as a society we are starving what many call The Commons. It is vulnerable to an industry salivating at naming rights opportunities. These public facilities are indeed assets—assets to be taken over by corporate America, as the public and its representatives capitulate. The schools are in the same situation. Witness the Portland schools’ current struggles to extract itself from junk food deals with Coca-Cola.

We really are putting The Commons up for corporate adoption. Sadly the money once available to schools or parks is increasingly going to fight wars or pay war profiteers, or make up for what the super-rich no longer pay—and now spend on private jets and third or fourth homes.

I imagine a day a decade or so from now when our children won’t know that parks facilities or schools or civic stadiums (we had one here once, remember?) are owned by the public. They won’t know that Mommy and Daddy really do pay taxes to keep them running.

At last week’s meeting I suggested to the PPR staff that before they sell off The Commons, they might come to us, the people, to see whether we really want it sold off to commercialism and corporatism. Tell us what it will cost to avoid “corporate adoption” and ask us to pay for it. My guess is we will. At least we should have the choice.

I also suggested that the entire City of Portland, not just Parks and Recreation, needs to have a policy on corporate sponsorships and naming rights. Without that policy what is to prevent the renaming of everything owned by the public. “Viagra” City Hall? “Camels” Waterfront Park? The “Spandex” Morrison Bridge. We could tattoo Nike logos on the commissioners’ foreheads—all for a price.

Finally, I reminded them of a quaint old saying: “Virtue is its own reward.” It is famously reflected on an inscription on the Skidmore Fountain, whose name has not been sold off, yet.

Virtue, in the form of volunteerism and good citizenship, is “the riches of the city.”

Corporations in the naming rights hunt (and, believe me, that hunt is everywhere) might muzzle their marketing departments long enough to embrace the idea of virtue being its own reward. Imagine, giving something simply because it was the right thing to do….

Again public comment will be taken here
through this Friday. Feb. 23. I urge you to write that the selling of naming rights in any part of The Commons should be prohibited in the City of Portland.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

A gift: Mr. Olson, Part I

Tom McTighe came to our Quaker meeting a couple weeks ago with envelopes that contained a gift, which he invited us to accept. Then he encouraged us to put our own gifts inside the envelope and pass them, as well as his gift, on to others.

As it turned out, his gift was a short story, “Mr. Olson,” and now I will pass it on to you…in four short segments over the next few days. I’ve added a few photos to his words.

Of his experience writing “Mr. Olson,” Tom writes, “I was pondering the idea that our strengths are often closely related to our weaknesses, and that a relationship is often a curious mix of similarities and differences.”

You’ll see what he means as you read….

Mr. Olson, Part I

Mr. Olson was one of those old, old men who had somehow retained his physical power despite the years. Past eighty, he was still often seen in his driveway, loading or unloading his pickup, or working in the yard with a shovel or a rake. But no one mistook him for a young man: his skin was colorless, his cheeks fell slightly inward, and his head was mostly bald, although it was inevitably covered with a weathered gray fishing hat.

In contrast to her husband, Mrs. Olson, still youthful at sixty-two, was a small round woman with pink cheeks. The pair would have been cause for comment, had they gone out on the town together or given the occasional dinner party. Looking at them was like seeing two photos side by side--one in black and white, the other in color.

Now you might think that marrying someone twenty years older would entitle you to no end of stories and advice, based on the collected wisdom of your mate, but Mr. Olson wasn't much of a talker. In fact, for Mrs. Olson this was one of his most attractive qualities, since she came from a fairly quiet family herself. Yet Mr. Olson had a quiet that was deliberate, and bordered on a religious conviction. He thought that speech dishonored thoughts; or rather, that non-verbal communication was a much nobler form of expression.

Mr. Olson was a man of great emotion, however, and he made Mrs. Olson feel lucky to have him. Without words, and maybe in part due to their absence, he could bring to her that feeling of unconditional acceptance that all lovers crave. He had a way with gestures, both large and small.

She had a Schnauzer named Clarence that, for the most part, Mr. Olson just tolerated. Last summer, though, when the dog got sick, Mr. Olson spent two sleepless nights worrying and carefully nursing him back to health, and since then she had come home on occasion to find the two of them asleep together on the sofa. The sight always filled her with tenderness.

On the other hand, having outlived all his friends, Mr. Olson had developed a feeling of correctness that at times seemed like arrogance, as if he felt, "I have survived, so I am right." It was a quality that sometimes disturbed their happy home.

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