Saturday, June 23, 2007

Doing it wrong

Hillsdale can now see that it will have a new landmark in the form of the five-story tower framed in next to the new Watershed Senior Housing project.

We can also see that for all its good architectural intentions, it will also be a landmark to the failure of the city and the Portland Development Commission to step up and bury utility lines. We are left with poles, transformers and wires marring the view of the new tower.

The vertical structure naturally draws the observer's view upwards. Some of us had even hoped to put a glowing solar-powered beacon at the top. The problem is that what you see above two stories in Hillsdale is evidence of civic aesthetic anarchy and neglect. Overhead utilities like those in our Town Center simply wouldn't be tolerated in The Pearl, South Waterfront of the Lloyd District.

In the spring, after the city put in even more utility lines down Bertha Court, I lobbied City Commissioner Sam Adams about the need to underground around The Watershed, but to no avail. The cost, by the way, was estimated at $125,000. But that's another story told earlier here.

Community Partners for Affordable Housing, the developers, to their credit, even put underground conduits in the ground next to the building, but Qwest and Comcast refused to use them. The city should have stepped in and forced their use.

Until the city opens its eyes the blight here, we are left with a flawed and marred landmark, a symbol of good intentions that failed because of a lack of cooperation and foresight.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Flights of Fancy in a Time of Need

So the Oregon State Legislature has approved $106 million in financial aid for the state’s college students over the next two years. The lawmakers are also set to approve a $1.4 billion budget for the state’s community colleges and universities over the two years funding cycle.

That’s an 18 percent increase over what the state currently spends. It’s about time because right now Oregon ranks 45th nationally on its higher education spending. Our schools aren't even second-rate.

The Oregonian reports that the financial aid comes too late for this year’s public university graduates whose diplomas came with a record average debt of $19,000.

Remember those numbers.

Now jump to the world of the super-rich. Texas billionaire Robert M. Bass is financing the development of a super-sonic business jet. The minimum price tag for the jets will be $80 million, according to the Thursday New York Times.

Such an outlay would pay for nearly 60 percent of the state’s higher ed loans over two years.

So what does such a plane gain the business elite? The benefits are huge. Huge! Three hours off the typical Paris-to-New York flight; one hour trimmed from New York to Miami? Such convenience! Such cache!

And who will buy these super-sonic hot rods in the sky? An aerospace analyst is quoted as saying, “These are people who are willing to pay any price.”

He means “any price” to trim three hours off that grueling subsonic corporate plane trip between Paris and New York.

While we are on the subject of costly airplanes, consider the new F-35 Lightning II under development for the Pentagon. Only one of the planes exists, but the full program will cost $276 billion with an additional operating cost of $347 billion. But don’t bet on those numbers. According to a business story in today’s Times, the program is already $31.6 billion over budget.

The base version of the plane will cost $75 million; the “advanced” model (presumably with Bose speakers) will go for $90 million. A kind of corporate super-sonic jet with missiles but no martinis.

Meanwhile American soldiers and Marines are dying on the ground for lack of proper armored equipment. Let’s not get started on “military intelligence” and what really greases these, ahem, "strategic" decisions.

Finally we have on the business page of today’s Oregonian the story of Stephen Schwarzman, who, thanks to his Blackstone Group’s going public, is now worth more than $10 billion.

Let’s try to wrap our minds around $10 billion.

Imagine that I gave you a $1 million bill each second for the next 2 hours and 47 minutes. Start counting, “$1 million, $2 million…”

Fun, huh?

Now keep counting for the next 2 hours and 47 minutes. “$25 million, $26 million.” You have a very long way to go because there are 10,000 million dollar bills in $10 billion. $9,200 million, $9,201 million….

As you can see, for Mr. Scharzman and the Pentagon, the price of a super-sonic business jet or fighter is — let’s say it — an obscene waste.

Here in Oregon and elsewhere, it would buy the tickets to knowledge and fulfillment for literally thousands of kids.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Street Witness

You see so much more when you ride a bicycle. And as more of us ride, the more will be seen.

More “eyes on the street” can make a difference in small ways.

Today, for instance, I was pedaling through Hillsdale on my way home from working out at the Southwest Community Center. A thin, slightly disheveled forty-ish fellow was standing alone at the bus stop in front of Papa John’s pizza.

As I approached him, a patrol car cruised by, and the guy at the bus stop inexplicably flipped off the two officers in the car, a man and a woman. They noticed and decided they weren’t about to let the obscenity pass, so they pulled into the parking lot and circled back to the guy at the stop.

At this point I figured someone might need a witness, so I decided to wait for the bus at the stop.

The male officer was the driver, who, on extracting himself from the squad car, turned out to be formidably large and rotund. His partner was half his size.

He did the talking to the thin man.

“Were you signaling us for something?” said the officer, glancing up to see me watching in the background.

“No, I was just waving at someone across the street,” lied the rumpled man.

“Oh, we thought we saw you making an obscene gesture our way,” said the officer.

“Nope, I was just waving.”

“Let’s hope so. Well, okay, then have a good day.”

And with that the officers got back in the car and pulled off.

I probably should have pulled off myself, but I wanted the man to know that someone else besides the cops knew he was lying.

“You flipped them off,” I said.

“No I didn’t, besides, what business is it of yours?”

“You flipped them off and then you lied to them.”

“Hey why do you care what I did?”

“I came over here to witness how they would react.”

I knew this guy, based on his behavior so far, was going to have trouble making the mental and emotional leap from seeing me as a busy-body to accepting me as someone who might actually have helped him.

So I push away on my bicycle and left him to his deceptions and dangerous impulses.

And that was the end of this little street scene.

Looking back on it, I’m not sure what else might have happened if I hadn’t been riding by and decided to become a bystander/witness. I’d like to think nothing. The cop had an inspired open-ended line about “signaling.”

Would the cops have behaved differently had I not been there? Is there a law on the books about flipping off the police? Should the cops have ignored the guy? Should I have ignored the guy? Did he, could he, learn anything from the encounter?

What I learned is that it’s good to have “eyes on the street.”

The more, the better — for all kinds of reasons.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Volunteers as Friends

Most of our relationships are relatively easy to define.

Student/teacher, teacher/student, neighbor/neighbor, professional/client, clerk/customer, activist/activist, congregant/congregant, mother/father/daughter/son, sibling/sibling etc.

Usually institutions define relationships for us, whether those institutions are neighborhoods, families, schools. congregations or businesses.

(By the way, something I like about Quakers is that our formal name is “The Religious Society of Friends,” which may help friendships form faster than otherwise would be the case.)

Recently I’ve been thinking about all the people I know through formal relationships and about just how much I have shared with them. I’ve also thought of the fun and satisfaction associated with these relationships.

But just when and how do, or should, these relationships evolve into friendships?

Sometimes relationships require that we consciously NOT be friends. A conflict of interest might arise. As a journalist I have met many people who, under other circumstances, might well become friends. But the nature of my work wouldn’t allow that to happen.

As a teacher, I couldn’t become a friend to my students although I was friendly and, in fact, tried to help them in ways that no friend ever could.

To be sure, with the passage of time, and changes in roles, several former students and even news sources have become friends (or potential friends), although frequently it is hard to pinpoint exactly when the transformation becomes possible. Graduation, career change or retirement aren’t always natural watersheds in relationships.

But, with the above constraints in mind, I can think of a few signs that mark the change to friendship. One is a willingness to mutually share confidences in trust. Another is a willingness to offer or ask a favor with no expectation or thought of reciprocation. Yet another is inviting someone to share an experience that has nothing to do previous roles. When is a lunch no longer a business lunch but simply a lunch with a friend?

Many of these musing about friendships result from my working as a volunteer with many other volunteers.

Our involvement begins with our being co-workers. “We volunteer together,” we might explain.

But after years of “volunteering together” I am inclined simply to say, “We are friends. We volunteer together.”

Perhaps volunteerism is a variant of friends’ willingness, even eagerness, to give and help each other.

We may not confide in each other or even see each other socially, but somehow our giving, if not to each other, but together to others, forges a friendship.

I think that those of us who volunteer together would do well, with time, to acknowledge ourselves first and foremost as friends — joyful and grateful to give together to others.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Beautiful Game

A soccer game like the one on a balmy Tuesday night could make Portland Timbers matches habit forming.

I joined my son, daughter-in-law and two of their friends to watch the Timbers play AC Milan’s under-21 team at Civic Stadium, aka PGE Park.

We were joined by a reported 11,000 others. Not bad for a week night in the city.

The senior AC Milan club is one of the best in Europe so the AC Milan Primavera youngsters, many destined for stardom, had a tradition to uphold. The Timbers, undefeated at home this season, had a streak to defend.

At that, the exhibition match had an almost convivial cross-cultural, diplomatic feel to it.

The game was close and fluid. A dance of quicksteps and turns, feints and lunges, lobs and leaps.

So much of it is what Hemingway called “grace under pressure.”

You can see why soccer played this way is called “the Beautiful Game.”

As the sky darkened and a finger-nail moon rose over the city, the match wound ever tighter.

Portland was ahead by a goal when a red-carded Timber player put the team down a man. Milan soon scored the equalizer. The Timbers, back on their heels, fended off Milan probes, volleys and assaults, hoping to struggle to the end-of-regulation tie-breaker when the game would be settled on penalty kicks. Portland knew the shoot-out would even the teams again.

The strategy worked.

The Italian team fell into a malaise as its first three penalty shots missed the goal every which way. The shooters were like basketball players throwing bricks from the foul line in the closing minutes. While Milan missed; Portland was dead on with four goals in a row.

In the celebration that followed, the score seemed an afterthought. The Portland victory and Milan loss were laid aside as the two teams mingled and strode around the field together, waving to the crowd.

Together, they had given us a treat.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

City-sanctioned Graffiti

So Commissioner Randy Leonard is on a graffiti eradication toot. Hurray for him!

Strangely, I’ve had a few of my students come to the defense of graffiti. Eradication is censorship etc. After all, this is art, free expression. Besides, those blank spaces are just going to waste.

Private property? Not if can be used to communicate "art" to the public.

Ok, I ask, how about your forehead? Blank space. In full public view. What say I spray-paint over your brow “Bonehead”? All in the spirit of free expression, of course.

End of argument.

Now then, I’d like Commissioner Leonard to consider two other forms of graffiti, both sanctioned by our city officials, including Commissioner Leonard.

The first are overhead wires on well-traveled by-ways. They are certainly as blighting and intrusive as graffiti. Obviously city officials agree, which is why they insist that the Pearl District, South Waterfront and the Lloyd District have underground utilities as part of their municipal tax deferred financing.

Officials should require the same burying of wires and transformers whenever new commercial construction is built on well-traveled transit lines.

You know, places like the new Watershed complex in Hillsdale.

The second city-sanctioned graffiti are the “sponsored” stop announcements on the Portland streetcars. Yes, auditory graffiti. Intrusive, offensive, embarrassing, deceitful and absurd.

Intrusive because they can’t be avoided.

Offensive because in order to use public transit, well, we can’t avoid them.

Embarrassing because out-of-town visitors and tourists, drawn to the trolleys, must find the voice-activated commercials tacky. Unworthy of the City of Roses.

Absurd and deceitful because the actual messages claim that public, taxpayer-built and maintained intersections are “sponsored by” this or that business or institution.

Come on.

I rode the trolley today and concluded that, frankly, some of these “sponsors” should be ashamed of themselves. I’m thinking in particular of the Portland Art Museum, the “Portland State Vikings” (who, pray tell, are they? The student body? The administration? The football team?) and the Portland State Bookstore.

There’s no way these institutions “sponsor” the stop intersections, and they know it.

So Commissioner Leonard, AKA duct-tap Randy, should look up at the wires and listen up to the trolley plugs. There is plenty of graffiti that he and his colleagues could clean up with a simple roll-call vote.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Typewriter Love

Several of you know that I’m an avid collector of old manual typewriters. Of course there are list-serves for people like me.

The lively exchanges reveal that we share traits that extend beyond a love of typewriters. High on the list of traits are the loves of writing, history and things mechanical and tactile.

I don’t recall any of us acknowledging these traits. We are too into the minutiae of typewriters. For instance, this weekend’s chat on the Portable Typewriter Forum has been about the differences between Olympia SM3s and SM4s, revered, rock-solid Teutonic (West Germany, actually) models from the ‘60s. The amorous discussion ranged from tab set mechanisms, to sleek fiberboard carrying cases (versus the box variety) to favorite color combinations. One reader expressed a particular fondness for the burgundy over cream version shown here on an SM3.

To give you a sense of the utter devotion, even rapture, these machines evoke, here’s a sample response to one member post that he had scored an SM4 for less than the price of a small latté:

Great find on the SM4. $2.50 WOW! I've always liked the colors of the SM3s and 4s. The best I've done was $6.50 for an Olympia SF. Got it yesterday. It's my official Fathers Day present…. I had to drive about 100 miles both ways to get it but considering it would have been destroyed by Goodwill had they shipped it, the drive was worth it. I'll report when I get a chance to play with it.

See what I mean?

As I’ve reported before, my own crazed involvement has recently extended to persuading local colleges and universities to display typewriters from my collection. The exhibited machines are identical to typewriters used by several famous authors. If they were the actual typewriters used by the likes of Hemingway, George Orwell, E.B. White and Agatha Christie, they would be worth thousands. As is, they are beautiful, quirky curiosities — or at least that’s my hope.

Last week I installed eight machines at Mount Hood Community College where they will be on display for two months in the library’s foyer.

So here’s my walk-off question: Will the computer models used by today’s writers ever be equally cherished?

I think not, for reasons I will explore on another occasion.

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