Saturday, July 14, 2007

Two-stroke Memories

Riding around on the Chinese-made, faux Vespa, motor scooter I bought a couple of months ago has reacquainted me with the rasping, sputtering two-stroke internal combustion engines of my boyhood.

I suppose the first time I grappled with such a chattering mechanical heart was negotiating with the balky law mower I guided through the muggy summer days in northern Illinois.

We always owned Jacobsen lawn mowers for some reason. Maybe it was because in Rockford, Illinois, we lived with so many Swedes — Andersons, Nelsons, Johnsons. Jacobsens were a distinctive orange and you had to yank a cord repeatedly until the lawn mower/two-stroke gods decided to bless you with a sputtering cough. You knew then that with a couple more yanks the engine would kick in.

The lawn was immense. I don’t just mean that it seemed immense because I was 10 or 11 and was dwarfed by the expanse. It must have been an acre or more. It may have taken an hour and a half of constant diminished circling to mow it, section by section.

The other two-stroke engine in my life back then was a Mercury five-horse (or was it 10?) outboard on the back of a 14-foot Alumacraft open rowboat. Thinking back on it now, I don’t know why my parents allowed me at the age of 10 or so to set out from our dock in the country at 7 a.m.

Sitting in the rear, hand on the tiller/throttle of the engine, I’d guide the boat down the Rock River, past the islands and the wooded banks and around sand bars to the Auburn Street Bridge in town where I would tie up and then walk 12 or so blocks to P.R. Walker Elementary School.

The trip down the river was probably six miles or so. The water hid its hazards, floating chunks of wood, shifting channels. The most dangerous was the early morning fog that clung to the river and could cut visibility down to the bow of the boat and little more.

I knew the river well and was never intimidated by navigating virtually blind. But then I was young and didn’t know enough to be afraid. What my parents were thinking is a mystery. Perhaps I never told them about the fog. Each morning was all a great adventure, this going to school by boat.

It was cold on those autumn mornings, though the river would surprise me with patches of warmth. I’ve been reminded of them on the scooter, which also moves through cool and warm patches no one in a car can feel. Swing off the Ross Island Bridge onto Barbur and suddenly the temperature drops on these warm summer days. The changes come and go suddenly, like those a swimmer feels in a lake. Like those a solitary boy in a boat felt on a river decades ago.

And then there is that rasp and chatter of the two-stroke. Across the years, the little engine has proclaimed that what is asked of it is work, hard work. Be grateful it says, grateful for the noisy help, the mowing of the vast lawn, the push of propeller against the muddy river, the driving of the wheels that carry me up Barbur Boulevard and Capitol Highway, that take me to Hillsdale and my home.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Letter to the District Attorney

Following up on yesterday's post regarding the constitutionality of "illegal" signs on utility poles, I sent the following e-mail to DA Michael Schrunk's office today.

One question is whether it is worth the taxpayers' money for Schunk's office to respond. We'll find out. My money is on no response. How about yours?

Here's what I wrote:

I read the C1 Metro story in yesterday's Oregonian with particular interest as I regularly remove signs placed illegally on utility poles in our neighborhood of Hillsdale. In my car, I carry a long pipe, which I use to swat down signs placed beyond normal reach. As a courtesy, I often phone the numbers on the signs to inform sign owners that their signs are illegally placed on the poles and that I have taken them down. I also ask that they cease putting them up in our neighborhood, adding pointedly that because of the ordinance forbidding the signs, there could be a penalty associated with the postings. In other words, I may report repeated postings to the authorities. Then appealing to sweet reason and civic pride, I further note that if every business posted signs on our utility poles, the entire city would be a blighted maze of signs. Hence the anti-posting ordinance. I "personalize" the issue with this question: How would you like every pole in your neighborhood were covered with signs? Now, if I read The Oregonian story correctly, your office questions the constitutionality of the ordinance and has decided not to prosecute violations of it. Obviously that undercuts my argument to violators. Indeed, it may serve as an open invitation for hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses, to post all shapes and sizes of signs on Portland's utility poles, which, if I am correct, are actually owned by the utilities (Does that make them private property?) So here are some questions? If I remove these signs, which you seem to deem constitutionally legal, am I guilty of theft? Or are they considered "abandoned property" like litter in the public right-of-way, which I can legally remove? Why did the City Attorney not alert the council to the constitutionality issue when the council passed this measure? Certainly someone must have raised "First Amendment" questions. Is graffiti written on public property also protected? Are those of us who remove it guilty of some crime? If graffiti were written on a placard and placed in the public right of way, would it be legal? Would obscenity make a difference? Portland may be weird, but is it THAT weird? And what about the small stand-alone signs on wire frames which are often put up at important intersections by 1-800-Got-Junk and JobDango? (I remove those as well, using the arguments mentioned above.) If the ordinance is indeed unconstitutional, what is to prohibit the kind of massive signage blight I am describing? I do not want to get into the content of the (anti-police) message in question in the Oregonian story, but it is easy to see that a back and forth between contentious groups would add immensely to the signage problem. Finally, and as an aside, I voluntarily remove these signs to protect the neighborhood from blight. I have often thought that the city should fine and bill the owners of the signs for removal with the money being contributed to the neighborhood association affected and whose volunteers have removed the signs. I look forward to a response from your office regarding this matter.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Two items, late in the day

It's late. I need to think more before writing about the district attorney's refusal to prosecute a case in which signs were illegally posted on utility poles. See this story in today's Oregonian. The ordinance prohibiting such postings may be unconstitutional, saith the DA.

I tear down these signs all the time. Ripped down about eight (an employment agency pitch) this very day and called the number on the sign to tell one "Alice," who answered, that I had done so. My defense is the self-same ordinance.

And the DA won't prosecute? Am I now the one who is guilty for removing Alice's signs?

I have consulted one of the best and most convenient legal minds I know about this matter and will report my findings tomorrow. I may also put in a call to Michael Schrunk, the DA himself. I may want to post my own signs on the utility poles in front of his house. "Prosecute this! Mr. Schrunk."

This could get weird. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, there are two items late in this bizarre weather day to be considered. Neither has to do with the weather, even with thunder and lightning outside my window.

The first is this statement from "Time and the Art of Living" by Robert Grudin. That's a book I've referred to before and recommend highly for bursts of mind stretching.

The statement: "The mind is as limited by what it rebels against as it is by what it accepts."

Item two is how Michael Thomas Ponder figured out where I was last week. Here, in his own words, is his explanation.

"It was an open book test right? Using the power of Google I searched
for Blue Horse using island & WA as key words since it looked like a San
Juan island setting. Restaurant & lodging listings popped up and once I
saw Ganges Rd, I figured I was on the right path with your Indian

To see the clues, visit the original post. The answer, lest you have forgotten or didn't care or weren't here for the explication, was Salt Spring Island and its Ganges Harbor in British Columbia.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Greg Oden: Slam-dunk as News Peg

Journalists are always looking for ways to hook the public on issues of pressing importance.

Like tonsillectomies, for instance.

The way to do it is to find a celebrity to front for the issue.

Like Greg Oden, the Trail Blazers' hyped-to-the-max, 7-foot rookie center.

Conveniently, the 19-year-old needs a tonsillectomy, so the public-spirited press has the chance to delve into the intricacies of these extractable organs as Oden, the NBA center turned tonsillectomy out-patient, goes under the knife next Tuesday.

Oh the minutiae of it all!

It began in today’s Oregonian:

600,000 Americans have their tonsils removed each year.

The average age for having one’s tonsils removed is 7.

But adults and older teenagers, like Greg, make up one-third of the tonsillectomy patients.

Want to know more? Here’s The Oregonian’s breathless tonsil description, just in case you missed it:

“Tonsils are soft flaps of tissue at the back of the throat, one on each side. They are part of the lymphatic system, helping to catch germs before they cause infections in the throat, mouth or sinuses.”

Now you know, thanks to Greg’s celebrity tonsils, which may begin to feel like our own as Greg’s removal day approaches.

What next for Greg as news peg? Consider….

Greg Oden has really big feet (shoe size 18), but he’s not alone. Thousands suffer through “Big Foot” jokes. And a whole clod-hopper industry has grown up to serve them ....

When Greg Oden parks downtown, he has to feed parking meters, and so do you. In fact thousands of people smaller than Greg do it each day — or don’t, and have parking tickets to show for their transgressions. Greg, by the way, hasn’t been here long enough to get a ticket. Parking meter revenue and fines pay for more city services than you or Greg might imagine ….

Just because he’s really tall and people like him a lot, Greg Oden can’t avoid taxes, and neither can you. Yes, it’s tax time again and ….

Greg Oden isn’t the only young person who votes, etc., but he’d like to see many more of his generation casting ballots. Non-voting is a big problem among the young ….

No matter how Oden, sans tonsils, works out as Trailblazer center, he is the odds-on favorite for one honor, MVNP — Most Valuable News Peg.

Hook'em Greg!

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Ponder me this, O Canada

So it was Canada. It was British Columbia (but, yes, anonymous, it did feel a bit like Wisconsin, Door County to be exact).

And indeed it was Salt Spring Island and Ganges Harbor.

Which means that the "Where-was-Rick" puzzle winner of an always-useful TV-B-Gone is none other than Hillsdale’s own Michael Thomas Ponder (MTP).

See what you can do with a Stanford education? But never mind.

I’m still not able to capture the feeling I had crossing the Peace Arch-ed border at Blaine into Canada.

Part relief knowing that I was no longer under the jurisdiction of the Bushman, part curiosity about whether things would really be that different north of the border. I mean if things are different in Oregon, how much more different can you get?

Short answer: A LOT!

One of the first things I noticed was that it was independence day and not the Fourth of July. Sunday, the First of July, was Canada Day. Happy 140 years, Canada! Three days later, our Fourth of July would be gloriously serene from the deck of our neo-rustic log cabin overlooking placid little Cusheon Lake.

Our itinerary required two ferry rides to get to the island. Ferries are wondrous transitional places. But for the marine air, the steady forward motion, the low hum of engine, ferries are calming entries like those to Japanese gardens and temples.

The island itself is 29 kilometers by 14 kilometers at its widest. I’ll let you do the conversion. The metric system is good for the mind and soul, and a relatively painless way for Americans to get with the rest of the world.

Saltspring Island (yes, it is spelled both ways), is a coastal island that harbors on the east side of Vancouver Island. It has been home to all sorts of folks. The “First Nations peoples” as they are called in Canada, Spanish and English explorers, Hawaiian field hands, Japanese fishermen and farmers, African-American-Canadians (who came here in the 1850s after buying their way out of American slavery), hippies, artists, second- and third-home owners.

Now, in the summer, the place sees a lot of folks like us, tourists, but mostly Canadians.

Ganges, the harbor town, is as much a harbor for tourists as boats. It’s a four-bookstore place with pubs, parking lots, restaurants, parking lots, endless gift shops, parking lots and more parking lots.

At night the town shuts down except for intimate concerts at the outdoor Tree House Cafe. In the cool of the evening under a giant oak, we sipped lattés and nibbled on carrot cake as a trio serenaded us with jazz-inflected sambas.

The island’s signage is a mess; getting lost is easy. A hike took us into a pasture run by bulls protective of their cows. To the amazement of friends, I negotiated us through one tense bull encounter and earned the sobriquet “The Bull Whisperer.” Exiting the pasture, we noticed a sign facing the opposite direction, warning hikers of bulls. There had been no sign at our entrance to the pasture.

The exchange rate still favors the US dollar but only by a nickel. The Canadians have been quick to call it a wash. “One of ours for one of yours.” I didn’t argue. What’s a nickel between friends? Or call it a behemoth-guilt tax.

We read the Toronto Globe and Mail most days. Canada’s major newspaper doesn’t seem to give a rip about the USA. The only US story to make the front page all week was Bushman’s commutation of Scooterman’s sentence. And that story was told with a kind of “What did you expect?” shrug.

The best parts of our time were the long, languid, northern-latitude days and a vague feeling of escape from the responsibility of being citizens of “The Mightiest Nation on Earth.” My vacation mood fit that of Canada, a nation that mostly wants to be left alone.

Laissez Faire.

For all that, it’s good to be back, if only for the challenge of it all. Being an American is tough work, but someone has to do it.

And, yes, there were 240 e-mails in my in-box. And yes it has taken me three days to dispense with them.

And yes, upon a little reflection, it makes perfect sense that Michael Thomas Ponder, who has accompanied me to strange places (literally and figuratively), would ferret out where on earth I was last week.

P.S. For another experience of Saltspring Island and better photos than mine, visit John Harvey’s site. I don’t know John. I just discovered his work Saltspring surfing.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Spencer Heinz: A treasure at The Oregonian

I don’t pay much attention to by-lines when I set out to read a news or feature story. But there comes a time in an Oregonian story, usually around the third or fourth paragraph, when I know that I am reading prose crafted by Spencer Heinz.

It happened again Sunday in Spencer’s profile of Elmer Buehler, 96, who once chauffeured Woody Guthrie around the Northwest, helping the songwriter find inspiration for immortal songs.

Somebody should do a profile of Heinz. I won’t do it here, but readers should know that Spencer, a gracious man, is painfully self-effacing about his work. He always credits the story and never his role as storyteller. Which is why he is such a great teller of stories.

He has visited my PCC writing class two or three times. He always inspires in his quiet, understated way.

In my view, Spencer Heinz is a journalistic treasure. Watch for his by-line. No, better yet, when you are moved by writing in The Oregonian, check out the by-line. If your experience is at all like mine, more often than not it will read, “By Spencer Heinz.”

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Dubious return on "investment"

While I was gone last week (yes, I’ll get back to the “Where were we?” puzzle after a few more folks have had a chance to guess), I nibbled away at my summer reading pile.

Particularly compelling was a little tome titled “How to Live Well Without Owning a Car” by Chris Balish.

Not that I’m about to rush out and sell my 1999 RAV4, but Balish makes a strong case for why I at least should consider it. He talks a lot about alternative transportation — two forms of which reside in my garage, a motor scooter and a folding bicycle. Another two are at the ends of my legs.

This summer I’m making a point of using them and leaving the RAV4 at home.

One barrier to selling the old sheet metal is the “love affair” that we (I?) have with the automobile. Balish notes that the romance is sheer Madison Avenue fabrication.

Do I “love” my RAV4? No, but it gets me from point X to point Y reliably. But there must be more going on than that, reasons Balish, because there are far cheaper, more environmentally sound ways to make the X-to-Y journey.

So what sort of Madison Avenue myth-making is feeding our (my?) auto lust?

At one point I picked up a newspaper after finishing Balish’s book. I immediately spotted a large ad whose copy read in part: “A dream come true. How’s that for a return on investment?” In smaller print, it read, “Few things in life are more gratifying than the responsive nature of the….(blank 1)”

I’ll give you “blank 1” in a second. But, keep in mind that we are now in the realm of the “few things in life more gratifying than” this mysterious blank. Let’s see, blank 1 must rank right up there with playing a piano sonata, nurturing a child, discovering a truth, helping someone in need, planting a tree or building a community.

Read on: “Translating your every instinct into action with its (blank 2)....” Hey, wait, I thought WE were responsible for “translating our every instinct into action.” What happened to good old self-reliance, creativity, team work and sacrifice?

Enough. It’s time to find out about this greatly gratifying, dream-achieving Translator.

The thing in life among the “most gratifying” is a Porsche Cayman (depicted in the ad as speeding away at warp speed). And the great Translator is its “245-horsepower, 2.7-litre, mid-mounted flat-six engine.”

Got that? So should you (or I?) go in hock for $69,600 (base price) for such gratification—or, as the ad puts it—“return on investment”? A rapidly depreciating investment at that.

First: Balish suggests we dispense with the dream/translation/investment/gratification bit.

Second: Want to get from X to Y? Try walking, biking or taking the bus.

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