Saturday, September 22, 2007

Scooter Guy learns to shift gears: Part II

On this crisp Indian summer morning, 12 of us gathered in the upper parking lot of the PCC Sylvania campus to get up close and personal with a dozen motorcycles.

I’d brought my motor scooter for the hands-on, but then I figured, what the hell. How often to I get to learn to ride a motorcycle?

And learn I did, along with the 11 others.

Among us were folks who hadn’t ridden for 20 years. There were wives and girlfriends who were tired of clinging to love handles at 70 mph.

And then there were the neophytes. Scootering didn’t quite put me in that category, but motorcycles are a whole new world.

One young woman was a true wobbly novice, and I ended up running the course behind her. She kept dragging her feet, literally. She wouldn’t get up enough speed for the bike to stay upright. I watched her toppled three times. I thought the instructors might give up on her, but they kept at it. At the end of four hours, she was a happy cruiser.

And so was I. Starting, stopping, up shifting, down shifting, turning. The last isn’t as easy as it sounds. Motorcycle wisdom: Don’t look where you are going; look where you want to go, it’s the only way to get there. Aaaah sooooo ....

At the end of my time circling the parking lot (we each went about 11 miles without going anywhere in particular), I ached in places I have never ached before.

We had a two-hour classroom session after the time on the bikes. It was all about “mental motorcycling,” which is another way of saying “staying alive on two wheels going very fast.”

The course is lardered with acronyms to make the material stick. SIPDE is probably the most important one as it deals with raw survival. It covers the essentials of disaster avoidance. "S" is for Scan — as in keep your eyes open, WIDE open and on the move. "I" is for Identify — looking isn’t the same thing as seeing and recognizing. "P" is for Predict — as in, if I hit that truck that just pulled out in front of me I will die, on the other hand if I …. "D" is for Decide, as in what do I do to stay alive. And "E" is for Execute — DO IT!

Not a bad list. It might even come in handy for making lasagna.

Tomorrow we mount the bikes again to learn about swerving and braking in curves. Should be a blast.

After that, there’s the multiple-choice classroom test and, if all goes well, I’ll be certified as capable of riding one of these things. Hard to believe.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Scooter guy joins a biker pack: Part I

Last night’s first session of the Team Oregon motorcycle basics course was all in a classroom at PCC Sylvania. Book learning, or to be more exact, course manual learning.

The instructor was a slight young woman with the unlikely given name of “Kentucky.” She was an odd mix of caution and whimsy. “You like your brain? Remember to fasten your helmet,” she said with an earnest smile.

Tomorrow morning at 7:30 the class throws their collective legs over the bikes. I’m not sure the world is ready this. Some of us are utter newbies to motorcycles. Kentucky warned that some folks simply freak with a bike between their legs.

Based on what we have learned so far, I’m convinced that riding a motor scooter (that’s what I ride) is to driving a motorcycle as flying a kite is to flying a 747.

In a way this course (three classroom sessions and two rubber-meets-the-parking-lot classes) seems like overkill as I have no intention of riding a hog or sow or whatever.

Some of my classmates, however, are raring to go. We have a 16-year-old who can take apart a two-stroke engine blindfolded. He wants his license cycle endorsement big time and bad — like yesterday! We have a grandmother who craves adrenalin highs. There is a squad of beefy guys who are simply out to connect with a missing part of their personas.

It should be a wild morning on the PCC Sylvania upper lot.

My take-away from last night’s class is that a biker can’t be too well protected. I never realized the kinds of body armor these road warriors encase themselves in. Gloves worthy of a medieval joust. A helmet that puts another skull plus padding around the brain. Boots to keep blazing-hot exhaust pipes from charbroiling ankles. Ear plugs to ward of the engine's incessant rumbling growl.

I mean these people are encased. Are they having fun?

Are you kidding? They can’t wait.

And all I want to do is scoot from ‘hood to ‘hood on my faux Vespa.

I’m off to study my Basic Rider Training Guide, a manual designed to prepare me to mount in the morning — and fire up!

As my Quakers friends say, hold me in the Light!

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Land of (Recognition) Opportunity

We like to think of America as the “Land of Opportunity. But how about the land of “recognition opportunity”?

What is a “recognition opportunity”? you might wonder.

Well, if you google the term, you’ll get the picture. The term is rampant. “Recognition opportunities” are being advertised everywhere on the internet.

But if you want to “search” closer to home, check in with the Portland School District. Or the Portland Parks and Recreation Bureau.

Both are in the business of peddling “recognition opportunities.” The opportunities turn out to be on our publicly owned property.

A “recognition opportunity” is the chance for a donor, whether a corporation or an individual, to slap a name or logo on a highly frequented or highly visible public facility like a school gymnasium, stadium or museum.

It is, in short, a concoction of advertising and PR.

Of course, essential to the deal is determining what the recognition is for. In this era of starved public institutions, the exchange involves money. Institutions are coming to rely on “recognition opportunities.”

Some argue that, if the trend continues, we will no longer have public institutions. (Remember when “public” television used to be called “non-commercial”?)

Consider a case that will be coming before the Portland School Board next Monday evening.

Nike and the Portland Trailblazers, neither shy about making themselves recognized, are in line to resurface 13 gymnasium floors in 10 Portland high schools in exchange for some recognition — a logo here, a logo there. Each logo would be viewed hundreds of thousands of times over the ten-year life of the floor. The viewers are from a demographic group sports marketers drool over: kids, with decades of purchasing ahead of them.

The price of the PPS gym floor refinishing work is estimated at $600,000. Seemingly not small change until you look at what advertising costs. And this is gold-standard advertising — sanctioned by our august school system.

If you want to test Nike and the Trailblazers’ motives, all the school district would have to do is agree to take the money and offer a simple, heart-felt thank you.

Good luck.

No, Nike and the Trailblazers are in this for the “recognition,” again and again and again.

Equally troubling is that these “recognition opportunities” are being offered on public facilities without the approval of the public and without a policy in place to govern them. What is the real value of having a Nike logo on 13 gymnasium floors over the next 10 years? What precedent does it set? Why not logos on classroom walls or on the floors of school corridors?

Where does this end?

The school district has no clue, and it’s time it did. That’s why my colleagues and I from the Coalition for Commercial-Free Schools will be calling for the Nike/Trailblazer deal to be tabled until the public and the school board hammer out a policy.

Moreover, the phenomenon of the district having to go hat-in-hand to corporate America with “recognition opportunities” to get gym floors refinished is prima facie evidence that the school district needs a lesson in management. Well-run organizations don’t beg; they budget.

How did the district pay for refinishing the floors 20 years ago? They budgeted for it.

Finally, what does it say to students that “recognition” can be bought? Isn’t recognition something we earn? Moreover, students need to learn about people who don’t seek recognition or “recognition opportunities” at all but find reward enough in the act of giving and seeing results.

How’s that for a lesson?

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fear is my co-pilot

I’ve owned my sea-foam-green motor scooter, a Chinese Vespa knock-off, for three months and about 300 miles.

For the first two months, each time I would mount the rasping two-cycle steed I had this vague feeling that I was placing myself at death’s door.

Which was good because it made me hyper-alert. As I set out down our impossibly steep hill, I ventured into a wilderness infested with four-wheeled contraptions driven by creatures blind to two-wheel conveyances.

Bicyclists know the feeling, and, yes, twice a week I get on my folding bike to ride to the Southwest Community Center to exercise. Truth to tell, half the exercise involves going to and from the center.

I came to rely on my state of heightened, anxious awareness on scooter and bike. I found it carried over to driving my little SUV, which I’ve used sparingly this summer, thanks to my “alternative” forms of transportation. (Goal: make the SUV the “alternative”)

Who knows, perhaps scootering and biking made me more careful about picking up sharp objects as well.

But about a month ago, after dozens of successful scoots, I got on the steed and something was missing: fear.

Strangely, I missed fear. I wanted it back. Without it, I felt vaguely insecure. Hmmmm, my lack of fear was causing fear, but a different kind of fear — the fear of being oblivious or overconfident, rather than the fear of having a car door opened in my face or being blind-sided at the corner of Sunset and Capitol.

Fortunately, this earlier fear of bodily injury or worse, had prompted me last June to sign up to take the Basic Rider Training Course offered by Team Oregon, a motorcycle safety organization. The wait lists were so long that the earliest I could take the course was late September.

It is late September and I take the three-session course starting tomorrow. Just in time to re-instill a little, or a lot of, fear.

Of course, I’ll share the experience with you here. But for now, just the thought of the course is frightening. And that’s a good thing.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The disappearance of story

Ron Marson, tall, thin, intent, serene, rose for his chair in the silence of our Quaker meeting last Sunday and spoke his truth.

He had just returned from a 10-day hike in the mountains, he told us. In the course of his trek, he said, he became one with the forest, the trail and the moments.

His entire being reduced itself to stepping around a rock or root, or grasping a branch, or hearing wind in the fir or feeling the cool of the shadows.

“My own story disappeared!” he exclaimed.

He invoked the phrase several times. “My own story disappeared.” It was almost as if he were in awe, still a bit stunned.

“My own story disappeared!”

Now that he was back, his story had returned. Society, friends, responsibilities called upon him to be “him.” The forest and the mountains made no such demand. Instead, they absorbed him.

When Ron rises to speak in our meeting for worship, as he often does, I am always struck by the depth of his words. It isn’t a depth of complexity, but — in the manner of seasoned Friends —the depth of simplicity, integrity and peace.

In the silence that followed his brief “ministry,” it occurred to me that Ron had just shared his experience of losing his story by telling one. Some stories are like that.

It’s a bit like the conundrum I share with my journalism students about the day there was no news. It would be the biggest news day ever. No news? And why might that be? Were all audiences vaporized along with all journalists? Would it be the day humanity disappeared, destroying itself perhaps, leaving fleas and worms to decide what was “news.”

But more to the point, Ron’s story about the loss of story speaks to how Quakerism cleaves to Zen and mysticism in general. They rely on stories, and on the non-story called silence, which in turn resounds with everything — and nothing.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Braking short of the Donut Hole

A couple of weeks ago I got an unsolicited phone call from a survey research firm inviting me to attend a focus group session.

Curiosity and the promise of $75 to attend the two-hour session took me to the Convention Center Red Lion this afternoon where I joined 40 other gray hairs, all in their mid-60s.

I know our ages because that was part of a series of questions we answered using little wireless handheld devices called “Perception Analyzers.” You turn a dial until the red digital numbers ratchet what you want. “1” for yes; “2” for no. Or, in the hands of the programmer in the back of the room, the numbers can range more widely to allow for more nuanced answers.

We were asked to identify our ages in a range from only 64 to 68. (I’m 65 if you must know.) It was strange to be with 40 older people so close in age. That hadn’t happened since my last college reunion.

We were a pretty feisty bunch as it turned out.

We were led through questions projected on a screen by Susan, a facilitator half our age.

Each of our “analyzers” was numbered (I was #40) so that its answers were computer-tabulated and correlated for a particular user.

We started with the basics: Gender? Household income? Ethnic background (we were all Caucasian—was that intended?)? Home ownership? Own stock or bonds? 401 K, pension? Level of education?

And then we got down to cases, and we began to get a sense of who might be behind the survey. Who was picking up the tab.

What type of Medicare do you have? we were asked. Part A? Part A and B? Part D? Med Advantage HMO? Med Advantage PPO? etc.

This was suddenly heavy going. The guy next to me took out his Medicare card to read the fine print. We all had name tags. His read, “Charley.”

On a scale of 1 to 10 how satisfied were we with our plans?

How many doctors visits in the last year?

How many hospital overnights in the past two years?

Any chronic illness?

The questions were boring in, getting personal.

Somebody was extracting $75 worth of information out of each of us.

There were some forced choices about why we chose the plan we did? What was the main reason? Cost of premium, choice of physician, reputation of insurance company etc?

What was the second reason for our choice?

It went on this way for several more questions until we got to the crux of the survey, namely a new experimental form of Medicare coverage: medical savings accounts.

What if there were no monthly Medicare premiums to pay and the government simply gave you X dollars each year for medical costs? If your costs exceeded that amount, you would pay Y dollars out of pocket. After that “donut hole,” the insurance company would pick up everything else that year.

In other words, the government pays if you get a little sick, but if you get sicker, you pay for that until you are really, really sick and then the insurance company picks up the additional tab.

Question, will knowing that you are paying for graver illness discourage you from getting more care and lead you to find God?

The "donut hole" term comes from the language of the Medicare drug plan cobbled together by Bush, the Republican Congress and Big Pharma a few years back.

Oh, explained Susan, and what you don’t spend on health care in one year gets rolled over into the next. Oh, and the money is yours to cash in if you want — but there’s a penalty and you have to pay taxes on it….

But…and. ..but…and.

Next we were asked to consider several scenarios. What if the savings account infusion got bigger, but so did the donut hole payments? How about this much? How about that?

For a premium of Z dollars each month we could get dental and vision coverage. Our facilitator ran Z by us at several amounts: $40 per month, $50 per month, $60 per month.

Each time “better” coverage meant paying more. What would we be willing to pay … and for what?

Then Susan had us put down our Perception Analyzers. She invited us to tell her in actual words what we were thinking, as she put it.

What did we like about this medical savings plan idea? What didn’t we like?

A woman in front of me wanted holistic care included in coverage. Several men said that they liked the rollover provision because it rewarded good health, which they seemed to pride themselves in. Sixty-five is the new 40 and all that.

Stay fit and make money. What’s not to like?

Right. And what happens when get run over by an SUV or are hit with a stroke or Alzheimer's’s or Parkinson's’s disease? Or what happens if you discover you have spiteful genes?

Fear and uncertainty were the unacknowledged guests in the Red Lion Banquet Room. Ten years from now would this group answer these questions the same way?

Questions like these began to haunt me. I could feel an onset of eruptive crankiness.

Finally I raised my hand and said that the whole health system in this country was sick and that health care shouldn't become a game of donut holes, deductions, price points and marketing strategies.

Give us a break.

I got scattered applause.

“Who let him in?” joked Susan with a good-natured smile.

• • •

Who knows what the mysterious client and the perception analyzers will make of my editorial outburst. Did it make me worth less than $75, or more?

As we filed out the door, we got our $75 in cash in unmarked envelopes.

I chatted with Charley as we waited for the elevator. We made a three-degrees-of-separation connection via the Longview Daily News (his brother lives in Longview and Charley seemed to remember a story I had written for the paper about Harry Truman and Mt. St. Helens back in 1980, the year of the big eruption.)

Charley, a retired portrait photographer, surmised that Regence BlueCross/BlueShield was the likely client for the survey because the Regence name came up more frequently than other insurers, such as, I kid you not, Secure Horizons.

I thought the client might be Dick Cheney, Grover Norquist, the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute.

Anyway, I’m spending the $75 on motor scootering boots that will protect my ankles in an emergency.

Call it preventive medicine. Under a medical savings account, the boots would allow me to brake short of the dread donut hole ... and I’d roll-over — but in a good way.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Three from the beach

Gathered beach rocks,
Jagged, jade, flat white and grey.
Convened by my hand.

Being the oldest
On the beach is to have seen
more seagulls, white caps.

Dots along the waves
Flapping south,
Pelican parade.

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