Saturday, April 12, 2008

An Overwhelming Story

I sat down today with an undergraduate at the University of Portland, who wanted to interview me about my experiences covering the Mount St. Helens Eruption. She said she wanted to know about what it was like covering events in May of 1980 and how small papers, like ours, The Longview Daily News, and large papers differed in their coverage.

As I all too frequently do, I questioned the questions.

Our coverage was notable (we won a Pulitzer for it) because it didn’t stop with May or with even the succeeding large eruptions that went on into the summer of 1980. Instead we stayed with the story of the dangerous aftermath for the next three years. A paper with a volcano nearby could justify covering it systematically and routinely, just as schools, politics, and the criminal justice system are covered daily by "beat" reporters assigned to them.

As important as the events of May were (particularly May 18th), the months and seasons that followed were critical to our readers and the very survival of our community. That was the point I made to my interviewer as we talked. News coverage that adheres to a 24-hour news cycle is missing most of what is going on in the world. Events unfold over days, weeks, years, centuries. At the extreme, millennial geologic time (real “mountain time” if you will) escapes the news, until one day geology literally blows up.

As for small papers versus large papers, as different as they are, in a natural disaster the most important distinction is the “near” paper versus the “farther-away” paper. The closer you are to the story, the more important it is to you and your readers. Particularly when proximity equals danger. The Daily News was all over the Mount St. Helens story because the very survival of our community was at stake.

Not so for the Seattle Times or The Oregonian.

And the growing threat became more and more apparent the more we found out about the destruction the volcano had caused to the watershed with its multiple tributaries that fed sludge and sediment into the beds of the rivers flowing toward our town. The new, unstable lakes that grew in those equally new valley basins beneath the snow-packed volcano were storage basins for flash floods of fluid with the consistency of wet concrete. Our paper was the first to write about that danger, a danger of entombment. We may have been the last to do so. No other community or news organization cared the way ours did. How could they?

When I finished this rambling account, I could see that my student interviewer had a list of 10 or so questions. But after asking a couple and listening to more of my extended answers to them, she said that I had answered all the rest.

I fear I may have overwhelmed her with a story that remains to this day exactly that — overwhelming.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Upside-down "S" righted, and noted

Thursday, contractors with a crane righted the upside-down "S" in the Watershed building's new "Hillsdale" sign.

Also on Thursday, The Oregonian found the whole snafu worthy of mention as a "Keeping it Weird" item in the paper's "inPortland" magazine.

I confess to preferring the S upside-down — and keeping it weird.

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A question and extra credit

Local geography question: Where is this?

Extra credit: If you look closely, you'll see there's a mechanical waterbug-like thing out on the water. What is it? Hint: It's solar powered.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

River Reflections

Some of the photos I took yesterday on my walk along and over the Willamette zeroed in on the river’s reflections. The water’s flow offers another vision of our world.

Refracted, undulating, ephemeral, the ever-moving surface proclaims the river’s depth and urges us to probe our surroundings — and our being.


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Willamette River Steps

Feeding my 10,000-Steps pedometer this afternoon took me along the East Bank Esplanade, across the Steel Bridge, south along Waterfront Park and back over the Hawthorne Bridge.

I took my camera, and restrained myself so that 10,000 steps didn’t turn into 10,000 shots.

Here are four that celebrate our city and the Willamette.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Power of Hunger

Beth Blodgett, a Quaker friend, has been called to a monastic life of simplicity, prayer and peace in rural Honduras. A pediatrician by training, she volunteers one day a week at a clinic in a town about an hour away from her remote cabin.

The rest of her time is, by necessity, devoted to survival

She returned to Portland recently to tell us of her life and how it has changed her.

She is noticeably thinner (I believe she said she has lost 50 pounds). Her austere diet, like her simple way of life, is, by choice, like that of her neighbors.

One comment she made has stuck with me because of its deeper meaning. “I’ve passed through ‘having an appetite’ to actual hunger,” she said.

I remember when, years ago, Beth “had an appetite” for an ascetic life in Central America. When her appetite grew to hunger, her life changed.

How much of my own life is now merely satisfying my appetite? What would it mean to hunger for what I believe?

To hunger for peace, to hunger for justice, to hunger for equality. What would it mean to go from satisfying my appetite by signing petitions, voting and donating to actually acting out of hunger?

To fast, to refuse to pay war taxes, to steal the Olympic Torch headed to a China governed by oppressors.

I’m reminded of Thoreau in jail for refusing to pay taxes in support of war. When Emerson visited him and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau responded, “Ralph, what are YOU doing out there?”

Emerson no doubt spoke as a man of appetite; Thoreau spoke from hunger.

Recently I’ve been reading about Tom Paine, whose writings moved the colonists from an appetite for respect and equal rights from England to a hunger for independence. His “Common Sense” and his hunger for complete freedom inspired a revolution.

How much does change owe to hunger?

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Monday, April 07, 2008

My Search for Oregon

My breakfast eating habits have changed significantly since Texan Jon Wolf bought a Frosted Flake shaped like Illinois for $1350 on eBay.

News trivia like this usually becomes part of my ever-expanding, useless unconscious. This story, however, sticks with me, partly because I’m an Illinois native (Rockford, if you must know) but mostly because I eat Wheaties, which often bear an uncanny resemblance to states of the union and carpet stains.

Prior to the Wolf/Illinois/flake story, I alternated between Cheerios and Wheaties for breakfast. But whoever heard of a Cheerios shaped like anything other than a miniature inner tube or dwarf donut or a, well, a Cheerio?

Now post John Wolf, I partake mostly of Wheaties, and slowly, with great deliberation.

The other morning, for instance, I caught a glimpse of what promised to be Texas peeking out of my Wheaties heap. “Bingo!” I thought as I extracted it only to find that what I thought would be the panhandle of the Lone Star state turned out to look like the large freckle on the top of my right hand. These things happen with age, brown spots that is, not Texas near-misses.

States with panhandles (Idaho, Florida and Oklahoma, for example) are unlikely to show up in my cereal bowl. Others are also problematic. Massachusetts’ Cape Cod, for instance, wouldn’t survive being jostled around in a Wheaties box. Alaska’s Aleutian chain would be impossible. And Michigan, of course, would have be in two pieces. The Olympic Peninsula is Washington’s undoing.

Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada have too many straight edges, er, I mean borders.

The narrowness of Tennessee, California and Kentucky make them unlikely, flake-wise. (And let’s have no California flake quips here. This is serious business.)

I do keep a sharp eye out for the most likely candidates: Ohio, Iowa, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Mississippi, Missouri, Alabama, Indiana, Wisconsin, Colorado and both Dakotas. Wyoming probably should be on the list but every time I think I have spotted a Wyoming I am reminded of Dick Cheney and no price on eBay is worth that.

Right up there at the top of my flake-state search is our beloved Oregon. The only problem with finding an Oregon flake is that I would want to keep it and probably travel around the state showing it off. “Hey, lookee here! See what I found!” I’d exclaim on the streets of Boring, Bandon, Burns and Bend.

Knowing Oregonians, they would indulge me. They’d say nice stuff like “Oh, yeah, that’s really interesting,” or “That’s swell. Have a nice day,” or “Cool.”

But one thing I wouldn’t want to say here in my adopted home state is: “Hey, anybody want to buy this Wheaties flake shaped like Oregon for $1,350?”

Oregonians are too practical to buy Oregon-shaped flakes. If they saw one, they might just eat it. That’s one of the reasons I like the place so much.

Finding Oregon in my breakfast cereal also reminds me that, no matter where, when or how I discover it, this place is priceless.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

10,000-step addiction

For the second day in a row, I’m posting photos from a Portland park. This time it is Albert Kelly Park, just a 15-minute walk from my front door.

I’m out and about on foot to feed my pedometer.

A week ago I signed up for the 10,000 Steps program. In the morning, I zero out the pedometer from the previous day and then check periodically to see how I’m doing on my beginner's goal of 9500 steps by bedtime.

So far, I’m doing just fine, no small thanks to Albert Kelly Park, the Fairmont Loop, Marshall park, a meadow of flowers, a skeletal tree at dusk, luxuriant cherry blossoms and a few choice trails (clearly marked by SW Trails signs).

In fact, I’m about to increase the daily goal to the full 10,000 steps. Amazingly, that's roughly five miles.

I think this could become addictive.

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