Her Own Wings

Not long ago I was approached by Andy MacMillian to be a part of a group show exploring Portlandia — the statue whose namesake television show is far more famous than the statue itself.

Despite the intentions of the people who commissioned the statue, she never took off as an icon of the city — she never became for us what the Statue of Liberty is for New York — in large part, it seems, because of Raymond Kaskey’s vigorous protection of his exclusive rights to the image. Arguably a wise art-business move, but in the end a misguided step in the stingy Northwest, where it was unlikely anybody was actually going to shell out the money to use her ubiquitously on mugs, t-shirts, etc., particularly after the large commission fee, funded in large part by the public.

So there she sits, atop the back of a strange building downtown, off my usual bus lines and therefore for me a completely forgettable thing despite being the second largest copper statue in the country. She is completely unrecognizable to most people, even to locals, if they haven’t managed to take a city tour or walk underneath her on fifth avenue.

Andy had been doing some research on this, and had been incensed that Portland essentially wasted a golden opportunity to personify the city with a strong female character. She is based off the woman on the city seal — itself a complicated and generally uninspiring thing because it is so cluttered up with symbols, to wit:

“… a female figure in the center thereof, representing commerce, and holding in her right hand a trident and pointing with her left to a sheaf of wheat and a forest, with a representation of Mount Hood in the background, and at her feet a cogwheel and hammer, and on her right a steamship coming into port.”

It may have been moving and thrilling in 1878, when this was written in the ordinance, but nowadays the seal just looks clunky. Tepid. All redesigns have faithfully adhered to the ordinance, but for some reason have also always been rendered like an etching, so never ends up looking modern or representative of the city in any way.

Andy wanted a fresh take on all this, so he put out a call to various artists — all women or female-identified — to take a crack at this concept and see what we could do with it.

I found it to be a weirdly difficult concept — encapsulate a whole city in a single, strong female figure. Portland has changed so much over the scant nine years I’ve lived here — and had changed a good deal long before I got here — that it’s a tricky story to speak to. After all, my Portland isn’t Chuck Palahniuk’s Portland, not by a long shot, and the Portland I found when I got here during the Great Recession is worlds away from the Little California it’s becoming now. A city that once revered its history is quickly being consumed by boxy, high-end condos, and many of my cornerstone locals have begun to seek their fortunes elsewhere. (And it so easily could have been us, lest we forget.)

So it’s not exactly a warm and gushing moment to be asked to personify your city. I think a lot more of us would have gone the route Cate Andrews went if we’d had the guts.

On the other hand, calls like this are rarely this meaty and specific. And it was stimulating to try and wrestle the concept into something visually satisfying.

In these angry and divisive times I find myself longing for redemption. For hope. And because I survived our eviction and managed to land within the city limits in a good situation, I am able to cling hard to the idea that Portland is still a good place for artists. Not absolutely everybody I know has moved to Cleveland or Detroit or Butte. There are still a lot of us here. And a robust handful of us were in this show, displaying our courage and hope.

 

 

The show is up until September 3rd at Land Gallery: 3925 N Mississippi.

If you happen to be out of town, no matter: you can still view the digital gallery and buy a print here.

Proceeds from this show go towards Call to Safety (formerly Portland Women’s Crisis Line).

Slip Slidin’ Away

“…Cry. Swear. Laugh. Cry more. We are making a river with our tears and rivers quench the thirsty…”

I had a massive headache for the past two days — the sort that makes you not even want your morning coffee and leaves you feeling nauseous. I worked through it the first day and made it worse. I tried to appease it the second day by lying prone wrapped in blankets on our couch with a cool washcloth on my eyes and forehead.

This is what couches in living rooms are for, and with four people in the house we get a lot of mileage out of ours — though of course the thing I thought about was that this was exactly where Travis was when I came home and found him sick on the couch back in May.

His was a much more advanced ailment, of course, but it was with roughly the same treatment. He was balled up on the couch, had a bucket and a blanket — I administered the cool washcloth, asked if the light level was okay, asked if he wanted windows open or closed, asked if he needed a lighter or heavier blanket, asked if he wanted water. Brought him some anyway after he threw up the first time while I was there, and brought him a fresh cloth to wipe his mouth with. Held his hair back when they next wave came.

I found a book on grieving for teens at the end cap of our library recently. I found myself deeply moved by this item:

” 21. Know that your relationship was unique.
You’re probably not the only one mourning this death.
Others share your sorrow, and there’s comfort in knowing they do.
But it’s also comforting to know that the relationship you had with there person who died was unique. You behaved differently around one another than you did around other people. You affected each other in different ways.
You’re a different human being now than if you had never known that person.
Your life is enriched forever.”

Travis and I were not best buddies. I honestly had not known him that long, as far as things go. But we’d lived together, and his partner was a fixture in Anthony and I’s concentric circles. To be roommates, for me, means you become a sort of family. There’s a lot of late nights, early mornings, weird household emergencies (like chickens escaping or discovering two of your angelfish are a breeding pair), and just a lot of casual stuff that bonds you in ways that are difficult to explain.

So our friendship was stirred up pretty quickly, because in addition to all this we were similarly laid back, similarly in favor of being quietly attentive rather than overtly demonstrative. Similarly wary of Too Much Directness, and often balancing something really deep and meaningful with something kind of surface-silly, to even things out.

We clicked. That’s really all there is to it.

During the three months of cancer, our interactions were exactly as they would have been if he had just caught a bad cold. I never tried to Say Anything Meaningful, nor act outwardly that this could be the Last Time I Saw Him — though of course I always knew that in the back of my mind. That knowledge did not push me to a heightened state of sentiment, rather it pushed me into a heightened state of awareness. Appreciation. Openness. I was just unexperienced enough to think to myself, with a sense of quiet bemusement, this is what a Last Moment could be. Digging in pizza boxes for a cheese pizza, that he absolutely should not eat anyway. But that’s what he wants, and by God I’m not going to police him. Enough people are doing that. Sure, bro, I’ll help you look.

He told us at the beginning of all this that he was eager to come see us because he knew we weren’t going to treat him any differently. And we never did. Illness strips you of bullshit — of tact, of propriety, of all the tip-towing we do to keep other people at ease. There’s no patience for that when you are plagued by a gnawing nausea, when something else is gnawing at your liver and lungs.

And it seems like this sudden, utter, abject directness causes a lot of healthy people to wrap extra layers of indirectness around themselves, to protect themselves from it. And it’s just because you don’t know what to say, how to help — because of course, you can’t help. You can’t make it better. And you can’t say anything that will help the fact that he’s dying and going to leave his two year old daughter with no memory of his devoted, pure love.

We’ve been writing letters to his daughter. In my first one I said:

“I never knew what a father was until I saw your daddy being one.”

One of the last things Travis did on this earth was to arrange for a slip ‘n slide to be purchased for his daughter, and watch her play on it in the hot summer sun, with the kind of wild abandon reserved for two year olds.

Three months later we were at Orcas Island, a place he loved almost as much as his daughter. The place he shared with Anthony and I (along with a handful of folks who had been there before.) A place I have not done justice to at all, and intend to, because it is unreal.

It’s where we all would have gone again this summer if he had been well — it was a place he himself was able to spend his last week on this earth. It was a place I said I need to get to this year, long before I knew we were holding his memorial there. Because he is connected to the place in a deep way, and I felt his spirit would be heading there. In our circle one cannot set foot on the island without thinking of him.

We were there to formalize this connection.

During the memorial I was throwing pebbles into the sea with his daughter while above us, on a large rock, family members scooped into the Big Lebowski inspired Folgers can containing his ashes. (This can was purchased on eBay at Travis’ request, about a month or two before it was needed. The phrase “volume of human remains” was Googled to ensure one can would be sufficient — it is, as it turns out, at least in his case.)

Music was playing from a loudspeaker. After several key people hurled a scoop of ashes into the sea, they yelled my name. I hadn’t expected them to, and was deeply moved.

I was unofficially in charge of his daughter, who looked at me inquiringly when they yelled my name.

“They’re calling my name. Let’s go see them.”

Someone else threw ashes while I got myself up on the rock. I had his daughter in my arms, and I checked someone’s program to confirm the song we were dancing to: Paul Simon’s Slip-Slidin’ Away.

I learned later that Travis had selected all the music for the memorial himself. Doubtless this spurred on the last minute slip ‘n slide purchase. Full circle.

“What they doing?” his daughter asked. I was frank. We are always frank with her.

“They are throwing your daddy’s ashes. And now it’s our turn.”

The memorial was planned months ago — and when I heard the date I was ecstatic, because it was being held the day before my birthday. How correct, I’d thought. How beautiful. A celebration of death and then a celebration of life. It meant I’d be spending my birthday doing things I loved: camping, sitting around in nature.

After a good hearty camp-stove breakfast I went for a walk back along the place we’d been to the day before, the place one spends a good deal of quiet time if one is at that campground. The place where we’d thrown his ashes.

It was earlier in the day, so the tide was further out than it had been during the memorial.

I wasn’t exactly walking where the ashes had landed, but closer. I was looking casually for good pebbles, as one always does on a pebbly beach. Things catch your eye and you examine them.

I posted these on instagram earlier, and haven’t been able to say it any better than I have already:

It was there that I saw, rolling around in the sea…

…an agatey-geode he left just for me.

There are people who got real closure from the man himself.

There are also people who didn’t, and for whom that stung very painfully at the end.

I wasn’t CONSTANTLY around during Travis’ illness, though I think I give off that impression. There were some people that were there almost every day, administering massage, helping with the steam baths, managing medication, and just generally trying to keep him comfortable and loved. It was like a massive rhythmic dance going on for those three months. A stomping, clapping, tapping kind of rhythm. And my role as I saw it was to add a clap in the gaps. I was the gap filler. I would drop in, nudge something into place, then leave again.

I tried my best to strike a balance between giving help and giving space. (And, very often, LEAVING space for others.)

It didn’t matter to me who was visiting them, what mattered that SOMEONE was visiting them.

It didn’t matter to me who was bringing them dinner, what mattered was that SOMEONE was bringing them dinner.

It meant I was slightly outside of the real work — the drama, the frustrations, the tears, the moments where it got especially dark. But as such it meant I could pick up the slack, or direct others to pick up the slack for them, when energies waned. It meant I felt my role was not as important as those folks who were always there, and I was never out trawling for acknowledgment, though I received a ton.

Of course, this also meant I was occasionally very privileged and lucky to be at the front seat of things.

Of course, “privilege” and “luck” are not usually words you’d use to describe holding someone’s hair back as he vomits into your trashcan because of his stage IV terminal cancer. But it felt lucky to me. To have a chance to be there with him, to be helpful, and to not make a big deal about it at the time. To not need or seek any thanks at all. That wasn’t the point – the point was the real, hands-on time. The gift of time.

He surprised the hell out of me by alluding to it once, when he came to visit me out of the blue on a Saturday morning about a month later.

“I owe you a pitcher…” he said.

He was talking about the plastic pitcher I’d sent him home with the day his partner came to get him from our house — he had been wrapped up in one of our quilts too, but the pitcher was the Thing To Throw Up In. A comforting thing.

I laughed. “No worries. I know where you live.”

We understood each other.

I understand this stone as a birthday gift from Travis, from the other side.

And that’s how I’ll take it, because I like going on that kind of ride.

The Sparkling Salish Sea

I didn’t want to talk about this until I could show you, and short of standing with you on the shore and demonstrating, this is the next best thing.

Apparently the waters surrounding the San Juan islands (which we visited recently) are filled with noctiluca scintillans (also known as sea sparkle!) a microscopic organism. (Not a plankton itself for it eats plankton, but just as small.) Agitation of the water’s surface causes a chemical reaction within their little organelles, and they glow for a brief moment with a fascinating blue-greenish tinge that you have to really pay attention to at first, because it seems unreal. (It reminded me of the table-cloth we were “seeing” at the blind cafe.)

Once you do finally accept that what you are seeing is real, it becomes captivating. I was particularly mesmerized by the waves crashing onto the pebbly shore, and the sparks of light that would dance of the surface of the bouncing pebbles — the bright hiss of the peebles tumbling in the surf registered as a sizzle, coupled with the dance of light so quick it seemed like electric sparks.

These guys are dinoflagellateflagellate meaning they travel via flagellum (like sperm — they have sperm tails) and dinos meaning they are tiny dinosaurs. (Just kidding. It is latin for “whirling.” They spin!)

(…whirling-lizard?) *checks Wikipedia and the OED via the local library website* No, we’re good: the Greek root “dinos” means whirling, whereas the Greek root “deinos” means terrible, potent, or “fearfully great”.

Back to our creatures. They feed on plankton, which is apt to bloom in the nutrient-rich waters surrounding the San Juan islands, and evidently this bloom is reliable enough that bioluminescent tours exist. We knew nothing of this phenomenon before we went out to the shoreline at night, so in our case the discovery was as serendipitous as it was delightful.

You know now, so I’ve spoiled the surprise for you, but I don’t think I’ve diminished the wonder, because there really is no picture I can show you that will replace seeing the thing for yourself with your own eyes. So get to it, will you?

On or about the San Juan Islands

I drew this picture as a bit of wishful thinking last year, long before we’d ever actually done anything like look for orcas of a rocky coast north of Seattle. Last weekend we finally did just that, and many other classic summer vacation things up in the San Juan islands.

We met up with a group of friends who had already set up camp, and then for the next four days explored the island.

We didn’t manage to see any whales, (I suspect they hang around the Haro Straight more than they venture into the smaller sounds,) but one member of our party did see porpoises playing in the water just off the coast of our tiny pebbly beach. And there was lots of other marine life to admire.

It was a glorious trip. Filled with happy surprises.

( Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that Hugh made it there and back with no trouble.)

For the journey home, rather than retracing our steps, I cajoled my brother-in-law into helping us drive around the Olympic peninsula, and visit some of the Hoh Rainforest, where we spent not nearly enough time on a trail called the Hall of Mosses.

The thing that struck me most about this trip was how lovely is was to come home. It was probably one of the best trips I’ve had in a long time — very simple, filled with natural wonders, and weather nice enough to sleep under the stars as I did the first night, all moss and deer creeping through the underbrush.

And to sink into a bed after four days on the ground (and six hours propped up against bedding and tents in the hatchback,) was just the crowning jewel of it all. To come back to plumbing and ice cubes and running water.

The best kind of vacation is the sort of vacation that really makes you appreciate what you already have.

Oaks Bottom: Amusement Park or Wildlife Refuge?

It’s both, really. Or at least, both use the name Oaks Bottom. (It’s also a Lompoc pub not far from here.)

I’m not sure how many of the amusement park patrons partake in the wildlife refuge — I know that when I come down here I’m usually much more interested in the nature scene than I am in carnival rides.

Prime tadpole habitat -- both frog and salamander.

Prime tadpole habitat — both frog and salamander.

Pacific chorus frog, the color of spring.

Pacific chorus frog, the color of spring.

So, the proximity seems strange, but you can’t argue with geography. The pond (which will be all dried up by high summer) is almost all that remains of what used to be a series of wetlands and seasonal ponds, fed by tributaries feeding into the main river. There are several signs along the Springwater Corridor that show sobering aerial photographs — first of the original flood plane, and then of the urbanization and cementing over a lot of that habitat. It’s not a story unique to Portland, but it’s rare that you are made aware of this so bluntly, standing on the very concrete slabs that choked Johnson’s Creek.

Nor can you argue with the oldest continually run amusement park in the country. This was one of those parks built by trolley companies — to lure city folks to use the lines on the weekends. So there’s a delightful old-timey feel to the place. It’s not big on rides (there are some, but none of the glossy vomit-o-matics you get with a larger establishment), but it has a dance hall — resevable for events but just a gorgeous building in its own right — as well as picnic pavilions and innumerable picnic tables dotting the walkway by the river. And you can’t argue with the view.

Painted from the picnic tables of Oaks Bottom Amusement Park, in a moment of non-rain in late spring. Painted from the picnic tables of Oaks Bottom Amusement Park, in a moment of non-rain in late spring.

It also has a skating rink, gloriously kept, with the original pipe organ. Occasionally on Sundays an old man will play it intermittently for one of the afternoon sessions. (This is NOT TO BE MISSED. Check their calendar to find out when and go, if you are near enough.)

Summer’s gearing up and now when you go down to look for ospreys and bald eagles you can usually hear carnival sounds echoing through the valley. Sometimes you can even hear the heritage train, chugging along what used to be trolley tracks to bring happy patrons from OMSI on the eastern waterfront down to the amusement park just as they might have back in the 1920s. It’s a lively little area.

Magic at Sauvie Island

So in an impeccable act of anti-climax, our eagerly awaited expedition to Sauvie Island with the Oregon Mycological Society was cancelled at the last minute, owing to another expedition taking place the day before. In fact, when we called the Office of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to secure our REMOVAL OF VEGETATION permits, the woman on the phone kept asking if we meant “Saturday” instead of “Sunday”.

Alas, Sunday it was. There were rumors that the overall secrecy of the morel-picking spots have been betrayed, and promises were made that “new spots” would be found in the future.

As we had all requisite permits so we decided to go anyway and try and see what we could find — no easy feat when you have no frame of reference. A good part of the first few hours was spent tramping through undergrowth. Not nettles, as on Kelley Point, but blackberries. Which have thorns.  Delightful.

We eventually gave up and drove to a few other sites, building theories on where the lucky morels might be hidden. And finally, maybe out of luck more than anything else, we did in fact strike gold.

We came away with two by the end of the day, and in comparing stories with other mushroomers it seems is a fairly typical morel score at Sauvie Island. Better luck up in the hills, which we’ll have to go attempt because now that we have tasted the meaty goodness that is a morel (a first for both of us) we are hooked. There is a reason people tramp through nettles and blackberries to look for these things, and it is because they are delicious.

In which we consider Kelley Point

During our third mushroom class we were given vague tips on spring mushrooms sites. I say “vague” because mushroom hunters are extremely reticent to disclose information that could lead to the pillaging of cherished hot spots, particularly those containing morels.

Kelley Point Park was among the places mentioned, so as I had some time on my hands yesterday I went out there to see what I could see.

To me, Kelley Point is interesting for its incredible geographic significance. It is at this point, beyond a riot of dandelions and daisies, that the Willamette River feeds into the Columbia River before heading out to sea. The very end of Portland’s river, right here at the viewpoint. (Where is the beginning? I will find out.) 

Kelley Point is named in for Hall Jackson Kelley, a New England school teacher who had a something like an obsession for settling the western territories, and the Pacific Northwest in particular. Reading of Lewis and Clark’s journeys must have sparked something in him. Long before laying eyes on the place he wrote articles encouraging settlement along the Columbia river. He also attempted to secure funds for several expeditions, one of these an attempt to colonize the area around Puget Sound via “expedition by sea”. None of these attempts succeeded.

Finally, in 1833, Kelley set out with a smaller band than his intended group of several hundred, which two years earlier had attracted private investment and left without him. During this expedition, (funded presumably with his own money,) his company simply abandoned the project and stayed on in New Orleans, “at a great personal loss to himself.” From then on the venture looks as though it was a perilous, doom-laden thing — either due to Kelley’s fanatical, God-fearing Manifest Destiny imperialism, or by simple bad luck, it’s unclear to me as yet which.

In the end he was only in the area for about five months before being shipped off home by the fur traders who had claim to the area. The sign at the viewpoint is pretty direct about its feelings towards the man. It ends: “A bit deranged, Kelley visited briefly in 1834. He spent the rest of his life bitterly trying to win notice and payment for having sparked American interest in the Pacific Northwest.”

It seems an odd choice of patrons, but then maybe it just goes with Portland’s sort of scrappy reputation. Reading through his background was like reading a tome of tragic art.

Kelley endears me particularly for the exhaustive nature of his book titles, the last called tellingly, “A History of the Settlement of Oregon and of the Interior of Upper California, and of Persecutions and Afflictions of Forty Years’ Continuance endured by the Author.”

If Kelley had had his way, the city center would have been right here at the confluence of the rivers, where nowadays pilot boats dart about nervously and guide enormous ships into their various ports. Alas, it is about eleven miles southeast of here, and this place is merely a gem at the tip of the far Northern warehouse district. And apparently an excellent place to find mushrooms, if the furtive people walking around with buckets, baskets and brown grocery bags are any indication.

As usual, I was much more interested in the bird situation than the mushrooms, and after sitting and watching ships for a long time I managed to see a pair of red-breasted sap suckers, a white crowned sparrow (among a mess of chickadees, bushtits and song sparrows,) and an osprey eating a fish. The first osprey of the season, for me. Added to this were what appeared to be ominous walls of nettles spread beneath the gnarls of cottonwoods.

No, really. After you.  No, really. After you.

I found interesting specimens, but didn’t collect anything for spore prints, nor did I see any of the elusive morels. Though I did see an old verpa — in the family of false morels. So doubtless they’re out there.

Next Sunday there is an OMS sponsored field trip out to Sauvie Island to pick morels, so there was no need to go overboard here. Hopefully the nettles aren’t as bad out there as they are at Kelley Point.