Sunday, November 21, 2010

"Our father was not always so."

I say this to my brothers and sister, for each of us was loved (and unloved) by a different father. My father taught me to sing. The bass line in Baptist hymns:

There is pow’r (pow’r!), pow’r (pow’r!), wonder-working pow’r
In the blood (in the blood!) of the Lamb (of the Lamb!)

Which, like Harlem jazz players and Southern gospel quartets a half century earlier, after a Saturday night club gig, packed up their instruments—or zipped up their trousers—to appear in church a couple hours later and sing Sweet Jesus I want you—instead of the previous evening’s Sweet Julia I want you—I did something like this, sans the booze and the fornication, and in the opposite direction: my childhood musical migration traveled from church pew to bedroom record player, where I took my hymn-honed ear and sang tenor to the Brothers Four and Kingston Trio—Darlin’ Won’t You Wait, A Worried Man, Hard Travelin’.

When the preaching of my Baptist Pastor B., blessed be he, exhorted its way out to the dreamy frontier of this 10-year-old’s attention span, I turned and whispered my request for (and received) my engineer father’s pocket slide rule. Six inches, yellow, a hairline as straight and narrow as the hellfire Good News thumping in the background. Dad taught me how to multiply by working the mysterious trinity of its hairline, its middle sliding bar, and its body (not broken for me, or by me, for Dad trusted me with it).

This little miracle absorbed my attention until Pastor B.'s voice descended from indignant chiding to something resembling his own personable self, in which voice he prayed a sermon-concluding prayer, always introduced by the unvarying instruction, With every head bowed and every eye closed…—the purpose of which prayer, I observed, was to allow organist and song leader to tiptoe unseen into their respective places so that when …in Jesus’ name, amen! finally arrived, and every head was unbowed and every eye was opened—voilà!—there were the organist and song leader in place, ready to wind things up and dispatch us to our overheated car interiors and our pot roasts.

Ten years later, jilted by my mother, Dad married the organist.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

RIP, Cruiser

Our cat Tom Cruise (aka Cruiser, Cruzinsky, et al.) left this world on a dreary, wet July 1. He was 14. Plagued during his last year with deteriorating thyroid and kidneys, and apparent diabetes, he was tenderly euthanized by our neighborhood vet, and with a teary Cheri stroking him into his final sleep.

I dug a diminutive grave, then fetched Jay and Clarissa from down the street—neighbors who particularly knew and appreciated Cruiser (especially Jay, who for years now has graciously and appreciatively tended him when we’ve been out of town visiting children and grandchildren)—and they were kind enough to don their raincoats, bring flowers and liqueurs, stand out in the rain with us as we all buried and remembered Cruzinsky.

A sprig of rosemary and several orange nasturtium on the toweled bundle that was his graveclothes…gently shoveling wet dirt back into the grave…wet eyes, too…libations poured onto Cruiser’s grave as well as into us. And shared memories of Jessi’s choosing him in 1996, of his lordly explorations and exploitations of the neighboring houses. Of how one cannot pass a cat lounging on a couch or curled on a chair without touching it, like a talisman.

Our house has lost its talisman, its very local and vocal deity, who with the first morning light leaped onto the bed, and gently but inexorably head-butted whatever human extremity was available outside the covers to rouse us to his morning feeding. 

I will miss his beautiful tabby coat…his late-night companionship on the other end of the couch where in the midnight quiet I could hear him breathe, curled and content…the dimpled bedspread or cushion that indicated his favored nesting spot of the month…of his quick-trot up the driveway from God knows where, when we returned home after an extended absence.

It didn’t matter if he was happy to see us, or happy at the prospect of food, or just wanted in the house. On whatever terms Cruiser deigned to make himself available to me, I was grateful.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Harris, Dudley, conversions, closure—sad constants at Jefferson HS

This week's swirl of decisions, meetings, protests, and editorials about Jefferson High School—my neighborhood school—reminded me of a piece I wrote for the St. Johns Sentinel three years ago. Now with yet another Jeff principal removed from her office—not to mention an imminent overhaul of the school's program, if not outright closure—I found these musings (slightly edited here) still heartbreakingly relevant. And probably moot, at this point.

Breakin’ up is hard to do

My children are now grown and settled into marriages. Yet I remember their dating years, when their mother and I always, foolishly, became friends with our children’s serious romantic interests. Foolish, because there was nothing but loss when our sons and daughters broke up with said interests. They lost lovers, we lost friends. Meals had been shared with these people who were so central to our children’s lives and affections.  Gifts had been exchanged. (I have a book on Chinese medicine given to us one Christmas by a young woman who seriously dated and eventually jilted my son. I still appreciate the book as well as the girl’s thoughtfulness, though I don’t say this to my son. Or to his wife.)

I felt something like this last month when principal Leon Dudley was removed (or removed himself) from the principalship of Jefferson High School. (Okay, the district says it’s paid leave through June. Yet I can’t imagine he will return to any school in this district.) Unlike many in the Jefferson community, I hold no animus toward him. Yet even if I hadn’t particularly cared for the personality of this boyfriend that the district brought home to us in North Portland, he was here, there was a relationship whether I liked it or not, I didn’t know how long it was going to last—but the way I saw it, you at least get to know the individual and try to support the couple where you can.

Now that he’s gone, there are more grimaces than tears. It got just plain ugly toward the end, by all accounts. Rudenesses and hurt feelings on all sides—students, teachers, Dudley, district. In the wake of it all, I’m left with a puzzler:

With 10 principals in as many years at Jefferson (including interim principals), has anyone considered that just maybe it's not the leadership that's the problem? Could the district's hiring record for Jefferson’s administrative leadership be that consistently bad? All five school superintendents during the last decade utterly incompetent when it came to tapping a principal for Jefferson? Why does the principal’s office inside Jefferson have a revolving door when other high schools in our district have at least a tad more stability (and some, a lot more) in their administrative offices?

I can’t help but think that the answer lies not in goofball conspiracy theories (The board wants Jefferson to fail so they can unload it to PCC across the street) but rather in a hairball of distasteful realities: Jefferson has little if any functional parent constituency to organize and advocate for the school in meaningful and persuasive ways. With the smallest high school enrollment in the district, yet with one of the highest teacher-to-student ratios, still the academic performance levels at Jefferson are generally dismal. And on a bad day, nostalgia seems like the only reason to keep the school open and operating.

Of course, there are qualifiers galore. Parents with the savvy and the time to vigorously advocate for their school are typically in the more educated and higher income demographic. This is not Jefferson’s demographic. (Or hasn’t been. The neighborhood is changing, however.) There have been curricular regimes in the last five or so years that were actually producing some of the highest rates of academic improvement in the district. And what can you expect when nearly a third of Jefferson’s students are classified as special ed students? Or when too many teachers are forced to spend an inexcusable proportion of class time simply trying to keep classroom order instead of actually teaching students?

If Jefferson High School is to recover from the slow burn that has been gradually consuming faculty morale, driving neighborhood students to other schools, and singeing the resumes of principals, it may be with the reasonable assumption that all parties want the best for Jefferson and its students—that principal (whoever it is) and superintendent and school board and teachers and parents and neighbors and activists and all start by assuming that we may see different roads to a thriving campus, but it’s still a thriving campus that we all want.

In any case, the school district’s break-up with Dudley after only eight months makes us parental types in the neighborhood feel a tad guarded about supporting The Next Principal. How much relational energy should we invest in her? How long will TNP be around? For our students’ sakes, for the sake of eventual stability at Jefferson, everyone—from students to superintendent—could stand acknowledging the social and operational complexities, then starting to repair its share of problems that continue to stymie Jefferson.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Human nature just doesn't change...

...and the patterns of behavior are intriguing but predictable. Neither Pat Robertson in his apocalyptic, demonizing fundamentalism nor South Carolina governor Mark Sanford was the first to be silly and shameful in their singular ways.

Monday, January 18, 2010


The local deities, undecided: pelt them with ice
Or pour warm gold on them this afternoon? A little of both.
Inside, mere embers on my hearth gasped for rekindling,
So I stepped out to the woodpile—
But the glow on doug firs across the street stopped me,
Stunned me, drew my eyes higher—then
The bruised and livid sky drove out all thoughts,
Kindling or otherwise.
There I stood, chin in the air (am I already eccentric to my neighbors?)
When T pulled up. Good thing my friends
Understand me; it saves a lot of explaining.
Before twilight had rubbed all color from the sky, we had seeded
Snow peas, spinach, beets,
And when he left I trimmed out last spring's herbs,
Now mostly soggy naked stems.
But the wet dirt, lavender, thyme lay redolent on my hands.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A languid late-summer evening...

...and stepping out to let the cat in, I look up. The Summer Triangle is at its glorious zenith. Straight up. Can't get any straighter upper. At least to us in the absolute midlatitudes. (I mean, here in Stumptown we're almost exactly midway between the equator and the North Pole.)

Everything, all day, has been excruciatingly vivid and clear. When the humidity drops around here, you can really, really tell. As in feeling like I could discern the very needles in the doug firs across the river in Forest Park. On a typical, moisture-laden late-summer day, the snow-free shoulders of Mt. Hood blend into the blue sky. But not today—everything stood out, starkly, as if I were wearing polarizing shades.

And with darkness came Vega and Deneb and Altair—three high summer stars that are bright even with Swan Island's blazing dock lights, a half-mile away below the bluff, washing out my sky. The Summer Triangle, an asterism of stars in three separate constellations, each with a story. As luscious as the rising moon has been during the last several evenings, it's nice to stand under a dark sky now.

And much of this points somehow to Jessi's' pregnancy. My youngest is with child. Due April. Rich with newborn twins, rich with a man-child due to Christina in November, and now here to Jessi, within arm's reach. Wow.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


I am looking at a mystery in my backyard. Actually, I suppose, there are many mysteries there, a recent one being a sinkhole that sank while we were out of state visiting family. Came home to find a gaping, perfectly circular maw of a sinkhole five feet in diameter and nine feet deep. Ridiculous. Surreal. Took nearly six and a half cubic yards of dirt and gravel (scavenged from various sources) to fill, scores of tedious wheelbarrow trips from the pile of fill in the driveway through the garage to the backyard. The sinkhole captured the imagination of my wife, who considered it a gift with limitless possibilities. That the Universe sent it to us was obvious—the only question was, what are we to do with it? An effortlessly acquired rainwater cistern? A root cellar for potatoes that we should now cultivate? The beginnings of a hot tub? As I started emptying wheelbarrow loads of fill into the hole, my wife bit her lip and rose above the death of a vision.

The mystery I am looking at now is nothing so exotic. Our back fence is a ramshackle affair of veneer-thin strips of wood woven, basket-like, among vertical one-by-twos spaced two feet apart. Most winters a strong east wind blows down a section, and a repair is tricky because there is scarcely any portion of the fence that is not punky and squishy. It is rotten to the core. I have a plan to replace the fence—I’ve even prepped my supply of 218 boards for sealing. Then I’ll think about actually using the sealed boards to create a new fence. Until then, the issue is Keep The Existing Fence Together At All Costs Until I’m Ready To Replace It. So over the last several years the fence has acquired the look of a hillbilly’s overalls. Patches galore, at all angles, plywood patches with which I desperately try to tie a decrepit section of fence with a (rare) sound length of post or stringer.

A two-by-six-foot section along the bottom of the fence, however, refused to be so patched. So a year ago I simply leaned a half sheet of plywood over it. The current tenants of the adjoining property have no dog, so my fix hardly had to be hound-proof.

Yet every morning the plywood is tipped back into my yard, stopped only by a pole of a raspberry vine that runs parallel to the fence, a foot or two away from it. And every day I tip the plywood back over the hole, and the next morning—well, you know.

Hence the mystery. Well, I suppose the who isn’t a mystery. It’s got to be the urban raccoons or possums I’ve seen on occasion, nocturnally foraging in our compost pile, or merely using our yard or trees as their interstate freeway to a better feeding destination Beyond The Fence. The mystery, maybe, lies closer to this: what does it look like when our continent’s only native marsupial, night after night, undoes what I do? Or if a raccoon (another American native), what grasping, pawish intelligence systematically dismantles my barrier?

I read that a hundred years ago, a scientist recorded that raccoons were able to unlock nearly all of 13 complex locks in less than 10 tries, “and had no problems repeating the action when the locks were rearranged or turned upside down.” Fenwick Ave. raccoons scoff at the Plywood Leaned On Fence ploy. Among raccoon youth, my fence constitutes Introduction to Barrier Removal, nothing more.

Still, until I sit up late in the backyard with a flashlight and actually see the beasties at it, each morning the back-tilted plywood mocks me, and renews the mystery.