Three years ago I wrote about The Opposite Field, a memoir by Jesse Katz, the son of former Portland mayor, Vera Katz. Vera passed away yesterday. She was 84, in poor health, much beloved (see this appreciation from The Oregonian), and certainly not forgotten (see this biography).

I have lived in Portland for over 28 years now, and during that time I only occasionally saw Mayor Katz around town, and I never got to shake her hand myself, or say “hi.” Correction: I never got to say “hi” in person. I know it seems like a fine point … but every spring when the weather warms up, I ride the Eastbank Esplanade, just one of Vera’s very good ideas, and as I ride the path along the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge I find myself riding under the watchful, friendly gaze of Her Honor, and saying “hello”. I like the idea that she sees all of us going by … riding, walking, skating, eating, on the phone, you name it.

Maybe next time I’ll sit down with her for a few moments. Chat about what we’ve seen. Tell her ‘thanks’. ❤

verakatzeastbankesplanade

original image at cyclotram.blogspot.com

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Paper

December 6, 2017

It was just a year ago, last Christmas to be exact, that I opened up one of my presents and found Paper: Paging through History by Mark Kurlansky. I think the book came my way because I had requested it. I think I had read the NY Times review, been drawn in by such descriptive phrases as, “The history of paper is a history of cultural transmission, and Kurlansky tells it vividly in this compact, well-illustrated book.” Also, the topic of paper connected with my interests on several levels: biographical (as a high school exchange student in Japan in the 70s’ I spent an hour in the workshop of a famed Japanese paper maker and artist), tactile (I love the feel of paper), regional (paper production has played a central place in the history of the wood and water-rich Pacific NW), and professional (for about half a dozen years I worked with a team of chemists that were trying to find chlorine-free methods to bleach pulp). So I probably sent the link to the Times review to my kids with a note saying, “Xmas is coming. You could get this for me.”

Once I had unwrapped my present, things took their usual course. The book, like so many others in my possession, was inspected, appreciated, and then allowed to lay untouched in the dining room built-in for months. Finally, realizing that I might need to make room for new presents, I picked it up earlier this fall and began reading. And then, for reasons unclear to me, I finished it.

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Morris Dancing for Chemists

December 1, 2017

A couple of years ago I bought a copy of John Cleese‘s “So, Anyway . . .” for my younger daughter. I don’t know if I discovered the following entry on my own, or if she ran across it and dutifully brought it to my attention. Either way, when the dancing shoe fits … dance!

Still, it gave me a moment’s pause to realize that my life (chemistry professor, folk and Morris dancer, pub singer) had been constructed from exactly the nerdy materials that John Cleese chose to mock. What can I say? Had it been me at Cambridge, and not Cleese, I would have been right at home at the Morris Dance stand, the Dancing for Chemists stand (is there such a thing?), and even, God willing, a Morris Dancing for Chemists stand.

Did I  mention that some of my friends say I can sing? It seems I just can’t catch a break.

From “So, Anyway . . .” (chapter 6),  Read the rest of this entry »

A Man Called Ove

November 26, 2017

According to Fredrik Backman, the man called Ove, is mad at the world.

Ove, if he could be persuaded to take any notice at all, would no doubt say this is incorrect. He is not mad at the “world,” only at the annoying creatures in it who refuse to behave as he thinks they should. Which includes practically everyone. Even a cat.

If one didn’t know any better, one might think a person with Ove’s hostile attitude would eventually kill someone, and that is his plan. To kill someone. Or, to be correct in the way that only an Ove would insist on, to kill himself. Ove plans to do this not for the reasons we think (he doesn’t care what we think), and not because of his anger with the world, but for another reason entirely. So he makes one plan after another, only to be frustrated (temporarily) by the annoying creatures who surround him.

Ultimately, this is not a story about anger. It is about loneliness, and how one can be saved from it by simply living, by accepting that one must deal with all of its annoying creatures, even the pregnant woman next door and the men in the “white shirts.” There’s no need to put on a special sweet face when dealing with annoying creatures. Just be yourself, which in Ove’s case means demanding that these creatures behave according to his rules. Don’t drive in the Residential Area (can’t you read the sign?). Learn how to drain a radiator and fix a bike. Drive the right kind of car, a Saab, maybe a Volvo, but never a BMW or a Renault (French car!).

In the end, Ove’s loneliness is defeated by love. Which Sonja, Parvaneh, Anita, Nasanin, Adrian, Jimmy and Mirsad, and many others, could have told him was pretty much there all along, if only he would open his heart.

Thank you, Warren, for recommending this book. Seeing you in Irvine at Thanksgiving reminded me once again why we have been pals for so long. Take care.

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The Hidden Life of Trees

October 29, 2017

How do trees see humans? As clear-cutting maniacs bent on driving native forests to extinction? Or, as angels of mercy, quenching forest fires, watering thirsty roots, and planting future generations?

Questions like these have an undeniably odd quality – do trees even ‘see’ humans? – but the fact that they seems worthy of consideration is testimony to the power of Peter Wohlleben‘s little book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. One short chapter after another explores the lives of trees from all sorts of unexpected angles: their feelings, how they band together in mutual defense, how they compete, how they raise their young, why they hold on to/lose their branches and leaves, what dictates their growth and death, and how human behavior shapes their lives.

Wohlleben does not regard trees as humans-made-of-wood, but he does not shy away from using descriptive language that positions trees in a web of relationships similar to ours. One of my favorite chapters, “Street Kids”, begins,

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Note to self: some references on Right Speech and The Eight-fold Path

Another note to self: you talk too much. Work on that.

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The Sixth Extinction

September 27, 2017

How do I say this?

Elizabeth Kolbert is a national treasure. I had arrived at that conclusion from reading her numerous magazine articles and interviews, but I knew I was really on to something when I mentioned my feelings to a daughter who replied, almost reflexively, “Oh my God, yes!” It turns out that there’s almost nothing as affirming as finding out that some idea you reached on your own is also held by your super-intelligent children. I may be old, but I can still have good ideas! (It helps to ‘share a brain’ with your child.)

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Immigration Fairy Tale

September 13, 2017

My wife is a book shark. She needs to read constantly to survive, and so she (we!) take precautions to make sure there is always an unread book nearby just in case, when she finishes her current read, she still feels that gnawing hunger…

To my surprise, something like this hit me last week. We were spending a week at the coast avoiding hot weather and wildfire smoke as best we could when I unexpectedly finished the only book I had brought with me. Suddenly I felt the hunger so I had to comb through our shelf of “beach books” to find something to keep me occupied. That’s where I found Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford’s first novel from 2009 (Kirkus review).

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I’m too scatter-brained about money. Thinking ahead to retirement, I worry “will there be enough?” I studiously refrain from major purchases, but I’m profligate when it comes to the smaller expenses, $20 lunches, $80 concert and play tickets, $60 dinners (for two).

It wasn’t always this way. Early in my College teaching career I would watch carefully for the emails from the College Bookstore announcing one-day end-of-semester sales. My shopping tastes were simple: a quick peak at the software rack, scan the clothing on sale (my drawers and closet are filled with cheap t-shirts and not-so-cheap sweatshirts sporting the College’s name in various designs, and my family hasn’t been spared either), and then step over to the book bins. Clothing wears out so I still shop the Bookstore sales, but I’ve noticed that I no longer glance at software, and the “$5 or less” book pile seems less appealing too. Here are two book reports from my “sales” period.

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Wallowa

July 27, 2017

Sometimes your friends strike gold again and again. Burl Whitman has done it with a second poem in as many days: Wallowa.

I don’t fish, but the imagery of sticks, mountain stream, uncaught fish, and sun overhead, all touch deep places. The clincher lies at the end. My sabbatical, most likely my last, started back in June. First project: a book on molecular modeling co-written with a long-time collaborator. Ideas, lots of them, float around, but so far I haven’t been able to write more than a couple of pages, all crap. I feel like that guy standing hip-deep in snow-frozen water, casting his line, only to see it snarl up in the brush behind him, and to watch helplessly as the bait drops from his hook. Lost.

The year is racing by… Write. Write!

Wallowa

A wallowa is a Native American fish trap
the Nez Perce built from sticks,
like wicker fences set crosswise in the river.
They used them to herd bull and rainbow trout
into the shallows where they clubbed and gaffed them.

I spent this morning on the Minam river
at one of their old fishing spots.
I teased the river for hours with my fly line.
All I got was bone cold feet
from the mountain runoff.

On the way back to camp
I startled a bull elk in the trees
exploding the stillness
in a thud of hooves
and cracking branches.
The sun walked down the mountain
faster than I could get back across
the valley for eggs and bacon,
home made bread, jam and coffee.

Later I sat in the hot sun
warming my feet and trying to write
but in the end I just sat there
staring at the morning
with its buzzing quiet ways.
Maybe I could build
a wallowa for herding ideas,
fragments, chum and by-catch
into the shallows where my
gaff is sharp and my club is ready.
But I know the majority of the poetry fish
will swim through as they should
as though there were
no sticks in the river at all.