From Oregon

Volume 5, Number 1: Spring 2000

Here I am in Corvallis, Oregon.

The news is that there's little news.

This and That

I'm still kicking around in Corvallis. I've occupied my time by reading and doing computer stuff. What income I have comes from some freelance programming and copyediting.

Since the last bulletin things have been very quiet. I haven't done anything very exciting. Does fainting again count? Probably not. The most interesting places I've been since last summer were Montana and San Francisco.

Lindbergh! Pickle Grabbers! Dogs! Montana!

Last July I had the opportunity to travel to Montana again. My friend Glacier's father had sold the home he grew up in. Before the new owners moved in, Glacier wanted to get a rose bush from the back yard. I just wanted to get out of town. So one Monday we saddled up and drove to Missoula.

Montana was Montana. The trip is long (11 hours), so almost all of Monday and Wednesday were devoted to driving. It's also a pretty boring drive once you leave the Columbia gorge, so it's good to have someone along. We tried to entertain each other but weren't greatly successful. The best thing to come out of it were a few names for the native of different U.S. States:

  • Oregoners
  • Illinoisances
  • Floridators
  • Californicators
  • Idahosers
  • Missouris (pronounced "miseries")

We couldn't come up with a good term for New York.

On arrival in Missoula, we dropped our bags at Glacier's father's house and then visited Linda, Alex, & Emily, Glacier's ex-lover's ex-wife and children. We had a good visit. Since I was last there, they've repainted the living room and kitchen with nice bright southwestern-style colors: red, orange, yellow. It worked. They'd also added a hot tub to the back deck. They're up on a hillside above Missoula, so it's got a nice view of the city.

We spent most of the next day at the house. Glacier's father has remarried and moved in with his new wife, so the house was empty. This was Glacier's last chance to rescue anything he wanted. Most of the furnishings were already gone, but there was still a fair amount left. Most of it was big Danish Modern furniture from the early '70s, along with some boxes of kitchen stuff in the garage.

Oh, that house! Glacier's mother liked to decorate and redecorate. The furnishings were that weird kinda-Brady Bunch style: huge lamps with frosted glass globes, built-in lights, et cetera. I wasn't impressed. Every room in the house was carpeted: the bathrooms, the kitchen, the finished part of the basement. I've never seen a house like that.

We looked over some boxes in the garage and pulled out some small stuff. I got some utensils: measuring spoons, a lasagna pan, a basting brush, a turkey baster, a candy thermometer, and a pickle grabber.[1] Glacier went more for the big things like a vacuum cleaner and a drafting table. Both of us left the miniature fry pan that was big enough to cook four shrimp simultaneously. (Trying to cook five would have pushed the pan's limits.)

As for the house, well, I tried and failed to hold my tongue. To put it kindly, it wasn't to my taste. Here's something that might be able to convey its special magic.

In the enlarged living room, on the large and low coffee table, was a Christmas decoration. A conical foam core had been covered in different kinds of pasta -- shells, rotini, bowtie, ziti, wheels, and more -- and then spray-painted eggshell white. A red velvet bow was attached to the base. It was so unusual that Glacier took it outside so that he could take some pictures of it. He remarked that he'd been forbidden from touching it when he was a child.

As a decoration, it left a little something to be desired. It was definitely '70s.

The real treasure was in the basement. In the unfinished part Glacier opened a large trunk that was next to a filing cabinet. In it were the personal papers of one of his great-uncles. He'd been a reporter for the New York Daily News in the 1930s and '40s, covering both World War II and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. There were five big scrapbooks with hundreds of articles he'd written, as well as letters, passports, chapters from a novel he was collaborating on, photos, and his notes on the Lindbergh kidnapping. He wrote a book on the subject, but couldn't find a publisher. By the time he was done the subject was old news.

In the investigation documents were some fascinating things. The first was a set of full-size pictures from the police investigation & trial. One was of the jury, with the name of each neatly written beside his or her image. How times have changed.

Another surprising find was a letter from J. Edgar Hoover. The director of the FBI thanked him & the News for withholding from publication information that might have upset the bureau's investigation.

The last, and perhaps most interesting of all, was a series of letters to (I assume) his editor. They were written in an almost stereotypic tough-talking-newsman style. In one he reported that he'd taken the local chief of the Department of Justice to dinner at a speakeasy.

Among the papers was a divorce notice. His wife divorced him around the time of the trial.

All in all, it was a fascinating glimpse into an era that is long gone. I don't know whether Glacier's father kept the papers, threw them out, or donated them to an archive. I hope he chose the latter.

Thinking about those papers made me sad. This man lived an interesting life, and was there when historic events took place. Tens or hundreds of thousands of people read his words every day. Yet just sixty years later, his scrapbooks were in a basement in an empty house in Montana. That's the way we all end up, I suppose.

While Glacier had dinner that night with his father and stepmother, I joined Linda & Emily. After dinner he and I went back to the house for the final packing. We dug up the miniature rose bush, packed it carefully, and filled up the car. Then the kids arrived.

A van pulled up and out fell a woman, three kids, and a dog. The woman was the new owner, who with her husband runs a restaurant called "The Pickle Barrel". As she and Glacier talked, her kids ran around like wild things. I went inside to escape.

Within a few minutes I heard thumping above me. I went outside to figure out what was going on. One of the kids had climbed onto the roof and was walking the roofline. The dog was running around, the kids ran across the street without looking, and they were generally out of control. Some rude phrases flitted through my mind.

As I expected, one of the children was soon sobbing. The girl had purposefully closed the van door on her brother's hand. Sweet children.

But at least they had a dog, even if was teased unmercifully. I think it's a Missoula ordinance that all residences must have a canine. Both at Linda's place in the hills, and at the house in the valley, the neighborhoods were so thick with dogs that one bark would start a chain reaction, setting every dog barking. It was like nuclear fission. It was easy to imagine the wave of barking spreading for miles, eventually returning to its source hours later.

That was pretty much it for Missoula. I came home to find my building's dangling gutter, which I had unsuccessfully been trying to get the landlord to fix, fixed. It was a nice little gift from the cosmos.

New Year's Resolutions

I've got a number of resolutions for the new year, but some of them are identical to ones I made and fulfilled last year. Does one year's completed resolution stop being a resolution the next year, and become a habit instead?

My best resolution this year is to note every rainbow I see. So far the count is five.

One of last year's resolutions that I kept well was to write to a friend of mine. I went a bit overboard, writing more than two hundred pages. At the end of the year I took some time and indexed what I'd written. The index was ten pages of three columns apiece. Yow. That's a lot of writing. It was interesting, though. I wrote down a surprising number of dreams, ranging from very realistic stories that develop over years of subjective time to short little bizarre fragments. Writing them down really helped me to remember them, though.

Here's an excerpt from one letter, describing the Oregon Country Fair.

The Fair was neat. Imagine, say, Albany NY's Tulipfest: music, people, and craft and food vendors. Now imagine this in a forest. Instead of one day, it's three. The vendors live on site; there are many two-story wooden structures along the paths, with the vendors sleeping above. The ground is unpaved and dusty; people water it to keep the dust down. It's hot, but once in a while you pass someone who's happy to spray you with a fine, cool mist from a squirt bottle. There are a half-dozen stages scattered around, full of musicians, comedians, jugglers, and other performers. People wander with instruments. Though it's billed as a drug-free event, it's not rare to see someone with a joint. A marching band comes up the way, playing a Sousa march; in its wake is a procession of people dressed as superheroes. The crafts are good; the food is pretty bad. Sunlight filters through the leaves, and the cool alternates with the heat of the sun. There's a library of books free for the taking. At one place, across the bend of the river you see a large, beautiful display of colorful banners. Further on, long pipes let you listen to the birds across the way, but you find it's more fun to rub the pipes along the rail and hear the weird sounds that result. Many people have long hair; many have beards. You see quite a few painted breasts, and a few guys in g-strings. As you walk along the confusing, branching, crossing paths, you realize that you've seen the same booth three times. You wonder whether to come back another day just to look at the people. There's a wild drumming circle open to all, drumming or dancing. There's someone you know, and you finally meet his wife; they're celebrating their twentieth anniversary as they have the last nineteen, by attending the fair. You meet another friend in the Energy Park, a grove devoted to alternative energy. He leaves to take a solar shower; later, the troupe he's in will wander the fairways, picking random people to pamper. As you leave that area, you step aside to let nine foot high sunflowers pass; they're people in costumes on stilts. Children are enchanted by them. Many people are wearing little horns on their heads. A vendor sells fantastical leather masks, but you can't find one that quite grabs you. You sit for a while and watch people go by. Some are barefoot. Recycling bins are common. One guy stares; he looks strung out on something. Baby Gramps plays his silver National guitar and sings. You watch, then move on. Your friends are here somewhere, and you'll find them sooner or later. After a few hours, it's all a bit of a blur. You apply some more sun block just in case. You find that you're fascinated by one vendor's puppet: a foot-wide eye on a shaft whose pupil can rotate in different directions, with eyelids that can close and open. You think this would be a great thing at a Residents concert. It's getting late; the Fair closes at 7 PM. After that the participants-only party, which is said to be the real heart of the Fair, begins. At the main gate you meet some friends you haven't seen in months; they marvel that you didn't buy anything, and show off their haul. You walk back to the car and imagine how long it will take to get home in what must be a major traffic jam. To your surprise it's a snap, and you're home much sooner than you thought, to rest.

The next day your friends decide to go back for one more day. You decide to stay home and rest; you're still tired, and the dust is still in your lungs.


"You'll always have a place in my heart."

That was the line I called out at a recent comedy improv show when the referee asked for something you'd hear when you're breaking up with someone. It was a good response, with just the right amount of truthfulness and pathos. I wince when I hear it. If only I could take credit for it.

I can't, unfortunately.

Five and a half years after I moved to Tennessee and started writing these bulletins, my life changed once again. In the beginning of December I got a phone call I wasn't expecting from Goat. After four years of us being apart, and four years of Goat living alone, he'd met someone and fallen in love.

I wish I could say that I wished him happiness from the start, but that wouldn't be true. Even though Goat and I had long ago agreed that we were free to move on, I found that I still loved him more than either of us expected. I took his news hard. The next few weeks were rough ones.

All that was several months ago. I'm much better now. I didn't even overdose on folk music, which always seems to happen when relationships end.[2]

I wish Goat and his partner well.

The Millennium

There's still most of a year to go, folks, before we enter the new millennium. But we made it through the transition to the year 2000 without a problem. Will wonders never cease?

On the other hand, in honor of the failed expectations of millennial mummery expressed in Life in Tennessee vol. 1 #2, I present you with yet another book that does nothing to advance the collective intelligence of the species: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Being Psychic.

I wish I could make a joke about this, but I can't. It's a real book, and no jape I could make would compare to the mere existence of the book.

By the way, we're what - thirteen years? - into the post-harmonic convergence world. Has anyone noticed a difference?

I'm just curious.


I did mention fainting above, didn't I? Sorry to tease you. I'm fine, really. My doctors are satisfied, I've rarely been sick, my blood sugar's been fine, I haven't coughed much recently, and my energy level and appetite are okay. What more could a person ask for?

Well, there was that fainting thing. It didn't happen often. Twice last year, at about 4 AM, I walked into the bathroom and the next thing I knew was waking up on the floor. There's no good explanation for it, but it hasn't been a big problem. If it starts happening frequently I'll worry. As it is, I'm just glad I didn't hit anything on the way to the floor.

San Francisco on 10 Dollars a Day

In early March of 2000 I took another trip, this one to San Francisco.

Southbound Again. My friend Ryland planned on taking a vacation in San Francisco in March, and we discussed meeting there. With some finagling, it became a possibility. I was worried about expenses, but they seemed to work themselves out (with a little help from my friends, as the Beatles sang). When I found out that my peripatetic friend Drum was going to be driving from Portland to SF around the time I wanted to travel, the possibility turned into a reality.

In a quest for Meaning, I tried to find a theme for the trip. I'd just started reading The Odyssey, and thought that might be a good prototype. On the other hand, my hope was to trade manual labor for my hosts for meals (to keep the cost of the trip down), so I was considering it the Barter Trip. Neither model fit the result well, though.

Drum and I got underway early in the morning of March 3. The drive to San Francisco takes about eleven hours, and we wanted to make it there by dinner time. Everything went fine until we got a bit south of Eugene. There, another driver signaled at us. Drum prudently pulled over, and we looked at his van. One of the tires was surprisingly low. We found the address of a tire dealership, drove over, and got the faulty valve stem repaired. It took an hour out of the schedule, but better an hour lost than a flat.

The rest of the trip was uneventful: driving, listening to music, and talking. Drum marveled at the green hills of northern California; on most trips he's made through the area, the vegetation is either brown from cold or from heat. We happened to catch it during the short season when it's alive and pretty.

We made it into the city pretty much on schedule.

In San Francisco. Drum & his partner Ray offered the use of their guest room while I was in town. My plan had been to couch-surf from friend to friend, but their offer was too kind to pass up. With a sigh of relief I put down my compressor and small suitcase in their guest room, and set about planning my stay.

A few things were already scheduled: a visit to Dan & Matthew, spending time with various friends, a party that Drum & Ray were throwing. For once I didn't plan anything in detail; whatever happened, happened. To my mild surprise, this technique worked pretty well. I didn't feel pressure to get a lot done, so the trip was one of the most relaxing I've ever taken.

Ray's apartment was a great place to use as a base of operations. It's only a few blocks off Market Street, near the Safeway at the Church Street intersection. Food, nightlife, the Castro, and public transportation were all close at hand. All the location lacked was parking (which wasn't a problem for me), and a certain element of safety. Even though the neighborhood had improved over the past few years, Ray related stories of watching drug dealers on the block dealing and being arrested. One night I heard the sounds of a late-night police chase on the street below. But aside from that, it was actually quite pleasant. I was never afraid to go outside.

The apartment building did have one secret charm: the rooftop patio. A staircase led to a small patio made of old palettes, decorated with plants, shells, and various knickknacks. The view was great. What surprised me the most was that only one other building within a few blocks also had a place to sunbathe on the roof. You'd think it would be a popular place to catch some sun. Or, given the weather at the time, some fog or rain.

The weather wasn't particularly coöperative for most of the first week. Drum had suggested I bring a rain slicker, which turned out to be a very useful bit of advice. I got rained on more than once.

Coming Around Again. In the first twenty-four hours, several people from the past and present turned up unexpectedly. First there was Herman, who stopped by on Saturday. We hadn't seen each other since Goat hosted the second Bros gathering at his place in Tennessee, not long after I'd moved there. That was a bit less than six years ago. We chatted for a bit before he left.

The same day, while walking down Castro Street, I noticed a face that looked familiar. I introduced myself to someone whose picture I'd seen on the Internet. I hoped to connect with him later, but it didn't happen. C'est la vie.

After that encounter I visited my friend Bill, who lives more vertical distance from Castro Street than I remembered.

The following Sunday, a friend of Drum stopped by. He brought his friend David with him. David and I had met back at the 1993 March on Washington, and hadn't seen each other since.

This was just more proof of what I keep saying: the social circles I travel in are too small!

To get ahead of the story, the following Friday Ryland and I had lunch with a friend neither of us had seen since 1988. We had a lot of fun; Mike hasn't lost that quality that adds a near-mythic luster in my mind. [He and I spent the Harmonic Convergence on a mountainside near Woodstock, NY, then kicked around the area the following day. I remember this because it was one of the first big spontaneous things I ever did; Mike remembers it for a different, more symbolic reason. Isn't it strange that one event can take on such importance, in such different ways, for different people?]

Staying in San Francisco fulfilled my quota for catching up with old friends.

Car Bomb. On Sunday, I met Dan & Matthew for a short stay. We had agreed to rendezvous at the Eagle, since we all knew where it was. Little did any of us know that an auction was going on! Dan elected to stay in the car (I can't blame him), and sent Matthew in. As soon as he found me we got the heck out of there, and headed out to Dan & Matthew's place.

Riding with Dan & Matthew was like taking a trip down memory lane. When they visited Corvallis last year, they drove Matthew's small truck -- the one with two bucket seats. Once again, I ended up sitting on Dan's lap as we drove. Hearing them do an a capella version of the Art of Noise's "Close to the Edit" was a rare treat.

The whole three-day stay was dominated by music. Well, hey, they are musical, after all. We watched some demented videos (scary & hilarious Aphex Twin, manic They Might Be Giants, awful Todd Rundgren, strange and fun Björk). I marveled at Dan's 1200+ CD collection (he has created new spines for every one).

The unhappy part was that Dan had to work during the day. Curse this society. In the meantime Matthew and I did chores, pet the cats, and had a general good time. I got my therapy done, wrote some postcards, and read way too much about '70s and '80s retro. The only worry I had was about Matthew's truck, which drank radiator fluid at an alarming rate.

After three days of fun, conviviality, and cultural immersion, Dan and I got on the morning BART train. As I headed back to Drum and Ray's, and Dan to work, we discussed the merits of Negativland's song "Car Bomb". (Or perhaps we did that at some other time.) We agreed that even though some people don't get it, it's hilarious.

Never Been Gone. Staying at Matthew & Dan's place revealed the solution to a mystery that's been in my thoughts off and on for the past few years. A long time ago I read a science fiction story in which a determined but somewhat head-in-the-clouds male researcher, after a discussion with his worldly wife, decided to alleviate the influence of women on men by making women fertile only periodically. The plan backfires in a humorous way.

For years I wondered who wrote that story. Since I didn't remember the title either, I couldn't look it up.

While chatting at Dan & Matthew's, I noticed a familiar SF anthology on their shelves. It was one of four very good SF anthologies edited by Groff Conklin and published in the early '80s. Sure enough, this anthology had the story: "Never Underestimate...", by none other than Theodore Sturgeon. I re-read it within a day, and it was just as good as I remembered.

City Life. Life in San Francisco has its good and bad points. Parking is nigh unto impossible, or else very expensive. This is balanced to a great degree by the extensive public transportation system. It was really nice to say to someone "I'll meet you at such-and-such in two hours", look at a map, find the right MUNI line, and be there. I wish it were that easy in other cities.

The night life in the city was interesting. Walking past a packed open-front club blasting disco was something that doesn't happen in Corvallis. The sheer number of people on the street at night was a pleasant change from this sleepy town.

Then there are the strange things you see in the city. One morning, as we walked down Church Street to get breakfast at Sparky's, we passed a television set that was sitting on the sidewalk, plugged in and turned on, broadcasting static. There was no one around. I wanted to prop a cardboard sign reading black and white -- please help in front of it.

By the time we finished breakfast, the TV was gone.

The Bottom Line. Let's talk breakfast. Let's talk cheap. Let's talk pancakes.

I like good pancakes. Aside from usually being the cheapest breakfast on a menu, well-made pancakes are wonderful. Drum & Ray introduced me to Sparky's, which were great: light, fluffy, tasty, cheap. What more could you want in a food?

Come to think of it, the food in San Francisco was all pretty good. The Chinese restaurant that Ray & Drum liked amazed me by having waiters that actually anticipated what the diners wanted, down to refilling my water glass. That's service I don't often see in Corvallis.

Even the sushi was good. I'm not a big raw fish fan, but on the second Saturday night Beth & Eric took Ryland & me out for sushi. It was good, and I managed to stay within my budget. Eric was amazed that I was able to order a sushi dinner for $4. Yes folks, it's possible.

For the most part, I managed to stay close to my $10-a-day budget. I left the city without a single additional book or CD, which is something of a miracle. It was a lot more fun, though, to hang out with friends than to hang out in bookstores.

Friday. On the second Friday, Ray & Drum held an exorcism party. They were ridding the apartment of the spirit of an ex-tenant. Fun was had, candles and sage were burned, alcohol was consumed, and the fire alarm was set off. (Too much sage.)

Book of Saturday. On Saturday Beth, Eric, Ryland & I planned to meet at a Celtic festival being held at the north end of the SF peninsula. I hopped MUNI and had to walk a bit to find the place; it was being held in a warehouse on a wharf. I managed to beat the others there by an hour, during which I walked around, admired the view of the bay & Alcatraz, and got a sunburn on the top of my head. I should have brought my harmonica.

When the others arrived, we got tickets. The price took me aback: $20, and that didn't even include food. Yow! My budget for the day was blown.

The Celtic festival was a combination of a standard concession fair (albeit Celtic-themed) and live music. We missed the dancing classes, so we wandered around looking at the goods. Beth bought a dress, and she and Ryland later got henna tattoos. Eric looked at earrings. We listened to some live music that was okay. I got a pretzel and wondered just how authentic baseball caps with Celtic-themed slogans could be. (But then again, as you probably already know, I'm a cynic.)

I've come to the conclusion, after hearing Celtic music live, that the genre really doesn't appeal to me. If live music didn't grab me, it's not going to.

Afterward we went and had sushi.

Here To Go. This is where the story gets a little strange and hard to explain.

Have you ever had the feeling, even though you can't quite explain why, that you have to do something? That's what I started feeling over miso and little bits of seaweed-wrapped fish. A vague feeling I had resolved into a clear thought: it's time to go home.

I wish I could explain it better. Perhaps DEVO said it best:

If you smell the smoke
You don't need to be told
What you've got to do

At that point I knew that it was time for me to go home. Don't ask me why; there were still things I wanted to do in the city, people I wanted to visit, and places to go. I hadn't yet seen Beth & Eric's new house. I hoped to spend more time with Mike, and meet Chris. I wanted to spend more time with Ryland. But I knew that if I tried to do these things, the entire time would be spent fighting that sure feeling of knowing the right thing to do.

So I decided to go home.

On Returning. Getting home wasn't a problem. Greyhound runs several buses a day, so I chose one and let Sunday work itself out.

My SF stay ended with a beer bust at the Eagle. A good time was had, but I had to leave early to make my bus. I left a little later than I expected, downed a quick dinner at Hamburger Mary's, went back to the apartment, and tried to call a taxi. Eventually I got through to one company, and a cab showed up two minutes later. It deposited me at the bus station with at least ten minutes to spare.

The bus ride home was pretty uneventful, considering that it took sixteen hours. A kid threw up. I slept through most of the trip, and read for some of the rest (The Odyssey, natch). Just after I finished my carried-on breakfast the bus pulled up to a restaurant in southern Oregon called "Heaven on Earth", a place run by religious folks. I'd been there before, with Glacier, and had no need to return.

The bus trip ended with the discovery that my ticket was wrong, and my suitcase had continued on to Portland. It arrived the next day, intact.

And that's the story: no big theme, just a good time, topped with an inexplicable ending.

Credit Racket. My thanks go to Drum and Ray, more-than-gracious hosts; Matthew & Dan, for futon and fun; and Ryland, for making it all possible. Hugs to all. Sorry to everyone I missed.


I still don't have a full-time job, but in the past few months I've done a little freelance work. A bit of programming, some donkey graphics work, and copyediting research papers for an inorganic chemistry journal. Go ahead -- just ask me about ion conduction in doped ceramics. I dare you.

Copyediting can be interesting. Most of it is just correcting formatting, but occasionally there's a little more to do. All the papers I've edited so far were written by people who aren't native English speakers, so fixing their grammar can be a challenge. There are times when I've had to just flag a section with the phrase "this is unclear" and send it back.

I wish I could say I'm learning a lot of inorganic chemistry, but it pretty much goes in one ear and out the other. When you don't have a stake in zeolite packing or the structure of halides, it's hard to retain more than just a few keywords.

What can I say? It keeps me out of trouble.

And that's it for this issue.

This issue of From Oregon is dedicated to Craig Cummings, a friend who moved from Corvallis much too soon.

End Notes

[1] Less than three months before this, I'd written to a friend and expounded on useless utensils. My example was pickle grabbers.

Note, 2000-04-05. The popular demand for an image of a pickle grabber is overwhelming, so here it is.

[pickle grabber]

Pressing the plunger expands the tines; releasing closes them. The original is eight inches long.

By the way, the mention of the pickle grabber has generated more response than anything else in the last few bulletins. It's nice to know what's important.

[2] Come to think of it, what is it about folk music that fits the end of relationships so well? When my second relationship ended, I listened to a John Prine album over and over. Years later, when I lost another friend, Patty Larkin's Perishable Fruit didn't leave my CD player for weeks. Why folk and not, say, country? Do other people turn to folk music in times of emotional distress?

Last updated 5 August 2004
All contents ©2000-2002 Mark L. Irons

Previous: From Oregon vol. 4 ··· Next: From Oregon vol. 5 #2