From Oregon

Volume 6: Fall 2001

Here I am in Corvallis, Oregon.

Has anyone else noticed that in odd-numbered years I write one bulletin a year, and two in even-numbered years? Are even-numbered years simply more interesting?

Visitor Season

It's been a good year for visitors. This year Wulf, Pete, Craig, Alicia, David, Stassa, Beth, and Eric have visited. Alicia, David, and Stassa get the Whirlwind Tour award: they flew into Portland one afternoon, rented a car and drove to Corvallis (getting stuck in a traffic jam along the way), spent an evening and night, and flew out of Portland the next morning. We spent dinner, the evening, and the next morning's breakfast catching up. It was good to finally meet Stassa, and really wonderful to see Alicia & David for the first time in years.

Beth and Eric came up over President's Day weekend, and we gamed and hot-tubbed. I caught up with them again in San Francisco -- more on that later -- and saw Beth again in Portland. She was in town for a SF convention, and we spent the afternoon hanging out. We walked around downtown Portland and went on what I think of as the Taboo Tour of Downtown Portland. It's nothing formal, just some places I'd never been into. Unlike the last time we were there, the 24 Hour Coin Operated Church Elvis was open, so we went in. The artist (priestess?) in residence was finishing her spiel as we entered. She was amazing; she had her shtick down cold, and rattled through it at a mile a minute. I would almost have sworn she was on amphetamines, but she talked at an almost normal pace when we chatted with her after everyone else had left. She tried to marry us, and Beth was willing, but I got cold feet at the altar. We settled for picking up some small things: a Strange Mystery at the 24 Hour Church of Elvis storybook, an Elvis X-ray ("circa 1969"), and an Official Elvis Identification Card ("The bearer of this card is a SAINT in the Church of Elvis. He or she may also be Elvis."). Afterward we traipsed lightly through Daisy Kingdom, a large store devoted to all that is cute in the world of sewing. We also had a thought-provoking conversation on the importance of pain.

I did make it to the Oregon Country Fair this year, this time on a motorcycle. The seat I was on had no backrest; one had to hold on tightly to a little strap. It was an interesting experience in fear, trust, and losing circulation in my fingers from gripping the strap so hard.

Wulf made it to town again, at just around the time my friend Pete arrived for a stay. It was really good to just hang out with Pete and not do a whole heck of a lot. We did go to Portland and Newport, but he was in town long enough that we could do things at our leisure. It was just as much fun to hang out and record random conversation, some of which will probably end up as samples in his music.

An Unexpected Opportunity

An unusual thing did happen while Pete and Wulf were here. Glacier & Paul suggested a day trip to Silver Falls State Park with a side trip afterward to see what was claimed to be largest hairball in the world, which supposedly resided in a nearby abbey. I didn't quite believe the last part, but the rest sounded good. We piled into Glacier's car, got lunch makings, and drove northeast. We had to follow a surprising number of detours to get there. When we arrived we had a picnic lunch with the trimmings: Paul had brought a cutting board for the sourdough bread and three varieties of cheese. How civilized.

The park has ten falls, with a trail that runs along them. The trail led behind the first falls, like the Indian Ladder Trail in NY's Thacher Park. The volcanic composition of the stone made for interesting geologic speculations. We took lots of pictures as we wandered down the trail.

After the second fall we decided to head back, as we had other places to go that day. The trail back follows the ridge top, not the valley floor. Several times I had to stop and rest, but I wasn't alone in that respect. At the top the trail leveled off, and we walked normally. Glacier and Paul were a hundred feet ahead of the rest of us.

We went got back to the first falls, I took a break at a seat. Pete stayed, while Wulf rejoined the others at the others at the car. After a few minutes Pete and I headed back toward the parking lot. This is when the afternoon took a strange turn.

As we were walking along, a woman came up to me and asked if I would be willing to participate in a photo shoot. My first thought was "Is this some weird scam?", but I couldn't think of how the scam would work. (Note: that means it would have been a good con.) She said it was for a British fashion magazine (or catalog), they would provide the clothes, and it would take twenty minutes to a half hour. I was amused, but begged off, knowing that the others were back at the car, waiting to go. The woman was persistent, however, and it did sound like a hoot. So I told her that if it was okay with the others, I'd do it.

She came back to the car with Pete and me, and explained the situation. They thought it was interesting and spontaneous enough to do. The woman had her eyes on the other longhairs as well, and asked the others if they wanted to try it. Paul and Wulf declined; Paul had been a commercial photographer in the past, and I had enough of the high life (so to speak). Glacier accepted, though, so for the two of us it was off to the mobile home to meet the stylist & be dressed.

Ah, the clothes. They were just bad. Mine was a wide gray sleeveless shirt of a medium weight fabric. Think David Byrne's big suit in the movie Stop Making Sense and you'll have some idea of how it looked on me. Glacier was given a brown jacket, 1970s style, of leather so thin that it was almost a shirt. The sleeves went to his fingertips, but that's what they wanted us to wear.

We trouped down to the base of the first falls with the photographer, three more professional models, and assorted crew. There, four of us were instructed on the scenario we were supposed to be portraying: tired but wired, as if someone had been chasing us through the woods and was still after us. We had taking a breather, trying to decide what to do, aware that our pursuer could be behind the next rock. Agitation, alertness, etc. Think high fashion meets Deliverance. It was ridiculous, but then, that's the name of the game, isn't it?

[Fashion models]

So that's what we did. With two of the other models (Mike? Jim?), Glacier and I wore fashionable clothes, looked around at the woods paranoically, and tried to discuss our terrible yet nonexistent situation. Before the camera started clicking, the guy with the five day beard and suspenders said that the hard part was not laughing, and he was right.

The occasional directions were simple: switch places, look over there, et cetera. In the meantime, as they took pictures of us, Paul was taking pictures of both them and us, documenting our transformation into fashion plates.

True to their word, everything finished in twenty minutes or so, and they gave Glacier a Polaroid of him and me wearing the ridiculous clothes. Afterward, he and I walked back up (ascending again! My poor leg muscles.) to the mobile home, where we returned the clothes. A guy took our names and addresses, and told us we'd get a copy of the magazine (or catalog, whichever it was) when it was published. We knew the pictures would end up on the layout room floor, but so what? It was free, spontaneous, goofy fun.

We laughed as we got into the car. Paul's opinion was that the art director was probably just out of school, and Wulf agreed. One piece of evidence in their favor was that the director had said it would take half an hour, tops, and it had. Paul had been expecting it to take two hours.

We decided to skip the hairball. After all, after an experience like that, the world's biggest hairball would have been anticlimactic.

It made our day.


[Polaroid of Mark and Glacier]

The Spoon That Barked

One of the most bizarre things I've seen in the past year was a cereal box's offer for a barking spoon. The spoon was a transploitation of a recent film about dogs. I never saw one of the actual spoons; I assume its handle contained a battery, a miniature speaker, and an integrated circuit. The idea of a barking spoon was so strange that I wondered who would think something like that up.

Of course, once I saw it I couldn't help but speculate about variants. My favorite idea is a light-sensitive spoon that screams when placed inside one's mouth.

San Francisco

In the spring I took another bus trip to San Francisco. The trip started inauspiciously. First, a friend who'd volunteered to drive me to the bus station forgot, and caught up with me after I'd walked most of the way there (luggage in hand). The bus driver didn't inspire confidence when he headed south, then turned around and began going north. Just as we were about to leave town, he asked if anyone on the bus knew how to get to the interstate. The passengers (all four of us) gave him what directions we could, and we managed to get to Eugene on time. It was a little odd to try to give directions in a city where I almost always become lost.

At Eugene the trip took a major step downward. We changed to another bus that was almost full and had no air conditioning. It was an overnight trip, so it wasn't intolerable, but I didn't get as much sleep as I would have liked.

My motto for this trip, unlike last year's, was No Worries. Last year my budget was very tight; not so this year. It made for a more relaxing trip.

The first day I was pretty tired, and relaxed at the home of my hosts, Drum & Ray. Drum and I went out for sushi that evening to a place he frequents a few blocks away, on lower Haight Street. When we left, we passed flashing lights. There'd been a shooting while we were having dinner. When we got back to the apartment, we went up to the roof and listened to a police officer's voice coming over a bullhorn: "We are sending in the dogs. You will be bitten.". They must have thought the assailant was in the construction project near the Federal Mint. The most direct route there from the crime scene went right past Drum & Ray's building. Kinda makes you go "Hmmm".

The next few days were spent with friends from Albany (and now Berkeley). We did the touristy things: drove over the Golden Gate bridge, visited the Camera Obscura, went to the Sausalito's Farmers Market, stopped by Ghirardelli Square, and had dinner down by Fisherman's Wharf. Didn't ride the trolley; maybe that will be next year. The running around got to me, and by Friday night I was really frazzled. Saturday afternoon was spent at Beth & Eric's place in Berkeley, though, and it was relaxing.

Actually, what was really relaxing was Saturday morning. My hosts weren't around, so I got up and made oatmeal with banana slices for myself. I took the bowl up to their rooftop patio, and slowly ate as I watched the city. As I gazed, a tortoiseshell cat appeared on the staircase. It was skittish, but eventually let me pet it a little. I continued my breakfast as the cat explored the plant-covered patio. It was a shared moment of serenity in the middle of the city.

Oatmeal seemed to be a theme that morning. As I headed downtown, the MUNI bus offered up an eccentric lady who had fried orange hair, eccentric clothes, appeared to be in her fifties, and talked nonstop to whoever would listen: the driver, a nearby passenger, me. She mentioned that she'd started the day with what she called "psychedelic oatmeal", that is, oatmeal with swirls of food coloring. She continued with her life story, in which she'd come to SF in the Summer of Love and never left. I'll never know if what she claimed was the literal truth or a reinvention of her past, but who am I to contradict another oatmeal eater, particularly one with such panache?

Getting back to that evening... after leaving Berkeley, I hopped BART south to meet my friends Dan & Matthew. Seeing palm trees once again made me a little uncomfortable; there's something I instinctively dislike about them, though I can't tell you what that is. Maybe it has something to do with seeing To Live and Die in L.A. too many times.

Dan & Matthew are media fiends, and while I was there we partook of something that very few people have seen (or will admit seeing): the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. Yes, they had a videotape of this infamous part of the dark side of the Star Wars franchise. And oh my, is it bad. I watched it all anyway, wincing frequently. (Hey, I don't slow down at traffic accidents, but in this case I was willing to make an exception.) It's hard to tell what was worse: the guest appearances by Harvey Korman, the unsettling fixation on humans in soft-core Wookiee porn, or the stultifying boredom of listening to Wookiees grunt at each other for minutes at a stretch. Oh, were you unaware that the special's creators had the bright idea of writing it around characters who speak no Earthly language? That shows you what kind of thinking went into this.

The only way I was able to continue watching was to play a little game. It involved answering the following question: assuming that each actor or actress was paid in drugs, exactly which drug did each receive? My answers were:

  • Carrie Fisher: cocaine
  • Mark Hamill: painkillers
  • Harrison Ford: downers?
  • Chewbacca: bark
  • Art Carney: Geritol
  • Bea Arthur: alcohol?
  • Harvey Korman: amphetamines

The tape did have one interesting part: the commercials from 1978. A message to all you videotapers out there: don't edit out commercials! When you see the tape twenty years later, they will probably be the most interesting part.

We did manage to squeeze in some high culture, too. The following Saturday we went with their friend Chris to the SF Museum of Modern Art to see their exhibit on technology and art. Most of it was mildly interesting; some of it was stupid. Notable pieces included:

  • Roxy Paine's SCUMAK was a sculpture-making machine. Every fifteen minutes or so it would poot forth a drizzle of hot red polyurethane onto a teflon conveyor belt. The goo, which coiled like dripped honey, would spread as it cooled. The machine would build up multiple layers in the same spot over eight hours, then move the belt. The result was kind of a bright red alien poo. Near the machine was a table with two dozen of the results, no two alike. It was fun to watch. According to the creator, the art resided in varying the different cooling, extrusion, agitation, and mixing times. Um, yeah. I'll just wait for it to poot again.

  • Brian Eno had an "installation" called Compact Forest Proposal. It was an almost completely dark room, illuminated only by strings of white Xmas lights hanging from the high ceiling. Where they reached the floor, the excess lights were wrapped under translucent plastic hemispheres. Gentle sound ("ambient") came from different places in the room.

    The room was so dark and quiet that you couldn't see people. The only way to know if it was safe to move was to shift position slowly, checking to see that a light column wasn't occulted by someone passing in front of it. As a piece of art, it really lived up to its name; I felt like I was in a very dark forest late at night, unsure of how safe it was to move, being very cautious as gentle sound came from different locations.

    I went back in later, and it wasn't as good. Perhaps my eyes had adjusted to the lower light of the museum versus outdoors. This time I could see other people, geometric sculptures hanging from the ceiling, and the nine CD players scattered throughout the room. There was also a sculpture in the back corner, of a man standing and staring at a light column. That seemed like a visual joke that was out of place in the tranquil room.

  • One piece I really liked was the Greg Niemeyer and Chris Chafe's Ping. In tech-speak, ping is a command that checks to see whether another machine is responding. It also reports how long it took to get a response from the remote machine.

    Ping was in two parts. Indoors was a keyboard and a screen which invited people to type in the name of Web sites. Outside, just beyond the glass door, was a ring of eight columns which held lights and speakers pointing into the circle. The ping response rates from the current set of Web sites were translated into sound and light. The creators chose some nice pingy sounds, so it was enjoyable to stand inside the ring and hear the different sounds and pitches.

  • The best piece, though, was the bar code box. Created by Droog Design and called System Almighty, Bar Code Interpreter (the system can be disordered), it consisted of a big Plexiglass box containing numerous devices inside. A small bar code reader mounted on the outside triggered different devices depending on the bar code held up to it. Of the four cards in my wallet with bar codes, only one triggered anything (the hair dryer). Matthew says he saw someone hold up a card and almost everything went off.

    This piece captured the spirit of technology, for several reasons. The directions were wrong; though the instructions said to hold the card 6-12" from the reader, it only worked if the card was held against it. Most cards didn't trigger anything at all; for those that did, there was no obvious way to predict which devices would be triggered. Some of the devices were pretty worthless, too. Who needs to turn on a cluster of sixty light bulbs when one would do?

    So: a devices with wrong directions, which only occasionally works, and when it does the unpredictable result is only occasionally useful. That's high tech in a nutshell.

There were also a few devices that weren't functioning. They might have represented the exhibit better than the working pieces.

After that weekend I headed back to Drum & Ray's for an evening, and then came home. I managed to come back with heavier luggage, due to some book purchases in SF. Someday I'm going to learn to mail books home.

The trip back was uneventful: a less crowded bus, a night trip, and air conditioning. I wrote six postcards during the Sacramento layover. On the ride north, I chatted with a guy with a nice new full red beard. He was returning home after a trip to the east coast, where his former friends asked him questions such as "what's with the beard?" and "are you on drugs?". O we of narrow minds.

This time around my luggage did not travel on to Portland, but only because I made sure that it was unloaded in Corvallis.

All in all, a good trip, with some memorable moments, and a lesson or two learned & dispensed.


This is not a bumpersticker that I saw during the 2000 Presidential campaign, though I wish I had:

George W. Bush: it's a child, not a choice.

Monkey Off My Back

For most of the past year I've been drinking Ensure, a dietary supplement. My health insurance covered it. Every month, UPS would deliver about ninety cans of the stuff. I didn't drink it fast enough to avoid building up a reserve which grew with each month. Then I lost health insurance for two months, and the shipments stopped. I ran out of it in the middle of September, and discovered something I'd never suspected: Ensure is addictive. The night after I went off it, I woke up at 3 AM, absolutely ravenous. The only thing in my apartment to eat was crackers, so I ate them until I felt close to normal again.

I should have anticipated this. Each day, Ensure accounted for between 500 and 1,000 calories in my diet. That's probably 20-35% of my daily caloric intake. Why didn't I realize how big a hole its absence would punch in my diet?

So my advice to people on Ensure is to taper off, rather than quitting cold turkey. It's easier.

Until the shipments resumed, I made do with peanut brittle.

Rogue Wave Revisited

Life's a funny thing. Not long after my contract work for the Materials Research Bulletin ended, I got a call from none other than my former employer. My friend, neighbor, and former coworker Elaine works in the documentation group there, and suggested my name as a possible contractor. So I went in and met with the boss, and have now contracted with them three times.

It was a little unsettling at first to return to a place I'd parted from on bad terms, but everything's been fine. The work is good, the pay is good, and the boss has gone out of her way to help me improve my skills as a technical writer. I slowly seem to be falling into a career I never anticipated, and that's fine by me.

I realized just how much I enjoyed the work one day last winter. Work was slow, so I spent a day writing a short tutorial for a piece of software that I'd been evangelizing to the documentation group. I started around 9:15 AM, and finished just after 5 PM. In all that time I hadn't looked up once from what I was doing: no Web browsing while other tasks were running, no breaks, and lunch was a bagel & seltzer nabbed from the break room and eaten at my desk. My concentration was total, and the day flew by. When I finished I was elated. It was the best day of work I can remember, bar none.

Of course, now I look at the result and think "This needs to be rewritten.". I take that judgment as evidence that my writing skills have improved.

What, I wonder, would my life have been like if I'd studied writing in school and college? What would I be doing now if someone had given me a copy of The Elements of Style in high school?

A Neologism

Transploitation, n. The practice of taking a work in one artistic medium and creating merchandise that has no relation to the original work, e.g., a Little Mermaid toothbrush.

Note that Julia Sweeney's God Said "Ha!" is not an example of transploitation. Despite the fact that it has appeared as a book, a recording, a theater show, and a movie, all relate the same events. For it to be transploited, something logically unrelated like a 'God Said "Ha!" Lip Balm' would have to be created.

The 2001 Celebrity Dream Series

It's been a good year for celebrity appearances in my dreams. To date, these people have appeared: David Bowie, Brian Eno, Jane Siberry, Laurie Anderson, Ron Post, Boris Yeltsin (as a teacher), Penn & Teller (once again), Cheap Trick (in concert), John Travolta, Linda Ronstadt (with Philip K. Dick off-camera), and George W. Bush. The latter proved that even in dreams, he's an idiot. So you could say that my dreams are just like reality.

A new development has been that actors have started appearing in my dreams. They don't appear as themselves, though; they are playing roles within the dream. The first actor to appear was James Garner. That was followed by a dream with an all-star cast: Christopher Reeve, Swoosie Kurtz, and Robert Downey Jr. Who's casting these dreams? Am I going to have to negotiate with their agents over compensation?

Someday I'm going to bag the one person I've been waiting for, Joe Jackson. In the meantime, I'd settle for Dale de Vere.

Burning Another of my Fifteen

One afternoon in August, Glacier called. He'd just received an unexpected package containing a magazine. In it, beginning on page 128, was a fashion photo spread. We were in it. Yes, the pictures -- or at least a picture -- from Silver Falls was published.

He brought it over, and I was surprised. It wasn't a cheap little fly-by-night publication; this was national. The magazine was the Fall 2001/Winter 2002 issue of Maxim Fashion, and it was about as glossy, thick, and vapid as I suspect Cosmopolitan is. (I've never checked.) We went through it, and I was amazed at how something that big and well produced could be so free of content.

And there was the photo. They only used one, but it was the first photo in the spread (titled "Into the Wild"!), and Glacier and I were plastered across the right page of the two-page opening. The introductory sentence accompanying the photos was classic in its meaninglessness: "Falls' earthy, natural tones and military-influenced looks are just the thing to save your skin. But remember: if you go down to the woods, make sure you're not mixing with the wrong types". Glacier and I are still unsure whether they're referring to us.

[Maxim Fashion photo spread]

(I also really love the line "look like you're dressing down when you're really dressing up", from another photospread.)

Another surprise was the photo's caption, which listed the clothes. The leather jacket Glacier was wearing (and hated) was $1250. My sleeveless shirt was only $52, but it was from Calvin Klein. Yes, I'm a Calvin Klein model. Ha! I'm thinking of putting that on my résumé. Who knows? This could lead to a whole new career. If it's true that the camera adds ten pounds, then for once my thinness might come in handy.

People's reactions have been fun. The best came from Shannon, the woman who owns & runs the paper shop downtown. When I showed her the magazine and told her there was something in it she should see, she thought I meant its Kevin Spacey interview. (He is on the cover, after all.) When she finally saw the picture, her first reaction was "where did they get people who look like you and Glacier?". Then she ran off some color copies, and went to hang one in their bathroom, amidst the collage of pig photos and Weekly World News headlines. I'd never actually seen the bathroom before, so Shannon had to show it off. It was a little strange to think "I'm in a bathroom with a married woman. That hasn't happened since I was a child.".

[Strangely enough, I've encountered a reactions like Shannon's before. When my picture was in the Albany NY Times Union in 1993, Beth called to ask if it was me. C'mon, folks; how many people look like me?]

David S.'s reaction was great, too. When I told him about the magazine, he surprised me by saying he already had a copy. He'd bought it for the Kevin Spacey interview, not knowing I was in it.

I've since looked up Maxim magazine. It's not something I care to be associated with particularly, but its fashion offshoot isn't really offensive, just brainfree.

A month and some later, I'm still amused. It was well worth burning another of my fifteen minutes of fame.

This issue of From Oregon is dedicated to all who visited this year.

Last updated 5 August 2004
All contents ©2001-2002 Mark L. Irons except Polaroid and Maxim Fashion spread

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