July 26, 2009 - 8:00 PM
My Dad turned fifty today. And he turned fifty in a spectacular, characteristic, and fantastically entertaining way.
All but one of my cousins showed up. We haven't gathered in these numbers in sixteen years. To have my father's brothers and sister and their kids all together is something near a miracle. I hadn't seen my girl cousin, Lyndsay, in about ten years. So the party consisted of family, Dad's childhood friends, our neighbors, church friends, his work friends, and many, many other people. About ninety of us altogether showed up to celebrate this big life marker with him.
My dad plays guitar. He's played in a band since he was fifteen years old. There is very little he loves more than to play and sing on stage. So that's what he wanted for his birthday: for all of his favorite people to come and spend time together and to be able to play an awesome gig with all the people he wanted.
We rented a bar for a Saturday night party yesterday. Three of his bands came, plus one of the members of his very first garage band. They played from 8:00 pm until 1:15 am.
It was an amazing, amazing night. It was so wonderful to see all of these people come out to celebrate with and support my dad. It was wonderful to have his siblings there, and to reconnect with my cousins. I got to see my friends from the neighborhood, and from church, and to spend time with my godfather, who was the best man at my parent's wedding.
First he played with his Chicago-style ska band. He's been with them for roughly four years, and I have seen major, major improvements in that time. Plus it's fun music: a lot of it right out of the Blues Brothers, and is played with great attitude.
Then he played a couple of acoustic songs with his old friend and band mate. While this was fun and special to me, the best part was watching how his siblings reacted to this. They knew my dad and Roger as teenagers, remembered their first gigs at the Roller Rink, and reminisced about my dad's unfortunate teenaged fashion sense and some interesting shenanigans. They told stories and were obviously touched that Dad and Roger were still friends, and still playing music together.
Next was the Irish band. Dad's only been in this group for about six months. He joined to replace their previous guitar player, and stumbled into some great musicianship and some amazingly fun music. They've already played multiple gigs in downtown Denver bars, and have a record of being both fun and wildly popular. My Irish family came out of the woodwork for this band. We all stood in a block, having a blast together. During the two cover songs of Flogging Molly, I got out there and danced like a fool. During one of them, five or six of us went up and did wild, jig-style dances together.
Finally, around midnight, it was time for the last band. My dad has been playing with Too Much Fun for roughly twenty years. I attended band practices in those early years in my "Kanga-Rocka-Roo" kiddie seat and listen to the band. Some of my very earliest memories are of seeing my dad gig with these guys at neighborhood and community events. Two summers ago I sang with them at a kid's cancer camp. Last year my sister went instead, and was such a hit that she sang with them the whole night on Saturday, including singing lead during "Shout!" I can remember dancing with my mom to this music when I was just barely old enough to do so without falling over. We danced like mad that night. By the last song after 1:00 am, there were only fifteen or so people left in the place. But we danced like there was no tomorrow, dancing to classic rock and listening to my dad's bad stage jokes. I laughed with my cousins, caught up with my aunts and uncles, and tried to take some decent pictures.
Today, on his real birthday, we went to my aunt's house to celebrate another birthday. My dad's mother turns ninety years old this Tuesday. We had a quiet party with tons of marvelous food and more time to really converse with my extended family. After such a long time apart, it was a beautiful thing to sit together over sausage sandwiches and talk. One cousin is an engineer in Vancouver, BC. Another is working on movies and TV in LA. My oldest cousin is an Iraq vet, doing well in his new house in California. My cousin Christopher, who has a rare genetic mutation that results in severe mental disabilities, was so gloriously overjoyed to see my grandmother, who he talks to over the phone every week. The cousin who wasn't present is working as a chef in Las Vegas. My younger cousin just finished his first year of college, and my little sister, the baby of the family, will be starting college in August.
My grandmother, although she is ninety now, is still a powerful and determined woman. She is the matriarch of the family, and deserves that title in every way. She still lives in the house where my father grew up, and maintains it by herself. She cooks, gardens, reads, writes, and paints. She would no more have someone help her clean her house than she would allow us to visit without a home cooked meal.
I can't imagine a better weekend of celebration and family. My grandmother had a calm party with all of us together, and had the chance to see us all be friends, just like she'd always hoped we would be. And my Dad got to play the gig of all gigs: the exact music he wanted to all of his favorite people in the world.
And I? I got to re-acquaint myself with all these relatives and neighbors, the friends from my hometown. I got to dance with my mom and watch my dad and little sister sing. I got to spend time with my grandmother, who has been of extreme importance to me in my life.
So happy birthday, Dad and Gran Fran! Thank you for everything you both have done for me and for our family. And thank you for the fabulous birthday celebrations. I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did!
July 25, 2009 - 1:30 PM
I'm sure that all you faithful readers have noticed the amount of time I've spent writing about the Humphrey Fellows at the University of Oregon. Being with them for the summer, making friends with all these amazing adults, and getting to travel and study and joke with them, has been the most amazing experience. I've written about them so much because work with them has been rather consuming for the past four months.
And now I've said goodbye.
I'm traveling for the next three weeks, and when I get back to Oregon most of the Fellows will be gone. They're moving on to their next universities, to do high-level research in their areas of professional interest. This is the part of the program that they really came here for: the part they'll be able to take back with them to their countries and apply to make a difference. They're going on to MIT, to the University of Minnesota, to Penn State, to Johns Hopkins, and to American University, taking with them their English skills gained at the University of Oregon, and with the four months of memories of our time together.
I hate goodbyes.
We all got together at McMenamin's, one of my favorite Eugene restaurants. About twenty of them showed up to see me off, which was truly miraculous seeing as their homework load recently has been rather overwhelming. We sat around eating amazing burgers and talking: reminiscing about activities and group trips, talking about classes, and asking each other questions. They wanted to hear all about my upcoming trip home to see my family, and wanted to talk about their plans as well. Some gave me small gifts, and everyone was wonderfully kind and supportive of me. We worked out two pre-planned vacations for me: the first to South America where I will visit Gabriela One in Uruguay and then Gabriela Two in Brazil before returning to my study abroad home in Chile to visit a third Humphrey Scholar. The second trip is Africa: First the Ivory Coast to visit Brigitte, then Ghana to visit Esther, then Guinea for Mr. Diawara. All the Africans present warned me that once I visited Africa I would never want to come home.
I have a wild dream of traveling all over the world, visiting these wonderful people I have come to know. I would love to go to Burma, and Nepal, to visit the South Koreans, and then to the Middle East to Iraq and Afghanistan. I know next to nothing about Eastern Europe, but I now have friends in Kazakhstan and Montenegro. I could visit Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Who knows if any of these wild plans will come true. But while I was saying goodbye to Brigitte and Svetlana, I made myself a promise that I will see them again. They are too precious to me to let go of forever. Those two women have become close friends of mine, and have led me to a whole new understanding of the world. Because both are blind, I worked with them more than with the other Humphrey Fellows. I find myself walking into new places and imagining what would be the best thing to describe to them, or what part of the decoration would be the best to have them feel. When I hear music I wonder if they would like it. There are dozens of inside jokes which can send me into fits of uncontrolled, solitary giggles.
Somehow I'll make it to the Ivory Coast to visit Brigitte someday. She can be the one who shows me around, for a change. She says that her village is very beautiful, and that the people there are extremely friendly. I would love to see her in her home, in her comfort zone. Maybe I would be allowed to go and watch her in court. We could joke and laugh and I could meet her friends and family.
Then I could go to Russia, to the middle of Siberia in the city of Novosibirsk to visit my dear friend Svetlana. We can have adventures together and she can teach me more Russian. We could discuss novels by Dostoevsky and I would learn Braille.
I can't imagine a life path that will not someday lead me back to these people. They are my friends, some of the most interesting and exciting people I have ever met. I hope that I meant as much to them as they have meant to me. I have learned so much about them and would love to learn more. They are involved in some of my favorite areas: social work, social justice, medicine, rights for the disabled, development, the environment and in women and children's health. These are people dedicated to making important differences in our world.
It has been a pleasure and an honor to work with you, Humphrey Fellows. Best of luck in your next universities experiences, and I hope that you find people there who care as deeply about you as I do. I hope to hear great things from you in the future, and that you find great success in all things.
I'll be thinking of you all, always.
July 22, 2009 - 3:00 PM
A month ago I was horrified when a professor informed my class that our graduation in June of 2010 had been rescheduled for the week before finals. That means walking graduation and then returning to classes, rather than beginning our post-graduate lives.
This rescheduling was decided by former University of Oregon President David Frohnmayer to better accommodate the NCAA Track and field Championships that will be taking place at the UO during the weekend of June 9-12. His concern was that the UO could not host these two large events simultaneously, and that the influx of people in Eugene would overwhelm the hotels and other public amenities.
Now, you might have already gathered that I am not much of a sports fan. But my concern over the rescheduling of my graduation went much deeper than this. I'm glad that the UO has a strong sports program. I'm proud of my peers who are both athletes and students, just as I am proud of my peers who perform in theater productions, compose orchestral pieces, intern at nonprofits, and publish their articles, photography, poetry, or novels. It is a privilege to live and study among such a diverse and talented student population.
But I am concerned when the University dramatically privileges one part of the student body at the expense of the rest. It concerns all graduating seniors of 2010 if our graduation is rescheduled. Other students and professors noted publicly this apparent imbalance between the academic and athletic interests of the University community. This type of decision is important. It concerns our families who will be there to see us graduate, only to arrive amidst pre-finals panic, without the time to focus on the celebration of this enormous milestone. This change was an act of disrespect to our professors, who would be placed in the awkward role of either having to re-arrange their syllabus to allow for early testing, or compromise the results from their final exams, which could affect class standing, GPA, Honors status, or even graduation eligibility.
In any event, I can now celebrate the reversal of these inconveniences and imbalances. The new University of Oregon President, Richard Lariviere, in consultation with the Provost, professors, and others, has decided that graduation will be held on the regularly scheduled date. I will graduate from the University of Oregon on June 12, 2010. I will have completed all of my courses, know my finals scores, and be able to celebrate with the full participation of my Oregon friends and Colorado family.
So, class of 2010, get ready! Get your family to book hotels early, since we'll be sharing Eugene with the Track and Field types. Study hard, live it up! Make some plans for that week after graduation: let's use that week to celebrate before settling down into our new post-graduate lives.
July 19, 2009 - 4:45 PM
I am not from Oregon, and had never taken that necessary trip to the great state icon: the highest and deepest lake in the United States. Crater Lake. It was beautiful beyond belief, and not only because of its unique position in the open caldera of an extinct volcano. The surroundings were amazingly dramatic: sharp cliffs and surrounding mountains, trees growing up out of sharp rocks.
But, of course, the most noted and most notable feature of Crater Lake is its color. Its altitude and depth, combined in some principles of physics and the relative lack of aquatic life, makes it a deep deep bright blue like no color I have ever seen before. It was not sky blue. There was no lightness to it, although the clouds were reflected in it. Instead it was a kind of electric midnight blue. Shockingly beautiful.
This trip to Crater Lake was, again, a trip with work. The Humphrey Fellows (adult students at the American English Institute: please see previous blogs) were joined by fifteen Korean pre-law students. We clambered into a huge charter bus at a ridiculously early hour, and were off on a grand adventure.
The first hour or so, the bus was completely silent. We were all tired: I'm sure that everyone was as tired as I was from early-to-bed intentions and the unfortunate reality of a late night and early morning.
But eventually people woke up a little bit, and something fabulous happened without any prompting from myself or the other Activities Coordinators. A couple of the Fellows began to demand entertainment from the group. They commandeered the bus microphone and teased and tormented other Fellows to come forward to say something to entertain the bus. Some said quick thank-yous to the group for all being there together. Others told quick stories or jokes in their native languages. A couple ran through phony presidential campaigns.
But the best part was when they would be brave enough to sing. Most who chose to sing chose the National Anthem of their country. Others sang popular songs or soccer chants. But it was beautiful: all these wonderful people who I had worked with for months were getting up and taking their place in their native language and sharing that with the group.
So when we finally arrived at Crater Lake, we were feeling pretty happy and excited about our trip together. My only real regret for the whole day is that I didn't stand up and sing myself. I would have sung either "This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land," or "You Are My Sunshine."
The first sight of Crater Lake is something of a shock. You are prepared for more mountain vistas, more high elevation pine forests. Then, suddenly, there is nothing but deep blue water on one side of the bus. One massive expanse of blue, blue lake. We got out to walk around and view the lake at Rim Village. I read the lake facts to Svetlana, and was also extremely excited to find a relief map of the area's topography so that Svetlana could touch the lake area, and to get a tactile sense of what I was seeing. In that moment, more than any other before, I wished that she could see what I was seeing.
But then the day's real event: the hike down to the water's edge. There is only one place on the entire lake where it is possible to get down to the water. It was a lovely hike/walk down, watching as that blue-blue water drew closer and closer as I climbed.
Now, let me tell you that Crater Lake is cold. Seriously cold. It is mostly fed by snow melt, and is deep enough that the whole lake stays very cold. Despite this, I planned to swim. How could I not? The weather was perfect: too hot to be comfortable in the sun, and relatively mosquito-free. I helped Svetlana down to the water, following a rocky path that was more of a scramble than a walk. We both were glad that I'd taken her indoor rock climbing as a kind of practice.
After spending a couple of minutes together in the water, I moved on to check that the group was doing well. People were gingerly entering the water, or were splashing around very close to the rocky shore.
But the other main activity was amateur cliff diving. Several Humphreys had already gone over the side before I scrambled back up the rocky slope. I promised Svetlana I'd yell to her when I was ready to jump. This was a serious drop. It was probably 25-30 feet, straight down into water of about a hundred feet in depth. Our group would cheer and chant for anyone who looked like they would dive in. Several were going in with their clothes on. Others drew out the process for a long time, hovering near the edge before finally deciding to throw themselves over the side.
The first time I jumped was slightly terrifying. It was a long enough drop to ponder how beautiful the lake was, and to be so giddily happy that I was in that beautiful place, doing this crazy thing. Hitting the water slapped some sense in to me, just long enough to swim back, celebrate my success, and to find my camera for some additional pictures the second time.
What a day. What a place.
The final event as we drove back to Eugene was a side stop at Salt Creek Falls. I have seen many waterfalls recently, during my trip to the Columbia River Gorge. But these falls were particularly beautiful. I love little more than I love to see water: water in motion, water reflecting sky, ocean water and the feeling of unending motion, and waterfalls with a sense of beautiful purpose.
Bug-bitten, sunburned, hair still bedraggled from the swim, I said my goodbyes to the Humphreys. This was my last trip as Activities Coordinator for the Humphrey Fellows. On Thursday I will head home to Colorado, then on for another trip, and when I return the vast majority of the Fellows will be gone. I will miss them all so much, and will miss these wonderful adventures we've had together. I will particularly miss Brigitte and Svetlana, with whom I have spent so much time. But I will also miss the group as a whole: a group so focused on academic learning, on research for their professional development, and on helping each other to enjoy the experience. These adults were also willing to stand up before these peers to sing their National Anthems, to tell jokes, and to make slight fools of themselves. This is a beautiful talent, and a privilege to be witness to.
What a blessing that this last trip as Humphrey Activities Coordinator could be such a wonderful one, to such an iconic place. A memorable day to close a time with these memorable and inspirational people.
July 13, 2009 - 9:30 AM
Prepare yourselves. This is a place unlike any other.
The Oregon Country Fair is probably the craziest expression of a sub culture I have ever witnessed. We're talking body paint, acrobats, fire starting demonstrations, feathered masks, and beautiful artwork.
Imagine yourself in the Oregon woodlands. Trees of different species and ages all around you, with moss dripping from the branches. Imagine open meadows and small meandering creeks. Now start building little wooden structures among the trees. Add dirt paths-a lot of paths in acres of woodland. Make some of those wooden structures two stories tall, and begin to fill them with handmade art and crafts: photography, blown glass, ceramics, tie-dye, metalwork, stone sculptures, bonsai trees, and on and on and on. Hundreds of these little booths. Then sprinkle food booths around. Food from all over the world. Half-a-chicken booths, vegan ice cream booths, Indian and Afghani and sno cones. Then (we're not even close to finished, folks) add stages. Six or seven formal stages with rough stadium seating and space for musicians, theater, and aerial acrobats. Seven or eight more small spaces for individuals with guitars, or drum circles. These stages are full all day, overlapping performances from spoken word instruction in greening your life to juggling to folk singing to Cirque Du Soliel-style contortionists.
So that's the setting. That's the lead-in.
Now add people. Lots of people. We're talking in the thousands. Start with the people working there: the hippie craftsmen with their jewelry and their tie-dye clothing. And they're all happy. Really happy. There isn't an event like this for the next 362 days. This is their moment.
Then the Fair goers. This is where the real fun begins. There are tourists everywhere, from all over the state and from further afield. Some come in feathers and flowers, others in khaki and baseball hats. Then there are the natives who have been before and know exactly what they're getting into and just how far they can push this crazy event. Masks are popular. So are small ceramic horns. Face painting is everywhere, as is body painting. Both men and women walking around topless and sometimes in nothing but loin cloths and paint. And it's all a joyful and beautiful thing. People are happy. They are genuinely excited to be there.
I went on both Saturday and Sunday this year. Sunday was dreadful because there was a torrential downpour that turned the whole place to mud and closed craft booths.
But Saturday was perfect. Absolute perfection. I saw theater, comedy, juggling, acrobatics, dance, aerial dancing (with dancers suspended twenty feet above the stage in two long ribbons which they wound and unwound around their bodies), folk singing, a trash fashion show, and a demonstration of stone age fire starting. All these events are free-will offering events: they pass a hat at the end and I was always so excited about the incredible talent I had just witnessed that I always threw some money in the pot. It was infectious: all these people who had obviously worked really hard to perfect some crazy demonstration of offbeat talent, and here were the cheering crowds to welcome them.
While enjoying myself thoroughly, I was also working at the Fair. I was there with the American English Institute Humphrey Fellows (adult fellowship winners from 25 developing nations). I was nervous about what they'd think, to be very honest. Quite nervous. You never know how an adult will react to hippies in loin cloths. But they loved it. They reported back about the craziest things they'd seen, or about the acting and dancing, or about taking the opportunity to watch more adventurous folks try some free juggling lessons.
I had warned them many times that I wouldn't have all the explanations for what was going on. I was a first-time Fair goer myself, and my youth prevents me from being able to comment much on the foundation of the hippie culture out here on the West Coast. I told them this was a unique little slice of American culture, and that they should consider it something crazy that they would never see the match of again.
I, however, plan to see it again. If at all possible, I'll be going to the Fair again next year. I'll go for the performances and the people watching, the food and the shopping. The whole experience this year was one of total sensory overload: of insane happenings in all directions, as if the whole world was no longer subject to those normal cultural barriers that keep the inner hippie inside us all quietly wearing khaki and going in to work.
I'm still a little dazzled by the prisms and rainbows, still a little Fair struck.
Peace and love, friends. And maybe next year I'll see you at the Country Fair.