Friday, July 31, 2009

Young and at the Fair

(click images for larger view)

The much anticipated Union County Fair arrived the day before yesterday. We used to push the kids around on strollers and shepherd them onto the toddler rides...those days are over. Both kids have become thrill seekers.

Tess leads the way in this domain. (Couple of pics also on the photo blog). Colm is still too short to get on board some of the rides.

Tess did get in over her head on one ride though, the one we used to call The Hammer. She went on by herself (Colm demurred) with absolutely no hesitation. During the ride we could see her shrinking down in her seat as the pendulum swung up and down. The upside down moments scared her. She came out shaken and in need of a morale boost which she got a few seconds later on another ride with equally impressive g-forces but with a more stable horizantal axis.

The scene at the fair is one that Tess studies with great interest. I notice her noticing the teens, especially the boy/girl pairs. The kids and I were sitting on a bench eating a Funnel Cake. The sun had long since gone down and everyone moved in and out of shadows, their faces reflecting the sundry lights festooning food and craft booths. From somewhere behind us came a girl's shrill scream. Even as I jerked my head around I knew the sound to be a playful one. Sure enough, two teens, a boy and a girl were wrestling, she attempting to escape his grasp, him trying to wrap her waist and hold her. She broke loose and the two of them broke out of the shadows into the path in front of our bench. They were like two ponies stampeding through the crowd. It just so happened that Colm had wandered into their path. He somehow escaped getting trampled and a bit unsure of what had just happened, he came right back to me and sat down. Tess observed the teens.
"That's his girlfriend." She said it matter of factly.
But then another girls sprang into view. She grabbed the boy's arm as if to distract him or somehow slow him down. Tess regarded the new arrival.
"No. That's his girlfriend." Again, matter of fact and unbothered by the instant revision.
I didn't question her further. For me it was enough to glimpse the framework inside of which Tess was operating.

There is nothing like an evening at the fair to illuminate the budding of youth, the evanescent dream-like dance whose steps are hard wired into these tanned adolescent arms and legs, the furtive looks, the beguiling eyes, the sly smiles. They pass amongst the rest of us like vampires, as if immune to time, to age, to tomorrow. They are unassailable in their skins, invincible in their ignorance. A pagaent playing out under the noses of people trying to remember, trying to forget, trying to finish something, trying to start something else, trying to relearn what it means to be instinctive again.

Even if it were possible, I would not be that age again.


Tess is something of an amateur teenager right now. Soon enough she will be flitting through the shadows of the county fair, sparking the curious eyes of young lads. What I won't be able to see then will be able to fill a book. So I'm taking notes in advance. Trying anyway.

Road Willies

It's a seven or eight hour drive one way from La Grande to the San Juans. Across the east side of Oregon and Washington the temps hit 100 in the summer. A long haul for anyone not to mention young kids and a puppy... not to mention a couple of parents trying to drive while not being driven crazy. Our kids have developed some pretty effective strategies for keeping things on the upbeat...from the front seat where we sit it sounds like a speeded up recording of a chipmunks' track. There's a very fine line between appreciating the little happy cocoon Tess and Colm are spinning for themselves back there and getting the willies, feeling like you'll never have another coherent thought in your head again. Instead of hollering at them to pipe down, I grabbed the camera, turned it backwards and let it roll for 45 seconds. The kids are amazing. They are on the homestretch of the return leg and still going strong. Sammy by contrast is clearly running on fumes. Be assured that this footage could have been captured at almost any point during our trip up and back.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

San Juan Islands trek

We took our annual camp trip to Lopez Island. The big difference this year is that our Westfalia camper bus is crippled (running on three cylinders) and so we had to use the Outback. A tight fit what with two kids, a dog, a guitar, kitchen, camp gear... but we made it work.

The Outback has AC which is nice, and it cruises much faster than the Westy. The nice thing about tent camping was that we could leave our camp site and take the car on excursions and come back to a campsite that was set up and ready to use whereas with the Westy we always had to break things down if we wanted to drive anywhere.

Life on the islands is for us always dreamy. It starts with the ferries, the water, the light and the birds and the spectacular surroundings.

The kids are endlessly diverted by the beach and the surrounding campground and the camp kids who come and go like the sea tides.

We saw sea lions at Shark Reef

(the zoom on the camera came in handy there, click for a larger view);

each evening featured a stunning sunset, and in the morning (not every morning) we ate the famous Holly B's cinnamon rolls in Lopez Village.

The weather was great, even the spectacular thunderstorm on our last night was a kind of grand finale to a beautiful trip.

It also triggered some improvised dining arrangments. Since we had the only tree on the beach, a good thing in sunny weather but sort of problematic when there are lightning bolts being cast down all around you, we adjourned to the Outback were we felt safer. The Westy may be on the way out, but at that moment we all missed not having it.

P.S. you can see a couple more pics here at my photo blog.

Friday, July 17, 2009


Finally got a new camera, a Panasonic Lumix DMC ZS3. It's got a 12x zoom which allows me to get close to free range kids like ours without triggering the dreaded cheesy grin. These shots of the kids hanging out at the skate park illustrate what I'm talking about.

When Colm crashed, I was about twenty feet away. It's a pretty candid shot; one that illustrates the inner conflict inside me between the concerned parent and the amateur documentalist. For the record, Colm was fine; no tears were shed in the creation of this blog post.

Colm's soccer games are another setting where the zoom comes in handy. I leaned against a nearby swing set and got this image. The zoom also works with the video recording function. I've got Colm's first soccer goal, a pretty comical sequence that involves six kids (three on three) clustering around a soccer ball that ricochets randomly about a field, then the stars align, Colm runs over an opponent by accident, then does the same to one of his teammates, then gets tripped and drops, the other five kids suffocate the ball, feet and legs slashing away. As Colm returns to the fray, the ball squirts out in the direction of the goal, Colm puts his foot on it, makes two dribbles and shoots on the run...into the back of the net. I've got the entire sequence in my camera.

Which brings me to downside of my new camera. It is something that took me completely by surprise. I can't move my video images taken in HD format to my laptop. It won't read it. As for the photos, I have to drag them manually to my laptop and it takes so long that it exhausts the battery. Bottom line: I need a computer with USB 2.0 ports to accessorize my camera. When I told the Panasonic support guy on the phone and told him that my laptop, an HP Pavillion, was purchased in 2002, he paused as if incredulous. This summer has seen our VW Westfalia become disabled and seriously out of commision and now our laptop appears to be joining the ranks of the obsolete and nonfunctional things that we own.

Beth and I are going to let the budgetary ramifications of all this percolate for awhile. Meanwhile my happy go lucky photo blogging days have become circumscribed by a technological fence that isn't insurmountable but which is discouraging nonetheless.

I've put a few more photos from the new camera on my photo blog K Sees Stuff (KC's stuff) if you want to see 'em click here.

We're headed to the San Juans in a couple of days. Won't be blogging till we get back. Peace.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Gerry McNamee 1942-2009

As promised here is a written version of the eulogy I gave at Gerry's memorial service a week ago. The eulogy was inspired and informed in part by the time I spent sitting in Gerry's private office in the home he shared with his longtime partner, Sandy Sorrels. I composed a series of notes in a journal in the two days time I had to prepare. The version I gave at the memorial while extemporized here and there is pretty close to this one. The link provided above takes you to a website created by Gerry's son Dylan in memory of his father.

Eulogy for Gerry McNamee
June 27, 2009

Lean forward. Let your forearms rest against the edge of the desk. The space for writing has been appropriated by relics and the accoutrement of travel: two or three cameras, a shaving kit, three pairs of reading glasses, a pocket watch, a cigarette lighter, a box of postcards (some postmarked others not yet composed). Hanging from the old desk lamp a few inches from an ancient Blitz Weinhart sticker are seven rosaries brought back from a recent trip to Mexico. Beneath the rosaries are a couple of boxes of tea and three prayer candles in glass bearing the icons of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Ghost. There are several packets of developed 4x6 photos - anachronistic to my eyes but perfectly in context on this desktop.

Lean back now in the chair and let your eyes float up ever so slightly to a gallery of images on the wall. The cheese factory, a postcard bearing the image of subcommandante Marcos titled, "Mexico exporta dignidad", another postcard of a Mayan ruin, a photo of himself stripped to the waist, reclining in a river raft, his eyes shaded by a cowboy hat, while at his side his toeheaded son, Aaron, sits looking gravely at the water. There are portraits of Mao, Castro and Che, a sketch of Don Quixote, a photo of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, a New Age print of a mystic man with his palm open and upturned and on his breast a naked woman attended by a horse. Finally, there is a a cover of the New Yorker, 1998. On it we see two old men on beach chairs sitting next to one another on a beach. They look out over a tranquil sea and a setting sun. One of the men wears the papal mitre on his head and behind him, leaning on the back of his chair is the sceptre off the Church. The other man wears a long beard and a proletariat cap. He relaxes with a cigar while a machine gun rests against the side of his chair.

Swivel about on the chair. There are hundreds of books here. Books of fiction, novels, short stories and poetry. Books of nonfiction too, language reference books, culture studies, histories. Prominent among them are Ireland, Mexico, Chile and Cuba. Atop one book case sits a baseball on a plastic pedestal. It is stamped "El Hombre: 487 home runs". I'm a baseball fan but I have no idea who El Hombre was. It reminds me that like other worlds, the world of baseball extended beyond my own known universe.

Climb down the ladder that leads to Gerry's office and go to his bedside. At his bedside table are two books: one a tract on the foundations of Catholic faith, the other the Koran. In the bathroom nearby is Mao's little red book of thoughts. Some of you here today are probably thinking that Gerry in his final days had chosen to cover all of his bets a la Pascal's wager, and that he had even up the ante a bit. Equally plausible to me is the suggestion that all of these things are nothing more or less than the outward signs of a man whose mind and heart were both restless and ever charged with hope and expectation. Gerry relished the polarities of experience and of ideas. The geography of human striving was to him an invitation. It was intimately local and profoundly universal. It planted him here in Northeast Oregon and it propelled him abroad on numerous forays into the wider world.

What did all that striving yield Gerry? I can't say for sure but once when a good friend asked him whether or not he had ever met any great persons in his life, Gerry responded without even a moment's hesitation and said without the slightest trace of irony, "I have great friends!" Herein resides a truth about how Gerry measured greatness and what he felt to be most important in this life. The truth is that Gerry had many great friends, it is no less true that Gerry was a great friend to each of us who remember him today.

Gerry was assigned to me as a student teacher at La Grande High School in 1993. He was 50 and I was 38. He had earned his Masters in English at the University of Oregon many years prior and had decided to pursue certification in order to become a teacher.

Now there are certain things that one is well advised to put off undertaking until the age of 50. Among these things I might suggest are certain literary works like Proust's seven volume "Remembrance of Times Past" or it's more recent title, "In Search of Lost Time". Being a work which is both about and steeped in the labrynthine workings of memory, it is wasted on the young who have for the most part not yet become affected much by the practice of forgetting.

Then there are certain things which one might do well to avoid undertaking at the age of 50. Teaching high school freshmen English comes to mind. The daily encounters with the adolescent mind, not to mention the hormonal tempests of the adolescent creature, render exceedingly difficult the essential teacherly task, both counter intuitive and somewhat perverse, of trying to re-imagine ignorance and taking that as a beginning point from which to plot a course out of the desert and into the promised land. Gerry gave it a go.

Here's the thing I learned about Gerry. When things went awry in the classroom, when his best laid plans were being undone or even subverted by the students, he never blamed the kids. He always turned the glass on himself. His humility was as genuine as it was deep. He rooted for his students, especially the ones who seemed somehow out of step with the mainstream, outside the norm. He rooted for kids in the same way that many of us love to root for the underdog. In his core, Gerry believed that every kid is doing all that he or she can at any given moment to somehow survive the exigencies of the moment. He believed that the teacher's job was to honor that fact and to respond in kind. Gerry had no illusions about this work being easy or even possible. We used to sit around after a lesson had come apart. We'd shake our heads in tacit admission that not only did we not have the answers but that probably there were no answers. I remember, Gerry being alternately awed and exhausted by the enormity of it all. Pablo Neruda, one of Gerry's favorite poets, wrote in his Book of Questions,
Why is it so hard
the sweetness of the heart of the cherry?
Is it because it must die
or because it must carry on?
Gerry's response to difficulty was always idealistic. One had to carry on. The stakes were too high to do otherwise.

I was not surprised therefore to learn that Gerry had, after completing his certification, taken a position at Eastern Oregon University as a writing instructor. Nor was I surprised by the way in which I put his stamp on people and programs over there. How he became an ambassador of sorts for EOU in his work with international students here on campus and in his stints in Chile. It was exactly the sort of work he had imagined he would do, and it suited him.

After Gerry's final diagnosis of colon cancer, and after he became increasingly weak physically, he undertook a rigorous reading regime - Proust's In Search of Lost Time and Balzac's The Human Comedy. His life ended before he could finish. He ran out of time so to speak.

I believe, however, that Gerry in his lifelong vocation as a reader, found time to be more pliant and spacious inside works of fiction than you or I might imagine. We are so often yoked to our to do lists and sundry benchmarks and data points that ostensibly mark our progress toward the place where we stand today and the place where each of us will one day reside. In any case, I hope this was true...that Gerry found lost time in his pursuit of reading. It may well be that he passed several lifetimes in the one span of time alloted to him. We should all be so fortunate.

A few days before he died, Gerry said to Sandy, "When this is over, we're going to Mexico." That intention captures the man. It was no idle statement. He was going one way or another.

Gerry and I are ethnically and genetically Irish Catholic. As such we are susceptible to magical thinking. My own sense of the miraculous has changed over the years, become less religious and more quirky. Last fall while walking home from school, I passed beneath a large chestnut tree. I was walking at a comfortable pace, my legs and arms swinging in rhythm. A small dark object dropped in a vertical line in front of me. It rebounded from the sidewalk and landed softly, perfectly, in the palm of hand which had swung out coincidentally at just that moment and suppliied a soft landing for the smooth chestnut. I never broke stride. A moment earlier I had been walking alone with my thoughts; the next moment I was walking with a small, hard miracle in my hands. I put it in my pocket. I have it still. That's what passes for a miracle in my life these days. I've wondered what purpose that seed my have stowed in my pocket or my dresser drawer. And then as I prepared for this eulogy I came across Neruda's Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground. As you listen to this poem, think of Gerry alternately as both the chestnut and the chestnut tree. It offers a perspective that I think Gerry would have liked.

Ode To a Chestnut on the Ground by Pablo Neruda
From bristly foliage
you fell
complete, polished wood, gleaming mahogany,
as perfect
as a violin newly
born of the treetops,
that falling
offers its sealed-in gifts,
the hidden sweetness
that grew in secret
amid birds and leaves,
a model of form,
kin to wood and flour,
an oval instrument
that holds within it
intact delight, an edible rose.
In the heights you abandoned
the sea-urchin burr
that parted its spines
in the light of the chestnut tree;
through that slit
you glimpsed the world,
bursting with syllables,
the heads of boys
and girls,
grasses stirring restlessly,
smoke rising, rising.
You made your decision,
chestnut, and leaped to earth,
burnished and ready,
firm and smooth
as the small breasts
of the islands of America.
You fell,
you struck
the ground,
nothing happened,
the grass
still stirred, the old
chestnut sighed with the mouths
of a forest of trees,
a red leaf of autumn fell,
resolutely, the hours marched on
across the earth.
Because you are
a seed,
chestnut tree, autumn, earth,
water, heights, silence
prepared the germ,
the floury density,
the maternal eyelids
that buried will again
open toward the heights
the simple majesty of foliage,
the dark damp plan
of new roots,
the ancient but new dimensions
of another chestnut tree in the earth.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


I should have posted this some time ago, but I am in full summer mode right now which means intermittent blogging at best. I'm working on a couple of writing projects of my own and I'm recreating with my kids (soccer and golf mostly but also camping and fishing). I suspect that when I finally get the new camera we ordered to replace our lost one, I'll start up again in earnest.
In some personal news, a good friend and former student teacher, Gerry McNamee, died about a week ago. I gave the eulogy at his memorial service last Sunday which was followed by a good old fashioned Irish wake. I'll post the eulogy here at some point.
Everyone...enjoy the sun.