Afternoon delight

It’s been so long since I saw live theater I can’t even remember when. So when the opportunity came to ease back into the scene, I didn’t hesitate.

After all, it was a pretty safe bet I’d get my money’s worth from a Sunday matinee performance featuring a gaggle of adolescents in suburban Hillsboro. They were young actors, ages 12 to 16, all members of the STAGES Performing Arts Youth Academy and appearing in “Miss Nelson Is Missing!

missingIt was the epitome of community theater and quite the contrast to that evening’s bloated, four-hour Grammy Awards show. No special effects and big egos here. Just family-friendly entertainment, with parents, kids and neighbors all chipping in as cast and crew members, set designers, ticket takers, cookie bakers and audience members.

How did I wind up in the HART Theatre in the second row from the stage? Simple. I spotted a flier on the bulletin board one day when I went out for a coffee. I knew that Tammy Ellingson, a Hillsboro resident who writes regularly for me as a contributor to the Hillsboro Argus, has a son who is active in theater. I learned he was in the play and I had fond memories of reading “Miss Nelson Is Missing” to my own kids, so why not?.

It’s the story of a grade school teacher whose unruly students in Room 207 drive her to distraction — until she disappears one day (wink, wink) and is replaced by Miss Viola Swamp, a substitute so mean that the kids find themselves yearning for Miss Nelson and vowing to behave. I enjoyed the original story by Harry G. Allard Jr. and James Marshall, as well as the adapted version performed by 12-year-old Isaac Ellingson and his peers.

My acting career began and ended with a role in a grade school about “The Little Red Men From Mars,” so I had nothing but admiration for these young actors. All of them attend school in the greater Hillsboro area, mostly at public middle schools, with a sprinkling of Christian, Catholic and Waldorf schools thrown in. One of the older ones, 15, is home schooled and, I am told, a big fan of Pink Floyd. Sweet.

The cast bios revealed their innocence:

“Ainsley would like to thank her parents for their support, time, and driving her around everywhere.”

“(David) especially wants to thank his brother who will do anything with him like play with LEGOS, write stories, or create an action adventure!”

“Hannah is an avid hat wearer and enjoys many hobbies including creative writing, taking long walks, art, and having staring contests with her hedgehog, Ellie Mae.”

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The cast of “Miss Nelson”

All in all, a pretty wholesome activity. Sunday was the last of nine performances over three weekends at the HART Theatre. Kudos to Target Corp. for making it possible to take this show on the road to a handful of Hillsboro elementary schools. And, finally, who knows if one day one of these young actors makes it big? I’ll be able to say, I remember when I saw so-and-so in that play back in 2014.

The master: Jerry Seinfeld

Not until a couple of days before the show did I let on to Lori what I had in mind for the “mystery date” she had written on our calendar. Turned out it was a night of comedy with Jerry Seinfeld.

Toss in a casual pre-show dinner at a Japanese restaurant right across the street from the concert hall and it was a great Friday night.

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Jerry Seinfeld

When the cultural history of the late 20th century is written, it will no doubt cast Jerry Seinfeld as one of the era’s iconic entertainers, someone whose last name is synonymous with a wildly successful TV show that is still watched all over the globe in syndication.

I mean, really, all you have to do is mention a word or two and the memory of favorite episodes immediately kick in: Shrinkage. The Chinese restaurant. Elaine dancing. The Soup Nazi. The Bubble Boy.

The genius of “Seinfeld” was that it was “a show about nothing” — a quartet of quirky New Yorkers muddling through everyday situations that brought out their insecurities and petty rivalries. In other words, it was a show about life.

On stage last night, it was more of the same. Seinfeld was masterful. Spot-on observations about food (including a great riff on Pop Tarts), marriage, coffee, parenthood and modern technology, all delivered with seamless transitions and flawless timing.

I’d seen him once before, years ago when I took our youngest son, then a teenager, and we laughed through a show free of F-bombs and lewd sexual references. The second time around, I knew Lori would enjoy the show as much as me.

We marveled afterward at what a gift it must be: to be able to get up on stage, tell jokes for 90 minutes and send people into the night with smiles. It’s a trite saying that laughter is the best medicine. But when you look at the trivialities of modern culture through the eyes of a talented comedian, it really is a tonic, A reminder to not take yourself — and life — so seriously.

Photograph: last.fm

What was your favorite episode?

Throwback Thursday: The DePauw

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The staff of The DePauw, with their guest adviser in the second row, far right.

Greencastle, Indiana, may not register for many of you. But for me, it conjures fond memories of a week that I spent at a small, liberal arts college in the west central part of the state.

It was the spring of 2005 and I was invited to serve as Journalist in Residence at DePauw University, a 2,400-student campus known for its academics (and not to be confused with DePaul in Chicago).

The gig didn’t involve any teaching – just hanging out with students on the school newspaper staff and advising them as they produced their weekly paper.  The students were smart, funny, engaging and engaged, friendly, inquisitive and down to earth — everything you’d expect from Midwest kids in a region where pretentiousness is as rare as a Chicago Cubs appearance in the post-season playoffs.

During my time as The Oregonian’s newsroom recruiter I met with students from Stanford, Berkeley and the Ivies, as well as lesser known places like Ball State and Western Kentucky. But you know what?

I found talented, passionate kids every place I went. And the group I worked with at DePauw was no different. I remember them with great affection: Dan, Ashley, Brandon, Sara, Adam and Lindsay – the latter a graduate of Portland’s Wilson High School.

The camaraderie you see in a college newsroom is something special, a universal experience for those who’ve been through it, marked by greasy takeout, empty pizza boxes, tattered couches, deadline stress, teamwork under fire — and flirting. (It’s no coincidence that as editor of my college paper I noticed an especially attractive reporter named Lori.)

Thanks to Samuel Autman, an assistant professor who was among those who welcomed me to campus all those years ago, the staff of The DePauw popped up on my Facebook feed last week.

To Samuel, I say thank you. To all those terrific students I met, now just reaching their 30s and scattered from coast to coast, I say thank you and congratulations on your post-college lives and ambitions.

Throwback Thursday, indeed.

The Cornballers

The question came out of left field:

“George, do you play cornhole?”

“Um….corn-what?”

A friend was inviting me to join his four-person team — two men and two women – in a weekly indoor activity sponsored by an amateur recreational sports league.

A quick internet search told me what I needed to know. Cornhole, popular throughout the Midwest, is basically an indoor version of horseshoes. Instead of pitching metal shoes at an upright post, players toss beanbags, filled with raw corn kernels, at a small, sloping target made of wood and set on the floor.

Toss your beanbag into a small hole cut into the board and earn three points. If your beanbag doesn’t make it into the hole but lands on the board and stays there, it’s worth a point. If the opposing team also has beanbags in or near the hole, they cancel out yours and one team or the other gets a “net” score for that round (or both get zero if their tosses cancel each other exactly).

First team to reach 21 points wins. It’s that simple.

It’s also one of the few sports you can play with a beer in one hand. Or chicken wings sauce on your fingers.

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At Superhero theme night: George, Jen and Leroy.

So, yeah, I signed up. And that’ explains why I’ve been spending  Wednesday nights at Buffalo Wild Wings. My teammates Leroy Metcalf (he of Voices of August “fame”), Jen Hamlow and Lauren Pusateri and I started off slow the first week but we’ve come on strong the last two.

And thanks to league organizers, who try to spice things up with theme nights, we’ve had a Dress Like a Superhero Night and next week will have a Dress Like Your Favorite TV Show Characters night.

If the sight of four adults (not us!) showing up dressed as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles doesn’t make you smile, I don’t know what will.

Opposing teams in action during a game of Cornhole.

Opposing teams in action during a game of Cornhole.

So, yeah, I play cornhole.

Proud to be a member of the Cornballers. As opposed to the Awesome Shuckers.

Cornhole terms like “cow pie” and “slider” are right here.

Marcus Luttrell: The lone survivor

I missed the recent interview with Marcus Luttrell on “60 Minutes.” And I haven’t seen the movie “Lone Survivor” — although I plan to. But I have just read the book, a national best-seller by the same name, and it’s one that I appreciated enormously, even though I had one issue with it.

If you don’t know the story, Luttrell was a Navy SEAL, part of a four-man team in 2005 that left their base in northern Afghanistan on a covert mission that would take them into the Hindu Kush mountains near the Pakistan border. Their goal: to capture or kill an Al Qaeda leader. Within 24 hours of being dropped in by helicopter, three of the SEALs lay dead. Only Luttrell was left clinging to life with a gunshot wound to his left leg and multiple injuries from repeated falls down the mountainside as he and his teammates tried to retreat.

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Marcus Luttrell, right, was the only survivor among a four-man SEALs team ambushed in 2005 near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Luttell, with co-author Patrick Robinson, provides an astonishing insider’s view of what it’s like to be a member of the elite of the elite of the nation’s military. In exhausting detail, he tells of the incredible physical and mental challenges required of those who aspire to join the SEALs. Weeks of daily drills on land and on water — jumping, climbing, running, swimming, carrying heavy logs overhead, countless push-ups — with only a couple of hours of sleep each night. Hardened instructors demand unrelenting teamwork and resourcefulness, all of it aimed at narrowing down a class of more than 100 hopefuls to a select few.

But this survival-of-the-fittest approach is entirely justified given the high-risk missions these men are asked to take on in the name of the United States. I totally admire and completely respect these patriots who lay their lives on the line and pledge to fight until their dying breath. They are members of an exclusive fraternity who deserve all the accolades they receive for their military prowess.

Luttrell describes himself as a God-fearing Christian, East Texas redneck who, along with his twin brother Morgan, set out as teenagers to become SEALs. With the help of a former Green Berets sergeant who lived nearby, they went through a pre-SEAL training program and both made it into the ranks of the elite.

The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Luttrell puts you on the mountainside with the four-man SEAL team as they take on an estimated 100-plus Taliban fighters, who are heavily armed and adept at navigating the rocky terrain. The fighting is fierce, the odds are nearly impossible, and Luttrell agonizes as he watches the other three Americans die, battling to the end.

Spoiler alert No. 1:

The deadly encounter begins shortly after the SEALs come upon three Afghan goatherders, members of the Pashtun tribes that have lived for centuries in the Hindu Kush. The men are unarmed and the SEALs must decide whether to kill them as suspected Taliban loyalists or let them go and hope they are not collaborators.

“If this came to a vote, as it might, Axe [one of the other SEALs] was going to recommend the execution of the three Afghans. And in my soul, I knew he was right. We could not possibly turn them loose. But my trouble is, I have another soul. My Christian soul. And it was crowding in on me. Something kept whispering in the back of my mind, it would be wrong to execute these unarmed men in cold blood. And the idea of doing that and then covering our tracks and slinking away, like criminals, denying everything, would make it more wrong.

“To be honest, I’d have been happier to stand ’em up and shoot them right out in front. And then leave them. They’d just be three guys who’d found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Casualties of war. And we’d just have to defend ourselves when our own media and politicians back in the U.S.A. tried to hang us on a murder charge.”

And here is where Luttrell’s views as a front-line warrior cause me to squirm. Militarily, I understand why they’d want to remove the threat. Morally, I understand their hesitation. I cannot imagine myself in their shoes, nor would I ever want to be.

Yet this is the type of situation we ask our ground troops to assess in the moment and trust that they will make the right decision, whatever that might be. Even before describing this scene, Luttrell makes it clear he has nothing but animosity toward “the liberal media” for its reporting on prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and questionable killing of civilians. He never names any particular news organization. Rather, he makes repeated generalizations that accuse the U.S. media of undermining the American military, stopping just short of accusing reporters of aiding and abetting the enemy.

lone.survivorNever mind that journalists, especially those embedded with U.S. troops, seek to provide as a complete a picture as possible of the successes, failures, challenges and complications of our military presence abroad. It’s not journalists who are urinating on blindfolded prisoners. It’s not journalists who are killing unarmed civilians. It’s not journalists who drew up the rules of engagement. It’s military and civilian leaders alike whose job it is to hold our troops accountable. It’s journalists’ role to report on those things and, through editorial commentary, provide a basis for all the rest of us to make judgments about the wisdom and cost of our going to war.

Of course, getting the facts right is essential. And Luttrell does point out (again without naming specific news organizations) that some media outlets caused confusion and grief when they mistakenly reported him among the dead SEALs. I agree that’s inexcusable. But his beef goes beyond that regrettable error.

“I am left feeling that no matter how much the drip-drip-drip of hostility toward us is perpetuated by the liberal press, the American people simply do not believe it,” Luttrell writes. “They are rightly proud of the armed forces of the United States of America. They innately understand what we do. And no amount of poison about our alleged brutality, disregard of the Geneva Convention, and abuse of the human rights of terrorists is going to change what most people think.”

Make no mistake. I absolutely honor the passion and self-sacrifice that Luttrell and others bring to their work. I only wish he were more understanding of the role of the press as a watchdog for those of us who do support U.S. troops but who also recognize the need to hold them accountable. War is a dirty, awful business and Luttrell reminds us that the Taliban have conducted themselves with brutality. That’s true. Yet I also remember going to see “The Fog of War” and listening as the late Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, prime architect of the Vietnam War,  and Sen. John McCain, the former POW, both argued that Americans must hold themselves to a higher standard when it comes to torture and war crimes.

Spoiler alert No. 2:

Luttrell’s rescue and survival are nothing short of miraculous. And without revealing details, I will say only that he recognizes he owes his life to a decision by Pashtun villagers who came upon the injured SEAL and rather than turn him over to the Taliban, invoked the ancient honor code of their people and took him back to their village, vowing to protect him at all costs.

How easy it would have been for them to leave him for dead or his eventual discovery by Taliban fighters. Seems to me Luttrell benefited from the villagers’ sense of moral obligation to help a wounded human being when they could have easily chosen otherwise.

More reading: An Oregon man was among the 8 SEALs and 8 Army Stalkers who were aboard a helicopter sent in to rescue Luttrell’s stranded SEAL team when they were shot down by the Taliban, killing everyone aboard. Read the Portland Tribune’s story about Jeffrey Lucas of Corbett.

Breakfast with his lordship

A sign of the times: Two journalists, who haven’t seen each other in a few months, meet for breakfast at a Portland restaurant to renew their friendship.

And what’s the main topic of conversation? No, not the state of the industry.

Guess again.

“Downton Abbey.”

Yep, the show is that popular. Even grizzled guys like me and my friend, Randy Cox, have taken a liking to the PBS series that revolves around an aristocratic family and their servants on an early 20th Century estate in the British countryside.

Men with hats (well, sort of): George and Randy

Men with hats (well, sort of): George and Randy

There we were, talking about plot twists and our favorite characters (Lady Isobel Crawley for him, the maid Anna Bates for me), while Randy sipped Earl Grey tea (how appropriate) and I chugged coffee (how gauche) as we took over a booth at Milo’s City Café.

Randy and I have known each other for about 20 years and worked closely for several of them at The Oregonian.  Most memorably, we collaborated on an in-house newsletter called “Inklings,” that was tall and skinny (and fun) and meant to stand apart from the usual lettersize format.

Randy left The Oregonian last year and I was consumed by caring for my mother in her final months, so we fell out of touch. I was glad to catch up with him – on “Downton,” on recent movies and, yes, on some journalism stuff – because he has always struck me as one of the kindest, most generous people I know.

Putting a price on life

Esquire’s January 2014 issue arrived touting the annual “The Meaning of Life” interviews with a dozen or so celebrities.

I whipped through them but none of them lingered with me the way a profile of lawyer Kenneth Feinberg did. He was the behind-the-scenes guy tasked with distributing millions upon millions of dollars in federal compensation payments to survivors of those who perished in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Feinberg, the son of a tire wholesaler in Brockton, Mass., has gone on to administer similar funds following other catastrophes at Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colo., Newtown and Boston, among other places. It falls to him to determine “the value of lost legs and 85 percent of someone’s skin.”

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Kenneth Feinberg

He’s accumulated great expertise, for sure, but the work that he does (almost always pro bono) has changed him — made him smarter and humbler. As the writer Chris Jones tells it, the turning point came when a grieving widower challenged Feinberg on a nationally televised town hall on the first anniversary of 9/11.

By Feinberg’s calculations, a stockbroker would necessarily be worth more than a firefighter, and a firefighter would be worth more than a dishwasher. “Is my wife worth less than the bond trader?” the man asked. “Well, not to me. I was married for thirty-seven years. She’s worth a gazillion dollars.”

One paragraph especially stuck with me, It’s gorgeous writing – compelling imagery coupled with a tight summation of what happens when calamity strikes.

Every tragedy, at some level, represents a cataclysmic redistribution. There are the blunt physical changes: Buildings fall and rise, architects trade monuments, blood leaves hearts for sidewalks. Millions and even billions of dollars also change direction, sometimes through government apparatus or corporate channels, sometimes through the voluntary generosity of strangers. Then there are the less tangible shifts, more metaphysical than concrete. Love pools in different and sometimes unexpected directions. New families form. Children call different men Dad. There are great swings in faith, too, sometimes the godless finding reasons to believe, and believers finding doubt. “It’s amazing, the spectrum of emotion,” Feinberg says. “As diverse as human nature itself.”

Want to read more? Here’s the Kenneth Feinberg interview.

Photograph: Nigel Perry

Couple of Capricorns

Couple of Capricorns

Father and youngest son, Jordan, celebrating our recent birthdays. I don’t put much stock in horoscopes but this excerpt from one astrology website seems to capture one aspect of us pretty well. Or, at least, yours truly.

“Capricorns are industrious, efficient, organized and won’t make a lot of waves. They are scrupulous with details and adopt a rather conventional posture in business and in life. These folks feel best playing it safe, since this is a fail-safe way to get to the top — eventually.”

Hmmm, is that true? Read more at astrology.com.

Of friendships and parenthood

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“Do you remember making friends in your 20s? Do you remember being 24-years-old and leaving work with three or four co-workers, and settling into a bar stool at 6 p.m. and emerging at 2 a.m. for bad pancakes and bacon with your new friends? I do.”

Those are the words of Paige Parker, and they are lifted from a marvelous essay titled “The Last Supper” that she wrote for the online magazine Mamalode.

A few words about each:

Paige is a writer and teacher living in Eugene. She just so happens to be a former newspaper reporter, who I and another editor recruited to The Oregonian after she graduated from the University of Montana. She married a fellow reporter (they’re both redheads) and now they have two young children.

Mamalode was launched in 2009 by a Missoula mom who as a new mother at 26 felt isolated, unsure of her parenting skills and didn’t know many other young parents. The magazine’s readers and writers are moms and, from what I can tell, they are drawn to it by first-person truth-telling.rather than formulaic how-to lists and recipes. Enter Paige Parker, freelance writer.

In her essay, posted just as the year was ending, Paige recalls the “Last Supper” she and her husband Ryan had with seven of their closest friends, two days before the birth of their son. She describes the changes that followed — leaving the newspaper industry, moving to a new town, and, mostly, how parenting affects everything from free time to friendships.

It’s a lovely piece that speaks to both sexes and people of all ages. If you’re a new parent, read it. If you’re an older parent with adult kids, like me, read it. If you’re in your 20s now, read it.

One commenter on Facebook said this:

“Paige has this gift of making the personal and painful funny and universal and so urgently honest. The yearning for wild and crazy friends never goes away even though family can eclipse it for, oh, a decade or so. And wouldn’t it be great if we could speed-date our way through some of the kid activities to figure out who the keepers are among the parents on the sidelines.”

Read “The Last Supper” here.

Visit Paige Parker’s blog, “Taking Fences.

Image: mamalode

Taco shells and meatballs

Taco shells and meatballs

I know what some of you are thinking…But you would be wrong. It’s kale salad.

Sunday night it was our turn to host the post-season party for our co-ed bowling team, the Broken Taco Shells. We tumbled a bit in the standings, so we “celebrated” our 7th place finish among 12 teams with catered meatball sliders and kale salad, plus appetizers, side dishes and a delicious cake baked by Lori.

The main dish came from 24th and Meatballs, which advertises its signature offerings as “Portland’s tastiest balls.”

Well, who are we to disagree after noshing on beef, pork and chicken balls with classic Italian, pork piccante and fresh pesto toppings? (Insert shameless plug here: our son Nathan is doing some marketing work for 24th and Meatballs, so any catering orders you can send his way would be great. Or just like their Facebook page.)

Anyway, we had a fun get-together, as always, and there was plenty of kale salad left over for everyone to take away a small or large baggie.

And now, on to Season No. 5 — Tuesday nights at Hollywood Bowl — with my teammates Morgan, Erin, Brian, Beth, Ellie and John.