Taking a break from bowling

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Good times on Monday nights. The fab four from left: Mike (Spud) Slama, George (The Professor) Rede, Joel (The Dude) Odom and Brian (El Chapo) Wartell.

They say all good things must come to an end. Even bowling.

After seven years in a Monday night beer league, I’m zipping up my bowling bag and putting my shoes and ball away for the next few months. Now that I’m teaching three classes on two college campuses, I’m going to need every available night during the week to keep on top of all of it: lectures, readings, exams, student work, emails, etc.

It’s been all fun since this Monday night activity got started in January 2010. I’ve bowled with a changing cast of friends and co-workers who’ve come and gone due to work and personal commitments.

We’ve bowled at two venues — the venerable Hollywood Bowl (now a hardware store) and AMF Pro 300.

We’ve bowled under five different names — Broken Taco Shells, Steamin’ Chalupas, The Cheeseheads (when I was the only guy with three women who were Green Bay Packers fans), the Mediaocracies (when my teammates were primarily former colleagues from The Oregonian/OregonLive) and, most recently, Bowling 4 Goats.

A teammate came up with the latter name during a Happy Hour brainstorming session. Silly? Of course. Why goats? Why not? Portland is one of those places known for urban chickens and urban goats – and, in fact, even has a resident herd, The Belmont Goats, with their own Facebook page and Instagram account.

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Portland’s own Belmont Goats.

We’ve bowled well (league champs one season) and we’ve bowled poorly (last-place finish another season).

Through it all, the weekly routine has provided a place to unwind. A place to celebrate strikes and spares, and to shrug off life’s gutter balls. A place to talk about work, family, books, sports, movies, music, travel, politics and (this being Portland) food — all while socializing with average joes and jills from all walks of life.

Last night, my teammates and I celebrated the end of our fall 2016 season. Out of 19 teams, we finished in third place with a record of 42 wins and 22 losses, 3 games behind the first-place team. I averaged 151 for the season –which was a personal best and one pin above my goal..

As before, we celebrated at Tilt, home of the biggest and baddest burgers in town.

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Clockwise from left: George, Mike, Joel and Brian raise a toast to Bowling 4 Goats.

I told my teammates I was dropping out temporarily and hoped to rejoin them next summer or fall. Until then, thanks to my bowling buddies — Brian, Joel and Mike and so many more — for the memories of the past seven years.

Photo montage: The Belmont Goats

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A hillbilly’s memoir

Don’t know about you, but I’ve always been drawn to novels, memoirs and non-fiction narratives that unlock the key to unfamiliar places or people.

That was my thinking when I picked up “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” a New York Times bestseller.

hillbilly_elegyI hoped I might gain insight into a subculture of Americans who’ve lately become the focus of national attention. I hoped I might understand a little better just what it is about being poor, white and rural in one of the country’s most economically depressed regions that makes people want to place their future in the hands of a wealthy, fear-mongering businessman and reality TV star living in Manhattan.

In fairness to author J.D. Vance, that’s not the reason he wrote “Hillbilly Elegy.” The idea for the book had already come together before the presidential primaries had begun and had nothing to do with Trump. Yet the book does provide a window into the psychology of the struggling white working class in Appalachia and neighboring Rust Belt states.

“There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself,” Vance says in the introduction.

Vance concedes the absurdity of writing a memoir at just 31 years of age. But as a Rust Belt refugee who escaped the cycle of poverty and violence in his extended family in Kentucky and Ohio and went on to the Marine Corps, Ohio State University and Yale Law School, he brings a fresh, clear-eyed perspective:

“I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it.”

I  think the book has great value in these times. Vance is a good writer, honest and prescriptive in his analysis. He’s not arguing that poor whites deserve any more sympathy than anyone else. He’s not excusing the brawling, drinking, drug-taking ways of his dysfunctional family. He’s taking a hard look at social class from both ends of the spectrum — from poor folk living in the hollers of Kentucky and the industrial Midwest to Yale classmates born into a life of privilege and a sense of entitlement.

And in doing so, he holds the people in his world accountable for a litany of shortcomings:

***

Vance paints a grim portrait of himself — a Scots-Irish hillbilly — and others who inhabit the Greater Appalachian culture stretching from Alabama to Georgia in the South to Ohio in the North.

They don’t value education and their kids do poorly in school. They scream and yell and hit and punch each other. They smoke and drink too much and become drug addicts. They spend money on giant TVs and other luxuries, often using payday loans and high-interest credit cards, and declare bankruptcy when the bills come due.

They drop out of the labor force. They get fired for stealing or absenteeism. They choose to not to retrain or relocate for better opportunities. They live in social isolation, resentful of outsiders. And they point the finger at everyone but themselves.

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The author J.D. Vance.

“We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some unperceived unfairness,” Vance writes. “Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance –the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

It’s not hard to see why folks like these would rally around someone, a fellow blame-shifter, promising to take them back to the days when jobs were easy to come by.

Vance spent his early years in Jackson, in the hills of impoverished eastern Kentucky. He moved with his mother, sister and grandparents to Middletown, Ohio, a now-decaying steel town filled with so many other Kentucky transplants they called it “Middletucky.”

His mother was hooked on drugs and went through several husbands and boyfriends while stealing family heirlooms and selling them to support her habit. J.D. credits his older sister and maternal grandparents for helping raise him amidst the chaos and instability.

He, too, was headed toward a life of underachievement in a community suffering from social and economic decline but was saved by three things: the encouragement provided by teachers at his public high school; the cocoon of love and support provided by his grandparents Mamaw and Papaw after he quit living with his mom; and a cousin’s advice to consider the Marine Corps.

The Corps instilled in young Vance a sense of discipline and self-worth and, for the first time, exposed him to people unlike himself. It was the key to enrolling in college and, from there, applying to Yale Law, a place where 95 percent of students come from the upper middle class. It was the place where he would marry a fellow Indian American student; land prestigious internships in Washington, D.C.; launch a successful legal career; and wind up in San Francisco working for a Silicon Valley investment firm.

***

So, Vance asks, why did he make it out when so many others don’t?

In short, it’s because he had a handful of individuals in his community who empowered him with a sense that he could control his own destiny. And, it’s because government offered plenty of resources in the form of public schools and universities, federal financial aid for college, and Social Security benefits for his grandparents.

Toward the end of the book, Vance cites a study that revealed there is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites about their chances at bettering themselves economically. More than half of blacks, Latinos and college-educated whites expect that their children will do better than they have, the study found. But among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that view.

economic-mobility-word-cloudIn the aftermath of Trump’s improbable victory, Vance provides a timely counter-narrative to the rhetoric of modern conservatives. He’s seen friends from Middletown blossom while others succumb to drugs, prison and premature parenthood.

“What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their lives.” Vance says. “Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.”

Imagine that. A young conservative from the Midwest refusing to join in on the government-bashing and willing to point to individual responsibility as a key to rising above life’s circumstances. We’ve seen generations of immigrants do it. Let’s see if the white working class, unburdened by skin color, can do it.

Vance has done a remarkable job in writing “Hillbilly Elegy.” With a tone of humility throughout, he offers hope that others might also escape the legacy of violence, poverty and despair that characterizes his part of America.

Photograph: Naomi McCulloch

Wordcloud: 123rf.com

Read an excellent review of the book in The New York Times.

 

Barack, Michelle and a foot of snow

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Heavy, wet snow accumulated rapidly in Portland overnight.

Woke up precisely at 4:21 a.m. today. It was dark and it was quiet. It was also gorgeous. A lush carpet of freshly fallen snow blanketed everything I could see up and down the street.

Never in my 30-plus years of living in Portland have I ever seen this much snow fall in a single day or night. It’s like a holiday greeting card: treetops and limbs wrapped in white, parked cars buried under the stuff, not a soul stirring in the silence.

At this hour, I’m alone with my thoughts:

— President Obama’s farewell speech is still resonating in my heart and soul. His simple yet forceful call to keep working for the common good, to guard against threats to our democracy, was masterful in its simplicity. I’m sad to see him leave office but I hope his parting words inspire millions to action.

“Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.”

— I’m equally sad to see Michelle Obama come to the end of her eight years in the White House. A piece in The New York Times asked whether she will speak with a fuller voice after she is freed of the confining role of First Lady.

” As first lady, she used hints, invitations, art, sometimes even clothing to convey her viewpoint. If she mostly avoided controversial topics, her mere presence spoke volumes, and was there really any mistaking the fundamentals of what she believed?”

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One of a kind: Michelle Obama.

I, for one, hope this Harvard-trained lawyer and “mom-in-chief” will unleash the power of her intellect and empathy in continuing service to her values and to the ideals that make us better. As the Times’ Jodi Kantor points out: ” The world has only one observant, original, wildly popular African-American first lady, and for her to hoard her ideas and views would be a waste.”

— I’ll confess that one of the first things I did at this hour was to reach for my iPhone to see if the internet connection was working. I clicked onto OregonLive and there I saw the headline “Storm drops up to a foot of snow on Portland: 8 things you need to know.”

Sure, the headline is formulaic. But those 8 things gave me all the information I needed to know about accumulation, melting, school closings, bus service, etc., in a simple and concise format.

 

More to the point, I wondered how many people would pause to consider that two journalists — my former colleagues Jim Ryan and Margaret Haberman — were up ridiculously early pulling together the information for that 4 a.m. post. Readers often don’t give a thought to what’s involved in presenting timely and useful information, no matter the hour.

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View from our living room at 7:30 am.

I know from experience there’s an expectation that no matter what the weather, the newsroom stays open and people get there one way or another to cover the news of the day. It’s entirely possible that in this case Jim and Margaret did their reporting from home.

But, still, on a day when schools and colleges are shuttered, when city bus service is cut back, and all kinds of businesses close for the day, journalists at OregonLive and in other newsrooms around the city will be rising to the challenge, bringing us another day of news that we consume in the comfort of our homes.

Photograph: Lora Huntley, The Oregonian/OregonLive

Photograph: The Associated Press

Scrounging for empties at 5 a.m.

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Making end meet by collecting cans and bottles before the sun comes up.

Yesterday’s unexpectedly blue skies inspired me to greet 2017 with an upbeat mantra: “New day. New year. New attitude.”

Today’s encounter with a tall stranger challenged me to back my words with action.

***

I was wheeling our recycling bin to the curb early this morning when I came upon a tall guy, layered up and wearing a knit stocking cap, running his flashlight over the contents of what my neighbors had already put out the night before.

“You looking for cans and bottles?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he nodded.

“I’ve got some for you.”

I’d planned to redeem them myself this week, being someone who doesn’t mind spending time feeding them into the bins if it’ll help knock a few dollars off the grocery bill. But who needed the empties more? Me or him?

I hauled a couple of bags from the garage and set them next to his

“You doing any kind of work?” I asked.

“I deliver The Oregonian.” A slight pause. “And The New York Times.”

Well, how about that? I thought to myself. I know these folks don’t make a lot of money, whether paid a commission or an hourly wage. It made sense that he’d be on the streets at 5 a.m., trying to supplement his income.

I peered into his car, a weathered, four-door sedan, as he was placing more empties in the trunk and saw he had filled the entire back seat and front passenger area, from floor to ceiling, with as many bags and boxes as he could cram in.

I didn’t see any newspapers. But it dawned on me that The Oregonian is home-delivered just four days a week these days, and Monday is an off day. It made sense that he didn’t have any papers.

I grabbed a couple more 12-pack boxes and gave them to him.

“You got any work for me, mister?”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t,” I answered. “Where we live now, we don’t have to worry about yard work.”

“Well, thanks anyway.”

“You bet. Good luck to you and have a good year.”

***

With the dawn of a new year and new administration, several friends and family members have vowed to do what they can to preserve the progressive policies of the Obama years. As I think about my own values and personal responsibilities, I know I will have to find ways to contribute that feel comfortable to me.

As a lifelong journalist, I am accustomed to refraining from overt political involvement. Though no longer an employee of The Oregonian, I’m still likely to tread cautiously into area of direct action. Somehow, it feels more authentic to me to act on my values one person at a time.

And there’s plenty of opportunity.

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Time to be less selfish, more giving, in redeeming empty bottles and cans.

The consequences of income inequality are easy to see, in my neighborhood and in other parts of Portland. Virtually anywhere you go in this city, you’ll see tents and tarps housing the homeless, and people hustling outside coffee shops, grocery stores and Goodwill.

Undoubtedly, every person has a story. I don’t know what circumstances put this particular stranger on my street this morning. What I do know is that it felt much better to engage with him than to just set the empties out at the curb for anyone’s taking. What I also know is that I’m more inclined to help those who help themselves.

In lieu of a short list of resolutions, and with today’s encounter in mind, I will seek to hold myself accountable to this new mantra.

“New day. New year. New attitude.”

Photographs: nybottlereturn.com; hopewelloasis.com

Bonus video from one of my favorite bands: