Falling from the sky

Eric Wilcox: Thrillseeker

By Eric Wilcox

Sky diving is a very safe sport, but when things go wrong, they can go spectacularly wrong.

The young lady nearest the door, probably in her mid-20s, is getting ready to do a “pop and drop.” As the roll-up door on the side of the plane is opened, cool air flows in and the noise level goes up. According to the altimeter on my left wrist we are nearing her jump elevation of 6,500 feet. She is small and with the main and reserve chutes, she looks even smaller.

She has at least 10 successful solo jumps in her log book, so she knows what she is doing. She checks her harness and altimeter then tightens her chin strap, gives a thumbs up to the jumpmaster, and receives a thumbs up in return. She moves to the doorway, positions her feet and body to face forward into the wind. She leans out, pulls back in, then steps out. She’s gone…

The jumpmaster leans out, watches for a few seconds. The door is rolled down and we continue our climb up to my jump elevation: 13,000 feet.

Alone in my thoughts in a crowded plane, in a male macho way I think, if she can do it I can. The jumpmaster leans over, tugs on my harness, smiles and gives a thumbs up, I try to smile back, but can only manage a nod. He points to my helmet and signals to put my goggles on.

This is my second solo jump. I so badly screwed up my first that I have to do it over again. I did everything wrong. Most importantly, due to bad body position, I couldn’t find my main deployment handle (commonly known as the rip cord) and the jumpmaster had to move in and pull it for me. No matter how well you do everything else, if you can’t pull the main deployment handle, you pretty much fail the jump. So, I’m jumping again, I have to prove to myself that I can do this. 

There are actually three of us on the jump: the jumpmaster, assistant jumpmaster and me. These two men will be right next to me, watching my every move, adjusting my body position as needed, and in case I have problems like my first jump, they will move in and take over.

As the plane turns into the jump run at just over 13,000 feet, the door is rolled up. The sky is clear blue and cold. Off in the distance and slightly below us is Mount Hood. Ground is two and a half miles down. This is it. A check of my goggles, harness and altimeter, a quick touch of the pull handle, it’s where it’s supposed to be. A nervous thumbs up and a smiling thumbs up in return and we are ready.

The plane isn’t big enough to stand up, so we move in a crouched position. The assistant moves to the doorway and leans out, then he climbs out the door and hangs on the outside of the plane and waits for me. I’m next. I have to move to doorway position myself in the opening with each foot aligned with the edge of the sill. One hand on a grab bar overhead, one on a grab bar on the jamb and I’m ready.

This position only lasts for a few seconds, but seems forever. I’ve got 100 mile per hour wind in my face, the noise drowning out all other sounds. Making eye contact with the assistant, I yell “check-out.” A nod in return, looking back then forward l lean out and shout “out.” Pull back in, shout “in” then yelling “oooout” I step out and let go.

The next few seconds are absolutely amazing, incredible adrenaline rush, complete freedom, no control and everything is a blur.

Breaking down a free fall. 1) Body position: good. 2) Eye contact with the jumpmaster: thumbs up. 3) Going the right direction: down.


Then back to the task at hand, getting safely to the ground. First, body position: on my stomach, head up, legs spread, toes pointed, knees slightly bent, arms spread out, elbows bent so hands are just above your head, back arched. All good. Then check the horizon. It’s there where it’s supposed to be. Which means I have good body position. I make eye contact with the jumpmasters, one on each side, look for any signals from them. Lastly, check the altimeter on my wrist: 11,000 feet. I’ve already dropped 2,000 feet and I haven’t done anything. We are falling at a rate of a thousand feet every 6 seconds, almost terminal velocity.

Thumbs up from the jumpmaster. This is the signal to do three practice touches of my pull handle, a cloth ball about the size of a golf ball positioned in the small of my back, just above the right hip. I reach back, find it, grab it, pretend to pull it. All good, do it again and again. Thumbs up, all good.

Now I get to look around. Horizon, yup. Jumpmaster, yup. Altimeter: 9,000 feet! Time really does fly. It is beautiful, the sky is clear, horizon all around, earth below, complete and total exhilaration.

Check the altimeter: 8,000 feet. Thumbs up from the jumpmaster, I return a double exaggerated thumbs up. Look around, check my body position. Check the altimeter: 7,000 feet. Focus on the altimeter.

Waving off the jumpmaster, getting ready to pull the handle

At 6,500 feet the process to pull the handle starts. First, wave off the jumpmasters. They move further away to avoid becoming entangled. Wait a few seconds then reach back, grab the ball, pull hard and fling the ball away.

As the pilot chute deploys, in turn pulling out the main chute, there is a gentle jerk as I am pulled into a vertical position. After a few anxious seconds, the slider drops down and the chute is fully deployed, bright yellow and beautiful. Everything is now completely quiet. Drifting along on a silent wind at about 5,000 feet. I reach up and grab the loop pulls.

Main chute starting to deploy.


Over the one way radio I hear “yellow chute turn right.” I pull down on the right loop and turn right. “Yellow chute turn left.” I pull on the left loop and turn left. I am flying the chute. Pull both loops and I suddenly get a brief period of lift. Let go and I start back down. Flying the chute is fun. I take a few turns and spins. Next, I need to find the drop zone, right next to the runway, all good. I get to play for a minute.

At about 1,000 feet “yellow chute turn right.” I turn and line up parallel with the runway on the downwind run. Holding this direction for the length of the runway and dropping to about 300 feet. “Yellow chute turn right.” I turn. “Yellow chute turn right.” I turn again. Now on the final leg, at about 200 feet.

Pulling down slightly I slow and control my descent. 200’, 100’, 50’, 30’ 20’ “flare”. With a slight jolt, like stepping off a low wall, a roll and I’m on the ground.

I did it. According to the jumpmaster all went very well, except I didn’t have to roll on the landing. For that minor error I only got a score of 3 out of 4. I am relieved, I did it. I proved to myself that I could do it. And as my jumpmaster said, “any jump you walk away from is a good jump.”

But, I still had two jumpmasters as my safety net. The young lady that did the “pop and drop” was on her own. She had less than 9 seconds to get through the full jump sequence, less the practice pulls, before things start to go wrong. That is what the jumpmaster was watching before he closed the door. Apparently she did everything right. I have a lot of respect for her, I’m not sure I could do that.

My jump was a good jump, but probably my last.

Eric Wilcox is an architect living in Northeast Portland with his recently retired wife, Sue, and Murdoch (“Not-a-bear”), their Newfoundland.

***

Editor’s note: Eric is a longtime friend and neighbor whom I’ve known for 30 years-plus, ever since our wives met through a play group that included each of our youngest-born children. As the years pass, I find more to admire in my friend’s artistic side (a designer and maker of stained glass) and his adventurous side (Spartan Race finisher and now skydiving).

Tomorrow: Andrea Cano | Tears

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Fear and Loathing Between a Farter and a Fatso

Michael Granberry, next to a bust of Ernest Hemingway in El Floridita in Havana, Cuba.

By Michael Granberry

The first time I went to England was 1981. I had booked a 14-hour flight from LAX on Freddie Laker Airways. The company went bankrupt in 1982, and well, I’m not surprised. I remember being scrunched in a middle seat between two ginormous dudes — one of whom was uncontrollably flatulent — and soon resorted to scarfing potato chips and tuna fish from the limp brown bag I’d brought on board. It is, however, a minor miracle I made it at all, considering what I’d done the night before.  

I was at Dallas Cowboys training camp, visiting an old college buddy. He was at the time a Cowboys beat writer for a Dallas newspaper. And, well, he was a drinker. He cajoled me into going out and having, in his words, “just a few” the night before my first-ever sojourn across the pond. Against any semblance of sanity in my yet-to-be-formed frontal lobe, I said yes. And within minutes, “just a few” was a bunch.  

Miller Time.  

My defense? I was, in the summer of 1981, a wee lad of 29 and didn’t know any better. By the time we schlepped back to the Cowboys’ prison-like quarters at Cal Lutheran College in Thousand Oaks, Calif., we were, well, you know, blitzed, to use a football term. So, my friend got the bright idea to have “a nightcap” by going to the practice field and working out on the blocking sleds before going beddy-bye. Problem was, the padding for the sleds had been stored away for the night by the Cowboys’ equipment crew. So, what we were hitting, over and over, was raw metal. Even so, I followed along, like the stupid idiot I was in the summer of ’81.  

“Ready, set, HUT!” my friend bellowed, with Lombardi-like glee, his beery chant piercing the dank night air. In the windows above, I could see Cowboys players peering out the windows, their faces expressing a collective annoyance, wondering what in the hell the ruckus was. They, after all, would have to be up early the next morning.   

“BAM!” my friend proclaimed, as we both struck the jagged metal, our bare shoulders providing the only protection our fragile bodies could muster against the stupidity we were inflicting on them.  

Photo credit: oxnardchamber.org

Minutes later, I succumbed to a deep sleep, not yet feeling the ravishing pain yet to come. By the time I awoke, it was there. Was it ever there! Despite my agony, I wedged my damaged torso into my absurdly cramped seat on Freddie Laker, wondering if I could possibly endure a 14-hour marathon from L.A. to London, stuck between a Farter and a Fatso, feeling as though I needed to scream every three minutes. By the time we limped into Heathrow, in what was easily the longest 14 hours of my life, I was in more pain than I thought any one knucklehead could endure. Somehow, I stumbled outside and summoned a cab. I all but barked at the cabbie, demanding he take me to a hospital as fast as his Cockney wheels could get me there.  

Within minutes, I was nursing my pain in a grim-looking hospital, whose idea of décor put the “D” in Dickensian. Within minutes, they whisked me to a room, albeit a pitiless, cold room, where they commanded me to wait for the doctor. Soon, a peach-fuzzy chap showed up looking eerily like Harry Potter — though Harry Potter had not been invented yet.  

“You have a separated shoulder,” he announced after a short but suitably thorough examination. “I will put your arm in a sling and prescribe painkillers that should have you feeling much better quite soon. May I ask, though, how did you do this?” 

I debated whether or not to tell him, then decided, oh, what the heck, I have a return ticket. I can always return to the warm blanket of America, the one that tolerates idiots. I explained that I had been striking the unpadded blocking sleds at Dallas Cowboys training camp over and over the night before, and the reason I did that was, I had been drinking for hours with my friend, who by the way is now in prison, having been sent there (again) for numerous DWI violations. I will note, however, that my friend went on to have a remarkable writing career. He is the author of 10 books, two of which became best-sellers, one of which will soon become a major motion picture. And he, by the way, suffered no injury whatsoever from our drink-induced shenanigans. 

“You what?” my Hunter Thompson wannabe of a pal said later, laughing uproariously. “Nope, I was fine.” 

Of course, he was. But I digress.  

The Harry Potter lookalike simply stared at me quizzically for what seemed like forever, then muttered, “Yes, well, you should feel better soon,” and with an ever-so-slight British grin added coyly: “I would, however, not recommend hitting another unpadded blocking sled, presuming you can even find one in Britain.” He might as well have added, “Stupid American.” But he was nice enough not to. 

“How much do I owe you?” I asked, nervously.  

“You mean payment? Oh, you owe us nothing. We have national health coverage. Your treatment is free.” 

To use an American phrase, is that a great country or what?!? 

Sure enough, I felt remarkably better within hours, igniting a love affair with Britain that has lingered for decades. I call my strange experience and the feeling of longing it engendered “The Catch.” And ironically, that’s how the Cowboys’ 1981 season ended, after my blocking-sled debacle: Dwight Clark caught a game-winning touchdown pass from Joe Montana in the closing seconds of the NFC Championship Game that came to be known as The Catch, thus ending the Cowboys’ playoff hopes on a bleak January day in 1982.  

Bleak for me and the Cowboys, that is. The San Francisco 49ers are still hoisting beers over their shining moment from the ’81 season.  

I, however, am enjoying a different kind of catch. Mine has returned me to Britain, London in particular, multiple times, albeit on better flights than Freddie Laker. I returned there in 2008 to preview the King Tut exhibition and ended up staying in a place a friend recommended called Portobello Gold, on Portobello Road in the magical neighborhood of Notting Hill. It was a lovely, quaint, crackling pub with eight rooms above it that I soon fell in love with (as did President Bill Clinton, who showed up there in the last month of his presidency). Owned by a delightful chap named Mike Bell, Portobello Gold stayed open long enough for me to indulge myself with as many exquisite visits as my family and I could squeeze in. All good things come to an end, and sure enough, Mike closed it a couple of years ago.  

My visits to the Gold allowed me the most blissful accommodations while roaming London with my stunning wife, seeing some of the best theater the world has to offer. My favorites were God of Carnage with legendary actor Ralph Fiennes and Grief, a scintillating world premiere written and directed by Mike Leigh and starring the incomparable Lesley Manville.  

I need to go back. The last time I went to London was 2014, when I flew across the pond from my home in suburban Dallas to see the Cowboys whip up on the Jacksonville Jaguars. That, too, was a lovely visit. And not once did I pummel a blocking sled.  

Michael Granberry is the arts writer for The Dallas Morning News. He has also worked for the Los Angeles Times (from 1978 to 1997) and once worked as a sports editor in Alaska, where he covered such things as the Iditarod and the Eskimo Olympics. And during the Watergate summer of 1973, he interned at The Washington Post with some dude named George Rede.

Editor’s note: I’ve been blessed to call Mike a friend for 46 years now. He was a standout in the Post intern class of ’73, and not just because of his precocious talent. He was pretty hard to miss with a shock of red hair and a Texas twang. He was a groomsman at our wedding and he remains one of my favorite people on the planet. Even if he is a Cowboys fan.

Tomorrow: Alana Cox | Let’s talk about breastfeeding

Three hikes in one

I like variety. I’m not one of those who thrives on routine. I intentionally mix things up, whether it’s working out on a bike or in a pool, walking my dog on different routes, or choosing something new on a menu.

So it came as a pleasant surprise that Friday’s urban hike felt like three walks packaged into one.

Once again following “Portland Hill Walks,” I chose a route that began 12 miles from where I live — out to Southeast Portland and up to the Willamette National Cemetery on Mount Scott.

Starting at the city-owned Leach Botancial Garden just off SE 122nd Avenue, I walked through what I’d call a working class neighborhood, with wide streets, no sidewalks, houses set back into the woods, and an abundance of pickup trucks and not-so-new Hondas and Fords.

From there, I trudged up the hill to the national cemetery, a sacred space where more than 116,000 men and women have been interred on an expanse of 269 acres straddling the Multnomah and Clackamas county line.

On the way back down, I found myself in a more affluent neighborhood with luxury homes, many with spectacular views of the West Hills and downtown Portland and other trappings of exclusivity.

These two neighborhood walks sandwiched around a tour of the cemetery grounds made it seem like three-in-one. And now I can add another part of town to those I’ve become familiar with, thanks to “Portland Hill Walks” author Laura O. Foster.

***

Truth be told, I did this urban hike backwards. No, not literally. What I mean is for some reason, I turned west instead of south from the lush, shaded Leach Botanical Garden. As a result, I began with the working class neighborhood instead of the higher-elevation affluent neighborhood.

No harm, no foul, though. I enjoyed the solitude in both places.

Except for a woman who was walking far ahead of me and eventually turned off onto a side street, I was alone on Brookside Drive and adjoining streets as I passed a number of oddities. Here are a few:

On the return trip to my car, I was completely alone as I walked through the upscale neighborhood, passing by homes with strikingly different facades. Take a look:

The real highlight of this hike was the time spent at the cemetery. It’s the second time I’ve walked among the dead on these urban hikes and I have to say it’s good for the soul. To be alone with my thoughts in a beautifully cared-for space, lush and green and quiet, is something to appreciate in this hurly-burly world.

And if death is the great equalizer — between rich and poor, between young and old — then it’s doubly true at a national veterans cemetery.

According to Foster, there’s a reason why you don’t see huge, ornate monuments like you do in private cemeteries. It’s because the flat, unadorned grave markers, no matter a service member’s rank, provide the national cemeteries “with a deep and humbling sense of democracy.”

To me, that equal treatment honors the service to country performed by each of one of the thousands laid to rest in parallel rows stretching as far as the eye can see.

They all sacrificed, whether they were named Floyd, Chester, Cyrus, Arthur, Benjamin, Margaret or Isidro. Whether they served in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. Whether they served in the Second World War, Korea or Vietnam.

When I visited at mid-morning, Old Glory was at half-mast in memory of the victims of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the latest stains on this country’s character.

Near the entrance on SE 112th Avenue, there was a racket from weed wackers and leaf blowers — a necessary aspect of keeping up the immaculate grounds. Similarly, there was a crew with a backhoe in another part of the cemetery, working on a minor construction project.

Away from those two areas, it was quiet and peaceful. I could walk alongside the grave markers. I could pause and take in the west-facing views of downtown. I could linger at the amphitheater beneath the U.S. flag, hanging limp. I could focus on the bios of four Medal of Honor winners buried nearby. I could watch from a distance as a young woman and child laid fresh flowers at a grave — that of her husband or father or some other loved one? Who knows?

I left the shade of Willamette National Cemetery and headed back out to the entrance road. Walking downhill, I learned from Foster’s book that the land had been originally owned by Harvey Scott, a former editor of The Oregonian and the person for whom Mount Scott was named. Scott cleared the land over two decades and sold it in 1909 to the Mount Scott Cemetery Corporation.

According to Foster, the hillside was graded by hand — imagine that — by WPA laborers from 1935 to 1936. Eventually, the property was given to the state of Oregon just before World War II. Congress passed a bill in 1941 authorizing the cemetery but no money was appropriated for several years. Finally, construction began in 1950 and the first burial occurred in 1951, the same year Oregon deeded the land to the federal government.

Since then, Willamette has become one of the busiest of the 131 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico with about 3,500 burials a year.

On this day, I felt privileged to walk among these veterans and appreciate their patriotism. At the same time, I felt humbled to tour the grounds of an emerald jewel that wouldn’t exist without the painstaking labor of ordinary workers whose names and faces we’ll likely never know.

Up, up to Pittock Mansion

During the first nine months of 2016, I got into a great routine of doing weekly urban hikes.

Using “Portland Hill Walks” as my guide to assorted explorations in city parks and neighborhoods, I logged 15 of these hikes — each one of them enjoyable and educational. And then I stopped.

I took on two part-time jobs, then three, and found I no longer had time for these Friday morning hikes.

Yesterday, I got back to it. And, boy, did it feel good.

I did a 4.75-mile hike that began in the flats of Northwest Portland, near Wallace Park and Chapman Elementary School, and took me up into the tony Nob Hill and Kings Heights neighborhoods, into Forest Park, up to Pittock Mansion and back down again via a labyrinth of terraced hillside streets laden with BMWs, Jaguars and Range Rovers.

Little did I suspect that I’d find a backdoor entrance to Forest Park and hike for a ways on the Upper Macleay Trail and Wildwood Trail. Little did I suspect I would emerge at the end of this loop into a parking lot leading to the elegant Pittock Mansion and its spectacular view of downtown Portland.

Had I not taken along the book, written by local author Laura O. Foster, and followed its precise directions to take this left and that right, and to follow a handful of easily overlooked staircases, I would still be wandering those hilly neighborhoods.

Friday’s urban hike took me about 2 1/2 hours, much of it on steep sidewalks and forested switchbacks, reaching up to about 930 feet elevation at Pittock Mansion, the former home of Henry Pittock, the legendary publisher of The Oregonian, and his wife, Georgina. Coming down to level ground, my quads got quite the workout.

Here are a few takeaways from the walk:

Weather. Friday brought an unexpected but welcome drizzle. I stayed cooler than I would have otherwise, but the tradeoff was sacrificing a clear view of the Northwest Portland industrial area that included the hulking building that formerly housed Montgomery Ward. On a clear day I would have been able to see Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams, all in Washington state.

Staircases. I must have taken at least five shortcuts from one residential area to another, following Foster’s explicit directions. I’d probably never notice them on my own, even if I were walking past. But I find them to be little neighborhood jewels, ranging from 24 in one spot to a total of 280 steps on two staircases used for training by Portland firefighters.

Big-ass homes: Undoubtedly, I was traversing through neighborhoods where the city’s doctors, lawyers and business executives make their homes. While the gargantuan Pittock Mansion stands out as a historic home museum, jointly preserved and operated by the city and a nonprofit society, there are plenty of massive homes in Kings Heights. Many are constructed on stilts that I sure wouldn’t trust during an earthquake. Among those not on stilts, I passed by the former homes of Oregon Gov. Oswald West and U.S. Senators Richard and Maurine Neuberger. When he died suddenly in 1960, she ran for his seat and won a six-year term of her own.

Forest Park: Any time spent in this wooded wonderland is always good. I entered the park from a residential street and followed the Upper Macleay Trail to its intersection with the Wildwood Trail. I passed by a man and his dog; a dad with his daughter and their dog; and said hello to a runner as he passed me going uphill. It’s such a nice break from the concrete environment to pad softly on these trails and have your senses filled with fresh air and the sounds of a creek or two.

I hope to do another one or two these walks in August, so I can check off another couple of these on Foster’s list of 20 hill walks.

Yesterday’s hike was not only invigorating but, more importantly, it added to my repository of knowledge about Portland, a place that is abundantly blessed with topographical variety, neighborhood diversity and beautiful vistas.

Sunshine and softball

Pink ribbons symbolizing cancer awareness flank the Portland State logo at Gordon Faber Recreation Complex in Hillsboro.

As a sports fan and member of the Portland State University faculty, I’ve always wanted to be supportive of our school’s student-athletes. Friday afternoon gave me a chance to do that, with the women’s softball team holding its final home stand of the season in nearby Hillboro.

I set aside a pile of papers I was grading and made the 20-minute drive to the Gordon Faber Recreational Complex, where I took a seat behind home plate and settled in for a couple hours of exciting action on a sun-drenched afternoon.

I couldn’t have picked a better time to show up.

— The Lady Vikings were taking on Weber State, the first-place team in the Sky West Conference in which PSU competes. The visitors from Utah had a 12-1 record in conference play compared to Portland State’s 7 wins, 7 losses.

Handmade signs show support for family and friends during the StrikeOut Cancer game.

— The Viks were wearing pink jerseys because they were hosting a StrikeOut Cancer game. The outfield grass featured two giant pink ribbons on either side of the school logo, and two cancer survivors — each related to a Portland State player — threw out a ceremonial first pitch. On the receiving end of the pitches were the daughter and niece of those respective cancer survivors.

A breast cancer survivor prepares to embrace her niece, a PSU player, after throwing a ceremonial first pitch.

— Coincidentally, one of the players was a former student of mine. I had Kaela Morrow in the very first class I taught at PSU, when she was just a sophomore. She earned all-conference honors last year as a junior, and on Saturday she was one of three players honored during Senior Day at the final home game of the season.

Kaela Morrow, star athlete and star student, between games of Friday’s doubleheader.

— During the just-completed winter quarter, Kaela was among a group of Communications majors I supervised in an academic internship class. She got a taste of journalism by writing a blog for the PSU Athletic Department called Kaela’s Corner, which she used to interview teammates and provide an insider’s view of the season’s ups and downs.

The game I watched Friday was well-played and closely contested. Weber State took a 3-2 lead into the final inning and scored 4 more runs, only to have Portland State rally with a two-out, 3-run home run that cut the deficit to a final score of 7-5. (I didn’t stick around for the second game of the doubleheader, but Weber State won that one, too.)

What I saw was plenty entertaining. These young women are superb athletes. I saw outfielders make diving catches, and infielders make back-handed stops and sharp throws. The pitchers for each team zipped the ball hard and fast, resulting in an audible “pop” every time it landed in the catcher’s mitt. Batters whacked the ball or laid down bunts, and displayed considerable speed running the bases.

The Lady Vikings gather with their coach after a tough 7-5 loss.

The atmosphere was as casual as could be. The players on each team served as their own cheerleaders. Sporting ribbons in their hair and paint on their faces, they cheered, chanted and clapped, and exchanged elaborate high-fives during pre-game introductions. You could sense a real camaraderie among the players.

As a spectator, you could sit on metal bleachers behind home plate or either side of it, or stand wherever you liked. (Weber State had a rooting section of its own along the first-base line.)

You could also watch from a grassy berm beyond the outfield fence, and plenty of spectators chose to do that, sunning themselves in the process. I made my way out there during the last inning and was pleasantly surprised when the Vikings’ clean-up hitter bashed a fly ball that sailed over the left field fence. The yellow ball landed a few feet away from me and I scooped it up, thinking what a cool souvenir it would make. A member of the PSU game crew came out to get it, however, and I gave it up without a second thought.

A home run by Rachel Manlove landed a few feet away from me.

In my three years of teaching at PSU, I’ve had various athletic team members in my classes, ranging from football, basketball and soccer to the most recent, tennis, cross country, and track and field. I’ve managed to see two men’s basketball games, but nothing else.

Teaching Sports and the Media this year, I’ve gained a greater respect for these young men and women who compete at the NCAA’s Division I level. Not only must they put in long hours of practice and travel time, they often have to deal with injuries, high performance expectations from coaches and fans, and mental stress — all while keeping up with their studies.

Friday was a chance to show support for the softball team while taking a much-needed break from my own workload. I’d call that a win-win, no matter what the scoreboard said.

Mental health: End the stigma

Oregon State student-athletes Taylor Ricci and Nathan Braaten, co-founders of the #DamWorthIt campaign, on the WSUV campus.

When I sat down earlier this year to review plans for this semester’s Sports and the Media class, I knew I’d be raising issues of race, gender, politics, economics and technology. This year I decided to add a new topic: mental health.

After back-to-back classes this week on the subject, highlighted by two student-athletes who came in as guest speakers to deliver a powerful peer-to-peer presentation, I could see the value of adding it to the syllabus. My only regret was not doing it sooner.

Think about it. If you’re a college athlete, you’re trying to balance your academics with the demands of grueling practices, traveling to games, and the expectations of performing at a high level in your sport, in front of screaming crowds and national television audiences. Throw in concerns about injuries and playing time, and that’s a whole lot of pressure on your young shoulders.

Taylor Ricci, a gymnast, and Nathan Braaten, a soccer player, endured those experiences during their athletic careers at Oregon State University. Further motivated by the deaths of teammates who died by suicide 11 months apart, they co-founded a campaign, using the platform of sports, to spark conversation about mental health issues at universities around the country.

Their campaign is called #DamWorthIt — a play on words involving the school’s Beaver mascot — and the Twitter hashtag #EndTheStigma is at the heart of it. Since launching the initiative a little over a year ago, their campaign has received national recognition and the Pac-12 Conference has awarded them a $60,000 grant to take their message — that “It’s OK to not be OK” — to student-athletes and coaching staffs at all the member schools.

On Thursday, the two of them drove up from Corvallis to speak to my students at Washington State University Vancouver. Taylor and Nathan presented a slideshow and a video, and told their individual stories of facing mental health challenges as scholarship athletes and top-tier students expected to maintain a facade of perfection.

Taylor, originally from North Vancouver, British Columbia, began competing at age 4 and committed to Oregon State’s nationally ranked gymnastics team as a 14-year-old, rising to become team captain at OSU. A Kinesiology Pre-Med major, she graduated last spring and is awaiting word on her applications to begin medical school in the fall.

Nathan, from Littleton, Colorado, was recruited to play midfielder. He is a Business and Finance major who interned for Nike last summer and will return to the company as a full-time employee after graduation this spring. Both he and Taylor were named Academic All-Americans.

Needless to say, they stand out as shining examples of smart and successful young people. But there’s the catch. As they note, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experiences mental health illness in a given year — and the proportion is even higher among college students.

Taylor and Nathan spoke with honesty and conviction about their stresses and what drove each of them to see a therapist. The implication was clear for my students. If high achievers like these two can ask for professional help, any of them should feel free to do the same — or, at least, check in with friends who might benefit from similar encouragement.

In three years of teaching at two campuses, I have seen many young adults in my classes struggle with challenges involving family and finances, academics and health, romance and roommates, car troubles and work schedules, as well as incarcerated siblings, and immigrant parents facing deportation. No wonder a good many of them are stressed out or experiencing depression.

The #DamWorthIt campaign launched in January 2018, the same week that Tyler Hilinski, a universally admired WSU quarterback, took his own life on the Pullman campus. Because of that tragic coincidence, our guest speakers said they have felt a special bond with WSU.

On Thursday, it was gratifying to see Taylor and Nathan connect so powerfully with a message designed by students for students.

One student wrote to me later to say: ” (T)his week I made a big step to see a therapist and after my visit I realized that it wasn’t a form of weakness but of strength. The timing of this topic could not have been better.”

Another one said this: “Their presentation made me want to stop and be more present for the people in my life. I know that we all get busy and we carry our own lives, but it is important to be present and in the moment for the people important to you. By being present, we are able to hopefully notice signs of the people in our lives and notice that they might be struggling.”

I am indebted to Taylor Ricci and Nathan Braaten for sharing their stories and bringing light to a subject that’s still shrouded in shame. Had I not noticed a short story on their efforts in a Sports Illustrated article in January, I would not have been aware of their trailblazing efforts to address a hidden epidemic. They responded graciously to my emails inviting them to come up to Vancouver and left having made a lasting impression on my students and me.

#DamWorthIt, all right.

Reclaiming my Fridays

George and Brian, scraping off the rust at a Portland bowling alley.

When the year began I pledged to regularly set aside time each Friday to step away from my schoolwork and do something for my mental or physical health. Otherwise, my four-day work week can easily slop over into a fifth weekday.

Yesterday, I got a belated start on that little promise to myself. I arranged with a buddy to go bowling during the middle of the day. In the evening, I was part of a group of guys who took in a Winterhawks hockey game.

Talk about dude time.

My friend Brian Wartell and I hit the lanes during the noon hour at Kingpins in Southeast Portland. Now that we’re of a certain age, those senior bowling prices look pretty good — $2.25 per game.

We brushed the cobwebs off our bowling balls, bowled three games each, and shared a couple of menu items that definitely did not involve kale.

Brian and George between bites of quesadilla.

Brian and I had bowled together for years on a team that saw a revolving cast of characters, but had to give it up when the places we used to play were sold and redeveloped for other uses — a hardware store (since gone out of business) and a Target store.

Friday was so much fun we agreed we need to reunite with some of our teammates in the coming months.

In the evening, I met up with David Quisenberry, a friend I met through our years-ago service on a nonprofit board. We both enjoy watching hockey (he’s actually a former high school player) but hadn’t been to a game together in a while, owing partly to David’s responsibilities as a young father and my own workload as an adjunct on two college campuses.

A friend of David’s and three other guys joined us and we all enjoyed the action in the old-school Veterans Memorial Coliseum, a far more intimate venue than the Moda Center, where the NBA Trail Blazers play.

The Winterhawks beat the visiting Vancouver Giants, 3-0, and sent us home happy. We each got a trucker-style souvenir baseball cap, so that was a bonus.

Portland players celebrate a 3-0 win over Vancouver.

Actually, the entertainment began well before the puck dropped. There was a KISS farewell tour concert going on at the adjcaent Moda Center, so there was a festive Halloween-like vibe with crowds of people lining up to get in to see the old rockers. Some had done up their faces like the band, while others settled for black lipstick or T-shirts proclaiming themselves fans of AC-DC, Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper and the like.

It was quite the scene inside Jack’s, with the KISS crowd mingling inside the restaurant alongside hockey fans in their Winterhawks jerseys.

I know every Friday won’t be like this, but yesterday felt like a good first step toward a New Year’s resolution I’d be happy to keep.

2018: Looking back, looking ahead

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Sunday morning walk in Kensington Gardens, near my accommodations in London.

A wedding, a cross-country move, a teaching stint in the U.K. Those were just a few of the highlights of this past year, when a combination of factors resulted in far fewer blog posts than normal.

Let’s get after it, shall we?

The month of May brought the biggest, most welcome news. That’s when our oldest child, Nathan, married his girlfriend, Sara Bird, in a casual ceremony on a Sunday night.

The couple had been together for eight years and it was nice to see them take the next step, surrounded by friends and family at Victoria, a popular bar and restaurant in North Portland. The bride and groom said “I do” under dim lighting in the bar as a longtime friend of both, Jared White, officiated. At least six of Nathan’s DJ friends, including Reverend Jared, took turns pumping out dance music.

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Nathan and Sara clasp hands as their wedding ceremony gets underway.

It’s funny that our oldest of three children would be the last to wed, and the youngest the first to wed. The newlyweds postponed their honeymoon until the fall, but then went big — to Spain and Barcelona. Back at work, Nathan is a line cook at Besaw’s and continues to DJ while Sara works in human resources for the Bishops haircutting chain.

Best thing of all: Now we have three daughters-in-law, as different as can be in personality, stature and interests. We love them all.

Among the guests that day was my stepmother, Ora. She flew in from New Mexico to spend a few days with us and we thoroughly enjoyed her visit. She sang a traditional Mexican song to Nathan at the wedding rehearsal lunch, and saw a lot of the sights in the South Waterfront district with me when I took a day off to ride the trolley and tram with her up to Oregon Health & Science University.

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Three generations: Lori, Grandma Ora and Simone.

The other big family news came in August, when our youngest child, Jordan, completed another cross-country move on his path to a Ph.D. He and his wife Jamie and their daughter, Emalyn, moved from Missouri to upstate New York so he could begin a five-year Ph.D program in microbiology at Cornell University.

They’re living in a rented farmhouse just outside the village of Spencer, about 20 miles south of the Cornell campus in Ithaca. They are 200-plus miles northwest of New York City, nestled in the Finger Lakes area, so named for five lakes that resemble fingers on a downward-facing hand.

They are in a beautiful part of the country,  marked by two-lane roads, rolling green hills and colonial style homes. Lori and I visited Jordan and family to help unload three big Pods and get them settled into their new place. Lori returned on her own in November for a pre-holiday visit and loved spending time with little Emmy, who at 2 1/2 years old grows smarter and more adorable each day. We’re making plans for a return visit in March.

Our time with Jordan and Jamie came on the heels of my teaching a summer course in media literacy in London, England.

It was a pinch-me, is-this-really-happening moment that lasted two weeks. I had six students come with me from Portland and Vancouver for an intense but thoroughly enjoyable time in one of the world’s leading cities. We visited the Houses of Parliament and leading media organizations, hosted guest speakers, crisscrossed the city on the tube, and saw a variety of historical landmarks and tourist attractions from a bus, a boat and on foot. On the final weekend, I took a day trip to Oxford by train and the next day saw an Agatha Christie play in a magnificent building set next to the Thames River.

Assuming I can recruit another group of students, I’m going back again in July 2019 to teach the same class. Only this time, we’re planning to have Lori join me toward the end for a shared British vacation.

(Because of my travels to London and Ithaca, I put my annual Voices of August guest writers project on hold. I’m anticipating more free time next year and looking forward to version 8.0 with contributions from near and far.)

***

What else happened in 2018? Here’s a quick rundown:

Sports: While Portland is considered a backwater for major league sports, I still got my fill of professional and amateur events. I attended a handful of Trail Blazers games, saw my first Portland Timbers match, showed up for two Portland State basketball games at the new Viking Pavilion, and took Lori to see a Portland Thorns soccer game

Most enjoyable, however, was taking in Day One of the NCAA Track and Field Championships at the University of Oregon in Eugene. The four-day meet in June was one of the last major competitions at Historic Hayward Field, which is undergoing a huge redesign and rebuilt that will culminate in a larger, world-class facility in time for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials.

My friend Eric Wilcox works for a Portland architectural firm that is part of the stadium redesign project, so he was able to get us the NCAA tickets. We had great seats in the West Grandstand with a good view of the finish line for all the running events.

Music: I saw a handful of favorite artists in concert, all of them packed into the second half of the year: James Taylor, Hall and Oates, LeAnn Rimes and Liz Longley. The superstars need no introduction, but you may not be familiar with Liz Longley. She’s a Nashville-based singer-songwriter whose music was introduced to me by a longtime friend who’s also a professional music critic. I’ve seen Liz four times now in four venues in Portland. Wonderful voice and very happy to pose for selfies after her shows.

Books:  I did relatively little reading this year, so I have no trouble recalling “Behold the Dreamers” as my favorite. It’s the debut novel by Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian immigrant, and her story about a wealthy New York couple and a young immigrant couple from Cameroon takes place just as the Great Recession takes hold in 2018.

I re-read two books — something I never do — but these were extraordinary novels and deserving of another read: “Devil in a Blue Dress” by Walter Mosley and “Winter’s Bone” by Daniel Woodrell. I also enjoyed “Slide!” by my talented neighbor, Carl Wolfson; “Shot Through the Heart” by MIkal Gilmore; and “The Piano Lesson,” a play by August Wilson.

A related highlight: In October, I attended a Think & Drink event with the author Eli Saslow at the Alberta Rose Theatre. Oregon Humanities is presenting a series of four conversations on journalism and justice during 2018-19, and the Saslow event was the first. He talked about his book, “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist.” Sounds intriguing. I’ve put it on my reading list for 2019.

Sold: In September, we shared a bittersweet moment when we sold our beloved cabin on Orcas Island. During the 13 years we owned it, we treasured every trip to our little piece of paradise, a modest log cabin tucked into the woods with a view of the ocean water. It was a place to soak up the silence, appreciate nature’s beauty, and let the stress melt away. We take comfort in knowing that the place will be in good hands — those of a young Seattle-based writer who was looking for a quiet place to do his creative work.

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Here in Portland, we continue to enjoy good health, good friends and our furry companions – Charlotte, our feisty Border Terrier-Pug-Chihuahua, and Mabel, our sweet-natured brown tabby cat.

With a new runner’s watch (a birthday gift from Lori) and new resolve to use it, I look forward to a more physically active 2019. Likewise, new opportunities await at work and at play. Can’t wait to get started.

 

A lesson in patience

patienceSometimes things don’t go as planned — and that’s a good thing.

Went to the gym late this morning anticipating I’d have a leisurely swim in a near-empty pool. No chance.

All three lanes were fully occupied with two swimmers each, and I found myself in a queue of six people waiting to get in. It was 11 am and the gym was going to close at noon for Christmas Eve, but no one in the water was making any accommodations for that.

Finally got into the water as part of a circle swim and was in and out in 10 minutes. I cut my workout way short out of consideration for others still waiting.

Went to the locker room, where I found a towel hook missing on my shower stall, virtually every soap dispenser empty, a paper towel dispenser also empty, and the water fountain broken.

Not at all what I expected. In fact, you might say I was a tad irritated.

On the way out, I stopped at the front desk and said to the woman behind the counter, “Excuse me, can you tell me the name of the manager?”

She smiled and said, “That would be me. I’m Danni.”

And before I could say a thing, she said, “I know, I know. I’m working on it.”

She explained that she’d been hired as manager a week ago, but had been told by her district supervisor not to report to this gym until after the day after Christmas, as she was already managing a different gym. Presumably, the outgoing manager would tie up loose ends at this facility.

Well, that didn’t sit right with Danni. She said she was trying to replace two janitorial staff and had interviewed someone with relevant experience that very morning, and hoped he’d be able to start on Wednesday.

She knew all about the broken water fountain and the empty soap and towel dispensers. She said she knew it was unacceptable and told me that if I ever noticed anything in the future that needed attention, to let her know.

I’ve had minor issues with this gym before involving billing and basic maintenance. I’ve also been aware of ongoing staff turnover, not just among group exercise instructors but also front desk and janitorial employees, so I can understand if it’s not the easiest thing to hire replacements.

On the day before Christmas, I might have come off as a jerk to the new manager had I complained. Fortunately, Danni didn’t even let that happen. With her disarming smile and promise to make things right, I left with an appreciation for the way she handled the situation and a valuable reminder to always give people the benefit of the doubt.

Once again, I’ve learned that you can never know the full story in a situation unless you give another person the space to explain. On this Christmas Eve, I salute Danni for being so honest and direct.

Lesson learned and taken to heart.

Image: Aubree Deimler

Letting go of Orcas

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Eagle Lake: beautiful from any angle.

After 13 years of enjoying a piece of paradise, we no longer own our lovely cabin on Orcas Island.

We sold our vacation home in September, a bittersweet moment for sure. The fact that it’s taken me more than three months to finally write about it suggests that I may be in denial. After all, this is a place that created so many wonderful memories for our family over the years.

But, yes, it’s true.

We sold it to the ideal buyer — a Seattle-based writer who had visited the island many a time and was looking for a quiet place to nurture his creative talents. We think he made a great choice.

We bought the place in 2005 with a hefty down payment we made with our share of an inheritance from Lori’s parents. In the years since, it’s been a place where we could come and relax for a few days at a time, knowing we’d find solitude and serenity at the end of a gravel driveway with a gorgeous view of water, mountains and forest.

 

The memories are too numerous to mention. But I list a few here just to remind myself of the special occasions and extraordinary number of places on the island where one could enjoy the sights, smells and sounds of nature.

None surpasses the day in August 2014 when our daughter Simone married Kyndall on a spectacular Saturday afternoon ceremony that extended into a lively, intergenerational party in the rented Odd Fellows Hall. Nearly 100 people came from a dozen states to join in a celebration that was preceded by a rehearsal dinner at Eagle Lake.

Another favorite: When I spent a long weekend alone with my two boys, Nathan and Jordan.

 

But there was plenty more:

— Family walks and solitary runs around Mountain Lake, Cascade Lake and Twin Lakes. Day hikes to Obstruction Pass State Park and Turtleback Mountain.

— Kayaking trips out of Doe Bay and Deer Harbor. Playing nine-hole rounds at Orcas Island Golf Club.

— Sitting at the edge of Eagle Lake with a beer or a glass of wine on a sunny afternoon, gazing at a bald eagle or an osprey as trout occasionally breached the water’s surface.

— Walking the Lake Trail around Eagle Lake, first with Otto, our Jack Russell Terrier, and then with Charlotte, our Border Terrier-Chihuahua-Pug. Doing the same on the trails above our home, leading up to Peregrine Lane.

— Driving through Moran State Park to and from Eastsound, the center of commercial activity on the island. Taking visitors to the top of Mount Constitution for a majestic view of the San Juan Islands, Canada and the U.S. mainland.

— Discovering the quirky vibe of Open Mic Night at Doe Bay Resort while savoring a tasty dinner. Patronizing local vendors at the Farmers Market. Buying farm-fresh duck eggs and live clams at Buck Bay.

— Sampling the many great places to eat on the island, ranging from the elegant Inn at Ship Bay to our favorite lunch spot, Asian Kitchen, to the old-school Lower Tavern, where I could count on a delicious burger and fries and a billiards table, to Brown Bear Bakery, with its luscious treats.

 

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Even with all of that, the greatest pleasure was simply being alone in our cabin, waking up to the sounds of songbirds and preparing a leisurely breakfast. We’d have lunch outside on the deck, go for an outing somewhere, curl up with a book in front of the woodstove, cook a nice dinner, watch a movie or play a board game, and go to bed in a loft bedroom partly illuminated by moonlight and a blanket of stars.

We would come up three to four times a year, usually for a week at a time. Part of the routine was stopping for coffee breaks and designated rest areas at the same spots along I-5 on our way to and from the ferry landing in Anacortes. During the years that Jordan and Jamie lived in Spanaway, just outside Tacoma, we’d stop in for an overnight visit.

But with the two of them, and our granddaughter Emalyn, now living on the East Coast and our two oldest kids and their spouses preoccupied with many other things in their lives, we realized the time had come for us to think about selling the property.  Plus, Lori wanted to be free of the burden of maintaining a second home, especially when we were only getting up there not even a handful of times a year.

 

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We will always treasure the friendships we made on the island, particularly with Carl and Juliana Capdeville, who took us under their wing as Eagle Lake caretakers when we first arrived in this neck of the woods. We shared many a meal with them, got to know their three adult children, and were pleased to have them prepare and serve the catered dinner at Simone and Kyndall’s wedding.

I found myself feeling sad the other day, realizing there was no place I’d rather be than in the living room of our cabin, dozing in the recliner with Charlotte in my lap, and absolutely nothing to do other than read a good book. The moment passed, however, when I realized that I have this blog to remind me of the beautiful images and wonderful memories made in this tranquil place.

Like it or not, I need to close this chapter of our lives. I am letting go of Orcas.