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.

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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.

 

Viking Pavilion

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With my buddy Steve Beaven, formerly a reporter at The Oregonian and a writer for the Portland State University Foundation.

Portland State’s new Viking Pavilion opened in April with a lot of fanfare on the South Park Blocks — and now I can see why. The $52 million facility provides a new home for the university’s basketball and volleyball teams at the south end of campus.

The 3,000-seat arena has, at most, only about a third of the capacity of its two in-state sister institutions, the University of Oregon and Oregon State University, which both play in the more prestigious Pacific 12 Conference.

But the smaller scale is a big part of the appeal of Portland State’s arena. Having been there twice now, I can say that the more intimate space makes it a fun place to watch a game.

Last night, I went with a friend and former work colleague, Steve Beaven, to see PSU play its last preseason game of the year against Cal State Bakersfield. A couple weeks earlier, I went on my own, as a respite from Finals Week, to see PSU take on its intercity rival, the University of Portland.

The Vikings lost a close one last night, 76-71, but easily defeated the U of P,  87-78.

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I sat in the general admission area for the first game and had a great view from the second-level seats. At the second game, it was an even better view from the reserved section, just two rows back from the floor at mid-court. The action is so much faster and the athleticism so much more apparent when you’re that close.

The venue itself is open and inviting, and there’s not a bad seat in the house. At one end of the arena, you can sit as if you were at a long bar counter and look out onto the action. At the other end, there is a reserved section for large groups. On either side, there are additional reserved sections that pass for suites. (Nobody was using them at last night’s game.  Not a surprise, given the low stakes of a non-conference game when students are off for the winter break.)

There are just two concession stands and a couple of places to get a beer or cider (yes, cider, this being Portland). There is also a display of exhibits featuring Hall of Fame athletes as you enter the building.

During halftime last night, I noticed a couple members of the coed stunt team join the line for a snack, something you definitely wouldn’t see at the Moda Center, where the NBA’s Trail Blazers play. That little vignette underscored my overall take of the Viking Pavilion — that the place has the cozy feel of a high school gym.

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I’d never attended a PSU game before now. There was little incentive last year, when the Vikings had to play their home games across town at Lewis and Clark College. Now I’m inclined to go back again.

With affordable prices, convenient parking on the street and entertaining basketball, what’s not to like?

 

Timberrrrs!!

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With handmade banners, incessant drumming and non-stop cheering, the Timbers Army section is as much a focal point as the game itself.

In all my years living here, somehow it took until last night to finally attend a Portland Timbers soccer match.

The experience was all I expected. Fans of all ages decked out in green-and-gold Timbers gear; a rowdy Timbers Army section that led the stadium in a non-stop stream of songs, chants and occasional profanities; and great action on the pitch.

Before the game, you could enjoy traditional Irish bagpipe music and, a few feet away, be amused by a Bible thumper who evidently thought it would be a good idea to proselytize outside the entrance to Providence Park. (Dude, these folks were headed to a sports event, not church.)

Even with long lines for food and drink and even longer lines to the bathroom, the whole atmosphere was upbeat, and I felt a nice buzz in this place that calls itself “Soccer City USA.”

On the field, the Timbers were dominant from start to finish against their regional arch-rival, the Seattle Sounders. They took far more shots on goal, had far more corner kicks, controlled possession of the ball — and still lost.

The Sounders, focused on defense all night and committing lots of fouls, squeaked out a 1-0 win when a ball deflected off the heel of a Timber defender and found the net late in the game. That “own goal” added to Portland’s losing streak, which now sits at four games.

It’s a shame because the Timbers thoroughly outplayed their opponents. All evening, I could sense the pent-up energy, knowing we were one play away from the entire stadium erupting in celebration. But a goal by the home team never came.

In all my years in Portland, I’ve seen the Trail Blazers, Winterhawks, Ducks, Beavers, Pilots and Thorns. And now, thanks to my friend and former co-worker Mike Francis, I can add the Timbers to that list.

***

Mike and I go way back in journalism. Way back as in to the late ’70s, when I was a young reporter at The Bulletin in Bend, Oregon, and Mike was a sports intern. We both wound up at The Oregonian, we both left the newspaper business, and now we’re both working in higher education.

Mike’s just begun a job as assistant director of communications at Pacific University in Forest Grove while I’m teaching undergraduate courses at two campuses in the Portland area.

We’ve always shared a love of baseball, but lucky for me that Mike is a big soccer fan, too. He provided a ticket and a game-day scarf along with running commentary that helped me sort out the players and understand much of what I was seeing, including a nice tradition of waving your scarf during the National Anthem.

I plan to repay the favor at a Blazers game this season. It’s a different fan experience, for sure, one that’s curated by the franchise itself as opposed to the fan-driven spectacle created by the Timbers Army.  Very cool to be part of the latter, even if just for one night.

“Slide!”

On this Fourth of July, I’ll pass on the fireworks and the patriotic fervor that has flipped our country upside down and cleaved a great divide among red- and blue-state Americans.

Instead, I’ll celebrate a delightful book about baseball, a boy’s adolescence, and a universal story of hope.  (And, boy, could we use some of that now.)

The book is “Slide!” and the author is Carl Wolfson, a neighbor of mine who was host of “Carl in the Morning” on two of Portland’s progressive talk radio stations from 2007 to 2016.

slide coverSlide has two meanings. One, the physical act of a runner sliding into a base. Two, the figurative act of a gradual decline.

In this case, Carl writes about his boyhood idols, the Philadelphia Phillies, and their historic collapse in the waning days of the 1964 season, when they suffered through an inexplicable losing streak (or slide) and squandered a chance to play in the World Series.

Several weeks ago, I attended an event at our neighborhood bookstore where Carl read from the book, took questions, and autographed copies for one and all. I’d just come off reading two books with pretty grim content, so I welcomed the respite offered by “Slide!”

I wasn’t disappointed. This coming-of-age memoir is fun, light reading, crafted with skill and wit by a guy who knows a thing or two about writing (he was a Communications major in college) and humor (he was a professional comedian before going into radio) and baseball. The subtitle hints at Carl’s tongue-in-cheek approach: “The Baseball Tragicomedy That Defined Me, My Family, and the City of Philadelphia — And How It All Could Have Been Avoided Had Someone Just Listened to My Lesbian Great Aunt.”

***

Though the event at Broadway Books was in mid-May and I read the book in June, it’s no accident that I’m writing about the book now. I’ve always associated the Fourth with baseball, the sport that truly was our national pastime when I was growing up. Inthe years since, Major League Baseball has been eclipsed by the NFL and the NBA, particularly among younger fans.

But in 1964, Carl and I would both turn 12 years old, cheering for teams on opposite sides of the country. Despite living near San Francisco, I was a Los Angeles Dodgers fan then. Carl was living in southern New Jersey, rooting for the underachieving Phillies. With just 12 games to play, the Phils had a seemingly insurmountable lead on their closest rivals in the National League and felt confident enough to print World Series tickets.

All of a sudden, they couldn’t win. They lost 10 of their last 12 games and finished in a second-place tie, one win short of the league championship. The St. Louis Cardinals, not the Phillies, would go on to play the New York Yankees in the ’64 Series.

Adult Carl writes about Young Carl and how the season unfolded for him against a backdrop of national tumult and change, amid a family filled with memorable characters, including his bickering parents, his staunchly Republican grandmother (who refused to carry a Roosevelt dime), and his mouthy lesbian great aunt, whose deep knowledge of baseball and strong opinions about the Phillies prompted her to write many a letter to the team’s front office about what they should do about this player or that one.

Though the book is undeniably about baseball, it’s also a broader look back at the early Sixties, when Young Carl is coming of age at a time of the Kennedy assassination, the Johnson-Goldwater campaign, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Movement. Race riots flared in several cities and Communist paranoia caused schoolchildren to dive under their desks during air raid drills.

Growing up with three sisters and as the new kid in town following a move from northern Virginia, Carl didn’t find much success on the playing field (his Little League nickname was “Lead Bottom”). But he did find in the Phillies a team to root for and bond with along with his parents and other family members.

In 1964, the Phillies were a newly and fully integrated team, with black and Latino players like Richie Allen, Cookie Rojas and Ruben Amaro taking their place in the lineup and on the bench alongside whites. That made a big impression on Carl.

“As a kid, my heroes were the Phillies — of all races,” he said at the May reading. “That was a very important lesson for a kid.”

The other lesson was one of hope, of holding onto optimism even as the defeats piled up. The Phillies had enjoyed a remarkable season, with star pitcher Jim Bunning throwing a no-hitter and outfielder Johnny Callison crushing a home run to win the All-Star Game. But they fell short, depriving Carl and his dad a chance to see the World Series, and breaking a city’s heart.

“The 1964 Phillies, though, had forever won my heart,” Carl writes. “If they finished in second place, they also gave me enough thrills for a lifetime. They were the team of my youth.”

You don’t have to be a Phillies fan or even a baseball fan to enjoy this book. It’s a refreshing take on the role sports can play in bringing people together, on the worldview of a suburban adolescent, and on the life lessons one can take away from disappointment and loyalty.

Well done, Carl.

Postscript: For me, this book was like a time machine. I remember my confusion trying to make sense of national politics and race relations at the same time, like Carl, that I found refuge in the sports section of the newspaper. I also vividly remember many of the ballplayers whose names are sprinkled throughout this book: Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Robinson. They were the luminous stars of the early ’60s, when I played Little League, and fantasized about succeeding Maury Wills as the Dodgers shortstop.

Dazzling day in Tracktown USA

Former prep athletes George and Eric enjoy the action at Historic Hayward Field.

So there we were, sitting side by side in the West Grandstand at Historic Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus.

On my left, Eric Wilcox, a former school record holder in the javelin at The Dalles High School in Oregon. And myself, a former All-League cross country runner at Washington High School in northern California.

We’d come down from Portland for the afternoon to take in Day One of the NCAA Track & Field Championships, a four-day competition featuring the most accomplished athletes in Division I.

Eric is an architect and works for a Portland firm that is working with the university on a massive project to turn Hayward Field into a world-class track and field stadium by 2020. Check out the project here.

Eric snagged the tickets, which put us in a prime viewing spot for the 12 running events held on the first day of the meet. Except for the finals of the 10,000 meter run, all of the events were preliminaries, so we saw multiple heats of each event stretching out from about 4:30 pm to 10 pm.

We also saw preliminary and final competitions for each of the five field events, including Eric’s specialty. All the events featured men. Tonight’s preliminaries feature the women. Finals will be held Friday and Saturday and the size  of the crowd will grow quite a bit for those two days.

To say I was excited for this event is a huge understatement. Aside from attending the first two games of the 1990 World Series between the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants (yes, the one disrupted by the earthquake), this was the most prestigious athletic competition I’d ever attended.

And because it involved student-athletes rather than veteran professionals in a sport I’d actually competed in myself, it was all the more satisfying.

 

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Quick aside: On the drive down, Eric told me he broke the school record in the javelin as a senior, only to have the very next competitor at the same meet throw the stick even farther. Turns out he held the school record for about five minutes!

As for me, I’d run a 4:38 mile as a junior (a decent time, but not good enough to land me on the varsity) but discovered I did even better at longer distance. As a senior at the league championship meet, I covered the 3-mile cross country course in 15:22, averaging 5:07 per mile, and finished ninth. The top 10 finishers were deemed All-League and our school won the league title.

***

We arrived in Tracktown USA (aka Eugene, Oregon) on a spectacular Wednesday afternoon — warm, dry, blue skies and a faint breeze — and walked into a scene that took me back to the days of regional high school competitions and weekend invitationals.

Only this time I was mingling with college athletes, coaches, family members and other supporters from across the United States. Wherever we went — whether to find our seats, grab a snack or just stroll the grounds — we found ourselves in a sea of Cougars, Trojans, Badgers, Spartans, Hawkeyes, Aggies and more.

T-shirts, baseball caps, backpacks, school flags and other logo-branded items made clear the diversity of institutions: Nebraska, Houston, Cornell, Columbia, Grand Canyon University, BYU, Stanford, Baylor, Coppin State, etc.

The competition itself was amazing — in fact, inspiring. We had great seats near the finish line with a clear view of what Eric described as a three-ring circus: a running event taking place in front of us at the same time that athletes were scattered across the field — long jumpers on near side, pole vaulters on the far side, and shot-putters and javelin thrower in between.

I’ll save some of the details for the photo captions, but let me just say the two biggest highlights were these:

  • Watching Ben Flanagan, a University of Michigan senior, sprint like hell on the last straightaway to catch and pass a Kenyan-born Alabama runner in the 10,000 meter run.
  • Seeing the sheer delight of Denzel Comententia, a University of Georgia junior, after he’d accomplished a rarity — winning two weights events (not just one) in the hammer throw and shot put. The big man bounded joyfully across the field as if he were a Little League player who’d just hit a winning home run.

 

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The dedication and skill of these athletes is something to behold. Whether sprinting, hurdling, running a relay race or competing in the jumps or weights, each of them has found time to be a genuine scholar-athlete on their campus. How rewarding to come to the Northwest and test themselves against their peers, many of whom no doubt will be future Olympians.

I would love to come back to attend the Finals come day. Or maybe the Olympic Trials. Or maybe an international event, once that new stadium is built in 2020.

Family, friends and hoops at Easter

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George and Lori on Easter Sunday 2018.

What a great way to end spring break: Easter dinner with family, followed by a Trail Blazers game with longtime friends.

I didn’t plan it this way, but it worked out just the same. Weeks ago, when I was scanning the Blazers schedule for a weekend game to attend, I bought tickets to the April 1 match-up against Memphis, thinking we would be returning from vacation a day earlier. It was only later that I realized the game would be played on Easter Sunday.

Oops.

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Simone & Kyndall

Simone & Kyndall and Nathan & Sara came over during the afternoon for an early dinner of ham, potatoes, salad, deviled eggs and carrot cake. We got caught up on recent travels (S&K to Victoria, British Columbia) and plans for next month’s wedding (N&S are tying the knot after a 8-year courtship — yay!).

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Carrot cake, topped by a white chocolate bunny, made by Simone.

It’s always fun being around our kids and their partners. Soon enough, we’ll have a chance to see all three reunited when Jordan, Jamie & Emalyn come out to Portland for the wedding.

(Love this gallery. Credit goes to Simone, the photographer.) 

After the meal, Nathan and I had a NBA game to catch. At the arena, we met up with Bob and Chris Ehlers, whom we’ve known since Chris and Nathan were born the same week in the same hospital in Salem, Oregon, in 1980. Bob and his wife, Deborah, were in the same babysitting co-op that formed among us and a few other new parents. So, clearly, we got back quite a ways.

For the record, the Blazers whipped the Grizzles, 113-98, behind the stellar play of All-Star guard Damian Lillard. With the win, the Blazers secured a spot in the playoffs for the fifth straight year.

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Dos amigos: Chris & Nathan

Far more entertaining was seeing our boys exchange hugs and launch into 2 1/2 hours of animated conversation as they sat to our left. They were best buddies in the co-op and seemingly have only grown closer over the years, despite periods where they’ve gone years without seeing each other.

Chris is an adventurous sort who has traveled across much of Europe and Asia, and only recently moved back to the U.S. after several years of teaching English and running a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Bob, Chris & Nathan

The two of us dads managed to interrupt our sons at halftime as we gathered around a bistro table with our beers. Next up: A gathering to include our wives.