And so a year passes

A year has passed since my mom died from Alzheimer’s disease. It’s an illness that will crush and humble most mere mortals, and even the brave and the strong.

I had been awaiting for this day, contemplating its meaning as it got closer and then arrived.

The markers of time the past year have been unlike anything I can remember.

Collectively we have lived through a global pandemic, which was just taking off right after I flew home. The United States’ imperfect democracy nearly collapsed under the continued assault by Donald Trump and his fascist enablers. Wildfires engulfed my state, and I worked through that for weeks as part of the state’s response. Now I find myself working on the state’s pandemic response, never slowing down.

I am relieved my mother is no longer suffering, nor her husband (my stepfather).

I feel like I have changed too. Luckily my solace has been the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

At the ceremony of life for my late mom, on Feb. 11, 2020, the church choir and musicians performed Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (from Cantata 147).

It was if Bach was speaking to my heart across time and space and said: Peace had come. Her journey had ended. All would be fine. I listened again to this piece over the weekend, and it brought great comfort. Bach’s music has let me say farewell.

Eleven Months in and 2 Million Lives Lost

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This week, the world reached a grim milestone since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Wuhan China in early 2020. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center reported the global death count from the pandemic had topped 2 million, and was growing daily.

Some days I feel like I have awoken in an alternate reality, seeing mothers walking by, wearing face masks and pushing baby strollers, like I did this morning. It was jarring. I never thought I would experience this, though I always deeply sensed something like this might happen.

I felt that uneasy feeling of disconnect just after the start of the new year in Portland’s Lloyd Center district. I had come there to visit a dentist around noon.

Ordinarily, the business and retail area on the city’s east side would be filled with people, particularly on their lunch hour. Instead it was eerily silent and devoid almost entirely of the site and sound of humans.

I stopped to spin around in a circle, and realized I was alone. We had already retreated, globally, to the safety of closed spaces, eschewing contact, to avoid catching the highly contagious novel coronavirus.

I took a few shots of empty urban spaces of my cellphone, to capture that moment. Looking at the photos now, they look and feel disquieting, just like the scene outside my window of the mother and children, masked out of fear and caution.

Christmas 2010 in the Methow Valley

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Ten years ago, to this day, I finished a trip in the Methow Valley, in north central Washington State. It is a premier North American cross-country ski destination, with dozens of miles of beautiful groomed trails for all levels of skiers.

The best part of the trip was reconnecting with a friend who I hadn’t seen in years who had moved there.

She took me out on some excellent trails, and or skiing pace matched well. We both love good workouts and heart-buster trails, as well as the woohoo downhill screamers that make the hard climbs worth it.

The trip was at the beginning of a two-year journey back to graduate school, which I did not relish. Mostly it reminded me of the importance of friendships in living a good life and feeling fortunate when you have good company to keep.

As for finding the Christmas spirit in this winter wonderland, are you kidding me? Just take a look. It was amazing!

Merry Christmas, everyone, and may you all have a safe, healthy, and meaningful 2021. Remember what is important and what matters, mostly the people in your life.

Late Fall Swells at Seaside

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This weekend, I took time out from other projects and headed to Seaside Cove, my normal go-to location for surfing in Oregon. Though waves were ranging from five to seven feet, the conditions were surprisingly calm for a late fall day on the normally frothing Pacific Ocean off the Oregon Coast this time of year.

I caught my requisite number of waves to put my mind in a state that is hard to describe.

For me, when I surf, I can think of nothing else besides waves, the weather, the current, and the ride that still may come. Surfing, which I started in earnest in 2016, has been a way for me to let go of stress. It was almost essential for the years leading to my mom’s inevitable death from Alzheimer’s disease in February 2020. I am grateful for that.

There are other things on my mind now, besides the pandemic: our economy, my nation’s divisions, global problems and conflicts, climate change, and so much more. Some of these concerns are entirely personal. So surfing remains a good check on the weight of life. It gives me a jolt of a good ocean feeling that can last long after I last surfed.

The last year I went out to the ocean less than half a dozen times. I hope to get out a few more in 2021. My job routine is now changing, so it might be possible if the stars align. For that I remain grateful.

I still find surfing to be a deeply personal sport.

However, sport also has downsides. As a commercial activity, it encourages unsustainable tourism. It also brings out human vanity—glorifying physical beauty as a commodity when it is an empty shell and basic narcissism—and turning an activity with deep cultural roots into a commercial transaction.

For me it remains what it has always been since I finally committed myself to start surfing in the cold Pacific.

Carhartt: A study in personal branding

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This weekend, I had a conversation with an old high school classmate about clothes we wore. She was getting ready to buy some Converse Chuck Taylors, which were the cool kid tennis shoes when cool and not cool kids were running around on the playgrounds at public schools in University City, Missouri.

I told her, I couldn’t do that because it is a brand that only can be worn authentically by the cool kids. I am not nor ever will be a cool kid, or adult. I don’t even try.

Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris made a major splash on social media during her successful campaign by co-branding her public persona with Nike Corp.-owned Converse, and the famous Chuck Taylors. The shot here was shared by People Magazine, which celebrated the fashion choice with this coverage here: https://people.com/style/kamala-harris-talks-her-love-for-converse-chuck-taylor-sneakers/.

My friend responded that she wasn’t either, but she was inspired by one of the most popular cool kids in the country now, Vice President Elect Kamala Harris. She is known for wearing her “Chucks,” and it became a social media sensation during the 2020 presidential campaign.

I told me friend that I was defined by a different brand, Carhartt.

Carhartts are a brand of rugged work clothing that had their genesis in my birth city, Detroit, Michigan, in 1889. Today the brand is seen on the butts of pants, on jackets, and hats and shirts, of different types of people. Some really wear the rugged pants because they can handle rugged work conditions, like grueling outdoor work, from Alaska to the West Texas oil patch. Others want to claim working-class identity and have never swung a hammer, fried a chicken, or bent on their knees for a low hourly wage in their life. They claim that identity by buying this brand.

Here is how the company today promotes its origin myths: “It was also when Hamilton Carhartt & Company was founded by its namesake (known affectionately as ‘Ham’) and began producing overalls with two sewing machines and a half-horsepower electric motor in a small Detroit loft. Early failures led Hamilton to focus heavily on market research, and after talking directly with railroad workers, he designed a product that truly fit their needs. Under the motto, ‘Honest value for an honest dollar,’ the Carhartt bib overall was created and rapidly evolved into the standard for quality workwear.” Today, the company has a global supply chain and has factories in Kentucky and Tennessee.

I have been wearing functional work pants much of life, starting with painter’s paints and overalls when I was a painter in high school. Though I eventually got out of manual labor work, I never forgot what working for a living meant, in temperatures ranging from minus 10 F to 100 F.

When I moved to Alaska in 2004, I realized that many were wearing Carhartts. They were suitable for the cold days, and in Alaska, Carhartts were even seen as sexy by women and men alike—this remains a running joke with Alaskan women I know about Alaskan fashion statements.

Today, I have seven pairs of Carhartt work pants in my closet. Three are in tatters, as I have worn them now for more than a dozen years. They haven’t changed the style much since I first bought them.

I still wear my Carhartts, I suppose intentionally, because in our consumer culture, we definitely define ourselves by our clothes. (Have you seen the popularity of camo-clothing, for example?)

So, shortly after my conversation with my friend, I took a picture of one of my newer pairs of Carhartts with my cellphone. At that time, I was, not coincidentally, wearing my University of Michigan blue hoodie, which I wear mainly to show I am a Michigan native.

I posted this message on my Facebook page shortly after. “I yam who I am. FYI, Carhartt is a company that was made in the city of Detroit, my birth city. I have seven pairs hanging in my closet in various states of use and decay. There’s also Greek wisdom here too: know thyself. This is important: the history of Carhartt, born in a loft in my home city, Detroit!”

And if you want to fork over $50 for a pair of cool kid tennis shoes, the owners of Converse, Nike Corp., will gladly take your money for the privilege of its cool kid brand.

Swimming Is Silenced

 

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I live about a half mile from the Sellwood Outdoor Pool. It’s a public swimming pool located in Portland, Oregon’s Sellwood Park that is loved almost to death by its patrons.

During a normal summer, it would be filled to capacity with screaming kids and their parents, many who are lower income, as public pools remain one of the most affordable ways to entertain kids and keep them healthy in Portland and most U.S. cities.

On a typical summer night, I used to pass by the pool and hear the kids’ yells, screams, shouts, and general pool noises kids make when they were being themselves in water. But not this summer.

The City of Portland, like nearly all major cities in the country, shuttered its public pools in the spring to prevent congregant spreading of COVID-19. This decision makes public health and human health sense. From the perspective of physical, social, and mental health, it represents a cruel outcome of the mismanaged national response that leads all the way to the situation room with President Donald Trump as the one who helped make our country’s pandemic the most lethal and worst managed in the world.

We are heading into Labor Day Weekend now. In normal times, the pool would still be open in the evenings and all weekend, particularly with temperatures predicted to be hotter than 90 Fahrenheit through Labor Day. The kids will have to find something else to do this year, and they will lose the chance to be kids and learn how to swim.

Closed pools and closed schools are taking on an air of dystopian reality, which we have seen created in unnerving films like Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 thriller Children of Men, where a strange disease had rendered humanity sterile, leading to all schools being shuttered because they no longer served any purpose. Oddly that film’s tension, pitting radical leftists fighting a right wing autocracy, seem to have predicted the spectacle in Portland. The people in the film even resemble the protesters here and the police forces that have engaged them in Portland for more than three months.

I am not fully confident we will be out of this pandemic by next summer. Even with the optimistic timelines given by the United States’ more credible infectious disease experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, returning to normal is no guarantee by next summer. Right now I do not believe the pool will open next summer.

For me, the posted sign by Portland Parks and Recreation is another naïve promise that we will get back to normal, when everything going on now is entirely abnormal. The professed optimism almost seems insulting with the silence.

A poem and photo about marriage and Alzheimer’s disease

This week marks the six-month anniversary of my mother’s death from Alzheimer’s disease.

I can hardly believe how quickly time has passed, amid the blur of a global pandemic and President Donald Trump’s ongoing catastrophic administration that seems to poison everything around it.

Still, our own lives go on, and each of us marks the passage of time in our own way.

My stepfather shared a poem he had written this week, marking another marker of time. On the occasion of the 38th anniversary of his marriage to my mom, back in August 1983, in University City, Missouri, he sent out his poem to some family members and others about his life as my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease caregiver.

I felt a huge lump in my throat reading this. Those seven years when my mom progressed from mild to severe conditions were unbelievably hard. He did everything in his power to ensure my mom stayed home and was loved. I have no words to describe my gratitude, even when some days it felt strained. He did all of the hard work. I can never repay him.

He gave me permission to share the poem online. I’m doing that today. I guess my mom is still on my mind. I am still missing her. This will take more time.

She Never Complains    

Years go by, years, not months.
It’s true that she becomes a child,
A little one, unable to care

For herself. If you love her,
Care for her, she will love you
In return, hold to you as her

Only one. You are. She knows
Her friends no longer call
Or visit. She will do anything,

Say anything she thinks will
Keep you from deserting her,
Though she knows a day is coming

When you must, can no longer
Care for her, and there is
Absolutely nothing you can do.

Years pass. Years. You become
Accustomed to her gradual
Decline, forget there is an end,

One day notice she no longer
Watches television, wants her
Daily walks, would rather sleep.

One day you realize she is blind,
Almost deaf, and your life
Together has neared its end.

You know. She knows, never
Complains. Soon you must live
Alone. She understands.

Summer Daisies

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Sometimes timing is everything. As a beautiful July 4 evening was winding down, i wandered around the campus of Reed College (on of my alma maters), and found this beautiful floral scene. Even with my mediocre camera phone, the blooming daisies captured the joy and beauty of nature at its eye-popping best.

Welcome, summer!

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This series comes from one of my many summer adventures in Alaska with some very tough and fun women. It also seems like a fitting way to welcome summer.

We did an adventure in the Chugach Mountains, in Chugach State Park outside of Anchorage. Though we knew where we were on the map, we couldn’t our way once the clouds and rain hit us as we climbed over a pass. It was fun, with some moments to pause because of the steep terrain and cliff drops.

Back in the day, 10 or more years ago and before my mom developed Alzheimer’s disease and later passed away, I used to live more adventurously.

These days I no longer head to the high altitudes. One day I simply stopped going.

I still miss being with people who didn’t complain about: being lost, being wet, being cold, and having expeditions go awry.

Half the point of having an adventure (in the wild, in a job, with someone you love, or working to change things) is to get lost and maintain your calm when things don’t go as planned. However, if you are in the wild, be sure you do that with the right people, like my two friends.

Please, go out, do something that makes you very uncomfortable, and don’t worry if things don’t go as planned.

 

 

Group portraits in black and white

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It has been years since I have been in a black and white darkroom, using chemistry to develop film and prints. I miss the intensity and joy of that process and the work that is needed to take lasting black and white photo portraits.

This week I was digging through my boxes of old prints and found a couple that I gave to a friend, who is featured in one of these two group shots. One is of his extended family who I have known for decades now. The second is of my friend in Vietnam, with his public health colleagues in Hanoi.

The warmth I find in a black and white group portrait, taken on film, can’t be replaced by digital. Digital may provide a level of sharpness and clarity, and simplicity. It still lacks the feeling I always experienced seeing my prints slowly emerge in the developer bath under the safe light of a darkroom, reeking of chemicals.. More than 15 years after I took these shots, I still feel that emotion.