Hear the applause? It’s me praising this articulate defense of writing with passive verbs when they’re the most effective way to communicate something. Avoiding the passive in favor of the active, like many “rules” of writing, is a well-intentioned but misguided proscription that I followed for years. Teachers preached it in high school. It was a mantra during my many years in the newspaper business. Some of my professors in a graduate writing program harped on avoiding passive constructions. Graduate students in writing critique groups, indoctrinated like me, relished pointing out passives. Countless times I twisted a well-turned passive clause or sentence into an active one, verbal contortions that reordered elements at the expense of the clearest possible expression. In the defense of passives linked to above, a professor of linguistics, Geoffrey Pullum, writes: “We really have to get over this superstitious horror about passives. It’s gone beyond a joke.”

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Connected And Oblivious

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October 15, 2011

Blind trust or death wish? One or the other afflicts the many pedestrians using cell phones as they cross busy downtown streets. I see them often while driving in downtown Portland. They don’t see me. The increased risk of getting run over while using phones is well-documented. Now comes Siri, the virtual personal assistant on the new iPhone 4S, who carries out your spoken instructions and answers you. Something tells me that countless more pedestrians, lost in conversation with Siri, will cut themselves off from the dangers around them. Maybe a future iPhone version will empower Siri to shout at distracted pedestrians approaching intersections the most important lesson my father taught me: look both ways.

Update: Siri at beck and call of 4 million buyers after three days of sales.
Update II: Reading samples of Siri’s repartee tells me that the oblivious factor will soar.

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Fashionable Guerilla Kids

camo clothes

October 9, 2011

Some shopping malls can be dangerous places thanks to random outbreaks of violence, including at the one near my house. That doesn’t explain all the clothes for sale featuring patterns once the exclusive purview of battlefields and hunting grounds. Takeoffs on camouflage have infiltrated clothing lines for kids, judging from my recent shopping trips for our six-year-old son. Unless I want to outfit him as a fashionable guerrilla or wild-animal stalker, the choices are greatly reduced at places like the Gap, Old Navy, and others. Do clothing manufacturers want children to to be less easily seen? Of course not — we don’t live in forests. Do they want kids to feel macho and aspire to membership in the NRA? Doubtful. I don’t see the aesthetic appeal, though I’m an outlier given the popularity of so-called camo clothes. The simple and obvious answer: we live in a  country where an estimated 200 million guns are in private ownership, where violent military-themed video games are ubiquitous, and where defense spending and a low threshold for going to war help define the national character. Next up I suppose: camo diapers.

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Words and Water

September 13, 2011

Imagery that sticks with me often involves water. It’s also spare, several words that echo back in pictures of resounding clarity. For many months two images have replayed randomly, one from a song lyric, the other from a conversation.

The Portland-based band Casey Neill and the Norway Rats sings: 2 a.m., swimming in the quarry, bathing in all summer glory. How can I not see my ripples pulsing toward rock walls beneath stars, hear my breath, feel the embrace of warm water? In the conversation, a man recalled someone decades ago describing fishing at night in a lake near where I grew up. So clear was the deep water that the sandy bottom sparkled in moonlight.

With those words I’m back at the center of my boyhood universe, a lake. While pausing on the sandy bottom during a night swim, I held my breath and gazed at the sky. Through the lens of rippled water, I saw the moon.

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Face to Face

June 11, 2011

A few years ago I wrote here about a work colleague who disclosed that he had a chimpanzee. I remembered his disclosure while reading about a chimp ripping off a Connecticut woman’s hands and much of her face. Now comes news that the woman has undergone a successful face transplant, the tenth such surgery in the world. The odds are minute that Charla Nash will cross paths with someone who knew the donor, but as these remarkable surgeries become commonplace, such encounters are inevitable. Not that a person’s face fitted over the bones — and personality — of another produces an exact duplicate. Still, the emotional response will be different than when spotting someone who looks like, even in a small way, a deceased loved one. Several times I’ve seen women who remind me of my mother, bittersweet coincidences for sure. Imagine the reaction if I saw her unmistakable face, alive and animated long after her death? And what if I saw her looking at me?

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A long-dead Oregon cowboy and rodeo star, whose life I’ve written about and continue to research, is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. John Spain (right), winner of the bucking contest at the Pendleton Round-Up a century ago — an outcome still hotly debated, has been chosen for the Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame. The honor comes decades after the two men he beat, George Fletcher (left) and Jackson Sundown (middle), were inducted into the Hall of Fame.

On Thursday I attended the Hall of Fame’s annual meeting in Pendleton, where Spain’s selection was announced. That night I had dinner with several of Spain’s relatives. They are as friendly, open, and genuine as any people I’ve met. The lively conversation made it clear that their lives are richer for having a relative whose noteworthy past brings them together and inspires sharing of stories, stories that illuminate the family’s intriguing background. And the talk wasn’t just of John Spain but his older brother Fred as well, a rodeo star in his own right and three times named “most typical cowboy” in the Round-Up’s early years. Fred also deserves entry into the Hall of Fame.

On Friday I joined three of the relatives at the Union County Museum in Union, Oregon, where the inseparable Spain brothers spent most of their lives as ranchers. Lorna Spain, whose late husband King was Fred’s son, and I delivered to the museum the life-size cutout photograph of John, pictured above. The cutout was part of the Pendleton Round-Up exhibit that I curated for the Oregon Historical Society last year, and OHS deserves thanks for giving it to the museum. (If there’s a better small-town, rural museum in America, I’ve not found it.)

As I carried “John” from my car, I couldn’t help but think he’s come home.

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To Know Or Not To Know

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April 17, 2011

Like one of my favorite bloggers, Jason Kottke, I was put off by the idea of parties for parents to learn the sex of their gestating child. Then a video he linked to choked me up. Guess I’m a sucker for such joy. Still, not knowing the sex adds to the mystery and suspense of an event not lacking in either. During a trip to Italy when Suzame was five months pregnant, we didn’t know. That led to two encounters, both in Sorrento. An elderly woman at a shop selling baby things asked us our ages, birth dates, and more. After studying her scribbled computation, she said: “It’s a girl.” Later at a restaurant, the rotund and jolly owner led us to a table. He told us what his staff would cook for us. Then he held his hand near Suzame’s stomach and announced: “I think it is a man.” Maybe the differing findings explained why during an ultrasound we asked about the sex. The news cleared up a sliver of the uncertain future ahead. And without a few months to ponder and debate names, I’m not sure “Atticus” would have surfaced and taken hold. Now maybe we should take Atticus to Sorrento and the restaurant and introduce him to the owner, who no doubt would shout: “Lo sapevo!” — “I knew it!”

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Murderous Weather

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April 15, 2011

The Killing, an intriguing new TV show on AMC, ranks high on my edginess scale. The storyline is stark and disturbing. Grief of the victim’s family is palpable. The setting, gray and wet Seattle, adds to foreboding that permeates the show. But the ceaseless torrential rain and thunder remind me of my many years in Florida, not the Northwest. The weather here in Portland is similar to that of Seattle, where it rains about 150 days of the year but only thirty-seven inches on average. Soaked-to-the-skin downpours and lightning are uncommon in both cities. Most rain is light or drizzly, and lightning occurs only several times annually. (Some years ago during a class at Portland State University, students rushed to the windows when thunder rattled the windows, as if it was a meteorological phenomenon.) So dramatic and loud is the weather in The Killing that it sometimes drowns out the dialogue. Message to series creator Veena Sud: the atmospherics simply are — forgive me — overkill.

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Abuzz About Backyard Bees

Bee box built by Benjamin Alexander Clark

April 11, 2011

That stranger the sun came out briefly today, and hundreds of honeybees from our backyard hive streamed out to greet a world festooned with spring blossoms. They seemed to take as much delight as I do when the clouds break and the temperature rises. Of course for them this weather change is like a factory whistle signaling it’s time to make honey. That’s not to say their pantry is empty. Many pounds of honey await harvesting in our top-bar-style bee box, crafted by Benjamin Alexander Clark, our artist and woodworking friend extraordinaire.

If there’s enough sun and warmth this weekend — good conditions for honey harvesting, we’ll get our first taste of the bees’ labors since they moved in last summer. However, our reason for getting the bee box from Benjamin and wild swarm from bee wrangler Will Dart had more to do with helping to reverse the essential insects’ dwindling numbers around the world. The book A World Without Bees, awaiting me on my nightstand, features on the cover this quote from Albert Einstein: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.”

Benjamin’s boxes, made from recycled materials, are increasingly in demand in Portland as more people add honeybees to urban backyards. Interested? Contact him at [email protected]. He ships out of state, too.


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Unexpected Journey

David Bales, left

April 10, 2011

The serendipity of discovery on the web is old news, though it remains a hallmark. I was reminded of this recently when, as a longtime subscriber to Classmates.com, I received an email about the site getting a new look and name, Memory Lane. I clicked the link and immediately saw links to yearbooks from my alma matter, Winter  Park High School (behold the power of cookies!). One featured my younger brother David’s class, 1970, the first to graduate from what back then we called the new school.

Surely I browsed through David’s yearbook around that time, though I was mostly away at college. But I don’t remember and probably wasn’t that intrigued. Flipping through the pages online so many decades letter was mesmerizing — and bittersweet. Not only did I see him and my other brother Bill in all their youthful glory and geekiness but also two of David’s closest friends, long dead. They looked so alive, one beaming with a gorgeous classmate whom I lusted after, the other a gifted athlete, and later a sociology professor, clawing the air for more distance during a long-jump competition. Seeing them made me ponder the holes in my brother’s life that not even his precious family of wife and two sons can fill.

I guess Memory Lane is the “time machine” that the CEO of its parent company touts. Without my unexpected journey back, I wouldn’t have seen the photos, wouldn’t have remembered so much, wouldn’t have brushed up against the jagged edges of pain not my own.

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Secret Meetings

February 12, 2011

A song lyric, courtesy of The National, perfectly describes where each of us leads another life, apart and utterly alone from everyone, including those we love: I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain. I wish I had fewer — or at least less contentious — such meetings. And how about an agenda that’s followed and decisions that are clear, unanimous, and final? Is that too much to ask? Then again, I enjoy secret meetings in which I contemplate another lyric from the band’s “Mr. November“: I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders.


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Tragic Truths Behind Glass

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February 5, 2011

I strolled the aisles at Walgreens recently while waiting for a prescription. A locked glass case containing medical test equipment stopped me. I wasn’t surprised to see monitors for blood sugar and the like. What surprised me were test kits for intoxication, marijuana and cocaine use, and paternity. For a modest investment, someone could reveal evidence that disrupts or even ruins lives. How many people had stared through the glass and seen personal dramas of disappointment and betrayal in the making? Where I stood, the means for revealing tragic truths had been chosen. Or, on the bright side, the means for dispelling unfounded suspicions and restoring trust of loved ones. Beneath the faint buzz of fluorescent lights, I looked down the aisle and saw a woman watching me.

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More Cinematic Injustices

February 2, 2011

Jennifer Lawrence portrays Ree Dolly

I’ve written before about a cinematic injustice that several decades later I can’t forgive. Maybe that’s why I’ve dawdled at seeing the updated version of True Grit despite positive reviews and an admirable cast. Now Salon weighs in with its Top 10 of Oscar oversights, eight of which I’m old enough to remember but doesn’t include mine. As for my favorite movie of 2010, no way it wins the best movie Oscar. At least academy members saw fit to nominate Winter’s Bone, which has grossed a modest $6.3 million. I’ve encountered no other film as rich in its faithfulness to a memorable novel, capturing so vividly its place and people and the forces that shape them. Both book and movie convey an unrelenting desperation from which no escape seems possible — until an unlikely character’s determination creates cracks in the bleakness, and glimmers of hope shine through.

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