Thursday, August 11, 2011

My Own Private Oregon Part III: The Oregon Country Fair

My life is full of serendipitous coincidences. One of those is this.

When I was making my plans for dog care, it happened that I was at Wildwood one day. They volunteered – bless them! – to keep Raven for me while I was gone. They would've taken at least one more, but they were also babysitting another dog that week, and for some reason five dogs are more manageable than six. This is really true; I'm not sure why, but I've found it to be the case.

As it happens, S's mother lives in Eugene. I had planned to call her and invite her to join us for one of the cookouts. But not long after Wildwood had volunteered to sit Raven for me, Susan called.

"What days are you going to be in Eugene?"she asked me.
"Fifth through twelfth," I told her.
"My mom is having surgery, so I'll be down there taking care of her from the 4th to the 11th," she said.
"Wow, really? Then of course you must join us at our reunion. You are, after all, a fribling."

Here I will pause to explain that there's a tendency in our family to invent terms for certain things when no word exists for them. A fribling is a friend who is like a sibling; someone who had become family in a real sense, not through the graces of blood or marriage, but through those of merit and affection. If nothing else, it's convenient to have some code for this, rather than explaining it over and over. Those who know us well know we have friblings, and needn't have the long-form explanation every time.

At any rate, we arranged that one of the events S would join us for – between-times of taking care of her mother – was the Oregon Country fair.

This, I gathered, is an Event. It takes place on only one weekend in the entire year, Friday through Sunday. My brother Mike used to work security for it – which, I gather, consists in large part of sweeping the grounds after closing each night for stragglers. The technique is to form a human chain, hands linked, and walk from one end of the grounds to the other. Any person you meet has to leave unless they are wearing a wrist-band authorizing their continued presence. Those who have wrist-bands are allowed to duck under the linked arms of the sweepers. All others are gathered together and kindly but firmly evicted.

I was struck by this method of clearing the grounds. It seemed odd that a human chain was required – why would people be that difficult to get to go home? What's the incentive to try to sneak past the go-home time and try to lurk after hours? – but that was before I went to the fair.

For one thing, the grounds are enchanting. It looks like Sherwood Forest – treed and grassy, with shaded and sun-dappled dirt paths wandering between and among the booths and stages. The booths themselves are wooden structures, built among the sheltering trees. Some of them have second stories built up in the trees themselves; they look like balconies and decks, bowers and Robinson Crusoe cabins, with an enchanting Disney-esque charm. These are private areas for the booth workers and fair staff to use. I envied them that, their green-shaded perches, from which they could look down and watch the fair pass by.

The patronage of the fair is a trip in and of itself. Kind of like an acid trip, really. Or so I imagine, having no personal experience of that, so here I may misspeak - but to me it seemed like acid trip meets Disney meets Haight-Ashbury. People are creative about their clothing at the fair – fair-workers and patrons both. No sooner had we been ushered in (by a series of astonishingly cheerful and energetic people, each of whom seemed to take great personal delight in the fact that we'd come to the fair) than I saw every costume imaginable. There were people dressed as pirates and Vikings and various animals. One man was painted head to toe in black and orange tiger stripes, wearing only a pair of brief fuzzy shorts. Another couple strolled the fair on stilts, wearing long furry pants and short furry vests, small horns sticking up out of their hair, like very tall fauns. Other people looked as if they had been lifted out of Alice in Wonderland and set down amidst the fairgoers. An entire series of people was dressed in lime green, for the lime parade (where they all gathered together and strode through the fair, inviting people to join the lime-light and take a call on the telephone lime and so on). One man walked around with a live and apparently amiable python draped over his neck. There were belly-dance costumes (my sister amongst them, having been forewarned, and joining into the spirit of the thing), and people who looked like they belonged at a Renaissance festival. There were, of course, a majority of people dressed in everyday clothes, and there were quite a few dressed in very little at all. One man (who I did not observe, but S did) came dressed only in three socks: One on each foot, and the third where he evidently felt it would do the most good. Several women wore only a brassiere on top (pretty ones, naturally), but more had opted to forgo that in favor of body paint. I saw one woman gorgeously covered in painted peacock feathers all over her bare back (and presumably her front). Many opted for flowers (either painted, or fabric ones stuck on by means I prefer not to contemplate). I saw a few wearing little electrical-tape X's (YOW – think about removing that later!) and one who opted for skirt and waist-cincher and nothing else whatsoever. A few had little tufts of feathers or other decorations somehow jauntily perched over their nipples (clearly not pasted to their skin, so I'm not sure how they were attached, but it seemed rude to either stare long enough to figure it out or to inquire). I kept thinking: This would never fly at the Alaska State Fair – but at the Oregon Country version, it seemed strangely appropriate.

The people working the booths were sometimes just as well-costumed. There was one booth filled with gorgeous hand-made masks of all kinds – Mardi-Gras masks, masks shaped like cat faces and other animals, Green Man (or Woman) masks, funny masks, half-masks, full masks, little eye masks with edges like flames, painted and beglittered. They were made of shaped leather, painted, decorated with feathers and fabric and ribbon and what-have-you. I wandered through this booth in admiration of the beauty of the work, and glanced up to see one of the booth workers beside me, posing for a fairgoer to photograph in front of a wall of masks. He was lithe and muscular and brown, with rich dark curly hair falling about his ears, dressed only in a pair of very brief shorts so decorated in leaves that you could only guess at there being fabric beneath. A braided leather strap diagonalled his bare chest, holding a polished drinking horn that rode at his hip. The illusion was so complete that for a moment I was surprised that the tips of his ears were not pointed where they peeked out from his curls. I had to laugh at myself. I mean, in real life, how often do you have to remind yourself: Of course his ears are not pointy, he's, you know, a HUMAN, not an elf or a faun or a wood-sprite? But the illusion was so complete, I actually did have to remind myself of that.

The people-watching was worth the price of admission in and of itself – but the art. Oh, my, the art. Eugene is the glass-working mecca of the United States, and nowhere is this more obvious than at the fair. There was gorgeous work to be found, booths filled with beautiful hand-made glass tempting the hand, sating the eye. There were gorgeous ceramics works, things made lovely through the beauty of the glazes or the shape of the vessels. There were fabric works and leather works, metal works and woodworks. One shop sold nothing but horns – pairs of horns made of Fimo clay, strung on a leather cord to tie them about your forehead, in every color and design imaginable. There were rounded horns, slightly curved. There were angular horns, spiraled like ram's horns. There were delicately-twisted little unicorn horns, rising from nests of down and fabric. One of the booth workers wore a series of spirally ram horns, gilded in bronze, all about his head, like the nimbus of some pagan god.

There were of course the usual souvenir t-shirt-or-tote kinds of things, or the yearly fair coffee cup – but very few of those. And of course there was fair-food, although it was a bit upscale from the usual. A drum circle played the entire time, audible all over the fair. When you neared the circle, the drumming thundered in your blood, echoing in your bones, calling up that fierce, atavistic, primitive creature that lives, thinly buried, at our core. Further away, the drumming faded to a heartbeat, the pulse of the fair, as if the event itself were a live thing, a creature of marvelous design, vital and aware.

As usual at such venues, I had my eye out for the souvenir – the one thing that I really really wanted, enough to pack it and carry it home. Of course, many things were tempting – the glass, the leather, the charming little horns – but in the end, I decided I wanted a mug from one of the ceramics shops. These were glazed beautifully in blue and bronze, with white-glaciered mountain peaks standing beneath a white sun, and pine trees and soaring birds picked out in the glaze. They reminded me strongly of the view out my front windows, where eagles and cranes and swans fly by, and the Chugach mountains stand tall and peaky, harboring snow in their crevices all year long. But after traversing the entire fair, I could not find my way back to that booth again.

No matter. My sister L was going back the next day, and my sister H had bought a mug from that booth that I used as an example to explain what I was looking for. L obligingly agreed to look for the booth and buy me the mug I described. Only when she went back the next day, all that kind had sold. But she evidently asked if there were more stashed away, because her sister from Alaska really liked them, and they reminded her of the view from her house. L returned with a business card and the promise of the artist that if I took a picture of the mountains outside my window and sent it to him, he'd make me a mug that looked like that.

Wow. That's kind of cool.

In retrospect, that sort of creative accommodation fits right in with the spirit of the fair. The Oregon Country fair was really, really cool, the whole thing, from start to finish. I understood the need for the human chain to clear the grounds; the Robin-Hood trees and huts and balconies made for a lot of hiding places, and the charm and warmth of the ambiance made for a lot of temptation. Mike mentioned that the after-parties were of fabled quality, and I could see why people wanted to stay – and how difficult it could be, by any means other than the human chain, to ensure that only those personnel who were authorized remained.

It was a perfect experience – nothing to regret, not even being unable to find the ceramics booth again, since I had the promise of being able to get my mug after all. I have pictures galore of the view off my balcony (some of which have been posted on the blog in the past), so nothing could be easier than emailing a photo. I admit I was tempted by the horns (I have a history of wearing horns – literal and, I'm sure my family would say, figurative) – but S suggested we make our own from, you know, actual horns, which she would have available to her in the fall. I liked that idea enough to be content that I didn't buy some there – and of course, now ideas are percolating in my brain as to how exactly I want to decorate them. I took no pictures (sorry, Gus) – but because of the sort of "clothing optional" culture of the fair, photography is somewhat discouraged – or at least expected to be discreet and by-permission. It's the unique culture of the fair that permits the degree of comfort with undress that is there; in another context, those who were comfortable being half-naked in public might be dismayed to find a photographic record. Out of respect, a certain discretion is observed. And in fact, it does seem rather normal there. Certainly none of the kids – and recall, there were several teens present – seemed even slightly fazed by it… and realistically, that's the group I'd have expected to have the least comfort with it. Certainly the younger kids were more interested in chasing each other about and eating enormous cookies than in the fact that they were cavorting within feet of a woman sitting at her leisure under the trees in a skirt and a waist-cincher and not another stitch nor trace of body paint nor any concealment whatsoever over the way God made her. My nephew Mr. D is of course an old hand at the Oregon Country Fair – he's been many times, growing up as he has, just down the road from the grounds - but for the others it was all new and different.

For me it is the charm of it, the complete immersion in a different world, that I recall the most. Granted that the charm of it, and the world that it is, is due in part to the sort of accepting nature of the fair; but part of it is the enchantment of the setting, the abundance of art, the happiness of the attendees – cheerful despite the very marked crowd. Somewhere in the fair there is a large raven, built out of wood, that observes the fair with a benign eye, and I think it will be a long time before I forget passing beneath its wings with the cheerful crowds, the drums in the distance calling to the blood, the pulse of a living thing, vital and sentient.

When I got home, one last serendipity remained for me. I walked into Town Square Art Gallery, my favorite art store, intending to quiz the owner (a friend of mine) about how one establishes a gallery presence for art – because Michael is way too talented not to have his work out and about in the public eye, but in Eugene – remember, the glass-working mecca of the United States – you can't swing a glass rod without hitting a glass artist. So how to find a venue?

My friend J, owner of Town Square, told me that you find a gallery that doesn't have anything quite like what the artist is doing, and establish a relationship there. Having a look at Mike's work, she mentioned that she didn't actually carry anything like his work. Would she be interested in carrying his work? Yes, she allowed, she would. So I put her in touch with Michael, (and his stuff is now, in fact there, so you should obviously run down and get some of it, because it's really cool).

Well. That's satisfying. But serendipity wasn't done with me. Because the minute I walked into the gallery, there – right in front, where I could not miss it – was my mug. My knees locked and I stated for a moment. Really? I picked it up and carried it to the back where I asked one of the girls, "Where is this artist from?"

"Oregon. Road's End Pottery."

No way. My mug was waiting for me – exactly the style and size I wanted – at home. How cool is that? I didn't even have to carry it home, risking breakage and causing worry. And in its way, that little event prolonged the fair for me, brought it back here to Alaska to resonate in a little more than just memory. It's a small piece of the fair, a tangible link to it – and now it sits on my desk, along with a gorgeous handmade marble from Mike. They both give me a smile every time I see them. The mug grounds me, as mountains always do – a necessary thing, in the work I do. A handy fringe benefit, and not something I'd have expected a simple coffee mug to do – but there you are. There's a certain magic in the piece. The marble… that does something else. From the outside, it looks like a clear dome above a cobalt-dark four-petalled flower. When you turn the marble to look down through the clear dome, the dark leaves of the flower form a cup which looks as if it contains a spiraled galaxy, or maybe the core of the Universe right before the Big Bang. It makes me feel peaceful when I hold it and look into it, its solid and substantial weight a pleasing contrast to the celestial quality inside the cradle of the petals. The inside looks nothing like the outside – which is maybe a good metaphor for the Universe, come to that. Much is contained within it that you would not expect at first glance, and when you turn it to look into its heart, there will be within it an unexpected beauty that gives you peace. It is, somehow, larger on the inside than it is on the outside. The Tardis marble, I suppose.

Little bits and pieces I brought back, small things with surprising power and a gravity all their own. Anchors to my own private Oregon.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

My Own Private Oregon, Part II: Go The F*ck To Sleep, Or: Will I Need A Vacation To Recover From My Vacation?

Author's note: If you don't know, "Go The F*ck To Sleep" is a children's bedtime book by Adam Mansbach - the title of which cracks me up, and seemed appropriate to the fact that I just COULD not sleep for almost a week, between pre-vacation and vacation excitements.

How I arrived at the family reunion alert and perky is beyond me. I didn't sleep the night before I left– I mean, at all, in fact didn't even try – so I can only conclude that the briefness of the plane portion of the trip was a major factor. Or maybe I was just excited. Or maybe it was my brother Michael's special magic. Or maybe it was just one of those things.

The lack of sleep is mostly – though not completely - my fault. As usual before a trip there were a million things to do, of course, but between making arrangements for my cases to be cared for in my absence and making my private arrangements, it was more than I'd expected. Luckily, the 4th of July – a Monday – the clinic was closed and I was not on call, so that gave me an extra day to get everything done.

One of my pre-travel tasks was a haircut – and I mean a serious haircut. I was anticipating it'd be hotter in OR than I was used to in AK, so I wanted to have a little less mane to contend with. This is usually something not even worthy of mention, but in this case I'd been growing my hair out for several months for the express purpose of donating it to Locks of Love – so when I got it cut I really got it cut. Fourteen inches, to be exact. It freaked me out a bit. I've never voluntarily had my hair that short. In fact, the only haircut I ever had that was that short was one given to me at the age of three by my older sister, then aged five. She very carefully spread out newspapers to catch the mess, and made me squat down in the middle. Then she cut my hair about six inches long on the one side - and about two inches long on the other. Strangely, my mother was not best pleased with her. Even though she put out newspapers and everything! I'm sure you're nearly as astonished as my sister was to learn that her thoughtful preparations somehow didn't endear her to my mother at that moment. I was perfectly happy with it, of course, but I was only three and could not have cared less what kind of frightful mess she made of it. Since then I've become a lot vainer about my hair, however, and quite a bit pickier about who cuts it. I personally don't think short hair suits me (in part because, due to its waviness, it tends to poof out and scrunch up when short, in ways that are unpredictable no matter how good the cut).

Still, it's for a good cause, and for that reason I pretty much didn't care how dorky I looked. It's just hair. It grows back. And mine luckily grows fast, so I figured that no matter what kind of Bozo the Clown effect I got, it wouldn't be for very long. Besides, it's an easy charity for me, a chance to help someone with little effort on my part and only a temporary sacrifice of vanity. I can grow hair like nobody's biz. I know this will surprise you, but I can even grow it in my sleep! I know! Amazing!

At any rate, between my head practically floating away from lack of hair and the usual pre-travel shenanegins (complicated by Independence Day activities) , I wasn't getting much sleep anyway for a couple of days. There was an added distraction in that I'd be going along, industriously setting things up for travel, when I'd suddenly go: Aaaugh! What's that on the back of my neck?!? Hmm, okay, that would be your own hair, you moron. I've had long hair my entire life (my sister's tonsorial debut notwithstanding). I'm just not used to feeling it move like that on the back of my neck, as if small spiders or maybe a fleet of mosquitoes are dancing around on my nape. It's not restful.

As for the night before travel – for some reason I decided to watch a couple of movies. I don't know why. I just did. So by the time I got done with that, it was time to pack and drop off dogs and go. I'd already planned everything I was taking with me, so it didn't take more than 15 minutes (and probably less) to pack. I'm notoriously a light packer – I once went to Africa for 13 days with only a camera bag and a single shoulder-carry duffel, not even full – so I managed to get everything into a single standard-size student backpack. I still felt like I was over-packing – I took a rain shell, even though my brother had told me it rarely rains in Eugene in July, and none was forecast – but you know how it is. Sometimes you just can't help yourself.

At any rate, I arrived at the airport in good time, kicked off my travel shoes and deconstructed my backpack for the security scan, made it to my gate with an hour to spare. I napped a little on the plane – which is never restful, but I got a lot of practice at sleeping in an upright and locked position while I had pneumonia this winter for three months, so it was actually better than it might have been. The hop to Eugene left Portland 1o minutes late but arrived on time. Since I had no luggage, Mike waltzed me out of the airport and into his house in hardly any time at all.

Unfortunately, my sister-in-law K had a bad cold, so she was feeling droopy. My nephew Mr. D was already in bed. Tode and K and I had some hard cider and general happy-to-see-you family chat. I went to bed, read, slept. Hmm. Still not that tired. Up early, and Tode made me eggs and really good coffee. Mr. D bounced and smiled and was generally charming. K, unfortunately, felt worse. Having just a few months ago had a kind of nagging cold that worsened the next day, and worsened more the day after, and then blew up into a big fat bacterial pneumonia, I was fretting, but I tried to confine my remarks to "Wow, when I was sick over the winter the thing that helped the most was sleep and antibiotics. So don't feel you're letting me down if you want to nap. A lot." Personally, I detest being hovered over, and I imagine most adults are the same, so I tried really hard to shut up after that, apart from volunteering to help Michael set up the rental house he'd booked for the family's accommodations, so that K could stay home and rest.

On the way to the rental, Michael and I went by one of the glass-working studios in which he plies his art. One of his partners and mentors, Shag, was in the midst of making goblets, the bowls of which he blows by hand, the stems of which he makes, astonishingly, from closed, hollow tubes of hand-made glass. This is a difficult technique. As glass cools, it contracts, and if you leave an air reservoir inside (as you must if the stem is to be hollow),the air will contract when it cools, either collapsing the stem or shattering it. Yet here stand one glass after another, the bowls of them lush and round as a ripe plum, the stems elegant and whole. Graceful and voluptuous, the glass so thin it looks frail and ethereal; yet these are things forged in fire, and the glass is hard as tempered Pyrex. They're not unbreakable, of course, but they're what Michael refers to as "hard glass"; much stronger than the same thickness of "soft glass", which would be the kind you would normally find if you were to (for instance) buy your wine glasses at an ordinary store.

At any rate, it was pretty interesting to see what beauties emerged, quite casually, from the cluttered confines of a small workshop. It is of necessity hot (because there's a torch and kiln involved) and there are of course large quantities of glass rod and various mysterious tools and instruments. There is also a water bath used to cool the glass abruptly (when this is called for, it's generally, if I understand it, when the artist means to break off the end piece of a rod in order to discard it; immersing the hot glass in water will put thermal stress on the glass, so that when the glass worker taps the rod smartly against the rim of a large coffee can, the glass breaks where he has asked it to, and the scrap glass – called frit – falls into the coffee can.) The space is filled with the necessary arcana of the art, and there are various bits and pieces of projects laying on the scarred worktop. To one side squats the utilitarian bulk of the kiln, graceless as a stump – but when opened, its glowing maw is filled with forged glass, all gleaming , voluptuous curves and brilliant colors, graceful as water and dense as glacier ice. It is a lovely irony that this kind of glass has properties of both ice and water – and yet it is made of earth and born in fire. There is a strange charm in that, for me.

Still, there was the house to provision so after a short inspection of Shag's glassworks, we continued along to the house where we filled the fridge and freezer with staples, and left a supply of dry goods (cereal and the like) on the counter. Knowing his audience, Michael had included several kinds of local microbrew, and some good coffee for the grownups, and frozen pizzas and the like for the kids. We distributed folding cots here and there to augment the accommodations and then we were off to the airport to gather rellies by the carload, dividing them between two vans.

It's amazing how many car seats you need with three families of kids. And then there is, of course, the luggage. Luckily my family is by and large disinclined (as I am) to schlep huge quantities of luggage hither and yon. I've done enough traveling, both domestic and international, that I am heartily sick of dragging big suitcases about. Unless I'm planning a 3-month stay somewhere, I'm going to try to get it all into one bag I can easily carry. If it doesn't fit, do I really need it? The answer varies, but for the most part comes down on the side of "Nope". Except for that dang rain shell in my backpack.

With everyone and everything incorporated into the vans – with every seat occupied, but with a little cargo space to spare – we deposited the main mass of people at the rental house. Bedrooms were apportioned and luggage dispersed, and immediate inroads began on the food supplies. K came by a little later with Mr. D (who had been at summer day-camp during all this) and some bad news: Having felt progressively worse and more feverish as the day went on, she went in to see her doctor. Turns out she has walking pneumonia.
Well, crap. THAT just sucks. Having spent most of my winter that way, I'm pretty sympathetic. We (as a big group) have planned a big giant burger cookout, but K goes home early – wisely – to sleep. My other brother (known to you as MaskedMan) mans the grill, the kids play in the fenced back yard or wrestle each other into happy exhaustion in the rumpus room, the grownups sample local microbrew and eat and weave in and out through the tides and eddies of conversation.

The next day in the morning Michael leads a hike up the butte. I've been there – on my last visit to Eugene, lo these many years ago – and I'm afraid that, cold-adapted as I am, it will be too hot for me to enjoy. I stay at the house with my mother, who – at seventy-six – might still attempt such things, except that she's had a total hip replacement and it likely to need knees done before much longer. We have an enjoyable, rambling catch-up sort of conversation, and I, at least, am surprised when the rest of the crew returns home. There's lunch and an astonishing amount of romping from the kids, considering they just hiked the butte. They are like small nuclear reactors, powered by a glowing core, perpetually in motion. Mr. D is excited to see his cousins; in particular Mr. I, MaskedMan's son. They are of an age – only a few months apart – and look enough alike they might easily be mistaken for brothers. They gravitate to one another like magnets, but it seems to be a peaceful conjunction. There is, at any rate, no screaming, no tears, no broken bones or broken toys, and blood is not spurting to the walls.

My favorite Aunt (who is also my only aunt, but would probably be my favorite anyway, unless I had one who was equally cool but also gave me a million dollars and a pony) has arrived with my absolutely hilarious cousinette (who is not my only cousin, but is certainly a favorite of mine). We plan a giant take-out Chinese and Vegan feast (two restaurants are required for this feat). Eventually we assemble a vast buffet, eat and share, mix and match dishes, and drift leisurely in the conversational waters. By the time the leftovers are being packed up I am sleepy (finally! Maybe I've realized I'm on vacation at last!) Mike and Mr. D and I head home, where K has slept most of the day; she is still wan, but starting to feel better. We have a beer, chat, relax, make each other laugh. Tode gives me a popsicle before bed, and now for some reason it really feels like a vacation.

This is a thing which I think plagues some people: We tend to get so busy that we forget to relax. To stop being so busy, to let go of all the frantic accoutrements of everyday life, to. leave work and similar cares behind and take fallow time and spend real attention on just being. I am more than guilty of taking work home – I give my unlisted number to certain clients; I carry the clinic cell on weekends when I am not on call if I have a dicey case that might need my attention; I think about cases and clients while I am on my own time. I do this a lot. And there is (it seems to me) a tendency in modern life to schedule vacations so that they are so packed with activity there is not time to relax and just be. My family is good about consciously scheduling no more than one event per day, and intentionally scheduling "off" days and blocks of time in which we might do no more than laze in the yard, enjoying the breeze and maybe a beer, letting the chirps and squeals of the kids wash over us like the rustling of the leaves overhead.

There is a danger in vacationing with so many interesting people, especially ones you have not seen in some time: It is tempting to spend all your time interacting with them, hearing stories, telling your own, so that there is no time left for the mere enjoyment of simple company. That kind of perpetual motion and input can be exhausting, not restful at all, so that when you are done you need a vacation to recover from your vacation. But there is, sometimes, a peculiar magic that takes place internally for me. I don't know where or how I came by this; perhaps it's a result of growing up an introvert middle child, fourth of seven, surrounded by people more extroverted than myself. Perhaps it is a gift of medicine, a thing learned at some cost in the service of my art: The ability to both engage and disengage at the same time, to be clear of thought and entirely focused on whatever is at hand, and at the same time to stand in a small oasis of peace and clarity, no matter how frantic the activity around you. Maybe everyone experiences this and it is only notable to me because I came to it through effort and struggle. Whatever the case, it allows me to listen to all the stories, watch the bouncing kinetic antics of the children, savor the luxuries of having no responsibilities, no cases pending, no one who needs me, right this second, to help them with a matter of life or death – and to do so while feeling myself at rest.

So, as it turns out, I do not need a vacation to recover from my vacation. The days of disruption and sleep deprivation prior to Eugene began to settle about me like the folds of a luxurious skirt, falling into place in voluptuous abundance around me. And in the end, despite the massive inputs of the day, I did in fact go the f*ck to sleep, peaceful and calm, at rest in the cradle of my own private Oregon.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My Own Private Oregon, Part One: You Can’t Pick Your Relatives

Every two years or so, we have a family reunion. My mother is the driving force behind these. She had seven children, and although many of them have, through various accidents of life and circumstance, ended up within a 10-minute radius of her home (and others are but an hour or so further out) there was a time when we were scattered to the four winds. Some of us still are. Admittedly – and surely, unsurprisingly – I am the furthest afield here in Alaska. But there are two others who have somehow escaped being drawn into some mysterious maternal vortex which has caused over half of us to congregate on the Eastern seaboard. One of them – my youngest brother – lives in Eugene.

When Michael moved to Eugene – with his wife, who is so excellent we'd have adopted her if he hadn't had the good sense to rope her into the fold by marriage – I thought: Well, of course. Is there any town on the entire planet more perfect for him? I think not.

As a general rule, we try to trade off on coasts for the reunions. For me – thousands of miles further away than any of my siblings - the trip east is arduous and exhausting. But I yield to the temptations of communing with my family, none of whom I would see for years and years on end if not for the reunions, and I make the trip, miserable as it is. It's always worth it. Oregon, however, is a hop, a skip and a jump for me. Child's play. I'd've gone anyhow… but it was really lovely to arrive in good fettle, not on a flight that has required me to leave Alaska at one in the morning, nor travel all night only to arrive exhausted, rumpled and cranky at my destination, and thence to need two days to recover.

Accordingly, I arrived in Eugene just after 9 in the evening the day before everyone else. I was not jet-lagged, cranky or exhausted, and although I might indeed have been a bit rumpled – it is, after all, air travel – and undeniably I arrived hungry (since now you have to pay as much for food and in-flight entertainment as you do for the flight itself), I was cheerful, energetic and excited to see my baby brother. Who, I will in all fairness report, is as richly accomplished as any of us and a good deal taller than some of us (who will not be mentioned, but I notice you are all staring at me for some reason), so the term "baby brother" really only designates his birth order. He is, undeniably, the last sibling born.

Michael – also known by family nickname as Tode (and if you need to see the evolution, it went: Michael, Mackel, Mackelroni, Mike-o, Mito, Mitode, Tode) – is as cheerful and level and calm and good-hearted a brother as you could possibly ever want. He is also prodigiously talented, clear-thinking, generous, kind and a wonderful husband and father. He started his education aimed at the sciences, with thoughts of becoming a physical therapist, but switched to fine arts midway through – a move I have a great deal of sympathy for, as I was myself torn between studying art and science. In the end I decided it was easier to have art as a hobby than to have medicine as a hobby, so I went the science route. Tode went the other way. Here I'll admit that when he did so, I was a little surprised. As kids, my sisters and I were always drawing. Tode, not as much. My sketching sisters and I all went into science, and our much-less-frequently-sketching brother went into art. Go figure. But when he started doing art, it was clear he'd made the right choice: He's gifted. Despite all my crayoning and sketching and painting and sculpting and smithing, he's a better artist than I will ever be.

His wife, K, is an exquisite match for him. Herself a talented artist, she (like Tode) has an analytical mind and is an incisive thinker. She makes her living with computers now, but I've seen her work, and it's good. She also has a gift for motherhood; she is calm, steady, patient, and firm, and rides the line between indulgent and disciplined with a deft grace and innate fairness that has paid off in the good temper and persistent cheer of my nephew, D. The two of them – K and Tode – are a united front, and while some of D's good nature is only attributable to him, it is certainly encouraged by the combined efforts of his parents. He's seven, and rather than being overwhelmed, cranky, overstimulated, grumpy, or otherwise fractious at the thought of having fifteen or so relatives descend upon him all at once, he was happy and excited, but well in hand. This was a lucky thing, since I was staying in the house with them, so I was glad not to be a disruption for him (or the rest). But there are so many of us that even if you laid us all out like cod on the floor, there wouldn't be enough space, so my brother rented a large house (complete with view) in the collegiate part of town, near the U of Oregon campus.

Meanwhile, Tode (having picked me up from the airport in Eugene) drove me to the house, offered me a beer and made sure I had a snack. (Best. Baby. Brother. Ever.) The next day we went back to the airport and picked up twelve more of us. Sardining us all into two minivans, we trundled over to the rental house, which was capacious (by necessity) and nicely-appointed (by good luck and the diligent offices of Tode, who went to some trouble to acquire good accommodations.) Two more came in a little later, flying into Portland and driving to Eugene, and two more flew into Eugene and rented another minivan (and God knows we needed the space). There are still more of us who could not attend for various work-related reasons. If those had managed to make it, we'd have needed another house.

From past experience, we've determined that the way to do things at a family reunion is to plan no more than one event per day, and preferably one that does not take up the entire day unless it is a restful sort of event. There were only two events that had to be on a particular day, one on Friday (the Oregon County Fair) and one on Saturday (pool-party barbecue day, requiring the reservation of the pool house.) Everything else was flexible, and attendance is never mandatory; if an event doesn't interest you, no one quibbles if you choose to skip it and have a nap or a read. After all, part of the point of a reunion is to, you know, reunite, so you really should have plenty of time to lounge around and chitchat, to eat and drink and catch up and tease one another and generally enjoy seeing your rellies. Even if most of them are taller than you and you have to peer up at them from a great distance. And here I'm not mentioning any names, but I'm glaring at all the offenders, which means anyone older than eight. That means you, you twelve-year-olds-and-up.

It was an excellent reunion – some of which I will detail for you in post number next (to avoid making this one 1,000 pages). If you find these things boring, feel free to skip ahead to where I will (with any luck) be posting about fishing or medicine or animals or some such nonsense. But for a post or three, if you like, you can come to the family reunion with me, cyberversion. Of course, that might mean you have to meet my rellies, but that's pretty safe. I'm the only one who bites, and you're already used to me.

They say you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your relatives. This is, at least in our case, somewhat untrue; we have a thing called a "fribling", which is a friend who has become part of the family, so much so that they are invited to the family reunions and are included in family celebrations and events. So, demonstrably, at least in some cases you can pick your relatives. You are kind of stuck with the ones you were born with, though, and in that I've been lucky. I like them all – and I mean genuinely like them, would voluntarily spend time with them even if I did not have to. They are smart, kind, good-hearted and generous. They are ethical and moral, and willing to act upon what they hold true. And they think. Their opinions – social, political, artistic, personal and otherwise - are the result of actual thought and consideration, not of the meme of the moment or of some local hysteria or a hot sound-bite. I don't necessarily agree with all of them, but I respect that they are opinions formed of reason, a personal code of ethics and due consideration.

They are none of them perfect – and no more am I. But they're damned good, and I'm lucky in that.