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A Yankee Notebook

May 25, 2014


PORTLAND, OR – We northern New England Yankees always smile, condescendingly, when a tourist from the Midwest or Far West asks if Bar Harbor is more than a couple of hours’ drive from Hartford, Connecticut. To the rest of the world – especially Texans – New England seems the size of a commemorative postage stamp; but if you’ve ever driven from Burlington, Vermont, to Greenville, Maine, you know better. So to conceal my ignorance of the West Coast, I kept my questions to myself as our plane descended to the Portland airport with not even a glint of the Pacific Ocean in sight. Further confusing the geography is the city just to its north, Vancouver. There are two Vancouvers out here, one in Washington, the other in British Columbia. This is Portland, right? I kept asking myself – like Portland, Maine, with a lighthouse and a maritime odor.

Wrong. Portland got its name, about 160 years ago, as a marketing tool, and because one of its leading settlers just happened to be from Portland, Maine. It does have a deepwater port, but it’s well inland, at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers and subject as well to the moods of the notorious bar at the mouth of the Columbia. (If you want to see some exciting marine acrobatics, Google Columbia River Bar.) Native Americans inhabited the valley for at least 10,000 years before modern-day real estate developers and loggers showed up a bit before the Civil War and began dividing, buying, trading, and litigating the best land available.

Portland wasn’t pretty during its adolescence, between the Civil War and the turn of the century. Huge stumps from felled timber despoiled whatever view there might have been. In 1889 The Oregonian, as quoted in Wikipedia, called it “the most filthy city in the northern states.” Its nickname was variously Mudtown or Stumptown. The West Shore dissed an attempt at its improvement: “The new sidewalks put down this year are a disgrace to a Russian village.”

You’d never guess that by looking at Portland today. It’s a sea of green, in more ways than one. Almost every yard in the neighborhood where we’re staying is lush with flowering perennials and trees – rhododendrons, magnolia. Where any of them haven’t been tended, they’ve become jungly and overgrown. I took a walk before breakfast yesterday bathed in dozens of aromas, as if I were walking through the cosmetics section of a department store. As I approached a corner obscured by overhanging flowering bushes, a herd of young women and one big guy came thundering around it and squeezed by both sides of me with a few dozen quick good mornings: the early-morning warmup round-the-block run of a nearby fitness club.

The main problem with trying to describe a visit to an unfamiliar place (I’ve been here only once before, decades ago, for a meeting, and remember only sailing very slowly on a ponderous old wooden yacht on the Columbia.) – the trouble with describing it is that the writer is like one of the proverbial blind men trying to describe the elephant. Is it a like a tree, a rope, a snake, a fan, or a wall? All I can do is keep an eye on the weather (pouring in intermittent buckets the first day, and maybe – or maybe not – the second.) I talk to as many people as I can engage, listening for accents, attitudes, details, and complaints. I read everything I can get my hands on. I check out the streets for trash and the corners for waste or recycling bins. I read bumper stickers to gauge the body politic and calculate the percentage of Priuses in the body automotive. My observations: The place is clean, green, liberal, and loaded with more hybrids than I’ve ever seen anywhere else.

Mother and I are here to witness and celebrate the graduation from Reed College of our older grandson, Mack. He started out five years ago at American University in Washington, D.C.. During his second year found the ambiance unsimpatico, and transferred to “a nerdier school.” This is it, all right. Self-described by its students – Reedies, they’re called – as geeky, it has no intercollegiate athletics besides Ultimate Frisbee and a short-season basketball team. Its distance from downtown Portland and the obvious demands of the academic program seem to make it difficult for students to party much; and the senior thesis has got to be a major time-consumer.

The title of each graduating senior’s thesis is printed beneath his or her name. I flatter myself that I read English fairly well (except for legal briefs, medical research, and geological monographs). But I can understand only about half the titles listed in the program. Like this one, by Celina Hinojosa, a psychology major: The anxiogenic and orexigenic effect of ghrelin microinjected into the Edinger-Westphal nucleus: A repeated measures design using the elevated plus maze and open field test. They get even more obscure – to me, at least – in physics and mathematics. Mack did well: Phi Bete and winner of the essay prize in his major, philosophy. Is there any money coming with the prize? I asked him. Oh, yes, he brightened; several hundred dollars (I brightened) in credit toward the purchase of more books of philosophy. Oh...

The commencement speaker, from the class of 1990, recalled fondly that one of his classmates received his diploma naked. It was guerrilla art, encouraging the college trustees to divest of their shares in fossil-fuel corporations. He himself had formed the Barbie Liberation Organization, which pinched Barbies and Kens from stores, exchanged their voice boxes, and put them back, so the Barbies all said, “Vengeance is mine!” and the Kens, in falsetto, “Let’s party!”

It was a lovely day, with atypical Portland sunshine, a happy crowd, and a great champagne buffet afterward. I kept my copy of the program as a guide to further independent studies, should I choose to pursue them. I may start with A biochemical characterization of BosR, the Borrellia burgdorferi oxidative stress sensor. I suspect I’ll need a stress sensor after that one.

Photo by Willem lange