Vine Maple in the Autumn Light

Fall is a gamble in this corner of the Pacific Northwest.

You can find yourself as a punching bag for Pacific storms, one after another battering your ambitions with rain and wind, high water and downed trees.

Or you can have the best weather of the entire year: crystal blue skies and t-shirt temperatures among the yellowing golden alder and maple trees. Postcard days.

We don’t enjoy the New England colors here, but I’ll take our sharp red of vine maple in the autumn light. Watercolor sunsets spiced with the smell of woodsmoke as a hundred cozy fires come alight to fight the chill of the night.

You can’t take anything for granted. You can only aspire to take it all in.

Such bright autumn days are blessings to be sure, appreciated so much more after an “atmospheric river” pounds us for a weekend, reminding us what lies ahead once winter truly comes ashore.

It seems a crime on these days to be inside. “Productive” is the word in my house. Getting things done that need to be done, battening down the hatches for winter, getting hay in the barn, deck furniture tied down or stored away.

To-do lists are longer on sunny fall days.

Through all of it, my wife, Amy, and I will stop at moments and look at each other and the cloudless blue above our heads and soak in the sunlight.

I have learned over the years to carve out time in my so-called “productivity” to appreciate the clear fall days. There is a feeling of guilt, to be sure, when I choose a lazy motorcycle ride through cascading yellow leaves rather than outdoor chores that need to be done. Yet a crisp autumn memory will keep you almost as warm on a dark December day as dry firewood. 


Before the darkness comes

We are not fools, mind you — more ant than grasshopper after all these years.

We start early now, getting wood pellets and firewood in, filling the barn with hay, shoring up fences and putting things away.

We make hay while the sun shines — not just a maxim but a way of life in these parts — we make firewood, repair gutters, repair the outdoor lights before the darkness comes.

Often something will derail our day, our schedule wiped out by an unforeseen event. Equipment breaks down. Animals find a way to get sick or get into where they shouldn’t be. We need to run to town to get this fixed, or to pick up another one of those.

So it goes.

“A pretty day for a drive at least,” we say, and roll the windows down to enjoy the fresh air along the way.

While running errands in Astoria the other day, I met a man who said he’d just moved up from L.A. I smiled and gave the advice I usually dispense to newcomers.

I told him that after 25 years I’ve learned it can rain 100 days in a row here and be somehow different every day. Our coastal clime provides dynamic weather, ever-changing even when locked in shades of gray. There will be plenty enough days when you are soaked to the bone the minute you step outside. There are days when you’d rather just sit by the fire and watch the sheets of rain march across the horizon and cherish shafts of silver light when it slices through the clouds.

It rains from November to the end of June, but we get a few blue-sky days here and there — maybe a whole week strung together in February.

Through the rain, you’ll learn to appreciate those sunny days all the more.

The gift of sunny autumn days

The first storm of the fall brought inches of rain and a taste of what winter has in store. The freshet brought high water to the fields in front of our house, and we scrambled to move things away should it go much higher. Motorcycles went into the basement, tack up in the barn loft.

When the storm moved on, we saw the return of brilliant blue, but the water took a while to drain away out of the fields. Amy and the girls tried to paddle out on kayaks in the field and found little current. When I got off work the next day we went out on the water as dusk approached. In stillness, we glided along the mirrored sunset. We wondered why we had never thought of this before.

Along the way, however, we feel the light of the sun that we know won’t be around forever — something that is easy to forget during August. We watch the maple seeds spin around us as we travel down the road. We watch the western sky for dark clouds and smile when we see only blue. We spot the bright yellow turning amid the evergreen, splashed red with vine maple in the autumn light.

Each sunny day in autumn is a gift — a jewel found on a beach of stones.


The Durable Good

“Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people wanting to be important” - T.S.Eliot

I graduated from High School 30 years ago this year.

I don’t much recall what my ambitions were at 18 years other than aspiring to fame and fortune through the wit of my pen or the sound of my voice.

I’m reaching the point where I need to think more about legacy than aspirations.

We spend our lives collecting totems and objects that signify our accomplishments, our growing economic independence and success. We build messy fortresses of possessions around us.  When we need to move on, these great purchases become anchors, keeping us from sailing on the open ocean of our lives.

When Amy and I were first married -- years before we had children, we’d stop at antique stores and yard sales looking for things cast off by others. We had a big empty house to fill with furniture and art. Twenty-five years and two daughters later, we are tripping over these material ghosts that will not move on to their afterlife. We sell, we donate, we give away things our children have outgrown.

In sorting this flotsam and jetsam of the ebbing tide,  we occasionally stumble upon a treasure -- some object heavy with the weight of significance and sentimentality.

Yet objects only hold this power when they symbolize some accomplishment, or some human interaction that evolved our existence on this earth. Touchstones get their power from a life changing event, a memory of a friend, a loved one lost.

These we tuck away.

Beside the roadways now, yard sale and garage sale signs proliferate. We are starting the season of selling and buying things that will not fade away when their utility to their current owners is exhausted.

At the same time we are surrounded by young people graduating from high school, and heading off to attend college, to serve in the military, to start careers and families.

The contrast is stark in my mind.

Too often we have come to emphasize building and buying of things, and disparage the service economy.

Yet service comes in many forms - including doctors and firefighters, nurses and teachers -- these are all considered part of the service economy - and they create in the world improvements in people’s lives.

Yet when we measure our economy, our focus is on the manufacturing and purchase of durable goods.

Something about this term bothers me.

After all, what creates more durable good in the world than a teacher?

Service is not some second class to creation -- of objects, of wealth, of fame. Our politicians wax hagiographic about factory jobs. Yet service is now the largest part of our economy and it includes people doing much to make the world a better place than they found it.

We all have at least one teacher or coach that touched us and changed our view of the world.

I have had the opportunity to get a taste of teaching by mentoring young journalists through an internship program. I precepted new nurses, taught EMTs and CPR and crisis intervention. I am gobsmacked when a former student comes to me and tells me that something I taught them helped save a life or prevent and violent injury.

I imagine those lives touching others, saving and creating, rippling across time around the world.

That is a durable good.

I used to think that every man aspired to immortality by creating something that would still exist centuries after he was gone. Whether it be a novel, a work of art, or carving a farm out of wild forest -- some material legacy to pass on.

As if doing so keeps our shadow in the world.

Yet the truly durable good is in those who spend their lives teaching, healing, saving and protecting our fellow misbegotten humans.

There is a reason there are never enough teachers, nurses, doctors and police officers.

Dealing with people is very hard -- taxing on the soul. The people we interact with come to us burdened with a lifetime of baggage and we have to fight through to make even a tiny impact on mind or body. It is often difficult to see their quiet everyday impacts on the future.

The coast guardsman who plucks a drowning man from the ocean, the firefighter who cuts a woman out of a wrecked car -- their monetary compensation pales in the light of the number of lives they change in a career.

Yet their life-changing impacts are by comparison much easier to divine.

It is so much easier to undervalue the service of our daily interactions with other human beings, our generosity of time and knowledge.

Patience is the most valuable commodity that no one ever buys.

It changes lives.

Who has more patience than the parent investing a third of their life raising a child -- a child stable and kind and imaginative enough to change the world?

Should those children be blessed with good teachers and kind mentors, won’t their lives in time echo outwards across the centuries, immortal in a million unseen interactions of kindness, healing and teaching.

Isn’t that a durable good?

My father and mother taught me the most durable lessons of my life. My father taught me to work hard and never stop learning. My mom taught me that things are just things, not a one half as valuable as a single human being.

It is no wonder all three of us kids spent our lives serving others. My brother is a paramedic, my sister spent her life protecting children and the elderly from abuse for the state of Oregon.

My sister passed away after only 49 years. At her memorial, hundreds of people came from all over the country. The gathered faces were not her clients, but rather the friends and coworkers, neighbors and children grown to adults that she had touched in her life as a neighborhood mother with a generous heart.

I think of all this in this season of caps and gowns and garage sale signs. Our mark on this earth is determined by the lives of others that we make better. No other metric seem lasting.

It is a hard measure to use. Helping others is hard. Raising good children is hard. Being kind -- just being kind to people who don’t look like you or think like you or worship like you -- having simple kindness in your heart for those not of your tribe is hard.

Immortality doesn’t come easy.

Yet, there is only one way to create a truly durable good.


This and other essays can be found in my book The Huckleberry Hajj - available on Amazon in paperback and ebook.

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Nine Bullets | 100 Days Gone. What We Know

1) Donald Trump is not ready to be President. Didn't plan on it, doesn't know how the government works and is not a serious enough person to try. He has been weirdly confessional on this point but makes the typical rich idiot mistake of presuming that because he didn't know something, "nobody" could have known it. Presidenting is hard work, and Trump has never had to work hard. So he goes to Florida and plays golf every 5 days.
2) Donald Trump lies a lot -- pathologically so - but it is not clear he knows he is lying. It is more like he just doesn't pay any attention to what he says from one minute to the next. His toadies don't have the courage to tell him the truth. He also just doesn't care. Moreover, much of what the Administration says and does appears designed to troll the nation.
3) His gaps in knowledge and policy are being filled by the Russians, Nazis, and super-fundamentalist Christians. It would be one thing if he was thrust into this job while competent politicians were at his side to educate and guide him. However, he is surrounded by political neophytes and ideologues. No one in the White House knows anything about legislation or policy. He is learning about the world from some of the worst people you could assemble.
4) Meanwhile, Jeff Sessions is an example of competent evil (by comparison). Session's has been waiting his whole life to restore Jim Crow to the South and now he has the power to do it. His goals are to strip citizenship from immigrants to keep them from voting. Strip voting rights from protesters and people of color.
5) The Trump administration doesn't care about increasing his base because Jeff Sessions doesn't plan to let Democrats vote in the next election. Sessions efforts are part of a larger Republican plan fueled by White Nationalist fears of being outnumbered by minorities in the future. Sessions believes that the only way for Republicans to remain in power is to structure the democratic institutions so that non-Republicans can't vote. See North Carolina for examples of that tactics they plan to use.
6) The Russian thing is big, and Trump's inner circle knows it. Flynn, Manafort, Page, Gorka, Sessions - the list goes on. As the investigations continue, it will eventually be easier to list the people who weren't on the Russian payroll.
7) Trump is a bully, but he backs down easily. China figured out right away that Trump was a "paper tiger." A bully that backs down at the first hint of resistance. Paul Ryan and Congress took a little longer, but they are figuring it out too. He has no core principals, he does not do research and doesn't understand how the US government works. So even if he threatens you, he's got nothing to back it up and so he's an easy mark to roll.
8) Trump loves evil dictators, apparently. In his dreams Trump sees himself as a beloved mob boss or long ruling dictator. No surprise then that he's cuddling up to strong men while denouncing Democracies. This will come in handy when Sessions starts stripping people of their citizenship.
9) Republicans are misreading and misplaying the Trump victory. Most Republicans think that Trump's voters could primary them if they don't fall in line. As we've seen, however, Trump doesn't really have anything he cares about other than Trump. Congressional Republicans can't agree on any legislation to pass that will be popular, so they are going to face a referendum on Trump when they come up for reelection. By that time the Republican brand may be so tarnished by Trump's incompetence and mendacity that we could see a big loss for GOP in the general.