Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Deadline Day

So I was losing my mind yesterday — don't worry, it happens often, it always comes back, it knows where I live because, well, it's my mind — while working from home.

I was on deadline, virtuously tapping away, when I heard a Boeing 747 land on my street. Well, it sounded like one anyway, and when I opened my living room blinds for the first time that morning (it was 11 a.m.), I saw a guy with a jet engine strapped to his back, harnessing its awesome power to blow six leaves off the sidewalk.

Frankly, I considered that a bit of overkill, like someone noticing a spider on the wall and immediately digging in the closet for their Uzi. I mean, the guy could have cleared those leaves just as quickly with a rake or even a fork. Hell, he could have gotten faster results with a set of chopsticks. If he missed the noise, he could make little leaf-blowing sounds as he used the chopsticks, sort of a "vroom vroom (click click) vroom vroom ..."

That would have been a lot better, but no, I was trapped here with the leaf-blower guy outside. I've been working from home for a few months now, and I'm terribly productive. I've advanced to the Alaskan nuclear weapons facility in Metal Gear Solid 4 and built a medieval village out of Legos. Oh yes, and I've written some articles and worked on my own writing project.

Now usually jet engine leaf-blowers don't threaten to make me lose my mind, but it was Deadline Day. When I accept writing assignments, the deadline days are in the distant, misty future and I"m all "Of course I can write all these articles. I can't wait to call Oakland brokers and Bay Area CEOs and some guy named Senate who runs a hacker space." I'm always very excited to accept an assignment and immediately start drawing up long source lists and mentally spending my freelance fee.

Then suddenly I turn a planner page and there's Deadline Day, one week away, prompting me to spend a day frantically working the phone and email screen. Of course, what happens when you call or email people — and I can't be the first to have noticed this — is that some will actually respond, and you find yourself fielding all these calls and emails and trying to remember what you wanted in the first place.

But even worse is facing Deadline Day with a headache and a bunch of stories with more holes than Swiss cheese. Then I wish I was writing fiction again, because it's not like I woke up one morning halfway through a novel thinking "I want to write my chapter today about the playboy governor of Pluto who makes porn films on the side but he won't call me back!"

Plus, looking over what I'd written so far, all I see are the holes and the lead with the subtle Dickens reference that sounded so cute a month ago reads kind of stupid now.

Speaking of literary references, I actually did put a John Donne quote in a story lead once. Actually, it wasn't a story lead, it was an editor's letter for the "Bay Area's Most Awesome Philanthropists with Money to Buy an Ad" publication. Since I was the editor, I had to write the damn letter and out of desperation I used Donne's "no man is an island" quote as a starting point. My boss liked it, anyway, which was good enough because nobody else reads an editor's letter.

So there I was on Friday, coping with Deadline Day, putting the finishing touches on my three articles. Well, "finishing touches" might be exaggerating a bit; "fact-checking every picky thing" might be more accurate in the case of two articles and "writing the damn thing from scratch" well describes the third.

Friday was also Deadline Day for my son Benny, who typed up a four-paragraph report on black holes last week with the help of a library book and the Hubble space website. I'm trying not to pass on my own angst and procrastination and bad habits concerning Deadline Day to Benny. He is more responsible than I, although neither of us can write a word without a dose of chocolate. I don't want him to dread Deadline Days, because every day has some sort of deadline and if you freak out over all of them, you'll never do anything. So I try to keep a brave front regarding my deadlines and glue back all the hair I'd pulled out that day in frustration and keep my revenge fantasies regarding leaf-blower operators to myself.

And I stay away from Benny's Halloween candy for most of the day because he'll know if I swipe a piece (yes, he counts them), then finally break down and eat a mini Milky Way Dark.

It wasn't my fault.

It was Deadline Day.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Bad Poetry

I work from home now and set my own schedule, which means the moment is ripe for lots of bad poetry. Here are two quickies from this morning.


My son will not kill a bug.
I joyfully squish the nasty insect
swooping down with my shoe
triumphantly celebrating a world
with one less bug.

My son will not kill a bug.
His white tissue is a flag of parley.
He gently swaddles his new friend
and negotiates its release
out the kitchen window.


My neighbor just retired.
This has happened to me before.
My quiet days buried under
buzz saws and motors.
I doubt this neighbor
will rebuild a motorcycle engine
in a San Francisco apartment,
but I hear the desperate activity upstairs,
footfalls of a searching soul
and I tremble
as generations of wives and neighbors
have trembled at the prospect
of a recent retiree.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Third Grade!

Benny started third grade yesterday. Two of his best friends are in his class this year. He already had homework last night. I guess the long, lazy spelling list-free days are over.

The Waning Days of Summer

After returning from the Midwest, we finished up the summer with a few weird projects around the house.

Benny went to Chess Camp for a week (he even won a little trophy in the Friday tournament) and we made a Chess Cake to celebrate. Benny was very particular about placing the chess pieces.

Which side is winning?

We also held a day-long Monopoly tournament featuring eight stuffed animals. Bat won the trophy with some very cunning deals. Froggy made some very reckless business deals  but Camel was quite prudent.

Free Shakespeare in the Park was performing "Henry V." I wanted to take Benny to see it since he likes British history and battles and knights. So to prepare him for the play, we made the main characters out of paper towel rolls.

Here are the two conniving bishops who gave Henry the idea to invade France in the first place.

Here's King Henry V:

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends!" 

These are (left to right) the French ambassador, the Chorus and the French dauphin.

Dauphin: "My horse is better than anybody's."

Let's not forget Princess Katherine:

"Is it possible dat I should love de enemy of France?"

And here's the whole cast:

"May our oaths well kept and prosperous be!"

Ron, Benny and I packed a picnic and went to see the performance in Redwood City. It was very well done, with lots of music and valiant swordfights with duffel bags. Benny was able to follow the action and he knew the big quotes. He came home with one of the tennis balls that the French Dauphin sent Henry to make fun of him.

Go Packs Go!

So I'm finally uploading my pictures from our July vacation to the Midwest. There aren't many, I'm afraid, and most are plagued by bad lighting.  But here we go.

In Wisconsin we visited Ron's sister and her family and celebrated Independence Day. The week included a visit to Lambeau Field, the shrine of the Green Bay Packers. Go on, ask me anything about the Packers. Really. Clouds of Packers trivia still swirl around my mind. The team was founded in 1921. The community of Green Bay has only 100,000 residents. Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback and he likes to strike weird poses in photos. Synthetic fibers are sewn into the field sod. Go on, ask me more.

Here are some shots of Benny at the Lambeau Field gift shop and museum:

Benny tries the Lambeau Leap.

Benny and I took the ferry to Michigan and attended my cousin Matt's wedding. It was a true family reunion, with all 11 cousins gathered in one location for the first time in years. Here's a picture of the Kilpatrick branch. Notice Benny's flapping shirttail. (He really hit the dance floor that night.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Just Enough Innovation

So I’ve finished David Halberstam's history of Ford and Nissan for the fourth time since 1990. It's called The Reckoning and much of what Halberstam wrote still rings so true today.

There's a whole section about how the stock market changed companies. It used to be that only rich people owned stocks and they thought long-term. They didn’t expect ever-exploding dividends and hot growth trajectories. Then everyone started buying stocks and the hot stocks weren’t the old blue-chip Fords and U.S. Steel and others, but hot new companies like Polaroid (ha ha). Suddenly ever-increasing divedends were required and managers started thinking short-term rather than long. The new customers were the stockholders, not the people who actually used the product. It warped all the decision making. Investing in the company could hurt the balance sheet, which could hurt the stock price, so managers said no. If the customers were still willing to buy the product, why improve the quality? It was the quality of the stock, not of the product, that mattered.

This new Wall Street also lured the best and brightest into making money in the stock market. These people no longer went into companies and pushed them to innovate, the way those Japanese hotshot engineers transformed how Nissan made their cars. The hotshot engineers were at a car company because that was the only place they could go – they couldn’t build planes or ships. And they transformed the company, took it away from the old-school designers who just made a big iron frame and piled the components on it. Easy engineering. The new guys designed the structure in pieces and balanced the components. Lighter, better, more graceful. This would not have happened if those engineers were making tons of money doing something else.

So what does that say for true innovation in business today? I suppose it’s true that, like everything else in business, innovation follows the money. The hot tech companies with venture capital have the money, so they get the innovation. The companies that truly need innovation only get it if there’s a lot of money to made innovating. A lot of that innovation isn’t in improving the product, but squeezing out maximum profit for minimum investment. A behemoth like Comcast has already proved you can treat customers like crap for decades and it won’t matter if you have a stranglehold. The same goes for airlines.

Even a great company like Netflix — so innovative and high-tech and new-paradigmy — showed it wasn’t immune from such behavior. It revealed that it was just as greedy and contemptuous of customers as any other business with its attempt to spin off the DVD side. It thought it had the leverage to get away with it. Any company that provides a truly vital service — not just printing digital pictures or giving pedicures, but something people really need like banking or cable or plane flights  — can totally screw the customers.

And we customers are increasingly feeling exploited – companies not only want our time and money and loyalty, they want all our personal information so they can make money off that too. They’re like little Faustian demons roaming the earth, trying to find out the price for every soul. What will it take for you to cough up your email address, your zip code, your credit card number. Every day people must make these small decisions – is the convenience worth giving my email address or my name or my hometown? Is the ability to lovingly tend a virtual farm worth the permission to strip-mine my Facebook info and my friends’ info? Every day we must redraw the lines and every day the lines get weaker because, well, we’re tired and busy and the companies are so relentless, they ever tire, they prod prod prod at every weakness. That’s innovation today. It’s not about building something or creating something of value. It’s about creating just enough value so you can con somebody into paying for it, either with money or with information.  Too much value and you’re cheating your shareholders (or future shareholders). To little value and even consumers can see the con. That’s innovation today.

Well, you could argue that this is what capitalism is all about, finding the true market value for what you produce. That was definitely true when business was a little more personal. Big eggs are worth more than little eggs. You paid more for high quality and less for low quality. But it’s all so muddled now. It’s hard to discern the quality, especially with service and high-tech industries, where most of the innovation goes on now. What is a good bank account? It would take all day to figure it out.

I’m not quite sure what I’m saying here, but I do feel that the concept of scientifically determining the minimum acceptable quality down to a single click, kilobyte or interest point that will still sell is crappy innovation. It is nothing new; the Detroit carmakers in the 1960s and 70s sold crappy cars, they didn’t care about safety or quality or gas mileage because they still sold. They figured out to the dime how many fancy options they could pile on an already heavy car and what premiums they could charge for it. That was their innovation, while the Japanese were practicing true innovation with the cars themselves.

Does that mean American companies aren't innovating? Of course not. We here about American innovation all the time. But there’s two kinds of innovation: True Innovation and Just Enough Innovation. True Innovation actually improves the product, which means more value for the customer, which means you can charge more, and it’s a win-win, the customer gets a better produce or service, the company gets more money.  But it’s a risky kind of innovation and it’s difficult and the value doesn’t increase fast enough unless your product innovation is really hot like a minivan or iPod. This can be done with a new service that has real value, like Netflix.

Just Enough Innovation is a lot easier. You can do this kind of innovation an couple of ways. In the first way, you take a product or service — it’s easier with a service because it’s all perception anyway. You take a product or service that already exists and you tweak the hell out of it to finagle more money out of the customer. Cable companies and banks and airlines are great at this. They cut service and pile on the fees. You can do it with a product – like Detroit did with cars — but it’s harder because there’s a minimum standard you have to meet, I mean, the car has to drive on the road. Anyway, you degrade the service or product just enough so you can keep making money.

The second type of Just Enough Innovation is to invent a new kind of service or product that has questionable real value — I mean, it’s hard to think people will really need it — but think of a way to con people into paying for it, either with money or info or both. Think Farmville or that website that keeps your passwords for you. You offer something new and hot and creative and smoke-and-mirror the hell out of it so customers think they’re getting a deal. Hey, I can play CastleVille for free!

This Just Enough Innovation is what many of the brightest minds in business are trying to do today. Either they’re trying to calibrate an existing service or product for maximum ROI and minimum value, or they’re trying to create something new to con customers into giving up something.

A valuable and meaningful mission for America, indeed.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Caves and Mountains

(As always, you can click on the pictures for a better view.)

The next morning greeted us with gloomy skies, so we decided to visit Oregon Caves rather than Crater Lake, reasoning that weather doesn't matter so much underground. So we drove to Cave Junction, then along a winding forest road to the Caves, where we forked over $24 for the three of us and entered the black gash in the mountain:

These caves are called the "Marble Halls of Oregon," formed by rainwater from an ancient forest. I kind of expected something like the marble Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley, which looked like this:

Instead I got this:

and this:

Seriously, it looked like snot was dripping off the walls. Now we all know I like rocks — there's no way you can read this blog without dealing with the rock talk — but the Oregon Caves left me cold, and it wasn't just the 40-degree temperature. I spent the whole time silently going "Ewwww …" while watching Benny clamber along steep, uncertain paths ringed by bottomless chasms. After a while I felt I was walking through Moria with Frodo, except Moria was much nicer, even if you throw in the lake monster and the Balrog.

Here's a creepy ceiling shot:

I couldn't wait to get out of there, but Benny and Ron seemed to like it all right. We topped off the day at a Black Bear Diner, where Benny ordered a big stack of chocolate-chip pancakes.

The next day dawned bright and sunny and we praised Ron for suggesting we wait another day. It was Crater Lake day! Since the first time I saw Crater Lake 12 years ago, I have considered it one of Nature's most perfect places. The crater is gracefully round, the water is stunningly blue, the perky little island in the middle is a shiny green. Ron and Benny had never seen it so they had no idea what I was going on about. I wouldn't let them look at pictures or enter the visitor's center. No, we must first go straight to the lake — no detours.

Benny was a little jaded by this time after 11 days of natural wonders, and wasn't enthusiastic about climbing another mountain. Ron just patiently wound the Honda Fit through curve after curve, lined with Oregon's ubiquitous pine trees. The Fit chugged up the mountain like a champ -- after all, the little car had already traveled the Sierras, Cascades and Klamaths mountain ranges. It had tackled San Francisco hills and forded streams. It would take more than a 8,000-foot mountain to scare our little compact car.

But Benny's attitude changed completely when we we crossed the snow line. At first it was a little streak of white lining the road, then bigger clumps between the trees, until finally we entered a winter wonderland. I insisted we drive directly to the visitor center on the Rim, where the ground and trees were blanketed in snow. Crater Lake gets more than 30 feet of snow every winter, and the snowplows were still working to clear the Rim Drive.

It was nearly noon. I ran ahead of them and scrambled up a snowbank. "Come on!" I yelled, as if the mountain was going out for lunch or something. Ron and Benny followed, pelting each other with snowballs.

And there it was:

and here:

We posed for photos, squinting into the glaring sun:

Benny made a snowman:

Crater Lake was created when Mt. Mazama blew its top 7,700 years ago. Its summit collapsed after all the magma was released, forming a huge caldera. It took about 250 years of rain and snow to form the pristine lake. Cinder cones like Wizard Island formed on the bottom of the crater. The water is so intensely blue because the lake is so deep (589 feet deep, the deepest lake in the U.S.) and the water is so clear.

Crater Lake was the last official sightseeing spot of the trip, although we did admire Mt. Shasta in the distance as we drove south to San Francisco. We left the tumbled landscape of the Oregon-California border and entered the Sacramento Valley, with Lassen Peak on our left and the Coast Ranges on the right. We chose to drive around the northern rim of San Pablo Bay, turning south through Marin County and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. (Dealing with Bay Bridge traffic is no way to end a vacation.) We loved the trip, but after 12 days on the road, we were so glad to be home again.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The River Rats

I spent the next morning at Cascade Locks, Oregon, sitting on our hotel room's balcony and anxiously watching the weather. Our cruise on the Columbia River was scheduled for 2 p.m. and the sky looked a little overcast. We were so excited that we turned up at the departure point at 1:15, and sat around the little Lewis and Clark Sidekicks park for a while, while Benny played on the statues of Sacagawea the the explorer's dog.

We boarded the boat, and the staff pointed out our reserved table and a buffet with drinks and appetizers, but we just dumped our bags and scampered to the top deck, where we watched the riverboat leave the dock. People were shrugging into jackets and sweaters, since the Columbia River Gorge acts as a natural wind tunnel, being pretty much the only big pass through the Cascades.

The Columbia River is literally older than the hills. It was here when the Cascade volcanic mountains formed. When Ice Age glaciers melted and the ice dams broke about 15,000 years ago, the meltwater rushed through the river valley, scouring out this amazing, long gorge. The steep cliffs and tall waterfalls are standing proof of the power of that water. Today, the Columbia River is the second-biggest river in the U.S. by volume. The rock the water cut through is your basic volcanic basalt, the same stuff the ocean floor is made of. This stuff erupted in floods all over the eastern half of Oregon from 20-15 million years ago. 

One side of the river is Oregon, the other Washington State. The big landslides happen on the Washington side because the rocks are stacked in layers, with thin soil layers in between. These rocks tend to slide like a stack of heavily buttered pancakes when the plate is tilted, according to my Roadside Geology book. On the Oregon side, the lava just squirted out all gloppy like toothpaste.

Gates closing behind us at the Bonneville Locks.

The gates open so we can continue west along the Columbia.
The Columbia River was a dangerous part of the Oregon Trail, and pioneers would make rafts and float down the powerful rapids toward Fort Vancouver. Now there are locks in place to tame the Columbia, and the passengers crowded the decks of our riverboat, watching as we cruised into a concrete box. Water was drained out of the box and the concrete cliffs loomed high on either side as we sank to the western river's lower level. 

Dinner on the riverboat. That's an Old-Fashioned in front of me.

The crew kept the food coming, and Benny stood at the bow, munching warm chocolate cookies and feeling life could offer nothing more. But it could -- I took him to visit the Captain, who allowed Benny to steer the ship! He set Benny in his chair and directed him to steer between buoys. Benny sat silently, his face screwed in concentration as we cruised past waterfalls.

Onenta Gorge
The wind was getting colder. I dug out a hand-knitted hat I'd bought last December in San Francisco the day we went ice skating with Andy on the Embarcadero. Benny refused to leave the railing and Ron and I took turns standing with him. 

Beacon Rock
   We passed Onenta Gorge, a natural slot in the cliffs. More than 50 kinds of plants live in this always cool and moist shelter. Nearby were the spectacular 620-foot Multnomah Falls and on the Washington side was Beacon Rock, an 848-foot-tall monolith made of andesite, the ancient core of a volcano.

Multnomah Falls

Finally, as we headed back to Cascade Locks we saw a big esprey nest built in a Coast Guard buoy. Every year the Guard has to clear out the nest, and every spring an esprey pair comes back, rebuilds the nest and raises another batch of chicks there. After visiting an esprey in the Raptor Center, Benny was happy to see one in the wild.

We arrived back at our hotel, tried but happy. The next day we planned to leave the Gorge and zip down I-5 again, headed toward Crater Lake.

An esprey and its nest on the Columbia River.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On The Road Again

One thing about a drive through California, Oregon and Washington State (and I can’t be the first one to notice this) is that you spend a lot of time on the road. Each of us coped with the miles in a different way: Ron had his music, I had my books and maps, and Benny had his stuffed animals.

Benny brought three stuffed animals on this trip — Leopard, Sheepy and Leppy (a baby leopard) — which he kept in a little blue drawstring bag. At the Raptor Center they were joined by Baldy, the big stuffed eagle. The long hours on the road allowed Benny to conduct complicated scenarios with the animals. I sometimes wish we could rent a sibling for Benny for the longer stretches, since half the fun of road trips is bickering incessantly with your siblings:

“Mom, she keeps looking at me!”

“Mom, she’s chewing too loud!”

"Mom, now she's pretending to chew too loud!"

Benny was truly deprived, because the typical “I’m hungry”/ “We just ate”/ “I’m still hungry”/ “Stay out of the cookies”/ “When do we get to the hotel” exchanges with Mom just aren’t the same.

So Benny has the stuffed animals bicker instead about where they sit and who gets to look out the window and who has to be on the bottom of the drawstring bag. (He’s sitting on me!”) After watching the French Open on TV one morning, he fished out a tennis ball and started a series of complicated tournaments, with the animals hitting the ball back and forth. He pelted Ron with a string of tennis questions: “What’s a set? How many sets are there? What if the ball doesn’t bounce? What if it bounces twice? What if they lose the ball? How many tournaments are there? How do they choose the players?”

We all appreciated the break from the road in Portland, but on Saturday morning we were all bundled in the Fit again and headed across the Columbia River to Washington State. We could afford only a brief stopover at Mt. St. Helens that day, since I’d reserved us spots for Sunday on a riverboat cruise through the Columbia River Gorge.

The weather was dull and gloomy as we wound our way up the mountain. At the visitor center on I-5, the VolcanoCam showed only clouds at the crater, but we drove on anyway. The Cascade volcano’s 1980 eruption turned millions of acres of pristine forest into a virtual wasteland. As we drove we could still see massive mudslides, layers of ash and new forests of noble firs planted after the eruption.

When we reached the ridge, the volcano still had its big gray hoodie on, but the to Johnston Ridge Observatory was fascinating. A ranger gave a great talk detailing the eruption, holding up big color prints and jumping around the room. I half-expected him to bring out hand puppets next. The Observatory sits on a bluff 5 ½ miles from the crater and is named after volcanologist David Johnston, who was camping a few miles north of the volcano on May 18, 1980. That morning Johnston radioed his base shouting “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!” The volcano’s eruption devastated its northern side and Johnston was killed.

Roof of Johnston Observatory
We came back down the mountain in a more somber mood and stayed that night in Cascade Locks, a town on the Columbia River. We were too tired and cheap to go out for dinner, so we ate peanut butter sandwiches in our hotel room. Benny turned his dinner into a map of Oregon and Washington. The sandwich is Oregon, the two Xs are Portland and Cascade Locks, the top crust is the Columbia River, the carrot is the Bridge of the Gods, the potato chip is the basalt lava flows that covered half of Oregon 17 million years ago; and the pretzels are Washington State.

Oregon for dinner.
The Bridge of the Gods (see carrot, above) has, of course, a wonderful name and a marvelous story. It was once a natural land bridge remembered in local legends by Native Americans. According to legends, the bridge was built by two brother gods who settled on opposite sides of the Columbia River so they could get together over the holidays. There was a family feud (over a woman, of course) and The Columbia River eventually broke through the land bridge and washed away most of the debris. All the gods behaved so badly they were eventually turned into mountains: Mount Hood, Mount Adams and Mt. St. Helens.

A modern bridge is now built on the spot, also called the Bridge of the Gods, but fails to live up to its name. Frankly, it's one of the ugliest, ricketiest bridges I've ever seen. Ron ran across it (it's actually part of the Pacific Crest Trail) and the bridge rattles and you can see the river through the steel supports under your feet. Here's a series of gorgeous pictures of the Bridge of the Gods, which just shows that a good photographer and the Columbia River can make any man-made eyesore look good.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hip in Portland

We had a late start on the drive to Portland. I'd spent a lot of time sitting on the balcony at the Oregon Garden resort, swathed in blankets. I’d been feeling under the weather for a few days now, but a morning's rest helped and I was ready for Portland.

I was a little nervous about Portland: I’m always nervous about going to new cities, which is odd, because I’ve been to so many of them. Especially cities I’ve heard a lot about. I’d heard that Portland was hip and liberal in a freshly scrubbed, outdoorsy kind of way. I’d heard it was friendly to families, which was nice. San Francisco, on the other hand, has more dogs than children, and more families leave every year, driven out by high housing costs and a screwy kindergarten assignment system. We love living in the city, but it requires accommodations.

On the way to Portland, we took a quick detour to Oregon City. It's pretty small – about 30,000 people — but was the largest town in the Oregon Territory before it was overshadowed by Portland. It was also The End of the Oregon Trail, although the Trail’s national historic center and its fabled Wagon Ruts are in Baker City.

Oregon City's End of the Trail interpretive center looked like a rest area with a circle of giant covered wagons. Inside was a gift shop and a weird exhibit on maternity clothes on the Oregon Trail, with sketches of women busting out of their corsets. My favorite part was actually the steps leading up to the center, with the name of a famous Trail marker on each step: Independence, Platte River, Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, etc. But the steps were grimy and neglected, and the whole place looked like a victim of funding cuts.

We sped out of Oregon City and merged onto I-205. My guidebook, which rarely steered us wrong, had marked the Aloft Hotel by the airport with a smiley face (good for kids). Plus it was cheap and right on the MAX light rail line. So I called ahead and reserved two nights.

Yeah, the Aloft was great for children, if said children were 23 years old and hyper-wired. Leaving Ron and Benny in the car, I walked in and immediately felt out of place in my Raptor Center t-shirt and Oregon Garden ball cap. The lobby looked like a Las Vegas nightclub with chairs, all flashy neon and backlit liquor bottles and cubist lounge furniture. Ron and I hauled our scruffy suitcases through the narrow halls to our room, which was comfortable enough. The only weird thing about it was the yellow window in the shower stall, which allowed a guest in the sleeping area to watch another guest take a shower. I’d love to know what focus groups prompted W Hotels to add that little feature.

The next morning we boarded a light rail train for downtown Portland. All the wonderful things that have been written about the city’s mass transit system are absolutely true. For $5 apiece we bought day passes that covered every train, bus and trolley car in the city, unlimited use. The trains and buses were neat and quiet with windows that were obviously washed on a regular basis (unlike the trains and buses in a certain city with the initials SF).

We popped out of the train into the sunshine of Pioneer Courthouse Square with its big waterfall fountain. We strolled around its pristine Pioneer Courthouse, built in 1869. I wonder if anyone realizes what a jewel this building is. We admired the antique furniture and the paintings and walked up to the cupola, which had its original windows made by pouring thick, molten glass into molds. Posted at each window were historic views of the city so even strangers like us could see how the city had changed.

We left the courthouse and strolled through the leafy streets packed with coffee shops and donut shops and pretty flowering parks. Everything looked fresh and scrubbed to our jaded San Francisco eyes, the city reminded us of a big Ann Arbor. Actually Oregon in general had a very Midwest feel to us – like Michigan with mountains. People were friendly and talkative, especially the gas station employees, who are required by law to pump our gas. Ron loved this and announced that it should be a law everywhere.

Then we visited the Oregon History Museum was south of Pioneer Courthouse Square and full of exhibits about geology, the Oregon Trail, Native American culture, and more. Then we took the light rail to the Japanese Garden, which cost nearly $10 a head but was worth every penny. Benny was given a treasure map to follow and darted around the gravel walks and wooden bridges, looking for lion dogs, pagodas, bronze cranes and buddhas with tiger cubs. Ron and I trailed behind, stopping at little streams and arbors.

We topped off the day with a visit to VooDoo Doughnuts near Portland’s Chinatown. We’d been wondering where all the Portland hipsters were — downtown was all office workers and tourists — and found them standing in a coiled line for Voodoo Dolls, a doll-shaped doughnut with chocolate frosting and a pretzel stake. Ron picked out a Captain My Captain, topped with Captain Crunch and Benny had a giant doughnut with Oreo cookie chunks and I ate a doughnut-shaped explosion of colored sprinkles.

We bought extra doughnuts for the next morning, for we were hitting the road the next day, and the Aloft Hotel was too hip for continental breakfasts, preferring a “Grab and Go” bar stocked with expensive treats. We planned to cross the Columbia River and drive up Mt. St. Helens, through the eruption-devastated landscape. I couldn't wait.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Redwoods and Butterflies

The next morning we took surprisingly hot showers at the KOA camp and ate a huge pancake breakfast before hitting the road. Today we hoped to tour the redwood forests that stretch to the Oregon border.

At this point I’d turned off the email feature on my cell phone to avoid the regular messages from my memoir writing group. I’d joined this group the month before  and these people are actually quite talented. We have a former cult member, a woman whose family survived the Holocaust and a former Tibetan nun who just published a self-help book for sex addicts. They are, however, a little obsessive. The leader, who I’ll call Padme, wants consensus on everything, and actually suggested I join a conference call to discuss scheduling while on vacation. Obviously, that couldn’t happen, especially since I’d taken a very hard line about Ron dealing with work during our trip. I was already unhappy because he’d be forced to take three phone calls about an upcoming biotech forum in the first week of the trip. So I had to set some boundaries with the group, but that didn’t stop them from sending out a stream of emails every day, making my phone knock like a tiny woodpecker with each one. I like my writing group, but sometimes it’s a little too Berkeley for me.

Anyway, we drove to the end of Highway 1 and turned onto the Avenue of the Giants, past all the weird sings and giant wooden Big Foots. A sign promising a drive-through redwood tree lured us off the highway for a picnic lunch. The big pond nearby teamed with bullfrogs. It was a big frog family reunion, from the large, croaking males to the smaller females hissing nearby in approval, to baby frogs hidden in reeds and tiny tadpoles wiggling along the edges.

The next day we hiked through redwoods, resting at times to listen to the trees creak in the wind. You could close your eyes and pretend you were on a seafaring galleon, listening to the rigging creak, it was that loud. Ron took his first conference call parked outside a tiny general store in Gasquet near the Smith River, while I sat on a wooden bench and read “Magic of Oz” to Benny.

At this point we’d left the Coast Ranges, created when the Pacific Ocean floor slid under North America, scraping off  sediment and ocean floor and crumpling it into mountains. We’d entered the Klamath block, a complicated series of rock belts and closely resemble the Sierra Nevadas. In fact, geologists think the Klamath block is the northern part of the Sierra Nevadas, moved north about 60 miles. My book promised some basalt pillows near the Smith River but I couldn’t find any at the one path that offered river access. So I took some pictures of butterflies instead.

Benny at the Smith River near the Oregon border.

At Crescent City, we left 101 to head northeast toward Crater Lake. We were mightily tempted by the Oregon Caves just on the other side of the border, but it was getting late, so we stopped for the night in Medford, Oregon.

I checked the road conditions for Crater Lake, and they didn’t look great. The main route to the crater was open, but the drive around the crater’s rim was still closed. Snowplows were still removing the 31 feet of snow that piled up over the winter.

So we held a family council, and decided to head north on I-5, straight to Portland. From there we’d go to Mt. St. Helens, then tour the Columbia River Gorge. Then we’d circle back down to Crater Lake on the off chance the rim drive would be open. Such are the hazards of going to the Cascades in June.

I thought the drive up I-5 would be dull in a sort of I-94-oh-God-we’re-not-even-to-Kalamazoo-yet sort of way. But it was way fun. My repeated attempts to recognize Klamath geology were a dismal failure, but soon we were in the Willamette Valley anyway. At Eugene, we stopped by the Cascades Raptor Center, a nonprofit nature center and wildlife hospital specializing in birds of prey. We visited a couple dozen huge birds, unable to return to the wild due to injuries or birth defects.

It was a little pricey -- $18 for the three of us – but it was for such a good cause I didn’t mind. We never would have found the place, though, if it hadn’t been for our Greta Garmin, who directed us off I-5 and through a residential area and past some sheep and into a forest. We couldn’t help but think of those drivers who blindly follow their GPS into reservoirs and wondered if we’d end up in Montana before we had the wit to turn around.

Well, the place was worth every penny, especially for Benny, who loves big birds with talons. Many of them suffered eye or wing injuries, two physical attributes that raptors especially rely on. We saw a bald eagle from Alaska, some really loud kestrels, an absolutely huge gyrfalcon, a beautiful Hedwig snowy owl and a spooky Great Horned Owl who swiveled his head to watch Benny. Seriously, it was unnerving how it tracked the boy as Benny hopped from cage to cage.  We arrived right at feeding time, too, with volunteers moving between cages like carhops, carrying trays of dead mice. Benny spent some of his money on a big stuffed eagle he named Baldy.

The Loch Ness Monster at the Oregon Garden.
We spent the night just north of Salem near the Oregon Gardens, a spectacular 80-acre botanical garden.  It was warm and sunny the next morning, and Ron and I followed Benny as he scooted up paths and over bridges and around fountains. Benny actually knows the most about gardens in the family, since he’s spent a couple years in Grattan’s garden program. There were giant roses – you could choke on the scent – as well as a pet garden, a 400-year-old oak tree and shrubs shaped like bears. We had lunch at the garden before heading to Portland.

A black petunia at the Oregon Garden.