29 March 2006


29 March 2006

A year or so ago, I was experimenting with taking the bus.  I walked up to the bus shelter and saw a man sitting and eating his dinner.  The weather being fine and not wanting to intrude, I stood over by the bus sign and tried to figure out when my bus would arrive.

The man started talking to me.  I didn’t really understand what he was saying– something about when the bus would come.  I don’t always parse what people are saying to me, especially when I’ve been lost in thought and don’t have any context for the conversation.  So sometimes my initial replies don’t make much sense either.

In this case, I answered that I thought my bus would be along in five minutes.

He told me to go away.  

I didn’t think I had heard correctly and repeated that my bus would be along soon.

He launched into full-on crazy talking about how this was his bus stop and he was trying to eat in peace.  When I didn’t immediately leave, he flung down his food and stalked away.  My bus came about 30 seconds later.  I felt both bad and scared.  Bad, because he had thrown away his meal and scared because he had become very angry, very quickly.

I spent some time thinking about the way I had handled the situation– could I have done anything different so as not to offend this person?  To this day, I don’t know.  I was standing 15-20 feet away from the shelter and trying not to intrude.  That particular bus stop wasn’t near anything else– it wasn’t like I could duck into another business or even easily cross the street.  After a while the incident was shuffled off into long-term storage in my memory.

It came up today because of my CD player.  I had the main floor of the house to myself and was working in the kitchen.  I decided to play a new CD that a friend had given me.  I put it in the player and listened to the first song.  

Then the CD stopped.  I bumped it along to the next song and worked on dicing potatoes.  It stopped again.  I was starting to worry that something might be wrong with the CD.  I did this twice more and was beginning to consider who I would contact to report this strange problem. 

I was just at the stage of imagining how I would explain the problem to whoever I finally contacted when it occurred to me to check the settings on our CD player.  Sure enough, that was the culprit.  It was set to play only one track at a time (something I didn’t realize it could do).  Apparently, when my husband had made a tape of our son’s favorite song for sharing at school he had used that setting and not switched it back.

I am in the habit of looking at a problem and trying to figure out what my contribution to it might be.  Regardless of whether it is a person or a machine that I am having difficulty with, frequently I am at fault for at least part of the situation.  If I try to analyse the event and figure out what I contributed, I can do better next time.

It doesn’t always work.  The difficulty lies in figuring out how much time and energy to put into determining where my part of things went wrong.  With the CD player, it only took a moment to step back and think about what else could be different (other than the CD itself being non-functional).  For a brief application of time and thoughtfulness, I was rewarded with a tidy solution to my problem.

Sometimes, as with the man at the bus stop, I could replay the loop of our three-minute interaction endlessly looking for where I went wrong and get no closer to an answer.  

Sometimes it’s just me, and the answer lies close to hand... 

if I’m willing to look for it.

22 March 2006


22 March 2006

I heard on the radio today that Portland was rated the most ‘vegetarian friendly’ city by some organization or another.  This called to mind something that happened a long time ago.  

My Youngest Brother, at somewhere between ages nine and thirteen had declared to the family that he was a vegetarian, and not just vegetarian, but vegan. At the time we lived in Wyoming.  Also at the time he was the only vegan that I knew.  

As was our custom, that summer we drove to Portland to visit out mother’s family.  We’d been over to visit Grandma in her new apartment and were off to do something else when lunch rolled around.  We specifically looked for a restaurant that would have food my brother could eat.  We weren’t having much luck, so when we found one that offered gardenburgers we went in and ordered.

Our food came out and those of us without dietary restrictions started eating.  We were all very hungry, as the search for a restaurant had taken longer than expected.  Youngest Brother however, had realized that the restaurant didn’t actually grasp the whole ‘vegan’ concept.  They had cooked his burger on the same grill as the meat– contaminating it.  

Now with three hungry kids, one of them very disappointed, and a mom who’d had to deal with them this whole time, it was not a pleasant scene.  I don’t remember the resolution.  I do remember how upset Youngest Brother was and how tense I felt as a result.  I am afraid my middle brother and I might have not been as sympathetic to his dilemma as we might have been.

Over the years this memory faded, leaving behind only a very strong need to try to cater to possible food allergies and dietary restrictions in others.  I never thought about how my perception of Portland as a city might have been shaped by that encounter.  I was surprised when my reaction to the news item on the radio was outright skepticism.  It wasn’t until I’d thought about it and brought this memory up from long term storage that I realized my perception of an entire city was shaped, in part by that one encounter in a restaurant over 25 years ago.

Each day, as I go about my business, I meet people and have encounters with businesses, civic groups, and volunteer organizations.  Most of those interactions are positive but the few negative ones have real staying power and can affect not only my perception of a particular business but of an entire region of town.  And if it’s not a place I visit often, I might never have cause to revise my opinion.  Not only that, but as my reaction to the news story shows, I am going to give more weight to my own personal experience, even if it is severely out of date.

I don’t think I’m unique in this.  The saying “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” can be literally true.  The first encounter I have with a person or organization my be the only encounter I have with them, and while a good impression may fade away in a haze of general memories, a bad encounter leaves a mark that is difficult to erase.

07 March 2006


7 March 2006

Growing up in Wyoming, what I remember most from my teenage years are stifling hot summers that sapped my energy and freezing cold winters that sometimes came so early that my Halloween costume would have to be designed around my thick winter coat.

One winter activity that I remember clearly is ice skating.   Every year the baseball field would be flooded and the club house turned into a warming hut.   I don’t remember if I ever owned skates but I do remember being taught how to skate, first on double-bladed skates and then later on traditional single-bladed skates.

I was never a very good skater.   I got to the point where I could stay on my feet while going fast enough to play tag with my friends-- a game which later evolved into the more cruel, "steal the hat or mitten and bury in the snow bank around the edge of the ring."   Usually the hat or glove was found promptly, but I remember at least one occasion where the hat disappeared.   We searched in vain but finally gave up and hoped it would turn up in the spring– which was very cold comfort to the owner of the lost hat.

So, I could keep my feet on skates, even to the point of learning how to skate backward and make two-footed turns.   But my absolute favorite thing about skating was the feeling of flying.   Once up to speed I could glide around the ice, arms spread wide, and feel as if I were floating just above the ground.   It was wonderful.

Then I moved to the Pacific Northwest to go to school and found a wonderful temperate climate.   I was willing to trade alternating hot and cold sunshine for the all-year gray-green mist.   I could grow roses without having to cut them back and bundle them up against the cold every fall.   I felt like I had come home.

One thing the Pacific Northwest doesn’t have at the lower altitudes is ice, or at least not in any persistent form.   There are no exterior clues to tell you that it is time for winter sports.   When my husband, housemate, and I moved into our very own house I noticed that there was an ice rink not far away.   I drove by it every time I went to the nursery to buy new plants for our yard but for eight years it never registered that I could go skate there.

This year while we were watching the Olympics my son said he was interested in learning how to ice skate.   I thought that might be fun and so used the power of the internet to see if we had a local ice rink.   Up popped the name of the rink I had driven by for so many years.   It has its own web site, complete with open skate times, so off we went.

The two of us rented skates and held hands as we stepped down onto the ice.   He held onto the wall and I held onto him.   We made it around the rink on our wobbly legs twice before giving in.   It was fun to go with him while he tried something new (and I tried to remember how to stay upright).

I came home tired that day, but happy.   A few days passed and the thought kept popping up that it would be good to go skating on my own and see if I could regain any of my old skills.   I picked a time and showed up with the rink, entrance fee in hand.   I strapped on the rented skates and pushed away from the wall.

I promptly fell down.   I got back up, with the help of the wall, and, very slowly made it around the rink, stopping every two circuits to rest and adjust my skates.   I went home wondering if I could come again.

Today I made time.   I was at the rink at a time when there were just two other skaters practicing.   I went round and round so many times that I lost count.   I practiced bending my knees while speeding along.   I only fell down twice.   Though once I was very far from the wall and, after trying to get up on my own I had to knee walk over the wall and leverage myself up.   I need to build up some of my balance and some skating specific leg muscles.   Knee pads might also be nice.

At thirty-seven years of age, I’m not likely to set the world on fire with my skating.   If I keep going I might relearn some of the tricks I could do so many years ago.   As I was skating, I felt the burden of potential fall away from me.   There are many things I will never be, many roads that are closed to me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t fly.

05 March 2006

A Helping Hand

5 March 2006

I have continued my adventures in ice skating.  Some old skills are coming back to me.  Unfortunately not the one that involves standing back up on the ice after falling down.  Fortunately, the falling down doesn’t hurt as much as I feared. Most of the energy of the fall goes into the skid across the ice and less goes into me– making it much easier to want to get back up and continue skating.  However my muscle memory is for someone much lighter and younger than I am now, making things a bit difficult.

So for the past few sessions I have been making due with sliding across the ice on my knees until I reach the boards where I can pull myself up.  This works fine, but is a little embarrassing and does not allow me to get out of the way very quickly.

At home, I have been trying to figure out the logistics of levering my body up off the ice., but it is difficult to accurately simulate both the stiffness of the skate boots and the slipperiness of an ice rink in my kitchen.

Today I made time for another session on the ice.  As I gained the ice  my feet felt pretty solid under me and  I made it around the rink more times than I expected before the inevitable crash landing.  I was a little way from the wall so I decided to try to get up on my own.  I was not having much success– picture a live fish flopping around on dry land and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I looked like– and was about to give up when one of the regular skaters came up to me and asked if he could help me up.

I told him thanks but suggested that I might be a bit heavy for him.  He persisted and I accepted his hand.  I did not rise gracefully to my feet– even with his hand to steady me I flailed about and was very surprised when I did not take us both down.  He never once lost his own balance and in a mere moment I was back on my feet.  He advised me to stay close to the wall and skated off.

I skated round to one of the exits and decided to practice getting up and down on my skates, off the ice (and without the aid of a wall to pull up on).  After two or three tries I came up with a technique that I thought would work for me and I set out on the ice to try it out.

I picked a quiet corner and used the wall to get down on my hands and knees.  Having successfully ‘fallen,’ I tried getting up.  Imagine my surprise when it worked!  My technique was not at all graceful but it did the job.

I skated a victory lap.  Then just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, I picked another corner and tried getting up again.  I was in the middle of getting my toes and hands braced when my rescuer from earlier came by to ask if I was okay.  I explained that I was just practising and he skated off and left me to it. 

Later, while I  unlacing my skates, I realized that the help I had been given had been more than just a hand up. I had been given the experience of what it felt like to stand up without the help of the wall.  And from that, I had constructed my own method of rising from a fall– gaining a measure of independence in the process.  For that to happen I had to first accept help when it was offered and then he had to be willing to let me struggle when I declined his help the second time.

What I learned from him will stay with me for a good long time and reminds me to offer those around me a helping hand where my own skills permit and to back off when they want to try on their own.  

I will never know when a moment of my time will grow into a learning experience for someone else, but I will never know if I don’t step back when asked.