06 October 2006


6 October 2006

Once, many years ago, I sat on a beach on the Oregon coast taking pictures with the camera my father had given me.  I was photographing the sunset. 

I have always loved the beach at sunset. The rest of the visitors are all packing it in for the day– trying to get home before full dark.  The beach empties out and a sense of isolation and peace descends.  The ocean and the sky lie unbounded in front while the dunes protect my back.

In the time I can breathe in and out once, the sun has dipped a little lower, so bright that even its reflection in the waves is too bright too bear.

That sunset, twenty years past, a man walked up to me and inquired about my camera.  I didn’t know him and wouldn’t recognize him now, but we chatted, sharing the same beach-stranded log for a short time.  Eventually the sun set.  The sand chilled my feet.  I packed up and went home.  He strolled away down the beach.

Why do I remember that day?  I certainly don’t remember what we talked about, other than a shared interested in photography. 

I remember that day because I was a shy teenager who was feeling alone and isolated, who had books for company rather than peers (and, quite frankly preferred the books– they were easier to understand).  On that day, that sunset conversation was window into an adult world, where life happens causally and with a minimum of fuss and drama.

It was a realization that a conversation might be the beginning of a relationship or it might be the entire relationship.

Over time, that conversation has become my reminder that you don’t plan to meet the person who will become a lifelong friend.  Instead you have conversations– some of which end at sunset and some of which last a lifetime.

09 August 2006


9 August 2006

I reflect on my life quite often.  I think about the pivotal moments that lead me to make one choice over another and I try to follow the threads back in time to see where my path originated.  I think I inherited this tendency from my grandmother, she used to tell my mother how much better a life my mother would have had if grandmother’s first husband had not died.  Mom’s answer to this was to point out that she wouldn’t have been born, so she wouldn’t have had much of life at all.

I recently tried to write out a list of people who, by accident or design helped me make the choices that lead me to where I am now.   I was surprised when I looked it over, that it didn’t include some of the obvious people (immediate family, best friends, etc...) but rather was a list of people who, for the most part, are off having their own lives.  People who I knew in high school or college and have since lost touch with.

Part of the reason I am able to categorize the impact they had on my life, is because they are no longer in it.  When I try to think of things I have learned from current friends and family, I have a hard time coming up with anything specific.  But when I think back to people who were important to me ten or twenty years ago, it is much easier to point out moments when they showed me something about myself or something about the outside world that reshaped my perceptions and, in some cases, caused me to make choices that very clearly led to where I am today.

During that time, the word ‘enabler’ came to mean someone who was encouraging negative behaviour in someone else.  One, enabled a drunkard, or a drug user, or some such trouble.  I’d like to reclaim the word ‘enabler’ and salute the long list of people who enabled me to be the person that I am, living the life that I have.  I learned lessons from them (sometimes painful lessons) that I took into the world with me and that have allowed me to live a wonderful life so far.

Each of us enables other people by modelling behaviour, asking questions, or providing a listening ear but we rarely get to see the impact of our contributions to someone else’s life.  Our relationship to them changes over time or they drift away.  Life is a work in progress and none of us get to see the final product.

All this does make me wonder if any of the people in my life at present will look back in ten or twenty years and see that I had an impact on their life.  If so, I can only hope that it will have been a good one.

04 August 2006


4 August 2006

When I was sixteen, I was invited out to see teachers.  At that time there was at least one teacher who would socialize with students who had graduated and the person who asked me out was one of the people who regularly got together with him.  Imagine my surprise when we arrived at the movie theater and my escort bought us tickets for the movie “Teachers.”  

I don’t remember much of the movie because I spent the entire time panicking about what I would tell my parents when I got home, as I was not allowed to see rated “R” movies.  To this day I don’t remember what I told them.  Knowing me, I either didn’t really say anything, or I confessed all and threw myself on their mercy.  I think I did the latter, as I have a vague recollection of them telling me not to worry about it.  Like many teenagers I lacked a sense of proportion, and while I grew out of some of my more dramatic tendencies, I have found through the years that I am still clueless in certain, very specialized ways.

Something like this happens to me every few years.  I mis-understand something so completely that the person I am talking to and I don’t even realize we are talking about completely different things until they are confronted with the evidence of my bafflement.

I should know from my years of dispute resolution training, to ask clarifying questions in such situations.  The problem is, that I don’t realize there is anything to be confused about until I already at the movie theater having no clue how we wound up there (to use my earlier story as an metaphor).

Misunderstandings happen all the time, even between friends who have known each other for years.  I filter words though my experiences and, sometimes faulty, senses and come up with an explanation that makes sense.  I add to the words the my understanding of another person’s body language and other non-verbal cues.  Even with all of that information, I can end up completely off the mark.

I have learned over the years, is to not take it too all to seriously.  It helps that my friends are willing to laugh off such mistakes with me– but even when a misunderstanding happens with someone I don’t know well, a sense of humor helps turn an unsurmountable  mountain of confusion into a mere speed bump.

I’m not saying there aren’t serious issues that should be fought out in the trenches.  I, for one hold the line on issues of choice, gender equality, and human rights.  Some battles are worth fighting.  However, before I suit up for battle, I try to make certain that there is a battle to be fought.  

As a result of my life experience, there are some issues that make me take to the lists promptly.  

As a result of my various, and sometimes embarrassing misunderstandings over simple things, I try to ensure that I am acting on correct information before I get my lance out and charge.

16 June 2006

Who am I?

16 June 2006

When I was in High School I wrote a poem by that title.  I still have it.  Somewhere in the attic is a box labelled ‘Teen-Angst Poetry.  

My life is always, on some level, a search for my identity.  “Who am I?” frequently transmutes into “What am I?”  Like most folks I can reel off a list of labels, groups I belong to by choice or heritage that have shaped me over the years.  A sample list would include: Mother, Wife, Episcopalian, Human Rights Supporter, Norwegian-Scottish-English-French-Irish-American (aka Mutt), Bisexual, Monogamous, Reader, Writer.  There are many more, but the entire list would take up a whole page by itself if I put my mind to it.

The one that trips me up the most is ‘bisexual.’  I haven’t mentioned it in previous essays and that is in part because it is difficult to talk about without sharing Too Much Information.  Not that I have any real tales to tell but, for someone who writes about life and posts it for the world to see, I’m easily embarrassed.

I had the classic experience of going away to college and discovering that I was attracted to women as well as men.  I was a late bloomer in that respect– I didn’t really figure out why some of my friends personalities changed so much during Junior High and High School until my junior year.  Then the hormones hit and all the strange behavior suddenly made sense.  When I started college I was still in the early stages of adapting to this new influx of information.

Then I discovered girls and immediately panicked– that’s how strong my feelings were.  It was a life changing experience.  However, I never acted on any of my feelings.  (See still figuring out hormones, above.)  I told my mom what was going on and she gave me the number of a friend of hers who was out as a gay woman.  We talked about the pros and cons of going any further in telling folks about my newly discovered feelings.  She suggested waiting.

Maybe if I had waited, I wouldn’t have felt any need to tell anyone else that I was bisexual.  After all I ended up in a heterosexual relationship with a wonderful man.  We lived together, were engaged for nearly two years and married after we graduated from college. 

I didn’t wait.  I couldn’t wait.  I felt like every day I didn’t tell my family and close friends put more and more pressure on me.  I was genuinely frightened when I decided to tell my father.  I had heard stories of people being disowned for coming out and while I love my dad, I wasn’t certain what his reaction would be.  It was a very awkward conversation but I remember that while he sounded freaked out he also attempted to make a joke and show that it was still okay between us.  To this day I don’t know his side of the story but I’m tearing up as I write this, remembering how relieved I and happy I was to know that I was still his daughter.

I tell this story because, to this day, I don’t really know if I ‘count’ as bisexual.  I am hidden from view, and while most of my friends know (especially the ones who were around in the old days), there is nothing in my life to actively remind people and it is not an easy thing to throw into a conversation.  I have no practical experience being in a same-sex relationship.  Does that lack of experience invalidate what I sincerely went through years ago?  More importantly, as someone who strongly believes in human rights for all and specifically equal rights (including marriage) for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered people, what obligation do I have to point out to the people around me that I am privileged?  

The person I chose (and who chose me) happened to be male.  If I had been courted and won by a woman I would not enjoy the legal and societal benefits that I do now.  And while I didn’t take that path, the experience I had of recognizing my attraction to women (and looking back to High School, some of the signs were present even then) opened my mind.  Am I gay?  I don’t really know anymore, and given the structure of my current relationship I don’t really think I’ll ever have a chance to find out.  

That shouldn’t stop me from sharing my story.

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.