Friday, April 04, 2014

Ghost towns



My latest Netflix's binge watching was a Ken Burns series from PBS on the history of the West. Or more specifically, the American West. I'd like to say that it has made me proud to be an American, but unfortunately, the history of our country really doesn't make you feel good about mankind in general.

For one, we as a civilization royally screwed the Native Americans from day one.  So it only seems fitting that they exact revenge by selling us cigarettes, fireworks and geriatric come back bands via Native American casinos.

As near as I can figure, the migration west by white Americans was pretty much inspired by intense greed and self absorption. Everybody seemed to go west to get away from something and get something. If the Pacific Ocean wasn't there, I imagine a vast majority of the people would have kept going.

 My ancestors weren't any difference. In my amateur genealogy studies I have traced their migrations from places like West Virginia, Ohio, Kansas and Missouri until they ended up in Idaho. Some kept going and ended up in California, Oregon and Washington (like me). All of my ancestors seem to have been poor and kept heading west to try and outrun poverty. Almost all seemed to be farmers or farm hands. Some fought in the Revolutionary War. Several fought in the Civil War. A couple were in World War I and most of my uncles (and my father) served in World War II. But that all seems to fit with the pattern of being poor. Wars are fought by poor men without the resources to avoid being caught up in them.

But I only have my mother's family to trace since my father was adopted and nothing is known about his lineage. And since my mother's family and their ancestors before them were predominantly poor and uneducated, they left little or no written documentation of their existence. There was a brief write up of my Great Great Grandmother being a prominent rancher and land holder in Boise. She was born in West Virginia, married a man 20 years her senior and migrated to Idaho after brief stints in Iowa and Kansas. Her husband had been born in Ohio. One census record shows he was a chair maker by trade and that he spent some time in a mental institution. He also fought in the Civil War.

There is no record of why my Great Great Grandfather was in a mental institution or what his Civil War experience was like. I know nothing of their journey West or how they acquired a ranch in Idaho or how they lost the land before my mother was born. My Great Great Grandfather died in 1911. My Great Great Grandmother died 25 years later.

It strikes me that, culturally, I have no evidence that my ancestors came from anywhere but America. Logically, at some point, someone sailed from somewhere in Europe and planted my family tree. But they were likely poor, common laborers with no time to worry about lineage or recording. I imagine they were simply trying to survive and got swept along with the other waves of poor people surging across America looking for something better.

So I can't call myself an Irish American or an Italian American, or Scottish American. Fortunately my wife's family can be traced straight back to Ireland, so my son at least can say he has some Irish Heritage. I'd guess my ancestors originally came from England. But I know of no one who refers to themselves as British Americans. Maybe it's the whole Revolutionary War thing. My bloodlines are so mixed with other Americans of unknown origin that I am simply an American. I have no traditional dances, songs, clothing or festivals to celebrate my culture.

There is something ironic about that.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Old MacDonald had a farm


First, it isn't very politically correct to call Old MacDonald, "Old" MacDonald. But I'm sure generations of children wouldn't have bought singing a song about Senior Citizen MacDonald or Middle-aged MacDonald having a farm. Regardless, it is clear that MacDonald wasn't young. And not being young, it was necessary to remind him what animals he had on his farm and what sounds they made. Because having worked the farm most of his life would mean very little to younger people coming along with new ideas of how a farm should run. And the assumption would logically be that since Old MacDonald didn't follow the latest trends in social media, he was incapable of making sound decisions on running his farm.


Actually Old MacDonald has a Twitter account but he finds ending tweets with E-I-E-I-O eats up a lot of the 140 characters you are allowed. He also has a Facebook account but he just uses it to post photos of the baby animals and doesn't really care about likes or click-through rates. Oh, and he has a LinkedIn account, but the only people who want to connect with him are looking to work on his farm and take it over. He also has Instagram and Pinterist accounts but he has no idea what the purpose of them is.

And no, Old MacDonald isn't having a mid-life crisis. He just doesn't remember when he made the transition from Young MacDonald to Old MacDonald and why it is necessary to emphasize the change in the first place. Wasn't there a time when people actually respected the theoretic wisdom of their elders? Or maybe this is a myth based on the time when the life expectancy wasn't much longer than 40.

It's just that Old MacDonald remembers when he was young and no one listened to his opinion because he was considered too young to know anything. And now he believes no one listens to him because they think he is too old to know anything. He seems to miss that point when he was in his prime and people respected his opinion. Old MacDonald believes this would be different if he had lots of money. Because being rich trumps being old.

But Old MacDonald is a simple farmer who sometimes wishes he had chosen another profession. At one time he wanted to be an artist or a musician. And he doubts he would have been any better off being an Old Artist or an Old Musician. Most artists end up supplementing their income by working at a Starbucks. And if they are successful old artists, most people are waiting for them to die so the value of their art will go up.

Similarly, most musicians also work at Starbucks. The better ones end up in rehab. The old ones tend to embarrass themselves by having come back tours at small casinos in the mid-West. Or they go all Kenny Rogers and use plastic surgery to create tragic masks of their lost youth.

So maybe Old MacDonald is better off on his farm (which is the same place his parents say all of his childhood pets went to live when he was growing up).

 E-I-E-I-O.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Running the green (3.1) mile


Let me get this straight, I don't consider myself a runner. I don't believe I have ever found myself in "the zone" nor have I had an adrenalin rush from running. I am what I would describe a "reluctant runner." So when I say that I ran in the annual St. Patrick's Day Dash in Seattle yesterday, I don't want anyone to get the idea that it is something I do on a regular basis.

This was my second 5K run. I used to think a 5K was a long distance but technically it is only 3.1 miles.Still, when you are running in the pouring rain uphill, 3.1 miles seems like a long distance. It seems like a long distance indeed.

My wife and children have walked in the Dash in the past. Well technically, my wife and I walked and my children sat in strollers while we pushed. The first year we were in the race, it rained and then snowed. Last year, I think it just rained. But this year my son declared he'd had enough. So he and my daughter simply ran in the Leprechaun Lap just before the dash (a half-mile sprint) and I signed up for an actual timed portion of the Dash which has four waves of runners/walkers. Only the first two waves are timed. I ran in the second wave.

Fortunately, the Dash is not a hard core running race. Many people wear costumes. And just about everyone wears something green. It is, after all, a St. Patrick's Day run. I felt sorry for the people who chose to wear more elaborate costumes for the race since it was pouring rain the entire time. It was also a bit cold and breezy. At one point I found myself lodged between a green Bigfoot and a woman with an inflatable beer stein on her back. The Bigfoot was pretty waterlogged and the beer stein woman was fighting not to be carried off by strong gusts of wind.

I grew up believing I was of Irish descent. That belief was dispelled when we learned my father was adopted. And despite not being of Irish descent, I still get a bit annoyed that your average American perceives that the Irish run around dressed like leprechauns while swilling mass quantities of green beer. Heck, my daughter had a presentation in her first grade class by one of her classmate's mother. It was on their family's Irish heritage. My daughter came home wearing green Mardi Gras beads with a shot glass attached that the mother had handed out. She'd also gave the kids green shamrock cookies. That was her own view of her Irish heritage. Nothing about the history of the Irish in America and how they had helped fight our Civil War, built our railroads and pretty much ran the police forces of many American cities.

But I digress.

So I ran the St. Patrick's Day Dash. I didn't break any records, but I finished the race despite the pouring rain and the green debris scattered on the roadway by the other green clad runners and walkers. And why did I do it? Well I really wanted the run t-shirt.

What doe you expect from a middle-aged, non-Irish man who is now closer to 60 than 50?








Tuesday, March 11, 2014

I grill, therefore I am

Some people meditate. Some people pray. Some people sit on the pot and ponder.

I grill.

And I don't just grill in the summer. I grill all year round. Shoot, I'd grill every day if I could. Because to me, the closest thing you come to sitting around the primal fire pondering the magic of fire and charred meat is the modern day gas grill.

It helps that grilling time is also a time I usually enjoy a glass of brandy as well. But it is part of the warming ritual, because I often grill on my deck at night when it is raining, snowing or just plain cold. I flip on the overhead electric heater, fire up the grill, line up the meat and sit back to reflect. Sometimes I'll tune in my starred music list from Spotify (which lately consists of some pretty haunting melodies done in a kind of fusion blue grass style).

It doesn't really matter what I'm grilling. Though I prefer slow cooking meats so I have more time to reflect. I don't use timers when I grill. I think the same body clock that wakes me up every morning without an alarm clock kicks in. So I automatically know when its time to turn the meat or shift it to get a nice diamond grill mark on it.

I'm not one of those purist freaks who turns their nose down at gas when they grill. I have no desire to deal with charcoal. A flame is a flame. And I'd rather have one that is pretty automatic than one I have to coax out of a brick with lighter fluid. It is the flame that my moth is drawn to, not the fuel.

I usually get a bit melancholy when I grill. Not maudlin, mind you. Just pleasantly sad. Maybe it's the blue grass music. Or maybe it's brandy. Regardless, it's a time when the ghosts come out and the memories gather for a reunion. I reflect on many things when I grill. It is kind of a timeless time.

No one really taught me to grill. Oh, I remember watching my father pull out the barbecue and fire up charcoal to burn burgers or cheap steaks. But he didn't relish the act the way I do. He was just cooking meat. I am getting my cosmic grill on. I am one with the smoke and the sizzling fat. I embrace the blast of heat as I lift the lid and I merge with the marinade and the steam that rises as it drips into the flame.

But most of all I just sit and think as the meat evolves into a meal. My father never had that luxury. He only grilled in the summer as screaming kids ran around him throwing baseballs or splashing on the Slip and Slide. I get to sit on my deck year long and ponder as the water in the stream below our house trickles by and the cars on the adjacent street stream along.

Sometimes, on a rare clear night in the Pacific Northwest, I gaze at stars while I reflect on my life and my gas grill. I reflect on the programs I see on the History Channel while I work out and marvel that, despite all of our hopes to save the planet (and mankind), it will all be for naught a few hundred million years down the line when the sun super nova's and fries everything on the planet before imploding or exploding. That will be one major grilling event I unfortunately (or fortunately) won't be around for.

It puts everything into perspective. Life is like one big gas grill, and no matter how you plan things, the propane tank eventually runs out of gas (and too often when the stores are closed and you are just half way through grilling some chicken).

Just a thought.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Hey mister, throw me some beads



I was in New Orleans last week during the first week of Mardi Gras. It has been one of those things that I always wanted to do. Oh, I've been to New Orleans several times, just never during Mardi Gras. The last time I was there was the March before Katrina. I was pleased to find that pretty much nothing has changed in the French Quarter in the nine years since I was there before.

But enough about the past. I can now say that I have truly experienced not one but at least six Mardi Gras parades. And I've got to admit that, despite the crowds and the waiting and the inclement weather, it was pretty darned fun.


And I caught my share of beads and doubloons. And all I had to do was stand there and wave my arms. Despite what many people think, you don't have to flash to get beads (except on Bourbon Street). You do need to pay attention though. I swear the people on the floats throw unopened bags of beads at the heads of people looking the other way.


It is an odd ritual. As is the ritual of coffee and beignets at the Cafe Du Monde. You do it because everyone says you need to. And the French Market really doesn't have anything French in it. You can buy lots of alligator heads, beads (like you need to buy them) and t-shirts with things written on them like, "I have the body of a god...unfortunately it is Buddah."

Don't eat at Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville unless you really like non-stop videos of Parrot Heads. The food isn't anything to text home about. Try Mother's if you want genuine New Orleans food. Because apparently genuine New Orleans food has to be served cafeteria style in a dive with tables and chairs from the 1950s (which seems to be the last time they were cleaned as well). And it all has to be served up in one big congealed mass. The Rain Man would definitely have not enjoyed eating at Mother's. The bread pudding was to die for, however.

Bourbon Street was as skanky as I remember it. The most memorable thing I heard while walking along Bourbon Street one night was a drunk girl standing under a balcony looking up at some frat boys. She slurred out to one of them, "You look real cute. Can I come up there and kiss you."


Despite its sometimes tacky, shabby and seedy side, I still love New Orleans. There is no more interesting or charming city nor a place with an atmosphere of mystery that you can slice with a Ginsu knife. You just have to overlook the voodoo dolls and cheap Mardi Gras masks that are all made in China to truly appreciate it.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Monday, February 03, 2014

Guess who won the Super Bowl!


I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that, after 38 years, the Seahawks have finally won a Super Bowl!  Back in 2006 I had to watch Pittsburgh (aided by some pretty bad officials) pluck that Lombardi trophy out of our grasp. But now it comes to roost in a city most of the country doesn't even know exists.

I was actually quite calm as I watched the game. There was this strange sense of peace that I rarely get watching a Seahawks game. It used to be that the Seahawks could be up 43-8 with two minutes left in the game and you still knew they could lose it. But that was the old Seahawks. These are the new Seahawks. Most of them were probably in high school the last time the Seahawks were in the Super Bowl.


Now don't get me wrong, I really am proud of the Seahawks. I've been a fan for years and used to have season tickets until we had kids and it wasn't practical. But I have never been one of these people that so closely identify with a sports team that I feel responsible if they win or lose. Maybe it goes back to my feelings in high school about jocks. But I never used terms like "We won" after a game. After all, it was the players that won, not the people watching them.

Seattle does indeed have 12th man fever. And I heard a great deal of talk about how much the fans played a role in the success of the team. But I don't know how much of that is rhetoric or reality. I don't deny there is a mental aspect to the game that can be affected by the energy of a crowd. But in reality, at the end of the day, the people on the field win or lose a game.

Regardless, go Hawks!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Light from dead stars


No, this isn't a post about Elvis. We watched a 3-D film at the Pacific Science Center IMAX last Saturday about astronomers who study the far reaches of the universe using super big telescopes. And they made the point that, because the stars they were viewing were so far away, the light they were seeing was from millions of years ago and the stars themselves likely had died long ago.

Far out.

As the astronomers watched imploding stars and exploding nebula, they also postured that we, humans, earth and everything were made up from the same elements as the stars and therefore they had discovered the source of everything.

Far out.

After the 3-D movie my daughter asked me several times whether we were made out of stars. I tried explaining that we weren't literally made out of stars, just the same elemental building blocks. But it came out pretty lame and frankly, I like the idea that we are made out of stars. So we went to a laser jukebox show and the star discussion took second fiddle to Pink Floyd.

Far out.

I have thought a great deal about the light of dead stars since then. It reminded me of camping out under the stars when I was a kid staring at the Milky Way and marveling at how vast it was and how ridiculous it seemed, even to my 10-year old mind, that with all those stars and the likely planets that orbited them, we were the only life in the universe. Yet, even if there was life, it was all so far away, we could never encounter it.

You don't see stars much in the city. Thomas Edison is to blame for that. Perhaps that is why I don't ponder them as much as I did when I was a boy. It is impossible not to turn your face upward when faced with a sky of stars, dead or not. It is heaven, after all.

I'm sure the creationists are gnashing their right wing teeth at the concept that everything stems from a series of star factory nebula at the edge of the universe billions of miles away belching out energy that percolates for a few million years and then turns into a star. And if you believe that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, the universe is essentially a cosmic compost bin, recycling the energy from dying stars and using it to create new ones.

So perhaps the human propensity to want to believe in a god or creator and a heaven is based on the collective subconscious knowledge that our world and our species came from that compost bin in the sky. 

Far out.