Monday, October 24, 2016

if i vote and nothing really changes, then what?

Tonight I will join my friends to celebrate Simchat Torah (or, if you're above a certain age, "Simchas Toirah"), a festival literally translated as The Joy Of Torah.
I study Torah regularly, both on my own and weekly with a group of friends. Jews are told to "turn it over and over, for everything is in it."

My life is deeply enriched by this study habit.
And yet, when we are called upon to reflect the truth we find in there back to ourselves in real life, and back to our friends and neighbors through our words and actions, what does it look like?

This election cycle has been brutal for my psyche and my soul. It hasn't played well for some of my relationships, either.
This year, voting felt far less like a privilege and far more like a duty, one that made me want to wash my hands afterwards with shop-strength Borax soap and hot water. I sent off my envelope last week the day after I got it, and felt only drained.
Worse than voting was in reading the earnest posts of so many of my friends and colleagues who still believe their vote matters greatly on every level, and that not casting a vote for the highest office in the land is tantamount to driving while drunk.
(Believe me, if I could drink, I would have poured myself a few shots of Chopin half an hour before filling in those stupid little black dots. Maybe it would have calmed me down.)
But the truth is that I feel like I was born in the wrong age for my vote to count more than as a cipher. Voting for me has become an act of social subterfuge, something I do to make my friends and acquaintances think I'm on board with the program. Voting is what Americans do, especially Americans with a hard-on for flag-waving nationalism, Americans who at least pretend that they believe in the enterprise.
The problem is that, since before I was old enough to vote, the enterprise has been rigged, has been bought and sold a thousand times over by intersts with money and power, has been and is being manipulated by those intersts to help insure a desired outcome that my little vote will not influence in any meaningful way.
If I want to influence the movement of the needle as regards societal values, the way I know best is to live my life and hope it influences others who see what I do.
At the local level, perhaps, my vote can still count -- especially if I live in a small town.
There's an after-school youth recreation program in a small town on the central Oregon Coast today because I registered to vote in Lincoln County and voted for it while I lived there over twenty years ago. Once it got established, people got used to having it and voted the bonds to fund it again and again every few years.
But that outcome is a lot easier to bring about in a town of less than two thousand people.
It's much harder to bring it about in a city of seven hundred thousand. So the powers that be have to spend so much money on their arguments as to make the whole thing seem ridiculous.
We could do a lot more to bring about meaningful change if we diverted those advertising dollars -- millions of them -- to funding job creation and educational programs to reduce poverty and homelessness and hunger.
But no, we need to prop up those important careers in advertising and social media. We have to keep telling our kids that a college degree is your ticket to adulthood. We have to allow our universities to invest in the stock market (because clearly, recruiting students on Financial Aid and reducing your faculty to untenured part-timers without benefits or job security just isn't bringing in the big bucks like you thought it would, right? )
We have to keep the machine running at all costs.

So I vote. 
But really, if I'm being honest, I only vote anymore as a form of social subterfuge, to make folks think that I'm on board with this gigantic glacier of spin and money and wasted potential that our political system is today. Because if anyone suspects that I'm not on board with it, that given the choice I'd drop off an empty ballot and tell the presidential candidates to go jump off a bridge, well, there goes my ability to find employment and to get along with my earnest sign-waving, flag-waving neighbors and to maintain my role in the social order.
(Below: SE 8th and Oak streets, Portland, Summer 2016)
The social order is a mess right now. The proof of that is the four thousand people going to sleep on Portland's sidewalks every night, with no real plan in place to create safe housing and restore mental health treatment for them all. The proof is in the humiliation I still feel when I have to reapply for food stamps every six months -- humiliation I know I shouldn't feel because being this broke isn't my fault, it's the fault of a social order that decided long ago some kinds of work are more "valuable" than others and, well, hey -- I didn't become an advertising executive because back then I wasn't thinking about which job would earn me the most money, because I decided to follow the path my gifts and aptitude led me down instead. Sorry about that.

My casting a vote for President of the United States in 2016 will not change ANY of that.
And I am weary of feeling pressured to act as thought it might.
So I voted.
And I wrote in my choice for president, someone who wasn't on the ballot but who deserves my vote because we share a similar vision of how the country could get back on track. 
And then I voted all the down-ticket things, and then I sealed it in an envelope and sent it off.
I wish to heaven I could be done, that I could wake up and have it be January 31 already so that the new President Figurehead could be installed and we could all just get back to our lives again and calm this crap down. Because this country will continue to be for sale to the highest bidder, and I still won't be allowed into the auction by the bouncer, and I may as well get on with doing what matters, making the change for good that I can make.
Because I learned a very long time ago that my ballot won't change the world nearly as much as my own two hands can.
Back to work. Party's over, people, nothing to see here, move along.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

2016 Coffeeneruing Challenge 6: Life, death and coffee

I'm a member of the Jewish Burial Society here in Portland. That means that when someone in the Jewish community dies and has stipulated that they want a ritually correct Jewish burial, there are volunteers who take turns preparing the deceased for burial, and afterwards other volunteers take turns sitting with the deceased (whose body is prepared and sealed in the coffin) in the waiting room. I serve as a Shomrah, or Guardian. I take a shift (usually 60 to 90 minutes) and sit with the coffin while I read psalms or sit in silent meditation, until the body is taken away for burial in a Jewish cemetery.

I am glad to do this mitzvah, or commandment, even though it's the one thing that the person can never thank me for, the ultimate in paying it forward. I am glad to help bring some comfort to the family, who know that their loved one will remain attended and cared for, usually by complete strangers, right up until the burial.  It also brings things back into a really grounded perspective whenever I'm in danger of stressing too much over the small stuff. Because, as nice as this life can be, we're all gonna die someday. I figure I may as well keep it in mind periodically.

I always need a little time afterwards, to collect myself and return to density. Usually this means taking a scenic bike ride around the neighborhood near the funeral home, until I feel calm and ready to return to mundane daily life again. After an hour of riding, I'm also usually hungry. So after my shift and my head-clearing, I rode up the street to Cup & Saucer Cafe.

I grabbed the latest issue of Willamette Week, just out today, and a menu and sat down in a booth. And then, I laughed out loud.
 It was perfect, really. The cover story was a feature about a couple of people in Portland who specialize in helping folks process death and dying, either as the one who will die or as the one who is left behind.

(Actually, not a bad set of articles. Check 'em out online.)
Cup & Saucer was around when I moved into the neighborhood over twenty years ago.
Even back then, breakfasts weren't exactly cheap, so as a young starving music teacher I usually opted for coffee and some baked treat if I dared take myself out for breakfast.

Now I'm a grownup. And breakfast is still not cheap. But it's good. Today I had the black bean and cheese omelette, with home fries and a scone.
The place has had some remodeling done, but the booths and chairs are pretty much the same as they were back when I was a young punk in torn jeans and a semi-mullet.
(Hey, it was 1989. Gimme a break.)

Another thing that has not changed are the scones. You can order one with your breakfast, or a basket of three scones. Or both. I got the basket to go so I could enjoy them tomorrow at home.
They are perfect warmed with butter and jam.  Do not take these home and put margarine on them. Please.                                                                                           
Had a nice ride home, punctuated by errands along the way that were designed to help me get more squarely back to density, to my ordinary life. When you spend time with a corpse, it stays with you a little while. Ultimately, I went home and felt much better after a nap.
And coffee and scones. They make life a little nicer.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

2016 Coffeeneuring Challenge 5: pushing back against gentrification

For those of you who read about Stop # 4, you might think that, with a visit to my local 7-11 store, Coffeeneuring has gotten sadder still.
But that's not the case.

This particular 7-11, located at the corner of NE Killingsworth and 15th, is a bastion of grit and truth in the heart of a growing blob of gentrification.

Some history:

The building was erected in 1938. If you look at the photos below, some vestiges of the original Art Deco facade remain at either end of the building. I was unable to research very quickly what the building was originally for, but based on recent pre-remodel memory I suspect it may have been an office or retail storefront of some kind.
In 2008, it was used temporarily as a precinct office for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Sweetie and I volunteered to do some phone banking there, the last known incidence of my volunteering for anything blatantly political. (Don't ask. Please.)
After the election, the building sat empty for several years, until it was sold in a foreclosure auction to a property owner, who then signed a 10-year lease agreement with 7-11. The Vernon Neighborhood Association tried to stop the 7-11 store from going in, citing potential displacement of three minority-owned convenience stores within a block of this intersection. They lost, the 7-11 went in and opened three years ago; and one by one, each of those three minority-owned independents closed down.

Yes, it's sad. But to be fair, two of those independents were running on fumes and saw very little foot traffic before the 7-11 opened. Plus, the writing was on the wall for the mostly-empty building across the street, which was bought, remodeled, and filled with all manner of little boutique eateries, a bar and a tea room.


Along with a Pizza bakery, a Thai restaurant and the aforementioned Tea room, a realtor opened an office there as well.

Named "Little Beirut" -- for the protest "community" that sprung up in the wake of Vice President Dan "Bird Dog" Quayle's visit and kept on protesting until they grew up, got steadier jobs and had kids -- this realtor joins a number of others with equally precious names: Living Room Realty, Think, Inhabit, and (my favorite) Dwell.

So the fact that a lowly 7-11 store has managed to carve out a niche for itself in the midst of so much affluenza actually strikes a note of hope in my heart.

Sure, neighbors complained about the "bad element" a 7-11 would bring in -- but that element was already camping out in front of the three independent stores, long before this building was a gleam in the eye of the 7-11 Corporation. So I find their arguments slightly late to the party.
Seeing a down-at-heel-looking fellow on a rusty and overloaded Specialized touring bike from the Mesozoic era parked in front of the 7-11, I locked up across the street and went over to fulfill my mission.

No way was I up for a cup of coffee at almost 5:30 in the evening, especially from a convenience store. So I went for the hot chocolate -- which wasn't bad, actually.

Really. It wasn't bad. I'm enjoying the last of it at home as I type.

I took a peek around at the corporateness and saw that 7-11 was getting into health food:
I should ask my GI doc about this stuff.

Seriously, the place was hopping while I filled my cup, with folks buying everything from cigarettes to condoms to bread and beer and a cheese burrito from the "grill". And if not for the existence of this store in a sea of gentrification, these folks would have nowhere in the neighborhood left to go where they could afford to even walk into the building.

So much about the gentrification in North and Northeast Portland is about class and race. People moved here thirty years ago because it was the last affordable part of town. They moved here sixty years ago because realtors wouldn't show black families any houses outside this zip code -- yes, Vernon, Sabin and Woodlawn were "redline" neighborhoods. When I was a teenager, white girls did not go to this part of town alone, even during the day. It wasn't considered safe.
Today, the grandchildren of those earlier residents are being pushed out by rising rents, and by rental houses being flipped and sold to the highest bidder. So if I can give a little money to a store that helps keep longtime residents here at least a little longer, I'm fine with that. It's cool. And I'm happy to buy cheap hot chocolate at my local convenience store.

Evidence photo.

Coffeenneuring PSA: those damned paper cups

Dear friends: If you are coffeenneuring this year, please, PLEASE consider switching to either a portabe thermal coffe cup, or ask your serve to pour your coffee into a real mug.

I have lost count of how many paper cups I've ridden past on my way to everywhere just in the past week. These cups cannot be recycled due to food stains, and the waxy coating they often come with.

Klean Kanteen makes an excellent thermal mug that fits in a water bottle cage. It comes with a loop cap, or you can buy a sip-top separately. Its $30 price tag will pay for itself in just weeks of daily use; and it will keep a hundred or more paper cups out of the landfill in six months or less. (A Klean Kanteen figures prominently in my Coffeenneuring photos.)

Join me in reusing your coffee mug! And maybe we can see less of this on the roads.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

2016 Coffeeneuring Challenge 4: In search of sad coffee

Since my goal this time around is to go to places I've never visited in previous Challenges, I decided to see if gentrification has had an effect on the coffee economy here in Portland.
So the first thing I did was look up -- what else? -- Dunkin' Donuts.
People who are not from Portland rave about Dunkin's coffee. A colleague in southern California who's originally from New York still goes out of his way to hit the drive-thru at his local Dunkin's on the way to work.
How would a place like Dunkin' Donuts fare, I asked myself,  in a town with dozens of independent coffee roasters?
Not well.

Checking Dunkin's online search for retailers, I see that there currently exist in Oregon exactly TWO Dunkin' Donuts locations, one each in Portland and Gresham. (A third location in Salem is listed as having closed.) Obviously, this list is woefully out of date: several restaurant guides list either one, or none, left in Oregon at all.
But I digress.

Because if I have to ride all the way out to the suburbs to find sad coffee it's not gonna happen.
The closest approximation to sad coffee in my part of the world seems to be -- yup -- Starbucks.
But not just ANY Starbucks will do. In order for the coffee to really sad, it has to be located in a sad environment.
So on Tuesday morning, before Yom Kippur, I went to the Starbucks counter inside my local Safeway store at MLK and NE Ainsworth. (I took my #4 on Tuesday because I knew that by the time Thursday and Friday rolled around I would either be trying to build a sukkah in the rain and wind, or just hanging out at home hiding from the rain and wind.)

When a Starbucks counter is tucked inside Safeway, you have to admit that's pretty sad.
And, to my thinking, an excellent indicator of just how [expletive deleted]-ing twee Portland has become.

Let's make it sadder still: I found an old Starbucks card that a former employer had given me on Teacher Appreciation Day three years ago. I was given the card in the spring. Two weeks later, they told me they would not renew my contract. I tossed the card n a file drawer and forgot about it.
When I retrieved it for this coffeeneuring run, I learned that it had a whopping total of five bucks on it.
Five bucks worth of coffee.
To show the teachers how much they were appreciated.
That is pretty damned sad if you ask me.

So, to do the card -- and the memory of the aforementioned employer -- some justice, I spent it here. All of it. I got a big thermal cup of foofy coffee drink (Mocha with whipped cream) and some baked goods. That left me with about twenty cents on the card. I left it on the counter and walked away.

To make things the saddest yet, there was nowhere to sit and drink my coffee. The tables and chairs that were once there had been removed to discourage loitering by any of the thousands of Portland's homeless people with whom I share the sidewalks on any given day.
So I stood near the entryway to the store, sipped my coffee, and pondered the meaning of sadness in the world.

The ride before and after helped remove some of the stain of sadness.
I felt much better when I finally got home.
I promise future rides this year will not be as sad. Really.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

2016 Coffeeneuring Challenge 3: Pip's

Yesterday was a beautiful, sunny day. I needed to get some work done, but there was too much at home distracting me. So I figured I'd go for a bike ride to a coffee shop and study Torah instead.
I went to Pip's on NE 47th and Fremont.

The coffee is from Extracto (a place I'd visited in previous Coffeeneuring adventures).
The donuts are entirely Pip's own creation, and they are crazy good.

The menu gives you a number of optional toppings for their scratch-made-in-house mini donuts.
Do yourself a favor and save time: skip all the way down to the bottom and get the Dirty Wu: a plate of little donuts topped with cinnamon sugar, honey and nutella.
Eat them slowly, with a cup of fresh house coffee.
Then die and go directly to heaven (do not pass GO, etc). Because these will send you.

I ended up reading, taking notes for my study group later in the week, and thinking that if I could get in only one more coffeeneuring ride before Yom Kippur (which starts tonight), I couldn't do any better than this.

If you ask politely they might let you try out their guitar. (I did, and they did. A sweet vintage Epiphone from the lawsuit era, nice tone, low action, delightful, not for sale.)

Extracto Coffee, which supplies a number of small shops, is worth a visit as well. They have several locations around Portland. The roasting room on NE Prescott is a nice place to relax with some fancy pour-over if you have time.)

I'll try and get in another coffee ride after Yom Kippur, in between putting up my sukkah and running errrands all over town. Stay tuned, as one of my coffee rides will, weather permitting, feature a ride followed by coffee made in the sukkah. (Because I still need to get in my two miles, right?)
If you observe Yom Kippur -- G'mar Tov and have a thoughtful fast.
If not, please don't gloat when you think of us wobbling from low blood sugar tomorrow afternoon. Thanks.

Monday, October 10, 2016

attitude adjustment doesn't always hurt (especially if I can keep riding my bike)

I have changed the header on this blog to reflect where my heart and head are at about bicycling these days.
The font is called "Permanent Marker" and I'm in love with it. To be honest, I can actually make my handwritten block letters look a lot like this with a Sharpie. And there's something very graffitti-esque about it.
The photo is of a bike that is the exact same make and model I had when I was a kid.  Mine had no fake motor sound on the handlebar; and I removed the fenders and chainguard for dirt riding. But it was essntially the same in all other respects.
When I rode that bike I felt full of adventure and daring.
But that was over 40 years ago. And things have evolved.
I don't have the ability to be quite as daring on a bike anymore. I no longer feel as bold about my off-road riding or racing, mostly because my pesky gut has made it too hard to embark on such adventures without guaranteed close proximity to a bathroom. And unless someone hands me a huge sum of money for a sagged B&B bike tour, cross-coutry bicycle adventuring is not happening for me either.
So I've learned to readjust my goals.

Grocery stores, friends' homes and coffee shops are my usual stops these days. I pootle along at the average speed of about ten miles an hour. It's truly pleasant, especially if I stick to quieter residential side streets.
Some of my best riding these days happens far away from bike lanes. I go slower, but it's often very pretty and very enjoyable at any speed. Try it sometime.

And, although I sometimes miss the adventures of my bicycling youth, I am content to still be able to ride a bike. I hope to ride for a long time yet, even if I have to stay near bathrooms to do so.
Today is a beautiful day for a ride. And I have work to do. So I'll take my laptop to a coffee shop and try and get some work done while I enjoy a cup of fresh, hot coffee and maybe a baked treat. And then I'll take the scenic route home through one of Portland's many tree-lined neighborhoods.
And I will ride filled with gratitude for this day and all my days spent in the saddle.
Because on my bicycle, there are no bad days.
Happy riding.

(Below: Among the fallen leaves, you can see one of hundreds of Portland's Horse Rings. Made of iron, they were installed in the sidewalks at the turn of the last century. This was where you tied up your horse while visiting friends. They are beloved historic artifacts, and removing one today will cost you a thousand bucks plus court fees.)