Friday, September 14, 2012


"You should always celebrate your successes because someone else will celebrate your failures."

Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, quoted in an interview with Dorian Lynskey of The Guardian (UK).

For the complete interview see

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Lessons From a Hay Truck Fire

     I was eighty miles south of Bend, a city of many thousands which former Oregon governor Neil Goldschmidt called the “middle of nowhere.” From my angle, driving into the small town of Silver Lake from the southeast after three hours crossing the desert, the loose column of smoke didn’t seem like much at first.  As I took the cutoff road west over the hills, aiming for Klamath Marsh and a short-cut home to Medford, the smoke seemed a bit closer but its location still obscure.
      Passing through ranchland and up into the juniper-covered hills, it became clear that I was heading more or less toward the smoke, but it didn’t seem enough to be a forest fire and appeared to be some random burning being done at a cattle ranch.  Still, the fire warnings all said “Extreme” that day and what rancher would decide to burn anything so close to the forest on a windy day?
      The facts of the situation became clearer as I came around an uphill curve and saw several vehicles stopped ahead of me, with smoke blowing in several directions and people walking about.  A tow truck driver, frustrated by his inability to get past the mess and low on fuel, explained to arriving drivers that a trailer carrying hay and new haying equipment had seized its wheel bearings and caught fire. Its wheels could not move, so it squatted on the road like a grounded dragon, pouring out smoke from burning hay, tires, wood, oil and who knows what else.  With fire equipment beside it, the road was closed.
      The driver had managed to pull the tractor out from under it, which kept the situation from getting worse. Silver Lake fire crews were on the scene quickly and helped keep the fire from escaping adjacent grass into the juniper and pine forest, which, if burning on such a day of 20-mile winds, would have taken off for miles, torching ranch and forest alike and roaring straight into the route of Cycle Oregon, bicycles from which were pouring down the hill into Silver Lake on a nearby road.
      The tow truck driver seemed unhappy, and when I asked about the gear he carried, he said that he had two fire extinguishers aboard but couldn’t use them when he got there.  Astonished, I asked why not.  The Medford-based towing company forbids drivers from using the extinguishers on anything but their own truck.  A driver who violates this rule has to pay, from his own pocket, the $162 each to have the extinguishers refilled. 
      Has the company no shame, that it would allow a family’s income to burn on a hillside, would prefer a forest fire to start, than to commit $162 every five years or so to a better society? Is this really what our locally-owned businesses have become?
      At that moment a pickup roared up the hill and pulled over into the loose gravel edge. Out jumped two teenage boys in what I took to be North Lake football jerseys. The North Lake School District consists of one building in Silver Lake serving some 225 students who live in an area about the size of Delaware. 
      One of the boys apparently mistook me, with white car and blue door signs, and the tow driver in his reflective-tape work suit, as some kind of perimeter guards, announced “it’s my granddad, we gotta go,” and dashed uphill into the smoke to do whatever they could.
      Where corporations will not spend their $162, the North Lake Cowboys fear no dragons. You were wrong, Neil. The middle of nowhere? My vote goes to the Class of Silver Lake. It is the beginning of everything. There is yet hope for the Republic.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Even Zombies Get Old

Sign at Tsunami Books, Eugene, Oregon on August 2, 2012.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Library Dating

In March, 2009, when I was working on an essay on online dating, I encountered the following posting:

"Sex in the library is overblown. Don't you want a little more? Here is what I want:

You e-mail me a call number of any book you like.  We meet there tomorrow night at 8:30 p.m. There, you tell me why you chose it.  We hang out for awhile (maybe get a coffee downstairs). Afterwards, we go back to week ten and looming finals.

I have no expectations for looks, sex appeal or performance, endowment, race, religion, ethnicity.  I just want a good ol' fashioned library date.

The deal is that I can only choose one person, and my choice will be based on the call number you choose.

Up for the challenge?"

I have always regretted that I did not respond.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Variations on Pictures at an Exhibition

Variations on the piano version of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" :

Vladimir Ashkenazy: lush, informal, delicate, open, frolicsome, edgy, adventurous.

Awadagin Pratt: formal, icy, imperial, geometric, pure, crystalline. Pratt is the emperor of the night, each keystroke the fall of a single meteor, and if they sometimes fall in showers, they lose no precision for having done so.

Sviatoslav Richter: two carnivorous hands devouring notes in ornate swaths of flavor.

On the Good Fight

"I believe a great good can be accomplished by entering fights and espousing principles even though they will at the moment be unsuccessful."

Wayne Morse
U.S. Senator from Oregon, 1945-1969

The Promised Land

Mrs. Jennie F. Lyford
Wayland, Mass.

Dear Madam:

Your letter of recent date in regard to Sec. 29 T. 33 S., R. 39 EWM in Malheur County, Oregon has been received and while this county has an area greater than the combined states of Mass. and Rhode Island I am sufficiently familiar with the entire county to tell you something of your land.

You ask me if I can dispose of your land.  I cannot and do not think I could give it away.  I am not in the real estate business, but have practiced law for about 40 years and while lawyers are often accused of crimes and misdemeanors and practices not consistent with good morals, justly or otherwise, yet I have never known a lawyer who has been guilty of selling such land as yours, even to an enemy; this for two reasons, first the honor that every lawyer possesses would deter him from an act of this kind, and secondly, he could not sell it.

I assume that you got this in a lottery scheme conducted by the old Southern Oregon Military Wagon Road Company, who possessed a military grant of land across the state, some 20 years ago, and, if so, it is one of the penalties of gambling or expecting something for nothing.

If the gambling microbe has entered your system and you must gamble, hunt up a poker game at home and sit in but leave western land games to the people of the west for your money would be more secure and as certain of return if secured by a chattel mortgage on a school of codfish in the Atlantic Ocean.

I would like to tell you that you had a fine property; that your land was valuable; had veins of silver and gold and a fine oil prospect and grand forests of pine and fir, but being a follower of Diogenes I am unable to do so and must tell you the truth.

Your land has no present value.  It lies on the west side of Crooked Creek in the southern part of the County and is without water or any hope of water.  It is very high, rough, rocky and destitute of vegetation of any kind and the whole section would not support more than one jackrabbit and his wife and, if there were any children, they would be compelled to go to Nevada to keep from starving to death.  Your land is about 111 miles from a railroad and not more than 20 from Hades and owing to the roads and nearness to the latter place, few people go to the railroad.

Grant said that you could deal with a surplus easier than with a deficit, but this would not be true as to your land or like land and in the lottery scheme it would be better that you drew five acres than 640.

The old Bay State has some poor land but is has Yankees to go with it, and a Paiute Indian would not camp on this section.  It were better that you had a section of “Blue Sky” for then the Assessor could not reach you and blue sky is not unpleasant to the eye.

I am sorry that I have not the time to say more of your land and land schemes in general, but probably after you have read this, you will not care to go further into the subject.

I can only salute you as being a fellow freeholder of the County of Malheur and express my sorrow that you have so much of it.

Yours truly,

Wm. E. Lees
Attorney at Law

Transcription of an old photocopy from the files of the University of Oregon Bureau of Governmental Research and Service, now closed.  I obtained a copy when I worked there in 1984; the original appeared to be part of the Bureau’s original files from the 1950s, but was an old document and probably came to the Bureau from an earlier source. The lawyer really existed, lived at least in later years in Nampa, Idaho and did practice in Malheur County. Crooked Creek is shown in the right location on an 1881 map of the region.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Education vs. Credentialism

“Let us confess: The real object of education is the diploma. I never hesitate to declare that the diploma is the deadly enemy of culture. As diplomas have become more important in our lives (and their importance has done nothing but grow as a result of economic conditions), the less has education had any real effect.  ... The aim of education being no longer the development of the mind but the acquisition of the diploma, the required minimum becomes the goal of study.”

—Paul Valéry

Sunday, July 8, 2012

On Taste and Creativity

      "This intense concern with individuality, this preoccupation with the notion of the creative derives not only from the Romantic revival—Keats was perhaps the first to formulate the moral predicament of the artist—but also from the industrial revolution: the idea of the creative in the intellectual sphere emerges together with that of “the productive” in the material.   The age of neglected education but of a since unrecapturable individuality and taste—the 18th century, when art and life were fused in a harmonious social ethos, an age when the artist and craftsman were the natural servants of an instinctively cultivated society, gave way to an age when making and living, work and leisure, endured a fatal bifurcation, man and nature were divorced, quality became lost in quantity, stability dissipated in movement; the artist retreated from the increasing ugliness of the machine civilisation into self-conscious isolation; the craftsman, the link between the common man and the imaginative arts, disappeared: organisation replaced organism.

      Romantic egotism,  the  sense of being an autonomous “creator”, linked with the lapse of “form”—that preservative of the spiritual as well as the social hierarchy of the 18th century—reflects morally the decay of instinctive taste in the general spiritual  disorganisation.  “Taste”,   the   leisurely, modest monosyllable that so accurately epitomises an attitude to life at once patient and sensitively discriminating, a view of art as the “foster-child of silence and slow Time”, gave way in the Romantic upheaval to “creativeness”, to the impatience, the feverish tempo it connotes. “Invention” was transferred from the vocabulary of an urbane literary criticism to the coarser realm of mechanical productiveness—the gracious handmaiden of the Muses became the haggard slave of speed."

D. Lawrence Thomas, André Gide: the Ethic of the Artist (1950)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On the Value of Expression

"The ability to express himself has kept many a man poor."

John Jay Chapman, in Learning, 1910