this mortal coil

A Few Words on the Team Oregon Motorcycle Safety Course

A post shared by Mike Hall (@pdxmph) on



I don’t remember why I got it into my head that some sort of motorized, two-wheeled conveyance seemed like a good thing to have. I mean, I already have one, but it requires pedaling. I’m pretty sure I was irked that I needed a bag of dogfood, the car wasn’t available, and I didn’t want to go get it on a bike.

What I do remember is that as I sat around wondering what sort of motorized conveyance I might want I did a quick search on electric scooters to see what the state of the art was looking like since I bought the Felt. That took me to the Genze page, where a few concepts became clear:

  • If you operate anything with a motor without any help from human power, the law has an interest in its performance parameters and opinions about where you should operate it.
  • If you want to go faster than 30 miles per hour, or operate something with a motor with a higher displacement than 50cc, you need a motorcycle permit.
  • If you want to go on a freeway, you need something with a displacement of at least 150cc.

I walked down to the local Genze showroom and talked to a pretty helpful guy who made a few more things clear, including that the 30 mph top speed might be sort of optimistic. Going home and tracing a few commute routes out told me the Genze—or any vehicle I could operate without a motorcycle permit—might not be my best option: My eight-mile commute takes me through a few places where being held to 30 mph or less could feel sort of fraught.

So, I spent a week poking around online forums learning about ways you can derestrict a 50cc motor to get more speed and sneakily dodge the need for a motorcycle endorsement. I learned a few things there, too:

  • Some brands are more amenable to DIY derestriction than others.
  • Fines can be pretty hefty if you’re caught doing that.
  • It’s worth considering the wisdom of taking something whose brakes and other systems are engineered to go no faster than a certain speed and helping it go half again as fast.

On that last point, I’ve got a bit of familiarity owing to a terrifying childhood incident involving a fairly steep slope on a coal road in the Allegheny mountains and a Korean touring bicycle I’d bought with saved Christmas and birthday money. Its wheels seemed so smooth and its braking so effective when used to swan around the church parking lot next door. Similarly, a really rash incident involving a ’73 Dodge Polara with a sweet Chrysler 360, about 120 mph of built up speed, and a screaming, spinning panic stop wherein I slid across SR15 during morning rush hour taught me everything has its limits.

Anyhow …

All that thinking led me to the conclusion that if I wanted to go faster than 30 mph on a two-wheeled vehicle of some kind, it’d need to be on something bigger than a 50cc scooter, and that I’d need to go get my motorcycle endorsement.

In Oregon, you get one of those a few ways:

  1. You can go get a learner permit, practice for a while, then go take a knowledge and riding test at the DMV when you’re ready. Unlike some states, where learner permits allow you to ride solo during daylight hours, Oregon requires you to have a motorcycle-endorsed adult riding alongside.
  2. You can enroll in a Team Oregon motorcycle safety class, attend classroom sessions and a two-day riding course in a community college parking lot, and then take your graduation certificate to the DMV and get your endorsement on the spot.
  3. You can enroll in the e-learning version of the Team Oregon class, do all the classroom stuff online, then do two days of training in a community college parking lot, in which case the state will waive the DMV driving test and require you to take the knowledge test.

I picked the third option. Even though there’s an option for scooter-specific training and to ride a scooter during the hands-on parts, it seemed like a better idea to just learn how to operate a motorcycle with a clutch instead of learning just a subset of the two-wheeled world.

Maybe less rationally, the more I thought about learning how to ride a motorcycle, the more I realized that I’ve always sort of pushed aside the thought that I’d really like to ride a motorcycle as an impractical one. So there was something atavistic going on in there, too, since that thought has been with me for longer than I’ve counted myself a reasonable grownup.

The e-learning experience

It’s pretty good, really.

The course is broken into six chapters that use videos of motorcycles out in the real world or instructors to teach you about proper gear, riding technique, and assorted edge cases (e.g. carrying people or lots of things on your motorcycle. Each unit is pretty substantial, and five of them took north of 30 minutes to complete, with mid-chapter quizzes and lots of interactive exercises.

From a design point of view, it’s all a little bit “bulbous plastic UI” looking, but it’s a very responsive site (in the sense of speed, not flexibility for mobile devices, even if it does support use of a tablet) and the touch interface works pretty well.

From a content point of view, I sometimes felt my attention drifting a little, but the quizzes served to snap me back to. The UI offers ample opportunity to go back and re-watch a section, and accessibility options make it possible to simply display the text and read it for yourself instead of enduring the stately cadences of the narrator.

The content is also very good at impressing on you that you’re considering doing something with potentially severe consequences for yourself and others. I pretty quickly shifted from an attitude of antsy impatience to a more receptive attitude as the courseware nudged my internal movie from “hop on a bike, ride away, maybe tackle 205 during rush hour in a month and not a day” to “consider the many ways in which a slow ride around your neighborhood could cause you to break bones or flay skin.”

For instance: I already knew in principle how to operate a motorcycle. I lived a few years in rural Pennsylvania where it seemed like all the children of coal miners and farmers had a bike of some kind, ranging from tiny mini bikes with lawnmower engine bolted on to 125cc dirt bikes to 250cc standards, so I had some memory of how to do it. I can also drive stick. When I got to the chapter about getting underway, which teaches the basic controls (brakes, clutch, shifting lever, accessory buttons, and the processes for using all of them to start riding) I was given the option to take the test up front and skip the chapter. I did take the test and missed a few questions. The software said I was welcome to proceed, but that I might want to go ahead and sit through the instruction anyhow for my own good. I took the hint, learned a few things, and was in substantially better shape when it came time to do the hands-on part.

Similarly, the section about what gear to buy was useful on a few levels.

First, it educated me about things that seem like reasonable ideas that are not (e.g. denim jackets instead of armored leather or sturdier fabrics), things that look cool that are dangerous (e.g. black helmets, or any helmet that’s not full-faced), and things that you might tolerate as a hardy bicyclist (e.g. taking a soaking in your riding kit rather than sweating up a soaking in your rain gear) that will probably make you miserable and unsafe on a motorcycle.

Second, the interactive exercise to choose the best gear reinforced those lessons, and also quietly reminded me that my investment in anything—a scooter or motorcycle—wouldn’t stop at the cost of the bike alone. I mean, I knew that intellectually, but now it’s part of my time and money planning in a way it wasn’t before.

So, it was a good learning experience. Way better than online courses I’ve done in the past. By the time I finished I felt much more mentally prepared to be a motorcyclist (or scooter drive) than I did going in.

Motorcycle Training

The hands-on part of Team Oregon’s course involves two morning sessions in a local community college parking lot. You can ask for either a scooter or a standard motorcycle, and they provide a helmet.

The instructors I had showed a lot of presence on the first day. They stuck to the clock and politely but firmly sent a late student packing, exactly as threatened in the confirmation email sent out at enrollment. They projected the sort of “don’t fuck around” gravitas I don’t think anyone in my group really required, but that some surely must.

I mean, motorcycles are one of those things out on the same end of the spectrum as guns: Most of the population doesn’t spend much time thinking about them, the complexity and risk of operating them are poorly represented in the media, and there’s a portion of the population that learned about them informally before being forced to satisfy Johnny Law by enduring a safety course and applying for state sanction.

It’s been a long while, but I remember range week in basic training. The boys in my platoon from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia—bothered and frustrated by three weeks of drill and ceremony and constant reminders of their own incompetence at soldiering—adopted a certain swagger when the unit armorer pressed an M16-A2 into their grasp.

“I know I can shoot. This part’s gonna be cake!” said one private.

The drill sergeants just smirked, and after a few days of being reprogrammed and unlearning bad habits, he was crying and miserable, suddenly unsure of his ability to put down even a 150-meter target. It was another one of those times I was glad to be a mostly blank slate. Breathe in, exhale, squeeeeeze when you hit the bottom of the breath. After a week, I knew when I’d missed before the bullet could kick up dirt by the target. Private Kentucky was still jerking and swearing, and none of those boys did better than 37 of 40 exposures in the final range (to my 39, which was the highlight of basic training for me in an otherwise tedious eight weeks).

Similarly, though, a quick look down the line of a dozen or so riders in our class suggested that we had a few folks who’d been riding dirt bikes most of their lives and were fully expecting to just hop on a bike and go. One already had a Harley at home, and he didn’t let us forget it, even as he struggled through some of the riding exercises, trying hard to unlearn bad habits he’d picked up in years of buzzing through back pastures and maybe even bombing down streets without his permit.

So I’m guessing the instructors have their share of know-it-alls to contend with, and our pair seemed politely but firmly able to cope with that, should it have reared its head.

Anyhow, we all got to pick a bike from a selection that included a few standards, a few dual-sports, a few cruisers, and a pair of tiny Honda Groms. I picked a Suzuki TU250X, a little standard bike that sat low enough for me to easily plant both feet, and that felt pretty easy to manage. At one point, when I lost my balance turning to listen to an instructor walking up behind me, it was easy to keep it upright.

We started the course by learning to put our motorcycles into gear, putting our feet down, and waddling in a straight line across the parking lot. After a few repetitions, we were welcome to put our feet up and actually ride in a straight line if we felt comfortable doing so.

From there we learned to shift, and then how to to handle curves, and then how to weave through cones. By the end of the first of the two weekend morning sessions we’d probably put about three miles on the bike, all within a parking lot and seldom driving riding for longer than three minutes at a time.

Not everybody had the coordination needed to ride a motorcycle. Several students lurched and weaved around while trying to operate the clutch. Others simply couldn’t get the clutch to work consistently. The student who arrived in a brand new set of full motorcycle kit — armored pants, jacket, boots, gauntlets, and her own helmet — struggled to avoid cones. Another was too tall for his bike and struggled to apply both brakes, clutch, and shifter at the same time. Still, no motorcycles were dropped and nobody spilled.

By the end of the first of those two mornings, I was pretty tired. The classroom material had done its job of putting me in a more cautious, vigilant state. Nearly five hours of paying close attention to the instructors and managing a motorcycle was draining.

Day two involved more complex stuff: weaving through offset cones, sudden stops, swerving, and sharp turns. As with a lot of physical learning, I could tell a night’s sleep had helped a lot: I could manage the clutch more smoothly, it was more instinctive to look at the exits on the curves on the course, and felt a lot better running the bike up to 20 mph to get back into line after completing an exercise.

Some folks were still having a hard time, and the instructors got a lot more aggressive about pulling people aside and talking them through where they were going wrong.

Personally, I found a few things helped me:

I already knew how to operate a clutch, and understood that I needed to develop a feel for the friction zone on my particular bike, and to figure out how much throttle to feed it to operate it at slow speeds.

A few years on an electric bike taught me a lot about counter-steering and budgeting traction in a curve.

I also realized that I routinely operate my bicycle faster than we were usually allowed to go in that parking lot. There’s something bracing about the power of a motorcycle even at slow speeds because you can feel all that potential under your throttle hand, but once I realized I was going about 25 percent slower than I manage on actual streets mixed with real traffic, the sense of peril abated and I sort of internalized the difference between speed and torque. That has affected how I’m looking at my first motorcycle purchase.

By the end of the second morning, we’d put on close to ten miles in a couple of hours, and then we lined up and started the skills test.

The Skills Test

It was hard not to be anxious about this.

Prior to taking the course, I did as much reading on online forums as I could about the course and the test. Some people claimed that their classes had 75-percent fail rates. Others claimed that the instructors were merciless and rigid in their grading, penalizing people for minor things. Folks who claimed they’d been riding for years said they had to retake the test after an initial failure. Some of that I wrote off to people rationalizing a failing score or failing to unlearn bad habits, but a 75-percent failure rate suggested a level of rigor that surpassed the sour grapes I might have been seeing.

So, I went in a little nervous and unsure what to expect. I was way more proficient than I had been the morning before, but I’d also radically adjusted my expectations about what I’d do if I passed. I stopped imagining commuting to work on week 1 and started thinking in terms of developing more proficiency in the confines of my neighborhood, and at a nearby park-and-ride parking lot that’s vacant on weekends. I’d been vacillating between getting a small motorcycle and a large scooter, and I was thinking more in terms of a scooter, just to see if I could get to a safe level of proficiency on two motorized wheels at all.

We got tested on five things:

  • Sudden stops
  • Swerving
  • Sharp turns
  • Curves
  • Weaving through offset cones

If someone messed up (e.g. braked too soon or slid on their back wheel for the sudden stop exercise, put a foot down while doing the low-speed weaving, or failed to get up to correct speed for an exercise) the instructors would allow them to repeat the test once.

A healthy number of people had to repeat one part of the test or another. Personally, I used the wrong cone for the outside of the curve exercise and had to go back through the correct pair even though my form was good.

The experience reminded me again of basic training with its “go/no-go” testing, which involves a quick demonstration, a little repetition, then a quick test you can spot-retake if you fail the first time. I’m not an instructional designer, but it seems like the stress of “getting tested” has its instructional benefit.

We also did the tests in reverse order of how we learned them, so we were freshest on the hardest tasks, and got them out of the way first, and coasted to completion on the easiest task.

At the end of the test, the instructors had us all line up, then set up a little course for a final exercise that simulated a few four-way intersections. We were free to ride around inside the course and practice stopping, lane changes, cornering, etc. We weren’t being graded, but the instructors were paying close attention and offering help. After ten minutes or so of that, we all lined back up, got off our bikes, and helped pick up all the cones while the instructors compiled our grades.

They were pretty respectful about how they delivered the pass or fail news to each student, standing apart from the group and keeping their voices low. Everyone got the same manilla envelope with a few brochures, a motorcycle map of Oregon, and a Team Oregon sticker, so there was no way to see, like, a diploma exchanging hands. It occurred to me, as I stood around waiting to be called, that I had no idea how people knew how many people in their course had failed or passed and wouldn’t know how any of the tales of 75 percent carnage could be told with any certainty. I overheard one instructor say to someone “you didn’t make it,” but it was the least surprising person in the class. I couldn’t tell with any of the others, and my own passing score was delivered with a quiet “congratulations” I doubt anyone could have heard.

So, I’ve got no idea what the passing rate was. I just know I did pass. I got my certificate in the mail a few days ago and need to go down to the DMV to take the knowledge test to get my endorsement, then I’ll feel free to go talk to motorcycle or scooter dealers.

What’s Next

I’m still on the fence about what to get once I have my motorcycle endorsement.

The Team Oregon course was pretty sobering: The online portion sensitized me to a lot of the risks, but also did a pretty good job of explaining how to mitigate them. The hands-on riding section left me confident I could ride a small bike competently at neighborhood speeds, but also convinced me I wouldn’t want to go out on some of the faster arterials nearby for a little while. But when I think about it, I still want to get there, and I think I want to do it on a motorcycle, not a scooter, because I want to get proficient enough to tackle highways and longer trips. We live in a beautiful state, and I’d love to see it on the back of a bike. Between signing up for the course and taking it, we took a trip down the coast and I was so envious of the motorcyclists out on the curves of 101.

My current candidates for motorcycles are the new Honda Rebel 300 or 500, and the TU250X I rode in the course. All are low-slung, small bikes with mild engines, manageable levels of low-end torque, and strong reputations as get-around commuter/starter bikes that could handle some quick exit-to-exit on the local freeways and more relaxed backroads trips, but not lengthy cruises. The TU250X was so easy to handle that I want to climb on the Rebel 500 and see how it feels: It’s the same dimensions as the 300, just heavier due to the larger engine (which is still reportedly quite manageable for beginners).

I’m also looking at a few scooters in the 200-300cc range, less out of a concern for being able to operate a motorcycle, and more because scooters are simply the more practical city machine: More onboard storage, a bit more nimble, and no clutching to deal with on congested, stop-and-go streets. There are even some scooters that could handle that ride down 101 I want to work up to, but they’re big and bulbous things that’ll be a squeeze in the garage.

“That didn’t happen!”

So, I had to talk about something difficult recently. How do you do that? I mean, “you the reader,” not me. I know how I do it, and why.

I’m an introvert. For my purposes that means a couple of things:

Being around a lot of people doesn’t charge me up. Being 1:1 with someone, or in a small group, can. I’m not sure how typical that is of my kind, but I know my favorite parts of the work day are with “my people” in 1:1s, or with my managers. Big meetings are hard. Big social events are hard.

The other thing it means is that I’m not comfortable with a lot of spontaneous expression. I’m an internal processor.

So, when I think I’ve got to have a hard conversation with someone, I think about it a lot beforehand. I used to joke that I spent my morning commute spinning up virtual instances of people I needed to talk to so I could think through a few possible conversational directions. I though it was sort of cute to say that, but I don’t think it really leads to a good outcome.

I mean, it’s okay to decide you’re going to think about what you want to say to someone before you say it, especially if carelessness with your words could hurt them. That’s fine. We should all do that. We have these little phone rooms at work that are barely big enough for a chair, and I sometimes go into them a few minutes before I need to talk to someone about something that matters a lot and think through what I’m going to say. Sometimes I even write it down in a text file. I take deep breaths and close my eyes and settle down into myself.

The “think about what you’re going to say” strategy begins to fail when you imagine what you’re going to say and then imagine them saying something back, and then what you’d say to that and then what they might say back to that, etc. etc.

It took two things to help me realize the problem there.

The first was that one day, in the middle of a period where I wasn’t sleeping much, I realized how badly the lack of sleep was affecting my perception of things around me. Passing comments suddenly seemed like they might be insults. Hanlon’s Razor sort of went out the window.

So I had a pretty good fix for that: On mornings when I’d gotten little sleep — less than six-and-a-half or seven hours — I’d spend a few minutes on my commute thinking about that and what it meant. I’d talk to myself on my bike:

“You didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. You’re going to be feeling a little paranoid and on edge. You’re going to want to take offense at things people say to you. You’re not going to be seeing things correctly.”

Then I’d get into work and try to remember to talk to myself about that a few times over the course of the day.

Things started to roll off my back more easily. It was nice.

It also started making those little conversations with virtual people go down better. I stopped anticipating the worst, or when I would anticipate the worst I’d remind myself that I wasn’t very well rested. I’d make a little joke to myself to spin that instance down and bring up another one and try again anticipating better behavior.

You’re thinking about the ways in which that’s still broken, but this is my story of self-discovery, so either skip ahead or quit reading.

Anyhow, that was my little hack that made difficult conversations with virtual people in my head go better.

I didn’t get the second piece until I went off to a sample training for a program called Conscious Leadership.

If I had to describe Conscious Leadership in a nutshell, I’d say that it takes a lot of thinking around mindfulness and tries to make it work in a business context. If you’re at home with Zen Buddhism, you’d hear some things that are familiar to you.

I could go on and one about Conscious Leadership. I’ve given copies of the book The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership to managers who work for me and people I care about. I use its language in my daily living, and I measure myself against its standards.

The way it helped me in this specific instance was that it reminded me of how easily we can get pulled into the stories we create around things, and how we should always strive to take a story we’re telling ourselves and “explore the opposite.” Expressed as a commitment to sustainable behavior, the Conscious Leadership people put it like this:

> I commit to seeing that the opposite of my story is as true as or truer than my original story. I recognize that I interpret the world around me and give my stories meaning.

I realized the ways in which my virtual instances were just stories I was telling myself. I’d made a certain peace with the worst aspects of them by taking care to remind myself of the times when I wasn’t well rested and was making the stories worse, but I was still just making up stories and arguing with them.

The thing is, as an introverted internal processor, it was pretty easy for me to slip into those conversations with virtual people in the process of just trying to figure out how to say what I wanted to say when I felt a conversation was particularly important.

I had to pick up a new habit, which is really what this whole post is about.

A Walk on the Beach

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So, I went camping. On the last morning we were at the park I woke up pretty early and took my camera and went for a beach walk. I set out thinking I’d go down to the jetty, a few miles down the beach.

I hadn’t meant to spend much time thinking about things and mainly hoped to just take pictures, but there wasn’t a ton to shoot and I knew I was going to have to talk about something difficult, so I lapsed into thinking about that conversation, and that meant I started arguing with a virtual person. Because I was thinking about a difficult conversation, it got increasingly negative and fraught.

I caught myself doing it and got really frustrated, because I know I’m not supposed to do that. So I’d stop for a few minutes and think about other things, but then I’d fall back into it.

Then I remembered how I coached myself about being under-rested, and took a page from that practice.

As I made my way down the beach, each time I’d get into an argument with that virtual person, rather than getting frustrated and beating myself up, I’d just stop and say out loud “this isn’t happening. That didn’t happen. You didn’t say those things.”

Conscious Leadership advocates moving your body when you’re feeling something strong and need to process it, or see it differently, so I’d shake myself a little, too.

Reader, it felt pretty good.

By the time I’d made it to the jetty, miles down the beach, I was smiling to myself because I knew what I needed to say. I knew it miles back down the beach. I’d just fallen into my old habit of wanting to think it all the way through, to know just what to say to each possible response or argument.

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And of course the conversation went fine, anyhow. They usually do. I pay attention to people and how they’re feeling, and I’m careful in the initial framing and get things off on the right foot, so just taking the care at the onset is usually enough. When it’s not, well … I stay calm in the pocket, too.

Since then, though, I’ve been using that practice a lot, and it is incredibly helpful. I’m an introvert! I think about what I want to say to people before I say it! I’ve got a life-long habit of spinning up virtual people and arguing with them, which is to say a life-long habit of telling stories to myself that aren’t true. It’s tough to break, and I haven’t broken it. But I’ve added a little thing to the loop: When I catch myself doing it, I say to myself, “that didn’t happen” and it has made me feel lighter and happier each time. I think to myself “I don’t really know what they might say, but they didn’t say that, and they could say something completely different. You’ll just have to find out.”

Let’s Talk in 2017

tl;dr: I’m taking a little break from social media. I hate the thought of missing a direct tweet or private message from you on whatever platform we have accounts on together, so I’ve put some contact details at the bottom.

Otherwise:

I’ve been taking a lot of pictures lately. Probably more than I ever have.

I’ve been taking pictures for a long time: My first job after college involved photography to go with my reporting, so I learned how to get decent results with a film camera, and I learned some darkroom work. I’ve made it a point to have a camera with a few more features or settings than I know what to do with since Ben was born, and I’ve hated going on a trip or vacation without having a camera along for about that long.

A few years back I set aside my mid-consumer range dSLR for a premium point-and-shoot rangefinder. I wasn’t sure how I’d deal with having a fixed, relatively wide lens but it turned out okay.

This year I decided to upgrade. I got a mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera out at the high end relative to anything else I’ve ever bought. I love it. It’s as close to my ideal camera as anything I know of, and I’ve enjoyed shooting with it more than anything I’ve had since my Canon PowerShot G5. When I see something in the light I can make the camera see it, too. When I just want to grab it and go to take snapshots, it lets me do that. When I choose to be patient and take along a tripod and trigger, it rewards my patience. It’s a few steps ahead of me, which has pushed me to learn more. I’m taking it with me almost everywhere. Photography has become what I want to do when I have any time to do anything, and it’s something I want to get better at.

Something I’ve been thinking about the past few weeks, though, is that I haven’t been giving myself a ton of space to form my own thoughts about my work.

A friend recently observed that photography is great for me because there’s an emotive/artistic side and there’s a deeply technical side. It’s very easy for me to get pulled into the technical side, whether it’s optimizing the gear I use, figuring out how to automate or speed up a darkroom workflow, or figuring out how to best distribute an image. I love the combination of an iPad, SD card reader, Lightroom Mobile, and AirDrop. It’s really easy to capture, edit, and share an image from the Max or over lunch.

The other side—the artistic one—is harder to enumerate. I don’t understand it very well yet, and I need to learn and practice a lot more. I’ve started looking for teachers and people who are willing to let me practice the kinds of photography that involve humans with them.

I’ve also started thinking a lot more about what I’m trying to do outside of “capture an image competently,” and what it means when I take a picture, or when a picture survives the gauntlet it ran from previsualization to capture to “flagged as a keeper” to edit to printing/sharing/etc.

And I’ve also been asking myself about what I’m after at the print/share/etc. stage of the process.

So there’s one set of thoughts. Now for another:

My diary app recently started kicking up “on this day” entries from a few years back, when I went on a social media sabbatical. I was pretty unhappy with the state of my social brain. Everything went from being a vague impression still sloshing around in the limbic system to a tweet or a post somewhere, but with a layer of self-editing that really bothered me because it felt reflexive and unconsidered. I’d stop when I’d catch myself doing it and ask myself why I was doing it, and I never liked the answers. So I deleted all the social apps on my phone, deactivated my accounts, and turned off all the mail notifications the more obnoxious services will still send you when they can tell you’re not “engaged.”

I’m not going to try to sell you on doing that. It wasn’t like I experienced some sort of creative renaissance. I did just stop sharing everything for a while, and that meant I didn’t have to waste time wondering why I was sharing the way I did, or wondering what sort of reaction something I’d shared had elicited. I felt like I had a certain amount of mental space I hadn’t had in a while.

After a while, I drifted back in, and began the cycle all over. This past year has had its own set of challenges, and I’ve started to feel a growing disconnect between the person I am and the person I’m sort of performing on social media. I once read that younger folks usually take a break in the form of walking away from their accounts, never to return. They just establish a new account and build a new set of friends/connections, leaving behind their old identity. I don’t like the thought of that because I hate the thought of being read as having unfriended/unfollowed someone when I really just want to get a break from all of it, but I think I need another pause, so I’m going to take one. Here’s how to reach me:

  • Mail: mph at puddingbowl.org
  • Skype: michael_hall
  • Google Hangouts/Talk/Whatever-they-call-it: pdxmph
  • Signal: Please drop a mail and we can exchange info.

Management Training

If I speak in the languages of humans and angels but have no love, I have become a reverberating gong or a clashing cymbal. — 1 COR 13:1

There’s a certain amount of pressure on the professional at some point in their career to create a Medium account and engage in some self-marketing. I found an old draft of a scuppered attempt at that while going through the digital shoebox that is my Evernote account, and realized that’s not going to happen. We have one Rands in Repose and that is enough.

However:

  • Today I learned a piece of good news about someone who once worked for me
  • I recently took some time off and got to talk about work to people who don’t see me at work
  • I shipped a book of koans off to a friend and selected a few that meant something to me, including one that touches on this topic

So, I’m going to share the anecdote I had in Evernote that was meant to be the core of a Mediumesque post on my tenure as a manager and instead use it for this much more distilled set of ideas I want to get off my plate instead of turning them into some awful “Stirling’s Gold” series:

I was out in the field at Fort Bragg on a week-long exercise. The chow truck came around to our site and everybody lined up. One of the soldiers in my little operations group ran up to the front of the line, filled a plate, and ran it back to the First Sergeant, who was sitting in front of his tent. He took the plate, set it inside his tent, and walked over to me:

“I need to talk to you, Hall.”

“Sure, Top.”

“Don’t ever let that happen again.”

“What’s that?”

“Fixing me a plate. Never, ever let one of your soldiers fix me a plate again.”

“Top, Private Goyer was just …”

“Don’t do it.”

And somehow I got it. I’m embarrassed that I got to the age of 27 before I learned that lesson.

Funny to write it out, but I think First Sergeant Rhodes and Shanley Kane would get each other. And speaking of her, go buy her book, even if it’s just to read “Values Towards Ethical and Radical Management.” She’s got way more useful stuff to say than I was ever going to waste on Medium.

Please be considerate of my neighbors

So, here’s a scenario to try on:

You’ve just woken up in your tent down on the Springwater Trail.

You climbed into a sleeping bag the night before. The temperature was headed down to the low 40s. You’re sleeping in a tent among dozens of others in a similar situation. The small ad hoc community around you has all sorts, including  people who seem angry all the time, and young men who are dressed much more nicely than everyone around them. They don’t spend the night: They just make a few deals and then head home for the evening.  If you’re a woman, there’s a better than even chance you were assaulted within 72 hours of beginning your life outdoors. Since it’s April in Portland, it’s muddy and wet. You might have gone to sleep to the sounds of people fighting or yelling at each other. You probably woke up because it’s really goddamn cold, or because your children woke up with the light, the way little kids do. 

So, about the time you’re unzipping your tent, grateful that nothing happened to it or you or maybe your family the night before, a pair of people on expensive bicycles, all kitted out, ride by. They look around at all the tents, and one looks to the other and says “Jesus Christ, this is fucking disgusting.  Who the fuck are these people?”

Well, friend, they’re my neighbors. I ride by them every morning on my way to work, and again on my way home each evening. I’ve got a pretty simple protocol for making my way through the little community that has sprung up on the Springwater near 82nd. I’ll list some of its key elements:

  • I slow down. There are a lot of people down there, including families with small children. Nowhere I need to be is more important than any of those people. 
  • I don’t gawk or comment if I’m with someone. I wouldn’t want to be gawked at if I had to live in a tent along a trail. I wouldn’t want someone to loudly wonder “who the fuck” I was, or comment on my “fucking shithole” accomodations. 
  • I say “good morning” or “good afternoon” to the people I do make eye contact with.  That’s my practice with just about everyone I pass on the trail. 

I’d really like to believe that the “Jesus Christs” and “who the fuck are these peoples” are coming from a sense of deep moral outrage that we live in a country where families with little children, the working poor or anyone else for that matter has to live in a tent in the mud along a trail on the edge of town. Because I read nextdoor.com and the Facebook groups for my neighborhood, I know that’s not always the case. At least sometimes they’re also coming from a place of deep revulsion with the people in those circumstances themselves, and from a deep desire to erase them from awareness … to push them out of view with no regard for where that might be or what it might mean for them. It comes from a place of rationalizing the existence of that kind of misery that comes from ones own precarity (though maybe that’s not so true of the people on the nice bikes out for a pre-work ride). 

Wherever it’s coming from, I’d really appreciate it if you’d keep it to yourself next time. Those people are my neighbors and I want you to be kind to them. 

Priorities v0.5

Oh, feature creep.

So, last I wrote about it, I’d put together this little prioritization tool based on some thinking I’d done about priorities. I reused a bunch of code from a previous project to get to a sort of “good enough” state.

Then I started thinking about the ways you could extend that model into a bigger environment, like a company, which has several organizational levels besides “teams.” So I did a huge cleanup of the legacy code in Priorities and started work on something that would be more appropriate to modeling goals in a really large environment.

In the end, though, I realized a few things:

  1. I don’t really own that other project anymore. I mean, it’s “mine,” but I’m sharing it with people who’d like to do more with it.
  2. The places I was taking that other tool were being shaped by the company I work for.
  3. The thing I set out to do with Priorities was meant to be really simple. There are ways to extend the idea, but they leave the tool in a place where it’s harder to approach for someone who isn’t working in the same company as me.

So this weekend I just started over with Priorities. Since I’d been working on an alternate app that needed a bunch of the old Priorities code cleaned up, I had a pretty decent set of models and templates, so it was really easy to reuse a lot of the thinking, but keeping the new version to something quite simple.

The older version of Priorities, the one I wrote from all the legacy code, lives in its own branch now, since I learned at least one person had downloaded it and was using it.

The new version is in a new master branch on the project. For this version, I did a few things:

I changed the “Team” model to “Lists.” Not everybody’s managing a team. You can still name a list after a team, or whatever you like, but by talking about “lists,” it’s more of a tool for anybody, from a sole proprietor to a company.

I also began working toward making lists private. The old version let everybody see everybody else’s lists. The new version will still allow that, but you have to go looking. Once I get the basic features polished up, I’ll take a pass back through to require ownership to view a list. Once that’s done, I’ll work on allowing owners to set their lists to be public. For now, the app guides you toward just looking at your own stuff.

There’s a little help if you’re a new user and don’t have any lists set up:

Priorities Home

There’s also a prompt once you make a list and don’t have any goals:

Priorities

If you’re interested in giving it a spin, you’ll need Ruby and Bundler on your system:

  1. sudo gem install bundler (no sudo if you’re using rbenv or rvm)
  2. Download Priorities from GitHub: git clone https://github.com/pdxmph/priorities.git
  3. In the download directory, install the needed gems: bundle install
  4. Set up the database: bundle exec rake db:migrate
  5. Run the app: bundle exec rails s
  6. Visit the app in your browser.

Since it’s running in dev mode, it’s going to be sort of slow on load.

The TODOs are pretty simple at this point:

  • Do more to ensure the privacy of individual lists.
  • Clean out the remnants of the old team model.
  • Put it somewhere private but not secret so people who don’t want to run their own instance can use it.

Then there are a few things to think about:

  • Adding info pages for each goal.
  • Adding notes for each goal.
  • Adding back the comparison data for goals.
  • Figuring out if there’s value in expanding the user model to have “groups” for shared lists.

Get-Right Saturday

At some point in my writing career — at some point around the time I was responsible for turning in a regular column on some real 101-level home networking and security topics — I came to a realization that was, as always, nicely encapsulated by an XKCD:

Realizing that was pretty liberating! Suddenly I wasn’t worried so much about whether what I was writing about was new or novel: My website wasn’t meant for people who needed constant novelty, and the people who were reading my columns were really just trying to make sense of the most basic stuff: How do I protect my new wireless network? How do I protect my privacy? When people talk about privacy and Google, what are they concerned about and should I be, too? How do I move this file from my desktop to my laptop?

Once I stopped writing the column and spent more time as an editor for my bullpen, I carried that along with me. My writers were all really smart, cutting edge sorts of people, and some of them would get wrapped around the axle trying to write about stuff that was new. But the audiences for all my sites were people who were coming to grips with technology and needed a confident voice to accomplish the basics plus some next-level stuff. So I’d coach the writers toward helping those people gain some level of conversance and basic mastery.

That’s all to go toward this particular blog entry, which is also sort of 101 stuff about life that I think I’ve figured out and maybe someone else hasn’t.

So:

We recently adopted a practice we’re calling “Get-Right Saturday.” It works like this:

  • We have a recurring event set up in the family’s reminders list. It triggers at 10:00 on Saturday morning, and it goes to our phones, tablets, and laptops via the iOS/OS X Reminders app.
  • When the alarm goes off, we stop what we’re doing and spend 45 minutes or an hour picking up the house. Whatever pieces of mail got left on the table, or coats got draped on the kitchen chairs, or shoes that sort of shuffled away from the front door de-shoeing area get herded back to where they belong. We sweep, dust, vacuum, and clean the bathrooms. A load of laundry goes in the washing machine.
  • Once we get tired of doing all this, we each drift back to whatever we were doing (or I go upstairs and work on the bills for a few minutes) and get on with our weekend.

I mean, no big deal. Not groundbreaking.

The thing that made it a breakthrough for us was stopping to examine things that were frustrating us very deeply about our household each week, because of the way our lives work:

  • Al has a full-time job on the far east side. It’s a pretty engaging job with a lot of challenges.
  • Ben’s going to a school way outside our neighborhood, and he does after-school stuff that can keep him until 5 or 5:30. Since we have one car, Al handles carpooling Ben and a few other kids from the neighborhood down to SE Burnside in the 20s, then back out to her job on SE 120.
  • I’ve got a full-time job downtown. Since we have one car, I don’t have a lot of flexibility. I take the Max or I ride my bike, and my commute each way is pretty much an hour because I’ve got to either walk back and forth to the Max station, a mile from the house, or spend extra time changing/getting ready to ride my bike. Some days I’m up at 4:45 to make early meetings.
  • I’ve got a few other cognitive challenges that make it pretty hard to not fall into something and forget about all the other things, which is a polite way of saying my housekeeping habits have slowly improved over the years from “catastrophic” to “shambolic.”

I’m not complaining at all. Neither of us do. We both love what we do. In one way or another, each of our jobs is something of a cause. Ben getting to go to a school that’s better for him is more important to us than the convenience of being able to pack him on a bus each day.

At the same time, we have to prioritize. Keeping up the house slips over the course of the week. There’s homework to help with, our days to talk about, books to read, news to follow, and on and on.

I used to do a little more over the course of the week when I worked at home. It was easier to take small breaks to pick up, do a few dishes, run laundry through, etc. We lost that when I started working in an office again, got it back briefly during a regretful period of home employment last fall, and lost it again in November.

About a month ago, we noticed how irritable the clutter was making us, so we talked about it and figured it out:

We were both raised in houses where there was a full-time breadwinner, and another parent who wasn’t working full-time through most of our childhoods. One of us had a housekeeper, and the other a mom who was fond of chore charts and training the children to do dishes, pretty much setting herself up as the shop supervisor for a small housekeeping workforce of underage laborers.

So, our expectations were informed by our upbringings, and our upbringings were about single-income households where one of the parents could spend more time just keeping things up (or managing the children to keep things up, or making sure the housekeeper was keeping things up).

They were also informed by the people around us. We know all sorts of people, ranging from single-income households with children to dual-income child-free households. It’s natural to compare, and it bothered us that our house didn’t really feel “drop-in ready” most of the time. I mean, some of that’s the house: It’s got a relatively small open plan common area on the ground floor, and that’s where we spend most of our time. It doesn’t take much for that space to get out of control.

Our behavior toward the housekeeping was informed by the shape of our weeks. We’d get through the week, feel sort of greedy about our time to do whatever we had in mind for the weekend (which amounts to laundry, grocery shopping, getting haircuts, and going to movies), and we’d never really sync up on the stuff that was bothering us around the house.

That was making us both feel guilty, which was sort of a stupid way to feel given that our material conditions were different from the ones that created the measurements we were using to gauge our success at being grownups. It was also making one or the other of us pretty cranky about what wasn’t getting done.

Get-Right Saturday is great for a few reasons:

  1. The house has stabilized into a sort of baseline level of declutter that’s pretty good. Yeah, it drifts during the week, but we’ve beaten a lot of it back.
  2. When things do get a little out of hand during the week, we don’t get as anxious or guilty. We know we’ve got an hour of working on that coming up in a few days.
  3. We hold each other accountable to concentrate 3 people hours on the house.

That 10 a.m. start time gives us enough time to get up, get breakfast, and sit around reading or playing games for a little while before starting. When the hour’s over, we still have most of the day ahead of us to do whatever we were planning to do.

Like I said, probably not new to a lot of people, but maybe new to a few people.

Bonus Tip

We were also raised with what I’ve come to think of as “American-sized” laundry baskets. I don’t know the exact dimensions, but I can confidently say that each one holds 1.5 – 2 standard washing machine loads of laundry. If you’re the type who is visually cued to deal with laundry, and not the type to decide laundry day is actually a few days, American-sized baskets are the devil: They hold enough to mean you’re going to get into a couple of loads worth, which means laundry becomes a bigger chore by instance.

We recently decided we needed a few more sorting baskets for the laundry area, so on our next trip to Ikea we picked up some of their baskets. We noticed they were small when we bought them. Since they were meant as a sort of holding tank for laundry we wanted to get out of the way so each of us could play through the machines on the weekends, we didn’t mind that they weren’t meant to hold a standard North American laundry basket worth of stuff. We did kind of make fun of them, though, in an ironic way.

“These laundry baskets are fine for your Northern European social democracies and possibly Canadians, but they do not support our more expansive American needs.”

So, anyhow, what we discovered after two weeks was that the smaller Ikea baskets hold a single load of laundry. When one is full + 8″, it’s ready for the washing machine. That means laundry’s a lot simpler. Less stuff stacking up in the laundry area, because a single load is going through with each basket, not 1.5 or 2. You just see that you’ve hit capacity, drag it downstairs, shuffle the Ikea-sized load in the dryer into a basket, shuffle the Ikea-sized load in the washer into the dryer, stick your stuff into the washer, and it’s like the Island of Sodor or something in its balletic synchronousness.

I super recommend them if you’re the type who’s disciplined enough to respond to a basket that is visibly full, but not organized enough to simply do the laundry weekly without the visible reminder.

You can’t say what you are, but you should try anyhow.

I say ‘I consider myself a feminist,’ because I really do. But I always feel like I’m taking a big risk when I say ‘I AM a feminist,’ because there is always, always some other feminist out there who will show you that you’re wrong. Usually they’ll also show you that you’re awful for it.
— Someone somewhere I visit regularly

Another feminist here. That’s an understandable sentiment.

Personally, I hate calling myself anything at all, ever. I spent four years trying to reconcile what I thought I was, what I wanted to say to people I was, what I wanted people to think I was underneath, and what I wanted to be with what I was being every single day by just waking up where I was waking up and doing what I was doing.

I spent even more years after that trying to work through whether I’d ever known or could ever know what I was: Maybe I’d stopped listening to my better angels. Maybe the better angels had never been real. Gandhi had suggested that nonviolent behavior could be motivated (and tainted) by cowardice, so I wondered to myself if what I’d thought had been a nonviolent worldview hadn’t actually been a sort of cowardice, and that by enlisting maybe I’d just embraced what I’d always been.

Some understandings about myself and the world around me crystallized, some things just got more complicated:

Could I jump out of an airplane at night? Yes. And for the last year I was jumping out of airplanes, it’s fair to say I was frightened every time. By the time I got to that point, I’d healed up a lot. I wasn’t who I’d been when I walked into the recruiter’s office: If the controlled environment of the army had been a splint or a cast, it ended up setting my bones into shapes they hadn’t been before I enlisted. So I gained some understanding of what it is to be deeply afraid and yet still do the thing you set out to do. For a period, living that pattern allowed me to say to myself that I wasn’t a coward, that I had a core I could depend on. So I started looking beyond where I was, and having thoughts about what could be next, and wanting it. I didn’t want to give up and disappear into the army.

Then I was out, and rather than going back to be near the people who had cared about me and supported me while I was in, I chose somewhere else. I couldn’t just go back to where I had been, among people who might have been tempted to say, “well, that’s all over now and you’re back.”

I was loved and cared for, but not a lot of people knew me. They just had the biography, and that question of cowardice was still very real, and was suddenly unresolved again because I figured out that physical courage isn’t moral courage. So, I wanted the new people in my life to know something more about me than where I’d been, but I was still struggling with what it was I’d want them to know, and if it was possible for there to be anything more to know. After all, there was what I thought I was, what I wanted to say to people I was, what I wanted people to think I was underneath, and what I wanted to be, but there was what I had been every single day for four years by just waking up where I was waking up and doing what I was doing:

I’d been the guy who got sent to the chaplain because he wouldn’t sing the baby-killing cadences, and then invited to declare himself a conscientious objector. Didn’t do it, though, because I wasn’t. I just didn’t like baby-killing cadences.

I’d been the guy whose boss told him he should seriously consider taking a subordinate into the woods to beat him up, and briefly wondered if it would need to come to that, then learned how to make anger and its energy palpable; maybe to help avoid taking that step and maybe to make it easier if I had to.

I’d been the guy who told a barracks bully that I’d take an eye or an ear, and needed to believe it.

I’d been everything that environment demanded of me, and I chose to stay in it.

I nearly started typing, “but in the end,” because that would allow this to be narrativized and resolved. But there’s no end because I’m still sitting here typing. There’s an ever-unfolding now that I needed to learn about.

There were all the moments where I looked back on some of the things I said and did and hated them. When I’d tell stories about things I’d seen or done and I’d realize people were repelled by the mere fact that I’d been there to see them. There was the year where I needed to get help because I’d see a picture of a maimed child in an Iraqi marketplace bombing, or read about a murder-suicide on an army post from some solider who’d come back from the wars changed, and I’d think about how I’d wanted to be some part of that, and that’d be it for the day, stopped by anger and grief. I’m so glad I worked at home: I don’t know what I would have done with people around when those moments came. Maybe I would have just swallowed it whole instead of composing some polite fiction of a status message and going to sit in my room.

Then there was just more life, and a slowly growing recognition that I couldn’t ever un-be those things. When he was little, Ben thought I’d once been a knight. It was heartbreaking to explain that I hadn’t been. But it was strengthening to realize that the more truthful I could make myself be with him, the better a parent I could be to him.

I figured out that I had to start being the person I wanted to be in that ever-unfolding now. I had to accept that some people would see the biography and think things they’d be justified to think, and that I had to set that aside: There’s no erasing it, and to erase it would be to erase me. Instead, I had to learn how to be open to the things that I can hear and feel are right, and accept that they might be incongruous with what I’ve been.

Because of all that, because I once set aside everything I said I was and became something else, and because I then spent years trying to make all of that make sense, I’ve got a deep aversion to saying I’m anything at all. To the extent it’s any of my business how people talk about themselves or what they are — and it almost never is — I wish there’d be less “speaking as a …” and more “because I live my life thus.”

At the same time, self-identification helps people, right? It helps us hold each other — and ourselves — accountable.

I read bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody where she writes “the soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination,” and I thought to myself “yes, that’s right, I want to live that and teach my son that.” I put down the book and thought “I agree with her, and other people who call themselves feminists,” and then I felt okay saying “I’m a feminist.”

Despite my aversion to saying “I’m this” or “I’m that,” I think “I’m a feminist” is a thing worth saying.

Because I’m a man, steeped in this culture and taught habits of thought that are anti-feminist, I’ll sometimes do things that aren’t feminist things to do. I’ve been lucky to have people in my life who have been gentle and patient with me when I’ve done this. Some day I’ll meet someone who won’t be as kind, or who will want to prove that I’m not a feminist at all. Depending on who that comes from, that could be upsetting or embarrassing.

The alternative, my heart tells me, is to be less supportive than I could be; to be an “ally” who can still maybe slip back and forth, maybe never having to own being wrong or hypocritical ever again because I remember how hard it was to put a sense of self together again after being something besides what I wanted to be.

All we can do is be what we are in the ever-unfolding now. We can open ourselves to hearing what’s right, and we can try to choose what’s right, or at least choose what’s less wrong. We can accept that we’ll sometimes fail at that. We can allow ourselves to be held accountable. We can try again.

On the Quicksilver (and the curious marketing conceit “RV resort”)

IMG 4917

We took our new Quicksilver trailer out on its inaugural camping trip this weekend. A few notes on the whole thing:

We’ve got a Livin’ Lite Quicksilver 8.0. It’s a tent trailer, not a pop-top, so when it folds out it’s sort of like having an old-school canvas tent with a bimini frame sitting up off the ground on a big aluminum box.

Not being a pop-top, and being made of aluminum, it only weighs about 850 pounds, which is well under our Toyota Matrix’s 1,500-pound towing capacity. Driving it out to Mt. Hood this weekend was pretty easy. It was very quiet, and the main thing I noticed about it was how it affected braking: I definitely needed to give myself more time to slow down.

Setting it up is very easy: It has a vinyl cover you unsnap and roll up, a set of four aluminum struts that hold up the bed ends when it’s unfolded, and a bunch of snaps, velcro and bungie loops to hold the tent top in place. Ideally, you’ll want to deploy it with two people, but I’ve managed to put it up and take it down on my own. With two people, it takes well under 10 minutes to get from “completely closed up” to “fully deployed.”

Setup on the inside, once the tent is up, is pretty easy, too. The galley top (with a sink and a cabinet) can be lifted into place by one person. It has a folding table and removable seat cushions that stand up in a minute or two. There are also little light/fan combination units that clip onto the bars next to each bed end and plug in to 12-volt power sockets.

IMG 4909

As RVs go, it’s a pretty simple affair.

Each end of the tent has a double mattress. It’s also possible to collapse the dining table and lay it between the two dinette seats, then put their cushions down to sleep two more people. The mattresses on the beds are a little thin, so next time I think we’ll bring along our Therm-a-Rest pads.

It has an electrical system with three standard household outlets and a 12v adapter. You can run it off its own 12v deep-cycle battery, or you can connect it to shore power. It also has a small sink with a faucet that can either work with city water connected from the outside, or pump water from a plastic, 7-gallon tank in the galley base. It was pretty nice being able to wake up and start the water for the French press with an electric kettle. There’s no built-in stove, but there’s enough counter space to use the two-burner camp stove our dealer threw in. Alternately, there’s a small aluminum table you can mount outside the trailer to use for cooking.

It’s got pretty decent storage. The galley offers three small cabinets with plenty of space to stow cables, hoses, the camp stove, and first aid kit. There’s another cabinet by the door that can hold a few things you might want to grab out even before the trailer is fully deployed. The dinette seats also offer storage compartments. For travel, you can slide a few things under the dining table when it’s folded and placed over the edges of the dinette seats. We were able to fit everything for our trip into the trailer itself (including cooler and folding chairs), and didn’t have anything in the car with us.

We had good weather for our trip. It got down to the low 40s overnight, and we used a small ceramic space heater running off the electrical system to keep the trailer warm. I slept in an unzipped sleeping bag and stayed pretty comfortable.

IMG 4913

I can’t name many downsides. Sleeping with a heater in such cool weather did cause some condensation. We toweled a lot of it off before we packed the tent back down, and since it was sunny and in the high 50s this afternoon when we got home, we just set it back up again to air out and dry out a little more.

The city water pressure from our hookup was a little high and caused a small leak around one of the pipes. We spotted that happening pretty quickly. One of the nice things about the all-aluminum body is that it wasn’t a huge deal to towel up the water without fear of rot setting in.

All in all, though, it’s mainly a big tent on wheels, with plenty of space to sit around if the weather turns (or if you just feel like hanging out in there). It definitely changes your outlook about the weather when you know you’re sleeping four feet off the ground under a waterproof vinyl top. Because it’s a little more weatherproof than a tent, and because it’s easy to heat if need be, it extends our camping season quite a bit. Because it’s a little more comfortable to sleep in than a tent, it also extends our range. We’ll probably do a few more trips to some of the regional parks like Oxbow and Stub Stewart, just to make sure we’ve got the hang of driving a trailer around the metro area, but we’ve already got a spot reserved at Crater Lake this summer, and I’d like to figure out a longer trip somewhere further out before next year.

Where We Stayed

When we bought the trailer, the dealer included a year’s membership in an RV park network. We can stay in any of the parks in the Pacific NW for free for up to 30 nights this year.

We stayed at Mt. Hood Village. Since our trailer is just 16′ when fully deployed, we opted to stay in what you might call the “rustic” section of the facilities: Dirt sites with water and electricity (but no sewer or cable t.v.)

That was probably for the best: We had the entire area to ourselves. The premium area was packed pretty tightly with really big RVs. Yeah, they had a shorter walk to the (indoor) swimming pool and hot tub, but they also had to deal with all the hooting and yammering of people out under their awnings, drunk on Coors Light and the novelty of just-a-hoodie weather in January.

The vibe was pretty friendly. Our family did get the side-eye from a dude with a pony tail and the most gigantic owl tattoo I have ever seen: It spanned his chest and its eyes encompassed his pecs. He seemed a little miffed we were in the hot tub (which was huge … it could have easily seated 10 people), maybe because he was hoping to maul his girlfriend in there. Al & Ben left to go swimming, and he did get a little nasty with the towel-off once he and his girlfriend decided to climb out. Another couple in the corner looked to be completely fucked up on something that made them squint into the far distance and occasionally slur giggling observations. Oh, and Ben & I shared a sauna with a guy who’d bark “shut-it-shut-it-shut-it-the-heat-the-heat-the-heat” when people came in or out. He was also super worked up about a missing flashlight, and he snarled recriminations at one of his children through the steamed glass.

Still, people did smile and say “hi,” so friendly enough; but I think we’d have been okay just sitting by the fire, too. I also think that perhaps “RV resort” is one of the more interesting bits of branding nomenclature I’ve encountered in a while if that place is an average specimen. Your average state park is doing what it can to make the sites feel a little isolated from each other, and what you lose in the way of a hot tub, gift shop and swimming pool you make up for in relative quiet, hiking trails, twilight ranger shows at a rustic amphitheater, and fewer opportunities to see some dude with a ginormous owl tattoo toweling his lady off all nasty.

The membership is free for a year, though, so really we can live in both worlds if we choose.

IMG 4915

Multimedia

This video is 14 minutes of camper setup competency that I find a little hypnotic. It helps that the Livin’ Lite company is located in Northern Indiana, and so I’m hearing the voice of my people (more or less: I’m about two years more “from Oregon” than I am “from Indiana,” at this point).

Which reminds me of another thing that I enjoyed this weekend:

I worked at an RV plant the summer after I graduated from high school. I was really, really bad at it, but I learned a lot: I installed air conditioners, manufactured step-well covers, routed and secured fiberglass sheets to partition walls, undercoated vans, and did a bit of finishing work here and there.

Sitting at the table enjoying my coffee this morning, knowing the trailer was made in the same town where I helped put together RVs, it was pretty easy to see bits and pieces that looked like things I’d made or assembled that summer. You might see some of that stuff and not think twice about it, assuming a machine did it, but I spotted a few things: A small nick on the crimp on an otherwise perfect aluminum cover; and the thumbnail impression of a screw that had gone in a little off, then got pulled back out a bit and tightened back down a tiny fraction of an inch the other direction. For a second, I could smell routed fiberglass and rolls of carpet in a hot warehouse.

Breakfast at Oliver’s

Joe

I appear to have eaten at Oliver’s Cafe about 90 times since March, 2012 (can’t account for a few cash transactions). I ran the Quicken report that told me that through a quick script to count how many of those visits were on a Sunday (“Dad and Ben breakfast day”): Harder to know that because the date of the transaction going through varies from the date the transaction happened, but it must be about 70.

Ben’s got a usual: 2 scrambled eggs, a sausage patty, a cinnamon roll and a cup of decaf. He settled on that after a streak where he was all about the bacon pancakes, which are incredible but also torpor inducing. Lately I’m all over the place. The coffee is a constant, but it’s hard to choose between all the scrambles and omelettes, plus the occasional bacon pancakes or plain old hotcakes.

When we first moved here, the space Oliver’s is in was occupied by Le Sorelle Café. You could get coffee and pastry and panini there. We’d stop in on Sundays after going to the farmers market. Le Sorelle didn’t last. Coffee in Lents, in general, does not last unless it’s being served out of an espresso hut. That’s a shame, because until the neighborhood is ultimately overrun by people like me, it’d be nice to have a slow but steady coffee place to go work at now and then. We had that in the form of Lents Commons, but it fell apart pretty quickly because it was never meant to be a coffee place: The owners wanted it to be a performance space.

Oliver’s has been at it for a couple of years now, and I hope they’ve cracked the code for remaining viable in Lents: They’re only open until 2 each day. They’re not even attempting dinner service.

Anyhow, this isn’t its Yelp page, where it is mostly appropriately revered by the neighborhood.

Ben and I have been walking down there most Sunday mornings for a while. It’s about 10 minutes from our house, so we’ll go all but the worst days, unless we’re feeling lazy and don’t want to get out of our pajamas.

Some days, we don’t say much. Other days, Ben wants to talk about World of Warcraft or something he saw on YouTube. This last Sunday, he was curious about elections and what it would be like if we had more than two major parties. “Winner takes all” was pretty easy to explain. Proportional representation was helped along by our recent Munchkin Cthulhu binge, because forming a coalition government in parliament is exactly like agreeing to gang up on a level 16 eldritch horror in exchange for a cut of the treasure.

When we get there, we’ve got a few preferred booths over on the east side of the restaurant, where it’s more isolated. Our waitress this past week is new — or new to Sundays — and she’s only seen us four or five times. She was visibly disoriented when we had to sit over on the west side in straight-backed chairs like a pair of chumps, though.

So, most of the wait-folks there know us pretty well by now. Ben still delivers his order each week like it’s going to be news to the waitresses. I’ve made more of an effort to mix it up ever since I caught a waitress starting to write my order down before I spoke it. The next week I deliberately broke my rut and there was an expression of polite surprise that I wasn’t having the omelette.

After I left the newspaper — my first job after college — I ended up in a burger joint for a while. On the days I had the lunch shift, there was a group of three mailmen who’d come in every day. They ordered the same thing every time, and one of them brought exact change every time. The first time I served him his burger I forgot to apply some discount the owner had made up for mailmen and there was a diplomatic incident. I never got the comfort of that routine because the three of them were pretty sour-faced guys. I just saw them sitting there eating their burgers in silence, maybe tipping a curt nod at the counter person on the way out, back to their routes.

I’ve certainly had routines since. Al & I were regulars at the Barracks Road Mister Donut in Charlottesville, VA on Sundays: chocolate angels to go with the Sunday Times for a long while. The fall and winter she was pregnant with Ben it was me going over to Jae’s Low Beer Price on Belmont for ice cream sandwiches, Diet 7-Up and the big box of Dots (which were fresh maybe one time out of ten, which always provoked pleased exclamations).

But I’ve got a weird thing about my routines being picked up on, too. It can feel strange and intimate, and I think about those mailmen and how little I knew about whatever they did besides eat burgers at the College Mall Road G.D. Ritzy’s in Bloomington, IN and (I hope) deliver mail, and how flattened out they seemed to me.

Sounds a little neurotic when I see it there in black and white, but there it is. Most major demons and powerful wizards are similarly particular about people knowing their true names, let alone their preferred breakfasts.

But with the exception of adjusting my ordering habits now and then to appropriately reset expectations with the wait staff at Oliver’s, I don’t mind being a regular there so much because the other half of things I think about in the process of regularing there is my childhood:

Several moves around town before I was five, a big move from Texas to Pennsylvania before kindergarten, cross-town moves and a few elementary schools, a move to Chicago, then back to Pennsylvania (way down the road from where we’d been before), then Indiana in the middle of eighth grade.

I recently did the math, and realized that this time in Oregon — since July 6, 2001 — is the longest I’ve lived in any state my entire life by a couple of years. We’ve been in this house just a few weeks over 5.5 years, and that’s the longest I’ve ever lived in a single house.

I’m not going to say moving around a lot was bad for me. I got a lot from it, especially because it was all so varied: suburban Chicago, dairy country in Pennsylvania, small-town Indiana, Texas, suburban Pittsburg. Lots of experiences — jumping up from dinner to help our host birth a calf out back in the barn! — and lots of people of all kinds.

But it was also kind of lonely. The Pennsylvania farm kids hated the accent I picked up in Chicago. The small-town Indiana kids didn’t really care about hunting much, and my hunter’s ed certification badge wasn’t really a mark of achievement to them. The Chicago kids — I guess they all went on to become John Hughes characters, but I don’t know because I only knew them for this little slice of their grade school lives. I had friends but they didn’t last, and I didn’t ever learn to expect them to.

So when Ben was getting ready to start kindergarten, we decided to make up our minds about where we’d be living, and we picked our house partly because we could see the elementary school he’d be going to from the front porch. I was pretty set on the idea that we’d be looking from that porch to that school every morning until middle school. That on Ben’s first day at middle school, he’ll be in a new place with friends from that school. And that when he starts high school, there’ll be familiar faces in the halls that first day — faces he’s known for almost as long as he can usefully remember anything.

Ben went on this Lady Gaga kick a couple of years ago. He loved her makeup and costumes, and “Born This Way” just sort of resonated with him. He got marked as a weirdo for it, and there was some trouble at school briefly. A group of mean girls started a playground “Ben’s a fag” campaign and he got pushed around. We briefly freaked out — I took six months of that kind of abuse from a bunch of farm kids in Pennsylvania in eighth grade — just five or six punches on the arm or in the gut every morning before gym for six months straight — and it sucked. We’d managed to “win” the elementary school lottery, though, so we could have picked another school to transfer him to the next year. But the thing we learned from the teacher when we talked to her about it was that Ben’s friends had all stuck up for him, and even if there was some stuff going on from a few shitty little kids, after the first shoving incident his friends had all just surrounded him and kept him safe. I thought about it some and realized transferring him to another school would just mean starting over, and maybe not making those friends he’d need before a mean girl clique over there decided he was a weirdo, too.

All of which is to say, that’s part of what we bought — that sense that the best school is the one his friends are at. I have to randomize my breakfast orders to keep from — whatever would happen if I let myself be known that way — but Ben gets to walk into a place where sometimes we hear the waitress behind the counter say “the guys are here,” and he can have his usual.

© Michael Hall, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.