Archive for August, 2009

The Public Option

August 26, 2009

Intellectually I’ve always favored what they’re calling “healthcare reform,” but because I’ve had good luck with my health, my feelings on the issue have never been particularly strong. After a nudge from Peter Clothier of the Buddha Diaries, several nudges from Judy, and after seeing the vitriol and nonsense coming out of the mouths of the usual suspects, I’ve decided that I have to get involved. The idea that healthcare is properly left to the machinations of private enterprise is absurd. (And that’s stating it kindly.) The idea that government shouldn’t have any role, or that it’s incapable of dealing with the issue correctly lacks reason and good sense. It’s the fruit of Reagan’s name calling—nothing more. A government is as good as its people. (Are we any good?) So I favor the “public option,” and I’ll be writing Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to let them know.

Take Me to the River

August 23, 2009
Judy on the jetty at the mouth of the Columbia River

Judy on the jetty at the mouth of the Columbia River

My wife Judy Irving recently received permission to film on East Sand Island, a mile long spit of old dredge spoils near the mouth of the Columbia River. There’s a large Caspian Tern breeding colony on the island, and in recent years it’s become a giant summertime roost for Brown Pelicans. Judy is working on a new documentary about the Brown Pelican, called Pelican Dreams. She needed my help—driving, hauling gear, and so on—and I was happy to have the opportunity to go. I grew up about 100 miles upstream from the island in the town of Vancouver, Washington, and while I’d seen many different sections of the river, I’d never been to the mouth. It’s enormous—nearly five miles across at one spot.

We were taken out on a flat-bottomed whaler, and to get to shore we had to wade in wearing hip boots. All her film gear had to be carried on our heads, and it was a major task. Because of her dissatisfaction with the quality of video cameras and images, she still hasn’t made the move to the world of lighter, less cumbersome digital equipment. When we arrived on the island there were around 14,000 pelicans lined up along the beach. It was a thrill to see such a massive grouping of that strange-looking bird. We camped on the island one night, and I spent a lot of the time just sitting and gazing at the river.

My family’s camping trips were the only part of my childhood that I enjoyed much. I remember most of the rest of it as being dreary and tedious. [When you leave the Astoria Bridge heading into Washington State, you’re given the choice of going left to Cape Disappointment or right to Dismal Nitch (sic), which is how I still tend to remember my old home.] I always appreciate having the opportunity to reconnect with the natural world. Living in a city it’s all too easy to forget that our technological creations are pitiful compared to Nature’s. I mean, who can get genuinely excited about 64 bit computer processing?

Talking Back

August 19, 2009

There are some right wingers who have a proclivity for voicing in passing their political views to total strangers. It always strikes me as both odd and more than a little gauche. They always speak as if you undoubtedly agree with them. The Left is a media phantom that they never actually see and that they never really expect to encounter. Like most people who lean to the left, I usually let their statements pass without comment, partly because the statements themselves are so dumb—or neurotic—that it feels impolite to say anything. But some of my reluctance to speak is a holdover from 9/11 when the slogan “United We Stand” was regularly trotted out by the Right as a threat to anyone who opposed their program.

On our recent road trip up north, Judy and I stopped at a motel in Brookings, Oregon. I was in the lobby working on the laptop when two men came in to see about a room. Weirdly, they started making Fox News-type political comments to the woman at the desk. Their comments started out mild, but they kept getting more and more outrageous. She was clearly apolitical. Her only concern was that they become customers, so she responded with pleasant non sequiturs. In the meantime, I was sitting there, tired from a long day of driving, and getting more and more irritated with these two. They pushed me over the edge when they started praising Singapore for its public hangings. I stood up and told them, essentially, that they were full of shit. The shock on their faces was striking. I don’t think anybody had ever opposed them. They didn’t become argumentative; they simply looked bewildered. I walked out of the lobby then, and back to my room.

I don’t think that “talking back,” in and of itself, can change much. But it is a place to begin, and I intend to do a lot more of it. The Right has been getting away with not having to listen to the other side for too long now.

The Last Photo of Sydney

August 16, 2009


Judy's last photo of Sydney, 10 days before his death

Judy's last photo of Sydney, 10 days before his death


August 15, 2009

Judy and I got back from a 2200 mile-long road trip, and I’ll probably have something to say about it. But first I need to write a little about the death of Sydney, one of the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill.

On June 27, a neighbor showed up at our door with a box that held a very sick juvenile from the wild parrot flock. He had all the symptoms of Baylisascaris procyonis, a roundworm found in raccoon feces that invades the brain and the eye. This worm has been a longstanding problem for the flock. I took the bird off his hands and named him Sydney. 

A lot of people—especially pet parrot owners—assume that the parrots are in some way tame. That’s not the case. They are genuinely wild, with all that the word implies. I couldn’t handle Sydney without wrapping him in a towel first, otherwise he would have ripped my hands—painfully—to shreds. He did get me once, in fact, and I bled. A few days after taking him in, he began to show some improvement. Some of the parrots have survived the worm, and I was hopeful that Sydney would be one of them. But his improvement was only temporary—probably the result of his having gotten some rest. A few weeks ago he lost the ability to walk. Then something happened to Sydney—something I’ve seen before. As he deteriorated and his dependency on Judy and me increased, he became docile and trusting. Judy fell in love with him and began carrying him around with her all day long in a sling. She sat with him for hours at a time, fed him, and made him a little nest in a basket that he slept in right next to our bed. Whenever she left him, he would call to her. This went on for around twelve days.

We had to leave town on August 6. It was work-related and couldn’t be postponed. We had house-sitters lined up and we’d written extensive instructions on the care and feeding of Sydney. At around 4 am—two hours before we were supposed to get up—Sydney started making noise, so Judy got up to sit with him. He died so peacefully that for a time she wasn’t even aware that he was gone. Needless to say, it was a horrible way to start a long road trip. I’d been through this many, many times, but it was the first time for Judy. For days, all she could think about was that “sweet little bird.” And he was. Remarkably so.

Progress Report #18

August 4, 2009

I’m taking a break from my book and this blog. Judy and I are driving to the mouth of the Columbia River where we’re going to be ferried out to an island that’s home to an immense pelican roost. Judy is filming the roost for her new movie Pelican Dreams. It’s a remarkable opportunity to do something out of the ordinary. After that, we’re driving over the Cascade Mountains to Eastern Washington so that I can do some research for Street Song. While working on the previous chapter I discovered that I lacked a sufficiently clear memory of the appearance and atmosphere of a town that enters into my story, and this is an opportunity to correct that. After that, we’ll spend a few days exploring the area around Mt. St. Helens. I grew up with that mountain on the horizon on clear days. It was near and loomed large. Then we make a mad dash back home, back to work.

Last night, around 2:30 am, I got an idea for the book that kept me awake for hours. It was a good idea and worth developing, but I feel so trashed today.