My Portlandia Pilgrimage

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Thirty minutes into the line for Voodoo Donuts, it occurred to me that the Portland I grew up in wasn’t nearly as edgy, earthy or hipster as it is today. I texted my sister, who also grew up in the Rose City and then lived most of her adult life on the East Coast.

“Why wasn’t Portland cool when we were growing up?” I asked.

My attention wandered as I waited for her reply. A witty Millennial functioning as line motivator/donut huckster was describing how one uses the pretzel extruding from the trademark voodoo doll-shaped donuts to stab its belly until raspberry goo oozes forth, ensuring a tasty curse.

“Because we lived there,” my sister texted back. Touché. A response worthy of an ad-libbed line from the fame-inducing series Portlandia.

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She’s right, of course. But when I was in high school the town was still in the awkward, pre-pubescent stage long before its voice dropped to sexy. Nobody bragged about being from Portland, except maybe Tonya Harding before she reached for her tire iron.

images-1It still rained, but no Grimm TV series had turned the slick street gloom into glam. Athleta and Lululemon hadn’t yet invented attractive outdoor fitness fashion so our galoshes and parkas made us look like lumpy fourth-graders.

Men still wore flannel shirts and sported beefy beards. But those men were your dads. Not confident Lumbersexuals effortlessly lifting their mountain bikes onto electric street trams.

People were still glow-in-the-dark pale when I lived in Portland. But back then Goth wasn’t in and we were embarrassed by our ethereal skin tones. The joke was Portlanders didn’t tan; they rusted.

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We still had coffee and beer but they came from jars of Folgers in your mom’s kitchen and from cartons at the back of gas station convenience stores.

The Portland of today is Darwinian in its greatness. People like me and my sister left and only the hippest have survived. There is evidence everywhere that Portlandia has captured the zeitgeist of a new culture.

If you eat out in Portland you will be told the birthplace of every ingredient. On my Saturday morning hike through one of Portland’s forests I passed ferns and wild orchids whose cousins I ate the night before.

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When I stopped to see what the asking price was on this cute little cottage in the Northwest quadrant I realized the owner wasn’t displaying real estate brochures but poetry.

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Look closely at this mom’s stroller. It’s attached to a skateboard. I looked around, expecting to see Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen.

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In this hometown I barely recognize I’m not sure if life is imitating art or the other way around. If anything, Portlandia overemphasizes the “keep Portland weird” vibe and underplays the city’s friendly sophistication.

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We were there, for example, for a major fine-art photography portfolio review and month-long celebration of the art form called Photo Lucida. In my day, a photo exhibit in Portland meant landscapes of neighboring Mount Hood printed on canvas. But so many in-the-know Portlanders turned out for the night the photo review was open to the public that the fire marshal had to shut down the Portland Art Museum.

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I live in the South now, a region heralded for its hospitality. But it was in Portland that a parking lot attendant saw me wadding the wrapper from my messy, trendy food cart lunch into my backpack and abandoned drivers to show me the nearest garbage can. Then he ducked into his little key shed and reappeared with a roll of paper towels and hand sanitizer.

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I knew I was developing a major crush on my new old hometown when I finally reached the end of the line at Voodoo Donuts. The sweet yeasty smell from my freshly baked, over-frosted voodoo doll wafted up to my cold red nose and I must have swooned. I suddenly couldn’t think of anyone to curse. I was so put-a-bird-on-it, tree hugging, never-shaving again happy that I forgot why I was holding the tiny stabbing pretzel in my fist.

Luckily my aunt Ronell, an old-fashioned kind of Oregonian who still drinks beer out of a can and thinks skateboards are for little kids, was by my side. She put down her traditional maple bar and whispered a name into my ear. It was just the spell-breaker I needed and I plunged the pretzel into the jelly-filled belly of the innocent donut. My sister was right. I’m not chill enough to be born-again Portlander yet.

The geek selfie -- me with the about-to-be-replaced carpet at PDX
The geek selfie — me with the about-to-be-replaced carpet at PDX

The Bookclub Reveal that Floored Me

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Meet the ladies of Ex Libris
Meet the ladies of Ex Libris

Beaufort’s Ex Libris bookclub has been meeting for the last twenty-one years – the young mothers who started it as a sanity-saving break from infants and toddlers now swap stories of their children’s weddings and plans for grandchildren. They’ve been each other’s other mothers and other mothers to each other’s children. They pick their books a year in advance and the menu for their monthly meetings is always the same: M&M’s, bags of popcorn and many, many bottles of wine. But they still have the capacity to surprise each other.

Take this month’s meeting, for example. One of the founding members, Vicki Mix, nominated “The Other Mother: a rememoir” because back in the 90s she used to help Byrne Miller archive programs, press clippings and photographs into giant scrapbooks. We didn’t know each other then, but we both count ourselves among the last generation “collected” by the modern dancer who turned the South on its head. So I wasn’t surprised that another sister-by-Byrne would ask me to talk to Ex Libris.

 

Thats Deborah, second row, second from the right
Thats Deborah, second row, second from the right

I never expected what happened next. One of the longstanding members brought a guest to the meeting, someone who had once worked as a designer at WJWJ-TV, and when we went around the room doing introductions she shyly said her name: Deborah Martin. She was holding an 8×10 black and white photo of a group of dancers and pointed to herself, thirty-years ago. The group was the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre and she was one of Byrne’s original dancers!

 

Deborah's costume designs for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre
Deborah’s costume designs for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre

 

Byrne at the wedding of two of her collected children in 1990
Byrne at the wedding of two of her collected children in 1990

It gets even better. Not only did Deborah dance for Byrne in the days before the BMDT became purely a presenter of modern dance, she designed costumes for the company.

 

Byrne was so theatrical, always bedecked in outlandish fashions, that I can only imagine how she must have treasured Deborah’s talents. The sketches she passed around felt like heirlooms – graceful reminders that Byrne’s story was once present tense and active. And that even though Byrne was the star of her own remarkable story there was always a supporting cast. Which included Duncan – Byrne’s husband of 60 years.


 

 

The man I was assigned to “cover” as a news story about Alzheimers struggled for the strength to shake my hand and the breath to speak. But Deborah knew a much younger, vibrant Duncan who never missed a single rehearsal.

Duncan, in rehearsal
Duncan, in rehearsal


“He was always there, in his little leotards,” she said. “He absolutely adored dance and had this delightful giggle I’ll never forget.”

 

The joyous, ebullient Byrne
The joyous, ebullient Byrne

 

 

Back cover of "The Other Mother: a rememoir" courtesy of Beaufort County Library
Back cover of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” courtesy of Beaufort County Library

 

Deborah knew a different side of Byrne than I would ever encounter – the tough, demanding taskmaster never satisfied until a dance was stage-ready. She wasn’t always the wise, tactful other mother she was by the time I found her. Feelings got hurt but always mended. “We went through a lot together, Byrne and I.”

Deborah left Beaufort and WJWJ long before I arrived to take a job at the same TV station, and she lost track of Byrne’s story. It was only decades later, after she had returned to live on St. Helena Island, that she found out about Byrne’s papers at the Beaufort County Library. But even the giant scrapbooks Vicki Mix had helped archive couldn’t restore a presence as pivotal as Byrne Miller.

“When I saw the newspaper pages, all yellowed and faded, it was just so sad. I couldn’t believe that a life like hers was reduced to artifact.”

I know exactly how she felt. I too, studied those scrapbooks in the research phase of the memoir of my relationship with Byrne. I was never trying to bring Byrne back to life; just to share the greatest love story I have ever known.

 

Byrne and Duncan Miller
Byrne and Duncan Miller

Each bookclub that reads “The Other Mother: a rememoir” interprets it in a new way. Ex Libris members shared the perspective of mothers astounded at the selfless love it took for Byrne to nudge me out of her protective nest to start my own career. They loved the ending – the scene where Byrne and I danced a duet of hand shadows in a dark room.

Deborah clutched the book to her chest, close to tears and thanked me for bringing Byrne back to her. And that’s when I realized that for other mothers, there are no endings. Ours are stories that will shape future lives.

Me with Deborah, a sister-by-Byrne I never knew I had.
Me with Deborah, a sister-by-Byrne I never knew I had.

A howl-out to San Francisco’s Beat Museum for National Poetry Month

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(photography by Gary Geboy)


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Nestled between neon-flashing strip clubs on the corner of Broadway and Columbus bordering San Francisco’s Chinatown is a homing beacon for poets and a haven for hipsters.

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It’s called the Beat Museum and it sits diagonally across a tawdry intersection from the infamous City Lights bookstore – literally in howling distance from the definition of obscenity.

Unlike most contemporary museums, visitors don’t exit through the gift shop. They enter through it – an eclectic collection of cool chap books, postcards and extended play LPs. I forgive the crass commercialism when admission only costs $8 and comes with a personal invite to a “beat conference” in June.

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The museum is so unpretentious it’s like stepping into a 1960’s living room with scrapbook-style exhibits curated by a proud mom who saved every souvenir of a child who turned out to be famous. There’s even a comfy tattered sofa to tune in and drop out for a while. The effect is unexpectedly intimate and revelatory.

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Take Ginsberg’s early draft of “Howl,” for example. The epic poem now associated with stream-of-conscious venting of cool didn’t just spew forth in a drug-induced fit of unfiltered genius.

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Look closely at the tormented typewriting. You can practically smell the white-out correcting fluid. The best minds of Ginsberg’s generation started out mystical instead of hysterical. They hallucinated anarchy before he settled on Arkansas. Any writer who has ever been returned a manuscript bloodied with red ink feels instantly soothed, even buoyed when able to study the suffering of a giant.

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Another exhibit is the balm that must have soothed Ginsberg himself. Every writer should be sent a telegram from Lawrence Ferlinghetti quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?”

Who knew? Even South Carolina Educational Television was once beat
Who knew? Even South Carolina Educational Television was once beat

The TEDx Effect

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The speakers for 2015’s TEDxCharleston have about seven more days to get their talks down pat, without sounding rehearsed. But one person has fifteen talks to prepare for: the emcee. Last year that job was mine, and it was terrifying. I had to write and deliver an introduction for each amazing speaker and performer — somehow linking each one of them to the theme: Ripple Effect.

Here was one of my favorites – the introduction to renowned National Geographic wildlife photographer Vince Musi.

His talk was one of the highlights of the show, so the curators decided to make it a tradition of sorts and invite Vince to be the emcee of this year’s TEDX Charleston. The theme is “Embrace Chaos” and if you’re one of the smart people who bought your tickets before they sold out (in a day) you’re in for a treat. Not only are the speakers intriguing (I know because I wrote the teases for their talks. Spoiler alert — ombudsman John Zinsser is one you won’t want to miss) – so is the charismatic man who’ll be introducing you to them this year. Vince is such a compelling storyteller it will make you wonder if even his pictures could really equal a thousand of his words.

Bless Berkeley’s heart, and I mean that with syrupy Southern sweetness

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Inside Berkeley's city hall
Inside Berkeley’s city hall, and yes, that’s Fidel
Outside South Carolina's capitol
Outside South Carolina’s capitol

As a travel-loving, non-religious feminist living and writing in the state of South Carolina, I confess to often feeling like an expat in my own country. I am inspired by the beauty of the place and the eccentricity and humor of its people but find it tough to reconcile things like a confederate flag flying on state capitol grounds. Or that our senators vote against women’s rights while declaring family values. Beaufort, my adopted hometown, actually lobbied to let the world’s loudest fighter jets train, day-and-night, over residential neighborhoods and mostly black public schools. When a famous modern dance company staged a performance for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre, a city councilman in Beaufort threatened to cut funding over scant costumes.

dancemuralSo when I flew to Berkeley, California to shoot a video last week I should have felt liberated, among my tribe. Modern dance is so mainstream that studios have weathered brass nameplates. Instead of ear-splitting F35s and military bases, Berkeley is famous for anti-Vietnam war protests on campus. It’s so liberal here that dispensers of medical marijuana are required to set aside a percentage of pot to donate to poor people. It must be true; they even wrote about it The New York Times.



there 2her 2

On the Oakland side of the Berkeley city border stands a metal “There” sculpture immortalizing the famous Gertrude Stein memoir declaring “there is no there there.” Trees shading the “Here” sculpture that welcomes drivers to much-swankier Berkeley make it look like “HER” A progressive, pacifist woman like me should love it here.

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But what I discovered was that when too many lucky, like-minded people live in the same place we can be as bombastic as any redneck right-wingers. Take the problem of obesity, for example. In Berkeley, more than 70% of voters approved a tax designed to discourage consumption of soda – one penny per ounce – but only on distributors and only on soda. They didn’t impose sugar taxes on fancy, expensive coconut waters or quasi-holistic kombucha bottled teas. Whipped cream-crowned liquid desserts sold in gourmet coffee shops are exempt too. So are donuts, candy and processed foods, like ketchup, with loads of hidden sugar. They wanted to be the only city in the country with a sugar tax on soda in order to make a point. Apparently uber-educated, ultra-liberal Berkeley has figured what’s best for everyone.

tax added to a can of soda in Berkeley
tax added to a can of soda in Berkeley

A part of me wanted to cheer the the city on. I’m trying to cut back on sugar and personally don’t drink sodas. But the sponsors of Berkeley’s law didn’t talk to the low-income workers, living in food deserts, who buy half-liters of generic soda at corner liquor/snack stores. These are the people who wait tables and clean rooms in Berkeley but can’t afford to live or vote there. Consumers who know the exact coin count of their favorite soda brand can’t just switch to the newest, healthiest fad drink. And the owners of mom-and-pop stores are watching their customers walk across the street to not-there Oakland, a city that hasn’t singled out soda as the new “we know better.”

I’m writing about this because there’s a little Berkeley bully in all us liberals. I realize sugar taxes on soda hardly compare with the big “values” issues that make me an expat in my own corner of the country. But I was wrong to think only gun-toting, gay-bashing conservative states have the corner on moral tyranny.

The Choreography of Air Shows

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rhythmic gymnastics choreography
rhythmic gymnastics choreography
air show choreography
air show choreography

As readers of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” know, I spent the best years of my youth twirling ribbons, juggling clubs, rolling hoops and tossing balls as an almost-Olympic rhythmic gymnast. I designed most of my own routines but occasionally got to work with the national team choreographers. But I never imagined I’d be writing about a different kind of choreography altogether — the demonstration routine performed by the world famous GEICO Skytypers.

Full Team Formation

Instead of gymnasts, I’m writing about pilots — captains of major airlines with thousands of hours flying military planes as well — who spend their weekends flying vintage World War II trainer planes called SNJ’s. If you’ve watched any Hollywood WWII movie, you’ve seen these planes and heard these Pratt Whitney engines. And if you’ve ever been to an air show, you’ve seen aerial choreography not altogether unlike that on the Olympic mat.

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Instead of six gymnasts using their bodies to perform ridiculous acts of flexibility and grace, the Skytypers use six 75-year old planes.

A pilot named Steve Salmirs spent the last six months dreaming up a new opening manuever for the Skytypers’ 18-minute precision flying demonstration — and it debuts this weekend at the Melbourne Beach Air and Space Show in Florida. You can read all about it on my official “Skyscribe” blog for the team or follow them on Twitter or Facebook. But here’s a sneak peek of the front part of the new maneuver.

I can’t show you the rest because it’d ruin the surprise for the quarter-of-a-million spectators turning out this weekend for the show.

haulerWatching the team work on the routine during Spring Training this week in Florida, and in full dress rehearsal today for their season opener was a flashback to putting the finishing touches on a new rhythmic routine. A gymnast goes over the moves in her head, talking each element through with the coach in an almost trance-like method of memorization. The pilots do that in their mobile briefing room — an 18-wheeler outfitted with a giant video screen just for analyzing their performances. Then, just like “marking” new choreography by walking through the positions on the mat, these pilots walk through the whole routine on the tarmac before they ever fire up the planes.

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Of course the stakes are incredibly higher. The worst that could happen if a group routine in rhythmic gymnastics goes wrong is a low score. In an air show lives are at stake. Which is why these pilots are as dedicated to perfection as any Olympic athlete.

And tomorrow, if that Russian judge dares to score the GEICO Skytypers less than a 10, they’ll have to answer to me.

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