Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Power of Roots

When they cut down the big-leaf maple trees outside my bedroom window, I thought I would be without anything but crumbling basalt to look at until next spring at the earliest. Not so! Dozens of maple leaves are festooning the hillside around where the old trees were chopped down. They lack the grandeur of the plate-sized, deep-green leaves of the prior generation, but they show no hesitancy in bursting forth and multiplying.

I am, of course, delighted to see them, but it makes me wonder about the efficacy of the clear cut. The roots are clearly still flourishing, finding minuscule weaknesses in the hillside to push new tendrils into, continuing their gradual disassembly of the rocky cliff-face. True, they lack the weight of the branches and leaves that responded to the pull of gravity before. But the roots continue to assert themselves.

Oh heck, I'm just going to enjoy the new sprouts. According to the  recent  New Yorker article, we're due for a 9.2 earthquake and tsunami any day now, at which point a few big-leaf maples more or less will be the least of my worries.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

They cut down my trees!

It's deja vu.

When I moved into my downtown condo about 20 years ago, one of its pleasures was a big magnolia tree that lifted its white blossoms up just outside my deck. I loved it. One day, I came home and found a memo from the management company saying they were going to remove it. I tried to save my tree, but it was doomed. The construction of the condo complex included underground parking, which meant that the green lawn outside my windows was actually in a gigantic flowerpot. The tree had become too big and too heavy for its artificial underground. It came down and was replaced by spindly dogwoods that didn't come up to where I could see them without leaning over the railing. I had moved in, I had fallen into arboreal love, and I had lost my beloved.

When I moved here, I fell in love again, with a mini-grove of big-leaf maples growing out of the steep bank opposite my window. The way the big, floppy leaves moved in the wind, the colors they presented in spring (hopeful light green) and summer (earnest dark green) and fall (gleaming yellow turning brown), the shade beneath the branches, the seeds helicoptering down, I felt I could watch those trees endlessly and feel my soul renewed by their beauty.

And all that's left is a few stumps six inches tall and maybe two inches across sticking up through the diamond-patterned fencing set against the hillside to protect cars from rockfalls. I understand why it had to happen. For all the beauty aboveground, below the trunks and branches and leaves, the tree roots were slowly tearing the hillside apart. Eventually, inevitably, my trees would have brought several tons of basalt down onto the driveway and against the side of the building, maybe tossing a few random rocks high enough to crack my windows, certainly caving in the walls of my neighbors below.

I understand that. But my trees are gone. The understanding is in my head, the mourning is in my heart and is not comforted.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

More on jury duty: lawyers

The contrast between the two lawyers was very striking. One clearly knew exactly how to conduct a trial like the one my jury heard, the other was equally clearly thrashing about. Summarizing the two cases:

Plaintiff: there was a rear-end collision*, defendant's car at the rear of plaintiff's car. Plaintiff has been getting medical and chiropractic treatment for three years for debilitating headaches that began after the collision. Plaintiff is a good woman who traveled to Indonesia to help people struck by the tsunami (work she can no longer do). She is well thought of by her neighbors, co-workers, and fellow church members.

In support of this case, plaintiff's lawyer took us through the plaintiff's extensive medical treatments at least four times in considerable detail. Aside from character witnesses, he presented the plaintiff herself, who was very nervous on the stand; her chiropractor; and an accident reconstruction expert who basically agreed with defense's accident reconstruction expert except for saying plaintiff's head could have suffered significant forces, even though the collision was only at about 7 mph. At times, plaintiff's lawyer seemed to be drawing out his witnesses' testimony by asking minimally relevant, repetitive questions while frequently checking the courtroom clock. He made at least one egregious error: cross-examining the defendant, accusing him of an inconsistency between his deposition and his testimony, dramatically handing him a transcript of the deposition and challenging him to show otherwise. Defendant examined the transcript on the stand and found the material the lawyer had said wasn't there, Oops.

Defendant: while defendant admits the fact of the collision, well-credentialed experts in accident reconstruction, human biomechanics, and neurology say the impact of that collision could not have caused the symptoms plaintiff suffers.  Defendant's lawyer was at all times courteous, professional, and on-point. I don't believe he cross-examined plaintiff at all, which got him points from me, because she seemed so anxious. He didn't need to emphasize points in testimony that supported his side, apparently believing that we, the jury, would understand what was being said without his having to repeat or simplify the information. I had to wonder whether he, the lawyer, was hired by defendant's insurance company.

In a way, the whole thing was scary. If you have the better lawyer, you have a much better chance of prevailing in court. That should be obvious, but seeing it in action adds color and depth. Before this trial, I would have thought of a "good" lawyer as one who reminded me of Perry Mason. Now I see that it's not melodramatics, it's having control of the material of the case and presenting that material in a clear, concise, consistent manner that creates trust and credibility.

*The facts of the case: both plaintiff and defendant were stopped at a red light. Light turned green, both began to drive forward. Plaintiff saw an ambulance approaching on the cross-street, stopped at mid-intersection. Defendant, immediately behind her, was looking elsewhere, was unable to stop before colliding with the rear of plaintiff's car. Damage to both cars was minimal, judging by the repair estimates.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Adventures 2: Jury Duty

In order to savor the joys of jury duty, one needs to be patient. Very patient.

We are, after all, dealing with a government bureaucracy here. And jurors are needed in the process at unpredictable times and for unpredictable durations.They need to be kept available so they can be "turned on" when needed and "turned off" when not.

The courthouse did its best. It was air-conditioned (mostly: on the afternoon of the second day, the air conditioning in the courtroom stopped conditioning the air. It was in the high 80s outdoors, and the courtroom got so hot that the judge removed her black robe and told the lawyers they could remove their suitcoats. Plaintiff's lawyer did, defendant's lawyer did not.) Chairs in the juror assembly room where we waited to be assigned to cases were really comfortable. They had been paid for out of a fund comprising jury duty fees that jurors had donated for such purposes. Once we got checked in initially, we usually got to go through security checks with court employees, a much shorter line than the public checkpoint.

But, inevitably, there is a lot of waiting involved. Most people read or played with their phones. (Complimentary wifi provided in the courthouse.) A few brought hand-work that could survive the security check (only circular knitting needles or crochet hooks allowed). A different few simply stared into space, a choice which marked them tentatively as saints, philosophers, poets, or sufferers of insomnia or mental illness, populations frequently confused with one another. Eventually, nothing really worked to distract any of us from the boredom of sitting around waiting to be called, and small, directionless conversations began, faltered, died out, reignited in different configurations.

Once I got onto a specific jury, the greatest frustration was not waiting but keeping quiet. Here I was, one of thirteen (twelve and an alternate) people who were listening to the same experts and the same character witnesses and the same lawyerly rhetoric, but we were forbidden to talk about it among ourselves, to research it on the web, even to ride down in the same elevator with the lawyers lest our considerations be warped by a too-friendly "nice weather today". Fighting the natural impulse to say, "What did you think about the ..." was a real struggle for me, and I'm not all that sociable under general circumstances. When testimony was finally wrapped up and closing arguments were complete, and we got into the jury room with the door closed behind us, everybody wanted to talk, as if we had been silently inhaling information for three days and needed at last to exhale a bit.

To my amazement, most of us agreed immediately to find for the defendant. We went around the table so everyone could get a chance to say his/her piece, and by the time it got to me, I could just have said "Ditto". But instead I went off babbling about the rhetorical fallacy "post hoc, ergo proper hoc", where someone asserts that something that happens first must be the cause of something that happens second, which was basically the plaintiff's case. I guess I really did need to talk.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Adventures 1

So I got called to jury duty.

In Oregon, you can get out of jury duty if you're over 70. I will shortly turn 72, but I haven't done jury duty in decades, and recently, when I went to watch a lawyer friend do his thing in court, I found it interesting, so I sent in my form saying I'd do it.

Portland is the county seat of the county I live in, Multnomah County, and downtown parking is difficult at best, particularly for all-day parking in the center of downtown, where the county courthouse is. So, for the first time in a very long time, I took the bus.

This should not be something to brag about. I'm an Oregonian, I should consider taking mass transit to be an expression of my innermost soul. But, well, I don't. Until this week. Given the choice of paying $10 or $12 for parking after fighting traffic both ways, and hopping aboard a city bus that stops less than 500 feet from my apartment, I chose the bus.

Tickets on TriMet are $1 for 2.5 hours for an "Honored Citizens" (I do wish they would just say "Old People" and be done with it). Turns out I can order a handful of them on my phone, activate them one at a time with a touch, briefly flash my phone at the bus driver, and voila! I'm a valid bus passenger.

Which I didn't need to be for very long. A 5-minute ride got me to a stop two blocks from the courthouse. Dismounting was a small challenge -- my knees don't bend as well as they used to -- but other than that, riding mass transit was a breeze.

But the pleasures of bus-riding pale in comparison to the pleasures of jury duty. No, really. To be continued.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Other People's Problems

"Could you help me with something? I can't work the elevator to the Wellness Center."

One of my neighbors said this to me at the end of the floor meeting last week. Can't work the elevator? I had no idea what that might mean, but saying "yes" to the request for help was one of those "good neighbor" things I could do at almost no cost to myself. (Counting cost kind of takes away from the virtue points, I know, but the neighbor would get the help she asked for, whether my personal halo got polished or not, so what the heck.) Plus I wanted to know why she couldn't work the elevator.

My neighbor, Rita, only recently moved in here from a small town on the Oregon coast. She uses a walker and has just enough Dutch accent to make her speech pleasantly non-standard. Her mind is lively and bright, generally cheerful, and she is not someone who can't work an elevator. We agreed to meet and walk to the Wellness Center.

I expected to have to slow my pace in deference to her walker, but either I didn't, or her conversation was so pleasantly distracting that I didn't notice the pace as we took the elevator from the sixth to the second floor ("This one doesn't give me problems," she told me), then walked along the corridor and across the skybridge to the elevators that give access to the Wellness Center.

"This is the one", she said, with a tone of fear in her voice that I had not heard before. The elevator doors swung open, and she explained, "See? It's too big." I still thought I was dealing with a psychological crink of some kind until she hesitantly pushed the walker onto the elevator.

Then I understood. There was only one handrail in the elevator car, at the back of the car, and the buttons for the different floors were on the other side. She couldn't reach them without letting go of the handrail and pushing the walker or walking unsupported across the elevator floor. "Wait, let me do it," she said. Bravely, she let go of the handrail, switched hands so that one was on the walker, reached across the elevator car and pushed the button for the Wellness Center floor. "OK, I'm OK now, I've done it, I know how to do it," she said, smiling broadly. (Rita has a great smile.)

To me, the elevator was spacious. To her, it had been an unknown space too wide for her to reach the buttons without losing stability. I don't (yet) have problems with falling. She knows in her bones that she can fall without support, and an obstacle as small as six feet of elevator floor between a handrail and the floor buttons is a serious challenge.

It's easy to dismiss other people's problems as trivial or self-indulgent. I'm sure there are people who prefer to whine about things instead of just getting on with it. But Rita is not one. Walking a mile with her behind her walker has opened up my view of the world.

Thursday, March 5, 2015


There is this bug.

Well, OK, I'm not sure if it's always the same bug. It's about half the size of a dime, brown, with beetle wings and thin articulated legs. Every few months, I look up from my computer, and it's walking around on my desk. Very non-threatening sort of bug, clean lines, not slimy, a reasonably small number of legs so not millipede-creepy, moves deliberately so no dashing about, no pincers or stinger, just, you know, a bug.

I skootch it into a glass, cover the glass with an envelope I haven't gotten around to recycling yet, and walk it a couple doors down the hall to the staircase which has outdoors access, and shake it out of the glass. It tumbles a few feet, then spreads its wings and buzzes gently off into the air.

I am moderately interested in knowing what kind of bug it is and extremely interested in knowing how it gets into my apartment. I have no unscreened windows, and it's much bigger than the openings in the screen mesh  on the windows that I can crank a few inches to get fresh air. If it had only visited once, I would think maybe it rode in on my jacket from outdoors. If there were a constant stream of the bug and his relatives, I'd think there was probably something Maintenance should plaster over somewhere. But one bug every few months, always on my desk walking around on the piles of paper, not the least bit secretive or even very imaginative. Never any trouble about getting it into the glass, no thrashing around while it's in there, just walking up the side of the glass until it falls onto its back to the bottom, at which point it gets upright and starts walking up the side again.

The next time the bug appears, maybe I'll take its picture and ask Bryan the gardener what it is. At least then I can call it by name as I walk it down the hall to the staircase.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Another reason I'm glad I'm here

Before I moved to Terwilliger Plaza, my life was mostly filled with people younger than I am. To them, my life was ipso facto uninteresting. I was old, fat, with grown children, clearly past doing anything worthwhile except listening to tales of the lives of my younger friends. (I must confess that I tend to Listen -- I swear there are people I've known for decades who could not tell you how many children I have, and it's not entirely their fault.)

But here, all of us are exploring old age in various ways together.

For instance: last Friday, I had some minor surgery to correct a heart arrhythmia. I went in in the morning and came home mid-afternoon, stuck full of more holes than I would have chosen, but with the problem fixed. In any other context, I could see people's eyes glaze over when I started to talk about my surgery. But here, people are actually interested. They have had similar operations themselves and want to compare experiences. They have not had similar operations and are curious because they might. And there is a strong undercurrent of comradeship -- we're all on this aging journey, moving, each of us, into unknown territory where the mountains only get steeper and the swamps deeper and the jungles more impenetrable. There are things we can do individually -- a friend of mine says, "I'm going to do what I can to keep what I have" -- but knowing we're not alone and making sure the folks next door or at the next table or riding with you in the elevator aren't alone either is really what will make the journey bearable.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Millions and billions and me

So there I was, sitting in the dentist's chair wishing I were somewhere else. I decided to focus on my breath, an exercise some say brings tranquility. And, being an incurable geek, I started to wonder how many breaths I have left between now and the last one.

I mean, for each of us, there is a first breath, stereotypically held upside down by the obstetrician and whapped on the behind to inspire that first inhalation. And for each of us there will be a last breath, probably not quite so easily characterized.

And,being a geek, I wondered how many come between. So I started with a song from the Broadway musical "Rent", which asserts that there are 525,600 minutes in a year and goes on to wonder how many cups of coffee that comprises. OK, say 500,000 minutes in a year (can't very well break out the calculator on my phone as the doctor pokes and prods at where my broken tooth will soon have a new crown). To make life simple, let's say a breath takes six seconds -- 10 to the minute. Good grief, every year I breathe 5 million times.

And I'm 71, say 70 to make the multiplication easier. That means I have breathed a minimum of 350 million times. That's the kind of number I can more easily associate with government defense allocations than with me.

And heartbeats. What about heartbeats? At a minimum, my heart beats 6 times for every one of those six-second breaths.  Six times 350,000,000 gets us into billions! Already, my heart has gone thwup-whump over two billion times. And I've got an arhythmia that sometimes has my heart beating three times a second, so two billion is a conservative estimate.

Two thoughts. First, I am finding it impossible to associate the number 2,000,000,000 with anything having to do with me.. I am just not a billion-type person in any dimension I can come up with after several minutes of trying.  And second, most of us have an amazing engine behind our ribs -- imagine someone handing in specs for an mission-critical part that has to work actively without maintenance for 60 years.

And at that point, the dentist levered the chair back to sitting position and turned to her calendar to schedule when I could come back and get my permanent crown. She had done a good, almost painless job, and even the temporary fits so well I'm hardly conscious of it.

If you see an error in my calculations, please let me know. That billion is freaking me out a little.

Friday, January 9, 2015


My hillside extends between the asphalt five or six stories down and a street four or five stories up. At the moment it is a subtle but complex composition in brown and gray made up of the stone face of the West Hills, the almost-bare branches of my maples, and dead vines of climbing entities including blackberries, English ivy, and a four- or five-leaflet green climber whose name I have yet to track down. Looking out at this wintery collection, occasionally I catch a glimpse of a small bird or two flitting from branch to vine to stone. They are very difficult to see either before or after the flit. The only way I know they're there is their* swift, straight, semi-horizontal motion -- all the other shapes on the hillside are twisty vines or straight, upward trunks.

At the top of my hillside are tangly branches which seem too big to be bushes and too gnarly to be trees. They grow up from the base of the concrete that supports the street and are what I thought should have kept the infamous orange box from falling to where it polluted my outlook.

And just now in those tangly branches, I saw a family of squirrels, at least three of them, exploring the territory, whipping their furry tails expressively about. I have never seen squirrels here before, and I'm curious how (and why) three of them ran across the street to visit my hillside. It was a life-threatening excursion. The street doesn't have a lot of traffic, but cars and delivery trucks hum by often enough that one would think squirrels would have the sense to stay in the maples and pines I can see on the far side. Maybe the gnarly branches hold some very late season berries or cones or seeds that are a welcome addition to a squirrel's January cuisine.

I can't see any of them now. But it's fairly dense up there. They could be hunkered down in the underbrush gnawing on whatever made the trek across the street seem worthwhile. Three of them! I'll have to keep an eye out.

*By golly, I do believe that is the most dense constellation of variations on words pronounced like "thair"  I've ever written.