I was sitting in a canoe when my life changed.
Actually, I was sitting on terrible plaid couch when my life really changed. I was in a canoe when I decided to change my life.
So, I was sitting in a canoe. I was just outside of Eugene, OR, my home at the time, enjoying a brisk morning with my father, Brian, on the river. My father and I had, and still do have, a fantastic relationship. As a child my father did the best thing he could do which was answer, to the best of his abilities, all my questions, which only cultivated more curiosity. And when he didn’t have an answer, I rushed to find it so I could return with the hopes that the knowledge I had found would impress him. It’s certainly not a unique relationship, but I was the eldest, and it was all I knew. I love my father like no one else, because he is a great person who brings out the best in all those around him, even if you didn’t realize it at the time. See, my father, believe it or not, changed the course of history. You may say that this is a little egotistical but it’s my story, and I think history would be very different had the events that transpired had not happened.
My father was responsible for moving my small family from the foothills of the Rockies (Colorado) to the forest of the Willamette valley (Oregon). He was the person who had taken me from my comfort zone of private school, wealthy friends, and a very shy community and thrown me and my brother into the hyper-accepting arms of hippies, burnouts, racists and weirdos. He’s the one who would eventually allow me to find something greater in myself than no one in my family realized at the time. He was the first person to see working at what I was most proud of, which eventually took to me where I am today.
Oregon was simply a mystery to my 12 year brain. I had played a simple computer game, one that seems to have been played by every American my age, called ‘The Oregon Trail’, in which you take a family of settlers trek across the country along the titular path fending off disease, braving river crossings, and aiding in the waste of thousands of pounds uneaten meat after a 20 minute buffalo hunting mini game (nostalgia setting in yet?). The game emulated my families journey across the mountains, and up the california coast, though my mother never let me shoot anything that wasn’t on a Gameboy.
This game was all I knew of Oregon. I wasn’t aware of anything or anyone coming out of Oregon, with the acceptation of Cylde Drexler, who had been traded to the Houston Rockets the year before we moved.1 When I told my classmates I where I was moving, the reaction was always “Where is that again?”. These were kids in an advanced learning program, one of the top in the state, who could at the age of 11 write a 15 page paper on osmosis or the civil war, but had not cultural context for the beaver state.
The news hurt more than anything I had ever experienced so far in my short life. Oscar Wilde once said “if you can survive childhood, you can be a writer” and after the news of the move, I wasn’t sure I would have survived past my childhood. Having spent the days leading up to Christmas ‘95 finalizing the move (reason being my father had gotten a
much better job that simply being a detective for the Denver DA’s office) my parents sat my brother and I down in the living room2 and told us we would be moving. Later we both admitted to thinking the news was about a grandparent dyeing, and in our emotional backlash to the incident, wishing in our head that it had been. Tears were shed, but the inevitable happened. I had lived in Colorado for 12 years and would move to Oregon and live there for 13. 13 of the best years of my life. Though if you were ti have asked me during any of those years, I would tell you that I was miserable. That Oregon was slow, and boring, filled with people who were out of touch.
To this day I still believe that Oregon is the modern day equivalent of Oz or Narnia, or whatever mystical kingdom you prefer, just as long as its people are filled with joy and have no sense of the world the rest of us live in.3 If Darwin were to have studied Oregon he would compare the inhabitance to the creatures of the Galapagos, but only if the animals on the Galapagos consciously chose to isolate themselves rather than just be turtles and lizards. Oregon represented a fundamental problem for me, and it’s a problem I still have with the place; it’s too easy going, it’s too accepting of anything, and it loves itself to an extreme more than any other place I have ever been. To some, it’s magical, and it is to me, but I’m to much of a realist to ever drink the entire cup of Oregon flavored kool-aid.
Yet, despite my fervent hesitancy to assimilate, today I have fond words and memories for Oregon and it’s people. I was a shy kid in Colorado, someone who was picked on, who, on many occasions, was the kid on the playground who pissed himself because he was to afraid to ask to go to the bathroom, the one people tell me they felt sorry for.4 The friends I had were other shy kids, who were just as award as me. There were social pressures in Colorado, the likes of which I can only compare to the structure of a Jane Austin novel and I’m sure I’m not the only American elementary school child who felt this way.
I moved to Oregon at the end of my 7th grade year, and realized that the social constraints that were so suffocatingly present back in Colorado did not apply to me. This was because 1) Oregon, as stated before, was a land of free thinkers. And the children of free thinkers, though crewel as all children can be, were whipped cream compared to the harshness of my past and 2) I was the new kid. I’ll make this a little clearer for those who may not understand. There are new kids and then there are new kids. Being a new kids means your new, but so was the kid from Florida last year. There’s nothing so wild about that anyone would look at you for more an a few moments and then move on doing fractions. But I was entering a place were there had almost never been a new person in the school. I likened it to being an anthropologist discovering a tribe in the amazon who had never seen a Westerner. I wasn’t new, I was alien.
This was truly the greatest gift my parents could have given me. Not the allure of being something the children of Oregon had never seen, but the opportunity. In truth, I was shy in public, mostly to due the gilt of not wanting to disappoint anyone (a crippling affliction I still struggle with today). But at home, I was nutty. I sang made up songs to commercial melodies all day, I wrote plays of films I had seen and made my brother act them out with me for our parents5, I watched Monty Python, Kids in the Hall and Ren and Stimpy because my parents didn’t want me watching The Simpsons because it was ‘rude’. I was weird, and suddenly Oregon wanted me to show it. Suddenly Oregon wasn’t just a place, it was a stage to show just how fucking odd I really was. And in the 13 years I was there, despite a few months of being in the deepest depression of my life, I embraced my inner weirdo.
But that was only the first few years. In the later years of my high school experience, I, like many of my classmates, was reaching a state of young adulthood. By the time I was accepted into the University of Oregon, I was a sapling of the person I am today. I was at University for a total of 5 years total, with about a 2 year combined break between 4 and 5. The years I was in my mid twenties in Oregon were surely the worst, mostly because I wanted to leave and Oregon would not let me go. In the literal sense of wanting to finish my college before I set off back into the rest of America, and figuratively, with the bounty of comforts Oregon was offering. In Oregon, even the poorest people, sleeping in shoebox size studios and living off borrowed money and food stamps (my life from 2003-2008) still lived like kings compared to the poorest people across the country. Oregon never offered the challenge I wanted, and instead challenged me in ways I found easy. I could suffer and succeed, unlike others. Living like Van Gogh while is Provence wasn’t difficult for me.
Oregon formed me in more ways that I was ever able to understand while I was there. It took me selling most of my luxuries and shipping 1/2 ton of books across the country to realize it. Looking across the corn fields of Iowa on my way to Chicago made realize just how lush Oregon’s fields were. Tasting my first frozen tomato made me long for the fresh produce the West offered. I prayed I would find a bar filled with cheap, hoppy beers, easy girls, and spirited conversation just around the corner. Alas, Chicago could not offer these things.
Instead it gave me something greater. Long, dark winters to thicken my skin (though the cold was something I was use to coming from Colorado, it was the wind that was my nemesis). Great chefs, brewers and bakers who shared me love of all things gastronomic and showed me the ins and out of truly unpretentious food culture. And art, every night of the week, for cheap. Funny people flocking to this town to be a part of something. Writers and actors taking the path less traveled and cutting their teeth on the stones Del Close had placed. Chicago was the lens that focused me, the wood that stoked my fire, the muse for my words. Chicago was exactly what I needed after 13 years of hating Oregon, claiming it was lost, and never truly realizing what a fantastic place it was.
So it was on a canoe that I told my father for the first time that I was planning on moving away. And like all the best fathers do, he shook his head in silence. He knew, because he had done the same with California when he moved to Colorado to ski for a few months, eventually meeting the woman of his dreams, and starting a family in a one stop light ski village. He knew that once I got on my feet after some rough years, I’d be gone. He and my mother, both children who had also left their respective towns their entire had chosen to never leave, felt the call. They knew their two sons would feel it just as strongly. He looked back at me, and smiled, containing the unique mixture of loss and excitement, and simply said, “good for you”.6
1) My father is also responceable for getting me into the NBA at this time with season tickets to the then great Denver Nuggets. To this day I can still tell you almost any surface leave sat about #55 Dikembe Mutumbo. Mutumbo would eventually retire while playing for the Rockets, one of many oddly coincidental facts about my families life in Colorado and Oregon.
2) There’s the ugly couch I was talking about. Best part of leaving Colorado was ditching that monstrosity.
3) Hence the reason I don’t make reference to Harry Potter, DC/Marvel comics, etc. All to self aware.
4) Facebook can do wonders for your confidence when bygone bullies come looking for forgiveness.
5) I remember our Back to the Future being like the first time I saw Hamlet.
6) The conversation before this moment consisted of 1) me trying to explain Doctor Who to my father who recalled a friend of his watching it 2) debating the merits of The Beatles being the greatest band ever, or just another boomer group 3) My relationship with my Mother, which is a whole other story 4) Fishing.