Category Archives: Portland

Book by book, I’m reverting to type

Actual books.

Actual books.

Burn the Kindle.

Trash it, recycle it, get rid of it. In recent months, slowly and silently and after long afternoons spend in Portland bookstores (often, but not exclusively, the labyrinthine Powell’s) this is the conclusion I’ve arrived at.

My Kindle, gifted to me by my wife some years back, is likely outmoded at this point. But it’s crammed full of books – titles I bought and read during in a golden year or two when I believed that e-readers – with their convenience, their ability to store notes, the searchability of text they offered – were the future.

They were not. As time passed I increasingly found myself reverted to type (so to speak), buying and reading physical books (very often used copies, which I’d pick up after hours trawling the shelves). Not only that, but I’ve also found myself buying second copies (hardback, paperback with a different cover or a nicer typeset) of books that I already own.

My plan, vague at present but soon to be locked down (I promise myself) is that the shelves in our home will eventually boast a perfectly-curated browsing experience; visitors will come and marvel at the smooth thematic transitions, the pristine Collected Yeats, the Michael Chabon with the Marvel-esque cover. And this is no books-as-interior-design-feature plan: I’ll only shelve what I’ve read.

My wife, sensibly, points out that this grand scheme may require, at most, a structural refit of our home and, at least, a serious purge of the piles of my existing titles. So be it – but what will remain will be distilled, pristine, our own Library of Babel.

Which reminds me, I need to upgrade my battered Borges…

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Hiking under and on the autumn leaves

Wildwood Trail, October 2018.

Wildwood Trail, October 2018.

Autumn is upon us in the Pacific Northwest, which means the return of plaid, empty patios, chilly mornings and beautiful, dry fall evenings.

Well, that’s what it’s felt like this year. And the season feels even more wistful when I think of what’s around the corner: rain, rain and more rain.

To fend off thoughts of winter we’ve hiked, strolled, sat and done just about anything else we can outdoors in recent weeks, before the short nights and soggy mornings arrive.

The highlight this year has been hiking in Forest Park, the 5,000-acre public area minutes from downtown Portland (and one of the largest urban parks in the U.S.) More specifically, hiking the busy Wildwood Trail from Macleay Park up to Pittock Mansion, a five-mile round trip with 300m of elevation.

While the lower part of the hike is populated with runners, dog walkers and families, once you’re up in the hills large sections of the trail are empty, save for the shafts of fall light, the sounds of the undergrowth and your year-old miniature dachshund’s panting breath.

And leaves, countless leaves, of all depths of burnished yellow and orange and rust and brown, either fallen or falling or else making up part of an astounding seasonal canopy. It’s an incredible sight and an incredible landscape to hike in – a transient natural gift which we’ll have for another few weeks.

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My end of the world nightmare sounds like this

"I shuffle along an empty beach...ash in the air". Pic: Cormac Looney

“I shuffle along an empty beach…ash in the air”. Pic: Cormac Looney

When I picture the aftermath of a catastrophic event – a nuclear attack, the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera, the “Big One” hitting the Pacific Northwest – I’m rarely focused on the soundtrack.

In my mind I picture something not unlike the closing scenes of “The Road”, John Hillcoat’s movie of Cormac McCarthy’s novel: I’m shuffling along an empty beach, polluted waves washing ashore, ash in the air, everything a tundra brown. It’s raining, I’m hungry, I’m terrified. I hope my loved ones are safe, if not near. There’s an acrid scent on the shoreline breeze.

This is how I think the apocalypse would look, smell and feel. For a while I’ve wondered what it would sound like – having listened to the new Low album, I think I know.

Double Negative” sounds like an album recorded in the basement of the last, dilapidated house on that shoreline in my end-of-days nightmare. Huge, static bass, martial drums, vocals half heard, creeping in and out, broken radio transmissions, fragments of melody – it’s exactly what I’d expect to hear as I boiled my last leather shoe for soup.

The lyrics may be more personal than ‘death of civilization’, but the themes of disconnection and doubt fit the vast, jarring eruption beneath them. It’s the sound of something gone badly, hugely wrong, and the sound of its fallout.

I try not to think of a slow, tortuous Armageddon. But listening to “Double Negative”, challenging and, in equal parts, brutal and beautiful, it’s hard not to.

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Farewell sun, hello rain

Fall leaves, Portland

Autumn leaves, Portland

Autumn’s arrived in Portland, heralded by a dip in temperatures, the return of the rain and low, gray clouds in the morning.

Perhaps it’s the Irish in me but, after a summer of record-breaking heat and smoke, I can’t say I’m unhappy. I’m damp, but not unhappy.

If anything, I feel slightly nostalgic. Changeable, sunny/showery weather reminds me of Ireland, and Irish weather year-round. How many soccer games did we abandon at kids when a deluge erupted halfway through, blown in on blustery westerly winds? In July too.

Ask me in November and I’m sure I’ll give you a different answer, but for now the coming of Autumn has seen me look indoors and inwards, leading me deeper into my reading pile and back to my guitar, and allowing me to enjoy a cup of hot coffee without sweating (it’s the little things).

And forcing me to dig out my raincoat, of course.

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Music to waste hot dusty days to

Alfredo Bolona

Alfredo Boloña

Mid-August. A time of absence and lassitude, not helped by the smoky wildfire air that’s infesting Portland.

It’s a time of year when it’s all I can do to maintain my nine-to-five – it’s hard to raise the energy for much outside of that – or outside at all, given that temperatures are regularly hitting 35c.

Walking along Killingsworth Street in such heat last weekend I thought: what’s the perfect soundtrack for these days? One recording came to mind, one which sums up the slow, languorous nature of a hot August day.

“Aurora En Pekin” is a performance by Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos, a version of a song written by the Cuban guitarist Alfredo Boloña. Over the course of its five and a half minutes the pace, and the volume, rarely rise above a gentle whisper, the percussion slowly ticking the beat while Ribot’s guitar line meanders in and out.

It’s not urgent music, or music that draws attention to itself. It’s just there, simmering away, softly marking time until things become more urgent, more on-track, more September.

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Strolling around, waiting for the death-blow

Ainsworth Street, Portland

Ainsworth Street, Portland

Sometimes a busy week leaves little mental space to write. So it’s been in recent days – a confluence of factors has ensured that it’s been about all we can do to keep up the daily schedule of work, chores, puppy-raising, etc.

The one exception was a stolen hour this morning, when I went for a three-mile dawn walk. And a recent resolution of mine is to listen to a new or old or heretofore-ignored album on such Saturday morning rambles.

What albums have I uncovered while strolling through sun or mist or (last Christmas morning) snow along Ainsworth Street?

  • Gerry Mulligan – “Night Lights”. Relaxing, very relaxing, not least Mulligan’s piano on the title track.
  • Elvis Costello – “Momofuku”. Fast and harsh and very good, not least Steve Nieve’s thumping piano.
  • First Aid Kit – “Ruins”. Sorry, I just don’t get it.
  • Thom Yorke – “The Eraser”. A trimmer, angrier version of Radiohead. Not bad, and “Harrowdown Hill” is one of the scariest songs I’ve heard in an age.

There are others, some that either elude me or that I didn’t engage with enough to rate. This morning produced the best find of the lot though.

I knew little about The Cure’s 1982 album “Pornography” before today. I had a vague impression that it was peak-Goth, not necessarily something I’d want to listen to 45 minutes of. But I love “Disintegration”, and those in the know rate “Pornography” up there with that one.

Turns out they’re right. Pounding drums, a searing, echoing guitar line, Robert Smith at his most echoey and depressed (the album’s opening vocal line is “it doesn’t matter if we all die”, and it goes downhill from there) – and that’s all on the first song, “One Hundred Years”.

It’s the sort of song that lesser acts have based careers or – at the very least – albums on (Portishead’s “Third”, for a start). As for me, walking around the polite streets of Northeast Portland singing “Creeping up the stairs in the dark, waiting for the death-blow”) made for a different sort of Saturday morning.

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Islands I’ve made my own

Columbia River from Sauvie's Island, July 2018

Columbia River from Sauvie’s Island, July 2018

I’ve always lived near marshy islands.

As a kid I remember taking part in the religious processions around Our Lady’s Island in Co Wexford. Thirty years later I ran most days on Bull Island in Dublin, when we lived in nearby Raheny.

This weekend I paid my first visit to Sauvie’s Island, just outside my current home in Portland, Oregon. It’s a little larger than its Wexford or Dublin equivalents, but it has many of the same features: low brushland, boggy beaches, and a huge sky above.

I can’t offer any great insight into why I’m attracted to these peninsular places, other than the solitude and immersion in nature they offer.

Aside from that, each place has its own unique feeling. To this day, Our Lady’s Island remains a ghostly place in my mind because of the exposed and lonely grottos that pilgrims stop and pray at as they circumnavigate the island.

Bull Island, September 2017.

Bull Island, September 2017.

Bull Island is weather and wind, an elemental place near – but completely alien to – Dublin city. My main memories of the place are of running there on a summer morning before dawn, and walking over it on a winter night after a huge rainstorm. On both occasions it was a vast, cacophonous place, even when silent.

I don’t yet know what Sauvie’s Island offers. The ghosts of dairy farmers and Indian tribes, perhaps. On the summer morning I walked there it was a calm – I imagine its shoreline is a very different place on a December night.

Thinking about this at my desk, I came across these lines written by the 19th century New York poet Emma Lazarus, about Long Island, which go some way to explaining the lure of my three islands, and why I’ll return to all three some day.

The luminous grasses, and the merry sun 
In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide, 
Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp 
Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide, 
Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep 
Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon. 
All these fair sounds and sights I made my own. 

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The Japanese Garden

The Japanese Garden, Portland, 2017.

The Japanese Garden, Portland, 2017.

Rock swirls and moss green

Surrounds chatter and cell phones –

Someone’s missed the point.

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The dirty dream of the nineties is alive in Portland

Belle and Sebastian, Oregon Zoo, June 2018

Belle and Sebastian, Oregon Zoo, June 2018

Much time has passed since I first heard the Scottish chamber pop outfit Belle and Sebastian.

I have a vague recollection of seeing the video for their 1998 song “Dirty Dream Number Two” on MTV, back in those ancient days when music television was a thing. I remember a college housemate singing the praises of the album that song featured on, “The Boy With The Arab Strap“.

But my listening interest was truly sparked when I picked up a copy of their debut album “Tigermilk“, likely in Tower Records on Wicklow Street in Dublin (now gone the way of MTV), and played it endlessly through fourth year of university.

For a number of years after that I dutifully bought Belle and Sebastian albums on their release, always intending to see them live one day. I never did of course, as the fates and my best laid plans conspired against it. In time, though no reflection on the quality of the band’s output, I eventually gave up buying the latest B+S album.

Stuart Murdoch. Pic: Amy Hope Dermont

Stuart Murdoch. Pic: Amy Hope Dermont

But ageing and perhaps nostalgia and – more likely – distance from Europe has recently led me back to seeing bands from my 20s, acts who heydayed in the late nineteen nineties and early noughties. And so, in the past year, I’ve seen live performances by Teenage Fanclub, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Lloyd Cole, to mention four.

All of which is a convoluted way of explaining how, on a sunny Saturday evening last weekend, I sat amid the toddlers on the grass, the 40-something indie kids and a family of bored elephants, watching Belle and Sebastian perform at the Oregon Zoo in Portland.

The music was – as I expected – wonderful; bright, melodic and witty, it was easy to link the best of the evening’s songs to their writer, front man Stuart Murdoch, who himself looked just as he did in the MTV videos of my memory.

That was the charming thing about the evening. Belle and Sebastian didn’t sound or feel like they’d aged. Nowadays, when I look at pictures, or read cards, or reminisce about the nineties, my reaction is usually: “God, we were so much younger” or “what the hell happened to that guy?” or “I wish I’d time to read that book again”.

But for a couple of hours in a zoo in Portland my knees didn’t feel the ache of an old running injury, and my hair didn’t appear as gray as usual in a photograph. Nor did I have to fight through the mental distractions of everyday life just to focus on the music.

Twenty years later Belle and Sebastian were there and so was I. Ain’t that enough? And they even played “Dirty Dream Number Two”.

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Waiting out ‘May gray’

Lido, 1917. Pic: Foretpan/Vargha Zsuzsa

Lido, 1917. Pic: Foretpan/Vargha Zsuzsa

Spring is in full swing in Oregon, which means more light and heat and greenery.

The greenery is ever-present here, but the high, diffuse May light is not. The bright gray above reminds me of the Irish Midlands, where whole childhood weeks would pass under the off-white dome.

Back then it usually meant dry weather, which meant football outdoors. Now it’s almost oppressive, however, particularly when temperatures warm into the 70s and the heat seems trapped by the uniform sky – or lack of one.

Under the gray this morning my memory – which may or may be accurate – called to mind Thomas Mann’s “Death In Venice”, and the oppressive skies above the Lido that provide a backdrop for the main character, Aschenbach’s, fall.

While the absence, or concealment, of the sun worked as a metaphor for Mann, it’s also what’s most oppressive about ‘May Gray’ (as the Californians call it). Without the sun in the sky, there are no shadows, time seems to slip off schedule, there is no clear dawn or sunset.

Nothing to do but wait, of course. Until the end of the hour, or the day, or the week, when the clouds clear and high blue returns. And with it, hopes and memories of summer.

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