Tag Archives: pacific northwest

Skunk smell FTW

the bowling pins are a blurBack in DC, I bowled regularly, a.k.a. was in a bowling league. But not just any league, I was in a GAY bowling league. My colleagues had fashioned snarky team names like Men with Balls and Always in the Gutter. My team was called the Evil Bitches. This was much closer to how we wanted to see ourselves than our actual collective temperament, and there was more than one occasion when the opposing team members would shake our hands at the end of a night, only to say, “you know, you aren’t really that bitchy.” We considered changing our attitude to suit the title, but were too lazy to make it happen.

Blowing my knee out at my wedding, it was a while before I could execute my proper bowling approach and land my weight on my left leg. Seven months from my surgery, to be specific, and I felt a little unsure at first. But now the knee is comfortable. Good thing, since I joined a league again. A GAY league. Now now, there is no gay league in Walla Walla, but there is one in the Tri-Cities. This means that out of a population of 170,000 people (according to 2008 Census estimates), there are 40 gay bowlers, or GLBT bowlers, to be exact.

There are still the tongue in cheek team monikers—I’ll note here that a women’s team stole the “with Balls” phrasing in this league, Dolls with Balls—but at this point the similarities with DC’s teams cease. They are much more laid back players, classic Northwest, if you will allow me the indulgent reference. Gutter ball? No big deal! Missed the head pin? Just try again!

Trust me, I never, never saw this during my three or four years of league play in Virginia. I think people would have ejected their hearts right out of their chests if they’d had to actually say cheerleady things after bad throws.

Not that we weren’t nice out east. We just really wanted to do well, and reward greatness. We gritted our teeth after an errant ball and grunted, “next frame,” or the more desperate, “next game.” Sometimes these were followed with a half-sincere “it’s okay.” More common was the line of strikes and spares down one team’s frame, followed by cheering and high fives. There is so much high fiving in bowling that it is practically a sport within a sport.

The high fives are often done by teams who are very peppy, the kind of team that one hates to play because they’re just so in your face about their excitement, when all one wants to do is just figure out the oil pattern and throw a good rock or thirty. There’s the team that went to great expense to procure matching bowling shirts that look fantastic until you see the simply awful-looking attempt at a logo on the back. People, sometimes less is more, or at least, more easy on the eyes.

The funniest opponents are the teams who are either mad at each other that night, or who are so frustrated with their bowling that they begin taking it out on each other during the night. I can really mess with their already wobbly psyches, like telling them, almost condescendingly, that maybe this next ball will be The One, like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. (Seriously? All hope for humankind rests on Ted Logan’s shoulders? I’ll never get over this.)

Such attempts at sinking a foundering ship don’t work in the Tri-Cities league, which is so close to the Hanford nuclear Superfund cleanup site that everything in that area begins with the prefix of “Atomic.” Atomic Muffler, Atomic Storage, and Atomic Bowl. The best part about this atomic neighborhood, in my opinion, are the little hydrogen atom graphics that accompany these buisneses, friendly little electrons that practically have a smiley face, as if the last thing they would ever dream of doing is harming anyone. Hanford, of course, is the place that created the nuclear material that the US dropped on Nagasaki. I don’t suppose those hydrogen atoms had smiley faces that day.

The folks in the Tri-Cities league are well aware of this history, and yet, they all carry on in what is basically a factory town’s final resolution, courtesy of the Department of Energy. Bowling is a release for them from their work days, to be savored and enjoyed, even if it is only a few pins knocked down at a time. For me, traveling the 50-some-odd miles from Walla Walla every week, it’s a way to be around geeky and fun gay people again, and to help string together things I’ve enjoyed before with my life out here.

It is a 50-mile drive, however, and it takes me right past the awful Boise Cascade paper mill. Last night I was relieved of the putrid odor by, of all things, a skunk. It’s saying something when dead skunk smells better than the process of turning trees into cardboard. How nice of Mr. Skunk to take one for the team.

The measure of

M.P.H. Highest degree earned. GS-level. Annual compensation. Party affiliation. Years to retirement. Number of overpriced caffeinated beverages consumed before noon. Washington, DC has specific metrics for success, for valuing one’s life, productivity, and family.

It was shortly after a friend moved from DC to Seattle, that Susanne received a call from him. He’d just come home from a party.

“You won’t believe it out here,” he said, almost breathless with excitement. “When someone asks, ‘what do you do,’ they don’t mean, ‘what is your occupation?’ They want to know your hobbies!”

Hobbies. Northwest hobbies happen largely outside. Hiking. Snowshoeing. Rafting or kayaking. They certainly have a lot of nouny verbs out here, that’s for sure. People, on average, seem willing and able not to string their identity and their vocation together, at least the way many folks do back on the east coast. “What do you do” there is met with, “I’m a contractor,” or “I’m at Census,” or “I’m an analyst,” which also wins the in-blog post prize for most vague job title ever, even worse than “project manager.” And these job titles are not transferrable outside the Beltway. Nobody in Walla Walla understands or gives a fig what I used to in DC, and I can try explaining it in a 25-50 word paragraph. It still isn’t comprehensible to normal people.

Out here, the vineyards and wheat fields and fish lifespan dictate that seasons still matter. Time isn’t gauged in project lifecycle terminology, it’s measured in the tiny center of the wheat chaff, or when the viticulturist-inclined farmer thinks it’s safe to remove the protective plastic sleeve from the 1- and 2-year-old grape vines. Or at the start and stop of the wine tourism season in Walla Walla, and the unofficial start and end dates of the summer, when people flock to western Idaho for good camping weather. There isn’t enough industry here to vie with the earth’s own grand calendar, to make people forget that once upon a time, it mattered to your livelihood that it was autumn or spring. Washington, DC only has one perpetual election season, after all. Even though the city is built on old farmland.

Spring, meanwhile, seems to have hit a little early, with the trees budding already and some very early greenness appearing in the wheat fields. Maybe soon the daffodils will come up, Stravinsky-like, with swooping wind instruments and a thunderous percussion. The ducks at the pond will start teaching very little babies to swim and jump into the water, only taking on flying in the mid-summer. People will talk about loving spring in the desert again. Bright’s chocolatiers will sell more ice cream than they have in months. Strolling down Main Street to get some will involve hearing a lot more people in the wine tasting rooms, and seeing many more cars from Seattle, but you still can’t call them traffic. You’ll be able to spot the visitors because as they walk they’ll talk about how quaint everything is. DC tourists marvel at the architecture and the monuments, but they usually still feel a bit wary, as if violence could break out next to them at any moment. Here in Walla Walla, it’s a pickpocket’s dream, because nobody, even the residents, ever has their guard up. And we’re only 3 miles from a maximum security prison.

A few years ago the soccer coach of the men’s team at the small liberal arts college here flippantly and quickly agreed to take the team to the prison for a game. It wasn’t until the bus of them rolled into the prison yard, the razor-lined gate locking behind them that he felt any degree of panic. There they were, 20 of them, on a dirt field, locked in with something like 100 hardened inmates. Guards with automatic rifles stood at a few towers. Maybe they were excited to watch a match, or maybe they were worried about how this could go horribly wrong. Or both.

The college team started playing what I can only imagine was the most surreal game of their lives. I’m not sure who refereed the game, or even if there were refs on the field. Kick, run, kick, run, collide. The prisoners had come to play. The college team practiced together every day, knew their teammates’ tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. Kick, pass, advance, the clock ticking up the minutes played. The score started getting lopsided, favoring the college. The coach started worrying about them running up the score, something Bill Belichick has never done in his life. Second half, still scoring. He wanted to pull his hair out. At least slow down, men. Don’t, no, don’t score again! Oh geez! Soccer games are not supposed to have scores of 20-2, or anything near that number.

Game finished, finally, and everyone was ragged, exhausted. The prison players high-fived the other team. Good game, good game, they said, walking in orderly lines. The college athletes piled back onto the bus, riding for five minutes and a series of circumstances away from the prison. I wonder how they look back on the experience, which measuring devices they use to interpret what that game was about.

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