Dead Trees & Fresh Eyes

Published Friday, Sept. 12, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Returning home, the first thing I notice is that another large tree in my yard has died. Happens every time. Take a trip, kill a tree. Of course, trees don’t die that quickly. It’s my wishful thinking that clouds my vision. The fresh eyes of a newcomer can see it clearly. Today that newcomer is me, and I see a dead tree.

Speaking of dead trees, my attention next lights on the pile of newspapers that awaits me. The Internet helps me stay informed, even from exotic places, but without the necessary comfort. A backlit screen doesn’t match the experience of reading a newspaper for me. If I’m curling up and the news is aglow, something’s on fire.

My brain then flips into “urgent” mode and I take in (or out) only what I absolutely need. Even if I’ve kept up on the news, there’s a backlog of curling up to do after I return.

On top of the pile is last Friday’s Register-Guard. Like that dead tree in my back yard, I may see something more clearly because I have fresh eyes. The top story in last Friday’s City/Region section concerned the sudden closure of Eugene’s marijuana help center and its attempts to reorganize after a power struggle split its governing board.

I don’t know anything about this struggle, except what I read in the newspaper. I don’t know any of the people involved. But I find myself taking umbrage with the hand-written note that is taped to the organization’s locked door: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are closed until further notice. We are so sorry. The management.”

Help me if I missed something, but if the management of the organization encountered an issue that divided them so deeply that they had to cease operations, how are those “circumstances” “beyond” their “control”? Isn’t managing what “the management” is supposed to do? Or is being “so sorry” good enough in this town?

I’ve heard more than one person deride Eugene as a town “that smoked too much pot,” implying that excessive recreational use of marijuana drains ambition and lowers expectations, making everything “cool, man,” no matter how bad it gets. Maybe that’s unfair to Eugene and maybe it’s unfair to people who use marijuana, but it is a story that gets told.

Now add another factor not captured by any newspaper’s Web site: juxtaposition. How many news items have you read in your lifetime accidentally, because your eye wandered away from what you knew interested you, onto something else that suddenly interested you more?

Beneath that news article about the marijuana help center was a photo of grade-schooler Kevin Shin-Wheeler shoving asphalt into a hole, participating in Eugene’s first-ever “Pothole Patching Party.”

(Insert your best joke connecting potholes to pot here.)

As the news article reported, “the city [of Eugene] has set up a Web site and phone number for people to report potholes they would like to see fixed.” Potholes are a big and growing problem for Eugene, in large part because the state legislature has failed to maintain appropriate funding levels. In other words, Eugene’s streets are falling apart “due to circumstances beyond our control.” So what?

City Manager Jon Ruiz is leading city staff to roll up its sleeves and get to work. “Pothole Patrol” shows that the city can be responsive immediately with whatever resources are available. Public confidence is a resource itself, and one worth protecting. Inviting citizens’ input is good, but allowing them to help is even better. They made it a party, scooping ice cream for anyone who showed up to help. If little yellow hard hats filled with Rocky Road ice cream doesn’t make you smile, you’ve got gravel in the hole where your heart ought to be.

Did some asphalt money get diverted to buy ice cream? I don’t know, and I don’t care. Somebody decided to tackle a problem with hard work and good humor, instead of telling us that they are “so sorry.” That’s the type of city I want to return to after being away. Welcome to town, Mr. Ruiz.

Now I have to go chop down a tree in my back yard.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) has returned home just in time for the Eugene Celebration. Coincidence? Don’t think so. Kahle will speak next Friday at the City Club of Eugene about his experiences in Iraqi Kurdistan. All are welcome. Details are at www.cityclubofeugene.org.