Oregon Days of Culture

Oregon has set aside a week to celebrate its unique culture, but the state couldn’t fit all its diversity into seven days. And so was born Oregon Days of Culture, which begins today and continues for eight days. Think of it as our own Festival of Lights.
Sponsored by the Oregon Cultural Trust, Oregon Days of Culture reaches to the heart of what it means to be an Oregonian. The Oregon Cultural Trust was the brainchild of Bend legislator Ben Westlund. Its genius might not have been born anywhere else in the state.
Catch a demographer in a hurry and he or she will tell you that Oregon divides itself neatly into two cultural camps: the population centers adjacent to Interstate 5, and everywhere else. The exception, and only recently, is Bend.
Oregon’s north-south interstate highway has spawned or accelerated the high culture that you’d expect from cities. Rural Oregon favors culture of a different stripe. For every Oregon Bach Festival, there’s a Pendleton Roundup. The Portland Rose Festival anchors the upper left edge, and the Merrill Potato Festival holds down the other corner.
In between there’s Bend, a place that tries to be home to both cultures — cowboys and connoisseurs. So when Westlund sat down to craft an innovative program to promote and sustain the culture of Oregon, he knew his vision had to include the urban and the rural, culture-as-art and culture-as-heritage.
Oregon Cultural Trust shrewdly recognized that the state’s investment in its own culture is most essential when times (and budgets) are tight. OCT removed from the general fund many art and heritage projects, funding them instead from an endowment, financed by license plate sales and tax-credited donations. It was a bold, inventive plan, unlike any other in the nation.
That Oregon ingenuity feeds our rich heritage of volunteerism. Once you give money to an arts organization, you’re more willing to stuff envelopes that ask others to give.
These two strains of Oregon’s culture have a surprising interconnectedness. To illuminate it, consider what’s called The Candle Problem, first documented in 1935 and replicated many times since.
Two subjects are separately given the same challenge; one is being paid to solve the problem and the other is not. Each is given a candle, a book of matches, and a box of thumbtacks. They must devise a way to attach the lit candle to the wall without wax dripping on the floor.
Experimenters were surprised that those being paid took longer to solve the puzzle. And no, they weren’t being paid by the hour.

The problem is solved when the subjects figure out they’d been given four items, not three. The box holding the thumbtacks is the key, but those being paid take longer to discover it. (When the subjects are offered the box and the thumbtacks separately, everybody solved the puzzle in the same amount of time.)
Here’s how I understand that discovery. From our earliest years, we’re taught to divide our exertions into “work” and “play.” Work is deemed less desirable, and so efficiency is rewarded. Play is by definition less structured, less linear, and seemingly less productive. But when confronted with a problem that requires less linearity — they call it lateral thinking — those operating in “play” mode were in fact more productive, and so more efficient.
Returning now to Oregon’s tradition of engaging citizens directly as volunteers, it now stands to reason that you’ll often get more inventive solutions from people not being paid.
However you explain it, it works. Or should I say, it plays?
So celebrate Oregon’s culture of volunteerism. Whether you’re serving on a citizen advisory board or serving dinner at a homeless shelter; collecting signatures for a voter initiative or collecting native species seeds for a wetland restoration; pulling shifts as a volunteer usher at the Hult Center or pulling blackberries from a stream bed — you are furthering and deepening what makes Oregon special.
We’ve set aside eight days to celebrate the everyday treasure of our life together. The first President Bush described that spirit as “a thousand points of light.” Our willingness to volunteer keeps those candles lit.
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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.