SLUGs Get To Eugene’s Irascible Kesey Core

In the center of an apple is a constellation of five seeds. Each of those seeds could grow an apple tree of a different type. The apple’s innate experimentalism (plus a recipe for hard liquor) made Johnny Appleseed (a.k.a. John Chapman) one of the early heroes of our western frontier.

Your genes are a grab bag from your two parents, but the code that grows an apple tree can come from any apple in its hereditary lineage. An apple tree’s seedlings make this biological statement: “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” (Apple trees grown from grafted stock eliminate that uncertainty, but also the resilience that comes with it.)

Apples naturally trade certitude for survival. Heterozygosity allows apples to adapt and evolve more aggressively than its pests and predators. Nature doesn’t celebrate diversity any more elegantly than inside an apple. Open the center and anything can happen.

And so tonight, near the center of downtown Eugene, the unpredictable will happen. The 30th Annual S.L.U.G. Queen Pageant will ooze and slither across a stage at the Park Blocks Market Stage. I cannot tell you what will happen, but here are a few things that did.

• After being chosen runner-up two years in a row, one contestant took a more conservative route, adopting all the trappings of the corporate culture. Then, at the very last moment, he tossed away his briefcase, tore off his business suit, and revealed a cross-dressing duct-tape dress beneath. Bedlam ensued. He won. (He refused to do anything three times straight.)

• A contestant offered the past Queens an all-expense-paid retreat outside Paris to explore royal succession strategies if she won. She did. (Bribery is not a right. It’s a privilege.)

• The woman who coordinated everything related to the Eugene Celebration for a decade competed one year after the city privatized the event, offering her organizational skills for the betterment of the crown. She lost.

• One S.L.U.G. Queen reported attending her Harvard University class reunion and being the talk of the party, upstaging all of her classmates, including comedian-turned-U.S. Senator Al Franken.

• When asked to define “normal,” one contestant answered, “Normal is a setting on my washing machine, but that’s about it.”

I don’t remember whether that contestant won, but it doesn’t matter.

The pageant, like an apple tree, insists that normal is overrated. Conventional wisdom is seldom both. When we’re told to “Question Authority,” our natural response is, “Says who?” From that irascible spirit comes our fierce willingness to experiment. It looks like chaos to outsiders, but it’s not without purpose. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Flower children can claim one of our own as their father. So it’s fitting that our center — our core — is coming to be known as Kesey Square, ignoring its oxymoronic irony. Ken Kesey was many things, but “square” was never one of them, unless you were trying to fit him into a round hole.

Tonight’s pageant has moved from its usual home at Kesey Square, but it still brings us downtown at our Keseyest. Open the center and you don’t know what you’ll get.

On October 28, 1996, Eugene City Council accepted Mayor Ruth Bascom’s preference and gave the corner of Broadway and Willamette Street its still official name: Broadway Plaza. Pat Farr, Laurie Swanson Gribskov, Tim Laue, Nancy Nathanson, and Jim Torrey voted in favor.

Much has changed since. Kesey died in 2001. Peter Helser’s statue of Kesey “The Storyteller” was installed in 2003. Nephew Kit Kesey has grown into a concert-promoting force for downtown Eugene, programming the MacDonald Theatre and now the Eugene Celebration. The city’s own press releases began referring to it as Kesey Square in 2011, acknowledging that “it’s what people call it.”

Ken Kesey himself might prefer his name remain unofficially attached to the center of our city. Like John Chapman, he wasn’t blazing a trail so much as making his own way. Those who follow make the trail. So this wouldn’t be for him. It’s for us.

It’s time we put Kesey’s spirit of experimentalism — and that resultant resiliency — at the core of who and where we are. Tonight anything can happen.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.