My Grandpa Bob turns 93 today. I feel so lucky to get to live with him and interact with him every day–he lives most of the year in a trailer on my parents’ property in Joshua Tree, so we’re neighbors right now.

Grandpa Bob is one of my best role models, and his current living situation reminds me of how he inspires me the most. Instead of focusing on his own material security, for the past 45 years he traveled around the country, helping our his friends and family wherever he went. Whenever Grandpa Bob showed up, you knew that things were going to get done. He’d tune your piano, help build your house or shed or boat, dig a septic, whatever. He would enthusiastically join in or start projects. And when the work was all done, he’d always have good conversation about some topic he was delving into, usually from the fringes of human thought.

The result of this lifestyle is that now, when his memory and mobility are keeping him from being as helpful and active, he has built up so much goodwill that he has a lot of options in his old age. He lives with us in the winters and with our cousins in Idaho in the summers, but I imagine he could live with any number of friends and family around the country who would gladly take him in. He didn’t worry about money. He just built community. And that is a good model for living, in my opinion.

Here’s Grandpa Bob (who actually flew biplanes) with my brother Ely, about to fly model airplanes–both of their favorite activity:

Ely, Grandpa Bob at Sunburst Park, December 29, 2011

It has been four years of sitting in hundreds of hours of lectures, reading thousands of pages of theory and research, writing hundreds of pages, and seeing clients for hundreds of hours. It has been long weeks, late nights, steep learning curves, and lots and lots of thinking. It is amazing how much learning you can do in four years of 60-80 hour weeks!  In 2009 I finished a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology, with a research assistant position in Sara Hodges’ social cognition lab, a practicum position at a residential treatment facility for teenage sex offenders, an honors thesis entitled “Differentiating the Effects of Social and Personal Power,” and a GPA of 4.23. Yesterday I graduated with a Master of Education degree, Couples and Family Therapy specialization, 455 client-contact hours at the Center for Family Therapy and Looking Glass Counseling Services, one term as a counselor for the University of Oregon Crisis Line, four terms volunteering for the UO Men’s Center, a GPA of 4.19, and a “Pass With Distinction” on my final Formal Client Presentation. It has been a wonderful, exhilarating, exhausting four years.

It has also taken a bit of a toll on my health, but the major loss was in community. If you do not live in Eugene and we have not made a point of a regular visit, I probably have not spoken or even written to you much, if anything, since 2007. For that I sincerely apologize. It is not how I prefer to live but I could not seem to do this any other way. Know that I miss you. Let’s reconnect. Call me up, write, send me your unfinished song, your idea for a book, something to read and talk about. Let’s go for a walk, go swimming, have lunch, see a show. I am looking forward to it.

Couples & Family Therapy 2011 Cohort

Me & My Dad, June 14, 2011

Staff of NBTSC

NBTSC 2010 Oregon Staff

I’m in the woods of Vermont, preparing for the start of the east coast sessions of Not Back To School Camp. Today is staff orientation and the campers arrive tomorrow–over a hundred teenaged unschoolers. If I’m counting right, this will be my thirtieth session. I’ve only missed two since 1999.

In our first go-round of our first meeting, Grace asked us to say why we come to camp. This was my answer:

First, because this is where my people gather. The staff here are like family to me and for the rest of the year, they are dispersed. I can visit them one at a time or in clumps, by traveling. Camp is also where I am most likely to meet my future people. I’ve met almost all of my post-high school close friends at NBTSC.

Second, NBTSC provides the perfect supportive atmosphere to practice how I want to be and serve in the outside world: I want to be a space for love and inspiration to show up, strong and clear, for every person who crosses my path.

Third, since NBTSC happens once a year, every year, with the same basic mission, structure, and community, it provides a consistent backdrop to check myself against. My outside life continues to change, but here I am every year, back at camp. How am I showing up differently? How have I grown? Here that is quite clear.

Last, it’s super, super fun. The young people are beautiful, inspiring, and open. There’s lots of music, dancing and hilarity. I love it.

2010 Oregon session one group photo

NBTSC Oregon Campers (session 1) 2010

Two of my good friends, Mo’ and Chad, have never met, even though I’ve known Chad for 33 years and Mo’ for 9. It’s geographical–Mo’ is part of my Oregon community and Chad is in southern California. It’s too bad because they’re both really funny and it would be great to get to watch them riff. Mo’, for example, early on, decided that Chad was my imaginary friend and made a lot of good fun of me: “Oh, riiight, Nathen– “Chad” climbed Mt. Whitney with you…” etc.

When Chad married another good friend of mine, Jeannie, a few years ago, Mo’ and his partner Vangie made this video for them. I’m not sure how funny it will be if you don’t know Mo’ or Chad, but if you’re reading this blog, you probably know one or both of them, and I think it’s just plain funny:

“I think the best function of funerals is served if it brings relatives and friends into the best possible functional contact with the harsh fact of death and with each other in this time of high emotionality. I believe that funerals were probably more effective when people died at home with the family present, and when the family and friends made the coffin and did the burial themselves. Society no longer permits this, but there are ways to bring about a reasonable level of contact with the dead body and the survivors.”

Murray Bowen, in Walsh & McGoldrick’s Living Beyond Loss: Death in the Family

I’m about to leave for five weeks at Not Back to School Camp, so I won’t be posting for a while. It’s one of my favorite times of year. NBTSC is a camp for teenage unschoolers, or autodidacts. What they do for their education varies a lot but it tends to be a kind of homeschooling, where the learning is interest-led and non-coercive. The campers are amazing people–creative, open, intelligent, fun. There are about 100 of them at each session, and there are four sessions this year, two in southern Oregon and two in Vermont. (I’m missing the fourth session this year, much to my dismay–it’s my second session missed in ten years. My graduate program starts before the 4th session ends.) My job is basically to be available to them. I teach workshops, this year on Lindy Hop, the scientific method, and the human bowel movement (based on the in-some-ways-dated but still cool little book, Man’s Presumptuous Brain). I’m doing a music project, too, where the teens that sign up will learn to play together in a band and we’ll write a piece of music to perform for the camp. The staff is amazing, too. They are mostly old friends of mine, now, and a pretty tight and very loving community. I’ve had a great day seeing them again on my breaks from packing.

Have a great rest of your summer, everyone!

My twenty-two year old truck broke down in Portland recently and it got me thinking about my dad. We’re close and he’s never that far from my thoughts, but he comes up especially during breakdowns. It’s his voice I hear in my head, “Hmm, it’s turning over but not starting, so the battery’s probably fine…probably fuel, maybe spark…check for anything dripping, check the plug wires, distributor cap, coil…” He was never a professional mechanic, though once he told me he wished he had been. That was one of the two times he’d said something like that to me. “That’s real work,” he said. “Something’s broken and you fix it.” (The other time he talked about being a park ranger when we visited Crater Lake. “Imagine living in places like this all the time!”) He’s been a working musician, studio engineer, and commercial photographer since I was born. That’s real work too, of course, but having done some of it myself, now, I know what he was talking about. With aesthetic work, it can almost always be better, you can always fuss more over it, you’re never quite sure how much is enough to make the current client happy, and you don’t want them to just be happy. You want them out in the community raving about you and how you went the extra mile and how the project turned out so much better than they ever imagined. You want that both because it turns down the heat on having to constantly hustle for new clients, and because you want to be proud of your own work, and this is your work, making other peoples’ art look and sound as good as possible. For a mechanic, you just have the right tools, know your shit, put an ad in the yellow pages, fix the cars that come in, and do it right. There is much less room for fussing and second guessing. If it came down to it, though, I doubt my dad would change much about his past. He’s a craftsman and artist and thinker. He is, as my mom often says, a genius at fixing things, and he does like to get his hands dirty, but he prefers fixing sound systems and soldering broken music gear to working on cars, and he much prefers for things not to break at all, so he can concentrate on the mix or master he’s working on.

Another reason I was thinking about him when my truck broke down was because I had to call a tow truck. If I had been home, in Eugene or in Joshua Tree, I would have called a friend with a tow chain to get it home and tried to fix the thing myself. In Joshua Tree, that friend would have been my dad. It’s something of a family tradition. I’ve only owned used cars, so I’ve broken down with some regularity over the years, and I know for a fact that my dad has towed me over 200 miles because one of the ten or so times was from Bakersfield down to Joshua Tree, when I cracked my block on the I-5, on a trip down from Eugene. It’s been continually surprising how slowly my reliance on my dad has diminished over the decades—the price, I suppose, of having such a reliable dad. The thing is, I was never aware of him relying on his dad at all, and I’ve known him since he was a lot younger than I am. There has also been a continual recession of ‘living up’ to my dad. It’s not that I get any outside pressure to be like him—he has scrupulously avoided that. It’s that there are a bunch of ways that I just assumed I would be more like him by the time I was an adult. A small but salient example: Will it ever be that when I tie something down in the back of my truck that there is no chance it will fly out a mile down the road? I know it’s possible. When my dad ties things down, they stay down.

Maybe living up to your dad is a mind trip that every son lives with—that someone further along than you always looks invincible and unreachable in important ways. There were ways, though, that I reminded myself of my dad when I broke this last time. Unlike me, he would have known that the distributor had gone. In fact, he likely would have known as soon as the truck started faltering a little, a couple weeks ago, and fixed it then, probably with a distributor he’d had laying around the shop for years just in case this happened. But even though I was more confused, I did remain calm and fully engaged in my environment. This is one remarkable element of my dad’s personality that took me a while to appreciate: Wherever he is, that is where he is. I mean if he’s in the shop, returning the tow trailer after towing me home from Sacramento for seven hours, he’s not in a hurry and he’s really interested in the guy who rented him the trailer, and probably knows his name, where he lives, and a decent amount of his history before he leaves. And from that day on he will probably not only remember him, but refer to him as “my friend Jim, who owns the towing company down Fox Trail.” It’s been a source of some boredom and occasional consternation for me over the years, because a trip to town for some plywood and a drill bit is likely to take a couple hours. I would be lurking in the background on those trips (unless he drew me out, usually by bragging about me) and eventually saying some version of “Let’s go, Dad.”

I reminded myself a lot of my dad, in Portland. The mechanic I found was not through the phone book, but through the guy running the gas station where I broke down. The tow truck driver I found through the mechanic. When the driver arrived, I asked for his name and shook his hand. I called him Valentino when we talked. I asked him if he took his kids on jobs with him when I saw the baby seat in the cab. By the time I’d paid him for the job, not long after, I knew that his older son was eight and hated homework but was great at soccer, that Valentino supported him in soccer even though he was a basketball player, that his younger son was four and came on jobs with him because they didn’t have baby sitters, that he moved from LA to Portland 12 years ago because the gangs were not as bad there. My dad would have loved the mechanic he took me to. He was a giant white guy in his 50s named Vale, hands easily three times the size of mine, with thick, oil-encrusted nails and skin. Works seven days a week, all day. (Lucky for me—I broke down at 5:30 pm on Saturday.) His shop wasn’t one of those clean, spacious places with uniformed men and a receptionist. It was tiny and cluttered with tools and parts and books and rags and stuff, staffed by Vale and his partner, his son. His daughter is nineteen and apparently brilliant, studying psychology on scholarship at OSU. He diagnosed my truck out loud to me, with us both leaning over the engine compartment. “Well, it’s getting fuel… Looks like you replaced the cap and rotor recently… Start it up so I can check the distributor.” It was late in the day, Saturday, and it looked like he couldn’t get the part until Monday or maybe Wednesday, but he had it running perfectly for my by noon on Sunday for $300.

This is what my dad knew instinctively and I was proud to see come out in myself: The people that you meet and know aren’t just interesting. They are your source of information, adventures, and luck. They are your community. It doesn’t matter if they share your beliefs or aesthetics. It doesn’t matter much that they live in a different city. That you are at the same place at the same time means that you share something with them and it’s almost weird not to find out what that is. I get it. Thanks, Dad.

Dad, Me, Mom

Dad, Me, Mom

I’ve lived at the house we call Suntop for six years now, and I’m still living with the remnants of the community I helped start at our first house, Big Bertha, in Eugene, in early 2001. It’s been an amazing eight years and four months. I’ve grown a lot through it. I feel sad about leaving. I love it here, being so close to my dear friends, Tilke, Nick, and Joe, the Willamette River so close, the running trails, the woods, my bike-trail commute to school, the green property, the beautiful house, room for my office, my demo studio, my dance floor. This place and these people were a big part of the reason I applied only to the UO for graduate school. I never expected to live anywhere else in Oregon.

Perhaps I should have. When we moved here, I insisted on an upstairs room. I’m such a light sleeper, I couldn’t imagine being able to get to sleep with people walking on top of me. At that time, there were only two upstairs bedrooms–the sunny front room, that Tilke wanted (and it was she who was buying the house), and the master suite, with it’s own bathroom and everything. It seemed outrageous that I would get that room, and I said so, but there was a strong consensus that we liked the house and that it was acceptable that I lived in the fancy room. We were even splitting the rent evenly at that time. It probably helped that I was going to share the space with my girlfriend-at-the-time, and would for the next three years.

Six years later, the community is mostly dispersed. (Marriages and breakups, mostly, plus a dash of failure of leadership–probably the undoing of most communities.) Tilke is married, and I’m still living in the master suite of her and Nick’s house. What had seemed like extravagent space and privacy when we moved out of Big Bertha is now uncomfortably close quarters for them. Tilke asked me to leave about a month ago. It was super hard at first. I still felt ownership of the house and what is left of the community. I’ve gotten used to the idea now. Some friends have been encouraging me to leave for years, now, some mildly (“Nathen, you are always the one to hang on. You should consider letting go.” -Maya) and some not-so-mildly (“Nathen, get the hell out of there. Get out of Oregon, too. That place is doing nothing but reminding you of hard times.” -Evan).

I’ve found a good place to live. It’s in Eugene, close to downtown, the best health food stores, music venues, and campus. I’ll be closer to a lot of my friends and family–Gabriel, Maggie, Grace, Mo’, Vangie, Miriel, Akira, Jessica. I haven’t seen nearly enough of them, living out here in Springfield. I hope to deepen my connections with all of them in the next couple years. I’ll be living in a studio attached to the house of one of my main dance partners, Emily Aune. I don’t know her well, yet, but I have long suspected that she is great and that we could be close friends. She is easily in my top five of fun people to dance with. She’s thoughtful, smart, creative, and hip. She’s a botanist, native-plant enthusiast, gardener and a co-counseler. I’m looking forward to getting to know her.

I recently attended a lecture by Adam Galinsky where he presented evidence that assimilating into new cultures makes people more creative. Maybe it comes from a widening of the self-image. I left that lecture thinking maybe it was time I live somewhere else. I like moving. I’ve enjoyed it every time I’ve moved as an adult: Redding, San Francisco Bay Area, Joshua Tree, Maui, Eugene, Springfield. I love coming back into contact with each possession and reconsidering it. I love how being in a new space brings back into focus each thing I do and each way that I am, so I can reconsider. This is going to be great.

Next Friday, sometime after 5 pm, I will have a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from the University of Oregon. I’m going to walk and have a cap and gown and everything–I just borrowed the costume from a friend. I was supposed to buy a green braid for $12 too, because I’m graduating with honors, but it seemed like a scam. A lot of what comes up around graduation have seemed like scams. You can spend thousands of dollars on costumes and invitations and rings and memberships in various societies, not to mention airfare, lodging, and party supplies for friends and relatives coming from around the country. I have to admit to being a bit cynical about the whole thing. I only decided a couple weeks ago that I was going to walk. I went to the ceremony for the psych department last year and was not moved by it. Plus, I’m a little disappointed in how little you have to know to graduate from college. You can learn a lot, if you set your mind to it, but you don’t have to. I doubt you could graduate without being able to read, write and do some math, but I know for certain that you don’t have to do any of them well.

But I changed my mind. First, I was nominated to speak at the ceremony. I didn’t get the gig, but it seemed possible for a while, and I thought it would be a great challenge to come up with something good to say, and deliver it effectively. That would make the ceremony meaningful for me, and it would be weird to speak but not walk. And then when I started thinking about it I liked the idea more and more. Doing my honors thesis in the last year I’ve made several friends in my graduating class. We’ve been through the wringer together and supported each other and I feel really warmly towards them. I’ve also gotten to know some of the faculty and grad students in the department. And I have a bunch of good friends in Springfield and Eugene now, from dancing and music and Not Back to School Camp. It would be great to see them all in one place. I sent an email invitation to everyone nearby who I have an address for. I have no idea who will show up, I’m looking forward to seeing whoever does. (If you live in the area but did not get the email, I’m sorry. I may not have your address. Please come!)

Then there’s the importance of graduating itself. That I’m not so sure about. I love going to school. I love learning. I’m chronically curious. My getting a BS is about as momentous as skiing a lot is to someone who loves to ski. A couple of my friends who are graduating with me will be the first people in their families ever to graduate from college, and I can see that that makes a difference. My family has graduate degrees within a few generations on both sides, and everyone I’ve met in my family could easily have gotten a graduate degree if they’d been interested. They just haven’t been interested. Can I feel pride about this? I’m not sure. I think I’m going to give it a try. I have made the most of it. I have truly applied myself, learned a mountain of information, learned how to conduct scientific research, made myself into a much better reader and writer and more rigorous and open-minded thinker. I’ve also gotten myself into a graduate program in which I intend to become a strong and resourceful ally for couples and families. That is stuff to be proud about.

Suntop in Bathtub

Suntop in Bathtub

These are the people I live with. And the dog. When this photo was taken, Kyla Wetherell lived with us, but she missed the shoot. She has since fallen in love and moved out. I miss her. We have two cats, now, not pictured. They are probably nice and definitely reclusive but they don’t make up for Kyla. Anyway, left to right, we are Joe Dillon (student of engineering, writer), Luna (pug, lover of fluffballs), Kat Reinhart (student of developmental neurobiology, cyclist), Nathen Lester (student of psychology, dabbler), Tilke Elkins (artist, author), and Nicholas Walker (inventor, programmer). I’ve known almost everyone here for years: Joe the longest, for nine years, and Kat the shortest, for six months.

Suntop Action

Suntop in Action

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