Perception vs. Reality: A Rant
Published: Sep 30, 2008 by Maria Gwyn McDowell
This is, as the title indicates, a rant. A long rant. A peevish, ridiculous, adolescent rant. Having clarified the emotional maturity of what follows, let me begin.
I grew up in the Southwest Hills of Portland. Please note a key word in the region’s title: “Hills.” The word “hills” is not a difficult word, it does not have some hidden or subtle meaning. It refers to ground which goes up and down, terrain one generally goes over, especially on trips to grandmother’s house.1 Even its metaphorical usage implies going over and happens rather suddenly, somewhere between the cake and scotch at one’s fortieth birthday party.
So, unsurprisingly, if one visits Southwest Portland, one encounters hills. I have a few, hazy memories of zipping around the maze of streets in my neighborhood, zooming down an unexplored road on my banana-seat pink bike with the Mexican tassles streaming from the handlebars and multicolored little plastic clicker-things rattling away on the spokes of my wheels, only to be confronted with a culdesac.2 And so, back up the road I went, feeling vaguely disgusted at the deception perpetrated on my young legs, but hey, no big deal really, it was just a little hill.
I have distinct memories of a few particular hills. My street was a hill. A real hill! a fast hill! a sledding hill! The whole neighborhood knew it, because on those few icy winter days in the Williamette Valley when an astonishing 1/2” of wet snow covered a thin sheet of black ice, everyone came to my street, my hill! Conscientious adults even put spiffy orange cones at the top so cars would go around using Nebraska street, whose hill was, well, just not that cool. I remember the day it snowed during my senior year in high school, the same year the Portland Public School district hired a superintendent from Michigan.3 This superintendent, who as I mentioned, was from Michigan, and who probably lived on the East side of Portland, didn’t think that an inch of snow deserved a snow day. But he wasn’t from Southwest Portland! He didn’t understand! We had hills! And unlike his side of town, which had no hills,4 and hills attract snow! They call it forth from the sky, summoning it to land in little wet sheets with gaping asphalt and grass holes all over their lovely slopes! I think only half of the school showed up that day, and Mrs. Person, the hardest, most rigorous teacher ever, dismissed us from class so we could go play. In the snow! On the hills! Sliding down into the wet, muddy softball field, scraping together damp and disgusting snowballs. What a great day!
Why wax so extensively about the hills of my childhood? Please notice my childish perception of a few things. First, as a child on my bike, hills were little. Second, the East side of Portland has no hills.
The first day I decided to commute to work on a bike, I was traveling from Multnomah Village to (what was) the warehouse area of Northwest Portland. About eight miles. It was a beautiful morning, a smooth, easy ride on Barbur Blvd into downtown. Downtown proved a mild surprise to me. Did you know that Broadway is at a higher elevation than Fourth? And that Northwest is even higher than Broadway? I didn’t recall a hill along Glisan from my days at Metropolitan Learning Center, but there it was, unmistakably ascending in front of me. So, okay, these aren’t big hills. They are little hills. After all, most of downtown is in Southwest Portland, which has little hills. Right? And Northwest, well, I guess I just hadn’t spent much time there, so okay, some hills. No sweat, my ride home would be all down hill!
And the ride home began wonderfully, all downhill! I cruised back through the city, did a little bit of a leg pump to get up Broadway, whizzed by Duniway park with glorious, speedy Barbur in front of me. And then something odd happened. I slowed down. I was still peddling along just like I had in the morning, but I was starting to feel a little leaden in my legs. What was happening? What could cause this? Being endowed with at least a minimal level of intelligence, I realized somewhere around Hamilton Street that I was going uphill! Wait, who the &*%@ put a hill here? Barbur is not a hill! It is a long, wide, fast road that connects my childhood with the rest of Portland! It doesn’t go up, there is nothing to go over. The real hills, the big hills, those were on the other side of my house and every out-of-shape biker in Portland knows that you don’t try to get to Southwest Portland using Terwilliger. There is a reason visits to OHSU are described as going to “the hill.” Barbur goes around “the hill” it does not go over it!
Remember, kind readers, perception. Clearly, reality was otherwise, Barbur is a hill. I had reconciled myself to this by the time I reached the Burlingame Freddy’s. I could make it, I could do it, the Freddy’s meant I am almost home.
And then it happened. Benign Barbur leapt UP UP UP!!!! It moved, I swear it. It wasn’t this way before! Really! And why wastheguystandingoutsidethepizzajointgivingmeathumbsupthejerk? who did he think he was? I am tired you insensitive boob!!!!!5
This first commute happened over seven years ago. While I was not in Portland for five of those years, I have had plenty of opportunity to encounter Portland’s hills. Southwest Portland is choc’ full of ’em and there is no “going around.” Welcome to reality, a reality that the perceptive reader familiar with the geography of the area probably knew well before I did.
So, why the I rant? Because today, I decided to ride my bike to study over at Reed, which involves going down a really steep hill. The whole way down I kept thinking of other ways to get home at the end of the day. As it turns out, I had a meeting in Northeast Portland. Remember what I said about the east side not having hills? The East side has hills. They are sneaky little suckers, laying in wait for unsuspecting bicyclists who are enjoying the phenomenon of straight streets.6 They just appear, lasting for a block or three, and then the nasty little road lulls the rider into a sort of lazy peddling until the next shocking upgrade. But hey, I can deal with small hills, they are sort of a break, right?
And then, I headed home, crossed the Hawthorne bridge, meandered my way along First up to Barbur. Which I know at this point is a hill. A long hill that, in my currently out-of-shape state, I dread. But I can do it. Except that I hadn’t accounted for riding twenty-two miles in a single day7 The gradual ascent was a bit tiring. But hey, first time out in a while, I am a sedentary graduate student, I can allow myself a little exhaustion. I debated cheating and catching the 12 bus to take me up the hill, but no, that is cheating and I don’t cheat. Foolish me. Right around the aforementioned pizza shop, on the aforementioned hill beyond the aforementioned Freddy’s, I switched down a gear. Only to discover that I couldn’t, I was already in the lowest gear.8
And you know what happened? I was a child again, Barbur was flat, and I was personally offended that Barbur did not have the decency to correspond to my perception! Reality be damned, the world I knew as a child was flat and that is just how it is!!!
Worse was this immovable fact: I had one more hill ahead of me, a steep evil hill, at the very end of my ride! All the way along straight and flat Multnomah Blvd, all I could do is ask my mother, why? Why did you buy a house at the top of a hill? I know it is a cute, perfect little house with the best flowers on the block,9 But at the top? Why didn’t you buy the house halfway up the hill? It was on the market for a year before it was sold. It is cute too, and only halfway up the evil hill. Or better, what about the cute periwinkle cottage which is so close to the bottom of the hill I wouldn’t even have time to shift down to the lowest gear by the time I entered the driveway. Why the top? You can grow flowers in any yard!!!!!
And you know what my mom just said to me? After riding 22 miles? Up hill, both ways, in the driving, blinding, october snow? “What hill, you mean our little hill?” Oh the outrage! the offense! the insensitivity!
So, a closing (finally!) thought: Isn’t it amazing how deeply embedded are our perceptions? What we perceive to be true is true even when reality repeatedly indicates otherwise. At our moments of greatest stress, our repeated experience of reality is displaced by a flash of offended perception. And when reality so rudely intrudes, some of us get a little pissy and a little irrational.
- 1. Woods, as the song indicates, are something that one goes through, unless of course one is St. Nick. Or a goose. Or a rider of broomsticks. Note also that woods do not require hills, and not all hills are wooded, but they periodically coincide. In such a case, one can use either preposition, depending on the preferred emphasis of the sentence, the hill or the forest.
- 2. Note that in Portland, a ‘culdesac’ is NOT the same thing as a “dead end” and so doesn’t rank a sign that says, well, “dead end.” At best, it gets a sign that says “Not a thru street.” But what eleven-year-old pays attention to such a benign sign as that? Really, the word “dead” is much more catchy.
- 3. or at least, that was the rumor which appeared to justify the following rather strange decision
The East side has houses. I know this now, and I knew this then! This is an inside reference that will only be understood by a very small group of friends, most of whom do not read this blog.
- 5. I did say adolescent, right?
- 6. These really don’t exist in Southwest. Here, perception and reality coincide. Except for Multnomah Blvd. Which is a block from my house. Okay, most of them are not straight.
- 7. Did I say I haven’t ridden much this summer? I won’t even tell you my average speed for the day, it is embarrassing. Suffice it to say that on those silly calorie charts, I fell into the category of “leisure riding.”
Yes, I was exhausted in the lowest gear. Class, can we say “pathetic”?
- 9. This is not familial loyalty exaggerating reality, it is objectively true. Everyone who walks by says so.