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Diary: This American Road, Portland

Portland 2015 - 4

As a wise friend once told me, “Powell’s is what Portland is for.” Since I seem to come to Portland about once a year these days, I’ve found plenty of other purposes for the city — to provide pods and pods of food carts, for instance — but that proposition holds basically true: no trip to Portland, whether a dedicated visit by air or a stop on a road trip like this one, feels complete without at least an hour spent exploring Powell’s City of Books, and at least another hour spent reading the fruits of that browsing at the Powell’s City of Books and watching the Actual City of Portland just beyond its expansive windows.

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Not wanting to load myself down with many more books just two months before moving to Korea (although I really don’t have as vast and unwieldy a library as some friends expect), I decided I’d only buy something from Powell’s for myself if it seemed put on the shelf specifically for me. Lo and behold, in the “TRAVEL — ASIA” section (always an early stop) I found a crisp copy of Michael Stephens’ Lost in Seoul, one of the few modern book-length, first-person narratives by a westerner in Korea. It came out in 1990, two years after Simon Winchester’s cross-country foot journey Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles, four years before Clive Leatherdale’s Olympics-era travelogue To Dream of Pigs, and the same year as Michael Shapiro’s season-by-season chronicle of development and democratization The Shadow in the Sun.

Lost in Seoul

I’ve enjoyed all these books, but Lost in Seoul, though long out of print and likely the least known of the bunch, stands out. Stephens writes not just a Korean travelogue, but the story of several different visits to the country over a period of years during which he comes to grips with not just life in another culture, but life among his Korean wife’s extended family. (“For Okhee,” reads his dedication page, “nae boo-in kwa chin-goo.”) He also has somewhat different professional interests than the average westerner writing on Asia. The copy I found at Powell’s contained a letter, written on Princeton stationery from Stephens himself, addressed to a certain Carolyn Kizer. “As the enclosed book, LOST IN SEOUL, is as much about language, and specifically about poetry, as it is about Korea,” he writes, “I thought it might interest you.” Kizer, I later found out, became poetry famous herself by writing about the Pacific Northwest, and died October of last year. (The book’s price sticker says it had hit the shelf that May.)

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With the Korean life coming up ourselves, we’ve made this west coast road trip as part of a sort of American farewell tour. In Portland, we saw Garrison Keillor doing more or less the same thing, putting on one of the shows that makes up A Prairie Home Companion‘s “America the Beautiful” tour, Keillor’s last before finally passing along the mic and retiring from hosting duties. We actually structured our whole trip around this event, since I got Jae the ticket as a birthday present months ago. I’ve never followed A Prairie Home Companion very closely, but I wanted a chance to see the show’s demographic up close and personally, and what more vivid way to do it than in a sold-out crowd in one of the four or five cities, as Keillor chided, “that actually believe Bernie Sanders could win?”

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I get why a personality-driven variety show like A Prairie Home Companion would, after more than forty years (mostly) on the air, gain a fervent following. But how, I’ve always wondered, has it gained such a fervent following — and such a large one? It makes sense that some people enjoy bluegrass, some people enjoy gospel, some people enjoy long improvised monologues filled with jokes about the difference between Lutherans and Episcopalians, and some people enjoy nostalgic jingles for nonexistent products, but the very center of that Venn diagram has somehow turned Keillor’s project into an international phenomenon. More power to him, I guess, though he also has his haters. Relaxing in the Division Street Townshend’s Tea the day before the show, I came across a Q&A in Willamette Week with one of America’s foremost Keillor-haters, the man who launched the  “Cancel Goddam Prairie Home Companion petition on

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Personally, I hope Keillor devotes his the time freed up by retiring from the show to writing more about Denmark. Those who prefer his singing about power milk biscuits might not know this, but the man has made quite an investment in Danish culture, going so far as to marry a Danish woman and move to Copenhagen in the 1980s (which put A Prairie Home Companion on hiatus). He’s on the next wife now, but he maintains the affinity for Denmark. “Everybody ought to have Denmark as a possibility out there in the future somewhere,” he said just before making the move, “wherever you think you might need it.” It makes me think of that Thomas Jefferson-attributed line, “Every man has two countries — his own and France.” It also makes me wonder whether Michael Stephens has returned much to Korea over the past 25 years. And it makes me realize that, whenever I again live in the United States, I’ll have two cities — my own and Portland.

Portland 2015 - 5