Thursday, October 22, 2015

When Halloween Gets A Little Too Thrilling

'Thriller' performed by Ashland DanceWorks
Redding has Rodeo Week, New Orleans has Mardi Gras, and Rio has Carnival. But Ashland has Halloween. Boy, does it ever have Halloween.

It's got kind of a rocky history, its ups and downs, but I haven't yet found a town that comes close to matching Ashland's crazy Halloween celebration. No matter what measures city officials have had to implement over the years to try to tone things down and lower the number of costumed revelers, the levels of inebriation, and the bad decisions that tend to go hand in hand with the combination of the two, Ashland's Halloween celebration still seems to go unmatched.

I don't know when it all started. I can't find much on the history of Ashland's Halloween Boom, but I remember heading downtown circa 1983. I was probably 16 years old, and what seemed like an impromptu parade began snaking down the street, stopping traffic, and the bars were packed and noisy, and looked like a lot of fun. Then around 1985, I marveled in the idea that with face paint and a costume, I had no problem waltzing into establishments that would normally spend a good two or three minutes scrutinizing my ID, then my face, then my ID, then my face. I mean, if I had a fake ID, that is. Or if I'd borrowed my slightly older blonde next door neighbor's ID (thank you Konnie May). Turns out I didn't even need it, since nobody ever asked to see it. I remember going into the bar at the Marc Anthony Hotel (now Ashland Springs Inn), and seeing Reuben, a teenager who was enough younger than me that I'd helped a friend babysit him once, with a drink in his hand. And he wasn't even in costume. It was just that easy, back in the mid 80's. On Halloween, that is.

Every bar in town was packed. Costume contests were everywhere, the parties spilled out into the streets. Costumes were elaborate, many times involving large groups of people. The Geppetto's marching wontons were a local favorite. The same crowd, I think, was behind the California raisins in 1988 and an entire deck of cards (including the Joker) another year. My mom (who one year went dressed as a high school version of me), remembers some of the best costumes over the years included a person wearing nothing but a shower cap taking a shower, and weatherman with an inside out umbrella and a windblown necktie. Other costumes involved pieces that were probably borrowed from the wardrobe department at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In fact, I think the dramatic types from OSF and other theaters around Ashland had a lot to do with the community's tendency to jump headfirst without looking into Halloween, and a lot to do with how wonderful it was for so many years.  That was all before it imploded.
Ashland's plaza on the craziest Halloween of record.
Eventually, the popularity of Ashland's Halloween celebration came back to haunt the town. The event had grown so large that tour busses were booked from faraway cities to bring hundreds of additional partiers to this artsy fartsy village of about 16,000. In 1986, the partying started early. On my way home from work at 4 in the afternoon, a drunk driver ran a stop sign and T-boned me going around 5 miles an hour, but he did about $700 worth of damage to my car. Later, dressed as a vampire bride, I made my way downtown where a stage was set up on the plaza and a band played for an overly enthusiastic crowd. Thousands of non-Ashlanders from as far away as Eugene and San Francisco poured into the small downtown. Five thousand extra people, by my dad's account. The party filled not only the entire downtown, but it overlapped into Lithia Park and out into the surrounding neighborhoods. I remember seeing a car that had jumped a curb and was left, parked diagonally in the middle of someone's front lawn. That night things got a little too rowdy for this sleepy little hamlet. A guy got stabbed, and another guy I'd gone to high school with got shot in the foot. I probably had a horrific hangover. It was just out of control, and too much for the city to handle.

This is when the city stepped in and tried to ratchet things back a few notches. In fact they pretty much cancelled Halloween for a couple of years. Revelers looking for an over the top, wild ass party had to find somewhere else for awhile. There was no band. No parade. No street closure. That made it a little bit more difficult for pedestrian crowds to fill the boulevard, and bars cracked down on what had been an all-ages free for all. Bouncers were hired to stand guard.

Slowly, things relaxed a little. The parade was held again. And people started to celebrate with wild abandon once more. And when things got rowdy this time, the Chamber of Commerce took quick action and cancelled everything back in 2011.

These days, Ashland's Halloween is a bit more dignified and organized, and mostly geared towards fun seeking kids instead of thrill seeking adults. There's a morning Monster Dash, Spooky Storytelling Time at the library, and a choreographed performance of "Thriller" by Ashland Danceworks in the middle of the street that takes place right before the Children's Parade at 2:30 in the afternoon. In case you're thinking about going, there's a schedule. On paper (and online), there's not a lot for adults at the contemporary Ashland Halloween celebration. But in reality, there are just as many adults in costume as there are children. In fact my dad's buddy Joe once said this about Halloween in Ashland: "I've been to Rio, and I've been to the Big Easy. In those places about 90% of the people are standing around watching the other 10% who are in costume. In Ashland, 90% of the people are in costume and the other 10% are standing around watching.
Windblown weatherman, photographed by Keith Henty
Today's Ashland Halloween party is almost dignified, except that (for good reason, I'm sure) they've had to set a few publicly posted ground rules. Like no open flames, nudity or display of weapons (real or fake), and no costumes that depict hatred, racism or religious offensiveness. And there's more.

If you didn't know better, if you didn't grow up in Ashland and see it go from pretty sleepy to pretty crazy back to pretty sleepy again, you might not think all those rules were necessary. But looking back at the late 80's, when things were so fun that they weren't so fun anymore, they're probably necessary.

As for me, my Halloween partying days ended the year that I dressed up as a mummy clad in full length long johns and wrapped from head to toe in the longest ace bandage known to mankind, but failed to consider in advance that I might need an escape route later on for any beverages that I might imbibe over the course of the evening. It was one of the most miserable nights on the town I ever spent, and from that moment on I've spent most Halloweens at home, handing out candy to about 3 or 4 kids over the entire course of the evening. And I'm good with that. Because I can always tell stories about the days when I experienced the wildest Halloween parties this ol' country has ever known.

If you happen to be the kind of person who still likes to get together with a group of folks for a rousing Halloween experience, I've got the perfect Halloween Party Playlist to go along with it below, and of course it starts off with Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Quinn Cooper's Final Bow

Until last Thursday, I didn't know what it felt like to experience my own heartache while reading a news story over the air. I've shared bad news of tragedy and loss, death and horror, but nothing that touched me so close that I read the news with tears streaming down my face. Until last Thursday.

My boss called me at 5 minutes to noon and said, "I need to tell you something. There's an active shooter situation at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg. We're sending you a news story in a few minutes, be prepared to read it." He told me to not to deviate too much from our news story, because even though it held less information than some other media sources were putting out, we were being careful not to release anything that hadn't been confirmed by authorities. We wanted to be absolutely accurate in every bit of information we were releasing to our listeners, especially those in Roseburg.
He spent a minute coaching me on the tone he thought I should use when relaying the news, and I was just the tiniest bit offended. I've been doing this for over 30 years now. Since I was a teenager. I've always maintained a level, authoritative voice when sharing grave information with listeners. I got this. I thought. And I told him so.

Moments after hanging up, my cell phone rang. This time it was my little sister Dana, calling from Medford. She asked if I'd heard about the shootings in Roseburg, and then pulled the rug out from under my feet.

"Brett is there."

Her husband. My brother in law, who I love dearly. The father of my 7 year old niece. The family member I look forward to cooking elaborate gourmet meals with during family gatherings. He was there. On the UCC campus. When the shootings went down. She told me he'd been in a meeting in a construction trailer, when someone came in and told them what was going on, and helped lead them to a safer location. At the same time, someone walked into my sister's office and informed everyone what was happening. She jumped up and ran out of her office, trying to reach Brett on the phone, but all she could get was that kind of busy signal you get when all the circuits are jammed. That's when five minutes becomes an eternity. Even though by the time my sister called me she knew her husband was okay, the moment she said, "Brett is there," my throat closed up. Tears began streaming down my face. Someone I love very much was close to something horrible and awful, and the thought that he was in the vicinity of death and could've even potentially been a victim of it was so much to bear that suddenly I didn't think I could find my voice. 

Somehow, I got through it, but it was one of the most difficult moments of my career. I had to speak very slowly and in an octave lower than normal so that my voice wouldn't crack, so that I wouldn't break down in the middle of a sentence, but I couldn't hold back the tears. They were running down my face as I relayed the news that four people were confirmed dead at the time, but there were additional victims yet to be confirmed. I ached for those for whom I was bearing the news that their loved one might not be coming home that night.

I thought of Taylor Moore, my daughter's new roommate at Southern Oregon University. When we'd moved Sophia into the dorm the week before, we had dinner with the two of them. Taylor told us she was from Roseburg, and we talked about how her boyfriend and all of her friends were still up in Douglas County, and how her mom really had wished she had stayed home and gone to UCC like the rest of them, but she was thrilled to be at in Ashland at SOU.

I texted Sophia and told her she needed to be with Taylor to provide support and compassion because something awful had happened. My text crossed paths with one from Sophia telling me that she was with Taylor when the news broke. That her boyfriend had already reached her to let her know he was okay. Many of her friends were reaching out to say they were also okay. But as the day went by, some hadn't. That was dreadful, ominous and agonizing. Not hearing from someone. Then the victim count began to slowly creep upward, and Taylor began to recognize the names of some of the victims. Kids she knew. Freshmen. Like her. From Roseburg, like her. Kids she'd gone to high school with. But some were never heard from again. When the chaos settled, 9 students and staff had been murdered, another 9 wounded. One of them was Taylor's good friend Quinn Glen Cooper.

Those that didn't make it.
You're going to hear more about Quinn Cooper, but I need to put on the brakes for a moment and tell you something else. I want to tell you about the thin silver lining in an otherwise completely fucked up situation. Well, it's more of a step in the right direction. Because there's really no silver lining here.

There's something my dad's been railing about ever since I was a kid, back when he quit his job teaching mass media theory at a university, and became a full time novelist. His first book, Soft Targets, was published back in 1980, more than two decades before 9-11. The plot centered on Islamic terrorists who had hatched a plan to commit a terror attack on a well known New York City landmark with a plane.

Back then they called it Sci-Fi. Because, you know, something like that would never happen in a million years. But the point my dad was making in the story (and would rant about during the nightly news, yelling at the screen), is that people like that are looking for attribution. They want their names and their cause to be put front and center in the spotlight for their 15 minutes of fame for horrific actions of terrorism and violence. And that, said my father, should never happen. It's like giving positive reinforcement for negative behavior. It's giving them exactly what they want. So don't do it. He maintained that the media should refuse to say their names. Never say their names.

Well, that's kind of hard to do. Or at least it has been, until now. Because until now, as the information hungry society we've become, we want to know everything, every little last detail, now. And media is all too happy to help hunt down everything it can to help us get our hands on every tidbit possible about the people and organizations who's sole desire is to destroy us. You and me. Our children. Our way of life. I get it. I'm a victim of it myself, as well as a perpetrator of it from time to time. But not this time.

Finally, on Thursday, a sheriff in a rural, kind of redneck county in Southern Oregon, stood up and said what needed to be said. That this a-hole who thought he was going to find glory and recognition through murdering young innocents who were armed with nothing but notebooks and pencils wasn't going to get it from him. Sheriff John Hanlin said "I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act." Instead, he encouraged the media and the community at large to focus our thoughts on learning the names and the stories behind the victims and the heroes. We need to start being part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

I'm heartened that a lot of people seem to be taking his advice. I have not yet read the shooter's name on the air, although I have explained to listeners where that information can be found on the internet. In fact, I don't even remember the guy's name. I'm kind of making a point out of having a mental block about it. I don't remember the guy's name that killed all those sweet young children at the elementary school in Connecticut either, or the guy who burst into the movie theater in Colorado. And I hope it's the same for you. However, I'd like to introduce you to a name I hope you will remember forever.

Quinn Glen Cooper   1997 - 2015
Quinn Cooper.

Nice name. It's got a ring to it. If that kid was going to make it in show biz, he wouldn't have had to change his name. Great name. Big brute of a kid with a sweet face. He was into martial arts, but loved to swing dance. He was into Metallica, Dubstep and Swing. Some of his friends jokingly called him Quinnie The Pooh. He looks like a great big teddy bear. Actually, he looks like the kind of guy who'd be a great friend. That's exactly what he was to Taylor Moore, who graduated from high school with him just a few months ago. I asked Taylor if she could give us an introduction to Quinn, even though it's actually his final bow. That's because Quinn was in a Freshman writing class on his 4th day of college at Umpqua Community College last Thursday, and he didn't come home that day. He was killed along with 8 other people in that classroom by some rageful misguided guy who's name I forget. His funeral will be this Saturday morning at 11. A GoFundMe account has been set up to help his devastated family with expenses as they bury their youngest son. There are accounts set up for almost every other victim and hero of last Thursday as well.

Here's Taylor, in her own words, putting Quinn Cooper where he deserves to be: in the spotlight.

If there's one thing you need to know about the amazing Quinn Cooper, it's that he was an inspiration to all who knew him, which was few. Sure, you would see him with his quirky walk in the halls, but not a lot of people actually KNEW him. Quinn was a phenomenal actor, dancer and companion. I got to know him extremely well this past year, our Senior year together. 

I was taking both technical and performance theatre classes with the outstanding drama teacher, Brad Allen. Quinn decided, on his own time, to take on a serious cleaning project with me; clean out 50 years worth of props in a long, skinny, creepy closet. Imagine having five 2-year-olds living rule-free in a toy store. Now multiply that mess by fifty years. That’s how flabbergasting this mess was. Regardless of how tedious and time-consuming this job was going to be, Quinn was prepared to be by my side until we completed it together.

At first, the project was fantastic! Seeing all the fun props and costumes hidden underneath a mess of other things was magical. But as we progressed into the next week, and the next… and the next… it got difficult, at least for me, to be hopeful for an end to the madness. Quinn, on the other hand, never let me give up. He motivated me the most when I felt completely discouraged at the 10-foot high piles of messes. Day by day, we got a little more done. And then a little more. And then a little more. After three months of using two class periods a day (equivalent to about ten hours a week), the closet was finally finished. It was swept, organized, and rid of any trash or useless junk.

Now, you may be asking why I told you about how cleaning out a terrifying closet relates to what kind of person Quinn Cooper was. The point wasn’t how long it took to clean, or how ‘perfect’ it looked in the end, no. The point is that Quinn inspired me every single day for three months. Whether it was to open up another box, or if it actually pertained to reality. Either way, Quinn didn’t give up on me. He used his witty humour or his loving heart to keep me going. He taught me to never give up on myself. Not one time did he ever let whatever the issue of the day was stop me from living. He persisted that there was always something greater to focus on.

Whenever there was a day I felt like I wasn’t smart enough, wasn’t brave enough, or just plain good enough, he was there, waiting for me in the prop closet, ready to finish what we started. Together.

Quinn Cooper. That’s a name I’ll always remember. And I want the world to know as a great mind and soul.

In theatre, whenever you highly respected someone for their work, you told them you were their fan. Well, on the stage of life, I was always a fan of Quinn Glen Cooper. I can’t thank him enough for what he gave me. I will forever be blessed that Quinn was in my life. He has a special place in my heart for his hugs, love, and soul.

Thank you, Quinn, for sticking by my side, no matter how difficult life got for me. Thank you for saving me from myself. Thank you for all that you’ve done, for not just me, but everyone who got a chance to know you. I know you’ll make a great addition to Heaven as an angel. And even though I let the tears fall, I’m not giving up. I love you, Quinn, and can’t wait to read your next script.

Thank you Taylor, for your loving and moving tribute to Quinn.

At first today's column wasn't going to have a playlist. And then I told Taylor that if she was inspired to put together a musical tribute to her friend, maybe a list of songs that Quinn loved, or songs that would serve as a nice tribute, then we could have music. So thank you again Taylor, for working through your grief, and finding the motivation  to accomplish something amazing during what has got to be the saddest and most difficult moment of your life. Maybe Quinn is going to keep inspiring her, even in his physical absence. Her musical tribute is below.

Note: Readers, I shouldn't let you go without talking about what happened Tuesday evening, as Taylor and I were messaging back and forth about how to put together today's playlist. Imagine for a moment that you're Taylor. You're a Freshman in the dorms on your second week of college, away from home. You've been crying your eyes out for 6 days in anguish over the devastating loss of not just one of your close friends, but the death, physical injury and emotional and psychological devastation that a mass murder can wreak upon an entire community. You're sad, hurting, and away from your family and friends, but you're safe. And then you get a text alerting you that a note has just been found in a building on your college campus. A note threatening violence and referencing the attack that took the life of your friend. And now your campus is locked down, classes are cancelled. Yeah. That happened. It probably doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to figure out what I did next. I went into Mom mode immediately, called my folks, and within 15 minutes Sophia and Taylor had been picked up and were at the Ing Ranch until the coast was clear. The campus is open again, and further details haven't been made public. Chances are this is a ridiculous, thoughtless hoax but I imagine that the anxiety has got to be taking an incredible toll on a lot of these students, especially on Taylor. Stay strong, honey. Roseburg strong. 

Taylor's streaming Spotify playlist contains eighteen songs. One for each year of Quinn Cooper's life. And because it's for him, there's Dubstep, a bunch of Metallica, and swing music to get you up and dancing. But we'll start out with "Roseburg Strong," which isn't available on Spotify. Probably because it was written just a couple of days ago by Roseburg native Brody Jansen.