Ukalaliens & Scientists

Cathy called with excitement in her voice (or was it caffeine?)  Her department graduation for Computer Sciences at Portland State University was coming up.  She saw that we would be traveling through Portland that weekend and wondered if we would consider coming a day or two early with our ukuleles. She was writing a little ditty with the Bulgarian receptionist and he was a singer-songwriter.  It would be fun to teach the faculty a couple of chords on the ukulele and have them strum along while Cathy and her staff play in the background with a little twirling choreography to spice it up.  The serious nature of the graduating class, engineers and scientists, made it an enticing prospect for the Ukalaliens theme.  The graduating students would be flabbergasted with the sight of their teachers on ukuleles.

“Of course!” we replied.  “We’ll be happy to help. Ukalaliens in the Computer Sciences Department – cool!”

Besides, it was so unusual for a request like this from Cathy – it was an overt act of support for what we do that she even asked.  Happiness fluttered inside at the prospect of providing her with something important – even in the form of two dozen Kala travel tenor ukes.

Her voice sounded so tickled to have us onboard that my heart felt satisfied that this was something that only Steve and I could provide.  It was unusual for Cathy, usually so serious and practical, to come up with a scheme like this.  It sounded fun.

So, we planned our runout to Eugene to include an overnight in Portland for Cathy’s department graduation before the weekend of concerts and workshops down south.

Graduation morning in the Department of Computer Sciences and Engineering arrives. We arrived early to tune the ukes up and rig the faculty with ukes and show them the chords they’ll play when the ukes come out from hiding and get handed out to faculty scientist and engineers sitting in front of the graduation class.

One by one, professorial types approached our bins of ukuleles in freshly pressed suits, some a bit reluctant but ready to learn their two chords. These scientists and engineers are heavyweights in the cutting edge of new technology.

The twinkle in the eye of research scientist, Ivan Sutherland, lights up as he comes out from the Asychronous Research Center office to explore the fundamentals of the uke we hand him. We are in the presence of greatness. Ivan is responsible for computer graphics as we now know it – it was his “sketchpad” that started it all.  He is still in thick of it and delighted to be there.  I have been introduced as “family” but neither Cathy nor I volunteer anything more specific. We keep our focus on the ukes and grin.

A smile crosses the impish face of a tall scientist next to Ivan and we are introduced to Marek Perkowski, head scientist in Intelligent Robotics.  Marek is creating a robotic theatre company with his creations, a nod to his famous puppeteer ancestor in Poland. We are captivated by the work of both of these scientists and offer to help if we can contribute any musical or artistic aspect to their most interesting efforts. The conversation is fun and the context new to us in the hallowed halls of science and learning.

We are ukalaliens amongst giants here.  Awed by the brains we stand between, we hand the ukes out with a bit more reverence to this distinguished and dignified bunch. This is a first encounter between ukalaliens and scientists.  There is joshing in between their investigative reception of the instrument in their hands and our guidance. So experienced in their respective fields, they are brand new at this – that’s where we come in. The contrast between our offering and theirs is not lost on us.  Steve and I look at each with wonder – our work brings us into the most interesting circles. This one is at Cathy’s invitation – no small thing on so many levels.

We bring the ukes upstairs to the big room being prepared for the graduates and two hundred attendees.  Unzipping the gigbags out of two blue bins on the dolly, we place the skinny Kala travel tenor ukes behind the rim of the round table skirting the presentation area.  No one will be able to see them from there and they will be easy to grab and deliver into faculty hands when the time comes.

Cathy has worked out some cute slow-twirl choreography with the administrative staff to dance behind the playing scientists.  We have been asked to join the uke crew off to the side to lend support as they dive in to the song.  The dark-eyed young Bulgarian receptionist/songwriter is full of energy as he riffs on his Martin guitar, warming up for the processional.  We sit on two chairs next to him and watch the graduates line up and walk in line to take their seats.

There are short speeches by the department heads and dean followed by awards and the traditional granting of diplomas, sashes and handshakes.  When the list is finished, the Bulgarian dashes to the middle as we quickly grab the tabled ukes-in-waiting and hand them out. The eyes of the new grads grow wide as they watch their dignified mentors smile and begin to strum in concert with the song enthusiastically erupting. A few just hold them but most are strumming away. The dancing ukulele-playing support staff behind the faculty follow Cathy’s lead on her left and right and begin their slow twirl with big smiles and we strum along the side.

I watch Cathy with such pride and joy.  She is beaming and beautiful in her full-skirted white summer dress. Her smile lights up the entire room, dissolving academic gravity with pure enjoyment. The chamber of my secret with her fills with the light of her smile.  I savor watching her strumming and twirling with the smile as she turns. This is a delicious moment for me. She has managed this entire event and dances through it as though it’s all just a lark off the cuff. It’s more than that. It took guts for her to talk them into this. Her staff knows how smart she is – her boss is grateful she is there. Her ability coupled with warmth that is clearly a bonus to the department. They love that she is there. Ivan made a point of saying so. I feel some awe that she has brought us into this place and moment in her workplace and joy that we could do it.  She turns again and her cronies to the right and left turn with her. It’s a lovely sight.  I’m chuckling as we strum. The song is a hit – it touches the funny bone of the student body and the room erupts in applause and laughter. She wrote the music and he penned the words. Her first co-write. The uplifting finale elevates the event and everyone relaxes in victory and surprise.

The room fills up with the buzz of post-graduation chatter and congratulatory laughter as the new graduates mix with family and staff and prepare for the barbeque awaiting them outside.

Steve and I begin our closing routine and retrieve the ukes to begin zipping them back into their bags, line them up to stack in the bins and clip the bungie chords end-to-end on the dolly to roll back to the car.  I reach over for another uke to zip and overhear a man’s voice say the words “biological mother” in answer to a questioning tone on the edge of the crowd.  My cover is lost in those words as I reckon that my identity is a bit of a curiosity in this setting.  Cathy and I have been “out” for years but in new settings it’s always a tricky balance. “Biological mother.” It sounds so odd.  I’m not sure how to feel and my insides deflate. The words jar me and I feel exposed. His tone was so matter-of-fact – like naming an rarely seen animal in the zoo. I’m not sure what to do as I digest the scene. There’s no way to tell Steve or say anything here. I keep my focus and zip the rest of the bag, grab another uke and pack it up

Cathy and I text back and forth as Steve and I fill up our plates at the barbeque. She is busy with celebrating with the staff and working through the back end of her afternoon. Her text and voice mail is full of thanks.  My heart is thankful and confused. There is a place for me here.  The fact that it’s an odd chair at the table doesn’t make it any less a chair.  I choose to take my place and am glad for it. It is a hard seat but its mine.  I may not ever get used to what people call me or think of me in this context.  It was meant to be a secret. I am an exposed secret in ordinary settings. I am showing up in spite of feeling that I don’t belong there.  Cathy invited me and I said yes. That’s all there is to it.  I may be a fish swimming upstream and that is just the nature of my existence here.  Maybe I’ll get used to it, maybe not. I’m a fish so I swim.

Steve and I pack the ukes in the car. He holds my hand and we begin our walk to catch a matinee of “Midnight in Paris.”  Today was a special one. Tomorrow Eugene.

To view my daughter’s blog on the same topic, please visit ReunionEyes.


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