John Browne’s Resurrection and Climate Change

Ever heard of Lord John Browne, Baron Browne of Madringly?

In May, 2007, Lord Browne abruptly resigned as CEO of the oil company BP, after he was outed by a tabloid newspaper. With tales of a greedy lover juicing up the media, he decided to throw in the towel. It cost him $30 million in stock options and retirement benefits.

Up to that point, John Browne had been a company man, a lifer, who joined BP in 1966 as an apprentice and worked his way to the top. He was there when British Petroleum became BP, and turned the company into the fourth largest corporation in the world. He stayed out of the limelight, partly to hide the fact that he was gay.

Although professionally respected, Browne was privately the butt of jokes and speculation. He was small in stature, and employees who didn’t like him nicknamed him “elf,” short for evil little f_____.

He was also ridiculed by peers — for embracing climate change.

“Climate change is an issue which raises fundamental questions about the relationship between companies and society as a whole, and between one generation and the next.” John Browne, 2002.

At a time when other executives called global warming a hoax, he rebranded BP as “Beyond Petroleum,” supported the Kyoto climate treaty, vowed to cut BP’s greenhouse gas emissions by 10%, and invested $500 million in solar power.

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Lord John Browne, behind the podium to the right of Tony Blair, 2006 Climate Change conference organized by The Climate Group, hosted by BP. Photo Credit: The Climate Group, courtesy of Flickr.com


Environmentalists were skeptical, saying BP’s green makeover was a cover for an unflattering environmental track record. The $500 million dedicated to solar power, for instance, was dwarfed by the $8.4 billion spent in 2004 for oil exploration and production. The company joined those who lobbied hard to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
Grizzy bear, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit: Judith Slein, courtesy of Flickr.com

Grizzy bear, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit: Judith Slein, courtesy of Flickr.com

Instead of pretending to go green, said others, Browne should have been paying more attention to maintenance.

Above, 2005 explosion at a BP Texas refinery, killing 15 and injuring 170. Also under Browne’s watch: 2006 pipeline failure Prudhoe Bay, which spilled millions of gallons of oil.

BP’s stock value sank. John Browne was exposed, and eased out.

Oil executives were by then acknowledging that the cheap and easy oil was gone, but they weren’t interested in wind and solar. The consensus was that demand would rise ad infinitum, and that the smartest thing to do was invest heavily in the oil that is difficult, dangerous and dirty to extract. Browne’s successor at BP, Tony Hayward, doubled down on fracking, tar sands extraction and deep water drilling.

“Some may question whether so much of the [energy] growth needs to come from fossil fuels, … but here it is vital that we face up to the harsh reality …  we still foresee 80% of energy coming from fossil fuels in 2030.” Tony Hayward at MIT, 2009.
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Deep Water Horizon oil spill. Photo credit: DVIDSHUB, via Flickr.com. After the 2010 Deep Water Horizon spill, BP was banned from bidding on new leases in the Gulf of Mexico for four years.

Meanwhile, John Browne moved on with the same vigor he’d demonstrated at BP. He encouraged gay entrepreneurs and published a book, The Glass Closet. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, installed as President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He kept his hand in the oil business too.

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T.V. coverage of protests over fracking by Cuadrilla Resources, of which Browne is Chairman. Photo credit: Gwydion M. Williams, courtesy of Flickr.com

Fast forward to 2015.

The bet on dirty oil was wildly successful. World oil production rose from 85.1 million barrels per day in 2005 to 92.9 million in 2014, and profits were, for awhile, staggering.

But — surprise. Prices today are half what they were a year ago, and may not rise again anytime soon. Energy Information Administration (E.I.A.) predicts “slower demand will continue for the next decade.” One of the reasons? People everywhere are waking up to the threat posed by climate change.

Oil companies have laid off workers. Shell dropped plans for a petrochemical plant in Qatar. Chevron set aside a proposal to to drill in the Arctic seas. Norway’s Statoil changed its mind about drilling in Greenland.

Of course, this could all change if prices climb again. Still, we have a pause, a breather in the mad dash for oil.

And Lord Browne? Whether or not he was serious in 1999, he’s still sounding the alarm about global warming. Climate science is settled, he recently declared, but “this conclusion is not accepted by many in our industry, because they do not want to acknowledge an existential threat to their business.”

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“Resource extraction” in Texas. Photo Source: Amy Youngs, courtesy of Flickr.com

The battles continue. Old school oil executives vilify Browne, as do environmentalists, but my, how things have changed.

Eight years ago, one of the most powerful executives on the planet was trying to hide his sexual orientation, and climate change was mostly relegated to the back section of the papers. Now executives, congressmen and sports stars are proudly coming out; and climate change has moved from the back to the front pages. The world oil market is flooded, partly because — who would have guessed? — demand has slowed.

Is John Browne courageous or opportunistic? Does it matter? More important: Are we finally ready to begin the painful process of weaning ourselves from oil?

Dreaming of Vanuatu

While we in the Pacific Northwest are starting a winter-less spring, and the Northeast is awaiting yet another snowstorm, it doesn’t seem to have hit many Americans’ radar that there are four tropical storms in the South Pacific.

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Photosource: weather.com Four cyclones at once have only been recorded once before.

The biggest, Pam 15, is passing today almost directly over Port Vila, Vanuatu, a category 5 hurricane with winds over 150 miles per hour.

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Photo credit: Grace Whitmore

Six months ago, Vanuatu wasn’t on my radar. We’d never heard of it, not until our daughter, who volunteered for the Peace Corps, received an assignment there. Now, I often dream of Vanuatu — big, colorful, vivid dreams.

It’s hard to let go of your children, and really hard when they decide to go far away, even when it’s an amazing, courageous and wonderful thing to do.

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It might be harder though to adjust to the idea that the world she’s just started to get to know, the new friends, the culture and the wonderful people, are all under threat.

The 80-plus islands of Vanuatu are northeast of Australia, and until the 1980’s known to westerners by the colonial name, New Hebrides. It’s the birthplace of bungee jumping, and home to live volcanos. A 2004 “Survivor” series was set in Vanuatu. Ambae, the island where our daughter would live and work as an IT specialist, was the inspiration for James Mitchell’s “Songs of the South Pacific.”

Vanuatu was featured last month in the Bill Weir’s TV series “The Wonder List”, which highlights countries that are just about to be forever changed by westerners.  He described it as Hawaii without hotels.

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Some of Grace’s new friends. Photo credit: Grace Whitmore

Some of the islands are hilly, with villagers protected from rising seas, but many are low-lying and vulnerable.

And all are vulnerable to storms.

It’s impossible to pin any one storm on climate change, but scientists assure us that more storms, and more violent storms are on the way.

The Peace Corps volunteers have been evacuated and are waiting to hear about the fate of the people they have come to know and love.

Above: our daughter’s “little brother” runs away with her kite.

Have you, or has anyone you know volunteered for the Peace Corps? Where? Has that country been affected by climate change? 

A a custom URL? Google Plus, you shouldn’t have

Seen this on your Google Plus profile page?

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We’ve preapproved some custom URLs for your profile”

My “custom” URL, for instance:

google.com/+JuliaWhitmore   youtube.com/c/JuliaWhitmore

Should we take them up on it?

Google Plus never made the grade as a competitor for social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Heaven knows they tried. For awhile anyone with a Google account (gmail, YouTube, Zagat restaurant review, etc.) was required to create a Google Plus profile and account. Suddenly a user who wrote a restaurant review, for instance, might find that review linked to their Google Plus page, without their knowledge or permission.

This idea bombed for obvious reasons, and eventually Google stopped requiring that their customers have Google Plus accounts. Maybe discovering that enrollees only visited for about 3 minutes a month (compared to Facebook’s seven hours), contributed to the decision to loosen up.

Google Plus also got into trouble by requiring user’s real names. This was supposed to hold people accountable for online behavior. Facebook, who also has a real name policy, could have warned them otherwise. Anyway, GooglePlus customers who used pseudonyms were deactivated, including people like the Iranian activist Vahid Online, who’d been keeping his identity secret to keep from getting arrested. This led to much controversy and debate over people’s rights to control their online identity. Eventually the real name requirement was dropped, and hopes rose for a better reception. Not to be had. People did increase time spent — to about 7 minutes a month. A New York Times writer called it a Ghost Town.

Google Plus did not die, however. It has morphed into something called an Identity Service. It helps Google figure out who you are and what you like by merging the identities you create on, say Blogspot, YouTube and other services offered by Google. Forget helping you connect with others, this is purely a way to connect you with things to buy, and a way to boost Google’s revenues.

Creepy? No creepier than any of the other social media services. Remember Facebook’s secret experiments in manipulating people’s emotions?

So, what about the custom URL? The URL (Uniform Resource Locator), the name/info/address you use to connect to a website, helps anyone searching for your Google+ stuff or YouTube videos, if you post videos.

Check out Terms of Service. Google reserves the right to:

(1) take back your custom URL, and

(2) might start charging you for it in the future.

There you have it. Another (desperate?) move to woo us to Google Plus, but with little effort to hide the bait and switch. Should you take advantage of a Google Plus custom URL? Only if you don’t mind that it isn’t really yours, isn’t really custom, can be taken away at Google’s whim, and that you’ll probably be asked to pay for it in the future.

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Am I wrong? Are you using a Custom Google+ URL? If you’re signed up for Google Plus, what do you think?

Water and Trash on the Sea of Cortez

Do you check out the messy side of the places you visit?

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When we travel, tidy arrangements for visitors are much appreciated on my end, but it doesn’t seem right to go away without lifting the carpet. When we went to Disneyland, it was all I could do not to open the “employees only” doors, to peek behind the scenes. In New Orleans, we took side trips to quiet neighborhoods where people live and work, despite tourist-book warnings about safety.

Life is both glorious and grubby. When a man-made place looks perfect, it means the people who constructed and maintain it are hiding something. Maybe it’s a good something. Maybe not. To uncover the secrets of a place, I generally try to find out (1) where the water comes from and (2) where the trash goes.

In Singapore, surely one of the tidiest countries on earth, we learned there are almost no native sources of water. That’s pretty amazing for a country with 5 million people squeezed into an area about half the size of Los Angeles. How do they do it?

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Botanical gardens, Singapore

Singaporeans are largely dependent on Malaysia for water. They supplement with catchment basins for rain, water recycling, desalination and set aside estuaries for water storage, but for the most part the water has been, at various times, shipped and piped in.

And trash? Very complicated. There is one landfill, on an artificial island.

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Photo source: Singapore NEA

Household recycling is voluntary and complex, since most people live in high rises.

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There are a lot of construction cranes in Singapore.

Some industrial waste is repurposed. Waste that can be burned is sent to incinerators, which generate energy; also pollution, but apparently not very much. The ash is transported to the landfill. Their goal is a 60% recycling rate, which is phenomenal given how most of the rest of the world deals with trash.

But enough about Singapore.

This week we visited a small outpost on the Sea of Cortez. Spectacular. Remote.

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Trash? Most of it dumped, covered with palm fronds, just out of sight of the resort.

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Water comes from the mountains, which also supply Cabo San Lucas, about 4 hours from where we were.

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It is filtered for drinking, and post-use, processed in a septic field. Or so we hope.

Efforts in Mexico are underway to capture trash for recycling, but as anyone who walks along storm tossed beaches can see, that battle is only beginning. In an hour of trash-collecting on the uninhabited island of Cerralvo, we gathered a full bag of plastic: water and soda bottles, tooth brushes, shampoo bottles, shoe soles, umbrella handle, twine, tubing, and many dozens of bottle caps.

If you are traveling to the La Paz area and are interested in minimizing the impact of the trash you leave behind, check out this post by Fives on the Fly.

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What’s going on in your neighborhood in the water and trash departments?

Four Grasses

The other day the newspaper featured a story about two local guys, Charles Wilson and Omar Ellis, who just launched a cricket flour business.

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Not this kind. Photo source: ardanea

Knowing me, and in light of my recent post about the benefits of entomophagy, my husband pre-empted any discussion of the matter, saying if cricket flour appeared in any of our cookies, there would be, well, trouble.

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I’m not running out to buy a bag of cricket flour. Marital bliss takes priority. Also, cricket flour doesn’t sound very appealing.

Still.

We westerners are pretty specialized in our diets. We depend on four kinds of grasses: wheat, corn, rice and millet.

Also, we’ve got a mind set that insists these crops be grown in a certain way, which is expensive, sterilizes soil, puts bad stuff in water and releases a lot of carbon into the air.

What happens if even one of those four species, is wiped out, despite our best efforts to fertilize, water and inoculate?

Maybe put some money in Cricket Flour stock?

If you try Peruvian chocolate cricket flour, I’ll try it. You first.

 

Imbolc

eeyore1Peering out from under my rock to mark the day. Groundhog Day, yes (six more weeks of winter here, which is good since we have the lowest snow pack in decades) but before Punxsutawney, the day was known as Imbolc. Halfway between winter solstice and vernal equinox. file0001433376679 Peak Perspective (featured this week on funny bloggers page) provided a poem in honor of the day:

The serpent will come from the hole On the brown Day of Bríde, Though there should be three feet of snow On the flat surface of the ground.

For those who prefer their Gaelic straight:

Thig an nathair as an toll Là donn Brìde, Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd Air leac an làir.*

Now if that doesn’t make one want to go out and do the town …

Happy Imbolc.

file4011270140426   *Translation straight from Wikipedia, which means it must be correct.

Farm versus Factory: Battles for open space

Where are the fights over land use in your part of the world?

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Seavey Loop farmland. In the fog: a proposed addition to the city of Springfield, Oregon’s, growth boundary. Agricultural land would be rezoned as industrial.

Cities are required by law to incorporate enough land to accommodate future growth. In accordance with the law, the next town over from mine is proposing expanding its boundary. The proposal swallows up farmland in several regions.

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One of the businesses looking to expand if Seavey Loop property is rezoned. Photo source: No Industrial Pisgah

It has set off a firestorm of criticism, particularly in one area with several small farms, that borders an arboretum visited by about 500,000 people a year.

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Photo source: No Industrial Pisgah

City officials say that the arboretum, waterways and most farmland will be protected. Farmers, hikers and residents cry foul.

Fights like these are going on everywhere.

“We are like people living in the penthouse of a hundred-story building. Every day we go downstairs and at random knock out 150 bricks to take upstairs to increase the size of our penthouse. Since the building below consists of millions of bricks, this seems harmless enough … Eventually — inevitably — the streams of vacancy we have created in the fabric of the walls below will come together to produce a complete structural collapse.

When this happens — if it is allowed to happen — we will join the general collapse, and our lofty position at the top of the structure will not save us.”  Daniel Quinn, “The Danger of Human Exceptionalism”

With economic growth a priority and population growth on a steady upward trajectory, it’s inevitable that we’ll chip away at forests and farmland.

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Still, many are willing to question, and push back.

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Proposed expansion area marked in red. Photo Source: Friends of Buford Park

As discouraging as it may seem, small-scale fights like these help everyone think about and remember how important open space, clean water and the survival of other species is.

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Farm land, industrial land, from Mt. Pisgah arboretum.

Have you been involved in land use planning? Have you worked to save open space, or to change zoning for or against industrial use?

The World According to Me

Do you have a theory about how the world works? Can you boil it down to a few sentences?

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Photo Source: TZA, from flickr

MY THEORY OF THE WORLD: What we think we are:

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 The best creatures anywhere, ever.

What we actually are:

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Image Source: PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE on Flickr

Recently evolved bipeds.

What we think life’s purpose is: IMG_1641a

To improve our lot.

 What our actual purpose is:

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Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Photo Source: NIAID

To reproduce. Evolve. Host bacteria.

How we think we improve our lot:

Landscape

By rearranging things and making ourselves comfortable.

What we actually do:

Copy nature.

What we think we’re uncovering:

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Secrets of the universe.

What we’re actually learning:

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Photo Source: USFWS on Flickr

Nature does everything better than we do.

We are bit players. Nature is the boss.

We live on a rock in the middle of nowhere. The important stuff — life, air, breath, companionship, joy, consciousness —  is absolutely free. Our own brains are the most complicated things we’ve ever discovered. We have no idea how this happened, or why. It’s a miracle. And geologically speaking, we’ve just gotten here. What’s next? My suspicion is that whatever is coming, it’s going to be a wild ride.

How do you think the world works?

Nature, Nurture, Free Will and Edward O. Wilson

What is free will, and do we have it?

In February, 1978, members of the International Committee Against Racism interrupted a talk by biologist and Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson. They ran on stage, yelling “Racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” and threw water at him.

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E. O. Wilson (Painting — National Portrait Gallery)

Wilson is a naturalist and an entomologist, specializing in ants (technically a myrmecologist — considered the world’s leading expert). In 1975,  he published a book called Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. In it, he showed how natural selection influences not only the physical form of animal’s bodies, but also their behavior. No problems there.
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In the last chapter, however, he proposed that natural selection also shaped human behavior. He predicted that a new science, “sociobiology,” would connect physical sciences and social sciences, to help us finally understand ourselves. He was critical of some of his Harvard colleagues, including John Rawls, a revered philosopher, whose 600-page A Theory of Justice had sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

“We … look in vain at current academic philosophy for the answer to the great question, the great riddle. … Professional, secular philosophy long ago gave up trying to answer the overall question, what is the meaning of life? Most of the history of philosophy is strewn with the wreckage of theories of the conscious mind. [W]hat science promises, and has already supplied in part is that there is a real creation story of humanity, and it is not a myth. It is being worked out, and tested and strengthened, step by step.” April, 2012, lecture by Wilson, “The Social Conquest of Earth.”

Critics shot right back that Wilson didn’t know what he was talking about. His ideas flew in the face of much of what we thought about reason. It stank of the kind of thinking that brought us forced sterilization, concentration camps and other horrors (hence the protestors at Wilson’s speech). If our biology determines our actions, wasn’t that the same as saying that we do not have free will?

Wilson wasn’t, and isn’t, a proponent of eugenics, a mass murderer or a racist. He has written dozens of books and essays on human behavior, philosophy, natural science, and is a Pulitzer Prize winner. His work and theories deal with, as he readily admits, unsettled questions, and he also admits he might be wrong.

His theories are hotly debated to this day by writers, psychologists, geneticists, philosophers like Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins.

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E.O. Wilson and Bill Clinton, 2007. Photo Source: Class V on Flickr

His big idea, however, that science will help us understand ourselves — has held up. Every, day neurobiologists, geneticists and social psychologists learn more about how brains work, changing our perception of why we behave the way we do.

Even more important is Wilson’s certainty that understanding the biology of behavior will help us finally see how we depend on the physical world, on our environment. This, in turn, will help us reverse our part in the destruction of ecosystems all over the globe.

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But — do we have free will? The protestors at Wilson’s 1978 lecture probably felt that standing up for their beliefs was an exercise of free will. Probably the millions of protestors who marched in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack did too. But was it?

My reactions to the protestors holding up “Not Afraid” signs? Pride, inspiration, fervor, indignation — emotions. Here was something black and white, the murder of innocents, defense of free speech. YEAH!

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Photo source: Gwenael Piaser on Flickr

I’ve since learned that the French leaders who marched in those protests aren’t exactly proponents of free speech. My response changed to — what was I thinking?

That’s the thing. I wasn’t. My gut feelings hijacked my thoughts. But does that mean my thoughts are always dictated by emotions?

Reading Wilson’s work, and criticism of it, makes it clear that the question of free will is more complicated than most of us lay people can comprehend. There may not be a yes or no answer.

“[T]he … rules of moral reasoning will probably not prove to be aggregated into simple instincts such as bonding, cooperativeness, and altruism. Instead the rules will most probably turn out to be an ensemble of many algorithms, whose interlocking activities guide the mind across a landscape of nuanced moods and choices.” (Atlantic Magazine, 1998, “The Biological Basis of Morality”)

But there is big lesson from Wilson, and his water-throwing detractors: we live in a time when we are going to have to hear a lot of difficult truths about ourselves, and make big changes we don’t want to make. We will have to fight the impulse to shut down the voices of people we don’t want to listen to. Whether that’s a decision we make of our own free will, or because we simply feel it’s right, doesn’t really matter.

“Science faces in ethics and religion its most interesting and possibly most humbling challenge. … Blind faith, no matter how passionately expressed, will not suffice. Science, for its part, will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition and in time uncover the bedrock of moral and religious sentiments. … The eventual result … will be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself. However the process plays out, it demands open discussion and unwavering intellectual rigor in an atmosphere of mutual respect.” April 1998, The Biological Basis of Morality.

Are you an E.O Wilson fan? What do you think about free will?

Further reading:
Consilience, E.O. Wilson
The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson
“Some potential contributions of sociobiology to moral psychology and moral education” 

Tribute: Mark Lewis

How many really special people have you met? Place-marker people who help others see their own potential and follow their hearts? How do you honor their deaths?

For many in our town, story teller Mark Lewis is such a person.

He won two Emmy awards, appeared in television shows and as a guest artist on Jay Leno. He provided creative content for Microsoft, Disney Imagineering, Universal Studios, and Silicon Gaming Inc. You can hear him as one of the voices in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland.

After settling here, he volunteered countless hours as a teacher and guest performer. He ran Hogwarts summer camps, helped create an arts academy, and made many of us feel like his best friend. He taught journalism students and helped coach another local hero, Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota, for a video to help fight sexual assault on the University of Oregon campus. Mariota called the experience a blessing.

 

Mark Lewis passed away December 7 of a pulmonary embolism. He was sixty.

Family and hundreds of friends remembered him with stories, jokes, and music. At one point during the memorial, the lights were turned down so we could see sparks when we bit on wint-o-green life savers — magic, Mark used to say. His daughter revealed his fondness for whoopee cushions.

For the weepy, tissue packs were thrown into the crowd. For the heavy criers, it was entire rolls of toilet paper. One of Mark’s mantras to new students: Both feet on the ground. Remember to breathe. Several of the speakers at the memorial invoked it to help get through their stints at the podium.

It’s hard for me to attend memorial services. This one was a reminder of why they are important. As his daughter Katelyn said, it’s a performance. It’s also a reunion of friends, a way to mark a passing so that we remember it, and a reminder of the good things that a particular person brought to us.

Here’s a fitting tribute. You might need a hanky.

Mark Lewis: The Man Who Touched All from Alan Sylvestre on Vimeo.

Thank you Mark.

Did you lose anyone important to you in 2014?