Category: lifestyle

Karl the Kayaker

What I really wanted to say about Karl Coplan

I just submitted a statement at my law school dean’s request to honor my former professor Karl Coplan for the Beckman AwardThe award is given to current or former academic faculty members who have inspired their former students to “create an organization which has demonstrably conferred a benefit on the community at large.” Great stuff, and I salute Wells Fargo for making this happen.

I co-founded Columbia Riverkeeper, and that may very well be my lasting legacy despite the fact I haven’t been involved with the organization since December 2000. Most of the great work, in my opinion, has been accomplished since I moved on to teach and further evolve from philanthropy to entrepreneurial endeavors with a soul. I’m proud of what I helped to build, but it’s really the current staff that should be celebrated.

That said… this was a really hard piece to write because of the (understandable) boundaries placed on the submission documents. Having helped give away grants through Tranquil Space Foundation, I know you need a streamlined process for applications, so I do not begrudge Wells Fargo for penning in my creativity. I spent a plane ride crafting a draft that was twice the length allowed with half the required inclusions. I want to share the longer (proper) version with the world here.

My original draft was a lot more about Karl than me. It also gets into rock history, because (a) that’s how I think sometimes and (b) the analogy of Karl Coplan as the drummer or bass player of a great band with a charismatic and celebrated lead singer was too obvious to pass up.  Sadly, this doesn’t fit into corporate giving submission guidelines, but that’s what having an open forum like An Uncommonly Silly Blog is all about.

And look, I get it. This is long. #TL;DR synposis? Karl Coplan is an inspiration even though he’s not Jagger or Cobain… and this is the thank you note I have been writing in my head since 1996.


Karl Coplan’s leadership, and perhaps the entire source of his inspirational force, lies in his quiet, unassuming demeanor. If he intends to inspire his students, it’s not directly apparent, but if you ask any of his students – current or alum – I have yet to find a person who doesn’t hold Karl in the highest regard. He leads by example, not rhetoric. He inspires through deeds.

It’s tempting to fill my testimonial about Karl with accolades about his intelligence, the fact he’s the most gifted attorney I’ve worked with in my entire career, and repeat the stories I tell all time time about his commitment to environmental causes and teaching the next generation of lawyers to take up the banner of protecting our rivers, lakes and streams. That’s the easy essay to write because it’s the biography of Karl Coplan – the legacy he’s left and the one he continues to craft.

With a few notable exceptions, rock bands are comprised of a lead singer and a bunch of other people who – often practically anonymously – back him or her up. The lead singer is the leader of the band with very few exceptions – the music press uses the term frontman as often as lead singer for a reason. These are the names you’ve heard even if you never listened to their music: Lennon, Jagger, Wilson (Nancy and Ann), Plant, Sting, LeBon, and Cobain. These are the names history and media pays the most attention.

But what of the supporting musicians? Fans of Zeppelin know the band would have been a pale imitation of itself without the drums of John Bonham – the remaining band members didn’t even bother continuing to make new music after his premature passing. Geddy Lee’s, shall we say, distinctive vocals are what most people hear when Rush is playing, but Rush is not Rush without Neil Pert’s rhythms. 

The Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic is the band I joined in 1995. Its indisputable lead singer is also a legacy of one of the most famous families in American politics. Robert Kennedy Jr. has overcome the burdens that come with that birthright and has separately established himself as one of the leading voices of environmental stewardship. He receives the accolades and attention, and deservedly so. But to those of us who’ve been members of this merry band, we know the bearded guy in the back office as the source of inspiration for what we’ve done with our lives. Karl Coplan is the one who is shaded in obscurity by the more famous Kennedy, yet he’s the one many of us emulate in the months and years after we move on from the Clinic.

The Clinic is a mini law firm led by Coplan, primarily serving Hudson Riverkeeper, an environmental organization dedicated to keeping the waters of the Hudson River Valley clean for the people who live there. Third year students make up the majority of the work-horses for the lead attorneys, learning real world application of the law while championing real people along the way against powerful entities that don’t act in their interests. It’s here where I learned to be a lawyer and a professional. I was lucky. Law schools without good clinical programs prove on a daily basis that they are the least efficient mechanisms to teach students how to be a lawyer or a professional, but for my entire third year I had Karl Coplan serving as the template on how to excel at both.

It doesn’t take long to learn Karl Coplan is the type of person you’d want to emulate. His talent, his demeanor, his patience, and incredible intellect ensures that you know he has other options beyond serving as an anonymous professor at a small law school many people haven’t heard of. As students we knew Karl left a successful private practice to lead the Clinic, but we always assumed he’s spurned dozens of additionally lucrative options with opportunities for personal glory. And yet he forges his own path, leading quietly behind the scenes.

When I think of Karl, I think of the winter of early 1996. It was a particularly brutal one in White Plains, New York. With an important brief imminently due, a blizzard dropped two feet of snow on the region, closing the law school campus. Undaunted, a group of us trudged through the drifts and jimmied open one of the ground floor office windows, lifting our lightest over the shrubs and into the building so she could dash around the corner to unlock the front door. We didn’t do this because we sought the kudos, or an easy A, or even a good story to tell after the snow melted. We did it because that was an important brief and we weren’t going to let a little thing like a crippling snow storm serve as an excuse to let Karl Coplan down. 

As spring warmed the Hudson Valley, Karl changed his commute from the other side of the river. Rather than join the throngs of drivers on the Tappan Zee Bridge, Karl built his own kayak and crossed the river under his own power. Although I can probably name twenty different things I learned from Karl, it was this simple act of unconventional living that resonated the most. You don’t have to drive across the bridge because other people do it. You don’t have to take a job at a law firm because that’s what everyone else does. You can follow your passions and if those things happen ton help people along the way, all the better.

Before I met Karl Coplan, I was a risk-averse academic overachiever who hadn’t taken a break since nursery school. After learning a journal full of life lessons in a mere two semesters under Karl, I was transformed. The person I was 9 months before before would have been horrified at the metamorphosis. I turned down interviews at law firms in Manhattan, packed up everything I owned in a late model Honda Civic and left New York. The only state I’d ever known disappeared in my rear view mirror as I drove to Portland, Oregon sight-unseen with no job, but with big ideas and a lot of passion. Within 6 months, I was meeting with community leaders that would join me in forming Columbia Riverkeeper.

Columbia Riverkeeper fights for the rights of the people of the Columbia River basin – one of the largest in the world – to ensure their communities have clean water. The early days of Columbia Riverkeeper focused on merging two regional organizations, fighting the continuing environmental debacle that is the Hanford Reach nuclear contamination and a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent an ill-advised dredging operation in the lower portion of the river near Portland. Since then the organization has been embraced in communities up and down the river, from the headwaters in British Columbia to its dramatic collision with the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon. Its mission – unchanged since we formed it – is to protect and restore the water quality of the Columbia River and all life connected to it. The organization has blossomed in the decade since I turned to new opportunities and it is now the most important voice representing communities in the basin. The torch was taken up by others, but Columbia Riverkeeper’s unique blend of community connection and unapologetic advocacy on their behalf may not have been established if it weren’t for the lessons I learned from Karl Coplan.

Lead singers get all the glory, but every once in a while it’s the drummers that leave the biggest legacy. Although John Bonham was not nearly the front-facing key to success for Led Zeppelin as lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page, drummers for two successive generations have been inspired by his powerful contribution to the art. One of those drummers inspired by Bonham lent his skills to a small band from Seattle named Nirvana, which managed to become the voice for an entire generation within three years. While Dave Grohl toiled in obscurity begind the larger-than-life Kurt Cobain as they became the biggest band in the world, he became the one that ended up inspiring the next generation. When Nirvana left the world along with Cobain in the spring of 1994, Grohl stepped forward and became a frontman in his own regard, guiding Foo Fighters to become one of the best selling acts of the 2000s. Bonham inspired a novice, and that novice continues to create waves in three decades of music.

And so it goes – Karl as the ultimate supporting act has inspired countless numbers of students through his quiet, consistent leadership through the years. Each one of these students have in turn been supporting acts for a variety of organizations and causes. Some of those supporting acts have become part of bigger things, even going on to lead bands of their own. I’m privileged to have played a part in the creation of Columbia Riverkeeper, but I never saw myself as a frontman because, like Karl, I’ve seen the importance of being a supporting act. It’s not important that I never led the band that has grown to be such an important voice in the Northwest. It’s important that the legacy remains and the work continues. If it weren’t for Karl Coplan, it’s entirely possible things would be different.

Potomac River flood near Edwards Ferry

Escape from the Potomac Flood!!

This weekend was supposed to be all about getting out on my bike to enjoy a wilderness camping trip to Harpers Ferry and back. Instead, I woke up yesterday morning to several inches of water surrounding my tent. Technically, I think I was in the actual Potomac River at that point. Rather than focus entirely on my safety, I decided I should shoot a video*.

Enjoy, Escape from the Potomac Flood! Read more about lessons learned over at my bike touring blog, PedalShift.

*In retrospect this strikes me as one notch removed from the legal definition of reckless. But, hey: another YouTube video for the world, right?

The last day before turning home

It is literally crazy to start lamenting the end of this trip… we’re on the other side of the country, and we have a ton of great adventures ahead of us.

But still…

Tomorrow we turn east for the first time since September 11th. After 7,616 miles of highways, freeways, toll roads, country roads and dirt roads we are beginning the long ride back to DC. We have just shy of 4 weeks scheduled and there are 5 more events following tonight’s San Diego event. No doubt there will be memories ahead, but it’s definitely a different feeling as every mile brings us closer to the starting point rather than taking us further away.


Lots of new ideas on the horizon… I was flirting with the Bike RV idea a few weeks ago, but now with the roaring success of my AirBnB cabin rental, I’m looking into the possibility of adding another rental property to the mix. I’m really enamored with tiny houses and I think Portland would be the perfect place for one. There are tons of issues in the way, the biggest being where to plant one… most zoning and housing codes, even in tiny-house friendly-ish Portland won’t allow a tiny house to be the sole house on a piece of property. That was my ideal, particularly since there are some cool places in upper NW Portland where a small plot of land is (relatively) inexpensive and a tiny house would fit spectacularly.

The idea (after all that yammering) is to have a tiny house situated in a cool spot, preferably Portland, that I can live in from time-to-time as I find myself in the NW. When not there, I’d rent it out on AirBnb as a supplementary income source.

Tiny house built for a surfer and parked along the Pacific Ocean. Photo and build by Molecule Tiny Homes. H/T to

So, as I focus on some of the logistics (and practicality) of getting a tiny house, I’ll keep my mind open to other opportunities like house boats on the Willamette as another alternative. I have a lot to learn but I have a strong desire to have a presence in Portland after over a decade away, plus I know a tiny house rental has a strong chance to succeed when I’m not using it.

Last thought before bailing… I like my dog. Here he is dropping his ball at my feet as we were playing fetch on the Pacific Ocean today…

louis playing fetch

Oil is good for engines, Les Schwab is Wegmans and my appreciation for biking

Hey, it’s another installment of the Tranquilty Tour “DVD extras”… As always, you can learn more about Tranquility Tour at, follow us at  #tranquiltytour on Twitter, Like Tranquility Tour on Facebook, and come back here to An Uncommonly Silly Blog anytime for the extras.


Public service announcement: look, if you drive an older vehicle, you need to check your oil. I drive a newer car (well, newish…) and I haven’t pulled the dipstick once in 7 years. Not once. Oil systems in newer vehicles just don’t need the maintenance like older ones do, and now I have learned my lesson.

So, in Banff we started seeing the oil light blink on and off periodically. I chalked it up to the cold. That may have been true partially… the big thing was the camper had burnt off a substantial amount of the oil put into it during its oil change in Western NY, many thousands of miles earlier. Worse, because the guys put in a lighter weight oil thinking I was sticking around the frozen tundra for a few months, the oil burnt off faster. Burning oil is a regular thing… you lose a little bit just from driving. Again, newer cars, a lot less. Older RVs (for instance) running a lighter weight of oil (for instance) means you could hypothetically burn MOST of it off. Most is bad… engines like oil to keep pistons lubricated. If you don’t keep those parts lubricated you get BAD THINGS.

Bad things begin to manifest with the gentle clicking of metal on metal. Clicking like a clock is a bad thing for an engine. So, by the time we got to Seattle our engine was just starting to manifest this clock-like sound. I was literally unaware of the situation until this point…again, I thought eh sensor was giving a false reading in the cold. Turns out, we had burnt off well over half of our oil over the weeks of driving, and only adding a full quart stopped the sound. Turned out we needed much more.

At the oil change place today, I got a full monty package (insert joke here) – flushed the engine twice, got the oil conditioner and the viscosity booster and a higher weight oil. Basically, Lillie purrs like a kitten now and all is good. I will be checking the oil every morning now… no way we let this happen again!


Speaking of bad things… let’s rap a bit about bad design. Back in the late 80s – as I have learned – Chevy decided to hell with convention, let’s put unconventionally sized tires on our vans! Standard size tires are 16 or 17 inches. They did 16 1/2. Then they failed. Then they stopped making them. Problem is, RVs like ours still had 16.5″ tires and finding replacements became hard and expensive. I learned all this at Les Schwab tires in Portland, literally the best place in the world to deal with tires. And because of this, I give them my highest rating… they are the Wegmans of tires. If you know nothing of Wegmans, it’s only the best grocery store on the planet… family owned, amazing service, among the best businesses to work for, and very good prices. Top notch. A+. Highest rating possible. Les Schwab gets that form me now, because within ONE HOUR they were able to replace not only the very old and failing tires on our RV (PS this was expected when we started) but also get us new wheels so we could now roll on standard sized tires. To replace the nonstandard tires alone would have cost almost as much… instead, we future proofed our RV and have seriously sweet looking chrome wheels.

So, Les Schwab… remember them.



With all of this driving around close in Portland with a small RV (which is still a big effing van)… I get a new appreciation for how much better it is to bike to places within 1-3 miles of where you’re at. The time to get there is a little more, but marginally not significant. Your ability to maneuver is much higher, and parking is rarely an issue. I love living in cities where services are easier to get to under human power… it feels more natural than hopping in a vehicle.

Quick mileage update… the shock of the trip is mountain mileage is higher (maybe from long downhills?) and when you have tires at the end of their life… mileage goes way down. Check out Mileage Keeper… good app. I like that we can track overall cost and ebbs and flow of mileage.

mileage 10.16

Listen to the most recent batch of Tranquility Tour podcasts featuring Kimberly and yours truly…




What to do with that old iPhone

Today, I finally justified saving my old iPhone 4 by making it into a true international phone. If you travel outside your home country and find yourself tethered to your phone’s data plan like I am, crossing a border can either be (a) beyond expensive from the roaming rates or (b) beyond frustrating as you realize how much you rely on cellular data to do… everything.

Crossing into Canada for the first time on Tranquility Tour meant my trusty iPhone 5 and it’s fancy turn by turn directions would go away… with International roaming turned off (as anyone without a huge bank account and desire to spend frivolously should do), your iPhone turns into a glorified iPod touch upon crossing a border from your home country. But I had a plan. But before that, a surprise. A nice one.

If you use the app Waze, apparently the app preloads the entire map with turn by turn before you cross the border… that was great, because it meant I didn’t need my copilot to read from a PDF’d version of the directions. You know… old school style. Instead, Waze behaved exactly the same as it would have had it been guzzling down data. Very cool… good to know when you cross a border. I only tried this once, so your effectiveness may vary.

On to the plan. Today, I walked into a Rogers store to pick up a SIM card for my old iPhone 4. I had previously worked with AT&T to “unlock” it (see info here on that). This means it isn’t usable only on AT&T. Once that’s done, any compatible network SIM card in any country that runs on the same system can work on your phone. In Canada, I decided Rogers was my best bet. For the next month, I have 1GB of data I can rock over cellular, plus a Montreal number and unlimited texts for about 70 bucks. Granted, not cheap, but WAY cheaper than roaming on my iPhone 5. This will come in super handy next week in Toronto and for the week or so we’ll be in Alberta and BC. I typical burn 2GB per month in the States, so 1GB ought to be more than enough. In tribute to my old phone becoming Canadian, it’s sporting a new look:


So, now I have two iPhones that work… I’ll just switch back and forth as I hop across borders. Plus my Canadian one gives me street cred with my friends north of the border…

Serpentine belts are important

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By now you may have heard about the mechanical issues we’re facing with the busted serpentine belt. I thought I’d share what I learned in the moment and afterwards…

The serpentine belt runs everything that matters in a vehicle. If it goes, the click starts ticking on a few things…

– power, because you’re running purely on the charge in your battery. The alternator isn’t recharging without the belt! If your battery is old, the second you do t have enough juice to spark the spark plugs, you stop.

– heat buildup, because your water pump doesn’t cycle coolant into the engine. This is the number one issue because an whine that gets progressively hotter will eventually damage beyond reasonable repair. Pay attention to your heat guages!

– some things go away right away – power steering, AC… All the good stuff.

So, you hear a flutter and a snap like we did? You can drive a bit further… But I wouldn’t recommend it. We had 4 miles coming off the highway and getting “home” to the campground was such a compelling thing we risked it. If you’re not in a similar super close place, pull the heck over. Call AAA or roadside service of your choice… The belt is pretty easy to get and replace. Some savvy car types (cough cough not me) carry an extra one and are skilled enough to put one on. The things the belt loops around (tensioner and pulleys) are often to blame though, so a new belt can only get you so far.

Driving a vintage RV means parts aren’t always on hand – the dealer near here can get them all tomorrow but first appointment is Wednesday… So, we wait.

Super close to NYC.

Boo hoo, right?