‘The Displaced’: Timely and poignant

If ever there was a good time to burrow into a collection of essays by refugee writers from around the world, it was now. And by “good” I mean timely and relevant.

The world’s attention has been focused lately on Syria and Myanmar, but people in Afghanistan and several African nations are among millions who also have been driven from their homes by political unrest and ongoing violence. Closer to home, we’ve been saturated with coverage of Mexican and Central American migrants surging to the southern border, hoping for a chance at a better life in the United States.

If you’re looking for a way to better understand this global crisis, there may be no better way than through the individual voices of men and women who, along with their families, have survived it and become prominent writers, each and every one.

Published in 2018, “The Displaced” is a slim book of 17 essays edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen, who was just a child when his family fled Saigon in 1975 and later won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016 for his debut novel “The Sympathizer.”

The writers hail from all over — Afghanistann, Bosnia, Mexico, Germany, Hungary, Vietnam, Zimbabwe and more — and their stories range from World War II and the Vietnam War to more recent experiences.

The essays are poignant and illuminating. Written at a high level, they provide multiple perspectives on what it means to be displaced.

To abandon your home and leave behind the people you love. To deal with the hardships and indignities of life in a refugee camp. To adapt to a new home in a land where the language, food and customs are foreign to you. To start a new life as an outsider, no matter whether it is somewhere in Europe or Asia, Canada or the United States.

In his introduction to the book, Nguyen says the world faces an enormous humanitarian crisis. Of 65.6 million people that the United Nations classifies as displaced people, some 40.3 million are internally displaced people, forced to move within their on countries; 22.5 million are refugees, fleeing unrest in their countries; and 2.8 million are asylum seekers.

The 22.5 million refugees are the highest number ever recorded, seeking to escape persecution and conflict. Yet, the U.S. and other countries, from the United Kingdom to Germany, have been reducing the number of refugees allowed to settle each year.

In the face of such trends, “The Displaced” gives voice to individual stories of persistence in the face of traumas most of us will never know. The essayists reflect on moments of uncertainty, resilience and identity.

“These displaced persons are mostly unwanted where they fled from; unwatned where they are, in refugee camps; and unwatned where they want to go,” Nguyen writes, “They have fled under arduous condtions; they have lost friends, family members, homes, and countries; they are detained in refugee camps in often subhuman conditions with no clear end to the stay and no definitive exit; they are often threatened with deportation to their countries of origin; and they will likely be unremembered, which is where the works of writers becomes important, especially writers who are refugees or have been refugees — if such a distinction can be drawn.”

It’s hard to single out the best of the best among these essays, but I found these two as particularly clarifying and insightful.

— In “The Parent Who Stays,” Reyna Grande recalls the time, at age 9 1/2, when her father hired a smuggler to take her and her siblings from their home in Mexico to join him in the United States, where he had moved 8 years earlier to try to find work. With her head infested with lice and belly swollen with tapeworm, Reyna wore a tattered dress, broken sandals held together with wire, and had dusty feet, the dirt caked under her toenails, when she found herself at the border and became an “illegal” human being by crossing into the U.S. without permission.

Now an award-winning novelist and inspirational speaker, Grande writes: “We couldn’t come here as ‘real’ refugees. Poverty no matter how extreme, doesn’t meet any of the criteria for asylum. The term ‘economic refugee,’ a negative term here and in Europe, doesn’t encourage compassion in the receiving country, either socially or politically.

“Yet, what all displaced people have most in common, regardless of here we come from, regardless if we are ‘official’ refugees or ‘illegal’ immigrants, is our trauma. The trauma that propels us to this land, and the traumatic experiences that await us.”

It’s poverty, as well as gang violence and political instability, that is driving thousands and thousands of people to leave their villages in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other countries for the U.S., only to be held up the border an demonized by far too many Americans.

— In “The Ungrateful Refugee,” Dina Nayeri, puts her finger on why so many Americans seem to resent foreigners, even when they learn English, throw away their headscarf, convert to Christianity, get a college education and settle into a solid job. The answer lies in resentment — the perception that the refugee is taking away something that should rightfully belong to a native-born American — and an expectation that the refugee should be eternally grateful for the opportunity to start anew in the U.S. rather than mourn what was lost in her homeland.

Dina was 10 when she and her Iranian family were accepted by the U.S. and sent to Oklahoma, just as the first Gulf War began. The first thing she heard from her classmates was a strange “ching-chong” intended to mock her accent. She spoke Farsi and, obviously, wasn’t Chinese. But she realized then these children were so ignorant of the world outside America that they evidently had met one foreigner before, who came from Southeast Asia.

Now a novelist with degrees from Harvard and the Iowa Writers Workshop, Nayeri is troubled by the way in which people, even those on the left, make the case for refugees by pointing to photographs of happy refugees turned good citizens and listing their contributions, as if that is the price of existing in the same country, on the same earth. Rather than cite those positives that letting in refugees is a good thing, isn’t it more fair to accept that most refugees, like most Americans, are average people? Why do we expect “sugary success stories” instead of a bunch or ordinary people, sometimes bitter and confused, she asks.

“Isn’t glorifying the refugees who thrive according to Western standards just another way to endorse this same gratitude politics?” Nayeri writes. “Isn’t it akin to holding up the most acquiescent to examples of what a refugee should be, instead of offering each person the same options that are granted to the native-born citizen? Is the life of the happy mediocrity a privilege reserved for those who never stray from home?”

This is the kind of writing to touches my head and my heart. By delving into one person’s story at a time, it deepens my understanding of differing circumstances around the globe that have forced millions to flee for their lives. At the same time, it illuminates the common experiences, difficulties and aspirations of those who have been displaced.

***

Want to help refugees in the Portland area?

Consider volunteering or donating to IRCO, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

Want to know more about individual stories?

Read and listen to people from all around the world, now living in Oregon, at The Immigrant Story. This is a nonprofit started by my friend Sankar Raman, a retired Intel engineer who’s originally from India.

You can start with this episode featuring Divine Irambona, a refugee from Tanzania.

Listen here: https://theimmigrantstory.org/?powerpress_embed=10932-podcast&powerpress_player=mediaelement-audio

Alexie & Bukowski

I don’t normally review two books at once, but after reading the work of two celebrated American authors back-to-back it made sense to compare and contrast their styles and, in the process, figure out what I like and what I don’t.

At first glance, Sherman Alexie and Charles Bukowski wouldn’t appear to have much in common. But if you accept the idea that both men write (or wrote) about ordinary people, maybe looking at their work side-by-side makes some sense.

Alexie, 54, is the author of 26 books, spanning novels, poetry and memoir, and is perhaps best known for his short stories. He is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington, and now lives in Seattle. He’s won the National Book Award among other honors and I count him among my favorite authors, knowing he writes with honesty, pathos and wicked humor, whether focusing on urban or reservation life.

Bukowski was 73 when he died in 1994. He was the only child of an American soldier and German mother who moved to the U.S. when he was 3. He grew up in Los Angeles and became a prolific writer, known for using direct language and violent and sexual images. He published 45 books during his lifetime, churning out novels, poetry and short stories. I hadn’t read any of his work until a friend gave me one of his novels in a recent book exchange.

That book was “Factotum,” published in 1975 and later made into a movie starring Matt Dillon. I blew through its 205 pages in two days.

Next, I read “War Dances,” a collection of short stories and poetry that Alexie published in 2009. Likewise, I sailed through its 209 pages in two days.

“Factotum” is a word I hadn’t even heard of and, funny thing, it appears nowhere in the novel. It means “an employee who does all kinds of work.” And, believe me, it certainly applies to the protagonist, Henry Chinaski, as he drifts from one job to another across America during the World War II years, hooking up with a succession of loose women in one city after another.

For Henry, work isn’t something that’s noble or a means to any end, other than earning just enough money to buy booze and cigarettes and a cheap room as a boarder. As an employee, he steals, he slacks off, he gets into fistfights with other workers, and he’s just as likely to quit as get fired, sometimes within hours of starting the job. When he’s with a woman, it’s a similar story: get drunk, have sex, sleep in, miss work, drink, have sex, etc., until he abruptly leaves or she kicks him out.

I swear, the novel can be summed up as Henry either getting laid or getting laid off.

In contrast, “War Dances” consists of six stories tucked between several poems, with four of those told in the first-person and two in the third-person. One of the most compelling tales is “Breaking and Entering.” A film editor in Seattle working from his home while his family is away is startled when he discovers someone breaking into his house intent on stealing his DVD collection. He confronts the young burglar with a baseball bat and, in the aftermath, reflects on his experiences with race and class and power.

Another story, “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless,” portrays a vintage clothing store owner who’s mired in a failing marriage when he notices a beautiful woman, wearing eye-catching red Pumas, walking on a moving sidewalk in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. He pursues her, strikes up a conversation and, improbably, runs into her again in other airports as the two of them fly around the country for their respective work. Paul knows he’s a cheating husband with three teenaged daughters, who’s attracted to a stranger. And as events play out, he knows he needs to come to grips with what’s going on in his life: how can he move beyond this fantasy woman and make amends with the real women he’s betrayed?

Reading these two books together brought a few questions to mind:

What qualifies as good literature? Is it enough to tell an entertaining story or does it have to convey meaning? Do the characters need to be likable? Does it matter if the reader is offended? What do I consider offensive?

For me, good literature stands the test of time. It informs and illuminates. It presents both new and familiar perspectives. The characters are relatable in some way.

Alexie’s book, published in 2009, is barely a dozen years old. The short stories mention computers, airport travel, hospital surgeries, eBay and REI, and contain Boomer references to Marvin Gaye and “The Breakfast Club.” His characters deal with life and death, racism, stereotypes, monogamy, cheating, honor and kindness. Each one gives you reason to pause and ask, “What would I do?” or “How would I handle this?”

Bukowski’s book now nearly 50 years old, is a time capsule of sad lives led in the days before modern technology. In these pages, Henry — or Hank, as he is often called — looks for work by searching the newspaper want ads or, just as often, stopping in at a local business unannounced. He travels by train and bus, not air, as he criss-crosses the country, from New Orleans to Los Angeles to St. Louis to New York to San Francisco to Miami and back to L..A., finding himself with literally just $2.08 to his name.

There’s a lot of action packed into the book — with some 87 different scenes told in just a few paragraphs or a few pages — but none of it provokes deep thought. Bukowski writes short, sturdy sentences in a no-bullshit style that throws open a window to a way of living that’s unsavory and unappealing.

Henry Chinaski assaults his father, brawls with strangers, picks up floozies at taverns and bars, puts in minimal effort at work, and racks up just as many evictions as pink slips. He’s a hard-drinking racist, a callous misogynist and staunchly antisocial, a loner who thrives on solitude.

“I don’t like people,” he says to a new acquaintance.

Reading these vignettes, I realized that I know no one in real life like Chinaski, nor would I want to. I’ve read plenty of books, fiction and nonfiction alike, filled with F-bombs, violence and bad behavior of all sorts, so it’s not that I’m a prude. What is absent from “Factotum” is any kind of redeeming quality in the main character. Couple that with his dismissive “othering” of Mexicans and Blacks and the end result is a novel that left a bad taste in my mouth.

I had imagined Bukowski might be similiar in style to Raymond Carver, who populated his short stories with lower-middle-class characters like waitresses, mechanics and factory workers, all coping with the stresses of ordinary life. But, no.

According to the Poetry Foundation, Bukowski “was a prolific underground writer who used his poetry and prose to depict the depravity of urban life and the downtrodden in American society.” In my view, he crosses the line between profane and repulsive.

Circling back to Alexie, his characters are flawed, too, but they also are aware of the hurt they’ve caused others. The aforementioned Paul knows he has been an unfaithful husband and so he is remorseful about disappointing his wife and daughters.

In another story, “The Senator’s Son,” the protagonist, William, joins some friends in randomly assaulting two gay men in Seattle, thereby incurring the wrath of his father, a U.S. senator who fears that his political career will be ended if the attack comes out in the news. William knows he’s done wrong and does some soul-searching after the assault, even meeting with one of the victims; in the end, he and his father forgive each other.

Alexie and Bukowski clearly are products of different times and different sensibilities. Were Bukowski still alive, he’d be celebrating his 100th birthday this year — nearly twice the age of Alexie.

Though both men write about ordinary people, one does it in a way that is lyrical and the other in a style that is lewd and lurid. It may be unfair to judge them against each other as writers from different eras, but if “Factotum” is representative of Bukowski’s work, I will gladly stick to reading more of Alexie’s.

‘White Tiger’: a dazzling debut novel about crime, corruption and caste in India

One of the most enjoyable things I’ve experienced as a dad is receiving the gift of a well-chosen book from my adult kids. Over the years, they’ve introduced me to authors such as Celeste Ng, Ocean Vuong, J.D. Vance and Roberto Bolaño.

For my most recent birthday in December, I received “The White Tiger” from my youngest son, Jordan. He’d read the book a few years earlier as an undergraduate student and recommended it highly. Having just devoured it myself, I can see why.

“White Tiger” is the debut novel by Aravind Adiga, an Indian journalist who attended Columbia and Oxford universities. Adiga began writing a first draft of the book in 2005. He put it aside for a year before returning to it, then rewrote it entirely and published it in 2008. The book promptly won that year’s Man Booker Prize as the best novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland. It became a New York Times bestseller and, in January, was made into a movie, now available on Netflix.

All this praise is well deserved.

Adiga has written a dazzling book that is highly readable and sharply critical of the social-political-economic systems in his native country. The story is told from the perspective of a lower-caste Indian from a poor village in a series of middle-of-the-night emails to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The narrator, Balram Halwai, is a young enterpreneur who’s formed a startup company in Bangalore, known around the world as a center of tech and IT companies.

Balram learns that Jiabao is planning a trip to Bangalore and so, rather audaciously, he writes several emails to the Chinese leader, praising that country’s recent progress and offering to share his own story of success. The emails are intended to be flattering, but over the course of seven days they become disjointed, profane and increasingly manic.

Although Balram’s story is one of rags-to-riches, there are dark aspects of how he’s come to acquire the capital needed to start his business. He is the son of a rickshaw-puller in Laxmanghar, a village mired in poverty, pollution and sewage, and offering no hope to the next generation. To get a decent job, he understands he needs to leave.

Balram gets hired as a servant at the home of a wealthy (and corrupt) local businessman and quickly gets promoted to driver, a more prestigious job. While ferrying his employer and his wife from place to place in a luxury automobile, Balram listens surreptitiously to their conversations and gains more insight into the behaviors and the thinking of his boss. He masks his resentments of the criticisms and petty insults he’s made to endure on the job, and begins plotting a proper response, one that could involve violence.

That’s where things get interesting.

Adiga writes compellingly about class and corruption, about the vast inequities in Indian society that are driven by greed and graft and sustained by generations of politicans and businessmen. He lays bare the privilege and poverty at both ends of the capitalist system that enriches cheats and scoundrels while oppressing the lower classes.

On one hand, you have malls, giant apartment buildings and gleaming hotels in Delhi, the national capital, all built to serve the wealthy, from India and abroad. On the other hand, you have construction workers and other villagers living in slum-like conditions on nearby streets, wretched souls left to defecate in the open.

“These people on the streets were building homes for the rich, but they lived in tents covered with blue tarpaulin sheets, and partitioned into lanes by lines of sewage,” Balram writes. “It was even worse than Laxmangarh. I picked my way around the broken glass, wires, and shattered tube lights. The stench of feces was replaced by the stronger stench of industrial sewage. The slum ended in an open sewer — a small river of black water went sluggishly past me, bubbles sparkling in it and little circles spreading on its surface. Two children were splashing about in the black water.”

Source: brittanica.com

At some point, the book becomes a crime novel. Balram, the meek chauffeur, becomes disconnected from reality as he chases his dream of becoming an entrepreneur. Doing so means plotting against his boss. It means using his wits, evident at an early age, to obtain what he thinks he is owed — a better life.

Early in the novel, a school teacher praises young Balram as “the smartest of the lot.” A visiting official goes one step further, telling him directly,

“You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In any jungle, what is the rarest of animals — the creature that comes along only once in a generation?”

I thought about it and said:

“The white tiger.”

“That’s what you are, in this jungle.”

If India is a jungle and being cunning is key to your survival, well then, we shouldn’t be surprised that Balram uses every tool at his disposal to escape his caste-driven destiny. As readers, perhaps we should applaud his rise from abject poverty to young capitalist, even if it means playing by a corrupt set of rules. Or perhaps we should condemn his unsavory behavior.

That’s the moral dilemma that Aravind Adiga presents in a story that’s told exceptionally well.

Here’s the trailer for the Netflix movie.

Return to Nansen Summit Park

After last week’s half-assed attempt to find Nanset Summit Park in the suburban wilds of Lake Oswego, I’m happy to say I went back out again and made it to the top of Mount Sylvania.

This time I took a map. What a difference! (Duh, you’re saying.) But wait…

Even with a map, I would have been lost. I had to rely on a printout of detailed instructions to wind my way through a maze of winding streets, forested paths, undeveloped park land, through drainage tunnels, across parking lots, and a couple of steep hillside shortcuts to find my way to the summit.

Heck, it was a challenge just getting started.

On Sunday morning, I drove down I-5 to the Capitol Highway exit, crossed over the freeway and headed east, past the Portland Community College Sylvania campus, and toward an area of Southwest Portland and Lake Oswego I’d never been in.

When I arrived at my supposed starting point at McNary Park, there was no signage at all directing me to the park. I drove around the area for 10 minutes before I found it on a side street just off McNary Parkway. (Whew.)

Starting off at 11 am, I gave myself a target of 2 to 2.5 hours to complete a 4.6-mile hike that would take me through a number of subdivisions in the Mountain Home area. Why? Because the weather forecast called for rain at 2 pm and I didn’t want to get soaked.

Once underway, things went pretty well, although not perfectly. On the positive side, this hike was way more varied than most that I’ve done in the Portland area. Most of the time was spent on paved paths, looking up at townhouses and sprawling houses. But there were also stretches when I was walking on bark-lined trails next to wooden or cyclone fences or going carefully up or down steep, muddy trails. Elsewhere on the route, unexpected green vistas opened up in wooded areas between homes. At one point, I paused at the edge of a swale and enjoyed the company of a towhee, a sparrow and some juncos.

On the negative side, there was one detour I hadn’t planned on. As I approached the halfway mark of the hike, I misunderstood one sentence in the instructions and started to head down and away from the intended route. I realized my error, did some wandering and retracing of steps, and got back on track. But there went 10 to 15 minutes.

The rest of the hike spooled out as intended, though I was in for a surprise when I left flat terrain on Jefferson Parkway to head up, up and up SW 55th Avenue to a quiet cul-de-sac at the edge of Lesser Park. I’d never been to — or heard of — the park previously. And I never would have found it were it not for a skinny footpath that led from the cul-de-sac to a dirt trail into the park.

Trudging through the woods, beneath Douglas fir and maple trees and an explosion of ivy, I wandered alone on the curving, twisting trails thinking to myself: One. I really have no idea what direction I’m going in right now; and two, this would be a good place to dump a body. (Just kidding!)

Emerging from Lesser Park, I found myself on the perimeter of the PCC Sylvania campus. On a normal Sunday, it would have been quiet. On this particular Sunday, it was extra quiet, owing to the Covid pandemic. The campus is closed, so there’s nothing but a sea of empty parking lots and unused buildings. I walked from the west entrance to the east entrance of the campus, crossed busy Kerr Parkway at a stoplight, and saw that I was nearing the end of the hike.

Ah, but what’s that? Peering through some trees, I saw a flashing, red neon sign that said “OPEN” and customers seated at a window table inside a Middle Eastern restaurant. Turns out I’d come upon Mountain Park Plaza. Walking a little further up the road, I saw other businesses in the mini-mall, including the School of Rock.

You’re getting close now, I told myself.

Walking along Hidalgo, I passed by big homes, steep side streets angling off to the right, and found a shortcut — a dirt path with several small staircases carved into the hillside to help walkers clamber up to the next paved street.

Finally, I made it onto a one-way circular street at the top of Mount Sylvania. I passed by the park entrance sign and soon there I was: at the approximately 1,000-foot summit, with a small grassy area, two benches, a weather station a radio telemetry antenna. I could look down on several McMansions but on this gray day there was no chance of glimpsing Mount Hood. I settled for a distant view of Portland’s West Hills and a closer, wider scene of the Tualatin Valley.

I hung around for 15 minutes, celebrating my ascent to the top of a dormant volcano, then took a chip path through the woods down to a residential street named Juarez. I took a quick left and within minutes I was back at McNary Park.

Damn. Turns out that Nansen Summit Park was less than a half-mile from where I’d parked to begin the hike.

I could have walked up the hill, lingered a bit, and been done with the hike in 30 minutes. But, no. If you’re going to walk the Nanset Summit Park Trail, then you’ve got to head away from your destination, do the 2-hour-plus loop I just described, and approach your target from the other side.

Now that I’ve accomplished this hike, here’s a big shoutout to the folks at OregonHikers.org, whose print-friendly set of directions were indispensable to conquering what they called the Mount Sylvania Loop Hike. Here’s the link if you want to do it yourself: https://www.oregonhikers.org/field_guide/Mount_Sylvania_Loop_Hike

And now it’s time for some Q&A:

Was the hike pretty easy? Yes, at times. Definitely not, at other times. In fact, rigorous. I felt it in my knees and quads on that long climb up SW 55th. And those steps carved into the hillside can be challenging. And yet, OregonHikers classified it as “easy.”

Who is the park named for? Fridtjof Nansen was a Norwegian scientist, polar explorer and diplomat who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for “for his work in aiding the millions in Russia struggling against famine and for the refugees in Asia Minor and Thrace.” He also helped repatriate 450,000 prisoners of war after World War II and assisted in international humanitarian efforts to help hundreds of thousands of stateless refugees. As far as I can tell, Nansen has no connection with Oregon.

Who are the nearby streets named for? They are named for the great “liberators” of various countries. Among them: Garibaldi, Bolivar, Juarez, Hidalgo.

And, finally, what’s up with that bumper sticker I spotted on the shiny Ford F-150 4×4 near McNary Park? You know, the one that proclaimed “My President is Charlton Heston.”

Yeah, that one.

Read about my first, half-assed attempt: “Meandering across Mountain Park”

‘Life without a Recipe’: A delicious memoir

Even if she weren’t my professor, I’d still be singing the praises of “Life without a Recipe,” the second of two memoirs penned by the very talented and versatile Diana Abu-Jaber.

It’s everything a memoir should be: intimate and honest, engaging from the get-go, and written beautifully from start to finish. This one is spiced with interesting characters who are flawed yet endearing, and seasoned with life lessons drawn from memorable moments and years of self-reflection.

Over the course of 265 pages and four decades, Abu-Jaber recalls the journey from her childhood years to college and career to wife and mother. It’s hardly a straight line as she looks back on the powerful culinary and cultural influences of her German grandmother and Jordanian father; the uncertainty of how to make her English degree translate to a productive career; insights gained from two failed marriages and one successful one; and the assorted stresses of becoming a parent at age 40.

All these ingredients come together in a narrative that centers around food. Abu-Jaber’s first memoir, “The Language of Baklava,” published in 2005, also is told through food and a few recipes, too. I haven’t read that one, but I have read one of the author’s four novels (“Crescent”) and recommend it.

Diana was the instructor in the Arab-American Literature class I just completed at Portland State University. I’d met her previously through my work at The Oregonian, when she spoke at a national writers conference in Portland that I helped to coordinate. Originally from Syracuse, New York, she’s the winner of an Oregon Book Award and numerous other honors. She is also, I can say now, an excellent guide to the world of literature.

With all my PSU course work done, it was a pleasure to pick up the newer memoir (2016) and read it through the lens of an Arab immigrant’s daughter, bookish and dreamy, trying to find her footing in a world where there is no easy recipe for love, marriage, career or parenthood.

There are so many things I liked about this book: goregous writing, strong characters, hard-earned wisdom, and a full range of emotions — humor, sadness, confusion, delight, doubt and rapture — engendered by the author’s experiences.

I laughed at the contrast between Grace, her sugar-addicted maternal grandmother, and Bud, her spice-obsessed immigrant father, a gregarious man who prides himself on preparing his traditional dishes. Grace, divorced and living alone, bakes cookies and other desserts with young Diana as she counsels her to never have children if she aspires to a professional career. Bud, meanwhile, is a restless, non-stop talker who leans on Diana, the oldest of his three daughters, to marry and have children.

I enjoyed seeing Diana gain confidence as she acquired more experience as a writer. I also felt her loss as she recounted the deaths of her father-in-law Dave, struck down by lung cancer in Florida, and of Mai, a young Muslim woman she befriended years earlier in Jordan.

“There is something I think I couldn’t quite get until I was a bit older, which is that there are unique configurations of time and people,” Diana writes. “They belong to each other for a while, months or years, atoms in a crystal, until eventually, bit by bit, they fall away. That’s the part a younger person doesn’t believe — that it won’t last forever, that this assortment will never come together again.”

Most of all, I related to the anxiety Diana described as she and husband Scott went through the process of applying to become parents through an open adoption process. Having gone through it ourselves with our youngest child, I understood the waiting to be picked, the awkward meetings with a social worker, the ordeal of wondering if the teenaged birthmother would change her mind and keep the baby and, finally, the exhilaration of coming home with your little bundle of joy.

Diana and husband Scott name their daughter Gracie, after her grandmother. She is still a newborn, her gray-blue eyes having deepened into a rich brown, when Diana writes of a special moment with Scott and Gracie.

“Her hands swim up toward my eyes, fan through the ends of my hair. Scott hums his cheek over hers — perhaps she feels the haze of stubble — a misty smile rises to her face. Could it be? Her first true smile — of pleasure, of recognition or surprise — the first glint of our deep swimmer rising to the surface. It spills through me, love like something growing wild, petals ticking open, offering its spiral, twining around our limbs.

“I remember this feeling — it was there, at the first instant of seeing her, on the first day of her life — and even before then, somehow, months before her birth. Perhaps it has always been in us, a rain forest, deep rooted and whole.”

Who, as a parent, has not felt this euphoria in the early days of bonding with a son or daughter? Who, among us generally, has not struggled with insecurity and the unpredictability of life, with the challenge of “adulting” itself?

While Diana’s story is uniquely her own, there is plenty to relate to in terms of shaping one’s self-identity, of navigating class and cultural differences, and recognizing the meaning of family.

“I learned from him,” she writes of her father. “No telling where family comes from. It’s something richer than blood. It can be made and unmade and made again. It waits patiently to be claimed, taken indoors, for another space to be set at the table. The Qur’an says, We are one human family, make peace with your brothers and sisters. Another way of saying, I think, put out more plates.

“I’ve felt the sense of kinship inside dinner clubs and writing groups and classes — sometimes strong and whole, other times just hints, tendrils twining around your legs, the way grass seems to grow up around your fingers and toes if you sit in a spot long enough, the earth table. Family is all around, callng your name in the mornings, asking you to listen. Here we are, and you, you’re already home.”

“Life without a Recipe” is as good as memoir gets. It’s a book bursting with stories lovingly told about the author’s multicultural heritage, her family, and the role of food in binding people together. It’s a pleasure to read, equal parts entertaining and illuminating.

Read more about Diana Abu-Jaber right here: http://www.dianaabujaber.com/

8 books to get you started with Arab American authors

If you’re a curious reader like me, it helps to break out of your comfort zone now and then with a new author, genre, topic or perspective.

That’s what I did during the winter term at Portland State University and I’m glad I did. I shared my takeaways from the course in this piece — A taste of Arab American literature — but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to come back with a separate blog post that cuts to the chase. So, here are thumbnail descriptions of the 8 books we read under the guidance of English Professor Diana Abu-Jaber.

“Arabesques” by Anton Shammas. A challenging, intriguing book about identity, focusing on Palestinian Christians, that I found to be anything but an easy read. Shammas weaves together a complex story involving multiple generations in multiple villages and cities on multiple continents that left me marveling at the many strands that intersect and humbled by the gaps in my knowledge of historic and contemporary tensions between Arabs and Jews.

“Zodiac of Echoes” by Khaled Mattawa. A book of poetry, featuring lush and lyrical writing by a Lybian-American writer, that brought forward issues of identity and belonging, of immigration and adaptation, of “in-betweenness” and acculturation. As a lifelong journalist who’s been immersed in nonfiction and drawn to conventional novels, I often have a hard time appreciating the purpose or magic of poetry. My head was spinning with this one.

“Towelhead” by Alicia Erian. This compelling novel about a dark subject is told in the voice of its vulnerable protagonist. A 13-year-old girl named Jasira comes of age in a Houston suburb with a painfully innocent perception of herself and unsophisticated understanding of the people and world around her. Overarching themes of racism, sexism, and cultural and ethnic identity permeate the story, as do issues of sexual abuse, trust vs. exploitation, notions of friendship and loyalty, and the meaning of family.

“Tasting the Sky” by Ibtisam Barakat. In this beautifully written memoir about the terror of fleeing from invading Israeli troops, Barakat gives a human face to the oppressed people of Palestine. By telling her own story and that of her family, she invites readers to better understand their struggle for safety and identity, and thereby grasp the scale of displacement and uncertainty experienced by so many other refugees. In doing so, she reminds us how fragile life can be and how much we, as Americans, take for granted our many personal freedoms – not just to speak, write and think as we wish but also to worship (or not), congregate and travel as we please.

“Dreams of Trespass” by Fatima Mernissi. Reading this memoir of a Moroccan girl raised in a harem in 1940 made me want to scream. The author, a feminist writer and sociologist, describes both the physical walls and psychological barriers erected to keep women in their place. In spite of religious beliefs and cultural practices designed to separate the sexes, Mernissi shows what rebellion looked like and sounded like within a cloistered community, and how women and girls could find reason for hope and laughter, along with ingenious ways to assert their individuality within the group.

“Never in a Hurry” by Naomi Shihab Nye. “Essays on People and Places” is the perfect subtitle for this engaging collection of wide-ranging locales, recollections, insights and emotions. Though much of the book toggles back and forth between Palestine, the ancestral home of the author’s father, and Texas, the chosen home of Nye and her husband, some stories also take place in Missouri, Oregon, Hawaii, even India. The variety of places is wonderful and so, too, is the kaleidoscope of characters – Nye’s grandmother and other Palestinian relatives; her Mexican-American neighbors and merchants in San Antonio; and quirky car salesmen in Oahu, just to name a few.

“E-mails from Scheherazad” by Mohja Kahf. From the first one to the last, I was spellbound reading this marvelous collection of poems. Kahf invited me into a world that I found demystifying and intoxicating. It was as if she ripped off her veil and let loose a primal scream on behalf of all Arab women who have been ignored, misjudged, stereotyped, denigrated or underestimated. These poems convey pain, pride, love, loss, compliance, defiance, humor, anger, rage and so much more. Kahf writes from the perspective of a modern, educated, bicultural woman who brings a fearless, in-your-face attitude to the work of shattering stereotypes and illuminating cultural clashes. Just imagine what happens in a poem titled “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears.”

“Throne of the Crescent Moon” by Saladin Ahmed. Fantasy adventures are not my thing, but I set aside my prejudices and came away appreciating the writing skill and fertile imagination of the author, who lives near in Dearborn, Michigan, a Detroit suburb that is overwhelmingly Arab Muslim and mostly Lebanese. I was skeptical about a story that’s set in some murky medieval era, revolves around a cast of supernatural magicians, warriors and ghouls, and is drenched in blood and gore. Stripped to its essence, though, it is a tale of good versus evil, of romance among its young and old principal characters, and of interconnected themes and subplots. Ahmed’s story revolves around love, loss and loyalty; family and friendship; tradition, culture and gender; the longing for home and the importance of place.

Interested in reading any of these? Give me a shout.

***

My enrollment in this course — and two others before it — is due entirely to the Senior Adult Learning Center at Portland State. The SALC program is open to any Oregon resident 65 or older. PSU opens up nearly the entirety of its course offerings to interested seniors at little or no cost, depending on space available and discretion of the instructor.

The spring term starts March 29, so there’s time to enroll. Find out more here: https://www.pdx.edu/senior-adult-learning-center/

A taste of Arab American literature

During the winter term at Portland State University, I read the works of leading Arab writers with ties to the Middle East and the United States.

Once again, it’s Finals Week at Portland State. And once again, rather than worry about turning in a paper or prepping for an exam, I have the luxury of looking back on a course that I just audited: Arab American Literature with the award-winning novelist Diana Abu-Jaber.

I signed up, eagerly, for the winter term course with a goal of broadening my exposure to leading writers in a part of the world I want to, and need to, learn more about.

Mission accomplished.

We read about one Palestinian girl’s experience as a refugee during the Six-Day War of 1967. We were shown what it was like to live as a woman in a 1940s harem in Morocco. We gained insight to the duality of living as an Arab and an American in the United States. We considered the meaning of home and of family, both for the immigrant and those left behind. And, finally, we compared or contrasted our experiences to people who’ve long been stereotyped or marginalized in history books, news reports and the mass media.

As a result, my appetite for all things relating to the Middle East — books, movies, food, culture — has greatly increased. And I feel good that, as a recent retiree, I have ample time to continue expanding my knowledge of the world beyond American shores. The International Studies course I took last fall focused my attention to Africa, Asia and South America. Now I have another region of the world to think about.

***

We read 8 books during the 11-week term, and I came away feeling I’d gotten a great taste of what’s out there in terms of genres, authors and topics. We read fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, poetry, essays and fantasy. We were introduced to works by foreign-born and American authors with roots in Palestine, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco,. Many of their stories and poems referenced historical and political events, artists, authors and cities in all those countries, as well as in states like Mississippi, Indiana and New Jersey, where their immigrant families settled,

Some books were translated into English, but even then several authors held fast to certain words, phrases and sentences in Arabic, Hebrew, Yiddish and French in order to retain the flavor and meaning of the original language. Many times I found myself looking up the words, as well as references to certain people and places, so I could better understand the text.

As we delved into the readings, I was intrigued by major themes centered on self-identity vs. outsider perceptions; traditional vs. changing gender roles; the tensions around assimilation and acculturation; and what our professor referred to as “Arabness” — essentially, what makes some thing or some person “Arab.”

Four books in particular stood out to me, and for very different reasons. Elegant writing, strong feminist perspective, insight to Arab culture and customs, and bold choice of topic. For instance, a coming-of-age novel about a teenage girl who is verbally abused by her father and sexually abused by a neighbor. (Details on all the books at the end of this post.)

Like two other classes that I’ve previously audited, this course was taught remotely, with no designated meeting time. The professor delivered a “lecture” in written form at the start of every week, with an expectation that students would post a response to each book in a place where all of us could see. We were also expected to reply to each other, so we could take the conversation beyond ourselves.

I welcomed this approach because, in my previous class on international studies, the professor posted video lectures but students weren’t required to share any of their work online. As a result, I ended the term not knowing a single thing about how my classmates reacted to the course content — or even who they were.

In this class, I was impressed by the quality of work by many of the students. Several of them displayed a real talent for literary criticism, and I learned a lot from what they had to say about plot, character, language, metaphor and perspective. For their final projects, a couple of them shared poetry they’d written in response to what they’d read this term. Another student even wrote a 14-page epilogue as a way to tie up loose ends in the novel about the abused teenager. Along the way, several students created slideshows and one did a video presentation when it was her turn to lead the class discussion about a particular book.

***

Two personal notes.

First, a shoutout to my Palestinian pen pal, Jina, who I met by chance in December after she left a comment on a book review I posted on my personal blog.

Jina is a writer of fantasy fiction, as well as a wife and mother of three kids. She lives in a village near Ramallah, Palestine, and it’s been priceless to learn from her experiences living there in the Middle East. Through our e-mails, I’ve gained a better understanding of the political struggle of the Palestinian people as well as the challenges of everyday life in a poor country during the pandemic. In addition, we’ve talked about family, food, music, books and international issues, as Jina also has lived in Brazil and the U.S.

When Ramallah came up in our readings, I turned to Jina for her take on things, including her recollections as a high school senior in 2002 during Operation Defensive Shield, the largest military operation in the West Bank since the 1967 Six-Day War. She shared memories of Israeli soldier patrols, tanks and blockades; the shooting of tear gas, live bullets and sometimes missiles; and corpses, garbage and other debris lying in the streets — all of which made the trauma of those years resonate strongly. Our online correspondence could not have come at a better time for me to make connections with what I was reading.

Secondly, I was so moved by the work of two authors that I reached out to them and, happily, I heard back from both.

I contacted Ibtisam Barakat after reading her poignant memoir, “Tasting the Sky.” Ibtisam was just 3 when she and her parents and her two older brothers fled their home near Ramallah during the Six-Day War. She tells what it was like to be a refugee in her own country and how she understood the importance of education as a path to personal freedom. She came to the U.S. as a young college graduate, earned two masters degrees here, and now lives in Columbia, Missouri, where she continues to write and work as an international peace advocate.

Ibtisam responded graciously to my email, first drawing my attention to a 2017 TEDx Talk that she gave, and later totally warming my heart when she sent along a short poem she composed just for me.

I also contacted Mohja Kahf, the author of “E-mails from Scheherazad,” a collection of poems that blew me away with a modern feminist perspective that would fit in seamlessly in Portland or New York or any other progressive city. Mohja was born in Syria, came to the U.S. when she was 3, and is now a professor of English at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. I was delighted to read her response to my praise for her poetry:

“Fantastic! What a great email to get. It is kind of you to share this with me. Thank you for making my day!”

***

And now, the reading list:

“Arabesques” by Anton Shammas. A challenging, intriguing book about identity, focusing on Palestinian Christians, that I found to be anything but an easy read. Shammas weaves together a complex story involving multiple generations in multiple villages and cities on multiple continents that left me marveling at the many strands that intersect and humbled by the gaps in my knowledge of historic and contemporary tensions between Arabs and Jews.

“Zodiac of Echoes” by Khaled Mattawa. A book of poetry, featuring lush and lyrical writing, that brought forward issues of identity and belonging, of immigration and adaptation, of “in-betweenness” and acculturation. As a lifelong journalist who’s been immersed in nonfiction and drawn to conventional novels, I often have a hard time appreciating the purpose or magic of poetry. My head was spinning with this one.

“Towelhead” by Alicia Erian. This compelling novel about a dark subject is told in the voice of its vulnerable protagonist. A 13-year-old girl named Jasira comes of age in a Houston suburb with a painfully innocent perception of herself and unsophisticated understanding of the people and world around her. Overarching themes of racism, sexism, and cultural and ethnic identity permeate the story, as do issues of sexual abuse, trust vs. exploitation, notions of friendship and loyalty, and the meaning of family.

“Tasting the Sky” by Ibtisam Barakat. In this beautifully written memoir about the terror of fleeing from invading Israeli troops, Barakat gives a human face to the oppressed people of Palestine. By telling her own story and that of her family, she invites readers to better understand their struggle for safety and identity, and thereby grasp the scale of displacement and uncertainty experienced by so many other refugees. In doing so, she reminds us how fragile life can be and how much we, as Americans, take for granted our many personal freedoms – not just to speak, write and think as we wish but also to worship (or not), congregate and travel as we please.

“Dreams of Trespass” by Fatima Mernissi. Reading this memoir of a Moroccan girl raised in a harem in 1940 made me want to scream. The author, a feminist writer and sociologist, describes both the physical walls and psychological barriers erected to keep women in their place. In spite of religious beliefs and cultural practices designed to separate the sexes, Mernissi shows what rebellion looked like and sounded like within a cloistered community, and how women and girls could find reason for hope and laughter, along with ingenious ways to assert their individuality within the group.

“Never in a Hurry” by Naomi Shihab Nye. “Essays on People and Places” is the perfect subtitle for this engaging collection of wide-ranging locales, recollections, insights and emotions. Though much of the book toggles back and forth between Palestine, the ancestral home of the author’s father, and Texas, the chosen home of Nye and her husband, some stories also take place in Missouri, Oregon, Hawaii, even India. The variety of places is wonderful and so, too, is the kaleidoscope of characters – Nye’s grandmother and other Palestinian relatives; her Mexican-American neighbors and merchants in San Antonio; and quirky car salesmen in Oahu, just to name a few.

“E-mails from Scheherazad” by Mohja Kahf. From the first one to the last, I was spellbound reading this marvelous collection of poems. Kahf invited me into a world that I found demystifying and intoxicating. It was as if she ripped off her veil and let loose a primal scream on behalf of all Arab women who have been ignored, misjudged, stereotyped, denigrated or underestimated. These poems convey pain, pride, love, loss, compliance, defiance, humor, anger, rage and so much more. Kahf writes from the perspective of a modern, educated, bicultural woman who brings a fearless, in-your-face attitude to the work of shattering stereotypes and illuminating cultural clashes. Just imagine what happens in a poem titled “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears.”

“Throne of the Crescent Moon” by Saladin Ahmed. Fantasy adventures are not my thing, but I set aside my prejudices and came away appreciating the writing skill and fertile imagination of the author, who lives near in Dearborn, Michigan, a Detroit suburb that is overwhelmingly Arab Muslim and mostly Lebanese. I was skeptical about a story that’s set in some murky medieval era, revolves around a cast of supernatural magicians, warriors and ghouls, and is drenched in blood and gore. Stripped to its essence, though, it is a tale of good versus evil, of romance among its young and old principal characters, and of interconnected themes and subplots. Ahmed’s story revolves around love, loss and loyalty; family and friendship; tradition, culture and gender; the longing for home and the importance of place.

Interested in reading any of these? Give me a shout.

Meandering across Mountain Park

Friday’s forecast: sunny, warm and dry. Seemed like a perfect day to head out to the suburbs for another hike, one that promised to be rigorous and end with an expansive view from the highest point in Lake Oswego. On a clear day, I might even see Mount Hood, 50 miles away to the east.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned. I didn’t get lost, though I easily could have, and I never did make it to the end of the trail. But, hey, sometimes you just gotta roll with it.

***

I began by driving 12 miles to Westlake Park in Lake Oswego, threw on a light backpack with water and snacks, and got ready for a climb that would take me to Nansen Summit Park at the top of Mount Sylvania. Like Portland’s Mount Tabor, it’s an extinct volcano situated in a residential neighborhood, but even taller. The suburban park sits at about 1,000 feet compared to Tabor’s 636 feet.

I’d learned about this hike only a month ago. Willamette Week posted an article that described the pleasures of walking on a system of trails through Mountain Park in the northwest part of Lake Oswego, a city of about 40,000 that borders Southwest Portland and is one of the state’s most affluent communities.

Mountain Park itself is the largest planned community in Oregon with 10,000 residents, accounting for about one-fourth of Lake Oswego’s population. It was developed in 1968 by Carl Halvorson, a landscape designer who tried to preserve the natural environment of the deeply forested hillside as much as possible.

“What we have today,” the WW article said, “is the Mountain Park trail system, which is owned and maintained by the Mountain Park Homeowners Association. The quiet trails weave through parks, wooded areas and drainage channels.”

The trails do snake up, down and across the hillside, offering glimpses of front yards and backyards, as you walk on shaded paths beneath towering trees. But there were no signs anywhere at my starting point of Westlake Park and the maps that I encountered on the trails were of virtually no help. I was unfamiliar with the street names and had only a fuzzy sense of direction once I was up into the woods.

Oh, I suppose I could have (and maybe should have) relied on Google for more detail. But I didn’t think it would be much of a challenge to just get onto a nearby street adjacent to the park and head for the highest point in the neighborhood. Surely, I would arrive at my destination at the end of a 4.5-mile hike.

Didn’t happen. But, hey, I wasn’t the only one to lose my way.

Some friends of mine recently attempted the same hike starting from a different location, McNary Park, and also found the lack of signage to be an issue. They eventually made it to the summit, and good for them.

Evidently, there really isn’t much to Nanset Summit Park itself, just a large grassy patch, a couple benches, and a weather station. But the payoff, according to WW, is the view of the Tualatin River Valley and the West Hills.

I spent just 90 minutes on my meandering hike, one hour going sideways and up and 30 minutes coming down, but it was still worthwhile.

I began at the intersection of Melrose Street and Peters Road, trudging up Peters past fancy-named subdivisions like Devonshire, Melrose Court, Westbrooke, Forestbrook, and Auburn Hill. There were plenty of “private property” signs along the way, but eventually I found a path that provided a shortcut to another street and resumed my ascent.

At the end of one street with a basketball hoop, I came upon the first sign that I’d found the trail system — a grassy field and a paved path leading up the hill. I followed the path a short way and spotted a marker that said “PATH.” Bingo!

Exploring further, I came upon a set of swings and playground equipment; a kiosk with a map and calendar of community events; clusters of ferns and ivy; downed and drooping branches from the recent ice storm; and a wooden footbridge over a nearly dry creek. Along the way, there were backyard fences built right next to the trail, lots of barbecue grills and electronic-security signs, manicured bushes and lawns, and one kidney-shaped swimming pool. It really was an odd combination of forest and houses.

The best part of the hike came when I walked through the drainage tunnels carved into the hillsides. They were well-lighted and mostly dry, and there was ample space above and on both sides, so no feeling of claustrophobia. Emerging from the last of the tunnels, I came upon a townhouse complex and a flat, grassy area that I thought, for sure, was Nansen Nature Park. There was a nearby tennis court and the path seemed to continue heading downhill. But I didn’t see any benches or the weather station mentioned by Willamette Week, and there was no commanding view of the valley and surrounding hills.

Oh, well. I can’t complain about 90 minutes of exercise in the fresh air. I’ll make a return trip soon and most likely start at McNary Park. Before then, I’ll find out more about the Nansen Summit Trail. Would be nice to have a better chance of actually getting to where I’m going.

Latinx? Let us define ourselves

Recently, I posted a question on social media that was aimed at family members and friends of a certain heritage. Do you use the term Latinx to describe yourself? Why or why not? If not, how do you refer to yourself?

I had two thoughts in mind:

One, I anticipated that hardly anyone would say they described themselves as Latinx. Related to that, I expected many would say they were unfamiliar with the term, which emerged in the early ’00s as an inclusive, gender-neutral form of Latino/Latina. I was right on both counts.

Two, and more importantly, I anticipated there would be great variety in how people referred to themselves. I was right again. My assorted cousins and other relatives call themselves Chicano, Chicana, Latino, Latina, Mexican, Mexicana and Mexican American. In addition, friends who are Colombian and Guatemalan and Puertorriqueña were among those who pointedly rejected the term Latinx, though it had nothing to do with an anti-LGBTQ+ bias.

Read more about the origins of the word here: What Does Latinx Mean?

Part of my goal was to reflect our diversity back to everyone who read or responded to the Facebook post. But the larger point was to highlight the importance of self-identity, of using whichever term you feel best defines you rather than passively accepting a term imposed by others, whether it’s Hispanic or Latinx or anything else.

This idea of claiming your identity is something that I’ve given a lot of thought to during a college course that I’m just now finishing. My classmates and I read books by eight different Middle Eastern authors in an Arab-American Literature course taught by Diana Abu-Jaber, an award-winning novelist and U.S.-born daughter of a Jordanian father and American mother with German and Irish roots.

While the genres varied greatly (fiction, poetry, memoir and fantasy) and the authors hailed from different places (Syria, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Algeria, the United States), there was a consistency in the thematic content. Typically, these writers and/or their main characters struggled to forge a sense of identity at the same time they were engaged in a personal tug-of-war with customs and traditions, gender roles, religious beliefs, memories of home, and cultural adaptation to wherever they were living.

In her last lecture, the professor talked about her efforts to address the challenge of writing about these topics in a way that centered her own experience as an Arab American woman while recognizing and responding to how others — non-Arabs — perceived her. Read what she says here but also consider how it applies to “Latino” or “Latina” or “Mexican American.”

In my own experience, I’ve found the attempt to capture a unique culture experience to be a bit like trying to look directly at something floating on the surface of the eye. Outside the raw facts of language and geography, is there something that makes someone’s story specifically “Arab-American”? The struggle for identity and the tension between preserving cultural heritage and wanting to embrace America….these were all very real for the Arab-American community, yet at the same time, common to immigrants and the children of immigrants from all around the world.

If anything, I suppose I started to sense that the Arab-American experience was less about something innate to the Arab world and more about the way Americans perceive and respond to the notion of so-called “Arabness.” So this struggle between personal and conferred identities became part of what I wrote about.

I think Diana nails it in distinguishing between “personal and conferred identities.” And I think the best way to combat conferred identities is to stand up and boldly proclaim our personal identities.

In my journey through the decades, I’ve been referred to as Mexican, Chicano, Hispanic and Latino. But I’ve settled on Mexican American as both the most accurate and easiest for others to understand. To me, it’s more specific than Latino in that it highlights my ancestors’ country of origin — Mexico, on both sides — and my status as a U.S.-born citizen. I am Mexican American in the same way that others are Irish American or Italian American. Whether I speak Spanish fluently, conversationally or not at all is secondary to my national origin, just as bilingualism is for Americans of Irish or Italian heritage.

In my experience, I’ve seen people misunderstand “Latino,” often jumping to the conclusion that it means foreign-born and all too often implies undocumented.

As for Latinx, I confess I was dumbfounded when I first came across the term a year or two ago. My fuzzy recollection is that it was used by some group to publicize an on-campus event at Portland State. I was relieved to learn I wasn’t alone. A widely cited study by the Pew Research Center, published in August, found that only one in four Latinos are even aware of the term Latinx, and just 3% say they use it to describe themselves.

I offer my thanks to all who jumped into the conversation a week ago, and I welcome your additional comments here at the end of this blog or on Facebook. Better yet, both!

Read the original discussion here: https://www.facebook.com/george.rede/posts/10226140808087445

Finally, I encourage everyone to proclaim your identity with a sense of self-worth and belonging. Wear your Mexicanress or your Latinaness, or whatever term you prefer, proudly.

A shot in the arm

If you’re of a certain age — and I certainly am — the most important thing on your mind these days is likely how, when and where am I gonna get my frickin’ COVID-19 vaccination?

Well (big exhale here), it finally happened for Lori and me on Wednesday. It meant driving to a Walgreens pharmacy in Salem, 45 miles away. But, hey, Dose 1 is now in the arm and we’re set up for Dose 2 at the same location on March 31.

On one hand, the process was utterly mundane; at the same time, it felt historic, as if we were doing our tiny part to help fight the worst global pandemic in a century.

First, how it happened:

Like everyone else 65 or older, we jumped into the online competition to find a vaccine appointment, throwing virtual elbows at everyone else in other demographic groups already deemed eligible. We registered on the state of Oregon’s site, as well as pharmacies and a local hospital. No such luck — until Tuesday morning. That’s when I quit looking in the metro area and typed a Salem ZIP code (97302) into a search bar. Magically, available times popped for the following day. I grabbed one time slot and Lori hustled to snag another.

We drove down to Salem the following afternoon, parked in the Walgreens lot; left our little dog in the car (windows partially rolled down); walked right up to the pharmacy counter (no lines!) and handed over the paperwork we’d filled out the night before; got our shots and were good to go — all in about 25 minutes.

From there, we headed up the busy street and met our dear friends Bob and Deb Ehlers for coffee. They live in Salem and had already been vaccinated. It was the first time we’d seen them since mask-wearing and social distancing became a thing — and it was great. Nothing like reconnecting with friends you’ve known for 40 years. We’ll see them again for lunch when we go back for Dose 2.

Next, what it means:

From a selfish point of view, getting the second dose will bring us closer to booking a long-delayed flight to New York to see our son Jordan and his family. We haven’t seen them in two years and our 4 1/2-year-old granddaughter is growing up too fast. Being fully vaccinated also opens the door to safer but still socially distanced get-togethers, such as happy hours or outdoor dining.

From a public health perspective, we’re happy to do our part. According to the Oregon Health Authority, our two shots were among 16,376 vaccine doses adminstered on Wednesday. That means we are among the 1 million people in Oregon who have received either or both doses, constituting 16.1% of the state’s population. Nationally, about 54 million people (16.3%) have received their first dose and 28 million (8.4%) have received their second dose.

We received the Pfizer vaccine. But, honestly, we would have been equally happy to get the two-shot Moderna or one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Why? Because the efficacy rates among the three manufacturers don’t matter much in the big picture, as David Leonhardt explained so well in Thursday’s edition of The New York Times newsletter:

Many Americans are worried that Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine is an inferior product that may not be worth getting. Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota recently told The Washington Post that he was now seeing not only “vaccine hesitancy” but also “the potential for brand hesitancy.”
The perception stems from the headline rates of effectiveness of the three vaccines: 72 percent for Johnson & Johnson, compared with 94 percent for Moderna and 95 percent for Pfizer. But those headline rates can be misleading in a few ways.
The most important measure — whether the vaccine prevents serious illness — shows the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be equally effective as the other two. All work for nearly 100 percent of people. The picture is murkier for mild cases, but they are not particularly worrisome.
Today, I want to unpack the statistics about the three vaccines and explain why the current perception is a problem.
I’ll start with an anecdote that this newsletter has included once before: Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-disease expert at Vanderbilt University, was recently talking with some colleagues about what they would tell a family member who could choose between getting the Johnson & Johnson tomorrow and one of the other vaccines in three weeks.
“All of us said, ‘Get the one tomorrow,’” as Schaffner recounted to my colleague Denise Grady. “The virus is bad.”
Mild Covid means victory
The headline effectiveness numbers — like 72 percent — describe a vaccine’s ability to prevent all infections from this coronavirus, known as SARS-Cov-2. But preventing all infections is less important than it may sound. The world is not going to eliminate SARS-Cov-2 anytime soon. Coronaviruses circulate all the time, causing the common cold and other manageable illnesses.
The trouble with this virus is its lethality. It has killed 15 times as many Americans as an average flu season. Turning Covid into something more like a mild flu or common cold means victory over the pandemic.
All three vaccines being used in the U.S. are accomplishing that goal. In the research trials, none of the people who received a vaccine died of Covid. And after the vaccines had taken full effect, none were hospitalized, either.
In the real world, the vaccines won’t achieve quite as stellar outcomes. Still, the results are excellent — and equally excellent across the three, as Dr. Cody Meissner of the Tufts School of Medicine said during a recent F.D.A. meeting.
Like running into the wind
But why doesn’t Johnson & Johnson appear to be as good at preventing mild illness?
There are a few possible answers. For one, Johnson & Johnson’s research trials seem to have had a greater degree of difficulty. They occurred later than Moderna’s or Pfizer’s — after one of the virus variants had spread more widely. The variant appears to cause a greater number of mild Covid cases among vaccinated people than the original virus.
Second, Johnson & Johnson is currently only one shot, while Moderna and Pfizer are two shots. That happened mostly because of how strong the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is. Initial testing showed it to deliver impressive levels of immunity after only one shot, while the others required a booster, as Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, explained to me.
The truth is that all of the vaccines seem to provide significant protection after a single shot. (Look at Britain, which is not rushing to give second shots and where cases and deaths continue to plummet.) Similarly, all three vaccines may benefit from a second shot.
I recognize that may make some people anxious about getting the single Johnson & Johnson shot, but it shouldn’t. If further data suggest that a second Johnson & Johnson shot would help, regulators can change their recommendation. Regardless, follow-up Covid shots may be normal in the future.
What’s the bottom line? A single Johnson & Johnson shot may indeed allow a somewhat larger number of mild Covid cases than two shots of Moderna or Pfizer. It’s hard to be sure. And it isn’t very important.
“The number that we should all truly care about is what are the chances I’m going to get this thing and get really sick or die,” Wachter said. After any of the three vaccines, he added, “There’s essentially no chance you will die of Covid, which is breathtaking.”

Lori and I count ourselves lucky to have gotten our first vaccine. For those of you still waiting, we say, “Hang in there. Your time will come.”