The staggering genius of Stieg Larsson

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Rooney Mara starred as Lisbeth Salander in the American film adaptation of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” released in 2011. (Merrick Morton / Associated Press)

I just finished the last of the three novels in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of crime thriller novels — and it only took me three years to do it!

It’s true.

I read the first novel in the fall of 2014, when Lori and I were vacationing on Orcas Island. I bought “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” at a used bookstore in Eastsound and was blown away. Larsson delivered a masterful narrative that was chilling and creepy, and built it around two intriguing characters — an investigative journalist named Mikael Blomkvist and a reclusive genius hacker named Lisbeth Salander, the heavily tattooed girl referenced in the title.

It took me 18 months to get to the next one, “The Girl Who Played with Fire.” Same characters as in the first book, picking up right where they left off after the murders of two journalists at Blomkvist’s crusading magazine and the fingerprints on the murder weapon belonging to none other than Salander.

It took me another 18 months to get around to the third and final novel, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Fittingly, I read it during our most recent vacation to Orcas. With a week of free time to burn in mid-September, I vowed to plow through the 563 pages.

“Plow” is hardly what happened. More like “got sucked into and couldn’t put it down.” Just like the first two, Larsson pulled me in fast and deep.

girl who kicked the hornets nestAs with the preceding installment, the third novel resumed where the second broke off, this time with Salander lying in critical condition in a hospital, with a bullet wound to her head, and fighting for her life. If and when she recovers, she’ll be put on trial for the murders of three men she killed in self-defense.

But the authorities don’t know the true circumstances of those deaths and prosecutors are busy preparing a case against her that looks airtight. It’s up to Blomkvist, who is going through personal turmoil and is under surveillance by some bad guys, to help prove Salander’s innocence. To do that, he needs to penetrate the dark world of Swedish intelligence agencies and unravel the connections between the trio of murders involving Salander and other killings that occur along the way.

This is high praise, but let me say each and every book is superb. They average just under 600 pages each. Taken together, they are extraordinary.

***

Who is Stieg Larsson?

I’d call him a genius.

Larsson was an investigative journalist in Sweden who died of a heart attack in 2004. He was only 50 years old and had just delivered the manuscripts for all three novels, intending that they published as a series.

Imagine that. Creating compelling characters, intriguing story lines, dozens of plot twists and harrowing cliffhangers. Stitching everything together in a total of 1,783 pages and doing it all at an incredibly high level of writing.

It’s a staggering accomplishment.

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The prodigiously talented Stieg Larsson. (Photo credit: The Australian)

As of March 2015, the Larsson novels had sold 80 million copies worldwide and 25 million in the U.S. alone since 2005, according to TIME magazine.

Larsson’s journalistic background shows in the muscular sentences, precise wording and descriptive detail found in each novel. The newsroom scenes at Millennium magazine, where Blomqvist works, were totally on the mark. His knowledge of police investigations, courtroom procedures and computer technology was impressive. And he possessed a vivid imagination that drove the intricate master plot.

In addition to being a first-rate journalist and novelist, Larsson was considered a leading expert on antidemocratic, right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations.

The world lost a great writer when Larsson died. You’d think the series would have ended with his passing 13 years ago, but no. Interestingly, Lisbeth Salander lives on in two more novels — one published in 2015 and the other released just last month —  both written by David Lagercrantz, a Swedish journalist recruited by Larsson’s publisher.

I did a double take when I saw the newest one displayed at a grocery store. Absorbed as I was in the original trilogy, I hadn’t realized that the series continued with “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” (2015) and “The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye.” (2017).

I’m not sure how I feel about that. It was so satisfying to read the original series, even if it did take three years. I can’t imagine the next two novels being as good, but I could be wrong.

All I know is that each of the Larsson novels was incredibly satisfying despite sometimes gory content. The late author has given us an unforgetable anti-heroine in Lisbeth Salander, a pixie-sized woman with a photographic memory, a fierce will to live, and an indelible dragon tattoo.

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Cannon Beach

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When sand gets on your snout, it’s the sign of a good time. Little Charlotte.

Can it be just a few days ago that Lori and I were walking on the beach in sunny weather suitable for shorts and sandals?

With all the rain forecast today and tomorrow, and coming on top of yesterday’s downpour, it hardly seems true. But it was — and a nice respite it was for two days and two nights in Cannon Beach.

In the early years of our marriage, we used to visit Cannon Beach more than any other community on the Oregon Coast. Now, I’m hard-pressed to remember the last time we were here, given that we’ve been drawn to Manzanita, Rockaway Beach and Pacific City as our favorite getcaways.

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Quiet, unpaved streets made for relaxing walks during our short stay.

Over the decades, Cannon Beach has transformed from charming little town to a mini-Lake Oswego, with boutique shops and a burgeoning restaurant scene catering to visitors from Portland and far beyond. The local grocery store, Mariner Market, and Bruce’s Candy Kitchen, everyone’s go-to for salt water taffy, are still there. But they’ve been joined by a whole lot of bistros, brewpubs, coffee shops and retailers, and the city several years ago added public parking lots to accommodate tourist vehicles that wouldn’t possibly find space along Hemlock Street, the town’s main artery.

So, while the city has retained some of its charm, it’s also embraced commercial development on a scale that other coastal towns haven’t.

***

A few odds ‘n’ ends from our 48 hours in Cannon Beach:

ferris buellerDown time. We stayed in a friend’s one-bedroom cottage about a quarter-mile south of the main shopping area, just right for the two of us and our dog Charlotte. Aside from walks on the quiet neighborhood streets and on the beach, we spent time reading, knitting (well, one of us did), and indulging in some old movies on cable TV, and watching some of the Oregon-WSU football game.

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” remains as funny as when it was released in 1986. (Yikes! 31 years ago??) The movie’s motto — “One man’s struggle to take it easy” — fit in perfectly with our low-key weekend.

Shopping. We dropped in on our friend, Lisa, who co-owns Vintage Viaje, a shop specializing in vintage items and imported goods. Lots of cool collectibles, used clothing and handmade goods. We each found something to buy.

We also went to the nearby Jupiter’s Books, a funky old spot specializing in rare and used books. Great to see an independent bookstore off the beaten path that marches to its own beat. Again, we found something for each of us.

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Eating well. We opted for simple meals we prepared ourselves. Scallops for dinner, grilled cod and smoked sardines for lunch (Lori’s influence right there). Our one meal out? Cannon Beach Hardware & Public House, also known as Screw and Brew.

Imagine yourself at a corner table with rows of screwdrivers, drill bits and other items on the walls behind you as you dive into a basket of fish-and-chips or a tossed salad with grilled halibut, washed down with a draft beer or glass of wine.

Our waiter, a friendly fellow named Mason, told us that dual-purpose businesses under the same roof are actually pretty common in Ireland. A brewpub and a hardware store? A brewpub and a grocery store? A brewpub and bookstore? You’ll find all those and more combinations in Ireland, he told us. Works for me.

The beach. One thing I love about Oregon is that every mile of beach is publicly owned. That’s 363 miles, stretching from the mouth of the Columbia River to the California state border. And there’s no more iconic landmark than Haystack Rock, rising 235 feet in the ocean surf.

I’ve run into plenty of native Oregonians who love walking on the beach into the face of a pelting rain — and I get that. But there’s also something magical about strolling along the water’s edge when the sun is shining on your shoulders. It’s even more fun when your urban dog gets to run off-leash in the wide-open spaces. Charlotte had a great time and so did we, just watching her.

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Looks like Charlotte lost an ear, but it’s just blown back by the wind.

We were overdue for a quick getaway like this one. Hope to do it again soon, maybe after the first of the year.

Postscript: After this published, I noticed this was Blog Post No. 600 on Rough and Rede II. Not too shabby. (GR)

Guns and music

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Coldplay’s Oct. 2 concert at the Moda Center began with a minute of silence for shooting victims in Las Vegas and residents of Puerto Rico devastated by Hurricane Maria.

I like to think I have varied musical tastes. My playlists include from blues, R&B and classic rock to indie artists and even a dash of country.

Thanks to coincidental scheduling in the past month, I found myself at three concerts featuring big-time artists: Lady Antebellum, Janet Jackson and Coldplay.

That’s quite a variety. And as you’d expect, the fan base for each artist was distinctly different from the others, reflected in cowboy boots, glittery tops or vintage T-shirts, depending on the headliner.

In each case, I went to the show focused on nothing more than enjoying the music. It never occurred to me I might not come home.

Then came Las Vegas.

The idea of an outdoor concert becoming a killing field was something I could have never imagined. Now, thanks to a demented killer armed to the teeth with high-powered rifles, we have something else to think about.

  • One, the massacre on The Strip reminds us that evil knows no limits. How is it that we are born with brains that create beautiful art, scientific knowledge and feel-good music? And yet those brains are also capable of inflicting hurt and death?
  • Two, easy access to guns, coupled with technology that makes them ever more lethal, leaves us increasingly vulnerable to the unhinged.

Our newest deadliest mass shooting in the United States resulted in 58 lives snuffed out, and those of more than 500 injured and irrevocably altered. Simply for going to attend a music festival.

In the national debate reignited by the latest carnage, the killings have been framed in terms of “gun violence” or “mass murder.”

One view supports the idea that the federal government has a legitimate role to play in enacting reasonable restrictions on the types of weapons and ammunition one can acquire and stockpile. The other view rejects that role, instead arguing that human nature alone is to blame for these repeated massacres.

In other words, guns don’t kill people, people do.

I agree that you can’t legislate human behavior – that’s true in a number of areas of life. But I refuse to accept that as a reason to continue permitting the slaughter of innocents, whether it is dozens at a time or one, two or three people at a time.

Yes, I’ve heard the arguments that Timothy McVeigh killed far more using explosives and that people can turn knives or cars into deadly weapons. But it’s the sheer volume of gun deaths that should cause us to look for ways to minimize the toll.

We already know that guns are lethal. Allowing the sale of bump stocks, legal accessories that allow shooters to simulate automatic fire from their rifles, is unconscionable. Why make it easier for anyone to go on a rampage? Why not take whatever actions we can to stem the flow of handguns and rifles and bullets into the hands of our fellow Americans?

I’m not talking about confiscating guns, least of all from law-abiding citizens who use them for hunting. I am talking about banning military-style semiautomatic assault weapons .

In a country of more than 300 million Americans, we already have more guns than people. Isn’t that enough?

I could go on and talk about how and why guns are so deeply embedded in our culture. I could lament the Second Amendment rulings and passage of federal and state laws — in particular, those of the stand-your-ground variety that almost seem to encourage people to use their weapons. I could wring my hands at the unwillingness of our elected leaders to face up to reality.

But, frankly, I don’t have the energy to address anything more about this issue in any depth. At least not in this piece.

Countless words have been written and spoken. Countless videos and photographs have documented the carnage. You’ve seen and heard as many points of view from politicians and everyday citizens as I have. You’ve probably seen Jimmy Kimmel and other last-night comedians call out our do-nothing Congress.

I’m saddened by this bloody stain on America. As a nation, we should be ashamed.

My concert-going ways took root in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a young college student, I saw the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Santana and so many more at places like the Fillmore West, Winterland and the Cow Palace.

Back then, the major concern was finding a parking place near the venue. Secondarily, it was which fast-food restaurant to hit up for a post-concert snack.

Now the worry for parents isn’t what time is my child coming home but will my child come?

We’re better than that, aren’t we?

 

Memories of Minidoka, Heart Mountain

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Worst selfie ever? Possibly. Gathered together on Sept. 24 at Twentysix Cafe, from left: Midori, Ayumi, Aki and Katie Mori, John and Nancy Stephenson; and Alice Suter.

Earlier this year, Oregon joined the nation in marking the 75th anniversary of the executive order, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that led to the forced incarceration of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.

Here in Portland, Japanese Americans and their allies gathered on the waterfront on Feb. 19 for a Day of Remembrance to honor those who were imprisoned, including 4,000 from Oregon, and to condemn the wartime hysteria that led to the disruption of so many lives of innocent people at internment camps across the United States.

Recently, I was privileged to be part of a multi-generational conversation with friends that brought together a camp internee, the daughter of a camp architect, and a family of four that visited camps in two western states.

Nancy (Komatsubara) Stephenson was 3 years old when she and several family members were sent from their home in Alaska to Camp Minidoka in south-central Idaho. A retired schoolteacher now living in Northeast Portland, she is married to John Stephenson, who was 4 years old when his dad, a Navy sailor, was killed during the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Alice (Hardesty) Suter was 5 years old when her parents took her and her brother on a summer  vacation to Cody, Wyoming. Decades later, she would learn that her dad was one of the architects who designed and supervised construction of barracks at the Heart Mountain internment camp just outside Cody in northwestern Wyoming. Alice, a retired audiologist and freelance writer, is my neighbor, just two doors away on our quiet NE Portland street..

Aki Mori and his young family were headed to Yellowstone last year when he noticed a highway exit sign for Minidoka. He and his wife Katie and their two daughters wound up visiting both Minidoka and Heart Mountain, on opposite sides of the famed national park. Aki is a high school vice principal and lives in Beaverton.

Alone among the group, I have no connection to the camps. But through a series of coincidences this year and last, I learned a lot about the camps through each and every one of the aforementioned friends and neighbors.

It dawned on me that everyone might enjoy meeting each other and sharing their experiences. And so it was that we gathered a week ago at a favorite coffee shop in my neighborhood.

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John, Nancy and Alice all came with stories to tell.

***

In July 2016, Aki and Midori, then 12, both wrote movingly about their experiences visiting the two camps in Idaho and Wyoming. I published their essays on my blog during the annual Voices of August guest blog project.

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In November 2016, my wife Lori and I were among a group of six, including Nancy and John, who went to see a play about the life of Gordon Hirabayashi, a Seattle college student who challenged the wartime curfew targeting Japanese Americans. Afterward, Nancy lent me “Surviving Minidoka,” a beautifully written and illustrated book examining the legacy of Japanese American incarceration, and I wrote a glowing review just before the year ended.

 

Then, early this year, I learned that Alice was working on a magazine article about Heart Mountain that told of the warm welcome she received at a 2016 pilgrimage to the camp’s WW II Interpretive Center, an annual event that encourages visitors to learn more about the so-called “relocation center.”

In the process, I discovered that Alice had also written an article on the Hirabayashi play for Oregon ArtsWatch, about a month before Nancy, John and I had seen it. In researching the piece, Alice had interviewed the playwright, Jeanne Sakata, whose father and grandfather and other relatives were sent to an Arizona camp.

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Ryun Yu was marvelous as Gordon Hirabayashi in the Portland Center Stage production of “Hold These Truths.”

As for myself, I knew broad outlines but few details of this dark chapter in our nation’s history. I knew, for instance, that Portland had served as a processing center for West Coast internees. But I was ashamed to learn that the campus of San Jose State University, my alma mater, also served the same purpose.

I also learned that some internees were sent to Lordsburg, New Mexico, a godforsaken place on the Arizona-N.M. border that I had passed through many times while driving east from Tucson to visit my father and stepmother. Turns out that Nancy’s father was initially sent to Lordsburg as a suspected spy and only later transferred to Minidoka to join his wife and three daughters.

***

Sunday’s conversation, in a sunlit room in a covered patio, could not have gone better.

Everything unfolded organically. People introduced themselves to each other and, with no prompting from me, soon began talking earnestly about their varied experiences. As each person shared a memory or an observation, everyone else listened. No interruptions. No testy exchanges. Just a respectful carving out of space for each person to have their say.

Alice grew up in the Chicago suburbs. She said she didn’t know about her father’s role in designing internee housing until she was in her mid-30s. They never discussed the subject.

Because of her father’s work, Alice said she was nervous about how she would be received by camp survivors and their families at the Heart Mountain pilgrimage. She was pleasantly surprised by how warm and welcoming people were, adding that she is still in contact with friends she made there.

Nancy grew up in Petersburg, a small fishing village near Juneau. When her father was arrested, authorities rounded up Nancy’s mom and her siblings and put them in the local jail because they had nowhere else for them. Imagine spending the night in jail when you’re 3 years old.

Nancy brought along a camp yearbook for us to see, but said she doesn’t have vivid memories of Minidoka. Flipping through the pages of photos and activities, my heart broke a little at the thought of immigrant and U.S.-born adults alike trying to convey a sense of normalcy during their captivity.

Midori asked Nancy if she was angry all these years later.

No, she replied.

“What I am really sad about is that I never talked to my parents at length about what happened,” Nancy said. ” I remember things like playing but not about guards with rifles at the gates or things like that. We were just little kids. We were too young to remember. I don’t feel real anger, just sorrow.”

Aki is from the Midwest. I met him several years ago when he submitted an op-ed piece to The Oregonian’s Sunday Opinion section. I noticed in his bio that he had taught in the same school district in Union City, the working-class suburb where I grew up across the bay from San Francisco.

His wife Katie has a Union City connection, too. When she and her mother and sister immigrated from Taiwan, Katie was a 9th grade ESL student at James Logan High School, the same school that I would have attended had we had not moved to adjoining Fremont. Katie adapted quickly, went on to get a degree in biochemistry and worked for a tech company before becoming a stay-at-home mom.

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The Mori family: From left, Midori, Aki, Ayumi and Katie.

 

Their children exhibited poise, manners and distinctly different personalities during our meet-up.

Midori, 13, is in the 8th grade. The more outgoing of the pair, Midori loves judo, plays the piano, and recently wrote about transitioning from female to male. (“What it means to have Pride.”)

Ayumi, 10, is in the 5th grade. She plays the violin, loves figure skating and, like her sibling, is a precocious writer.

Both said they appreciated the opportunity to learn about life in the internment camps with their parents. Midori, in particular, is interested broadly in World War II.

“I learned about (the camps) through my dad,” Midori said. “The least I can do is respect those who came before us.”

***.

We broke off after 90 minutes, feeling as though we’d just scratched the surface and vowing to meet again. What a wonderful way it was to spend part of an afternoon with such gracious people all around the table, ages 10 to 80-ish.

 

Nancy wrote to thank me for bringing everyone together.

“I know John agrees with me in saying that it was a very enjoyable and heartwarming experience to talk with everyone. It was a privilege to meet such kind, thoughtful and intelligent young people as Midori and Ayumi. They have such a bright future ahead of them.”

Indeed.

 

Enchanting Eagle Lake

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Morning silence enhances the feeling of tranquility on Eagle Lake.

Some things just never get old. In the dozen years we’ve been vacationing on Orcas Island, we’ve never failed to visit Eagle Lake, a picturesque body of water that inspires feelings of tranquility.

Walking around the perimeter on the Lake Trail not only encourages you to slow down, it requires it on the eastern shore. You’ve got to watch your steps on the narrow path that takes you to the water’s edge. Tree roots poke up here and there as the trail twists and turns beneath towering Douglas firs that provide shade and silence.

Lori and I took two walks at the lake during last week’s stay at our cabin a mile away. The outings were perfect bookends to our visit, giving us a chance to soak up sunshine and fresh air when we weren’t relaxing indoors.

Charlotte came along and gave us a mild workout. When this city dog gets into the outdoors, she’s overcome by all the animal scents (deer, otter, squirrels, waterfowl) and goes into Iditarod mode. Imagine a 15-pound terrier mix straining on her harness as if she were leading a pack of huskies through the Alaskan tundra.

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Charlotte the Explorer checks out some new turf.

We’ve walked this trail countless times (I’ve run around it too) and I always feel better after having done so. There’s a timeless beauty to these placid waters that makes even an amateur photographer look good.

We’ve seen bald eagles (hence, the name of the lake), osprey, Canada geese, turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, mallards and other ducks on or above the water. On a solo run a few years ago, I witnessed a great horned owl in flight. Magnificent.

Eagle Lake holds a special place in our family. Aside from the Lake Trail, we’ve taken canoes out onto the water, played Scrabble at a dockside table, enjoyed potlucks with other residents and, most memorably, held a pre-nuptials dinner here to celebrate Simone and Kyndall’s wedding three years ago.

Some things just never get old.

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Hand-crafted signs mark the way.

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The trail provides views like this.

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Mid-morning sun glints off the water’s surface.

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Even tree branches make room for views like this one.

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Is there a better place to relax than a couple chairs in the shade?

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A sturdy shelter provides a gathering place for potlucks and barbecues.

Goodbye, summer. Hello, fall.

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George and Lori take a break during a hike at Coho Preserve on Orcas Island.

We’ve been coming up to our Orcas Island cabin for 12 years running. Until now, I don’t think we’d ever been here during the change of seasons.

Well, now we can check that box.

Friday, September 22nd, was the fall equinox and it marked the end of a weeklong stay at our place above Eagle Lake. On this trip, our third this year, it was just Lori and me and our little whiskered rascal, Charlotte.

This summer was brutal, with way too many 100-degree days and then the devastating wildfires that torched the Columbia River Gorge and ruined the air quality for several days. I don’t think I’ve ever been more ready to greet autumn.

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This was a quiet week, even by our usual standards. Thanks to a still-sore ankle I developed during a routine run around Mountain Lake on our last visit in June, we didn’t try to do too much that would further strain my Achilles tendon.

We confined ourselves to a couple of walks on the Lake Trail around Eagle Lake, took several short walks up the hill above our house, and made time for one lovely hike at a new spot — Coho Preserve, just above Buck Bay.

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Eagle Lake: beautiful from any angle.

The San Juan County Land Bank negotiated the donation of 24 acres of private woodland that it’s turned into an easily accessed trail with a loop that takes you on shaded switchback trails past Cascade Creek and a series of mini-waterfalls. It’s really gorgeous. And although the trail might be a tad steep for some, my ankle didn’t bark at all during the ascent or descent.

We went into Eastsound just once for lunch, groceries and light shopping. The village has about 2,000 residents and it’s the island hub for commercial activities of all kinds. Lori made a dietary concession and we ate burgers at the Lower Tavern, one of my favorite spots on the island.

For once, we didn’t go to any bookstores. Fittingly, however, I finished a book that I had purchased here at least one summer, maybe two, earlier. It was “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest,” the last in the crime trilogy by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson. Lori, meanwhile, read two collections of short stories — one by Portland author Kate Carroll de Gutes, the other by the acclaimed Irish writer Colum McCann.

We went out to dinner just once. We joined our friends, Carl and Juliana, at Rosario Resort for appetizers and wine. It was a fun evening catching up with each other while noshing on everything from lettuce wraps to cheese-and-charcuterie to salt-and-pepper sand shrimp.

Most of the time was spent here at the cabin. And, believe me, there’s nothing to complain about when you’re relaxing in a dozen different ways: Reading. Watching movies. Playing Scrabble. Building a woodstove fire to warm the house. Filling the bird feeders and watching the various species — juncos, towhees, sparrows, grosbeaks — come and dine.

We cooked our own meals — duck eggs for breakfast; fresh clams and oysters for dinner. We watched barge traffic on the water far below us, with Bellingham in the far distance. Mostly, we enjoyed the silence — the utter silence — that envelops this place. Nothing compares to pausing on a walk in the woods and hearing … absolutely nothing. Not even a bird.

Monday brings a return to work for both of us. Lori picks up where she left off with her personal training clients and group fitness class. I start a new Media Literacy class at Portland State after five weeks away from the classroom.

I know I’ve said many, many times but spending seven days here has been good for the heart, the soul and our relationship. Now if only we could stay for another week.

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The view at dawn from our cabin.

New space, new author

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Kate Carroll de Gutes welcomes the crowd to her Sept. 14 book launch at the Fremont Theater.

Last Thursday was one of those nights that captures the essence of what it’s like to live in this city: a melding of books, bites, music and friends, all done without leaving our zip code.

Our friend Molly Holsapple invited Lori and me to join her and others at a book launch featuring local author Kate Carroll de Gutes at the Fremont Theater. And, oh, could we meet beforehand for drinks and a light dinner at the Italian restaurant across the street?

Well, sure.

I hadn’t heard of de Gutes and I didn’t even realize the Fremont Theater existed. Unbeknownst to me, it opened as part of a new building that went up about two years ago at the corner of Northeast Fremont Street and 24th Avenue, about a mile from our home,

Going to this free event would be a good way to get acquainted with both author and venue. Turns out both were eye-openers.

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Kate Carroll de Gutes reads from “The Authenticity Experiment.”

Kate Carroll de Gutes is a Portland writer who was promoting a new book, “The Authenticity Experiment,” a collection of essays that began as a 30-day blogging challenge to be more honest about her life. Her first collection of essays, “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” had won an Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction and a Literary Lambda Award for memoir/biography.

On Thursday, de Gutes was finishing a three-city tour of Bend, Seattle and Portland with a book reading that felt like we were in someone’s living room.

The Fremont Theater seats about 120 people in an intimate space with a small stage at one end and a bar at the other. The building has a 22-foot-tall ceiling and two levels. Little did I know this place has been hosting live music, theater and other events for some time.

In fact, the evening began with a short set performed by local folk musicians Steve Einhorn and Kate Power, a married couple who are also former owners of Artichoke Music in Southeast Portland. The duo set a warm, welcoming tone with four songs featuring vocals, acoustic guitars and Steve’s ukelele.

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Kate Power and Steve Einhorn performed four songs as a warm-up for the book reading.

de Gutes was charming and relaxed, with a large number of friends in the audience. Hip from head to toe, came out in a bow tie and polka dot shirt, Levi’s and a pair of black Converse. Her essays were beautifully written — concise, compelling, humorous, sad and, above all, authentic — in tackling topics of death, friendship, family and grief. Within a single year, she said, her mother, best friend and editor-mentor all died. Blogging was a way to cope.

“I kept writing because it kept me sane,” she said.

We bought the new book and Kate signed it. Lori’s already read it and pronounced it a winner. I’m still pounding through a 500-pages-plus novel but plan to dive into Kate’s book next.

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Kate Carroll de Gutes signs her new book for a new fan, Lori.

Thanks all around …

— To Molly for introducing us to a new author here in our city.

— To Broadway Books, our neighborhood independent bookstore, for supporting writers like this one and promoting literacy in our city.

— To Kate Carroll de Gutes, for doing what nonfiction writers do best — reveal something of themselves in order to address common themes that bring us together as human beings.

 

My other job

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Behind this door in a modest school building office, five staff members, including myself, work for the nonprofit Portland Workforce Alliance.

A year ago at this time, I felt like a first-grader walking into a new job at the Portland Workforce Alliance, an education nonprofit in east Portland.

This week, I felt like a second-grader returning to that job. (Well, maybe a better comparison might be a high school freshman becoming a sophomore.)

What’s the difference?

Last fall, everything was new. With a year of experience under my belt, everything is a lot more familiar — the work, the people, the acronyms, and the physical surroundings. I’ll get to each of those in more detail, but first a few words about the organization.

Portland Workforce Alliance is a small but muscular nonprofit, leveraging modest financial resources and a ton of volunteer energy to make a big impact in the lives of countless teenagers in the Portland metro area. Founded in 2005, PWA has a well-defined mission of connecting young people to great jobs.

With literally a handful of employees, it builds relationships with local employers and educators to serve up a steady diet of career-related learning experiences that introduce area high school students to jobs and careers that might have eluded them otherwise. The school year calendar is loaded with career days, field trips, job shadows, internships, mock interviews, classroom visits — and the NW Youth Careers Expo, a signature event that brings 150-plus employers and 6,000 students together for a day of career exploration at the Oregon Convention Center.

CHECK OUT A ONE-MINUTE VIDEO OF THE 2017 EXPO

PWA does all of this Career Technical Education work as a complement to our public schools. The organization has contracts with three metro-area school districts — Portland Public Schools, Parkrose and North Clackamas — that provide most of its revenue, and relies on grants and donations for the rest.

It’s an organization I’m proud to work for. As a first-generation college student coming from a blue-collar household, education is at the top of my list of professional and personal interests. With the encouragement of my parents and the help of a high school journalism adviser who recognized my potential, I was able to recognize my passion early on and get on the path that would lead to a satisfying career that spanned 40 years in various newsrooms.

Now, I’m a former journalist teaching at the college level and helping young adults acquire internships. That work fills up my weekday mornings. Fortunately, I’m able to devote three to four afternoons to part-time work at PWA. This other job does my heart good knowing I’m part of a team working to help students get started on pathways to rewarding careers in technology, architecture, health care, skilled trades and construction, and other well-paying occupations.

That feel-good energy is reinforced knowing that PWA puts extra effort into outreach at highly-diverse, high-poverty high schools where students often come from homes where no one has attended college. I know what it’s like to navigate the college application process on your own. I also know it doesn’t have to be that way. So anything my peers and I can do to demystify the process and help students explore where their interests might take them is something we embrace. Their success is our success.

***

Much of the appeal of my job lies in whom I work with.

Kevin Jeans Gail, a former neighbor, is the founding executive director of PWA. It’s his vision, energy, networking and optimism that drives the agenda and tone of what we do and how we do it. Kevin is an amazing bridge builder who brings schools and businesses together for the sake of a stronger future workforce.

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Executive Director Kevin Jeans Gail introduces student panelists at the 2017 PWA Breakfast held in advance of the Expo.

Susan Nielsen, my former co-worker at The Oregonian, is the program and communications director. She works tirelessly with principals, teachers and career coordinators to determine student interests and then works tirelessly with Portland-area employers to schedule an array of career days, classroom visits and other activities to meet those interests. She also oversees our communications, ranging from the web site to social media to newsletters. Susan does it all with good humor and a second-to-none work ethic.

Kristen Kohashi, our lone millennial, is the program manager. She is a graphic designer whose multiple talents in photography, typography and layout result in attractive and easy-to-digest fliers, brochures, posters and pamphlets. She’s our one-person IT department. In addition, she works with Kevin in managing every aspect of our related nonprofit ACE Mentor Program of Oregon, which offers intensive after-school training to students interested in Architecture, Construction Management and Engineering. Last spring, ACE awarded $75,000 in college scholarships to 16 Portland-area seniors.

Sherri Nee, also a former journalist, is the program development manager. Hired just this fall, she is the “new kid” this year. She works with Susan on the front lines with students and teachers in developing career-learning experiences that range from the construction trades to nursing to advertising and much, much more. Sherri brings previous experience with two student-focused nonprofits she helped start.

I’m the communications coordinator, primarily working with Susan on grant writing, web content and miscellaneous projects involving data collection and analysis.

READ THE STAFF BIOS

Though we have clearly defined roles, some tasks call for all hands on deck. This is most evident in the months of work leading up to the Expo, but pitching in also can take the form of assembling file folder materials or setting up a room for a meeting of the board of directors.

Speaking of which, we’re fortunate to work with a diverse group of about 30 business and education leaders who volunteer their time to support the work we do and help us recruit new companies and individuals to the cause.

READ ABOUT THE PWA BOARD 

I pinched myself last year when things fell into place at work. After I left The Oregonian at the end of 2015, I had nine months to relax and recharge. When I went back to work, I found myself starting fresh with adjunct teaching gigs at two local universities and this, the perfect part-time job — all of it revolving around the education of college and high school students.

One week into my second year on the job at PWA, things are looking mighty fine.

In Latvia, one family’s story of war, loss and survival 

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Inara Verzemnieks signs a copy of her book following her reading at Powell’s Books.

If you’re like most Americans, you need a map to remind yourself where the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are. These three countries, lying south of Finland and abutting the western border of Russia, were under Soviet rule from the end of World War II until declaring their independence in 1991.

If you’re like me, you are unfamiliar with the history, geography and culture of Latvia, a country about one-fourth the size of Oregon and with half as many people — 2 million vs. the 4 million living in this state.

But if you’re me, then you count yourself lucky for two reasons: One, for having met a talented journalist whose upbringing in Washington state by Latvian refugees served as a singular reminder of that country’s presence. Two, for having seen that young woman evolve from the earliest stages of a reporting career to a nonfiction writing professor and author of a book about one family’s tale of loss and survival during World War II and their reconnection after the war.

That writer is Inara Verzemnieks. The book is titled “Among The Living and The Dead.” And that family is hers.

amongthelivinganddeadReleased this summer, the book is a profound memoir that is at once eye-opening, soul-searing, sad and uplifting. It is the story of Inara’s grandmother, and her great-aunt, Ausma, born 14 years apart in Latvia and how their family was ripped apart during the Second World War.

Livija fled Latvia with a 2-year-old daughter and an infant son (Inara’s father) to escape the bombs and general mayhem caused by Russian troops in their zeal to drive out the German forces that had earlier invaded the tiny country. Ausma was sent away to Siberia along with her parents and disabled older brother. The two sisters would not see each other again for more than 50 years.

It is a compelling work of literature, blending historical events and geopolitical drama with family stories, Latvian folk tales, and the retelling of wartime memories that left me in awe of the human will to survive in the face of daunting physical and emotional challenges.

In short, it’s everything I hoped for — and, frankly, have come to expect — from my talented friend.

***

Twenty years ago, Inara Verzemnieks joined The Oregonian as a police reporter in one of the newspaper’s suburban bureaus. She had graduated from the University of Washington in 1996 and excelled as a summer intern on the features desk at The Washington Post.

I was The Oregonian’s recruitment director when we hired Inara late that year, and then became the bureau chief in the office where Inara launched her full-time career. I had the pleasure of editing this precocious young woman whose passion for storytelling was matched with a fierce intellect and an ability to connect unseen dots.

In short order, she moved to the downtown office, became an arts writer, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing in 2007. After 13 years at The Oregonian, she applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was accepted and now teaches in the same graduate writing program whose faculty and graduates include Raymond Carver,  John Cheever, Ann Patchett, Jane Smiley and Marilynne Robinson. (In fact, her prose reminds me very much of Robinson in tone and precision.)

When Inara visited Portland in late July to read from her book, more than 100 former colleagues and subjects of her stories in Portland crowded into the room at Powell’s Books.

(Click on images to view captions.)

She told us she’d been collecting stories about her family for years, growing up in Tacoma with her refugee grandparents and occasionally visiting her Latvian relatives, but the book began in earnest in 2010.

“Because I’m interested in people’s stories, I became a storykeeper,” she told us. “It took a while for me to put myself inside those stories. It took a long time to see what part of that story was mine.”

“Taking time allowed me to discover who I was,” she added. “I was trying to do the journalist’s dodge (of writing about others rather than one’s self). I realized I couldn’t tell a story without telling my grandmother’s story…or my own story.”

***

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Inara with a precious keepsake, the scarf that belonged to her grandmother Livija.

It is in the telling of these individual stories — of Livija’s survival of years as a refugee, of Ausma’s endurance during unimaginably harsh conditions in Siberia, and of Inara’s epiphanies in researching her family’s past — that one is able to better grasp the horrors of war and its effects on innocent civilians. Knowing what they have survived makes it all the more remarkable to appreciate their efforts to reconnect as siblings, husbands and wives, parents and children and to share those stories with grandchildren like Inara.

The book serves as a microcosm in so many respects.

  • It lays out a condensed history of the Latvian people and the culture they have proudly maintained through the centuries in a place a 13th-century pope called “the edge of the known world.”
  • It captures a snapshot of the country’s military history during the Second World War, a sad chronology of events that includes the mass deportation of men, women and children to Siberia; the murders of 70,000 Jewish Latvians by German troops and fellow Latvians; the panicked flight of Latvians escaping their homeland at the end of the war for the West.
  • It conveys, with tenderness and admiration, the resilience that enabled so many exiles to overcome the psychological and physical hardships of Siberia’s unforgiving landscape and to piece their lives together again back in Latvia.

I could quote from any chapter in the book to give a sense of the elegant writing. This paragraph, in particular, touched my heart. It is one where Inara is pointing to a portrait of her great-aunt Ausma and her brother in Siberia, posing with another couple in a room with rough white walls — the women looking off to the left, the men looking directly into the lens.

Later, in the state archives in Riga, I will find hundreds of photographs like the one Ausma showed me of the white-walled room in Siberia, the same composition, but different faces, the work of enterprising itinerant photographers who roamed the region’s remote settlements, proposing to snap the portraits of the exiles who lived there in exchange for whatever they could offer in return. Scavenged berries. Socks. Sewing needles fashioned from fish bones.

“For the exiles, it was worth the sacrifice of their most precious commodities. Portraits offered proof of life. They resurrected the banished, restored them to sight, so that it was a possible to imagine they existed once more in the world of the living. In some of the portraits, I notice the women are wearing a similar dress. It takes me a while to realize that it probably is the same dress, passed from one exile to another so that each might feel she looks her best for the photographer.

The book is getting great reviews, including this one from The Washington Post.

I’m so happy for Inara. I’m also indebted to her as one reader who’s now better informed about Latvia and enriched by her storykeeper talents.

42 big ones

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Lori and George in 1977.

Exactly 20 months after our first date and little more than a year after graduating together from San Jose State, Lori and I got married 42 years ago today.

September 6, 1975, was a typical late-summer day in San Jose, California. Hot and dry with a view of browned-out hills. We were 22 years old when we exchanged vows.

These photos, taken two years later, show just how beautiful my young bride was at that age — and how damn lucky I was (and am) to marry her.

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Lori and Gayle, a former college roommate, on a day hike in 1977.

I’ve done the math, so trust me when I say these 42 years mean we’ve now been together for 2,184 weeks and 15,330 days. Add in 11 leap years and you get a total of 15,341 days.

That translates to 368,184 hours and 22,091,040 minutes and 1,325,460,400 seconds (1.3 billion seconds).

Silly? Yes, of course.

The most important numbers? We have raised three wonderful children. And after all that time together, each of us is committed to one love, one partner, one marriage.

 

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Lori and her first husband, Tony Orlando (kidding!), against the backdrop of Central Oregon. We were living in Bend then.

For what it’s worth, most Americans marry once and stick to it.

According to 2010 census statistics, more than half of the nation’s married couples have been together at least 15 years. About a third have marked their 25th anniversaries, and 6 percent have been married more than 50 years. (Source: The Washington Post)

Photographs: Brian McCay