Rhubarb summer

rhubarb

In a summer of loss and love, rhubarb plays a symbolic role.

By Jennifer Brennock

I lost my job today. I mean, I have five jobs, most of them meaningless and labor-oriented, but this was the one that made me feel like something. It floated me when the tide was low and kept a roof over my kid’s head no matter what. It woke me predawn for a red eye ferry for six years. I walked into it and said “Good morning, class” with a genuine smile every session without fail. It tested my brain’s capacity and asked me to be better because what they learned was important. Yeah, that one.

I’m a little freaked out. In response, I’m harvesting rhubarb. I should be trimming the mean girl tomatoes, but all I care about is the emo rhubarb.

My child is already in bed this summer evening, so I’m being liberal with the wine bottle. From my view, no structure nor person can be seen, only pasture, birch, and evergreen—a Cascadian ideal. I am solo under an expanse of easy sky, but clouds lurk atop the treeline. The moon wants to be seen and the swallows dive for insects inches above my head. I can hear their wings back and forth in a spasm of feeding. There is a Brett Dennen song on the radio. Not my favorite, but he insists “It’s the life you made.”

The rhubarb is a mistake I made. I planted this blushing, awkward teen in the center of the very best bed in the garden. Inside the deer fence. Deer don’t eat rhubarb. I could have planted it anywhere else, making room for sensible broccoli, more delicate lettuce, and cheerful, knobby Brussels sprout. Instead, I am protecting something that no longer needs it. Even so, there is primordial, fantastical growth on these dogs. It’s like science fiction out here.

The music floats over the berm to the narrowing valley and pasture below. I wonder how far this sound travels at night. I turn it up.

“Who do you think you are?”

Tonight, I feel the full power of middle age. I select a stalk, grip it at the base, and twist. The decisive choice makes the most satisfying staccato of fiber breaking under force. Rhubarb harvest is imbued with more “fuck you” than any other fruit picking. With a middle finger, I tell life to do its worst. I’ve already been here. There’s nothing you can do to me that I will not survive. This is just another day. There have been worse. Days when I could not get out of fetal. The days I hiccuped from crying too much. The days I fell farther. The days I fed myself with nonfood that I will never confess to. Still, every time I got up with Invictus, not because I believed I deserved to live, and certainly not because I believed I deserved to be happy. I got up because someone smaller needed me.

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Jennifer Brennock: badass writer, artist, mother on Orcas Island. (Photograph by Melanie Masson)

Tonight, I remove the yellowed, limp, snail-trodden leaves at the base. They were the front line months ago before the plant knew it would survive new earth. The clouds are approaching slowly, as if I don’t have eyes in the back of my head. My nose fills with the fresh and bitter fruit, an olfactory stab. The wine buzz and unyielding song makes this night a syrupy date.

Rhubarb is obnoxious. Who does it think it is with those gargantuan leaves of poison? We know what you’re up to; you’re not impressing anyone, rhubarb. You are not the umbrellas you think you are.

This rhubarb summer, I am in love after rejecting him over and over for years. I managed to fabricate reasons. His desire to provide my soul with daily tenderness and my life with strong shoulders was, you know, over the top. I had to save myself; I believed these were separate things.

“Don’t be afraid of the hands you play.”

I give sun space to the stalks that need the light by pulling out the four-foot charmers. The new ones—curly, insecure entering the world, virginal—are wearing the wrong green. If a stalk is thick but short, I pardon it, ask it to grow taller with girth and confidence. Confidence begets confidence they tell me. Hot pink root tips peek through, small flames, genital-like, solidly in place and keeping steadfast to center.

I’m in love with a man who drives without shoes on and brushes his teeth in the shower and once said the words “I concur” while we were fucking. His heart has been broken in the worst way it can be, and he is still willing to go all in. You know the guy who taught you to ski? Remember how he leaned down to your cold-rosy five year-old face on the verge of tears and asked with perfect enthusiasm and a smile, “We gonna have fun today?” Remember how just then you forgot you were scared to death and how you let go of your mother’s hand without thinking and took his? That’s him. He enters sleep just like a tree falls, calls climbing Rainier “going for a walk,” and is not afraid of carrying heavy things. I am a heavy thing.

“Who do you think you are?”

rhubarb JB

“I’m in a love with a man who drives without shoes on and brushes his teeth in the shower…”

I’m the chick who writes about being alone while being a parent. These are the stories I tell. I write about falling down. I write about sex, and I write about pain. To separate things, juxtaposed, rarely intersecting, but close enough that the possibility is there. That’s my schtick. I make weird art by destroying 1950s gynecology textbooks and sticking their diagrams next to poems describing fellatio. To remind you—haunt you—that love and body are not one, and they are not to be trusted together. It’s all going to hell once you’re happy and spooning. But what happens when the sex is actually leagues away from any pain, and he loves you enough to correct you when you call it fucking? He’s not leaving tonight, and not tomorrow either, and if he’s right, I may die at his side. What happens? Will I still have words? Will I still have night gardens and disturbing poems and breaking rhubarb at the neck? Will I still come out to see the moon at 2 A.M. alone?

All good stories must be universal, and, dear reader, for you to trust me, you have to get something out of the read. So here it is: you deserve it. We all do. Each of us deserves to be loved and supported regardless of our failures and voids, past and present. You’ve said things you regret. You’ve neglected someone who was counting on you. You failed her. You couldn’t deny wanting someone else. You did not forgive him in time. No matter how hard you try, you are not enough for her. You made him into someone he didn’t like. Okay. That happened. Still, there isn’t some huge karmic punishment coming for you because of it. When the song points at you and says, “Who do you think you are? This is the life you made,” you can just say, um, yeah? So? My head is unbowed. So you planted the rhubarb in the wrong spot. You gave attention to the wrong thing. You made bad choices. You still deserve to be loved, supported, adored, and saved. You do.

The rhubarb is crowding the artichokes. I shouldn’t’ve planted those there either. The trees are blowing now and the birds have become bats. The bird-murdered strawberries won’t be moved tonight, but these fruit-stalks look like an armload of ugly miracles. I’ll make cardamom sugar for the jam this time, I think. Best go inside now. The rain is coming, and I gotta find a job before summer’s end.

***

Jennifer Brennock lives on Orcas Island in a cabin nicknamed “Slaughterhouse” for some reason that she’s not asking too many questions about. This is an excerpt from Real, a memoir-in-progress about adoption and single motherhood with conversations with the Velveteen Rabbit. Contact her for organic rhubarb $2/lb.

Editor’s note: I met Jennifer seven years ago when she was leading a creative writing workshop at the Orcas Island Public Library. She is a dazzling writer — fierce, fearless and unfailingly honest — and someone I’m proud to call my friend.

Tomorrow: Taylor Smith, I’m desperate

VOA 6.0 index page

GW field

(Photograph by Gosia Wozniacka)

An archive of who wrote what during this month of guest blog posts for 2016 Voices of August:

Aug. 1:  Anne Saker | Summer of change

Aug. 2: Alana Cox | All in for the Olympics

Aug. 3: John Knapp | On with the show

Aug. 4: Angie Chuang | Why some immigrants (heart) Trump

Aug. 5: Elizabeth Lee | This thing called retirement

Aug. 6: Gosia Wozniacka | The memory keeper

Aug. 7: Michael Granberry | America: Still ‘the beautiful’?

Aug. 8: Lillian Mongeau | Mile 17

Aug. 9: Michelle Love | Proof of service

Aug. 10: George Rede | Susie Reimer & the Humdinger

Aug. 11: Rachel Lippolis | U.S. lags on maternity leave

Aug. 12: Sue Wilcox | Last words

Aug. 13: Aki Mori | American internship in the shadow of Yellowstone

Aug. 13: Midori Mori | My visit to Heart Mountain

Aug. 14: Gil Rubio | Fate and destiny

Aug. 15: Lynn St. Georges | Impermanence

Aug. 16: John Killen | The downsizing dilemma

Aug. 17: Tammy Ellingson | Finger printed

Aug. 18: Michael Arrieta-Walden | Ripples of fear haunt kids

Aug. 19: Maisha Maurant | No room to breathe

Aug. 20: Patricia Conover | My movie star mother

Aug. 21: Parfait Bassale | The hidden script

Aug. 22: Jason Cox | The great white hope

Aug. 23: Nike Bentley | Sweet Claire

Aug. 24: Andrea Cano | A special neighborhood: Sesame Street

Aug. 25: Monique Gonzales | Pregnancy in my 40s

Aug. 26: Bob Ehlers | Back road cycling: Senses come alive

Back road cycling: Senses come alive

BE scenery

Typical Willamette Valley scenery includes the occasional turkey vulture.

By Bob Ehlers

Recently, on a very pleasant weekday afternoon, I went for a round-trip ride on one of my formerly favorite stretches of back roads, from Hopewell to Dayton on the charmingly labeled S.E. Webfoot Road.

My usual routine is to drive from my house in south Salem to  the start of wherever I plan to ride. I do this because I abhor riding in city traffic, even Salem’s. I prefer the nearby rural roads of Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties, with very little vehicle traffic and/or occasional farm tractors and combines to contend with.

Farm houses dot the roadsides, interspersed with pastoral scenes of cows, horses, llamas, alpacas grazing in the fields indifferent to my presence, even when I call out a friendly, “hello.”

Just after noon, I arrived in Hopewell, a tiny collection of homes and businesses (two) about 12 miles northwest of Salem, a place more promising in name than in appearance. I parked my truck and unloaded my bike in the side parking lot of the now-closed Hopewell Store. The sign on the side of the building promised the essentials to survival – groceries, cold beer, pop. The real estate sign in the front suggests this dilapidated, forlorn structure is an ideal location for a wine tasting room.

Forgoing the wine tasting, I rode the one block to the north end of Hopewell, passed the Hopewell Bed and Breakfast and Paintless Dent Repair (same address), crossed Highway 153 onto S.E. Webfoot Road and began my journey toward Dayton.

As I mentioned, this is one of my formerly favorite roads to ride. In the past couple of years, the road surface has become extremely rough with many expansion cracks and potholes, presenting numerous opportunities to blow out a tire and/or wreck a rim. Lightly traveled by vehicles, the feature I most appreciate for my rides, it is probably the same reason the Yamhill County road department has not deemed it worthy of timely maintenance. I’ll come to the other major downside in a bit.

Approximately 3 miles north of Hopewell is Hauer of the Dauen winery, owned by the Dauenhauer family. Apparently, the name of the winery is an intentional, but meaningless, play on the family name. The winery tasting room sign says CLOSED, possibly a permanent state of affairs.

Just beyond, abutting the other side of the road, is the southeast corner of the back side of the massive, I mean really massive, Monrovia Nursery, covering 4,700 acres with cultivated shrubs, trees and many other landscaping plants, supplying Home Depot and Lowe’s along with many of the local gardening stores. It may be the largest nursery in the state, internationally known but tucked away on these back roads.

Continuing on, a couple of miles north is the site of the other reason this is no longer one of my favorite rides.  An anonymous complex of huge, windowless, aluminum-roofed sheds with huge fans constantly in operation, this is a contract poultry production farm.

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Poultry sheds along Oregon Hwy. 153 are a source of eye-watering, nose-searing smells.

When the wind is in the wrong direction, the searing fumes of ammonia from the chicken waste are overpowering, burning my eyes, causing me to hold my breath and ride as fast as possible, dreading this part of my return ride. According to a neighbor (why they continue to live next door to this fowl – pun intended – odor is a mystery), this nameless operation apparently churns out a new batch of chickens every 14 weeks, supplying “broilers” to grocery stores, restaurants, etc. for happy-hour BBQ chicken wings and oven-roasted chicken for no-hassle meals.

Passing wheat fields, filbert orchards and vineyards and the occasional turkey vulture, I arrive in Dayton, a small town which is in the midst of wine-country gentrification. The Courthouse Square Park with its concert pavilion, fountain, and relocated 1856 military fort, is now bordered by restaurants serving gourmet brunches and lunches, wine-tasting rooms and gift shops. I paused long enough in the park to snack on a Fig Bar and enjoy the surroundings. Twenty minutes later, I’m on my way back to Hopewell.

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Courthouse Square Park sits in the middle of Dayton, a small town in the midst of wine-country gentrification.

Sadly, I think for the near future, this was my last ride on S.E. Webfoot Road. Although it passes through pretty countryside, and is mostly flat with few cars to worry about, the rough road surface and the stench of the poultry waste are reasons enough to head to my other regular cycling routes.

Bob Ehlers

Road warrior Bob Ehlers

As much as I enjoy the discovery of new roads to ride and the unveiling of various sights and sounds, I treasure the repeated journeys along familiar roads and past familiar scenes.

I know how long it takes to get from point A to point B, where the unchained dogs are in unfenced front yards. I witness subtle changes and characteristics over time — the evolution of family life in an osprey nest, a farmer’s yearly crop rotation from wheat to pumpkins to sweet corn, the ability to predict headwinds on a stretch of road, the ripening of apples and blackberries, and most importantly, being recognized as a regular passerby by the locals.

***

Bob Ehlers grew up on his family’s farm in northeast Iowa. These days, he is a retired general building contractor who lives in Salem. A long-time city dweller by choice, Bob says, “In my heart and head, I feel the greatest connection with the open spaces and farming communities in the rural areas around Salem.”

Editor’s note: Bob and I go back, way back, to when we became fathers, just days apart, and then members of the same babysitting co-op in Salem. Our wives bonded as did our sons, born just days apart, and my friendship with Bob has only grown stronger in the passing years. He’s a regular at poker, a frequent companion at Blazer games, and a guy who makes any gathering better because of his genuine Midwestern friendliness.

Tomorrow: Jennifer Brennock, Rhubarb summer

Pregnancy in my 40s

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Mother-to-be Monique Gonzales soaks up the southern California sun.

By Monique Gonzales

If you had asked me in my 20s if I wanted to have kids, I would have said no.  Even in my 30s I still had too many ambitions: yearning to travel, live in Europe, earn my master’s degree, etc.  I consider myself lucky to follow generations of women who paved the way, making it possible to have so many choices and paths in life.  It’s true that more women are choosing to start a family in their 30s and 40s now, and I’m one of them.

Did I know that a doctor would classify me as AMA (Advanced Maternal Age) at age 35 when I was 35?  Absolutely not.  In fact, I met my future husband when I was 35.  So unless I wanted to say “Bonjour, nice to meet you, want to have kids?” on the first date,  the cards of modern medicine were already stacked against me.

When we decided to embark on our fertility journey together, we hit a lot of walls.  Who knew that it was so hard to get pregnant?

I laughed at myself thinking about all the effort and worrying that went in to pregnancy prevention when I was younger.  It’s not always easy for young couples trying to get pregnant either.  I wondered if the powers that be were punishing me for not being the type of mother who always knew she would have kids and had baby names already picked out.

It took 3 years of poking, prodding and testing to start off with a clean slate.  It never occurred to me that I would have any physical issues that might prevent me from getting pregnant.  Along the way I had a couple of surgeries.  One to remove a polyp from my uterus and another to remove a massive fibroid behind my uterus.  After that one, I had to wear a balloon in my uterus for 2 weeks and take hormones in order for it to rebuild itself — fun.

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Monique Gonzales and her husband Julien Gledel.

Even though I now had a clean slate at age 42, all the doctors were telling me that I had to undergo fertility treatments — take shots to stimulate multiple release of eggs or in vitro fertilization.  They said that it would never happen naturally.  Isn’t that what they always say?!

My husband and I believed if it was meant to be, it would happen naturally and if it didn’t happen naturally, it wasn’t meant to be.  So we kept trying and were able to conceive naturally when I was 42.  We were overjoyed and surprised!  If people keep telling you something is impossible you start to believe them.  We were definitely keeping this under wraps until I was out of the miscarriage danger zone.  I wasn’t even telling myself during the early stages!

My doctor had me come in every week for an exam, inquisition and an ultra sound starting at Week #8.  Even though my pregnancy was already confirmed by a blood test, I remember the skeptical look on my doctor’s face when she did the first ultrasound.  She even said, “Well, let’s see…”  Not only was there something to see, there was something to hear!  I’ll never forget hearing the sound of our baby’s heart beat for the first time!  It still brings tears to my eyes just thinking about the marvel of human life and the love I immediately felt for this tiny being.

After Week# 10 was over, my doctor declared me out of the danger zone.  Now it was my turn to be skeptical.  I started counting back to our conception date and decided that it was too soon to be so sure.  I waited until 12 weeks from conception date (Week# 14 in the OBGYN world) to tell anyone.

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Rockin’ the bikini as a pregnant 42-year-old.

Now it was time to have fun!  I thoroughly enjoyed sharing the news with everyone and watching their reactions.  The first people I told were a bunch of strangers:  the women in my prenatal yoga class, followed by my husband’s family in France (you should have seen the looks on their faces when I turned down champagne!), then our close group of buddies, my immediate family (my sister guessed before I could make my big announcement) and lastly my new boss who is infamous for collecting secrets in the office (I surprised the hell out of him!).

I’ve been fortunate to have a fairly easy pregnancy so far considering my Advanced Maternal Age.  I try to listen to my body in terms or exercise, diet and sleep.  I have been interviewing doulas and have learned a lot from them about natural birth.  It’s been quite a ride, and I hope to give you a glowing report in October.  Wish me luck!

***

Monique Gonzales lives in Los Angeles with her French husband and 2 cats with a baby on the way.  No one knows if it’s a boy or a girl but everyone keeps saying it’s a boy so that probably means it’s a girl!  She has been practicing yoga for 16 years and aspires to become a gluten-free baker or a travel writer.  For now, she works as the finance manager at a marketing/event management company.

Editor’s note: Monique is the youngest of  my four cousins named Gonzales who grew up in Gonzales, California. No, the agricultural town near Salinas wasn’t named after them.  She and her siblings are the daughters and sons of my late Aunt Ramona, one of my mother’s sisters, and my Uncle Eddie, who was my godfather. Everyone called him “Pro” because of his owlish professorial look. He’d be proud of his youngest daughter wearing a Dodgers cap in the above photos.

Tomorrow: Bob Ehlers, Back road cycling: Senses come alive

A special neighborhood: Sesame Street

Luis-Elmo

Emilio Delgado, with his furry friend Elmo, joined “Sesame Street” in 1971 as the character Luis. (Muppet Wiki photo)

By Andrea Cano

Early on the people who populated our young baby boomer lives included Howdy Doody and Clarabelle, all the kind teachers from Romper Room and their Mr. Do Bees and Mr. Don’t Bees.

From these folks, we learned about being nice to one another, courtesies, acceptance, and affirmation. We learned to find expression in singing, dancing, laughing, and more.
Decades later, my young son Michael enjoyed others — Mister Rogers, the Electric Company, and the inimitable “Sesame Street” with Big Bird, Miss Peggy, Kermit and other residents of that happy neighborhood — Mr. Hooper, Susan, Maria, Bob, Gordon, and Luis —  an intergenerational and intercultural community first brought to you by the Children’s Television Workshop, then PBS.

Now, after 40-plus years “Sesame Street” is relocating to Nickelodeon/HBO. Word has it that the actors known as Bob, Gordon, and Luis may have “aged out” of the series. So, I called Luis himself — actor Emilio Delgado, the character who ran the Fix-It shop and a friend for years — and reminisced about his time with a program now seen or replicated all over the world.

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From left: Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman and Emilio Delgado are leaving the popular children’s show after more than four decades each as cast members. (Sesame Street photo)

To this day, Emilio says he has no idea how they found out about him. By 1970, his only TV acting credits were Canción de la Raza portraying a returning Vietnam vet and Angie’s Garage, playing his guitar and singing, both offerings on KCET, the local PBS station serving Greater Los Angeles .

Originally from Calexico, one of the Twin Cities of border towns with Mexicali being the other, Emilio says that around his 14th birthday, the family moved to Glendale, California, where he attended Glendale High, took drama classes, acted in every play, played the trombone for the marching band and the symphony, even sang in the school chorus. His theater studies continued at Glendale Community College.

By the early 1960s, few roles were available for Latinos except the romantic leads that went to Cesar Romero, Ricardo Montalban, and Anthony Quinn. Young actors were cast only as gang leaders, dope dealers, generally just bad guys. But alas, he earned his Actors Equity card performing in a summer musical with Martha Raye, and hoped for the best.

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Emilio Delgado, now 76, went from shining shoes to starring on “Sesame Street.” (IMDb photo)

“So when Sesame Street called,” he said, “I never could have imagine going to New York and keeping such ‘a day job’ for 44 years,” a distinction of being the only Latino with a consistent presence on a national TV program.

As with other actors, he also secured other roles on prime time TV and theatre.  One year, he was hired by Broadway producer Joe Papp to understudy Raul Julia in “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”  He got used to NYC winters and the different cadences and accents of the Spanish spoken throughout Manhattan.

Emilio also maintained his bicoastal relationships and was fortunate to establish roots for a while in southern Oregon with his wife Carol. Now they visit Oregon as much as possible and Emilio sometimes performs with Pink Martini.

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Andrea Cano

It appears that Emilio and his colleagues are still waiting for some clarification, but also know that their time on Sesame Street was a great run.  He says they are very much surprised and appreciative of the myriad responses and support people have voiced — from generations of people who grew up with the program.

After all, generations of children not only learned their ABCs and numbers from Luis, Maria, Bob, Gordon, Susan, and Mr. Hooper,  but also what it meant to be an intergenerational, intercultural community, and more importantly, to be familia in that very special neighborhood called Sesame Street.

***

At an age when most people are retiring, Andrea Cano continues to serve the community as a palliative care chaplain for Providence Hospital in Hood River and affiliate faculty for the Providence Center for Health Care Ethics while “creatively embracing my crone y doña status, and aging in place!”

Editor’s note: Andrea is one of those people who defines “well-rounded.” She is an ordained minister, a former journalist, a social justice advocate,  a chaplain, an educator, a foodie — even a lover of jellyfish. We met years ago when I was at The Oregonian and she was chair of the Oregon Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

Tomorrow: Monique Gonzales, Pregnancy in my 40s

Sweet Claire

By Nike Bentley

She was nine months old when we met. A petite, greyish-brown tabby showcased at Petco during one of their adoption weekend events. I signed the papers and knew as soon as I put her in the car she was the missing piece.

When I released her in my apartment she cautiously stalked around sniffing electronics, the people, and then coming back to me. Gus, my playful large white shorthair was relegated to the bedroom while she explored. He wanted to play with her, but she would have nothing of it. (Eventually he figured out she would play with him as long as he stayed under the couch’s slipcover. The game was over as soon as he showed his face.)

She came with the unfortunate moniker “Stripes,” so while she explored I tried different names on her. In the end, she was Claire. A light bringer.

2007 Claire

A month after Nike brought her home, Claire sleeps through her new owner’s bachelorette party.

Where Gus was playful, Claire was more reserved. Where Gus was reserved, Claire would crawl in your lap and purr. Together they were the perfect cat.

Claire saw me through the two months I lived alone between my roommate moving out and my wedding day. She was there when I returned from my honeymoon. But she also was a master escape artist. I spent countless hours looking for her over the course of six years before throwing my hands up and deciding she could be an indoor/outdoor cat – so be it!

She yowled through no less than four road trips to and from Eastern Oregon and endured six moves over eight years, including an accepted four-month stay with my brother while we bought a house. Her cries while we all grieved Gus’ tragic loss haunt me to this day.

This sweet kitty sat in my lap as I wrote papers and completed my bachelor’s degree. She was a comfort during my two years of clinical depression and bore witness to hidden hurts and healings. Ever the faithful lap cat, she grudgingly welcomed my firstborn and more graciously accepted the second. She saw me become an adult in my own right.

2008 Watching Birds

Dogs fetch balls and sticks. Cats sit near windows looking at birds. Any questions?

My love for her was more mature than it was for my childhood cat, Patches, who was also wild at heart but less snuggly. Claire was affectionate so it was easy to bond, but I had also grown to embrace Robert Heinlein’s mantra, “Women and cats will do as they please and men and dogs should just get used to the idea.”

It took me twenty years, but I finally accepted that you never truly domesticate a cat. Cats love adventures.

Perhaps it was that growth in me that kept me from pushing the issue when she refused to come in one night.

I had a business dinner and arrived home late. Claire met me in the driveway and walked me to the door, happily chatting all the way. When I held the door open for her and asked if she was coming in she meowed a “Nope!” and took off across the yard. My husband was also working late so I went to bed. Claire wasn’t there in the morning.

To lose a pet to a grand adventure, what I often call “a walkabout,” is a strange thing. You’re unsure when or how or if you should grieve. For three weeks I called for her morning and night. My husband and daughters canvassed the neighborhood and inquired at shelters to no avail. I mapped the most direct route from our house to our friends’, holding on the frail hope that maybe, just maybe, she decided she liked Boring better than Troutdale and estimated she would arrive in roughly ten and a half days on their porch.

She didn’t.

2011 Claire in a Bag

“I had a big purse and my cat fit in it,” Nike says. “She was not amused.”

More than two months have passed since I last saw her middle-aged chubby face. I have quietly accepted she made her choice and whatever fate befell her she was doing what she loved most – running wild. It’s a small comfort, but it doesn’t fill the void in our home her absence has brought. But, given a choice, I’d still choose to lose her to a walkabout than watching her slowly decline or have a sudden and tragic accident.

My memories of Claire aren’t marred by sickness or death’s cold grasp. The uncertainty allows for imagination, and imagination allows me to believe she’s on an expedition working towards solving our mole problem once and for all.

*

Nike Bentley is a wife, mama, and friend. An Oregon native, she enjoys hiking, harvesting fresh produce, and wearing fleece jackets while eating an obscene amount of s’mores.

Editor’s note: When I taught my first weekend seminar at Portland State University, Nike was among my students. I enjoyed having her in class and even more so have enjoyed seeing her become a college graduate, a mother and a valued employee of a nonprofit health foundation in Portland.

Tomorrow: Andrea Cano, A special neighborhood: Sesame Street

The great white hope

By Jason R. Cox

Only two reporters – I was one – attended a 2005 press conference hosted by the League of the South.

In a mostly-empty hearing room at the Tennessee State Capitol, they decried a proposed pre-kindergarten program “indoctrinat(ing) children as obedient and subservient slaves to the government.”

The League supported a society dominated by “European Americans” run by an “Anglo-Celtic” elite.

Isham-harris-by-brady

Isham Harris, a former governor of Tennessee.

They held up as a role model Isham G. Harris, the Tennessee governor who steered a reluctant Volunteer State into the Confederacy and later put east Tennessee under military occupation to deter a counterinsurgency by Appalachian Unionists.

Now it was apparent why only two members of the Capitol press corps  – this student journalist and a brand-new AP reporter – bothered to give these bozos the time of day.

It is a sad fact of life that hate groups such as the LOS are still active in the United States, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act and 150 years after Appomattox. While they continue to make noise, they have been mostly operating in the margins of American politics, with few of influence willing to touch them.

Enter Donald J. Trump.

You know about his bizarre attacks on Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals,” his vow to ban Muslims from entering the country, stating that a judge of Latino descent couldn’t possibly fairly adjudicate a lawsuit against him, and his repeated tendency to amplify hate group members and leaders on social media.

https://static01.nyt.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000004533191

White supremacists know no major party politician can dare utter their name without condemnation. That’s why when Trump hesitates to disown support from hate groups – even if he registers his disapproval later (or 16 years ago) – it is acknowledged as complicity. It is tacit permission to act a little bolder and, to hear them say it, “tell it like it is” a little louder.

So much so that Stormfront, a prominent white supremacist website and discussion forum, upgraded its servers to handle the increased traffic from what Politico described as the “Trump bump.” Stormfront founder Don Black (the irony!) said Trump’s chatter has “sparked an insurgency and I don’t think it’s going to go away.” Former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard (and former Congressman) David Duke said that Trump has “made it OK” to talk about “incredible concerns of European Americans.”

A leader for a KKK affiliate carries newspapers with a Trump headline into coffee shops and on trains as a conversation starter for the white separatist movement.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, felt emboldened enough at the Republican National Convention to assert that contributions of white people outweighed those of other peoples’ — just another day under Trump, Republican nominee for president of the United States.

(Click on images to view captions.)

The trickle-down effect is already evident. A survey of educators reports increased bullying and harassment of children whose nationality, race or religion is targeted by political candidates:

  • In Tennessee, a Latino child — taunted by classmates that he will be deported and trapped behind a wall — asks every day in fear, “Is the wall here yet?”
  • In Montana, a fifth-grader told a Muslim student that “he was supporting Donald Trump because he was going to kill all of the Muslims.”
  • And in Oregon, a K-3 teacher reports black students are “concerned for their safety because of what they see on TV at Trump rallies.”

In case anyone was doubting, recent events have laid bare hard truths about racism in America. There is a strong case that the GOP has for decades subtly (and not-so-subtly) exploited growing diversity for political gain.

Despite all this, we could at least take comfort in the fact that at the presidential level, openly-expressed racism is like smoking cigarettes:

We haven’t eliminated the habit, but we have pushed it to the edges of social acceptance and made it very costly to indulge.

It was a lot cooler in 1954 than it is today.

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Jason R. Cox

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush said on national television that Islam was a religion of peace. Whatever one thinks of his politics, he was responsible enough to understand that words matter.

Meanwhile, Trump seems to take glee in pouring salt in centuries-old wounds. Whether he believes what he says or not is irrelevant. Even if he loses, the damage he has wrought won’t be fixed if he loses in November.

Candidates from Congress to constable, from Oregon to Orlando, now know that naked bigotry can still take you a long way in American politics — perhaps all the way to the White House.

Isham Harris would be proud.

***

Jason R. Cox is a communications specialist and recovering ex-journalist living in Salem, Oregon, and tweeting at @jasonrcox.

Editor’s note: Jason is the husband of Alana Cox, a daughter of our longtime friends, Tom and Elsa Guiney. He is a great guy and my favorite graduate of Middle Tennessee State University.

Tomorrow: Nike Bentley, Sweet Claire

The hidden script

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Parfait Bassale with his wife Karima and their sons, Aushti and Nouri (in daddy’s arms), at the Oregon Coast near Gearhart.

By Parfait Bassalé

What did I know? What do I know?

Throughout my teenage years and early twenties, I thought I would die young. I still can’t pin point where this belief originated from. This could have emanated from a narcissistic desire to be missed by those closest to me. It also could have been the result of a strong desire to live a consequential life which, to me, meant death as the culminating crown. After all, hadn’t Martin Luther King Jr., one of my biggest heroes, once said: “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live”?

Regardless, the outcome was that I lived with passion, conviction and carelessness. Three seemingly lofty and desirable attributes that hid a deeply rooted aversion to adulthood: bills, workplace politics, responsibility, social gatherings and conflicts to name a few. To die young meant an escape; a shortcut to the finish line.

What did I know?

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Parfait Bassale is the father of two handsome boys, Nouri (left) and Aushti.

This script I had imagined for my life, was too short sighted and too conventional. It was unoriginal. Rooted in what had already been, it failed to draw from the realm of what could be. Skewed by stories I had heard, it lacked the creativity of the Master storyteller who never tells the same story twice nor repeats the same point identically.

Having lived through various stages and milestones of adulthood — marriage, parenthood, illness, loss, broken dreams, professional career — I am now humbled by life and repent from the arrogance that once birthed the presumption of knowledge.

What did I know?

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A restaurant meal in Beirut,  Lebanon, floods the senses and reminds the author that  “I wish to see and experience more of creation: places, foods, cultures, people.”

Ironically, I now want to live long; create memories and witness more. I wish to enjoy my family and make new friendships. I wish to see and experience more of creation: places, foods, cultures, people. And to introduce people to God’s Providence. So many things I would like to do, say, share, sing. But oh wait,

What do I know?
I can only pray that I make it through today.
That I live to see one more day
Through play or words, I sing
That the way isn’t found in yesterday
But rather paved as we step by faith.

That I know…

***

A Benin-born artist, educator and speaker, Parfait Bassalé is the founder of the Colombe Project, a Peace Education Enterprise that brings engaging empathy workshops to audiences internationally (www.parfaitonline.com).

Editor’s note: Parfait is one of those people who makes you feel optimistic about the human race. Our paths first crossed when I was at The Oregonian and he was finishing a graduate degree at Portland State. From there, we became next-door neighbors (briefly), friends and fellow parents.

Tomorrow: Jason Cox, The great white hope

My movie star mother

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Like so many in the Sixties, Joan was a do-it-all housewife during the week. On Saturday nights, she transformed into her real self — a glamorous woman made up for a night on the town.

By Patricia Conover

Most of the time, my mother was what is dismissively called “a housewife,” although in truth, housework was the least of it.

She was the wife of a hard-driving executive who left home before we awoke, and returned after we were asleep. She was the mother of five children. She was a dutiful daughter whose parents lived nearby. My mother’s parents depended on her for doctor visits and beauty parlor appointments and trips to the library.

My mother did everything, from driving the kids to school and fencing practice and ballet lessons, to shopping for and preparing every meal, to picking up prescriptions, to painting the kitchen, to planting the garden, to mowing the lawn.

She usually wore starched white cotton blouses (a habit from her years at Villa Maria Academy, a Catholic boarding school in New York) and khaki trousers, ironed to within an inch of their lives. She seldom wore makeup. She tied her chin-length chestnut hair up in a short ponytail, sometimes with a pen stuck in the elastic band so that she could find it easily when she had to sign a school permission slip or write a grocery list.

We lived in a typical 60’s style colonial in New Jersey, with swings and fruit trees and a backyard that stretched to a running brook with tiny iridescent fish. When we were bored, my brother and I walked to the golf course at the end of our street to sell lemonade to men wearing plaid trousers.

My mother’s life was constrained by children and the house that contained them.  Although she had studied art, and the hall closet was crammed with her paintings of blossoming cherry trees or fields of lavender, she rarely lifted her easel off its hook in the garage, where it was wedged unceremoniously between rusting bicycles and old snow tires.

Like every fairy tale, my mother’s story during those years had a little magic in it, when her world shimmered with the same palette as the paintings in the closet. The magic happened when my mother became someone else entirely. During those few hours she came to life before my eyes, like Cinderella after her fairy godmother arrives.

The glamorous woman my mother became on these occasions seemed to me to be my real mother. I wasn’t crazy about the barefaced, pony-tailed mother. I preferred the movie star mother. It took me years to realize that a woman can have many roles, and that each one has its own dignity, beauty and importance. You don’t have to choose just one.

My mother’s metamorphoses occurred on Saturdays when she dressed for a night out on the town with my father. As I grew up, these formal evenings became more and more rare, as our family expanded and my mother’s responsibilities increased. But when I was very young, she and my father went out fairly regularly, and she established a routine for getting ready.

Now, all those fairy tale nights have coalesced into one memory: It was an anniversary or a birthday, and my parents were going to a Broadway show. I can’t recall what they saw. I only remember what happened in my mother’s bedroom before she went out the door.

In those early years, as my mother prepared, I sat quietly on her white chenille bedspread and watched her “put on her face.”

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Joan holds her first-born child, the author’s brother.

It was the Mad Men era. Mother sipped a dry martini. She was not a big drinker like the characters on the television show, but there was nothing wrong with a martini while preparing one’s face for an evening out. It took the edge off. (To this day I am addicted to Spanish olives.)

My mother had spent most of the afternoon at the hair salon, and her dark mane was perfectly coiffed. Her hair framed her heart-shaped face, a delicate wave brushing against her chin on each side.

I can close my eyes and see her, sitting at her mirrored vanity table, applying her makeup. A child of the forties, the lessons of the great film legends were not lost on her. As a teenager coming of age in Manhattan, she devoured all the beauty magazines. She learned how to accentuate the positive from publicity stills of stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe.

Mother always used a new makeup sponge to apply a light coat of foundation. Next came the rose powder blush, which she applied with a thick sable brush. Then, she carefully shaded the hollows beneath her cheekbones with a darker shade of pink.

Mother curled her dark eyelashes and piled on black-as-night mascara. Her eyes, which she described as “hazel,” were actually a mossy green, fringed with a halo of dazzling gold. Her irises looked like tiny dark suns with shining golden rays.

I once told her that she had eyes like a lioness. My father agreed and said that she should, because she was one.

Once, I told her from my perch on the bed that I thought she was using too much mascara. This was later on, after I had begun reading Seventeen magazine, which declared the natural look “in.”

She turned to me and said, “I don’t follow trends. I do what works for me. Don’t forget to do what’s best for you when you’re a grown-up.”

Now, the recommendations my mother gave me in those days seem decidedly metaphorical, but at the time, her advice just seemed like a make-up lesson to remember.

Mascara applied several times, Mother stood and walked into her closet.

She drew her dress carefully out of its sealed hanging black storage bag, which looked a little like a shroud. She slipped the dress over her head and said, “Zip, please.”

I hopped off the bed to zip her up. Mother had several fabulous dresses, most of them several years old, but that didn’t matter. Everything she owned was classic and timeless.

And there was another lesson: A dress doesn’t have to be new or trendy to be sensational.
That goes for dresses and just about everything else, too.

I loved the cocktail dress she chose. It fit snugly at the bodice and flared at the waist. The sleeveless top was black velvet and the skirt was white brocade. Mother took great pride in her twenty-four inch waist.

Smoking a pack of Winstons every day helped her keep her weight down through five pregnancies.

She stepped into black patent leather pumps and checked to be certain that her nylons were perfectly aligned.

Now that she was wearing her dress, my mother did not sit down again. She leaned into the mirror and lined her lips with a thin brush. Then, she filled her lips in with deep bluish-red lipstick. She only had three lipsticks, all Revlon, in shimmering golden tubes, lined up like little toy soldiers on a mirrored tray. She used the same colors, one red, one pink, one coral, year after year.

A lipstick doesn’t have to be new or trendy to be fabulous. I was learning, but I didn’t know it yet.

Lastly, my mother sprayed some Chanel #5 into the air and walked into it. This was so characteristic of her. She didn’t believe that one should spray perfume directly on the skin. Whenever we went shopping at Bonwit Teller or Bloomingdale’s, perky young things rushed toward us, perfume bottles aimed at our necks, chirping, “L’air du temps?” I always said oh yes, please do, but my mother replied firmly,  “No, thank you.” The idea of a stranger spritzing a perfume that was not her particular scent on her was not something that she found remotely appealing.

I looked at the clock on the bureau: 6:00 p.m. Mother opened her little black onyx jewelry box and selected the pearl necklace with the gold daisy clip, an engagement gift from my father. She fastened the necklace quickly. She never pierced her ears, and hated the way clip-on earrings felt, so she never wore earrings.

Mother hurried back into her closet.

I adored this particular part of the preparations, although I knew it as the signal that our evening ritual was about to end.

I waited silently on the bed. This was the end of the show. The curtains were about to close.

In moments, my mother would leave. I would hear the car door shut firmly and the engine start. I would watch out the window as the car backed out of the driveway and snaked up the road.

I fought the urge to wrap my arms around her and beg her to stay home. I was afraid of cars driving through long tunnels or over tall bridges, of sirens, of telephone calls bringing bad news in the middle of the night.

But I did not say a word. I was not averse to tantrums, but even at my tender age, before I understood what it means to be a wife and a mother, I knew instinctively that I should not ruin her moment.

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Patricia Conover: Back in the U.S.A.

Soon I would sit calmly in front of the black-and-white television until our babysitter, Jayne, commanded my brothers and sister and me to brush our teeth and climb into our narrow beds.

But not yet.

Now, Mother was standing before me.

“How do I look?”

She was wearing her white mink coat, the one with the tapered sleeves, shawl collar, and deep satin-lined pockets.  It was my favorite, the coat I wore when I pretended that I was Cinderella going to the ball.

“You look like a movie star,” I said.

That was our code for goodbye.

Sometimes, I closed my eyes in anticipation of the last image of my “show.”

Sometimes I imagined a different ending, but it was always the same.

My mother smiled broadly and kissed me ever so lightly on the forehead, on my fringe of bangs.

She couldn’t kiss me on the cheek. That would have smudged her lipstick.

***

Patricia Conover is a writer, editor and photographer who recently returned to New York after living in Paris for ten years. Patricia has published poetry, short stories, personal essays and hundreds of articles and reviews. She also has taught writing, journalism and new media at EFAP, L’École de communication (the School of Communication) in Paris. Follow her on Twitter: @ParisRhapsody.

Editor’s note: Early in my career at The Oregonian, I met Patricia when she was a young mom who had just moved to Portland from New York. She successfully pitched some story ideas to me and things took off from there. She is a gifted writer whose work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The International Herald Tribune, among other places.

Tomorrow: Parfait Bassale, The hidden script

No room to breathe

By Maisha Maurant

I knew it was a bad idea. But I did it anyway.

I had to be at the airport the next morning at 4 a.m. I was flying to Maryland for my sister’s 40th birthday celebration.

I was really looking forward to the trip – family and friends hanging out for a long weekend at the National Harbor. Plans included a wine tasting at a Virginia vineyard, a dinner by a private chef and lots of down time for everybody to catch up.

But I knew the road to getting out of town was going to be rough. I had big hurdles to clear at work leading up to my trip.

To manage everything, I took precautions. I found a semiformal dress and my sister’s present a couple weeks in advance. Took the day off before my flight.

Then I negated all of that. Hours before my flight I decided to stop by the office. Even though I was off, I had gone in earlier. I was going back because I left my laptop there and needed “just to wrap up a few things.”

And here lies the problem. When it comes to my work life, I have a big problem setting parameters.

DavidAllenQuoteIt’s not a new issue. For years, my managers, colleagues, mentors, parents, family, friends – even the housekeeping crews – have told me that I need to draw a line between work and home.

I’ve known that they’re right. But I never really did anything about it.

So it’s no surprise that I found myself rushing home from the office to finish packing. I was running late for the airport. I hadn’t slept at all.

I was a mess. I’m the person who is typically at the airport two hours before a flight. At this point, I was pretty sure the plane would leave without me. But I had to try to get there.

Because I was late, I couldn’t park in my normal spot at the airport. So I’m rushing and trying to read the parking signs so I wouldn’t drive in endless loops around the airport. I didn’t have that kind of time.

I find parking and, thankfully, the shuttle for the terminal is pulling up. I take this as a sign from God that this is all going to work out. But I still run. I jump out of the car, grab my purse and my bag and just make the shuttle.

I take a deep breath, think positive thoughts and try sending a telepathic message to the driver to go faster. As soon as the shuttle stops, I jump out first. After a few minutes of speed walking, I experience absolute horror.

I got off at the wrong terminal. I have to wait for another shuttle.

I wasn’t going to make the plane. So I reach into my purse to call my sister. And that’s when I realize that I left my cell phone in the car.

I let loose a string of curses in my head. But I couldn’t be mad at anyone but myself. And I was. (Mad, too, at the shuttle driver who showed up and turned on his “not in service” sign.)

I had sabotaged myself. As I stood there waiting, I ran through the last 24 hours.

I knew I’d do whatever it took to still get to Maryland. But what should have been fun had turned into a sleepless, stressful journey.

This wasn’t the first time that I prioritized my work over my personal life. I’ve canceled dates and skipped social events. I was used to operating this way.

But, finally, it seemed ridiculous. It didn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t have been this way.

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Maisha Maurant: Striving for a better work-life balance.

I’ve been using responsibility and work ethic to cloak an unwillingness to change. I need a life outside of work. And I need to stop creating obstacles to that.

The shuttle eventually came. Rather than go back to the car for my phone, I decided to go on to the terminal and figure out from there how to get on another flight.

Thanks to a shuttle driver with a sense of urgency and TSA Pre✓®, I was able to quickly get through security. I made my flight.

Still, the whole ordeal stuck with me. I can’t say for sure why this particular incident made such an impression on me.

Maybe it was knowing that I would have disappointed my sister. Or maybe I’m finally tired of feeling like I’m always at capacity with little breathing room.

Whatever it was, I’m starting to take steps to better balance work with everything else in my life. I love my work, but I also need to make guilt-free time for the other things I love: traveling, books, concerts and spending time with my family and friends.

Is it going to be easy? Nope. In the past week, I’ve left work when I normally would have stayed. And I still felt torn about it.

But at least I’m working on it.

David Allen quote: sonotorganized.com

***

Maisha Maurant manages a team of strategists, writers and designers at a health care insurance company in Michigan. She is also the chief corporate editor. In the past year, she’s been making time to fulfill her bucket list of live performances, which has included Janet Jackson, Sting, Culture Club, Brian McKnight and Boyz II Men.

Editor’s note: When I think of Maisha, the words “sunny” and “sparkly” come to mind. I had the great pleasure of meeting Maisha at a job fair in Detroit when she was a Wayne State University student and I was a wet-behind-the-ears recruiter for The Oregonian. She came to Portland for a summer internship in 1995. We reconnected earlier this year when she returned to attend a national convention here. It’s so gratifying see how a young writer with potential has become a professional editor and manager.

Tomorrow: Patricia Conover, My movie star mother