Zora! A timeless Black voice

Any serious reader of literature knows the writers Toni and Maya by their first names alone. Such is the fame of the Nobel Prize winners Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.

But there is a third African American woman who belongs in that pantheon of first-name-only authors: Zora Neale Hurston.

Some of you may have read her best-selling classic, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” If you haven’t, and you aren’t familiar with her work, let me introduce you to one of the most productive and influential writers during the Harlem Renaissance. a period of intellectual, social and artistic expression from that blossomed during the 1920s.

Centered in Harlem in New York City, and producing such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, those were years known as a Golden Age of African American culture.

And Zora was right in the middle of the movement, as a writer of four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, and over 50 short stories, essays and plays. Most in this new collection of stories were written after Hurston left Howard University and moved to New York City in 1925, where she enrolled as Barnard College’s only black student.

None other than Toni Morrison called her “one of the greatest writers of out time.”

***

I was introduced to Zora way back in the mid-’80s, when I took a literature class during a sabbtical year at the University of Michigan, and read “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

Published in 1937, the novel focuses on the experiences of Janie Crawford, a beautiful and determined fair-skinned black woman, who returns to Eatonville, Florida, after several years gone, and finds herself the object of gossip. Seems that Janie, a recent widow, had left town with a younger man of lower social status named Tea Cake. Complications ensued.

I loved the book. Yet I hadn’t read anything more by Zora — until now.

So imagine my delight when I came upon the newly released “Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick.” The hard-cover book was calling out to me in pristine condition from a Free Little Library box just around the corner and up the street.

It’s a collection of 21 Harlem Renaissance stories penned by Hurston from 1921 to 1934, gathered in one volume for the first time. Several of the stories were only recently discovered in black periodicals and archives, never before published in the mainstream.

Presented in chronological order, the first few stories are set in Eatonville, the Florida town where Hurston grew up, and are strongly rooted in the Black folk culture of the Deep South. They are followed by eight “lost” pieces that Hurston wrote about middle-class characters in Harlem adapting to urban life during The Great Migration, when more than 2 million African Americans left the rural South between 1910 and 1940 for industrialized northern cities.

The contrast in settings is vivid but the thematic content is consistent. As explained in a lengthy introduction by the book’s editor, Genevieve Ward, Hurston wrote about the politics of race, gender and class, as well as love and marriage. Flirting and romance pop up often, as do lying and cheating, domestic violence and revenge.

In her Harlem stories, Hurston goes further, as her characters confront issues of identity, just as their real-life counterparts did in trying to build new lives as northern migrants.

As West notes, they faced collective and individual challenges as they encountered new expectations for dress, speech, education, religious practice, and entertainment. What clothes should they wear? How should they speak? How should they adapt, finding themselves jostling among strangers on bustling city streets rather than gathering languidly with familiar faces on a front porch in a country town?

Zora Neale Hurston: Born in 1891, in Alabama, grew up in Eatonville, Florida, died in Fort Pierce, Florida, in 1960. (Courtesy of Barbara Hurston Lewis and Faye Hurston)

The Eatonville stories read like cultural anthropology come alive. The characters’ language reflects the folk traditions and regional dialect of those times — something that Hurston chose to present despite criticisms that doing so furthered stereotypes of African Americans.

The book title itself is just one example of the idioms found throughout these stories. “Hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick” means to achieve a goal that seems to be in contradiction to the means by which it was accomplished.

In one of her stories, Hurston describes it as “making a way out of no-way” or “(w)inning the jack pot with no other stake but a laugh.”

Another of her stories begins with a woman yelling at her young granddaughter to help with chores.

“You Isie Watts! Git ‘own offen dat gate post an’ rake up the yahd!”

“Lawd-amussy!” she screamed, enraged — “Heah Joel, gimme dat wash stick. Ah’ll show dat limb of Satan she kain’t shake huhself at me. If she ain’t down by de time Ah gets dere, Ah’ll break huh down in de lines” (loins).

But Hurston also writes with simple, descriptive details that bring her scenes to life, as she does in describing “a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement.”

“(T)here was something happy about the place. The front yard was parted in the middle by a sidewalk from gate to door-step, a sidewalk edged on either side by quart bottles driven neck down into the ground on a slant. A mess of homey flowers planted without a plan but blooming cheerily from their helter-skelter places. The fence and house were whitewashed. The porch and steps scrubbed white.

“The front door stood open to the sunshine so that the floor of the front room could finish drying after its weekly scouring. It was Saturday. Everything clean from the front gate to the privy house. Yard raked so that the strokes on the rake would make a pattern. Fresh newspaper cut in fancy edge on the kitchen shelves.”

***

I’ll be honest. The quality of stories in this volume is uneven, as they are bound to be in any collection by a single author. But, considering these stories were written nearly a century ago, Zora has my complete admiration. How much racism and sexism and financial obstacles do you suppose a black woman faced anywhere in America in the 1920s, let alone in a publishing industry dominated by white men?

Zora Neale Hurston’s legacy endures decades after the Harlem Renaissance. (Credit: The American Reader)

These days it seems like everyone with a conscience is reading something written by a Black author. Better late than never, I say.

But I think there’s something rich to be gained by reading the stories imagined decades ago by a pioneering Black woman. They are sad and funny, poignant and political. They are of a specific time and place that deserve to be remembered. In fact, they were written in the years just before Maya (1928) and Toni (1931) were even born.

Sadly, Hurston died penniless and in obscurity at age 69 in 1960. However, the writer Alice Walker, who grew up in nearby Georgia and won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Color Purple,” was so moved by her predecessor’s work that she commissioned a memorial stone at Zora’s gravesite.

Engraved are the words: “A Genius of the South.”

Marquam Nature Park: Hiding in plain sight

I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “gobsmacked” in a sentence, spoken or written. But I’m using it here because I was truly astonished at what I finally experienced last week: the beauty of Marquam Nature Park.

How could I have lived in Portland for 35 frickin’ years and never have set foot in this urban gem?

How could I have missed it during the four years-plus that I methodically completed 20 urban hikes set out for me in Laura O. Foster’s “Portland Hill Walks”?

I mean, this is a 200-acre natural area nestled in the midst of several Portland neighborhoods that includes a portion of the Marquam Trail, which is itself part of sprawling Forest Park, where I’ve run so many times over the years.

It’s a quiet, scenic getaway offering shaded dirt trails beneath a canopy of towering trees and it’s just a couple miles away from the city’s downtown core — yes, the place where Portland cops, racial justice protesters and right-wing counterprotesters have been clashing regularly for more than 100 straight days.

Marquam Nature Park also includes a linear trail and connection in the 40-mile Loop system that encircles much of the city. The linear trail starts at Willamette Park, passes over Council Crest, and connects with the Wildwood Trail in Washington Park.

Could the city’s third-largest park have been hiding in plain sight all this time?

Yes, it could. But here’s the deal.

The entirety of the park is located in the Southwest hills of Portland, the one part of the city that I’ve spent the least time in. Getting out there requires crossing the river, which isn’t an issue. The bigger factor is that most of my friends in Portland live on the east side, so I do nearly all my socializing here or downtown. Plus, there are no businesses that I patronize in Southwest and, with one exception (Fat City Cafe), no restaurants where I regularly eat.

So maybe I sorta, kinda do have an excuse for not discovering Marquam Nature Park earlier.

***

I went out on a Monday morning, equipped with a wrinkled-up map that I picked up by chance on a different hike in the Hillsdale neighborhood. I was aiming to start at the Marquam Shelter and Mosaic, just off SW Sam Jackson Road near Oregon Health & Science University, but my GPS took me instead up Broadway Drive and to a slightly different starting point near the intersection of SW Sherwood and Nottingham Drives.

Had I been more familiar with the route, I would have started on the north side of Sherwood Drive and headed down toward the Marquam Mosaic, a public art project featuring ceramic and mosaic art and poetry. But I started on the south side of the street because that’s where I spotted the trail marker, indicating the way to Council Crest Park, a civic landmark I’d also just recently become familiar with. This meant an uphill climb in the opposite direction, but that was fine with me.

I was on the trail for about two hours total, including time spent at the top of Council Crest, the tallest point in Portland at 1,071 feet above sea level.

At the start of my hike, I was looking into backyards and rear views of big-ass homes built right next to the trail. As the path wound higher, a number of folks walking solo or in pairs or trios passed by me. At one juncture, there were three young women, two of them wearing Portland State jerseys, so I imagine they were soccer players. (Had they been members of the cross country team, they’d be running, right?)

Occasionally, a fellow hiker had a dog. And only once did I see anyone actually running the steep trail — what looked to me like a fit mother and teenage son and they were going uphill.

One obvious reward for my trek was the time spent at Council Crest. On the morning of my hike, there were a couple of young moms with their kiddos sharing a snack beneath the water tower. There were a couple of girls climbing all over a pioneer statue. There were three guys framed by the trunk and limbs of a massive tree, peering out at the view below. And there were several silver-haired senior citizens walking on the paths around the park (geez, I guess those are my peeps now).

The way back took less time than the way in — isn’t that always the case? And when I got back to the starting point, I came upon a homeowner who was trimming a tree in his front yard. We struck up a conversation about the totem pole in his yard and the flag on his front porch.

Turns out that he carves totem poles as a hobby. He also collects flags and flies them for a week at a time. This particular day featured the Yakama Indian Nation. He gave me his business card and I promised to send him a link to this blog.

I thoroughly enjoyed my introduction to Marquam Nature Park. I’ll be going back soon — sometime after the air quality gets back to normal, once the devastating wildfires have tamped down — to check out the Marquam Shelter and Mosaic and other trails. After that, I plan to become a regular visitor. With seven miles of hiking trails to explore, there’s plenty to keep me busy.

See big-ass homes and a few more photos in this gallery:

You’re welcome, Cleveland. Sorry, LeBron James.

As book titles go, “The Whore of Akron” grabs your attention, for sure, but it’s also rather offputting in terms of tone and name-calling.

The title refers to LeBron James, the supremely gifted athlete who grew up in Akron, a fading industrial city in Northeast Ohio, and inspired long-suffering fans in nearby Cleveland to envision the day when he would lead his hometown Cavaliers to an NBA championship — only to famously take his talents to Miami, where he instead led that city’s team to four consecutive NBA Finals and two championships.

Scott Raab, a Cleveland native, a passionate Cavs fan, and a gifted magazine writer at Esquire, had the audacity to write that book in 2011, after LeBron seemingly gave up on his less-talented teammates and found glory instead with a superior squad in South Florida.

I never read that book. But I did read the followup, published in 2017, with an equally audacious title: “You’re Welcome, Cleveland: How I Helped LeBron James Win a Championship and Save a City.”

And let me tell you, it’s a sports book unlike any other you’ll read.

Just as “The Whore of Akron” won critical praise as “very funny…and also wise,” “rollicking and profane” and “hilarious, heartfelt and wincingly honest,” the sequel also showcases fine, manic — and definitely profane — writing in the Gonzo journalism style of Hunter S. Thompson while delving into professional basketball and much, much more: race, politics, class, privilege and the author’s Jewish identity.

***

I came across the newer book in August, when the NBA playoffs were just getting started, pitting my scrappy Portland Trail Blazers against LeBron’s newest team, the glamorous and heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers. I read it in three days — the equivalent of a fast break for me — and came away with renewed admiration for both James, as an athlete and political activist, and Raab, a self-described “fat Jew from Cleveland” who authored so many pieces that I gobbled up during his nearly 20 years at Esquire.

The book is part mea culpa, part memoir, and written in the style of a magazine piece with easily digestible chunks. Naturally, the narrative focuses on LeBron and his successful quest to lead the Cavs to their first and only NBA championship in 2016, ending Cleveland’s misery after 52 years without a league title.

But Raab also shines a light on himself, foibles and all, as a father and husband defined by his Jewish heritage, and as a once-struggling writer who’s gained a national audience, living in an affluent suburb of New York City and conducting celebrity interviews with Sean Penn, Will Smith and Danny DeVito, among others.

LeBron James, then with the Cavs, and now with the Lakers. (Photo credits: USA Today, Sports Illustrated)

Right up front, Raab admits he was over the top — an ass, really — when he trashed LeBron in the the first book as a traitor to the Cleveland franchise and loyal fans like himself. Sure, it was tongue in cheek. But, really, what right did anyone have to demand that James stay with the Cavs when he could — and did — sign for more money with another team, play for a better coach, and realize his own goal of multiple NBA championships?

And, really, did anyone — Raab included — ever step back to consider just how enormous the burden was on James, starting as an 18-year-old rookie who’d been raised by a single mother, to deliver a championship and bring joy to a downtrodden Rust Belt city whose professional sports teams were long typified by failure?

“Jesus, what an asshole,” Raab says of himself. “But what the hell. I at least wanted my words to leave a mark. I knew he had every right to leave, to make the call about what was best for him and his family. I myself left Cleveland in 1984, to go to writing school. Nobody offered me $100 million to stay put — my last job in Cleveland was as a nursing-home night watchman — and the hopes and dreams of a nation of fans weren’t dashed when my first wife and I stuffed our shit into a U-Haul, drugged the cats, and hit I-80 to Iowa City….

“He was the Chosen One, not me, a native son who’d spent seven seasons saying he felt our pain and wouldn’t go chasing rings. Then he did.”

Scott Raab graduated from Cleveland State, ranked 649th out of 660 US colleges by Forbes. He went on to the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop and became a Writer at Large for Esquire magazine.

Years later, Raab is sitting through a boring Yom Kippur service with his wife and teenage son when it hits him “that I owe LeBron James more than an overwitten apology. When he wrote “The Whore of Akron,” he gave no thought whatsoever “to the insult and pain my words might inflict on LeBron’s children someday.”

In truth, “I’m a boil on the armpit of the finest athlete Northeast Ohio has ever grown,” Raab concludes. A pariah.

Make no mistake. Raab knows his basketball. He also knows his football and baseball and, as a sports fan myself, I can appreciate and laugh at his historical references to Cleveland’s other star-crossed teams, the Browns and the Indians. I can also feel his fatherly pride when he introduces his son Judah, a studious type who favors a healthy, nutritious diet, to his very first pastrami Reuben sandwich, a religious experience in itself.

But the real appeal of this book lies in its straight-ahead discussion of race — “a clumsy subject for white people, fraught with guilt, denial, and ignorance.” Raab addresses the gulf between the young, rich Black men who dominate the NBA landscape and the mostly white journalists who are assigned to cover them.

He shares an anecdote about the Cavs’ young star Kyrie Irving, who played college basketball at Duke, being interviewed by one questioner who characterizes LeBron, still in his late 20s, as something of a father figure:

***

“So what type of parental role has he played for you and your teammates?”

Kyrie lowers his head, touches his hand to his forehead, and hides his eyes for a moment, as if pausing to remind himself that he isn’t a little boy, nor fatherless, that no insult was intended, that the question is prompted by needing a quote and phrased as it is out of ignorance.

The bond between black athletes and the media is one of mutual contempt and dependency. Irving must answer, not just as a professional basketball player and a young black man and someone’s son; he is also Uncle Drew. And he’s smart.

“Okay,” Kyrie says. “So you — parental role?”

He’s looking at her now, laughing quietly at her.

“He”s been a great leader for us. But I have one father — that’s my dad, Drederick Irving.”

Kyrie’s mother died when he was four years old. His father raised him alone. Kyrie looks down as he names his dad. He sounds solemn as he says the name, in full: Drederick Irving.

A father’s name is important to a son.

***

In LeBron’s case, he is surrounded after every game and practice as the team captain, asked to comment on his coach, his teammates, his opponents and himself and often on current events. Few have seized the opportunity to do so with as much visibility and influence as James.

Now 35 years old, James is widely admired by peers and fans as a leading spokesman for Black Lives Matter and educational philanthropist. Though James went straight from high school to the pros, he helped start a new public school for at-risk students in Akron, along with transitional housing for families whose children attend the I Promise School and are experiencing homelessness. The school offers GED classes and job placement services to parents and guardians, and James has pledged to cover full tuition at the University of Akron for any of the students who complete the school program and graduate from high school.

LeBron James is an MVP on and off the court. He’s given back to his hometown of Akron, Ohio, in a big way, and been a leading voice on social, racial and political issues. (Photo credit: teamjamesfamily)

James has spoken out against our racist president and spoken up for Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who was blackballed by NFL owners for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice.

In addition, he has served as executive vice president of the NBA players’ union, he is an investor, a Hollywood producer, an entrepreneur, and one of the most followed people on Instagram.

***

As the NBA playoffs continue, King James and the Lakers are in the semifinal round, having steamrolled the Blazers, and are two series wins away from playing for the championship. I don’t much care if LeBron wins another ring. What I do care about — and appreciate so much — is seeing James and his fellow NBA players taking such a strong leadership role on issues that go far beyond the basketball court.

Most recently, the NBA and the players’ union announced a plan to promote social justice and racial equality that includes converting NBA arenas into voting centers for the 2020 presidential election.

It’s not hard to see why I have so much respect for LeBron James.

The Whore of Akron? Hardly.

Sweet Mabel

Mabel, queen of her castle.

From the joy of a wedding anniversary to the sorrow of losing a beloved pet, this Labor Day weekend was one to remember.

Lori and I celebrated No. 45 on Sunday and then woke up Monday morning to the sad reality that our sweet kitty Mabel had died at age 17.

For all the attention that our tenacious terrier, Charlotte, receives on this blog, it might come as a surprise that we’ve had another pet. But, yes, Mabel has lived with us the entire 10 years we’ve been in this townhouse and for another 7 years before that. She joined our family as a “foster” cat but quickly became a permanent member of the household, even when we already had two other cats and two dogs (both pre-Charlotte).

Mabel was a beautiful brown tabby with green eyes and the mellowest personality. Everyone who met Mabel took an immediate liking to her because she would let anyone — child or adult, neighbor or stranger — rub her belly, scratch her head, and play with her, and then she’d purr like a motorboat.

Her death wasn’t sudden nor was it prolonged by some awful disease or condition. Still, we could see it coming.

On Friday, she seemed unsteady, as if she might have suffered a small stroke. She sniffed at her food and barely wet her lips.

On Saturday, she again said no to any food or water and crawled under the bed in the room where she spent all her time. Normally, she springs easily from floor to bedspread, then curls up on a pillow to sleep away the day.

On Sunday, it was more of the same. No food, no water, no bed. No moving from where she lay on her side on the carpet in the dark, quiet space beneath the mattress. It was almost as if she were in hospice, Lori said. I agreed. Add candles, soothing music and a prayer, and the scene would have been complete.

On Monday morning, the house was silent. I went to check under the bed and there she was. Mabel had turned away from the window in her room and was facing our bedroom. She had passed during the night.

***

By my count, Mabel was the 11th cat we’d owned in the years we’ve been together. She will most certainly be the last.

Jordan, our youngest child, was around 15 or 16 when Lori went out to the Humane Society one day to pick up a kitten to fulfill a service requirement at his high school. The plan was to foster the animal until it could be placed in a permanent home.

Yeah, sure. Like that was gonna happen. Of course, we kept the kitten — even though our two other cats clearly rejected her. The older ones would curl up together on Jordan’s bed and freeze out poor Mabel, who was half their size.

Well, she outlived them both and made the move with us to this home.

The dynamics here were interesting. Mabel and Charlotte did not get along at all. Fortunately, the layout of the place worked perfectly.

Charlotte spends her time with us on the main level of the townhouse. Mabel spent her time one floor above, in a bedroom that became her own. as if she were a princess in a penthouse, with food delivered daily, her litter box cleaned regularly, and her own double bed to lounge on.

When she ventured upstairs, Charlotte would bark at Mabel from just beyond the door to that bedroom, but she knew not to actually cross the threshold. With a hiss and a yowl and a flash of her claws, Mabel made it clear who was boss.

In the final months of her life, Mabel enjoyed going outside onto the deck of our bedroom.

***

Today, on Tuesday, we will take our sweet kitty to the Humane Society, a way of closing the loop on the time she spent with us.

Though Mabel is gone, we each took turns petting her soft fur and murmuring our goodbyes. Lori took a red rose from the vase and tenderly slipped it between Mabel’s front paws, a final gesture of appreciation for this gentle creature who lived her entire life indoors with us.

‘Preston Falls’: How a fictional marriage falls apart

Any successful work of fiction must have three elements going for it, in my view: a realistic narrative, believable characters, authentic dialogue.

David Gates hits the bullseye on each of these elements in “Preston Falls,” a 1998 novel that I recently picked up at a Little Free Library box in my neighborhood. What a find!

It’s a book about a middle-aged man living in the New York City suburbs who’s disillusioned with his high-stress job at a PR firm in Manhattan. Doug Willis persuades his wife to give him a couple months alone at their country home in a down-at-the-heels, blue-collar town in upstate New York, ostensibly to do some repairs on the aging house while he does some thinking about his midlife crisis.

What quickly becomes clear is that Willis is a master of procrastination and a victim of his worst impulses. While he struggles to get clarity about his future and to get anything done at the house, his wife, Jean, stays behind in their upscale home, working at her own job, paying the bills, and trying to raise two sullen, selfish adolescent kids.

You might think a 22-year-old book might feel a bit dated, but in this case you’d be wrong. The story Gates tells is a virtual time capsule of the late 1990s, when people listened to cassette tapes and still used landlines and phone booths to call each other. While the plot itself is intriguing, it is the extensive use of conversation and inner dialogue that makes this novel shine.

During the family’s end-of-summer visit to the house in Preston Falls, there are several instances where Willis (everyone refers to him by last name) and Jean talk to each other in barely civil tones, hardly masking tensions and resentments that lie just below the surface.

Later, when they are living apart for several weeks, each has ample time to recall what drew them to each other, but also to reflect upon past events, key life decisions, and their unhappy present. As a reader, you can sense what the couple may be feeling but reluctant to face — that their marriage may be beyond repair, too.

Gates tells the story beautifully, the first half of the book from the husband’s point of view, the second half from the wife’s.

Alone, Willis does a lot of reading, drinking and sleeping. He plays guitar with a local band and gets sucked into questionable relationships with a shady attorney and a redneck neighbor. When Willis falls out of touch, Jean is annoyed by his lack of communication and left to speculate on their marriage, her parenting skills and her own future.

The story takes a sharp turn when Jean learns that her husband failed to show up for work on the date he’d agreed to after a two-month leave, and that he’s gone missing. Concerned, Jean makes the five-hour drive up to Preston Falls. There she finds the country house with a broken window, disheveled and apparently abandoned.

Author David Gates

This is exactly the kind of book I’d hoped to immerse myself in during retirement. It’s engaging, relatable and well-written, and one I heartily recommend.

As for the author, I knew of Gates from his work as a magazine journalist, writing about books and music for many years at Newsweek. I didn’t realize he was a novelist, too. Somehow his first book, “Jernigan,” about a dysfunctional, one-parent family escaped me. Turns out it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

It also turns out that Gates had a pretty strong foundation for the fictional worlds he created in “Preston Falls.” According to his bio, he lives in New York City and in a small town in upstate New York. Nice.

More on Gates. Here’s an interesting Q&A he did in 2011 with the student newspaper at the University of Montana, where he was then teaching in the school’s creative writing department.

http://www.montanakaimin.com/arts_and_culture/article_7a56dcc0-5fb6-58c2-b1fc-382820388660.html

Humbled by the river

River Hugger Swim Team members head west across the Willamette River in downtown Portland.

The pool at my neighborhood gym has been closed since stay-home orders began in mid-March. Since then, I’ve spent more time than ever on my bicycle, enjoying the diversity of Portland’s neighborhoods, but also missing the routine of a morning swim.

So when a neighbor suggested a bold alternative, I had to give it some thought.

Swim in the Willamette River? Really?

Isn’t it too dirty? Isn’t it too cold? Don’t I need a wetsuit?

My neighbor, Jane, assured me the river is actually cleaner than people realize. And at 75 degrees, the water temperature is perfect for this time of year, she said. Some swimmers wear wetsuits, but most don’t, she said.

But I haven’t been in a pool for months, I protested. And I’ve never done open-water swimming.

Come join us, she implored. You’ll be fine.

***

And that’s how I wound up on the east bank of the river on a recent Monday in early August, one of two first-timers joining a pod of about a dozen experienced swimmers who belong to a group called the River Huggers Swim Team.

The River Huggers swim every day from June until September. They are organized by a not-for-profit organization called the Human Access Project, which aims to create public awareness that it’s safe to swim in Oregon’s largest river.

Roy, the other first-timer that morning, wasn’t a newbie at all. He’s a master swimmer who’s been at it since high school and college, all the way into retirement. Earlier this summer, he had gone out to swim at a different location on the Willamette and done just fine.

On this day, August 10th, we were going to swim west across the river, under the Hawthorne Bridge, to a small beach in Tom McCall Waterfront Park. It would be a quarter-mile swim and take 10-12 minutes in each direction. Roy was prepared, physically and mentally, for the challenge.

Me? First-timer all the way. First time using a swim cap. First time using a swim buoy around my waist to help keep me afloat. First time attempting a quarter-mile swim with no rest breaks.

And unlike everyone else who wore Speedos or snug Jammers, I had on the loose-fitting trunks that had served me well indoors but which now billowed out like mini-parachutes on my hips. Hardly the best material for gliding through the water.

So how did it turn out?

About the way I should have expected. Let’s say I was humbled by the experience. Maybe even a tad humiliated.

Good thing I had that bright green swim cap so I could be spotted easily. Good thing I had a designated swim buddy to keep track of me. Good thing I went in without earplugs so I could better hear any instructions. And, best of all, good thing the River Huggers had two “safety paddlers” in kayaks — as they do on every outing — in case anyone needed help.

In this case, me.

***

Let me tell you, 75 degrees may be warm to the regulars but jumping into the water shortly before 8 am was a jolt. As I dog-paddled awaiting the start of the group swim, it wasn’t feeling any warmer.

We started off and I began with a basic crawl stroke. It wasn’t long before I heard my swim buddy yell, “George! This way!”

With my glasses off and goggles on, unable to see because of the water’s turbidity, I was angling away from the group. I got my bearings and began swimming toward the others in the pod. Of course, they were already beginning to pull away.

I reached the bridge, but I was struggling to breathe fully between strokes and I could feel my energy fading, so I did what I’d been told at the outset. Roll onto your back and stick your arm straight up in the air.

My swim buddy called for help, and a safety paddler came by to fetch me. I grabbed onto a strap at the back end of the kayak with my right hand, and stuck my left arm through a life preserver ring. I had no problem swallowing my pride as I was being towed back to the dock where we began.

I made it to about where the kayaker is, far left, under the Hawthorne Bridge.

My swim buddy, gracious guy that he was, tried to cheer me up. “Hey, George! At least you made it halfway!”

True, but small consolation. I’d bit off more than I could chew and I didn’t have any excuses. I was grateful for the rescue.

I’ll confess, though, there was a moment of clarity when I was on my back, treading water as I waited for help. The river channel is about 40 feet deep in downtown Portland. Without the buoy, I realized just how easily I would have slipped under the water and drowned.

I toweled off, put on a T-shirt and shorts over my damp trunks, fetched my bike and pedaled home. I’d been humbled by the river.

***

Postscript: I went out on my own again that week and the next to Sellwood Riverfront Park, where I could practice swimming parallel to the beach in shallower water. Roy bought me a pair of Jammers and loaned me a swim buoy, and my best friend Al, an ocean swimmer in southern California, sent me a wetsuit he was no longer using.

I appreciated the gear and the encouragement, and while I did have some success, I also realized I enjoy running and cycling much more than the open water. Swimming in a spot where I could touch my toes to the riverbed, even in a wetsuit, the water was still pretty chilly. Plus, my poor vision caused me to bump into a dog and then a child on a hot weekend day that brought out lots of families. It felt too much like work, not play.

My inner Marie Kondo is asking me: “Does the open-water experience spark joy?”

And I have to say: “No. At least not yet.”

A fresh take on American families

Families aren’t formed solely from blood relations, as shown in the award-winning TV series “Pose.” Four of the amazing cast members, fom left: Dominique Jackson (Elektra); MJ Rodriguez (Blanca); Indya Moore (Angel); Billy Porter (Pray Tell).

When I retired from my college teaching job in June, I didn’t waste any time making the transition from instructor to student.

I signed up for a summer session course called “American Families in Film and Television.” It turned out to be a great class and, hopefully, the start of something more as a lifelong learner.

During the 8-week class, we examined how families have been portrayed from the 1950s up to the present day; how our definition of family has evolved over the decades; how families move through different stages of life (or don’t); and how the entertainment media depict families and their individual members as they cope with traditional gender roles and contemporary issues of race, class, culture, privilege and representation.

Serious issues, yes, but all very engaging when viewed over time through TV shows like “The Simpsons,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Pose” and documentaries and movies like “Babel,” “Paris Is Burning,” “Grey Gardens” and “The Hunger Games.”

***

Some quick background: My former employer, Portland State University, allows people 65 and older to take classes free of charge through a Senior Adult Learning Center program known as SALC. As a so-called “senior auditor,” you can enroll in any course you like with the instructor’s permission. You don’t pay tuition but you do pay a $35 per credit fee if the course is offered Web-only.

I learned about the program last fall, when a senior auditor asked to enroll in one of my classes, and I vowed to check it out for myself once the 2020 spring term ended.

I found just what I was looking for with the above-titled course, taught by Jennifer Robe, an adjunct instructor in the Child, Youth and Family Studies program. The content was engaging, relevant and timely, and the workload was easily manageable. As an auditor, I wasn’t required to do any of the graded work. But I jumped into the assignments anyway, as I wanted to contribute to online class discussions and express my takeaways in the reflection papers following the readings, movies and TV episodes for each unit of study.

Jennifer Robe

Jennifer taught the course asynchronously, meaning we could watch her pre-recorded videos any time that was convenient, and submit our work within an extremely flexible deadline schedule. All the readings were posted online, which meant no one had to buy a textbook, and most of the movies and TV shows could be found at no cost on YouTube or some streaming platform.

***

I fully expected I’d be the only student who’d actually grown up during the era when TV shows like “Leave It To Beaver” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” presented an idealized notion of the American family as white, suburban and middle-class, with a working husband, stay-at-home wife and two biological children.

What I didn’t anticipate was that some of my younger peers weren’t even born when programs like “The Cosby Show” and “The Golden Girls” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” aired during the ’80s and ’90s. The age difference was illuminating, though, in seeing how younger generations viewed those TV series as cultural artifacts, so far removed from modern technology and contemporary sensibilities.

In today’s multimedia milieu. we not only have a wealth of material to choose from, but we can watch almost anytime and anywhere we want, on a mobile device, a computer screen or even a traditional television set.

Differing perspectives came to the fore in discussing how families themselves are constructed, and many students spoke from personal experience.

We still have plenty of nuclear families featuring two parents and biological children, but nowadays many households are led by a single parent or by two moms or two dads.

Extended families that include multiple generations and blended families produced from second marriages are more common, as are adopted and foster children. One or more family members may be gay, lesbian or trans — but not all, unfortunately, will find acceptance from the others.

There are interracial families and childless families. And then there are families of choice, where unrelated individuals come together around a common goal, shared interests and long-term commitment to each other. This was best illustrated by the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning.”

Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, the movie chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the Black, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved in it, and explores issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America.

The award-winning Netflix show “Pose,” featuring five transgender actresses, brings that same scene to life in a two-season series that revolves around the “houses” that provide a home, love and support to the most marginalized of Black and Brown people in NYC. (Watch it here: https://www.netflix.com/title/80241986)

We’ve come a long way, thankfully, from the black-and-white era of The Fifties, when American families were depicted in much the same way, with cardigan-wearing sensible dads and apron-wearing moms as the faces of moderate, mainstream America.

Fast forward to the aptly named “Modern Family,” which debuted in 2009 with a cast of three very different but related families and ran until this year. Just about every aspect of family was represented: a heterosexual couple with biological children; a second marriage with stepchildren; same-sex parents with an adopted daughter.

It’s that type of variety that today’s young people have grown accustomed to — depictions of blended, adopted, gay, immigrant, interracial and working-class families — as more screenwriters and directors of color tell their stories.

There’s a real satisfaction in seeing people on the screen who are relatable. I say that as a child of the ’50s and ’60s who grew up yearning to see someone — heck, anyone — who was Latino in a recurring role on TV or as a featured character on the big screen.

Regardless of how families are constructed, it’s illuminating to see how common challenges are confronted. We spent much of our class time looking at what similarities or differences may emerge when dealing with customs and traditions; the effects of trauma and grief, triggered by divorce or death or some other event; and how children and parents embraceor resist developmental stages of independence and letting go.

***

Bottom line: I was a real fan of this course and the instructor. Things went so well between us that Jennifer even suggested I consider co-teaching a course with her. (Wait, didn’t I just retire?) I learned a lot while being entertained at the same time. And being able to bring a media literacy lens to these family-centered issues made the content all the more meaningful.

Can’t wait to see if I can get into another class this fall.

Voices of August 2020: Your favorites?

It’s time to vote!

Nine weeks from today, on Nov. 3, we will elect Biden or Trump as president of the United States. But long before then, we get to pick our favorite essays or poems from the past month’s wordfest.

Starting today, let’s exercise those voting muscles in advance by choosing our favorites from this year’s stellar contributions to VOA 2020. No mail-in ballots needed nor a trip to your local polling place.

From the comfort of your home, just send me an email listing your three favorite pieces among the 31 guest blogs. (Voting guidelines are below.)

This was the 9th annual edition of Voices of August, and once again we had a great variety of authors and topics from the West Coast to the East Coast. With contributors ranging in age from 2 years (thank you, Clare Hughes!) to 13 (Ayumi Mori) to 60-plus (names have been withheld as a courtesy), we had a range of perspectives and much to entertain and engage us on subjects serious and not-so-serious.

I’m thankful, as always, for the time and thought that everyone brings to this summertime project. That goes for the likes, shares and comments on social media — and especially so for the feedback left on individual blog posts. It really is gratifying to see the conversations that are sparked by these posts and the encouragement that so many of you offer to each other.

Whether you were a writer or a reader this year, you’re invited to vote for your three favorites. Your deadline: Sunday, September 6th.

Here are the rules:

  • Who can vote. As with previous years, anyone who has written a guest blog (this year or previously) or who is simply a regular reader of VOA can vote for three favorite pieces. You decide if you’ve read enough of this year’s contributions to cast a ballot.
  • Criteria. There are none other than your own standards. What grabbed your attention? What resonated with you? What made you laugh or cry? What challenged your assumptions? What made you see things differently?
  • How to vote. Take some time to review the month’s posts here at the VOA 2020 index page and then send the titles and authors of your three favorites to me at ghfunq@msn.com

As you go back through the essays, please take the opportunity to leave a comment on one or more posts. Be generous with your feedback, both on Facebook and especially on the posts themselves. Your comments are gold.

Because of COVID-19, an in-person gathering to celebrate your work and each other won’t be possible this year. But if there’s enough interest, I will be happy to schedule a Zoom meeting. Let me know.

Thanks, everyone!

— George Rede

.

VOA 2020 index page

(Photo by George Rede)

An archive of who wrote what during this month of guest blog posts for Voices of August 2020, aka VOA 9.0 and VOA 2020.

Aug. 1: Nike Bentley | Let’s gather the good

Aug. 2: John Enders | A bulldozer in a world of butterflies and flowers

Aug. 3: Andrea Cano | Rosa’s hands, my hands

Aug. 4: Mike Arrieta-Walden | Unmasking fear and loathing

Aug. 5: Rachel Lippolis | Balancing act

Aug. 6: Leroy Metcalf | Welcome to my America!

Aug. 7: Angie Chuang | Travels to the country of home

Aug. 8: David Quisenberry | Things I am grateful for

Aug. 9: Kristen Mira | An unexpected intersection

Aug. 10: Mary Pimentel | My sweet papa

Aug. 11: John Knapp and Ruth Knapp Vallejos | After the fall

Aug. 12: Tammy Ellingson | Bingo is canceled

Aug. 13: Elizabeth Hovde | Outsider: School’s out, book club is in

Aug. 14: Tim Akimoff | The ties that bind and other recipes for greatness

Aug. 15: Ayumi Mori | Love letters to the universe

Aug. 16: Lynn St. Georges | Hard truths

Aug. 17: Al Rodriguez | Reading my way through social isolation

Aug. 18: Luisa Anderson | A link to the past

Aug. 19: Lakshmi Jagannathan | Dear NW 818 David Court

Aug. 20: Eric Wilcox | George Floyd on the Tualatin

Aug. 21: Monique Gonzales | Tackling diversity in the workplace

Aug. 22: Clare Hughes | Babies don’t eat grapes, and other disappointing realizations

Aug. 23: Lydia Ramos-Mendoza | Raising an antiracist baby in a pandemic election year

Aug. 24: Bob Ehlers | Getting by with a little help from my friends

Aug. 25: Jennifer Brennock | Boots

Aug. 26: Patricia Conover | Staying positive in the new world

Aug. 27: Eric Scharf | How I met your mother

Aug. 28: Kathleen Bauer | Portland’s ‘other’ food scene

Aug. 29: Midori Mori | Privilege

Aug. 30: Maisha Maurant | Stay tuned

Aug. 31: Gil Rubio | Yet and still, I have hope and faith

Yet and still, I have hope and faith

By Gil Rubio

Maybe it’s just me …

But, back in March and April we were in the beginnings of the Shelter in Place Orders because of the Virus … and we all seemed to be having somewhat of an awakening … an Epiphany of sorts.

Suddenly our perspectives on our mortality and what is really important in our hearts and souls … our lives … became abundantly clear and more dear to us.

Suddenly we seemed to have realized our connection to each other through what we share in common … our similarities rather than our differences …

Many of us were having more Spiritual thoughts and feeling as though we were realizing we had gone astray and needed to learn the lessons of Humility and Gratitude, Respect and Kindness.

A few had posted on Facebook that it was as if we were all sent to our room to think about what we had done …
A time out to Learn our Lesson.

Even behind the masks, distancing and through the isolation there was a patient understanding and kindness emerging that could be seen and felt.

Myself, I have always said hi, and talked to pretty much anyone, … anyone that will listen anyway … but now I made a point to wave at people driving by as we walked our dog Mocha. Not just in our neighborhood, but another location we take her to as well.

Everyone everywhere was responding in a positive way to everything, and perhaps we were going to actually come out as better people through all of this.

Now, just 5 months later ..
We seemed to have lost all of that
and the reality of our self-righteous,
self-centered nature
is more evident than ever before!

We have witnessed blatant racist murders
and the ensuing demonstrations
marred by senseless violence.

We’ve seen violence and hatred in response
to legitimate and obvious need for change.

Not to mention the intense divisiveness
over distancing and the wearing of masks.

It is really pretty sad and disheartening to see and hear friends
saying the most vile of things and disrespecting the rights of others,
because they feel their rights are being disrespected …

Yet and still, I have Hope and Faith
and I believe the Good in Mankind will prevail.

We just … perhaps still need to Learn the Lessons
of Humility and Gratitude, Respect and Kindness.

Maybe it’s just me …

Gil Rubio with wife Roxana and their dog Mocha.

Currently unemployed due to the Virus, Gil Rubio’s band of 27 years had all gigs either cancelled or postponed for this year. Even his church choir has been impacted and there is only instrumental music allowed at present. “But my Hope and Faith are not diminished,” Gil says. “There is a reason for this and I believe we have a lesson to learn before we can better ourselves and our World.