My better half

It’s nearly two weeks past Valentine’s Day. It’s no one’s birthday or anniversary or other special occasion. But still I’m moved to write a quick little thang about Lori.

Today I’ll attend another meeting of the board of directors of The Dougy Center, the Portland nonprofit that has served more than 30,000 grieving children who’ve lost a parent or sibling during the past three decades. And that makes me think of my wife, with great appreciation.

lovelyLori

A favorite photo of Lori, riding the tram to Oregon Health & Science University

She’s one of an army of volunteers who are trained facilitators to be with small groups of children during their bimonthly group sessions. Some volunteers are matched with teenagers, some with children. Some kids are brought together by a suicide, sometimes a homicide, sometimes a terminal illness. The volunteers do not try to “fix” anyone; they are just there as supportive adults as the kids work through different stages of grief, through play, through talk, through just being around others who are experiencing similar emotions and reactions to a loved one’s death.

Last Friday, The Dougy Center staff honored Lori and others at a Volunteer Appreciation Dinner at a downtown hotel. Along with a buffet dinner and awards for milestone years of service (some have been there for 27 years!), we were treated to a talk by a longtime volunteer and inspiring testimonials from two teenagers, Lily and Ian, who thanked their facilitators for helping them deal with their grief as young adolescents.

So as I head off to work and then to a mid-day board meeting, I will keep Lori in my thoughts, as just one of hundreds of volunteers who give their time each month so that young boys and girls can benefit from a steady presence on their healing journeys.

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Be present

When the year began, I said I had a single resolution: to be a better man. I came across an essay recently that made me want to reinforce my commitment — from the standpoint of being attentive.

Here is what I said: “(T)o me, being a better man means being kind, considerate, patient, attentive. I don’t expect I can be all of these things every day, but I can be mindful of my commitment and push myself to more of the man I want to be.”

Here is what I read: an essay by Linton Weeks for NPR, “We Are Just Not Here Anymore,” in which he notes that just about everywhere we are these days, we seem to want to be somewhere else simultaneously — if not physically, just mentally.

“At weddings, guests tweet real-time of the festivities to friends far away,” Weeks observes. “At sporting events, fans follow scores of games in other cities. In classrooms, students text with friends in other classes and parents out in the world. At funerals, mourners to pals in other places.”

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I can attest to the last example. Someone attending my mom’s funeral last fall was actually texting from a church pew during the service.

“These days, when people are alone, or feel a moment of boredom, they tend to reach for a device,” MIT professor Sherry Turkle wrote in a recent New York Times essay about our incessant need to document our lives. “In a movie theater, at a stop sign, at the checkout line at a supermarket and, yes, at a memorial service, reaching for a device becomes so natural that we start to forget that there is a reason, a good reason, to sit still with our thoughts.”

I’ve become more aware of my own tendency to be easily distracted — and I’m trying to be better about it. Each of the last two weeks, I’ve left my iPhone at home when I’ve gone bowling. At a recent awards dinner, I took my mobile device but I kept it in my pocket or face down on the table, refraining from taking a picture before, during or after the program.

Baby steps, I know. But at least I’m trying.

And I’m keeping these words from Weeks in mind: “If the people you are with or the event you are attending are not important enough to command your attention, then: Why. Are. You. There?”

Photograph: Zylenia/Flickr

A home of their own

From left: Mike, Kyndall, Simone, Lori & George

From left: Mike, Kyndall, Simone, Lori & George

Saturday marked a milestone in the Rede-Mason household. Daughter Simone and her partner Kyndall moved out of the big 2-story home they shared with three roommates in North Portland and into their very own bungalow in the Montavilla neighborhood of Northeast Portland.

It’s a very nice place, with 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms (including a pink powder room), a big ol’ basement and a retro vibe straight outta the ’50s.

In addition to the U-Haul truck, we put items in four other vehicles.

In addition to the U-Haul truck, we put items in four other vehicles.

Lori and I helped fill up a U-Haul truck, along with Kyndall’s dad Mike and their roommate Justin. At the new place, Simone’s co-worker, Erin, and boyfriend Ryan pitched in. Quimby, ever the diva, patrolled the premises barking at unseen minor threats before retreating to the warmth of her bed in the backseat of Simone and Kyndall’s car.

We’re so happy for the girls. It’s no easy feat to save for a down payment and qualify in this market, when lenders have become so tight with funds. But they set their minds to it and made it happen.

This summer, an even bigger milestone awaits for the pair: marriage!

The payoff? Pulled pork nachos, chicken wings and microbrews at Fire on the Mountain. Clockwise from left: Simone, George, Lori, Ryan, Kyndall, Mike & Erin.

Post-move meal:  Pulled pork nachos, chicken wings and microbrews. Clockwise from left: Simone, George, Lori, Ryan, Kyndall, Mike & Erin.

Throwback Thursday: Esteban

Throwback Thursday: Esteban

Circa 1999: We were a host family for Esteban Villalobos, a high school exchange student from Costa Rica, and were handing him off, as scheduled, to another Portland family at dinner. Clockwise from top: George, Lori, Simone, Esteban, unidentified host family brother and Jordan. Fifteen years later, Esteban has taken to the shaved-head look in his Facebook profile photo. Time flies.

‘Zeitoun’: Better late than never

I’ve been to New Orleans just once. I’ve never been near a hurricane. And the closest thing to a flood I’ve experienced is mopping up damp carpet when the Portland rain occasionally leaked into the basement of the home where we used to live.

So you might say I was perfectly primed to dive into “Zeitoun,” a gripping nonfiction account of one man’s ordeal in the days after Hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans.

The August 2005 megastorm wrecked the Gulf Coast, overwhelmed the city’s levee system and caused massive flooding and destruction. Katrina took 1,833 lives and altered thousands upon thousands of others, driving people from their homes and jobs and inflicting psychological scars.

Zeitoun

Along with other residents, a Syrian immigrant named Abdulrahman Zeitoun (zay-toon) ignored repeated warnings to evacuate, choosing to stay behind in the family home to tend to his job sites and rental properties while his wife Kathy and their four young daughters fled to safer ground.

In the aftermath, Zeitoun would use a second-hand canoe and little more than his own wits to help rescue stranded residents and save abandoned dogs. In the process, he would inexplicably run afoul of U.S. Army National Guard troops and local police officers and find himself  held in a Guantanamo-style jail and then a state prison for more than three weeks, cut off from contact with his wife.

I’ll refrain from telling more about how and why Zeitoun became ensnared in a living nightmare that rivaled anything dreamed up by Kafka. But I can say that reading this book by Dave Eggers years after it was published (2009) was a stirring experience. And for that, I credit a friend who brought the book to my attention four years ago when I asked my Facebook community for recommendations on what I should read next.

I was overwhelmed with suggestions, but I vowed to read “Zeitoun” at some point. And I’m glad I did.

Eggers tells the story very simply – essentially a chronological narrative of events as told by Abdulrahman and Kathy and verified by additional reporting and interviews. He doesn’t dwell on the ferocity of the flood as much as he sets the mood in the days leading up to the event and then describes the events leading up to Zeitoun’s run-in with the authorities.

It’s a remarkable, disheartening story of government overreach and mindless, soulless bureaucracy. That Zeitoun, a devout Muslim and widely respected painting contractor in his adopted city, survives his ordeal is miracle enough. That he emerges with anything but pure resentment and contempt for the U.S. government is the second miracle.

Although I would have liked reading the book years earlier, the story is  no less interesting and no less infuriating now. If you’re caught up with your reading, consider adding “Zeitoun” to your list. A compelling story, well told, still packs a big, big punch. And I understand the book is being made into a movie due for release sometime this year.

Postscript: In February 2012, the Zeitouns divorced. In August of that year,  Zeitoun was indicted for attempted first-degree murder and solicitation of first-degree murder of his wife Kathy. He was found not guilty.

Amos Lee: Even better than expected

Wow. Wow. And whoa! I knew Amos Lee was good but I didn’t know he was that good.

At the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last night, he treated an adoring audience to 90 minutes of music that included a three-song encore capped by an old-fashioned jam. Picture 12 musicians on stage, six from Lee’s band and six more from the opening act, the homegrown Portland bluegrass band Black Prairie, winging it on that old John Prine/Bonnie Raitt standard, “Angel From Montgomery.” Amos handled the vocals and sent the crowd happily into the night.

If you don’t know Amos Lee, you should. Though he’s been called “the male Norah Jones,” I find him nearly impossible to categorize. Depending on the song, he sounds bluesy, folksy, a little country or full-out gospel. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Here’s a guy from Philly who regularly drops “y’all” into his speech — a lingering influence, I suppose, from his days at the University of South Carolina. He was a second-grade teacher and a bartender before he devoted himself to music, and his on-stage persona makes you think he’d be fun to have a beer with.

Amos Lee

Amos Lee

He was born Ryan Massaro 36 years ago. When or why he changed his name, I have no idea. All I know is that from the opening song, “Windows Are Rolled Down,” he had the audience in the palm of his hand. He’s touring now in support of his fifth CD, “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song.”  And it didn’t hurt that he dropped three references to local landmarks, each of them authentic:

1. Visiting Portland last weekend and seeing lines of people outside Qdoba — evidently one of the few places open during the snowstorm.

2. Playing multiple concerts at the Oregon Zoo.

3. Performing for patients earlier in the day at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital with Chris Funk, the dobro player for Black Prairie and one of three members of The Decemberists who founded the band. Said he was inspired by the kids’ courage and cheerfulness, and noted that the sneakers he was wearing were designed by one of the children.

As for the music, Black Prairie was a pleasant surprise. Check out their song “Nowhere, Massachusetts.”

Amos Lee, however, was simply outstanding. As good as Mayer Hawthorne was earlier this month at the Wonder Ballroom, Lee was even better. His voice has range and soul, and his bandmates are as versatile and as they are talented. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a left-handed drummer, and I know I’ve only seen a couple of female bass players. Lee had ’em both.

Here’s early Amos; “Arms of a Woman” (2009) and “Violin” (2010) and “Jesus” (2011).

And here’s contemporary Amos, with a track from his new CD:  “Chill in the Air” (2013).

Photo credit: Harper Smith/amoslee.com

Cornballers make the playoffs

Seems like we just started and already our Cornhole season is over. But, hey, it was a lot of fun and now I can say I’ve made a couple more new friends.

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Clockwise from left: Leroy Metcalf, Lauren Pusateri, George Rede, Jen Hamlow.

Our season began the first Wednesday in January and finished six weeks later on Feb. 12. We made the semifinals of the playoffs, too. Wasn’t nearly as impressive as it sounds, though, considering that four of the six teams qualified. We were promptly eliminated in the first round, losing our match to the eventual champions — Shut Your Cornhole. (When you go through the league undefeated, I guess you’re entitled to a little attitude, eh?)

Our team — the Cornballers — got along well, two men and two women coming together as mostly new acquaintances. I already knew Leroy, who invited me to join. And I was pleased to meet Jen, who’s known Leroy’s girlfriend, Beth, since high school; and Lauren, a Pittsburgh transplant, and her boyfriend, Kyle.

All of us were rookies, which ensured that we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. I mean, how can you when you’re knocking back beers between beanbag tosses at Buffalo Wild Wings?

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Recreating “The A Team” cast: George, Lauren, Leroy and Jen.

We got into the team spirit, too, with theme nights where you were encouraged to dress like superheroes one week and favorite TV show characters the next. On the final week, it was Pajama Night, an excuse to wear your favorite sleepwear and slippers while topping off the night with some celebratory cupcakes, courtesy of Lauren.

Partnered again: a favorite post

Today is Valentine’s Day. From all sides, we are inundated with suggestions of where to go, what to do, how to celebrate. In the men’s locker room at my gym, there was good-natured bantering about where to take one’s wife to dinner. “Tacos!” the tattooed mail carrier said.

Image Let the record show that Lori and I chose to celebrate a day early, with a quiet dinner last night at our favorite Japanese restaurant just five minutes from home.

This morning my thoughts travel back to the summer of 2012, when a friend posted one of the most moving pieces I’ve ever read on the subject of love lost and then found again.

I re-post it today as the first in a recurring “favorite post” feature you’ll see here all year long.

“Finding love again at 56” by Lynn St. Georges

Throwback Thursday: Ann Arbor 1984

Throwback Thursday: Ann Arbor 1984

Casting call for “American Hustle”?

Thirty years ago, 12 U.S. and 4 international journalists constituted the 1983-84 class of Michigan Journalism Fellows. We had the luxury of a self-designed course of study at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor — all tuition and fees waived, and with a nine-month stipend courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

I was then a reporter at the Statesman-Journal in Salem. With two young kids and two cats, Lori and I packed up a U-Haul trailer, drove our old Volvo station halfway across the country and settled in for a life-changing year. Lori was able to take free classes, too, including a kinesiology class that helped launch her personal training career. I dove into my studies and joined four fellows on a 10-day visit to Japan at program’s end. Can you find me?

Check out the roster of fellows and affiliations:

http://www.mjfellows.org/fellows/1984.html

Lone Survivor: The movie

Having read the book, I knew it was just a matter of time before I saw “Lone Survivor.” On Sunday, Lori and I slushed our way through the snow for a matinee showing. It was, as I expected, a movie long on action and short on nuance.

If you’re not familiar with the film, starring Mark Wahlberg, it’s based on the book of the same name, co-authored by a Navy SEAL named Marcus Luttrell who in fact was the sole survivor of a four-man covert mission in a Taliban-controlled area of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains. His three companions died during a prolonged gunfight with Taliban soldiers. Luttrell alone survived, thanks to Afghan villagers who found him gravely wounded and took him back to their village, bound by their centuries-old honor code to protect him from all enemies — Taliban included.

lone.survivor.movieJust four weeks ago, the film was the nation’s No. 1 box office attraction, according to Box Office Mojo. It has since fallen to No. 5 and, I suspect, will slide further. Not that it’s a bad film. It’ll get your heart pumping watching these simulated battle scenes. It’s just that, having read the book, I feel justified in saying these couple of things:

1. For the sake of added drama, the film strays from the truth toward the end of the book. (No spoiler alerts here for those of you who plan to see the movie.)

2. Unlike other movies I’ve seen — “12 Years A Slave” especially comes to mind — there is virtually no character development. When the four SEALs are out on their own battling for their lives, you’d be hard pressed to describe any differences among the men. I knew their back stories from the book, but if you haven’t read it, you’re likely to see them as slight variations of the same person: a Type A-plus, adrenalin-fueled, super-patriot.

I don’t mean any disrespect saying that. But it’s not a great leap to say these men are pretty much cut from the same cloth — supremely fit, fearless, resourceful, courageous beyond belief.

A couple more thoughts:

— As a parent of an Army infantryman who returned intact, in mind and body, from a one-year deployment in Afghanistan, you can’t help but imagine what he and his fellow soldiers might have gone through over there.

— Nothing tugs at the heartstrings like seeing photos of these real-life service members on screen before the credits roll. Knowing the 2005 mission took the lives of three SEALs — plus 16 more SEALs and soldiers who were gunned down in a rescue helicopter — you find yourself asking again, “Why?” With more than 2,300 American fatalities and 12,000 wounded during 13 years of war, what have we really accomplished in terms of national and global security?

See a map of state-by-state casualties during Operation Enduring Freedom.