Card sharks

From left: Beth, Ellie, Erin & Lori

From left: Beth, Ellie, Erin & Lori

Poker chips? Check.

Deck of cards? Check.

White wine? Wha…?

Hors d’oeuvres? Wha…??

Normally when I settle in for a game of poker, it’s beer, pizza, chips and more beer. But, then, I’m normally playing with dudes.

Last night, it was Ladies’ Game Night and so I got to host a game that included Lori and three of our friends — Ellie, Beth and Erin. The four of them get together monthly, taking turns playing board games at each other’s place. This time, they agreed, they wanted to play cards. So while a couple of beers were consumed, for the most part it was a wine-and-appetizers evening. .

Actually, this was the second time we had the ladies over for poker. We got together for the first time in January and — surprise, surprise — I was the big loser that night. Not so this time around. The cards just happened to come together more often than not and I wound up the big winner. “Big” being a relative term, since we played the usual nickel-dime-quarter stakes with a $5 buy-in.

(Click on images to view captions.)

As expected, we spent a lot of time at first just going over the hierarchy of hands and the basics of betting. We didn’t stray too far from the simplest games — Draw Poker, Lowball, Follow The Queen and 7-Card No-Peek, plus one hand of Texas Hold ‘Em. By the end of the evening, play was moving smoothly and the women were on the verge of using curse words.

Ah, but these are cultured ladies, so there were no slip-ups. I don’t know that our friends qualify as card sharks just yet. But if we make this a regular activity, I’ll have to keep my guard up.

Final thought: Last night’s game marked the first time I used a tabletop poker table passed on to me by friends Cherie and Dave. They knew their octagonal-shaped table for eight would find a good home here, so i was happy to receive it when they moved this summer from Portland to Redmond. Makes any amateur feel like a pro. Thanks, friends!

One hit, one miss

Before our recent trip to Washington, D.C., I read a novel by a favorite author. Upon our return, I read a novel by a new-to-me author.  Guess which one I liked more?

Yep. The one by the new guy.

run coverEven now, several weeks after I read it, I’m feeling guilty about not liking Ann Patchett‘s “Run” as much as I anticipated. And maybe that’s the problem. Having read three other books by Patchett, I may have gone into this one with my expectations set too high.

Patchett is a superb writer, that’s for sure. Even dazzling at times. In “Run,” she again constructs sentences and paragraphs so beautiful they leave me in awe.

So what’s the problem?

— Well, I guess I didn’t buy into the premise driving the narrative. A widowed ex-mayor of Boston raises two adopted sons along with his older biological son after the death of his wife. As the two younger boys grow up, they are shadowed, unbeknownst to them and their dad, by a woman in the neighborhood and her young, precocious daughter, who also happens to be an exceptionally talented runner (hence the title).

A serious accident leaves two of the main characters injured. As they mend, layers of the story peel away to reveal the past and give meaning to the present. Though Patchett tells an intriguing tale that brings her characters together, I found myself saying, “This really couldn’t happen in real life. It’s just too far-fetched.”

Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett

— Compounding my doubts, I flat out rejected her choices for the names of key characters. The Irish Catholic mayor is named Bernard Doyle (fine, OK). But his biological son is named Sullivan (mild head shake), as is an elderly relative (another head shake), and the mayor’s adopted African American sons are named Tip and Teddy (vigorous head shake). The neighborhood woman is named Tennessee (yeah, right) and her daughter is named Kenya (really?).

Now I realize you have to suspend disbelief when you read a novel. After all, it is a work of fiction. And “Run” is a book that you would think would have extra appeal to me, as an adoptive father myself. Ultimately, though, this well-intentioned story about family fell short for me simply because the characters’ identities didn’t feel right.

***

Coming home, I picked up “The Last Flight of Poxl West,” the debut novel of Daniel Torday, director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. I’d read a capsule review of it in Esquire and was delighted several weeks later to find it among the bargain books at my local indie bookstore.

poxl west coverThe novel tells a story within a story, with precise, elegant language that made me consult a dictionary half a dozen times. Poxl West is an aging writer who, after numerous rejections, finds unexpected success with a best-selling memoir of his exploits as an Eastern European Jew who becomes a bomber pilot for the Royal British Air Force during World War II, exactlng revenge on the Germans who killed most of his family.

His nephew, 15-year-old Eli, is captivated by his uncle’s story and heroism and late-in-life acclaim. Torday switches back and forth between the boy’s relationship with his uncle and chapters of the memoir itself. As a reader, I too got caught up in Poxl’s retelling of his escape from Czechoslovakia, the woman he left behind in Denmark and his struggles to fit in with anti-Semitic members of the British air force.

As the novel builds to its conclusion, you come at it from the perspective of a teenager who realizes his famous uncle has all-too-ordinary flaws that must be taken into consideration with his recounting of the past. It’s a book that raises tough moral questions about regret and forgiveness. It’s also a book that invites you to think about who is entitled to tell another person’s story and what form that should take.

daniel torday

Daniel Torday

The final chapter was wonderfully rendered, leaving me fulfilled as a reader and wondering what Torday will write next.

The timing for my reading of this book could not have been better. We toured the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum while in D.C., so Eastern European geography was fresh in my mind, as was the history of that period. As Poxl West made his way from Czechoslovakia to Germany to Denmark to Britain, I could imagine him in each place.

In other words, I bought into the premise driving the narrative — exactly what I didn’t do with “Run.” I also accepted the characters as presented, with no reason to raise an eyebrow because of a character’s name or personal history.

Bottom line: Would i recommend both books? Yes, though I would condition my endorsement of “Run” with a mention of Tip and Teddy, Tennessee and Kenya. One hit, one miss? Maybe one hit, one almost-hit is more accurate.

The Mediaocracies

From left: Brian. George, John and Tony.

The Mediaocracies. From left: Brian. George, John and Tony.

After a layoff of about nine months, I’m bowling regularly again. With three friends, we formed a new team for the fall season at AMF Pro 300 in Southeast Portland, and it’s as much fun as I imagined it would be.

We are The Mediaocracies.

The name reflects the fact that three of us are journalists — two active, one recently retired — and the other is a rabid consumer of political news. It’s also a play on the word “mediocre” because we don’t see ourselves as exceptional or hyper-competitive bowlers.

My teammates: John Killen, a longtime colleague who recently retired from The Oregonian; Tony Hernandez, a reporter who joined the staff about a year ago; and Brian Wartell, a respiratory therapist and poker buddy who’s bowled with me before, most recently a year ago when we teamed up with two women teammates to form The Cheeseheads.

We finished second-to-last dead last a year ago in the coed Average Joes League. I had every intention of recruiting two women to join Brian and me this season but there were no takers. Happily and thankfully, John and Tony accepted my invitation to come aboard, saying they hadn’t bowled in a quite a while but were up to the challenge of bowling every Monday night for 15 weeks.

During the first six weeks of bowling, the four of us had been present together just once because of various commitments. So it was great to all be there last night and combine for three wins out of four games.

We came into the evening with a record of 12 wins and 12 losses, good enough to find ourselves in a five-way tie for sixth place in a field of 17 teams. After tonight, we could find ourselves in fifth place next week, either outright or tied. At the end of the season, each team receives a cash payout based on its finish, so we are bowling for more than just pride.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Bowling on Monday nights is a great way to leave work behind and just relax. The league we belong to is non-sanctioned, which means bowlers don’t take themselves too seriously, knowing their scores don’t count for much beyond week-to-week bragging rights.

You meet a lot of nice people during the season and last night was no exception. We bowled for the second time against a couple named Maggie and Aron, who find themselves a twosome instead of a foursome because the couple that signed up to be on their team flaked out after one week.

Even if you lose, you feel good for the other team. If you win, you appreciate the gracious good wishes of your opponents.

Last night, I had it going. My average is right around 150, so I was pleased and surprised to bowl a 145-202-155 series for a total of 502, my first 500 series this season and my first time topping 200 in a single game. Had a hot streak in the second game where I bowled six strikes in a row. Unreal.

We’re about halfway through the season, which wraps up just before Christmas.

Lots more bowling to come. Lots more good times ahead.

Florence!

The utterly amazing Florence Welch, performing in New York this summer.

The utterly amazing Florence Welch, performing in New York this summer.

Amazing. I’m not talking about the world-famous city in Italy. I’m talking about Florence Welch, lead singer of the British indie band Florence + the Machine.

Saw her in concert Saturday night at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, a perfect venue for Welch and her band. The arena isn’t nearly as cavernous as the Rose Garden (er, Moda Center) yet it was big enough to accommodate a crowd of several thousand who came ready to party.

Florence put on a superb show, unlike I’ve seen in recent (or even distant) memory. With my fondness for singer-songwriters like Amos Lee and Patty Griffin, I’m accustomed to seeing them basically stand in one place while they sing and play guitar.

Not Florence Welch. From the opening song to the last, she was on the move. Jumping, bouncing, spinning, twirling, running from one end of the stage to the other. Hopping onto raised platforms, pirouetting, even leaving the stage once to make a mad dash into the audience. And I mean she ran, like a freakin’ sprinter, during “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up),” to a place halfway into the crowd, finishing the song with a hug for one lucky fan.

Lead singer Florence Welch is a blend of Annie Lennox, Stevie Nicks and Joe Cocker.

Lead singer Florence Welch is a blend of Annie Lennox, Stevie Nicks and Joe Cocker.

How to describe Florence Welch? I’ve often thought of her in the same vein as Annie Lennox, blessed with a big, powerful voice and the same tall, slender stature. But unlike Annie’s super-short hair, Florence has a mane of gorgeous red hair flowing down her back that defines her look and suggests a barely contained wild thing persona.

I’ve also thought of her as similar to Stevie Nicks, as she carries a mysterious aura and has a vocal sound that’s uniquely her own.

Last night, I thought of one more comparison. She performs with the intensity of a young Joe Cocker, complete with hand gestures, pouring every bit of herself into each song.

She wore a white satin jumpsuit with puffy sleeves and flared bottoms. And toward the end of the concert, when she laid on her back at the end of a song, the camera provided a close-up of her bare feet. No wonder she was able to run, leap and spin as much as she did. No shoes to worry about.

Florence Welch had energy to burn Saturday night, running, jumping, twirling -- even sprinting into the audience.

Florence Welch had energy to burn,  running, jumping, twirling — even sprinting into the audience — during a concert Saturday at Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum..

Madonna performed in concert a week earlier in Portland and I have no doubt she put on a great show. But I’d be willing to bet Florence + The Machine brought equal energy and musicianship. (I marvel at the fact they’re able to work a harp and xylophone into their music.)

It’s a wonderful thing to see a performer who clearly is enjoying herself and holding back nothing. Florence had people on their feet most of the night. During “Dog Days Are Over,” her last song before a two-song encore, she encouraged everyone to remove a piece of clothing and join her in waving it over their head.

Several songs earlier, she asked the crowd to put away their cellphones for just one song “and enjoy it with your eyes and each other.”

I thought that was pretty classy.

At 29 and with a new CD just out (“How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful”), Florence Welch is going to be entertaining audiences all over the world for years to come. As good as she sounds in the studio, she is even better live — a genuine force of nature.

Lead photograph: The Associated Press

More photographs: Kristyna Wentz-Graff, The Oregonian Florence + The Machine makes a Portland crowd its choir

Two years gone

Two years ago this week, our mother died. After a lifetime of hardships and numerous physical challenges in the final years of her life, her body called it quits. She died Oct. 20, 2013, just eight hours short of her 86th birthday.

Had she lived, she would be 88 years old today. I’m thankful she didn’t.

I don’t say that with any meanness at all. I say it as a realist, as someone who knew well what she went through and what lay ahead.

Looking back at what I wrote two years ago, I grimace at what she endured.

“She had a rough year, to put it mildly. She fell and broke her hip in late January, a turning point that sent her to the hospital emergency room, never to return to the comfort of her home. After that came a never-ending change of environments as she went from nursing home to residential group home to assisted living center, with half a dozen visits to the hospital in between.

“She’d been living with diabetes, high blood pressure and hardened arteries for years. Worse than the broken hip, we learned she also had failing kidneys. In early October, things came to a head.  She was back in the hospital and was asked if she wanted to begin dialysis. At 85? With that kind of medical history?”

 Mom, in her trademark purple (her favorite color), crucifix and dark glasses at a Fremont, California, nursing home.

Mom, dressed in her favorite color, with her customary crucifix and dark glasses at a Fremont, California, nursing home.

With our support, she made the right decision to forgo dialysis. It would have absolutely wracked her frail body to go through an hours-long procedure two or three times a week — and for what? It would have merely extended her life without improving the quality of it.

Even if dialysis had worked miracles, Mom would have needed another one just to get by financially. Between a meager Social Security check and rapidly dwindling savings, she would have been hard pressed to pay the monthly expense of the assisted living facility where her declining health was driving up the cost of extra care. Worse, I ran into nothing but brick walls from banks as I tried to apply for a home equity loan on her behalf.

She had owned her home free and clear for years and was completely free of debt. But because she had virtually no income, the banks wouldn’t make the loan, saying she’d be unable to pay it back. Well, of course. That is why a nearly 86-year-old woman needed to tap into her considerable equity. The bank would get its money back upon her death.

Even now I am appalled at the rigidity — and, yes, the stupidity — of such policies. But I digress.

Two years after my mother’s death, I want to honor her memory — and I want to relive, for the peace of mind it brings, the circumstances under which she left us.

***

First, the woman herself. She was feisty, strong-minded, stubborn, resourceful, independent and fiercely devoted to her three kids and extended family.

“Theresa Vargas Flores was one tough son-of-a-gun,” I wrote, with considerable admiration, two years ago. “One of nine children born to migrant farmworker parents who picked crops in northern and central California. A woman who overcame poverty and childhood polio. A homemaker who raised two girls and a boy, and worked as a seamstress and a taxi driver. A woman with Depression-era values who lived frugally and whose greatest source of pride were her children, five grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and countless nieces and nephews. She married and divorced twice and lived on her own – independently – for the last 20 years of her life.”

With Mom during a visit at her residential group home in July 2013.

With Mom during a visit at her residential group home in July 2013.

Second, when Mom died, the end came in a quiet, darkened room in the assisted living facility. Hospice care nurses left the room so my sisters and I could be at her bedside, along with Mom’s sole surviving brother and his wife and one of their daughters. A local priest came by to administer last rites and we all held hands in prayer. In our private thoughts, I am certain we all found a way to say our own goodbye to the woman who gave us life, who fed us, clothed us, raised us and loved us beyond words.

Mom lived a long and sometimes hard life, but it was filled with considerable joy, too  Most of all, she lived it on her own terms. For her sake, I am grateful she didn’t have to go through a prolonged period of pain or incapacitation. Instead, she passed in grace.

Lecture or laptop?

Done correctly, a lecture is far from drudgery. Instead, it's a method to teach the  art of listening.

Done correctly, a lecture is far from drudgery. Instead, it’s a method to teach the art of listening.

Even if you haven’t been in a college classroom lately, it won’t surprise you to know the lecture format is being replaced by “active learning” methods that emphasize group work and technology-driven presentations.

So it was refreshing to read a smart essay in Sunday’s New York Times in defense of the traditional model in an op-ed by Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“In the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections,” Worthen writes. “Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.”

Four quick nuggets from the piece (including a pleasantly surprising reference to Oregon):

— Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this.

— When Kjirsten Severson first began teaching philosophy at Clackamas Community College in Oregon, she realized that she needed to teach her students how to listen. “Where I needed to start was by teaching them how to create space in their inner world, so they could take on this argument on a clean canvas,” she told me. She assigns an excerpt from Rebecca Shafir’s “The Zen of Listening” to help students learn to clear their minds and focus.

— Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace — and even advertise — lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media.

— A lecture course teaches students that listening is not the same thing as thinking about what you plan to say next — and that critical thinking depends on mastery of facts, not knee-jerk opinions.

Amen. Times four.

(Of course, my support of the lecture format is predicated on the assumption that the professor knows her subject and is able to present it with vitality.)

Image: Baptiste Alchourroun

$68.5 million a month?

The gap between rich and poor has become a gulf, as well as a major challenge to younger generations.

The gap between rich and poor has become a gulf, as well as a major challenge to younger generations.

You may have seen it. A recent New York Times story about the 158 families who collectively have provided almost half of the money raised to support all Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in the early phase of the campaign.

It’s astounding enough that these super-rich families have together given $176 million so far, without a single primary vote being cast.

But what took my breath away was the number buried in the middle of this paragraph:

More than 50 members of these families have made the Forbes 400 list of the country’s top billionaires, marking a scale of wealth against which even a million-dollar political contribution can seem relatively small. The Chicago hedge fund billionaire Kenneth C. Griffin, for example, earns about $68.5 million a month after taxes, according to court filings made by his wife in their divorce. He has given a total of $300,000 to groups backing Republican presidential candidates.

A week later, I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around that obscene figure.

$68.5 million a month?

How is that even possible?

Who on Earth even needs that much money?

The morning after I read it, the number — and what it represents — popped to mind as I waited for my bus.

— Twenty feet away, a homeless man lay in the sun next to a shopping cart stuffed with clothing, empty bottles and cans, and other possessions.

— A bare-chested young man walked past, singing loudly to himself, baseball cap turned backwards and pants drooping well below his waist. It was obvious from his dress and his demeanor he wasn’t on his way to work.

— The bus pulled up and the lady next to me walked stiffly toward it, pulling a small cart with groceries. The door opened and she asked the driver, “Can you put the step down? My legs is tired.”

Three “have nots” in the richest country on Earth. A country where it’s possible to generate income of $68.5 million a month after taxes.

Can you say “income inequality”?

Barely three days later came another jolt of news: Tens of millions of senior citizens will receive no annual cost-of-living adjustment in their Social Security checks next year.

Why? Because raises are tied to the Consumer Price Index, which has been flat this year and even shown a drop in gasoline prices. As a result, seniors and others who receive Social Security benefits — children, spouses, disabled veterans — will see no bump in their monthly checks in 2016.

social-security-cards-460x300One in four U.S. households receives Social Security benefits. Nearly half of aged couples rely on Social Security for about half of their retirement income. For 47 percent unmarried seniors, it’s more like 90 percent. My late mother received a little over $700 a month, her sole source of income.

Now, I’m not saying the rich guy in Chicago has any obligation to donate money to better the lives of these three Portlanders and/or the less fortunate in his own community (though I do hope he has a conscience). Nor am I going all socialist here and demanding the government seize and redistribute his assets.

What I am saying is that I fear for the future of this country with this ever-widening gap between rich and poor in the United States. It’s become a gulf where people on both sides can’t even see each other.

We Boomers have saddled our children with some intractable issues and income inequality is right up there with racism, global warming and gun violence.

As the presidential campaign slogs on, it might be good to listen to what the candidates say about income inequality. Do they even recognize it as an issue? What are their policies toward taxes, creating jobs and incentives to save?

Is any of that $176 million raised so far for their campaigns generating any hope for reform?

Main mage: Will Roberts Weekly Telegram

Secondary image: SSDI Solutions

1 magazine. 82 years. 1,000 issues

Every damn issue ever. Highlights in print in the October 2015 issue. Everything else now in a digital archive.

Every damn issue ever. Highlights in the October 2015 issue. Everything else in a digital archive.

It arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago but because I was pushing through to finish a novel, I let it sit there like an unwrapped gift. Finally, I got to it: The 1,000th issue of Esquire.

Wow. Totally worth the wait.

For a loyal reader like me, it was a treat in every conceivable way, much like a greatest hits collection of a favorite musician or band. Even the way it was organized — an encyclopedic A to Z approach, where each letter of the alphabet had two or three entries — was appealing.

The editors guided you from the present to the recent past to the origins of the magazine and all the way back again, with selections of not only the finest writing, memorable interviews and short profiles but also quick takes featuring the unsung guys behind the scenes who contributed mightily to the magazine’s look over the decades.

A history of modern American culture, through the pages of an enduring magazine.

A history of modern American culture, through the pages of an enduring magazine.

Here I’m talking about Carl Fischer, the photographer who created Esquire’s most famous covers, including menacing Sonny Liston as Santa Claus and an impaled Muhammad Ali, pierced with arrows like a martyr after being stripped of his title because he refused to go into the Army.

I’m also talking about E. Simms Campbell, “the Jackie Robinson of magazine illustration,” who broke the color line just like the famous baseball player did when he became the first black artist to contribute regularly to a mainstream American magazine, starting with the debut issue in 1933.

But, of course, there’s much, much more, touching on athletes, actors, presidents and writing legends Hemingway, Mailer, Talese, Baldwin and Wolfe. There are profiles of contemporaries like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and war correspondent C.J. Chivers; smart features like 49 (not 50) sentences of great fiction; and the 11 men (and one woman) of our time who stand out “for having not just interested us but affected us.”

Who are those 11? Here are a few: Clinton, Obama, Clooney, Nicholson, Ali … and Woody Allen. Would it surprise you to know that “America’s great filmmaker, bar none” has been on the cover six times, beginning in 1964, and a regular subject of stories, most recently in 2013? That’s nearly 50 years.

The Kennedy brothers and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Kennedy brothers and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Would it surprise you to learn that John F. Kennedy also was featured on six covers, most recently in 2010? And that he was the subject of a fresh essay reflecting on the “casual elegance” and “photogenic command” that forever transformed the way we elect our candidates? On image more than substance.

I know I’m gushing, but let me offer a handful (no, two handfuls) of nuggets to give you a taste of this commemorative issue. Call ’em George’s Gems:

— David Granger on James Baldwin: Today, when videos surface weekly of deadly encounters between white policemen and black citizens, Baldwin’s writing from the early 1960s can seem strikingly of the moment: “There are few things under heaven more unnerving,” he wrote of the police in “Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” “than the silent, accumulating contempt and hatred of a people.”

— Tom Junod on Mark Zuckerberg: It is hard to decide whether Mark Zuckerberg is the most interesting boring person in the world or the most boring interesting one. He’s important, yes — undeniably so….But what would Mark do if Facebook didn’t exist?

Truman Capote, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1958): He was a middle-aged child who had never shed its baby fit, though some gifted tailor had almost succeeded in camoflaging his plump and spankable bottom.”

Tennessee Williams, “Tent Worms” (1980): She made herself a thermos of Tom Collinses and she drank them all afternoon while her husband attacked the insects with his paper torches.

Internet, The: A parallel universe of information that has dissolved all meaningful communication into an undifferentiated mass of content.

— Steven Marche on John F. Kennedy: In 1960, Norman Mailer described JFK as the first “hipster candidate” and recognized, with a mixture of hope and trepidation, the birth of a new type of politics revolving around his appearance.

— On Manhood, A Brief History of Recent: Barack Obama makes the world seem blazingly new for a minute, and then the Great Recession falls on working Americans like a wet circus tent.

Also: Michael Jackson moonwalks. Sally Ride crashes the boys’ club. The Cosby Show debuts. … Bill Fucking Buckner. Gary Hart gets caught, loses. Michael Dukakis rides in a tank. George H.W. Bush, kinder and gentler, becomes president.

— Michael Paterniti on Thurman Munson (1999): I give you Thurman Munson in the eighth inning of a meaningless baseball game, in a half-empty stadium in a bad Yankee year during a fourteen-season Yankee drought, and Thurman Munson is running, arms pumping, busting his way from second to third like he’s taking Omaha Beach, sliding down in a cloud of luminous Saharan dust, then up on two feet, clapping his hands, turtling his head once around, spitting diamonds of saliva. Safe.

— Nora Ephron on Donald Trump (1989): He wants to be famous. He wants people to talk about him. He wants people to notice him. He wants people to write about him. He wants people to ask him for autographs and recognize him and invade his privacy…

esky clinton

William Jefferson Clinton

Bill Clinton, asked who or what comes to mind as “the people who have defined our time.”: Well, as a baby boomer, it’s the people who led the great movements to try to make America a more just place, a better place. The civil-rights movement, the women’s-rights movement, the gay-rights movement, and the environmental movement. The idea that the world is going to have to become more accepting of diversity — and the people who don’t agree, ISIS.

— Luke Dittrich on the Joplin, Missouri tornado (2011): The tornado stretches twenty thousand feet to the sky. It is three-quarters of a mile wide. It is not empty.

It is carrying two-by-fours and drywall and automobiles.

It is carrying baseball cards, laptop computers and family photo albums.

It is carrying people, as naked as newborns, their clothes stripped away like tissue paper.

It is carrying fragments of the Walmart where Carl and Jennifer met, of the church where Donna worships, of three of the nursing homes where Lacey works.

It has traveled six miles through the city, and now it is carrying a great deal of the city within itself.

Want more? Check out the entire 1,000th issue right here, including “The 50 Greatest Esquire Covers of All Time”

A new book and a bowl of gumbo

Local author Ellen Urbani discusses her book,

Local author Ellen Urbani discusses her book, “Landfall,” at Broadway Books.

During this summer’s run-up to the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I noticed a review of a local author’s book on the deadly catastrophe. Ellen Urbani had written a hybrid novel, a work of fiction set inside the nonfiction backdrop of a very real event.

The reviewer praised the novel, “Landfall,” as “an engaging and distinctive story that follows the lives of two young women, one named Rose, the other Rosebud, both completely and utterly affected by the chaos and the social unrest of this monster of a storm.”

Both young women are 18. One is African American and survives the storm with her mother and a family friend in the flooded Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The other is white and lives with her mother in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The mom and daughter are delivering clothes and other supplies to hurricane survivors a few days after the storm when they are involved in an accident that causes the lives of the two teenagers to intersect.

Soon thereafter, I was walking past the independent bookstore in my neighborhood and noticed it had scheduled a reading by Urbani. I put the date on my calendar — and that’s how I wound up at Broadway Books last night for what turned out to be a very pleasant evening.

About two dozen people, mostly Social Security-eligible women, turned out for the reading. (There might have been two other guys besides myself.) Urbani, perched on a stool at the back of the store, was animated and relaxed, no doubt because she was on familiar ground, having lived in the neighborhood at one time before moving to a farm south of Portland.

She read two excerpts, took questions and shared personal anecdotes that helped us understand her purpose and method in writing the novel, as well as fears, doubts and questions that popped up along the way. As someone who grew up in Virginia and moved to Tuscaloosa so she could attend the University of Alabama, she brought southern roots as well as pieces of herself to the project.

I won’t go into detail here about all the ground she covered. Suffice to say that she said enough about her objective — to write a story about race and class and morals — and how she went about it to pique my curiosity. As a newly divorced mother of two young children, she did extensive Internet research from the comfort of her bed each morning from 4 to 7 a.m. When they went to preschool two days a week, she disciplined herself to write from 9 to 11 a.m. during those times.

The intimacy of a small bookstore can't be beat. There's not much distance between author and audience. And when she brings food, too, well...

The intimacy of a small indie bookstore can’t be beat. There’s not much distance between author and audience. And when she brings food, too, well…

Though she professed to know New Orleans well, from having visited frequently as a college student, she did not go back to the city to research her novel. Instead, she inhaled what she found online — including a big chunk of on-scene reporting by reporters for the Times-Picayune newspaper — and kept meticulous spreadsheets and graphs detailing precise times, locations, high water marks and other minutiae.

Frankly, I find that approach mind-boggling. But, she told us, everywhere she has gone on tour — including to New Orleans — people familiar with the storm and its aftermath have told her she got it right. That includes African Americans who, she said, have praised her for nailing the particular rhythms, cadences and word choices of that region.

I bought the book and look forward to reading it.

I’m glad I chose to attend last night’s program rather than a late August reading at Powell’s Books. Thought I appreciate Portland’s world-famous mega-bookstore as much as anyone, there is no comparison between the huge reading room there and the small, intimate space offered by Broadway Books.

Wednesday’s event was not just one for the neighborhood but a family affair as well. Ellen Urbani’s mom and dad were there, as were her two children, now 12 and 10 years old, and her husband. (She’s remarried.

Bonus: As advertised, there was a small table with a crock pot of steaming gumbo, a pot of white rice and a tray of beignets — all prepared by the author and her mom. Talk about a neighborly touch.

I’ll be sure to follow up with my own review of the book. Lots more details to share about Urbani’s personal experiences and how they informed the writing of “Landfall.”

Read a review from OregonLive: “Ellen Urbani’s debut novel explores lives torn by Hurricane Katrina”

VOA 5.0 meetup

Lynn St. Georges and Keith Cantrell came over from the Oregon Coast for the annual meetup of Voices of August writers. That Golden Lab over Keith's shoulder hints at the name of the brewpub where we met.

Lynn St. Georges and Keith Cantrell came over from the Oregon Coast for the annual meetup of Voices of August writers. That Golden Lab over Keith’s shoulder hints at the name of the brewpub.

No red carpet. No paparazzi. Not even an after-party.

But who needs glitz and glamour when you’re part of something more substantive — the annual meetup of the men and women who contribute to my Voices of August guest blog project.

Each and every day in August, I publish an essay crafted by one of an assortment of friends, relatives and fellow journalists. As invigorating as the project is, with thought-provoking pieces framed by a variety of generational and geographical perspectives, the face-to-face gathering that comes afterwards is the real payoff.

About 20 of us, including spouses and significant others, came together last weekend at a Portland brewpub, the same one where we first met five years ago. The Lucky Lab on Southeast Hawthorne may not have much in the way of atmosphere, but it certainly has characters — as in the long-haired old-timer at the end of the bar and his drinking buddy, another grizzled guy wearing a wolf’s head (or something like that) on his noggin.

Whatever.

(Click on photos to view captions.)

Voices of August began as a simple idea, an experiment, really. Could I entice 30 people scattered across the country to carve out some time in their typically busy lives to write an original essay for public consumption? And having done that, could I encourage them to engage in some of the online conversation that ensued from VOA contributors and general readers?

Turns out the answers were “yes” and “yes.”

Some folks have been a part of VOA since the beginning. For their support in creating and sustaining critical mass, I thank them. Others have contributed a piece or two and then yielded their spots to others, so that I could bring in fresh faces. For their cooperation, I also thank them.

What we have after five years is not mine — not at all. I may be the online emcee, but the content is created by everyone and the community that has emerged from this effort is one that belongs to everyone. VOA feels like a living, breathing organism. It warms my heart to see it in action as people who once only knew of each other from their guest blogs now mingle as real-time friends, sipping drinks, chatting, laughing and sharing stories.

Mary Hull Caballero, Ray Caballero and Angela K. Rider get acquainted as first-time VOA attendees.

Mary Hull Caballero, Ray Caballero and Angela K. Rider get acquainted as first-time VOA attendees.

There are few blogs, I would venture to say, that bring together writers from places as varied as Oregon, Washington, California, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington, D.C., let alone France and Slovenia. When you consider that one writer emailed her piece from the Czech Republic and four others touched on international experiences or issues in Kenya, Tanzania, Canada and Mexico, well, that’s pretty cool.

Talk about making the world a smaller place.

But VOA is more than that. During the course of a month, it’s like unwrapping a new gift every day.

One day you’re transported back to a time, long before the advent of social media, when families ate together at the dinner table and shared their days. Another day you’re educated to the dangers of a shaved head in the wrong bar (quick, think of bachelorette parties and the kissing or rubbing of said head.)

On yet another day you understand the gift one woman received when she rode the bus on a frigid winter morning with a trio of men, in stained clothing and of meager means, who offered suggestions of where to get a free cup of coffee and a sandwich.

No matter the topic, no matter the writer, VOA gives you the opportunity to see a slice of the world through the eyes of someone who may be quite unlike you but whose perspective enriches your own worldview. A special thanks to those who have shared what it is like to cope with the loss of a spouse or a parent, to raise children as a single mom or single dad, to endure life’s various traumas and indignities. And a nod of appreciation, as well, to those who invite us to laugh with you or at ourselves.

***

As always, the evening included the presentation of gift cards to bookstores and coffee shops to those whose essays were judged as favorites by the VOA community. The nice thing about the balloting is that the criteria are whatever each voter decides. He or she alone chooses how much weight to give to the choice of topic, the quality of writing, the resonance of the piece, etc.

In my humble opinion, this year’s guest blog posts were the strongest ever. So I was pleased to see so many writers recognized for their work. In alphabetical order, these were the Best of VOA 5.0.

Tim Akimoff:  “To unfinished stories”

Parfait Bassale:  “Sons of God”

Ray Caballero (a first-time contributor):  “Be careful what you wish for”

Angie Chuang:  “What a lonely mountain gorilla taught me”

Patricia Conover:   “The pilgrim soul in you”

Elizabeth Hovde:   “The need to belong”

John Knapp:   “Cracking me open”

Lillian Mongeau:   “Dear Boomers”

Lynn St. Georges:   “Song in darkness”

Lakshmi Jagannathan (at right) gestures during conversation with Keith Cantrell. To Lakshmi's right: Angela, Lori and Mary.

Lakshmi Jagannathan (at right) gestures during conversation with Keith Cantrell. To Lakshmi’s right: Angela, Lori, Mary and Ray.

Final note: It wouldn’t feel right to bring down the curtain on this year’s body of work without recognizing the contribution made on the final day by 9-year-old Gabrielle Raia-Elise Akimoff. What a charming piece she wrote about adapting to her family’s many moves across the United States — “Hiking across America.”

Happily, the Akimoffs have moved from Chicago back to Oregon, now that her dad, Tim, has landed a job with a state agency in Salem.

***

In case you missed (or want to reread) any posts, you can pay a visit to the VOA 5.0 index page. Never too late to leave a comment, either.

Until next year…