Perspectives on a marriage

Earlier this month, I finished the much acclaimed novel, “Fates and Furies,” a book I’d put on my birthday wish lift. Written by Lauren Groff and highly praised by several friends and writers I respect, it is a novel about “marriage, creativity, power, and perception.” So says the book jacket.

I’ve waited until now to share my impressions of the book because even now I still have mixed feelings.

I was drawn to it because it sounded incredibly interesting — the idea that a novel about marriage could be told through the husband’s eyes in the first half and then through the wife’s in the second half.

fates_and_furiesAnd it is interesting. True to its billing, it’s full of stunning revelations and multiple threads as Groff depicts the highs, lows and complications of a marriage over the course of 24 years. More than just two perspectives, I felt I was viewing a marriage from multiple angles, much as a prism refracts light into many hues.

Groff’s ability to tell a complex, multi-layered story, rich with insight and pathos, is remarkable. And there were times when I paused to marvel at her facility with the English language.

One example: “Moon a navel, light on the water a trail of fine hair leading straight to Lotto.”

But.

As much as I appreciated the novel’s premise and some of the soaring language, I can’t say I loved this book. Not in the way I love the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, whose elegant writing and totally believable characters combine to create a feeling of authenticity.

To tell the truth, I almost stopped reading “Fates and Furies” roughly a third of the way in.

It wasn’t that the author kept me busy consulting the dictionary to understand the meaning of words that I’d never seen before. I concede that the precision in her prose was justified. No, my hesitation had to do with the characters themselves and the world they live in.

Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder meet in the final months of college at Vassar in 1991 and get married two weeks later. Lotto is the proverbial golden boy — rich, handsome, the product of a New England prep school and widely known on campus for his promiscuity and acting aspirations. Mathilde is an enigma — tall, blonde and reserved with a personal history no one seems to know.

In the early years, their household seems to run on good luck and good sex — lots of it — until Lotto, a failed actor, discovers his true talent as a playwright. He becomes world-famous and the couple’s threadbare existence (the result of Lotto’s falling out with his widowed mother, an eccentric heiress in Florida he calls “Muvva”) abruptly becomes one of money and privilege.

lauren groff

Lauren Groff

There’s a section of the book that, for me, bogs down with allusions to Greek mythology and works of Shakespeare as Lotto’s star ascends in the world of theater. Here is where I had to ask myself, “Do I really care about these characters? Is it necessary to like the main characters to like the novel itself?”

I don’t think so. But if I’m being honest, I’d say it does give me more incentive to plow through a novel when I feel more of an emotional connection to fictional characters.

All this said, I give Groff the highest praise for delivering one surprise after another in the telling of Mathilde’s story of sacrifice and unseen contributions to the marriage. I don’t think I give away anything when I say that Lotto — already depicted as shallow and egocentric — comes across as even more clueless and dependent in his wife’s eyes.

“Somehow, despite her politics and smarts,” Groff writes, “[Mathilde] had become a wife, and wives, as we all know, are invisible. The midnight elves of marriage. The house in the country, the apartment in the city, the taxes, the dog, all were her concern: he had no idea what she did with her time.”

Mathilde’s mysterious back story is compelling and worthy of empathy. But even as she ages, she too acts in ways that make her less likable. Give Groff credit for creating a multifaceted character.

“Fates and Furies” is Groff’s third novel. It’s an exceptional book as measured by several criteria: inventive writing, spot-on dialogue, sharp observations about character and class, and a sound structure.

But does it rise to a place among my favorite books? No.

Images: laurengroff.com

Sunshine and Portland Heights

cardinell st

Mount St. Helens rises in the distance beyond the city skyline in this northward view from Portland Heights.

After four outings under cloudy and often wet conditions, what a treat it was to do my weekly urban hike in glorious sunshine.

Thursday’s 64 degrees came within two of matching Portland’s record temperature for the date. It may not sound like much to those accustomed to warmer winter temps, but to me it was downright luxurious to hike up and down city streets in a polo shirt and cargo shorts.

I picked out a short hike — Portland Heights to the South Park Blocks to Goose Hollow and up Vista Avenue — knowing I had less time than usual. But I also chose this loop because I knew it would be especially satisfying on a clear day.

I wasn’t wrong.

PSU hood

Beyond campus buildings at Portland State University looms the familiar peak of Mount Hood.

The hike began near Ainsworth Elementary School in Southwest Portland and took me on residential streets I’d never been on before, providing views of Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams in Washington state; the city skyline, from the distinctive arch of the Fremont Bridge to familiar office buildings downtown; and Oregon’s most iconic peak, Mount Hood, on the eastern horizon.

market st stairs (2)

Took this staircase from SW Market Street up to SW Prospect Drive.

The loop took me down to the South Park Blocks and the Portland State University campus, bringing me within a block of where I used to work downtown; through Goose Hollow and up a concrete staircase I never would have discovered on my own; and back up Vista Avenue, past a succession of mansions and grand homes originally occupied by many of the city’s leading businesspeople and professionals.

(Click on photos to view captions.)

Today Portland Heights reeks of affluence. It’s a BMW neighborhood and many of the homes are built into the hillsides, sometimes on seemingly precarious foundations. This is a primary attendance area for Lincoln High School, widely viewed as the city’s most academically rigorous public high school, and attended by the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers and other professionals.

I don’t say any of this with jealousy or resentment, but simply as an observation. It’s remarkable, though, that these stately homes — on streets named Elm, Laurel and Myrtle — are situated in a compact area not far from scruffy Burnside Street and two freeways (U.S. 26 and I-405).

The most eye-opening aspect of the hike? Ambling down SW Cardinell Drive, a street that snakes down a hill to the PSU campus, and enjoying views of the city skyline while passing ostentatious homes that defy easy description.

Thanks once again to Laura O. Foster and her marvelous book, “Portland Hill Walks,” for providing the inspiration to get out and about in my own city.

vista tunnel

From SW Prospect Drive, a great view of traffic on the Sunset Highway.

Friday flashback: ‘Ferguson through the eyes of an African immigrant’

On  Aug. 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death triggered local and national protests and helped fuel Black Lives Matter, founded two years earlier after another unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed in Florida.

Parfait Bassale

Parfait Bassale, originally from Benin, has made his home in Oregon.

In Portland, Parfait Bassale, a West African immigrant, reflected on the events in Missouri and the lessons they held for him as the young father of a son with dark skin.

“I must ensure that he is proficient at white culture because otherwise, his African American behavior from a white point of reference might be interpreted as confrontational and violent,” Parfait wrote. “He could be the next Trayvon Martin, the next Michael Brown or one of the thousand anonymous victims who suffer fatal brutality due to the fears associated with the color of their skin.”

In the fall of 2014, a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict the Ferguson police officer who shot Brown.

In the fall of 2015, Parfait and his wife celebrated the birth of their second son.

Read his 2014 contribution to Voices of August: “Ferguson: Through the eyes of an African immigrant”

 

PIFF 39

piff cinema 21

Cinema 21 in Northwest Portland was one of three venues where I volunteered this year.

My first year as a Portland International Film Festival volunteer has come and gone, and it’s time to do the math.

6 movies + 3 theaters + 4 jobs = 1 positive experience.

As a new retiree, I wanted to do something new and fun this year, something that appealed to my interests and would fit easily into my “schedule.” Volunteering at PIFF struck me as an ideal situation, considering that movies rank high on my list of favorite activities. All the better that I could choose from among films produced in 48 countries, ranging from Albania to Kyrgystan to Venezuela.

piff tickets

Each time you volunteer, you get a standby ticket to attend another movie.

In exchange for volunteering my services on days and nights that I chose, I would see a handful of films for free and maybe meet a few new people.

Well, that’s just how it turned out.

I saw six films at three venues — World Trade Center, Moreland Theater and Cinema 21 — in three parts of town.

I did four jobs: line control, seating, ticket-taking and tallying (tracking the number of people who entered with festival passes or smartphone tickets). All were completely manageable tasks and gave me a new window on the PIFF experience.

The festival, in its 39th year, offered 97 feature-length films and 62 short features during a 17-day run from Feb. 11-27.

Under the guidance of PIFF staff members who sold tickets and managed each screening, I worked alongside fellow Portlanders, some of whom were rookies like me and others who were veteran volunteers accustomed to making the most of free admission. One woman said she anticipated seeing at least 34 films this year.

I can’t say I made any new friends, but I can say I enjoyed two or three conversations with other volunteers, including one a couple nights ago with a fellow parent I met years ago when our kids were attending Grant High School. Like any group of people, you have some folks who are outgoing and others who are more private. No one made introductions at any of the venues, so it was up to you to engage or not.

piff staff

Two nights in a row, I worked with PIFF staffers (from left) Nevada, Rebecca and Zoe at Cinema 21.

Last night at Cinema 21, the experience seemed to capture Portland’s essence — a mid-sized city with a friendly vibe where odds are high you might run into someone you know.

Two quick anecdotes:

— A guy entered the lobby, approached the cashiers and said he had an extra ticket he wouldn’t be able to use. He wanted to leave it with them to give to someone else.

“That happens a lot,” said Rebecca, who was in charge of the PIFF crew that night. Once, a man took a free ticket but insisted on buying another so he could pay it forward.

— I was holding a clipboard and chatting with a woman from France named Gigi, who like me was awaiting the start of a Mexican film, when the audience began exiting from the earlier screening of a movie made in Italy. Sure enough, I spotted two of my neighbors, one of them German-born and accompanied by her daughter-in-law. It was a PIFF moment, for sure.

As for the movies I saw?

Four thumbs up. Two thumbs down.

My favorite: “The Thin Yellow Line” (Mexico), which won the Audience Award at the Guadalajara International Film Festival. It’s a lovely story about five misfits who are hired to paint the center stripe of a rural road connecting two villages.

Thrown together as strangers in the sweltering summer sun, they battle heat, isolation, each other and their own demons as they walk the entire 130-mile route. Along the way, they deal with issues of trust, respect, forgiveness and acceptance. In my book, this film by Celso Garcia was every bit as good as any of this year’s Oscar-nominated movies.

Also very good: Two documentaries, “Sonita” (Iran) and “Landfill Harmonic” (Paraguay), and a drama, “Fatima” (France).

“Sonita” is the story of a teenage Afghan refugee who uses rap to speak out against her country’s tradition of forced marriage. (See previous post.) “Landfill Harmonic” is the uplifting story of children who are given the gift of music, playing instruments made from recycled materials taken from the landfill near their home. “Fatima” offers a window in the struggles faced by a single mother, an Algerian immigrant living in France with her two daughters.

Not so good: “Nahid” (Iran) and “Schneider vs. Bax” (The Netherlands).

Looking ahead to PIFF 40, I anticipate I’ll be volunteering again.

 

 

 

A teacher’s continuing education

OMCA entrance

The Oakland Museum of California offers art, history and natural science exhibits on three floors.

Editor’s note: For this year’s second guest blog post, I looked south — to a new friend in a familiar place. I grew up in Northern California and the first place I lived was Oakland. So why not invite a former Portlander who’s lived and worked in the Oakland area for many years to contribute a piece?

Emily Zell is the older sister of Alexandra, a longtime friend and personal training client of my wife. Her younger sister’s partner, Brian, is a member of my bowling team. .I figured Emily’s perspective as an educator who underwent rigorous training to become a museum volunteer would offer an interesting take on retirement. I was right.

By Emily Zell

You never know what retirement will bring. I retired after 27 wonderful years of teaching knowing that I would be able to fill my days: art, exercise, friends, family and some travel.

In the beginning I met each day as it came and one January morning, six months after my official retirement date, a flier arrived in the mail from the local museum: Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). It is a three-tiered facility offering art, history and natural science, each with its own floor.

emily zell

Emily Zell

The flier advertised a training for Gold Rush Guides, a six-week course. I was interested in the museum, but wanted to be an art docent. The yearlong training program for art had just completed. Another one would be offered in three years. I decided the shorter training would at least give me an idea of what the museum was about. I’d pick up the art training when it came around again.

I had little interest in history in school. I knew plenty of friends who were history geeks and prided themselves in knowing the dates and locations of battles. Given my druthers, you would find me painting, knitting, cutting material for a quilt or hiking with my camera. Reading about history or visiting a history museum, I don’t think so.

Surprisingly, six weeks flew by and soon I was handed my Gold Rush Guide badge after completing written exams, six practice tours and ending with one official observation. Training covered California history from early days of the Native Americans to post-Gold Rush.

Who would have thought, but I found myself fascinated with all this history; the myths from the Indians, the stories from the miners — I loved it all. I learned how to act out everything from weaving woodpecker traps to gold panning to give my tours to the fourth graders some punch.

I had spent close to 30 years in a classroom preparing lessons, figuring out students’ learning strategies, making accommodations to those with learning challenges and then presenting information to students over the year.  Here at the museum, I was prepared for much the same progression. I had studied the material. I had contacted the teacher who asked for the tour and learned about the students’ needs. I made adjustments to my tours accordingly.

Twice a week for two months, I took groups of fourth graders through the Gold Rush gallery. It is important to remember that the artifacts at OMCA are authentic: the wooden gold pans from South America, the placer gold from the actual gold fields, the scale to weigh the gold from China, photos carried by the miners who came from Europe and the East Coast.

(Click on photos to view captions.)

By June the Gold Rush program was over and I needed more history input. I signed up the next History Docent training the following September and hung out in the history gallery during the summer to keep my skills sharp. I regularly shadowed docents during the summer who led adult and family tours.

***

Fast forward a year and I am a full-on History Docent who can tour the entire gallery from the ethe early days of the Native Americans to the settlement known as Google in the Silicon Valley. I have taken a college-level California History course, written more papers, taken more exams and had more observations to earn my blue plastic badge. I was now “legal” to tour adults in any part of the gallery.

This is when my experience changed from the teacher delivering information, the tour guide telling about the artifacts, to a human receiving learning at its highest level — from those who had walked through their own stories and were willing to share.

My first ah-ha tour was in the bay called the Dust Bowl. There is a 1931 Model T Ford. It is piled high with the possessions of families leaving Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and other states.

An elderly woman in a wheelchair is examining the front of the Model T. I come over to see if she wants to know about the display. But she doesn’t need me to tell her anything, because this car is her story. She was a little girl during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Her family was leaving Arkansas and it was her job to fill the canvas bag that hung off the radiator to keep the engine cool. Whenever the car overheated, it was her responsibility to fill the bag again. If the jug with the water went dry, she had to borrow water from others along the trail. It was my first “first-hand” story to tuck in my memory to share with other visitors.

Her family eventually made it to California but so did 200,000 other people. By the time they arrived, there were no more jobs. It took them four years to be able to return to Arkansas. By that time, she was in third grade. Although she had attended a school in California for those years, she was far behind when she returned to Arkansas. This was my first experience of seeing history through someone else’s eyes.

Here is another story that allowed me to touch history from a visitor’s first-hand experience. OMCA has a piece of a World Airways DC 8 fuselage. The airlines was based in Oakland during the 1970s. Our fuselage was one of the planes involved in the April 1975 Baby Lift from Saigon to bring over 3,000 children to the United States. The infants were in cardboard boxes strapped into the seats. It is a very intense story to tell visitors who were not alive during those years.

One day while in the gallery, two couples came in and asked if there was an airplane in the gallery. I walked them to the back where the DC8 is stationed.

They circled the fuselage in silence, sat in the seats, got up and talked among themselves. They didn’t seem to want to ask me anything, but I stayed nearby and finally asked about their interest. These four 40-somethings had been part of the Baby Lift. They had come to the United States on possibly this plane, and their fathers were all American GIs and their mothers Vietnamese.

They were on their way back to Vietnam for the first time. This was their first stop on the way back to their homeland. There were tears in their eyes, I wished them well and left them to be with their past — and their future.

EZ.operation babylift

Tiny travelers: The Amerasian infants crossed the Pacific Ocean in cardboard boxes strapped into the airline seats.

A year later, I met one of the flight attendants who accompanied the children on several of these flights.

***

emily zell at OMCA

Emily Zell: Retired teacher, lifelong learner.

It has been five years this month since I walked through the gates of the Oakland Museum of California to see what it held for me as a retired teacher.

The visitors have now become my teachers. Everyone who comes through the doors has a story. Sometimes I fill in the facts, but it is the story that keeps us connected to each other. I am no longer behind a desk, I am out in the world.

Photographs: Emily Zell, Oakland Museum of California

Emily Zell was born and raised in Portland. She graduated in education from Portland State University in 1971. She migrated to the Bay Area in 1977, raised two daughters and taught elementary school. Among other things, she works in her art studio and writes a blog called Herstory.

 

Soaked in Sellwood

sellwood riverfront park

Sellwood Riverfront Park was the starting point for this week’s urban hike.

It rained a lot Thursday, so I chose my weekly urban hike accordingly. Figured it made sense to pick a route that was more about pounding neighborhood streets and less about panoramic vistas.

So that’s how I wound up in Sellwood, a part of Southeast Portland that’s always appealed to me because of its unpretentious vibe.

I’m pretty familiar with the area, thanks to Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, one of my favorite places to run. Two other landmarks — the Sellwood Bridge and Oaks Amusement Park — help place it on the map for most Portlanders.

For years, I used to play Sunday morning basketball with a great group of guys at the Sellwood Boys & Girls Club, followed by a post-game meal at Fat Albert’s Breakfast Cafe on Southeast Milwaukie Avenue. (One of the best restaurant names in town, I’d say, and the place where I fueled up with a pre-hike omelet.)

I didn’t realize Sellwood began as a separate town, incorporated in 1887, and only later merged with Portland in 1893. But that’s the kind of information you get from “Portland Hill Walks,” my indispensable (and increasingly weather-worn) guide to urban hikes.

In any event, I got wet. Didn’t take away from the enjoyment of the hike, however, as it took me from Sellwood Riverfront Park along the Willamette River, through Oaks Park, Oaks Bottom, Sellwood Park and through the Sellwood neighborhood out to Johnson Creek Park and back.

It took me about 2 hours to cover what was billed as 3.75 miles. The leisurely pace once again was influenced by lots of photo-taking and a couple of detours. (I’m finding that hiking during the winter means being prepared for unexpected trail closures here and there.)

Here’s how it went down:

Started in the parking lot of Sellwood Riverfront Park. Followed a path leading out of the north end of the park that took me on a muddy path hugging the water’s edge. Walked along the fence marking the western boundary of Oaks Park, recalling a summer concert there years ago when I saw Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller, as part of the Three Girls and Their Buddy tour. (Bonus video here.)

The trail leads to a set of steps that ostensibly take you into Oaks Park, one of those old-timey amusement parks with a roller skating rink, roller coaster and any number of other rides. The iron gate was locked, though, so I had to climb over.

Headed east, exited the park, crossed the Springwater Corridor Trail. passed through a tunnel and approached the south end of Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, expecting to take a switchback trail to the top that would put me on Sellwood Boulevard. No go. The trail was closed and I had to go farther south to access a different path leading up to Sellwood Park.

No biggie. it’s a beautiful city park with lots of firs and rhodies and it does feature a spectacular view of the Willamette from a bluff on the northern end.

Emerging from the park, I wound my way through the neighborhood streets as far east as Southeast 21st Avenue, where I turned south, crossed a pedestrian bridge over Crystal Springs Creek and came to Johnson Creek Park, named for a larger creek whose name is synonymous with flooding during heavy downpours.

From there, the western part of the loop is an easy walk back to Sellwood Riverfront Park.  Lots of charming homes and decorative touches to the neighborhood, none more so than  Share-It-Square at the intersection of SE Sherrett Street and 9th Avenue.

There you’ll find a book exchange, a children’s playhouse made of tree branches and recycled house parts, and a comfy old couch along with riotously colorful painted streets.

sellwood books

The Share-It-Square Station is a place to share community announcements, draw with chalk or sit in a small chair.

According to Portland Hill Walks author Laura O. Foster, the Portland City Council passed an ordinance allowing any group of citizens to convert certain street intersections into public squares such as this one. In 1999, the square was honored with the Governor’s Livability Award and at least 15 other city neighborhoods have devised their own public squares..

Foster is right when she describes “this funky bit of grassroots creativity” as reflecting the neighborhood’s charm. Wet or dry, Sellwood is a great piece of the mosaic that makes up Portland’s character.

 

Friday Flashback: ‘The hardest part of marriage’

RGB wedding rings

Are you married? How long has it been? 5, 10, 20, 30 or more years?

No matter the number, you may find something to relate to in this guest blog post from my Cincinnati friend, Rachel Colina Lippolis. She wrote it in the summer of 2013, just a couple months after becoming a bride.

Empathy usually comes easily, Rachel writes.

“But it’s so much harder in a marriage, isn’t it? We are so close to our spouse, sharing a bed, sharing a bathroom, sharing our time and space, that we want to hold onto something. We want to keep some piece of ourselves, warts and all. We stake our territory.”

It’s the latest gem I’ve pulled out of the Voices of August vault. Enjoy.

The hardest part of marriage

Photograph: rgbstock.com

Volunteering at the Portland International Film Festival

George at PIFF

A new volunteer at the 39th annual Portland International Film Festival.

When the year began, I resolved to try new things.

My weekly urban hikes certainly qualify. But I’ve just embarked on another new-to-me experience — volunteering at the Portland International Film Festival.

2016 marks the 39th edition of the festival and this year’s lineup offers me the opportunity to not just give back to my community but also to enjoy free admission to a handful of movies among the nearly 100 full-length features and 60 short films from three dozen countries.

I’ve signed up for seven volunteer shifts during the Feb. 11-27 festival and had planned to wait until I had done two or three of them before writing anything. But that plan went out the window after Sunday’s amazing experience.

***

PIFF volunteerArriving at noon in downtown Portland, I picked up my volunteer badge and then positioned myself at the entrance to the World Trade Center, where I greeted people and directed them to the movie on the third floor. Pretty easy stuff.

When my work was done, I hustled upstairs to catch the start of the movie — a documentary titled “Sonita.”

I loved it. Going in, I had no idea I’d be seeing a film that won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

“Sonita” is the unlikely true story of an Afghan teenager who dreams of becoming a rapper. Sonita Alizadeh was a young girl when she and family members fled to Iran to escape the Taliban in her native country. Years later, she was still living in Iran as an undocumented immigrant when an Iranian filmmaker learned of her through a relative who worked for a non-governmental organization that helps Afghan refugees.

Sonita cleaned bathrooms for the NGO and learned to read and write, but when she was 16, her mother visited and said she must return with her to get married. As a bride in Afghanistan, she would be worth $9,000.

But Sonita doesn’t want to go back.

Learning the basics from watching music videos by Iranian rapper Yas and Eminem, she writes her own lyrics, speaking out boldly against forced marriage, against the subservient role of females in traditional Muslim society, against the war in Afghanistan.

sonita-alizadeh-exlarge-169

Afghan teenager Sonita Alizadeh uses rap to speak out against forced marriages. (CNN)

It’s an audacious, even dangerous, thing to do in Iran or Afghanistan, where it’s against the law for females to sing solo. Yet, Sonita’s dream is to give voice to other young women like her who are forced into marriages arranged by their families.

The movie tracks her emotions as she flips back and forth between hope and disappointment, trying to raise money for a recording session while also confronting the stark challenges posed by family, bureaucracy and cultural traditions. It seems like an impossible dream.

But in telling Sonita’s story, director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami tells the story of millions of girls whose talents and ambitions are stifled by the practice of forced marriage. Along the way, the director faces an ethical dilemma herself: Should she pay the mother $2,000 to buy more time for Sonita to pursue her dream? Or should she refuse to do so and confine herself to telling the girl’s story?

This is one of those films that draws back the curtain on places and people that we Westerners rarely see, including the interior of a Tehran apartment, street scenes in Herat (where Sonita grew up), government offices in Kabul, striking vistas of the rugged Afghan landscape.

More compelling, though, is Sonita herself — a devout Muslim, yet a strong-minded young woman determined to blaze her own trail.

When the lights came up, movie-goers applauded loudly. When they learned the director was in attendance, they rose to their feet. It was truly a Portland moment: a standing ovation and 15 minutes of Q&A with Ghaem Maghami, who said of Sonita: “I’ve never seen a child with so much ambition.”

Spoiler alert: My former Oregonian co-worker, Deborah Bloom, now at CNN, wrote a terrific feature story about Sonita last year, chronicling her struggle and inspiring success.  Sonita’s “Daughters For Sale” music video has captured more than 350,000 views on YouTube and ultimately brought her to the United States on a scholarship to study at a private high school in Utah.

***

Tonight I’ll do the second one of my volunteer shifts. I expect to see a variety of dramas and comedies made in France, Paraguay, Argentina, Mexico, Iran and The Netherlands.

If they are anywhere near as good as “Sonita,” I will be thrilled.

(Thanks to my friend Lakshmi Jagannathan, whose own volunteering for PIFF years ago inspired me to do the same when I got the chance.)

 

The forgotten working class

mcdermott3

Portland author Jim McDermott talks about his debut novel at Annie Bloom’s Books.

Several years ago, a Portland lawyer caused a bit of a stir when he wrote an op-ed piece for The Oregonian titled “I want to pay more taxes.” It began like this:

“Thirty years ago, I was pumping gas at a Mobil station for minimum wage. Then our government gave me grants and loans for college. When I got into law school, our government gave me more grants and loans. Now I’m fortunate to be a successful lawyer. My kids go to private schools. We live in a large home. I can afford to pay more taxes so others can benefit like I did.”

The author went on to criticize the U.S. tax code, saying it divides our country into haves and have-nots because it favors wealth over work and limits economic mobility by concentrating that wealth in so few people. He concluded with a call to generate more revenue for our troops, for seniors and children — and a plea to raise taxes on people like him who can afford to pay more.

I was the Sunday Opinion editor who published that provocative piece in April 2009. And though we exchanged emails, I hadn’t met Jim McDermott until last week.

***

On Thursday night, a standing-room only audience of more than 60 people crammed into Annie Bloom’s Books in Southwest Portland to hear Jim discuss his debut novel, “Bitter Is The Wind.”

It was the kickoff of a national book tour for McDermott, whose novel explores the theme of how hard it is for the working class to achieve economic success.

If you only knew Jim as a corporate business litigator and law partner who’s married to a judge, and who appears trim, healthy and handsome, you’d think the guy has it made. His law firm represented former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber during his legal troubles last year, and Jim’s wife, Karin Immergut, was the U.S. Attorney for Oregon before she joined the bench.

AnnieBloom_ecard

But there’s much more to his back story.

Raised in a small town in upstate New York, in one of those places with a gas station, a grocery store and a single stoplight, McDermott made it out — to Syracuse and then to the University of Virginia Law School. But many of his childhood friends didn’t and many of them remain there, limited by their lack of schooling and struggling to get by.

Growing up, most families he knew didn’t have books or art on the wall, he said. Young men went to work in the factory or, if they were good athletes, aspired to become major league baseball players, back in the days before football became king and a guy of average size could still dream of a pro career. Today, old friends still work in the factory, at the gas station, at the auto repair shop.

For more than 25 years, McDermott said, the novel has taken shape in his mind as a way to look back on what separated him from his peers and, more importantly, to look more broadly at the experiences of the working class as he experienced them.

Wearing a sports jacket, V-neck sweater and jeans, McDermott talked about his inspiration for the book, read three excerpts, and took questions from audience members.

“I wanted to write about the obstacles faced by the middle class,” he said. “What are the impediments? What is the role of money?”

Cemeteries were his first exposure to wealth disparity, with a simple observation that the more money you made, the bigger your tombstone. As the years passed, he saw how money made a difference — in how people see themselves and are treated by others, in how they navigate the educational and judicial systems.

“It’s really hard to get out of the lower class unless you have an education,” McDermott said. “I saw a lot of people get their cars repossessed. I saw lot of people ashamed because they couldn’t afford to send their kids to college.”

this job poster

Speaking of wealth inequality, I spotted this poster at a Portland restaurant just a few hours before heading to the bookstore.

In his novel, a father named George Johnson is an all-state baseball player who wins a scholarship to play college ball but gets his girlfriend pregnant, quits school and returns to the small town where he grew up, his dreams of pro ball unfilled. His son, George Jr., loses his mother and sister in a car wreck when he is 7 and grows up a troubled, though intelligent, kid. Can the younger George overcome his own missteps and obstacles to make a success of himself? Or will he too succumb to diminished opportunities?

When you’re in the middle class, you face environmental, intellectual and structural obstacles in society, McDermott said. In writing the book, he aimed to deconstruct the American Dream and asked himself several questions about the boys he grew up with: How could things have been different? What could America have done better? What could they have done better? What could their parents have done better?

As someone who’s climbed from the working class to the middle class, I appreciate that McDermott has not only been cognizant of these questions for so long but also that he made the novel happen. As the son of parents who lacked a high school education, I too credit my first-in-the-family college education as the springboard to a successful career and the broadening of my worldview.

©sp71 - McDermott Reading_BitterWind_PDX_2-11-16-71

Working class survivors: George and Jim. (Photo credit: ©sp71_Timothy Deal)

It may be coincidence that Jim’s book comes forth during a political season when presidential candidates alternately talk about or talk around inequality and lack of economic mobility. (Kudos to Bernie Sanders for making these issues the cornerstones of his campaign. Shame on those candidates who call for even more tax cuts for the wealthy.)

But from what I know of this fellow working class survivor, the challenges faced by working men and women and their children has never left his consciousness despite the trappings of success he may have achieved.

I look forward to reading Jim’s book.

Westside wonders

macleay trail 2

“Balch Creek is a fabulous gem at any time of year,” says Portland author Laura O. Foster. Amazing to realize this scene is just 2 miles from downtown.

This week’s urban hike took me to Northwest Portland — and what an amazing experience it was going from a hilly neighborhood of high-priced homes to nature trails of breathtaking beauty.

During a mid-morning walk that began in an industrial area just two miles from downtown Portland, I ascended into the hills via the Thurman Street Bridge, followed a dirt trail into Forest Park, emerged into the tony Willamette Heights neighborhood and descended via the Wildwood Trail and Lower Macleay Park, taking in the gorgeous scenery and soothing sounds of Balch Creek.

This was just my third urban hike since launching a new routine in late January and, so far, it’s my favorite.

Rocky Butte & Reggie Deluxe

Exploring my own city

thurman st bridge

Looking east from the Thurman Street Bridge, also known also as the Balch Gulch Bridge.

When I began these hikes, I hoped these weekly outings would help me learn more about the city I love. Thursday’s walk did all that. The route put me on paved streets and dirt paths I’d been on before, but which I didn’t realize connected to each other. In some cases, I didn’t know the names of certain landmarks. At other points, I found myself on entirely new terrain glimpsing vistas I’d never experienced before.

On top of everything, I saw dinosaurs.

***

The morning began at Costello’s Travel Caffe in Northeast Portland’s Irvington neighborhood. There I met Doug, a fellow retiree, for coffee and conversation.

It’s a popular, family-owned place, a good counterpoint to the corporate coffee shops further down the street on Northeast Broadway.

As we consumed a light breakfast — ciabatta sandwich with spinach and tomato, cheddar and bacon (not everything I eat is drenched in gravy) — Doug and I talked about our forebears, our upbringings, our siblings, our children, our careers. Didn’t discuss our wives. That’ll be a topic for next time. Maybe a two-ciabatta meal. 😉

***

I drove out to Northwest Portland, intending to park on the street but none was to be found so I grabbed a space in the lot of the old Montgomery Ward building on Vaughn Street.

montgomery ward

From Northwest Thurman Street, a great view of the old Montgomery Ward building.

Heading south toward Thurman Street, I crossed a bridge I have driven over countless times on my way up to run on Leif Erikson Drive. Little did I know I had been passing over the entrance to Lower Macleay Park all these years.

Climbing in elevation, I followed Thurman onto two adjoining streets, marveling at the varied architecture and tastefully decorated homes, many of them built into steep hillsides and requiring a walk up or down to the front door via 45-degrees or more staircases.

I passed the entrance of the White Shield Home, a residential facility for unwed mothers that The Salvation Army has been operating for more than a century, then went past a gate that took me past a city reservoir and up a trail to Leif Erikson Drive.

As if on cue, a guy on a mountain bike pedaled past on a trail I’ve run many, many times before on long weekend runs. At the end of the trail, I ran into a trio of women who were about to head up the hill on their bicycles.

thurman st mansion

Willamette Heights is one of the city’s oldest and most affluent neighborhoods.

Leaving the park, I took a right onto Northwest Aspen Drive and ventured into a development of Old Portland residences — a mix of sizes and styles valued from $500,000 to about $2 million. The streets were quiet, the lawns well manicured and the views were quite nice.

I had no idea I would encounter not one but two collections of toy dinosaurs lurking on the sidewalks. Nice to see such displays of humor.

The biggest discovery? That you could follow one residential street to a dead end where it leads to the Holman Trail and then to the Wildwood Trail in Forest Park. Walking amongst towering Douglas Fir trees in Balch Creek Canyon, I went crazy with the camera. Had to stop at least three times to delete photos to clear space for new ones.

Another surprise? That the Wildwood Trail would take me to the Stone House on the Lower Macleay Trail. A runner saw me taking pictures and stopped to tell me of a close call he had recently when a huge tree toppled in his direction, luckily falling short of where he was.

Now that I know these trails intersect, I will be back for sure to run them myself.

Final thought? This particular route, the first one described in Laura O. Foster’s excellent book, “Portland Hill Walks,” offered great variety and a big old helping of nature’s best. I had to pinch myself to realize I was trekking through a portion of an urban park boasting more than 5,000 wooded acres in the midst of a mid-sized city.

I love this place.