Carey Lander, R.I.P.


Carey Lander, keyboardist and singer with Camera Obscura, was 33 when she died.

When music superstars David Bowie and Prince died suddenly barely three months apart, the world mourned their passing with concert tributes and purple-colored lighting of bridges and other monuments.

It’s totally understandable that fans of these iconic performers would honor their legacies in big, bold ways. Likewise, you would expect some form of public grieving for other well-known singers and musicians who’ve died in recent months — Natalie Cole, Glenn Frey, Maurice White.

But unless you’re a devotee of the Scottish indie band Camera Obscura, chances are the death of keyboardist Carey Lander slipped by unnoticed. She died last October of a rare type of bone cancer that she’d fought for four years. She was just 33.

I’m a fan of the band and I admit I didn’t learn of Carey’s passing until this year.

A favorite song, “New Year’s Resolution,” came up on one of my mixes and Carey’s playing made me wonder when the band might be touring in the U.S. again. I’d seen them once before in Portland — six years ago this month — and hoped they’d return sometime this year. That’s when I learned from the band’s Facebook page that they’d suspended their touring because of Carey’s death.

It made me sad, knowing how much I’d enjoyed seeing them perform, mere feet away from the stage at a densely packed nightclub. It also made me sad, knowing the impact of her passing was just as devastating on her bandmates, family and fans as any performer, superstar or not.

Carey Lander wasn’t the focal point of the band, not by a longshot. She sang background vocals and contributed to a balanced sound whose sum was greater than the individual musicians.

Judging by the obituaries in the British press, she was someone I probably would have enjoyed meeting.

She was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer which usually affects children, in 2011. She established a crowdfunding page to raise money for cancer charity, and went on to raise £56,000 (more than $80,000 U.S. dollars) — a sum that has nearly doubled since her death.

Lander told visitors on her Just Giving page: “It’s probably too late to help me, but it would be great if we could find something in the future that means children don’t have to undergo such awful treatment and have a better chance of survival.”

In a piece for The Guardian, Tracyanne Campbell, the band’s frontwoman, remembered her friend:

“Carey was always immaculately colourful in both humour and appearance, always sarcastic and funny, but also thoughtful, dignified, discreet and wise. All the best things. More than anything, she loved books – Carson McCullers, Sylvia Plath and Patrick Hamilton, Paul Auster – and also 50s and 60s vintage style, winter clothes, red roses, falling snow.

“People often thought that Carey was quite shy and unfriendly, but she wasn’t, really. She was the right kind of quiet. She could steer the band with her silence. In rehearsal, if she didn’t like something, the lack of sound from behind the keyboard spoke volumes.”

Bowie and Prince were incredible, original artists, deserving of the acclaim they received alive and in death. Carey Lander was no superstar, but clearly she’s someone who made the music industry and the community around her a better place.

Photograph: The Independent

Friday flashback: ‘The joys of my summer’


Bob Ehlers, former Iowa farm boy.

We’re not even at May, let alone summer, so why resurrect a three-year-old blog post about the joys of summer?

Here’s why:

— Because on a rainy day like today, you want to remind yourself that warm, dry days lie ahead.

— Because any photo of a homegrown tomato conjures only good thoughts about nature and food.

— Because my longtime buddy, Bob Ehlers, nailed it when he wrote this piece about simple pleasures, including a list of 10 things that bring him joy. Among them: “eating fresh sweet corn” and going sockless.

In his 2013 blog post for Voices of August, Bob wrote: “For me, some of the most basic and enduring sources of summertime joy are sensory — riding my bike past a field of aromatic freshly cut hay, or walking barefoot around our yard seeing the hostas and fruit trees in full foliage. But the single event I truly, truly anticipate every year is standing in our garden, taking a bite of the first ripe tomato, a personal mini-celebration of taste.”

Read more here: “The joys of my summer”



Working and vacationing in Southern Africa: Guest blogger


Victoria Falls, seen from the Zimbabwean side, is often graced by rainbows.

Editor’s note: For as long as I have known him, I have been impressed by the scientific mind and musical talents of Greg Baker. Our youngest child and his first-born, both boys, were classmates from preschool through high school and our wives are great friends.

Greg is an accomplished fiddler and birder, but it was a work trip to southern Africa two summers ago that piqued my interest. I asked him to share his experiences in a guest blog and so he did, recalling elephants, forests, brushfires and charcoal.

By Greg Baker

In August 2014 I had the good fortune to work in Zambia, a land-locked, south-central African republic of some 14 million people. I was assigned to the position of job site safety manager for the construction of a hazardous waste landfill in the northern Copperbelt Province of Zambia, not far from Chingola.

Construction of a large, lined landfill can only occur during the winter season when conditions are dry – it must be completed before the predictable rainy season commences begins in late spring. Our construction schedule would be tight. My charge on this project was to prevent deaths, accidents, injuries, equipment losses and uncontrolled releases of hazardous substances. This would present a few challenges, as approximately half the crew consisted of local, young untrained laborers, and you never knew what to expect from local suppliers and subcontractors.

Though I’ve traveled a bit in Europe and visited several Central American countries, I’d never been on the African continent. I imagined it would be dominated by lush tropic vegetation and teeming with wildlife. But I quickly came to realize that location, elevation and season matter.

During a four-month stay, I would get a ground-level view of the country’s environmental and economic challenges and shoot hundreds of photos of spectacular scenery and wildlife. I would come home not just with the priceless experience of viewing exotic animals and birds in their native habitats but also with a new perspective on the traditional practice of cutting down live trees to produce charcoal.

So there I was, on my first trip to Africa – a serious birder, and I was stoked! More than 98% of the plants, birds and other animals encountered during this trip would be new to me. Undoubtedly I would find time for some collateral birding, and photograph species new to my life list of world birds (aka “lifers”).

Click on images to view captions.

In Zambia people drive on the left hand side of the road, which is a throwback to former British colonial rule. Our construction management team drove through Kitwe to Chingola on a paved, but potholed asphalt road, recently improved by Chinese convict crews – they work for next to nothing I was told. My driver – a young fellow from Ndola – complained that the Chinese get much of the public works projects, because local Zambians simply cannot complete with the very low Chinese wages. (Over the course of the next four months I would come to appreciate that the Chinese aren’t exactly winning the hearts and minds of the African populace. And they appear to be underperforming on infrastructure development, specifically new road projects.)


Typical potholes on a major two-lane highway.

Drivers swerve around potholes, constantly resulting in frequent collisions. Over the course of my four-month assignment while I was there, several pedestrians and drivers would perish along the stretch of road adjacent to our construction site. Loud truck tire explosions occurred about twice a month – the Zambians appear to habitually use their tread-worn semi-truck tires until they blow up.

While cruising along at 110 kilometers per hour (roughly 70 mph) I could not help but notice the speed limit was posted at 60 kh. I was surprised but not shocked to see large stands of pine forest plantations, not dissimilar from what I have observed back in the states, in southern Georgia and northern Louisiana. They appeared to be plantations of pine, perhaps imported from elsewhere.

I soon learned that our project site was at 4,000 feet elevation and 12 degrees south of the equator. Would I get to experience any dense wilderness jungle during this trip? I could hardly wait to explore the countryside.

GB-roadside market

A typical informal roadside market at a railroad crossing where traffic normally slows down.

There seemed to be plenty of low-lying forests off in the distance, but very few wetlands, streams, ponds and lakes.

I soon learned that brushfires are daily occurrences during the dry season. Fires go unattended and the locals seem quite casual and unconcerned about them. The same goes for garbage fires in and around Chingola. People burn garbage around the clock and don’t seem to mind the foul acrid odors that offend the senses of a fellow from Portland, Oregon. (On one Sunday morning I arose at 8 am for a jog, but quickly gave up — the air pollution was too intense. That day I did not venture outside of my hotel room until noon.)

On a day off I visited the Chimpfunshi Chimpanzee Sanctuary with a few staff from the project and the Mokorro Hotel and Grille. We came across an uncontrolled brushfire, essentially out in the middle of nowhere.


An unattended fire near Chimpfunshi.

The fire must have been displacing insects because several species of birds were actively foraging in front of the fire line, including a distant hornbill, and a small flock of iridescent Greater Blue-eared Starling – both lifers.

Back in the vicinity of Chingola, I occasionally noticed women gathering dead wood in the adjacent forest around the perimeter of our job site. They collected large bundles and balanced their loads on the tops of their heads. The wood is used to produce charcoal, which is the primary fuel used for cooking in rural areas. (Zambia does not have any natural gas, coal or oil resources, and must import such fossil fuels, primarily for commercial and industrial purposes.)

Back in the states African families are frequently belittled for relying upon “cooking” charcoal, which produces carbon dioxide that presumably contributes to climate change. (“If only those Africans would stop making and using charcoal we would have much less deforestation and less severe global warming to worry about.”) Westerners generally believe that the practice of cutting live trees down for charcoal production has resulted in deforestation in arid regions of Africa. No doubt this is a huge problem with unintended consequences. And it is a problem that is only exacerbated by unsustainable population growth.

landlockedzambia-africa2But after residing in Africa for a few weeks I started to gain a different appreciation for this custom and the impact that it appears to be having in this part of Zambia. From the few wildfires I had observed, I concluded that such fires do not burn very hot, and the trees and shrubs in the forest understory appear well-adapted for surviving regular light fires. If the dead wood was left in place, the accumulated fuel would burn much hotter and likely destroy large tracts of forest. What type of landscape would result then, and how much carbon dioxide would be sequestered and/or released?  Either way, that dead wood eventually IS going to get burned. And live trees should be left unharmed – at least that is the law.

Humans have been an integral part of the ecology in Africa for millions of years and have shaped the present day landscapes.  The age-old African custom of regularly gathering fire wood has apparently resulted in the sustainable forests which we observe today in this part of Zambia. Despite the well-intentioned criticisms of Westerners, the forests and landscapes surrounding Chingola appeared to be doing very well, thank you very much.

I wish I could say the same about wildlife around Chingola and our jobsite. Mammals and birds were few and far between. Many children carry catapults (i.e., sling shots), so any unwary wild creature that moves could wind up in a pot or on a skillet before the day is done. Same for road kill – the only road kill I observed were flattened dogs which were ritually left in place to become two-dimensional, and recognizable even a few weeks after meeting their maker. Perhaps there weren’t many wild mammals and reptiles around to be struck?



Towards the end of the first week of September our team learned that a major shipment of construction materials had been delayed; consequently, we would have an uplanned shut-down at the project site – and a furlough – for up to two weeks. I decided to stay in country, though, as I might have had to return to the job site to conduct inspections, risk assessments, and issue specific work permits. So, I decided to fly over to Livingstone, Zambia to check out Victoria Falls and the famous national parks that were said to be teeming with wildlife.


My $40 per night private cottage at Jolly Boys in Livingstone, Zambia.

Since I stayed over a week in a private cottage, I got the 8th night free. The place had two cots with mattresses and mosquito netting; concrete floors; and screen windows. The shared bathroom facilities were in separate buildings, as were places to dine. Not bad at all!

I signed up for a day trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana with Kalahari Tours.  The morning was slated for a water trip to Sedudu Island.  Sedudu is a term for a group of hippos. Then following a brief lunch, the afternoon was scheduled for a game drive along a river bank and channel of the Chobe River, immediately across from Sedudu Island.
A bull elephant started crossing the Chobe River for Sedudu Island right in front of our boat.

This was my first encounter with a wild African Elephant. I was so pleased to observe this large bull as it swam across a river channel and ascended onto Sedudu Island.  Each elephant must consume several hundreds of pounds of vegetation daily, and during the dry season there are more than 100,000 of these giants in Chobe National Park.

I photographed hundreds of birds, reptiles and other mammals. (See to view the images.)

I took little comfort (from our boat) when a nearby buffalo assumed an assertive posture. (This species kills several people every year.) The Cape Buffalo is one of Africa’s dangerous Big Game Five, or simply “Big Five.”  The other four include the African Elephant, White Rhino, Lion and Leopard.  I was very fortunate to photograph all of the Big Five while visiting the Livingstone area for the week.

One day my destination was Victoria Falls, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.  Dr. Livingstone was the first European to observe it back in 1858, I believe.  How Dr. Livingstone ever made it here without dying of Yellow Fever, Malaria and a host of other life-threatening diseases is beyond me.  I took my prophylactic malaria medication religiously each morning.

It quickly occurred to me “You’re not back home in Oregon, Greg.” Victoria Falls is nothing like the Cascades of the Columbia Gorge. which is so familiar. For example, Multnomah Falls, while impressive, is essentially a single thread of cascading water. In contrast, the band of spilling water from the Zambia River is over a mile wide, dropping some 350 feet into a steep narrow gorge, shrouded in perpetual mist, punctuated by a persistent rainbow.

Mist from the falls maintains a small permanent rain forest, where I stood taking this photo. Across from this mist, I paused in a mini-rain forest and was rewarded by encountering a small mixed flock or “party” of small foraging birds, which I took time to identify and photograph.


Subsequent day trips took me back to Chobe National Park in Botswana and to the other side of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

Back at work on September 24th, we had a brush fire sweep through our construction site. Since I had wildfire fighting experience, I managed the fire response.

It wasn’t an intense fire, but we had to keep it away from a million dollars’ worth of heavy equipment and landfill liner materials!

I remained on site over night to conduct fire watch. I saw an adult African Eagle Owl flying around by an owl nest during the fire, and I was concerned about the owlets and their chances for survival.

The next morning both owlets were gone. They had vanished without a trace. I feared the worse. Perhaps they had dropped out of the nest because of the fire and were consumed by some predators?

By October 6th, nearly two weeks had passed without any sign of the owls. I happened to look up and spotted the owlets in the trees.


By mid-November we completed our landfill liner installation in the nick of time — just ahead of the first major wet season downpour. My job was done! I could now go meet my wife Rebecca in Livingstone. Later, we would fly down to Capetown and explore the South Africa coast.


After visiting the Livingstone area, Chobe National Park and the Wilderness area of South Africa I came to reconsider my previous impressions about charcoal production and the forests back at our construction site near Chingola. Perhaps the only reason there are ANY forests remaining around the Copperbelt and Chingola is related to the absence of elephants?

The folks around the Copperbelt exterminated the African Elephant long ago – this species is known for tearing down small to medium-sized trees and creating/sustaining savannah and grasslands habitats. If the African Elephant were reintroduced, protected, and allowed to roam freely (unlikely) throughout the Copperbelt, there would be very little shrubbery and understory left for the Zambians to collect for charcoal production – the landscape would likely be more savannah-like and there would be more grasslands.

After four months in Zambia I was not certain what to conclude about my Westernized preconceived notions concerning charcoal production, deforestation, climate change and elephants. I will simply have to return to Africa one day to ponder these matters again!


Greg Baker has chronicled the entire trip and hundreds of photographs on his website:  He is currently employed as Director of Training at PBS Engineering and Environmental in Portland, Oregon. His wife, Rebecca Bauer, is a retired teacher from Portland Public Schools.

All photographs courtesy of Greg Baker


Friday flashback: ‘Saying hello, saying goodbye…’

Sometime during her final year of clinical training before becoming a hospital chaplain, Andrea Cano had an epiphany: “Birth and death are not medical events, they are sacred events.”

“How DO we experience these two most extraordinary moments during our lives? How have our cultures and societies changed rituals and customs into medical procedures and clinical venues for the two most fundamental events every single one of us will go through?”

andrea cano

Andrea Cano, chaplain at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital

Andrea posed those questions — and others — in a 2012 blog post for Voices of August, an annual month-long guest blog project.

And who better to raise them than my friend, an ordained United Church of Christ minister who was born into a Catholic family, raised Southern Baptist, and studied Eastern philosophies and religion in college?

“How do we say ‘hello’ to new life and ‘goodbye’ to our loved ones?” she asks. “What social, spiritual, or cultural meaning do death, healing, wholeness, quality of life and quality of death have for each of us?”

With the passing of each year, such questions take on more importance. Speaking for myself, I just said “goodbye” to a dear aunt, my mother’s sister, Antonia. This summer I will say “hello” to our first grandchild. Indeed, both are sacred events.

Here’s the piece by the Rev. Cano: Saying hello, saying goodbye, and everything else in between

Photograph: Oregon Health Care Interpreters Association


Bailed out on Healy Heights

CC council crest park

Trying to get my bearings in Council Crest Park on a surprisingly wet hike Thursday, April 14. (Photo by John Killen)

With eight weekly urban hikes under my belt, it was time to add a new wrinkle: a hiking buddy. This week in particular, I couldn’t have made a better choice than my longtime friend and co-worker, John Killen.

Thursday started out innocently. We met for a pre-hike breakfast at Gigi’s Cafe in the Hillsdale neighborhood of Southwest Portland. As we chatted, we kept an eye on the gray sky, thinking and hoping that at most we’d encounter a light drizzle. Wrong.

As soon as we started on the four-mile route to Healy Heights, it started to sprinkle. Then rain. Then rain some more.

It didn’t let up until we were nearly done. By that time, a planned two-hour walk through hilly neighborhoods had become a three-hour outing, thanks to yours truly not paying close enough attention to the route described in Laura O. Foster’s “Portland Hill Walks.”

I mistakenly thought we were supposed to follow one road on a continuous loop when, in fact, we should have veered off and picked up another major street. By the time we discovered my error, we had strayed well off course in a maze of twisting, winding streets and had gotten pretty well soaked despite arming ourselves with umbrellas.

Fortunately, John bailed us out.

As an avid bicyclist, John has covered much of the city and the metro area on two wheels, so he was already familiar with many of the streets on this Hillsdale to Healy Heights route, as well as those surrounding Council Crest Park, where we inadvertently went astray. He figured out a shortcut that took us up a forested path and into the park and then back down to the labyrinth of streets and staircases in Healy Heights.

Had I been on my own, I might still be wandering the neighborhood, a first-time visitor trying to get my bearings. Thanks to John’s sense of direction and navigating skills, we got back on track and made it back to SW Capitol Highway. We rewarded ourselves with a cookie and coffee at Baker & Spice, a charming bakery a few doors down from Gigi’s.

The other great thing about having John along was tapping into his deep knowledge of the city. We worked in the same newsroom for more than 25 years. When he retired last year, a few months ahead of me, he took with him an impressive recall of historical events, facts, dates, political leaders, and neighborhood trivia.

Listening to John’s running commentary was like having a personal tour guide. We had just started our hike when he pointed out the second house on my right as belonging to a former governor that had been moved from the Portland waterfront.

Who else but John would know that George Lee Curry had served as Oregon’s last territorial governor before statehood began in 1859? Or that Curry County in Southern Oregon was named for him?

John again displayed his knowledge when we reached Council Crest Park, the highest point in Portland at 1,073 feet above sea level. Council Crest got its name from Native American leaders who would gather for important meetings, John told me.

Then, pointing to a bronze statue of a mother and child, John recalled an episode in the 1980s when vandals used hacksaws to make off with the piece, only to have it discovered during a drug raid across town a decade later. The statute was restored and put up again in a new location of the park.

Oh, and did I know that Council Crest was once the site of an amusement park operated in the same style as Jantzen Beach (now closed in North Portland) and Oaks Park (still going in Sellwood in SE Portland)? And that park operators dug a ditch and offered boat rides up there? No, I did not.

We covered more ground than we planned to and got wetter than we anticipated, but I have no complaints.

As is so often the case on these weekly excursions, I traveled on streets I’d never been on before. I was treated to the sight of a lot of fine architecture — including lots of angular, contemporary styles and gravity-defying homes built on wooded hillsides — in a part of the city that’s seemingly embedded in a rainforest.

In all my 30 years of living here, I’d never ever been on SW Fairmount Boulevard or SW Council Crest Drive, let alone Council Crest Park. I’d never been in Healy Heights or Hessler Heights, an micro-neighborhood made up of huge homes and featuring a private tennis court. I had no idea you could follow a trail through Marquam Nature Park and emerge near the Oregon Health & Science University campus.

HH tower

The Stonehenge radio tower, 607 feet tall and built in 1990 by rock station KGON-FM.

Had we done this hike any other day this week, we surely would have been treated to amazing vistas.

But with Thursday’s weather, we had to settle for squinting through the mist to distant landmarks downtown and at South Waterfront.

I’ll have to come back up here again on a sunny day.

Maybe walk through Marquam Nature Park.

Yes, do that, George.


Friday flashback: ‘Chicago’s mind-numbing numbers’


Honors student Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago murder victim.

The Chicago Police Department is in the news again. To the surprise of no one, a task force created last year by the mayor issued a report this week slamming the department for decades of discrimination and a place where racist officers have gotten away with police brutality.

The news brought to mind a 2014 Voices of August blog post by Tim Akimoff, who was then working for Chicago Public Media. In his piece, Tim talked about the awful toll of gun violence in the nation’s third-largest city.

‘When we came to work on Monday, no one had to ask what the numbers were,” he said, following a three-day holiday weekend. “We all knew 82 people had been shot, 14 fatally. Two of those were teens shot by police.

“So far 235 people have been shot and 39 killed in July in Chicago.

“It is no wonder some people have started calling it Chiraq.”

Of course, police shootings are just part of the picture. Unmitigated gang violence continues to claim both willing participants and innocent victims.

“I always wanted to work at a New York Times bureau in some war-torn city in Africa or Asia,” Tim wrote.

“I wanted to tell the stories of the victims of war, to reveal the cost of violence on the resources of a city or a region.

“Here I am in the upper Midwest, in the Second City, right smack-dab in the middle of a war zone.”

Tim has returned to Oregon and is now working for the state’s fish and wildlife department. Two years later, his piece still packs an emotional punch.

Read it here: Chicago’s mind-numbing numbers


Boys at the beach

winema guys

From left: Tom, George, Bob and Eric.

As if this retirement thing weren’t already going pretty smoothly, this weekend took it to another level.

Three friends and I converged on the beach home of a fourth friend and had ourselves a helluva relaxing time.

The crew: Our host, Tom, plus Bob, Eric and myself.

The location: A secluded spot somewhere in south Tillamook County.

The plan: Arrive Friday afternoon, spend all day Saturday, leave Sunday morning.

The agenda: Have a couple of dinners at home, play some poker, take a couple of hikes, spend some time in nearby Pacific City, play some more poker.

The menu: Grilled steaks, roasted vegetables and a green salad; bacon, eggs, potatoes and waffles; fish and chips; sausage and gravy over homemade biscuits, eggs and hash browns. Lots of coffee and, um, several adult beverages.


What can I say?

Though nothing tops time spent with my wife Lori, there’s an entirely different kind of pleasure that comes from hanging out with dudes — in this case, guys I’ve known for roughly 25, 35 and 40 years.

Tom and I go back to college days in San Jose. After graduation, each of us moved up to Oregon, got married (our wives were college roommates) and went on to raise three children.

Bob and I go back to when we lived in Salem. His son and our oldest boy were born two days apart and we became founding members of a babysitting coop.

Eric and I met when our families were living two blocks from each other in Portland’s Grant Park neighborhood. His daughter and our youngest son were born four days apart.

Each of these guys is a regular in the poker games I host at my place. And because they also attend the annual Voices of August meetup that follows each year’s month of guest blog posts, they already know each other to some extent.

After this weekend, it’s safe to say the bonds of friendship have grown stronger.

It wasn’t all calories and poker chips. There was plenty of conversation — about our spouses and kids; about politics, hobbies and travel; about our working and retired lives (Eric is the only one still on the job) — and plenty of exercise, too.

Friday evening we walked along the beach into a stiff, chilly wind. Saturday morning we tramped through unpaved neighborhood streets and took a longer hike in the sand to Nestucca Bay, where we glimpsed sea lions, seals, a bald eagle and a couple of blue herons.

We followed that up with a visit to Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge  (no “patriots” in sight plotting a takeover of government land), where the hilltop observation deck provided ocean views in one direction and green, rolling landscapes in the other.

nestucca refuge

Looking west toward the ocean from Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

After lunch and a couple games of billiards at the old-school Sportsman Pub and Grub, where country western alternated with Ted Nugent heavy metal on the jukebox, it was time for another hike.

Bathed in sunshine, we walked along a quiet trail in the Sand Lake Recreation Area, emerging onto a pristine beach.

After that, we headed to an art show at a private residence, an open studio featuring three local artists — two of whom knew Tom from their day/night jobs in Pacific City. We talked with all three, complimented their work, and noshed on snacks laid out on a billiards table. Pretty casual.

From there, it was one more pit stop at Twist, a wine and beer tasting bar where we chatted with Sean, a co-owner, and greeted the resident four-legged host, an aging Rhodesian Ridgeback-Lab mix named Sami.

After that, it was back to the beach home for more R&R (sort of like going from the slow lane to barely moving) topped off by a dinner of appetizers and a game of cards that lasted until 1 a.m.

Gotta say, it was a great weekend in all respects. Guy Time is all good when you’re hanging out with three friends who know you well and in a place where you can’t help but chill.

Already looking forward to the next time we can do this.

Deceit, desire and despair

I had never heard of the novel “A Reliable Wife” nor its author, Robert Goolrick, until I glimpsed it on the shelf of a thrift store at the Oregon Coast.

The cover depicted a shapely woman from the neck down, dressed in a rich, red fabric, and a steam-powered passenger train against a wintry gray sky.

The book was a national bestseller and several blurbs on the back cover offered enthusiastic praise, calling it “thrilling,” “intoxicating,” “mesmerizing,” “engrossing and addictive.”

The synopsis sounded intriguing:

He placed a notice in a Chicago paper, an advertisement for a “reliable wife.” She responded, saying that she was “a simple, honest woman.” She was, of course, anything but honest, and the only simple thing about her was her single-minded determination to marry this man and then kill him, slowly and carefully, leaving herself a wealthy widow. What Catherine Land did not realize was that the enigmatic and lonely Ralph Truitt had a plan of his own.”

reliable wife

I was intrigued. The only question was whether a fictional story set in rural Wisconsin in 1907 would hold my interest.

Turns out the answer was, “Hell, yes.”

“A Reliable Wife” was a marvelous book. Meticulously researched, elegantly written, full of surprising plot twists and built around three flawed characters — each of them a lonely soul and striving (or conniving) to fill a hole in their life.

From the opening chapters, when Goolrick introduces Catherine, a woman with bad intentions, and Ralph, a wealthy and taciturn widower who seeks female companionship, I was hooked.

Their initial meeting at the train station quickly goes from awkward to suspenseful. On their way to Ralph’s home, a deer spooks the horses pulling Truitt’s carriage and sends them crashing through a fence into the flat, snow-covered fields on a bitterly cold dark night.

Just like that, Catherine is thrust into a situation where she must save the life of the severely injured man she just met — or see her murderous plan to enrich herself fall apart before she can even take the first step.

robert goolrick

Robert Goolrick

In the chapters that follow, Goolrick does a brilliant job of exploring his characters’ motives and psyches as well as conveying the isolation and dreariness associated with a wintry Midwest landscape. The third major character, Antonio, appears when the scene shifts to St. Louis in the winter of 1908.

Goolrick writes with elegance and precision, composing short, simple sentences in a style that made me think of Hemingway and Carver.

Consider this passage describing Catherine’s arrival in St. Louis:

The city entered her like music, like a wild symphony. The train pulled into Union Station, that giant garish chateau, and she stepped from Truitt’s railroad car into the largest train station in the world as though her skin were on fire.

The station smelled of beef and newsprint, of beer an iron. She had been away from this for too long. She had been in the wild white country, and her heart burned with the adventures, the friends, the food and drink, the multiplicity of event the city promised. People came here to be bad. People came here to do the things they couldn’t do at home. Smoke cigarettes. Have sex. Make their way in the world.

I loved this book. Turns out it was Goolrick’s debut novel, published in 2009. He began his writing career at 53 after losing his job in advertising and followed up “A Reliable Wife” by writing his own memoir.

While this make-believe story was plainly about deceit, desire and despair, it was also about revenge and redemption, cruelty and kindness, catharsis and forgiveness.

In an interview, Goolrick acknowledges that each of his main characters has an agenda, a secret and a plan.

“These characters are not good people. They have lived mistaken and cruel lives, done despicable things. I wanted to see if they could be redeemed, if the tiny spark of hope in each of their hearts could be enough to redeem them from damaged childhoods and thoughtless adulthood. They are strong because they are damaged and have had to fight to survive.”

The best fiction recreates a specific time and place so well that the reader is drawn into a world where characters come alive and dialogue rings true. In imagining this bleak Wisconsin landscape and a trio of characters plotting against each other more than a century ago, Goolrick has done exactly that.

Where the sidewalk ends

SJ bridge 2

The majestic St. Johns Bridge seems to disappear into a forested hillside.

Since I began exploring my own city through a weekly urban hike, I’ve been repeatedly surprised by how much I didn’t know about Portland.

Whether it’s traveling on unfamiliar streets, discovering hidden staircases or learning about neighborhood history, the joy of discovery has enriched my understanding of the city and deepened my affection for it.

The most recent excursion in St. Johns may have been the most eye-opening yet.

Unlike some residential neighborhoods I’ve recently become acquainted with, I was already familiar with the working-class character of this area of North Portland. Located on the tip of the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, St. Johns is a frequently overlooked part of town that stands in sharp relief to more homogeneous, more affluent neighborhoods.

Still, I was in for a few surprises and contrasts in this area named for James John, who in 1846 became the first white settler on the peninsula. The area incorporated in 1902 and was annexed to Portland in 1915. Today, a majority of its residents are non-white and one in four households lives below the poverty line.

Here in St. Johns, you’ll find decades-old businesses, restaurants, bakeries and bars in the same commercial district as Starbucks, a renovated movie theater, a Mexican tienda and a kombucha bar.

In the residential areas, you’ll walk along unpaved roads into secluded neighborhoods offering splendid views of the iconic St. Johns Bridge, meander down a curving street to a contaminated Superfund site next to the Willamette River, and emerge into Cathedral Park and an adjoining warehouse district.

In short, St. Johns is both gritty and pretty.


I started my Thursday routine with a late breakfast at James John Cafe on North Lombard Street, the main commercial street. Fortified by a delicious meal and strong coffee, I headed downhill on Delaware Street toward the river.

Here the sidewalk literally ends. A dirt-and-gravel road takes you into a cluster of older, mostly well maintained homes on dead-end streets that offer quiet seclusion and some of the city’s best views of the St. Johns Bridge and downtown Portland.

The best vantage point? A footpath outside the chain-link fence marking the perimeter of the historic Benson-Chaney property, where the son of a prominent Portland businessman lived in a mansion that later became home to an alternative high school.

portway tavern

The Portway Tavern at the corner of North Willamette Boulevard and Edgewater Street.

From there, I snaked through residential streets that brought me to Willamette Boulevard and the Portway Tavern, a dive bar that’s been serving locals and University of Portland students since the 1930s.

Walking south, I found myself on Edgewater Street and came to a locked gate. The street is closed to traffic but pedestrians can slip past the gate and follow a steep, curving roadway down to Willamette Cove, a riverside greenspace of beach and uplands so heavily contaminated by industrial users that it made the nation’s list of Superfund sites in the mid-’90s.

Metro, the regional government agency, now owns and manages the site, which has undergone some cleanup of creosote and other toxins but remains plagued by high levels of lead contamination.

Should I have even been there? Maybe not. Laura O. Foster, author of my “Portland Hill Walks” guide book, doesn’t recommend this area for women hiking alone. I can see why. Graffiti, broken glass and abandoned railroad tracks don’t exactly conjure an inviting walk in the park. Yet the area is quiet as a museum and the dirt trails are shaded by mature trees as you walk downriver, emerging in an industrial district of scrap yards and barbed-wire coils atop cyclone fences.

Ugly? Sure. But even here the sight of the St. Johns Bridge is something to behold, its southern end seemingly disappearing into the forested hillside.

About the bridge: The suspension bridge opened in 1931 and was designed by the famed structural engineer David B. Steinman of New York. With its Gothic arch motif and rising piers, it measures 200 feet above the Willamette. Each year, thousands of runners cross the span as part of the Portland Marathon. The one time I ran it, I vividly remember this as the point in the race where I started to fade, 20 miles in.

Walking parallel to the river I came upon the city’s Water Pollution Control Laboratory and its rain garden, and then beautiful Cathedral Park, a grassy area with flowers, paved paths and a small beach all tucked beneath the St. Johns Bridge. The venue is home to the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival and other musical concerts. (I’m adding this to my list of places to return to this summer.)

Leaving the park, I made my way to a warehouse district where Moonstruck Chocolate Co. makes gourmet chocolates and truffles and where Columbia Sportswear operated for years before moving to the suburbs.

Heading up a steep hill, I passed by the home of a former mayor, converted to a duplex, and eventually found myself back on North Lombard Street. I bought myself a Jarritos soft drink to sip on while I headed toward my starting point.

In the space of just a few blocks, I passed a workingman’s tavern, a hipster coffeehouse, tattooed patrons sipping drinks at sidewalk tables, a vinyl record shop, a converted service station now serving pizza, and an intersection slated for construction of apartments and shops a few hundred feet away from the elementary school named for James John.

The old pioneer would be amazed — and, I suspect, pleased — to see what’s become of his stomping ground. A diverse community where old and new businesses coexist and complement each other. A place that feels connected in name only to the rest of Portland.

Friday flashback: ‘Confessions of a dog mom’


Lydia Ramos with her “rescue” dog Princeton, aka Papa.

“In this dog-loving world, few speak of the grief that comes with the loss of a pet.”

My friend, Lydia Ramos, wrote that sentence in a 2013 blog post for Voices of August. In a piece that tapped into the emotions of anyone who’s ever loved and lost a mutt, she paid tribute to Princeton Xavier Ramos, a “Tina Turner lookalike” she adopted as a puppy in July 2003.

“I ‘rescued’ him but really, he rescued me,” Lydia wrote. “He made me learn how to care for something other than my job.”

Read her lovely essay right here: “Confessions of a dog mom”