Southwestern sleuths

It took weeks for me to get through John Updike’s “Rabbit Is Rich.” It took me just a few days to whip through Anne Hillerman’s “Rock With Wings.”

It’s not that “Rabbit” was ever less than absorbing. I’m simply a deliberate, even plodding, reader.

In the case of the Hillerman book, it was an effortless read. With short chapters, a familiar landscape and characters, and multiple riddles in need of resolution, the pages flew by.

rockWithWingsThe verdict? Anne Hillerman is now 2 for 2 in my eyes. Picking up where her late father Tony left off, Anne has written another captivating mystery featuring a trio of Navajo Tribal Police: Sgt. Jim Chee, Officer Bernie Manuelito, and their boss, Lt. Joe Leaphorn.

This one, coming on the heels of Anne’s debut novel, “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” focuses on the husband-wife team of Chee and Manuelito while Leaphorn continues to recover from a bullet wound to the head suffered in the previous novel.

As with all the books in the series, the main appeal is the setting: the expansive desert landscape encompassing the Navajo Nation in the Southwestern United States. I’ve seen enough of Arizona and New Mexico to know I would never want to live there. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate how the rugged terrain helps define the three main characters and, in fact, becomes like a character itself.

Likewise, I have nothing admiration for those aspects of Navajo culture emphasizing respect for the land, honoring the elders, and caring for one’s family members, no matter their circumstance. One thing that has always stood out to me is the practice of simply listening — of letting someone have their say, without talking over them or rushing to fill a void.

All that said, Anne Hillerman lays out several narrative threads — so many that you wonder how they will all come together by the end of the novel.

Chee gets caught up with one set of issues involving a Hollywood movie crew that’s filming a zombie movie near sacred lands. Just after a woman goes missing, Chee discovers a mysterious mound of dirt and rocks that could be a gravesite.

Meanwhile, Manuelito tries to puzzle out why a motorist she stopped for speeding is so nervous about containers of dirt in his car trunk. At the same time, she investigates a car fire in the middle of nowhere and comes to the aid of an elderly Navajo man who’s resisting selling his property to a solar energy development company.

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Anne Hillerman is a journalist and author based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Sure enough, the author resolves the mysteries one by one. As a reader, you admire the balancing act, root for the resourcefulness of the tribal cops, and find yourself hungry for more.

Don’t know when or if Hillerman might produce a third novel in this Leaphorn-Chee-Manuelito series, but with the lieutenant still on the mend, I’m sure I’m not the only fan who’s been left hanging.

Photograph:  Jean Fogelberg

Friday flashback: ’10 tips for staying married forever’

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Jerome and Jeanne Faulkner: December 2012

Jeanne Faulkner is an author, a maternal health advocate and a neighbor of mine in Northeast Portland.

When I asked her during a busy time in her life if she’d like to contribute a piece to the 2013 Voices of August guest blogging project, she hesitated only slightly and then did what all busy, accomplished people do. She said yes and then made time for it.

What resulted was a gem: 10 tips for staying married forever.

She wrote it a few months after she and her husband Jerome had celebrated their 32d anniversary.

“We got married way too young and the odds were probably stacked against us,” she wrote. “And yet, here we are so many years later and we’re still  together.”

What’s the key to their longevity? No matter if you’re a recent newlywed, someone approaching double digits or someone who’s been married 20 years or more, there’s plenty of good advice to be gleaned from Jeanne’s piece.

Read it here and feel free to add to the list.

Mediocre no more

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Raising a glass to a successful season (clockwise from bottom left): Brian, Mike, Joel and George.

When I last wrote about our bowling team in early February, I conceded that we were living up to our team name — the Mediaocracies.

Four weeks into the winter season, we had won 8 games and lost 8 games, a mediocre showing that put us right in the middle of 22 teams competing in the Average Joe’s League at AMF Pro 300.

Well, I’m happy to say we finished on a roll (sorry, cheesy pun). During the just-concluded season, we improved to 38 wins and 26 losses — good enough for a two-way tie for fourth place. We finished 10 games behind the first-place team (48 wins, 16 losses) and just one game behind the third-place team.

As a reward, we received enough prize money as a team to treat ourselves to dinner out Monday night at Portland’s Temple of Hamburgers, otherwise known as Tilt.

No, it’s not really the Temple of Hamburgers, but every one of my friends and family who’s eaten there agrees it tops the list of burger joints in Portland. After last night, add two more true believers — teammates Mike Slama and Joel Odom. (Both showed remarkable restraint, steering clear of the sinfully rich offerings in favor of healthier options.)

Mike (aka “Spud”) and Joel (aka “Joey”) joined Brian Wartell and me this season when our two previous teammates had to bow out. Everyone on the team contributed to our late-season surge.

Joel, who became known as Joey only because league officials mis-typed his name onto the team roster, led the way with a 171 average. On some nights, he was simply awesome, rolling four or five strikes at a time and often notching games of 200 or more.

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Prize winnings, tucked inside this envelope, amounted to about $30 each. Not quite enough to go pro.

Mike, Brian and I all finished with averages in the 140s, which makes us appear more consistent than we really were. From week to week — and often game to game — we never knew who’d be on or off their game. As a result, the others had to try to step up when one bowler wasn’t at his best.

Above all, we had fun. And that’s the point in a coed, non-sanctioned league like ours. There are some great bowlers, for sure, with a half-dozen men and women averaging 175 or better and one dude at 210. But there are also some who struggle to break 100 — and who  enjoy themselves just the same.

The dirty little secret? The worse a person bowls, the higher their handicap — which means their team starts off each game with an advantage in points. As a matter of fact, that was a frequent challenge for us — having to overcome the opposing team’s larger handicap.

The spring league starts June 6 and we’re all looking forward to it. Like any baseball team emerging from spring training, we’ll be starting the season with optimism and fresh hopes for a better season.

After all, we’re mediocre no more.

 

Back on the trail

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Looking west from Crystal Springs Creek.

After a four-week break from the weekly routine, I resumed my urban hikes this week with the shortest one to date and a route I’d actually been on a couple times before.

With a mid-afternoon start and the weather looking dicey, I headed out to Southeast Portland to do the Reed Canyon-to-Eastmoreland Loop outlined in Laura O. Foster’s “Portland Hill Walks.”

The route is only 2 miles long if you don’t stray from the main trail in Reed Canyon or venture into the nearby Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden. I knew if the rains came on, I would be pretty well protected by heavy foliage during the first part of the walk. Happily, unlike my last hike when I got soaked on Healy Heights, I stayed dry.

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Have you seen this reptile?

It had been at least three years since I’d been out to this area, but I had retained a good idea of what to expect: a quiet, leafy refuge running just inside the northern boundary of Reed College, leading to heavily traveled Southeast 28th Avenue into the Eastmoreland neighborhood, onto the campus grounds and back out to S.E. Cesar Chavez Boulevard.

This being Portland, I wasn’t surprised by the very first thing I saw as I began the walk Thursday. On a concrete stanchion marking the trailhead, someone had posted a photo of a missing pet: a bearded dragon named Cotton.

***

Except for a steep downhill stretch to begin the walk, this hike isn’t hilly at all. But that doesn’t take away from the tranquillity of the experience in Reed Canyon.

As a first-timer, I recall being surprised that this trail even exists in the midst of residential development — and that it meanders so close to the college. As you walk from east to west, there’s a big pond on your right (actually, Reed Lake) with fallen trees, wetlands and up on your left, a view of dormitories and other campus buildings.

Click on photos to view captions.

Farther down the trail, there’s an outdoor amphitheater overlooking the lake, a fish ladder, and a college theater building that spans Crystal Springs Creek, which feeds Reed Lake. Constructing a multistory building over a flowing body of water might seem charming to some, but Foster calls it “a design decision that today seems ludicrous.”

Emerging from the trail puts you briefly on the Reed campus, from which you head west and cross S.E 28th Avenue. Going south, you pass a public golf course and the Rhododendron Gardens, cross Woodstock Boulevard and turn into the Eastmoreland neighborhood, an enclave of well-maintained homes that’s seen disputes flare up recently over zoning disputes and the proposed cutting of 150-year-old sequoia trees.

Portland’s mayor happens to live in the neighborhood. Earlier this year, he advocated for reducing allowable density in Eastmoreland but the proposal died in May when the City Council declined to even vote on it.

The neighborhood is beautiful, I have to say. Especially S.E. Reed College Place, whose center median is lined by trees on both sides, giving the appearance of a striking painting.

Circling back north, I crossed Woodstock and onto the campus, where commencement ceremonies had been held earlier in the week. I passed by the library, designed in 1930 by Pietro Belluschi, the nationally recognized architect who also designed the Portland Art Museum and The Oregonian building (where I worked) and many other Portland structures.

I took a break to appreciate the silence and cool, dry afternoon. Then, prodded by a mention in Foster’s book, I decided to tour the art gallery inside the library. Inside I found a very small space, a single room exhibiting work of Alan Sonfist, a New York City artist who was among the first to explore the natural environment as a basis of his creativity.

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The Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, designed in 1930 by Portland’s Pietro Belluschi. Inside, you’ll find an art gallery, free and open to the public but closed Mondays.

I know very little about art history and was totally unfamiliar with the “Land Art” movement referenced in the brochure about Sonfist’s work. So, with apologies to anyone I may offend with my ignorance, suffice to say there were eyerolls when I glimpsed a series of self-made photos of a nude Sonfist out in the wild channeling “the living animal spirit” of deer, fox and other creatures.

Another exhibit described the lengths to which Sonfist had gone to bring back a colony of army ants from Panama as a live work of art (really?) and also as the subject of a piece purporting to trace their movements in a single day.

Don’t know about you, but I haven’t got a clue when I view a piece — a 24x24x4 inch box mounted on a wall — and read the explanation: “Like other of Sonfist’s sculptures, the work transforms minimalist geometries into richly introspective spaces. Many of Sonfist’s works critique the didacticism of the minimalist movement.”

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The median strip along S.E. Reed College Place. A nice, shady spot for a walk or run.

But enough of the late Mr. Sonfist.

I’m glad I spent 20 minutes in the gallery as a respite from my hike. Just as he was inspired by his childhood experiences with nature in “the teeming jungles of the South Bronx,” I’ve been reinvigorated by getting back to nature in my lush, heavily-treed city.

No channeling of animal spirits for me, though. I’m keeping my clothes on. For everyone’s sake.

 

 

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Friday flashback: ‘The need to create and escape’

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Like his father before him, Eric Wilcox finds release in the process of creating stained glass works of art.

As young boys, we typically look to our fathers for guidance and wisdom in the ways of the world. If we are fortunate, who we become as adults is shaped by the life lessons we pick up in the company of our dads.

My friend, Eric Wilcox, wrote about that very topic in a 2014 blog post for Voices of August, recalling the once-a-week routine when his dad, a physician, would take him out of school to go work on the family’s wheat farm in Eastern Oregon.

“We worked hard, building fence by the mile, hauling rock by the ton, shoveling hog manure ad nauseam,” Eric wrote. “We would work for hours, stopping only for a swig of lukewarm water from a mud-covered canvas canteen and maybe a stale animal cracker. We didn’t talk much, there wasn’t much to talk about.”

Young Eric was learning about the value of work.

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Dean Wilcox

When his dad turned to stained glass as a way to create art for family and friends, Eric also learned about the equally important need to make time for relaxation.

In time, the son would inherit the father’s studio and immerse himself in the same hobby, finding joy in designing and creating works of art.

Dean Morrison Wilcox died last month at age 88. He was a gregarious, generous family man who instilled great values in his son, my friend.

Read Eric’s piece: The need to escape and create

 

 

 

The world according to ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom

Somehow it seemed only right that I would be well into the novel “Rabbit is Rich” when I was on my baseball road trip earlier this month.

“Rabbit is Rich” is the third in a series of four books by the late John Updike about a former high school basketball star schlepping through life in the fictional blue-collar town of Brewer, Pennsylvania, somewhere outside Philadelphia..

I was in Pennsylvania, albeit in Pittsburgh in the western part of the state, when I powered through most of the book (a hefty 553 pages) and then finished it at 30,000 feet on the way back home. Somehow, being in the Keystone State as I read the novel made the experience even richer. (Pun intended.)

rabbit is rich bookFor those unfamiliar with the series, Updike wrote four novels tracing the life of his main character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, from 1960 to 1990 as he goes from young husband and father to middle-age dad to retired grandfather. It was an ambitious undertaking, requiring vision, continuity and closure built around an Everyman character whose dreams, doubts and disappointments are laid bare over the course of four decades.

Fittingly, Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1982 for “Rabbit is Rich” and again in 1991 for “Rabbit at Rest.”

I’d read the first book “Rabbit, Run” but skipped over “Rabbit Redux.” (Gonna have to go back and read that one before finishing up with “Rabbit at Rest.”)

***

“Rabbit is Rich” picks up the story about Rabbit Angstrom in 1979, a time of oil embargoes and long gas lines; the Iranian hostage crisis; and double-digit inflation. As he moves into middle age, Rabbit has reason to feel content. He and his wife Janice have inherited the local Toyota dealership from his late father-in-law, just as improved gas mileage becomes more important to car buyers.

They belong to a country club, where Harry plays golf, Janice plays tennis and they hang out with three other couples over drinks. Harry, a former Linotype operator, enjoys the prestige that comes with being a businessman and country club member.

Yet life is far from ideal. He and Janice still live in the home she grew up in, with his mother-in-law occupying a bedroom next to theirs. Their son Nelson is a college dropout who comes home with a female friend who, both insist, is not his girlfriend. Later, Nelson’s real girlfriend arrives in town — pregnant — and the young couple move in with the Angstroms.

Nelson wants a job at the dealership but Rabbit resists bringing him on, causing friction with his wife and mother-in-law.

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John Updike at the Boston Public Library in 2006. He died in 2009 at age 76.

Rabbit’s glory days as a basketball player are well behind him but he remains very much a creature of his hometown, driving the familiar route between work and home, maintaining friendships with high school classmates, and recalling his sexual escapades.

Sex, in fact, is constantly on Rabbit’s mind. He seemingly cannot meet a woman without sizing her up and fantasizing, no matter if it’s his friend’s young wife, his future daughter-in-law,  a young saleswoman who waits on him at a coin shop or even a teenage customer at the car lot he believes is his daughter from a long-ago fling.

He is a sexist pig, no doubt. He’s also a racist. There’s not a kind thought toward the black and Puerto Rican residents who’ve moved into his hometown. An endearing guy, he is not.

But that’s the genius of Updike’s work. In Rabbit Angstrom, he has created a character whose beliefs and attitudes reflect a specific era in late 20th century America and whose flaws and insecurities render him utterly believable. As an American male moving through the aging process, I can readily understand Rabbit — and at times sympathize with him — even if he’s someone I wouldn’t hang with.

I close with an excerpt illustrative of Updike’s fine writing. In this scene, Rabbit’s thoughts turn to his son’s girlfriend, Pru, who had just arrived that day in Brewer:

“(S)he’d come a long way today and had met a lot of new faces, what a hard thing for her this evening must have been. While Ma and Janice had scraped together supper, another miracle of sorts, the girl had sat there in the bamboo basket chair brought in from the porch and they all eased around her like cars easing past an accident on the highway.

“Harry could hardly take his eyes from this grown woman sitting there so demure and alien and perceptibly misshapen. She breathed that air he’d forgotten, of high-school loveliness, come uninvited to bloom in the shadow of railroad overpasses, alongside telephone poles, within earshot of highways with battered aluminum center strips, out of mothers gone to lard and fathers ground down by gray days of work and more work, in an America littered with bottlecaps and pull-tabs and pieces of broken muffler.

“Rabbit remembered such beauty, seeing it caught here in Pru, in her long downy arms and skinny bangled wrists and the shining casual fall of her hair, caught as a stick snags the flow of a stream with a dimpled swirl.”

Photograph: Robert Spencer for The New York Times

 

Baby’s on the way

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Jordan and Jamie: Counting down the weeks.

My Facebook feed is filled with photos of grinning grandmas and grandpas enjoying a small army of infants and toddlers.

Soon enough, Lori and I will join their ranks.

This weekend we took another step closer to becoming grandparents as Lori and daughter Simone hosted a baby shower for our daughter-in-law Jamie. In about 10 weeks or so, Baby Girl Rede is scheduled to make her debut. When she arrives, she won’t be lacking for clothes, knitted blankets and caps, and other items, thanks to the generosity of those who attended the shower as well as those who could not.

On Saturday, the ladies took over the living room for games, snacks and presents while the menfolk headed out to a bowling alley to spend some time with Jordan, the father-to-be.

It was great to see both Jamie and Jordan at the center of attention, surrounded by family and friends. The guests included two people rarely seen in these parts — Lori’s older brother, Bob, and his wife, Darlene. They live in the Bay Area but don’t get up here as often as we get down there.

It was cool seeing all three Rauh siblings — Bob, Jim and little sister Lori — together for a change. Likewise, it was nice seeing Jordan relax at the bowling alley in the company of his dad and uncles, his best friend from high school, and a longtime family friend.

(He certainly deserved it following a 4.0 this semester, bringing his overall GPA to about 3.9 as he enters his senior year in pursuit of a biology degree. Plus, he and Jamie have been busy making home improvements in preparation for baby’s arrival.)

Older brother Nathan had to work Saturday but was able to join us later for dinner at one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants.

Everyone we know tells us we will love being grandparents. I’m starting to wrap my head around the thought. Still seems surreal that I’m of an age when someone would call me Grandpa. But then I look in the mirror and, yeah, that guy staring back at me has an awful lot of gray.

Just a couple more months and another chapter will begin.

Photographs: George Rede, Jamie Lynn Rede

 

 

Vin Scully: The voice of baseball

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Vin Scully, inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, is still going strong as the Dodgers’ announcer at 88.

Rounding third and heading for home in a week of baseball-themed posts, here’s one for anyone who seriously follows Major League Baseball.

When I was a kid, I fantasized about becoming the next Maury Wills. I would play shortshop for the Los Angeles Dodgers, slap singles all around the park and steal bases with abandon.

When I realized that wasn’t going to happen, I turned to a second scenario. I would become the next Vin Scully. I would take the place of the Dodgers’ play-by-play announcer, calling the action and dropping wry observations along the way.

Well, neither dream came true. But my love of sports as a youth did propel me into a long career as a journalist. I broke in as a prep sports writer for a newspaper in my northern California hometown. I later switched to news reporting in college and now, here I am, retired and just back from a baseball road trip that took me to three stadiums in four days in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Today, though, is a day to pay respects to the one and only Scully,  who, at 88, is into his 67th year as the Dodgers’ broadcaster and planning to retire after this season.

He is the subject of a terrific profile in Sports Illustrated that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who’s heard him call a game.

Scully’s gig began in 1950 in Brooklyn during the Jackie Robinson era. During his time in the booth, he’s been conversing with players who broke into the major leagues between 1905 and 2016. Think about that.

As SI’s Tom Verducci writes:

“Vin Scully is only the finest, most-listened-to baseball broadcaster that ever lived, and even that honorific does not approach proper justice to the man. He ranks with Walter Cronkite among America’s most-trusted media personalities, with Frank Sinatra and James Earl Jones among its most-iconic voices, and with Mark Twain, Garrison Keillor and Ken Burns among its preeminent storytellers.

“His 67-year run as the voice of the Dodgers—no, wait: the voice of baseball, the voice of our grandparents, our parents, our kids, our summers and our hopes—ends this year. Scully is retiring come October, one month before he turns 89.”

It’s a marvelous piece. Read it and you’ll appreciate the man even more. He is a national treasure.

The voice of baseball: Get to know Vin Scully, the man behind the mike

Photograph: forbes.com

 

 

The Queen City

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A Portland visitor on the Cincinnati riverfront.

First impressions can validate a gut feeling or they can be wildly misleading. In the case of Cincinnati, if my visit last week had been a first date, I’d be very open to a second one.

As with Cleveland the day before, I spent less than 24 hours in Cincinnati, barely enough time to form snap judgments. But since that’s all I’ve got to go on, my quick take amounts to this: Cincinnati is, on the surface, an appealing place with lots of hills and trees, a dynamic riverfront, a mix of gleaming and tattered structures, gourmet restaurants, and a historical legacy centered on its location directly across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slave-holding state.

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The Cincinnati skyline, viewed from the southern shore of the Ohio River.

Dubbed The Queen City because of spectacular growth in the years after its founding in the late 18th century, Cincinnati later became a major center for the Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing to the north. Yet, race relations, racial profiling and police brutality have been an issue, as they have in most U.S. cities, and I saw distressed areas north of downtown where large numbers of African Americans live in substandard housing amid few thriving businesses.

The city was wracked by a four-day riot in 2001, the largest in the U.S. since the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and last year drew national attention when a white campus police officer shot an unarmed black man after a routine traffic stop. (Of course, so did Cleveland, when a cop fatally shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old holding a pellet gun.)

In short, Cincinnati is an intriguing place I’d like to see more of.

***

I rolled into town just before 1 p.m. Friday, following a 250-mile drive that cut diagonally across Ohio, from the industrial Northeast to the more rural Southwest and passed through Columbus, the state capital.

It was Day Four of my five-day baseball road trip that took me to three major league stadiums in Pennsylvania and Ohio. I’d never been anywhere near Cincinnati but I had plans to reconnect with a friend who’d worked with me at The Oregonian and to meet a fellow blogger I’d only known through online correspondence.

Had he been in town, I most certainly would have spent time with Peter Bhatia, my former boss at The Oregonian and now editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer. Unfortunately, work required him to be in Chicago.

And so the visit began at Arnold’s Bar and Grill, the city’s oldest tavern, established in 1861.

I met Rachel Lippolis for lunch, finally coming face to face with someone who’d first come to my attention when I was first exploring the blogosphere. I came across her blog and was impressed with her intelligent writing and choice of topics, ranging from literature to politics to baseball.

She’s a librarian, quiet by nature, married and newly pregnant, and a native of Cincinnati. She’s been a contributor to my Voices of August guest blogging project from the start, and I anticipate she will write something for our online community once again this year. Nice to put a face to a name.

On Rachel’s recommendation, I headed to the riverfront and was dazzled by what I saw. From my vantage point facing south, I could see on my right the football stadium where the Bengals play and, to my left, the Great American Ball Park that is the home of the Reds.

Directly in front of me, the majestic John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, connecting Ohio and Kentucky. Below, a grassy park and asphalt path for joggers and bicyclists. Behind me, a 3D art sculpture proclaiming “Sing The Queen City” and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Oh, how I wish I had more time at the museum. Even a 30-minute visit was educational, though. I learned more about Cincinnati’s conflicted past. Though the city served as a center for abolitionists and safe harbor for fugitive slaves able to cross the Ohio River at its narrowest points, many white Ohioans moved south during the Civil War to fight for the Confederacy, according to Ohio History Central.

There in the museum, viewing an actual slave pen (chains bolted to the floor to prevent escape) and reading of the barbaric slave trade that thrived across the river, I felt an overwhelming sadness, along with contempt for all those who participated in an economic and social structure built on the backs of men, women and children who were treated as subhuman chattel. Shame on America.

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Brooke and George.

Wandering the riverfront, I was experimenting with different locations and angles for a selfie when a young woman approached and offered to take my picture. Sure, I said. She took several photos, all of which turned out nicely.

Turns out she was a professional photographer from Georgia who regularly offers to shoot pictures for tourists. Indeed, I saw her make the same pitch to a woman who was photographing her two girls. She introduced herself as Brooke and shot a quick selfie of us. A nice, random moment.

***

Checked into my airbnb room and briefly met my host, Ian, a high school physics teacher who lives with his dog and two cats near the University of Cincinnati. He struck me as a nice guy, but circumstances were such that we only had time for a quick hello and no sit-down conversation.

I headed to the ballpark to meet with Anne Saker, a talented reporter I helped recruit to The Oregonian and a bonafide baseball fan. Anne was born in Columbus, went to school at Ohio University, and is now back at The Cincinnati Enquirer, where she once worked as a college intern.

It was great to hang out with Anne, who is one of the most gracious and outgoing people on the planet. She knows her home state, her city and her hometown baseball team all very well, and it was a pleasure to talk with her about all that while swapping newsroom war stories. We traded thoughts about the past, present and future of journalism, shared baseball anecdotes, and reminisced about our shared history in Portland. Sure hope she makes it back to Oregon again.

As for the ballpark, what can I say?

Like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Cincinnati is an amazing place to see a ballgame. Great American Ball Park, GABP for short, opened in 2003 on the banks of the Ohio River. It’s equipped with a state-of-the-art jumbo scoreboard, a wide concourse featuring an actual market with chilled beverages and fresh fruit as well as the usual fare of grilled sausages, pizza and cheese coneys, a local favorite featuring the city’s signature Cincinnati Chili, onions and shredded cheese on a steamed bun and hotdog.

Our tickets were on the first-base side several rows up behind the Reds’ dugout. We sat in the shade on a warm night, a welcome contrast to Cleveland, where the night before the game-time temperature started at 54 and fell to 51. It was not only Fireworks Friday but Star Wars Night, so the whole Midwest vibe took on an extra layer of Disneyesque wholesomeness.

The game featured the two weakest teams in the National League’s Central Division and yet another one-sided outcome. The Reds won easily, 5-1, and fans enjoyed a post-game fireworks celebration.

***

On Saturday morning, I got up early, ran through the University of Cincinnati campus, checked out of my room and headed downtown for a final meal — a delicious croissant omelette with fresh fruit at the small and cozy French Cafe.

I crossed the Roebling Bridge into Covington, Kentucky, and admired the Cincinnati skyline, all the while aware I was looking across a body of water that separated North from South, freedom from slavery.

En route to the airport, which lies about 20 miles away in Northern Kentucky, I marveled at the physical beauty of the area — green, rolling hills — and soaked up the last few moments of my trip to the Midwest.

I packed a lot of activities and as many people as I could into my five-day, four-night adventure. Though the purpose of the trip was to see professional baseball in three cities separated by just a few hundred miles, I came home with new experiences, new and rekindled friendships, and a better sense of this region to add to my bank of memories.

I’d love to do it again. Next time, though, I may have to take Charlotte with me.

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Missed my little terrier mix, Charlotte. Toward the end of the trip, my wife texted: “I think she misses you.”

 

 

The city by the lake

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Progressive Field in downtown Cleveland features the most impressive graphic quality I’ve seen in a jumbo scoreboard.

Poor Cleveland.

Among U.S. cities, few have a national reputation as bad as Ohio’s second-largest city, located on the southern shore of Lake Erie. Chalk it up to high crime, bad sports teams, a faltering economy, white flight, and the infamous 1969 oil slick that caught fire on the Cuyahoga River, making the city a symbol of environmental degradation.

No wonder that an unwelcome nickname like The Mistake on the Lake persists.

I spent less than 24 hours in Cleveland during my baseball road trip last week. That wasn’t nearly enough time to make my own judgment. But what I did see — and what I’ve read since — is enough to make me think and hope that better times lie ahead for this beleaguered metropolis.

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A huge water tower on the Shoreway attests to Cleveland’s age, established in 1796.

Signs of blight are hard to miss. Arriving on a Thursday afternoon, I passed a number of shuttered storefronts, vacant homes and weedy lots en route to my airbnb rental on the city’s inner west side.

At the same time, I saw glimpses of improvement. Clearly, people are striving to make things better through new businesses and new or renovated housing.

According to a recent article in curbed.com: “…Cleveland has begun to embody another trend: The nationwide phenomenon of Americans, especially millennials, wanting to live a hipper, less-car dependent lifestyle in the urban core.

“Cleveland is among a group of mid-sized Midwest cities, including Cincinnati, Columbus, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Detroit, experiencing a downtown Renaissance.”

Read more: Millennial Influx Helps Cleveland Shake Rust Belt Reputation

The downtown population is rebounding, workers are racing to add 900 hotel rooms in advance of the Republican National Convention, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, hope to deliver an NBA championship this summer.

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Quicken Loans Arena, located nearby Progressive Field, is the home of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the site of this summer’s Republican National Convention.

With sincerity, I say good luck with all of that. Cleveland does have the Rock and Hall Hall of Fame and Museum, but residents deserve more as they strive to create a better future.

***

The 135-mile drive from Pittsburgh to Cleveland took a little over 2 hours, not counting rest stops, and had me on five interstate highways. I crossed the Ohio state line the day after Gov. John Kasich withdrew from the GOP presidential race.

Arriving around 2 pm, I had a choice: late lunch or a neighborhood run. I chose the latter.

My airbnb room was located in the historic Ohio City neighborhood, not far from the Shoreway that follows the shore of Lake Erie, connecting east and west Cleveland.

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My rental car and airbnb rental in the Ohio City historic district of Cleveland.

During a cool but sunny run, I saw a crazy quilt pattern of housing — older homes, some cared for better than others; newer apartments; and sad, boarded-up structures. Turning onto Detroit Avenue, I came upon the Gordon Square Arts District, where a $30 million capital campaign has helped beautify and revitalize the neighborhood with a focus on arts and culture.

(Portlanders: Think of the Alberta Arts District’s restaurants, galleries and tattoo shops, and throw in three major theaters.)

The biggest surprise? Coming upon the two-lane track where the Cleveland Area Soap Box Derby will host the 2016 National Derby Rallies Championship in August. On second thought, it does makes sense that such an event would take place here, given Ohio’s role in producing cars, tires and other parts for the auto industry. Cleveland is one of three cities with soap box derby races dating back to 1934.

Toward the end of the run, I passed a boarded-up elementary school — a sure sign, I thought, of strained school finances or dwindling enrollment. I was wrong. Turns out the school is one of two in the area that closed last year so students at both can be moved into a new building in 2017.

I returned to the arts district for a pregame meal at Rincon Criollo, a Puerto Rican restaurant that served up a tasty platter of roasted chicken, rice and beans.

I never did meet my airbnb host and her Boston Terrier, but the accommodations were great (a clean, compact bedroom with access to a bathroom of my own) and the location was convenient (a 10-minute drive to the ballpark).

***

With the Detroit Tigers in town to play the hometown Indians, I was prepared to catch some razzing as a visiting fan. Didn’t happen.

No flak necessary because Cleveland jumped to a 4-0 lead in the first inning and cruised to an 8-4 victory, thanks to two home runs and three outstanding fielding plays that kept the Tigers from scoring more runs.

I exchanged high-fives with a nearby Tigers fan after a home run that briefly narrowed the deficit to 4-3, but that was the only highlight.

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A solitary Tigers fan under the lights at Progressive Field. 

I bought my ticket on the street just as the game was starting. Paid $8 for a $36 ticket in the upper deck behind home plate, but didn’t sit there. Unlike other ballparks, the ushers didn’t seem to much care where you sit, so I found myself a seat at field level on the third-base side. Later, I wandered the stadium and plunked myself down behind home plate and the right-field line just to get different vantage points of the field.

Progressive Field is impressive, I have to say. The scoreboard graphics are the best I’ve seen, the field is spectacular, and the whole place is fan-friendly. Many seats were removed, I was told, so that several concession stands are closer to the action. Fans evidently like to stand while they watch the game, so there are a lot of bistro tables throughout the stadium.

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Progressive Field was ranked as Major League Baseball’s best ballpark in a 2008 Sports Illustrated fan opinion poll.

There were some colloquial touches during the evening: A group of young ladies known as the Cleveland Strikers performing dance moves in the center field bleachers. A handful of team mascots depicting sausages (on this evening, dressed up in ludicrous sombreros in recognition of Cinco de Mayo). A rendition of the state song, “Hang On, Sloopy,” complete with YMCA-type hand gestures spelling out “O-H-I-O..” And a Chick-fil-A sponsored contest where one fan was selected to use a camera to try to find the company’s cow mascot somewhere in the midst of screaming spectators. (Actually, the same Spot-the-Cow contest also happened in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.)

I spoke separately to two ushers between innings and they epitomized Midwest-friendly. One of them, John, said he’s a lifelong fan of the team who retired last year. He got himself a job as an usher and now gets to attend the games for free while making a little money on the side. Sounds ideal, I told him. Wish I could do the same but the Mariners are too far away in Seattle.

***

Friday morning I arose early, knowing I had a four-hour plus drive to Cincinnati.

Found a place for breakfast that would rival any in Portland. It was called Jack Flaps and, according to my friendly waitress, has received national acclaim. I can see why.

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What a way to begin the day: My favorite magazine, Esquire, and a bodacious breakfast at Jack Flaps.

I ordered the Benedicto Mexicano — a variation on Eggs Benedict that’s made of masa corn cakes, housemade chorizo with ranchero sauce, two eggs and herb crema sauce. It was divine.

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Along with fabulous food, Jack Flaps provided excellent service. Shannon exemplified Midwest friendliness.

Note: The Tigers’ loss that I witnessed was their sixth in a row to Cleveland this season and part of a seven-game losing streak that finally ended last night with a 5-4 win over the Washington Nationals. The way the Tigers looked, I won’t be surprised if they fall short of the playoffs for a second straight year.

Tomorrow: The Queen City