What happened to Lydia Lee?

It’s 6:30 a.m. on May 3, 1977. In a small town in Ohio, a 16-year-old girl is late for breakfast.

Her father is driving to work, her older brother yawning on the stairs, her younger sister hunching over cornflakes in a corner of the kitchen. Her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and the girl’s marked-up physics homework next to her cereal bowl.

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know yet.”

And with that tantalizing opener, you’re sucked into the marvelous debut novel by Celeste Ng titled “Everything I Never Told You.”

Yes, it’s about a girl’s mysterious death.

everything i never told youIt’s about the tension between being overlooked and wanting to blend in, about unrealized hopes and dreams, about family secrets. Most of all, it is about all those things that go unspoken over years and years between spouses, between siblings, between parents and children.

All of this takes place in the household of a reclusive Chinese American family in fictional Middlewood, Ohio.

Published in 2014, “Everything I Never Told You” was named a Best Book of the Year by more than a dozen publications and won praise from The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

It is that good. Marie Claire magazine said it calls to mind Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones,” a story about a family devastated by the murder of a 14-year-old girl in suburban 1970s Pennsylvania.

In this case, Ng’s novel revolves around the disappearance of Lydia Lee, the middle child and her parents’ clear favorite. Even her older brother and younger sister realize she is the focus and they behave accordingly. Nathan retreats to his room, where he can indulge his love of astronauts, while little Hannah hides quietly in plain sight, so overlooked that the mother realizes one evening she has set out only four plates for dinner, not five.

The parents have plenty of baggage. James is a professor at the local college and can’t shake childhood memories of being teased because of his Asian features. Marilyn, his blonde wife, is tormented by the loss of a career she never had due to marrying James and dropping out of college to raise a family.

Separately, they project their hopes, dreams and regrets onto poor Lydia. When she goes missing, the cracks in this dysfunctional household become canyons. Each chapter takes you inside the mind of a different character, trying to puzzle out where Lydia might have gone. As they replay past events, conversations and gestures in a search for meaning, the present reveals a “normal” family to be anything but.

celeste-ng-c-kevin-day-photography

Celeste Ng, a writer who grew up in a family of scientists.

Ng writes beautifully — crisp sentences, pitch-perfect dialogue, carefully crafted scenes. In an interview included at the end of the book, she acknowledges her upbringing greatly influenced the narrative. Her parents came to the United States from Hong Kong straight to the Midwest. Celeste grew up outside Pittsburgh in the 1980s and outside Cleveland in the early 1990s, and most of the time the Ngs were the only Asians in the community. Like most Asian Americans, the family experienced outright discrimination, she said.

“More insidious than those memories of outright hostility, though, and maybe more powerful, are the constant low-level reminders that you’re different,” she said. “In the novel, though, I didn’t want to explore just racial difference — there are all kinds of ways like feeling like an outsider.”

To her credit, Ng explores those differences in each member of the Lee family. The result is a book that makes my Top Three list of books I’ve read so far this year.

Thanks to my youngest child, Jordan, for recommending the book to me.

Read The New York Times review here.

Photograph: Kevin Day

 

 

Emalyn May

emalyn-swaddle

Cute as a button? Oh, yeah.

She’s finally here! Little Emalyn May Rede entered the world Sunday, July 24, just before 1 pm.

Her arrival in a Tacoma hospital made parents of our youngest son, Jordan, and his wife, Jamie, and brought membership in the grandparents’ club for Lori and me.
As I write this, Baby Emalyn is a little more than 72 hours old. It’s impossible to articulate all the thoughts and emotions associated with her birth, but I’ll give it a try.
First and foremost, everyone is healthy. Emalyn and her parents are going home from the hospital today after a four-night stay.
(Click on images to view captions.)

Jamie’s water broke Saturday morning, right on the July 23rd due date, but Emalyn’s position made a vaginal delivery impossible.  Mama had a Caesarean section the next day and, thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, gave birth to a bundle of joy weighing 8 pounds, 2 ounces.

Emalyn is a beautiful baby. With such downy skin and perfectly shaped nose and lips, she is a delicate creature, helpless as a baby bird but oh so loved.
My heart swelled upon seeing Jordan holding his daughter and then Jamie, with a dreamy expression, lying in the hospital bed with her newborn on her chest.
I teared up as Lori held Emalyn for the first time, knowing how fervently she had been awaiting this moment. Since we learned at the Christmas holidays that Jamie was pregnant, Lori has been busy knitting booties, blankets and hats, and shopping for other items.

When it was my turn, I settled into a rocking chair and cradled my sweet granddaughter, inhaling the scent of a newborn and saying a silent thanks for her good health.

The word “grace” came to mind.
I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of world this little angel would grow up in.
You want a planet that is healthy, a country marked by peace and tolerance, a neighborhood that is safe. You want to welcome her into a world that is welcoming and nurturing. You realize you can’t guarantee any of these things but you also know you and your extended family will envelop her – and her parents – with all the love and support you can.
Emalyn, we’ve been waiting for you a long time. We are delighted you are here.

P.S. Emalyn’s name is the outcome of a creative approach combining elements of both parents’ middle names — Emilio and Lynn. Seems to fit her perfectly.

Mount Tabor: A city treasure

tabor summit sky

At the summit of Mount Tabor, the sky seems bluer above these fir treetops.

I’ve got to admit it. I’ve been a fool.

Despite the dozens of the times I’ve run up to Mount Tabor and the surrounding neighborhoods, I don’t think I’d ever actually made it to the summit. What an incredible oversight.

It’s not that the elevation was intimidating. Heck, it’s only 636 feet to the top of this dormant volcano in Southeast Portland.

No, it was something else. I used to regularly run from my former residence in Grant Park to the northern entrance of Mount Tabor Park, typically veering left (south) and following a paved road on the east side of the park before turning around and heading back down. Other times, I’d run along the western and southern boundaries of the park en route to a more distant destination.

But never did I actually ascend any of the trails or even follow a paved road to the top of the peak. What a fool I’ve been.

This week, I finally did.

(Click on images to view captions.)

After a six-week layoff, I went out Tuesday afternoon on another of these urban hikes I’ve been doing since the year began. Through them, I’ve gotten some good exercise and learned a ton about Portland’s history and geography.

This week’s hike brought more of the same, courtesy of the book “Portland Hill Walks,” by Laura O. Foster.

Beginning at S.E. 60th Avenue and Stark Street, I followed a five-mile route that took me onto quiet, hilly streets north and east of the volcano, up onto the slopes and summit, and then down into a residential neighborhood west of the park.

As with so many previous hikes, I was treated to the sight of beautiful flowers, a variety of housing styles, and city views I hadn’t experienced before. Foster’s book not only provides a wealth of information about each geographic area of focus, but identifies several shortcuts that lead into nooks and crannies you’d miss otherwise.

Mount Tabor Park is, in Foster’s words, “a city treasure.”

According to Foster, Mount Tabor was settled at about the same time as Portland in the mid-19th century. Farmers were the primary residents until the 1880s, but then growth took off in 1889, when a trolley line ran up SE Belmont Street to a terminus at SE 69th Avenue, Foster writes.

In 1905, Mount Tabor was annexed to Portland. The park was acquired in 1909. Among its 190 acres, you’ll find three open reservoirs, which received National Historic Landmark status in 2004, along with a playground, an amphitheater, restrooms and wooded hiking trails. At the summit, there’s a grassy,  an oval-shaped area with picnic tables under tall fir trees and west-facing views of SE Hawthorne Boulevard and the downtown skyline.

There were clusters of people just about everywhere I went in the park — a young couple, asleep in each other’s arms on a blanket; a trio of teenagers having a picnic lunch; solitary hikers; a few bicyclists; groups of two and three taking selfies on the summit.

Yet it didn’t feel crowded, and I especially enjoyed the shade as I climbed the steepest of the dirt trails leading up the south side of the volcano.

Finishing off the walk on streets flanking the park’s west side, I realized yet again how fortunate I am to live in a city with so many desirable neighborhoods and so much parkland — more than 200 public parks and natural areas totaling more than 11,000 acres, according to the Portland Parks & Recreation Bureau.

Ain’t nowhere else I’d want to live.

Books and beer

first book dream team

A Dream Team of trivia quiz masters. From right: team captain Casey Jones, Simone Rede,  George Rede, Lori Rauh Rede, Kyndall Mason, Sarah Feldman (Casey’s wife), Sarah Jones (Casey’s sister).

Take a favorite activity (reading), combine it with a favorite beverage (a local microbrew), top it with a good cause (a literacy program for children) and you’ve got an irresistible combination.

Now throw in a trivia quiz, a raffle, and the company of good people and you’ve got the recipe for some serious fun.

All of that is what drew Lori and me out to a Northeast Portland brewpub last night.

On a pleasant summer evening, we joined a crowd of people attending a fundraiser for First Book Portland, a nonprofit that provides new books to low-income children.

We were invited to the Breweries for Books event by Casey Jones and his wife Sarah, a young couple we met a couple years ago at a summer party hosted by longtime friends. Casey is a member of the advisory board that raises money to provide book grants to existing community programs (such as Head Start) serving children from low-income families.

First Book is a national organization and the Portland chapter was founded in 1998.

Casey knows of my fondness for books. In fact, he paid me a visit when I held my own used book sale last month to raise money for a similar cause. I didn’t hesitate to return the favor when he invited me to the First Book event at Migration Brewing Co.

Also joining us last night: Casey’s sister, Sarah (yes, another Sarah), our daughter Simone and daughter-in-law Kyndall.

Together we named ourselves the Dream Team and took on four other teams in a literacy-and-beer themed trivia quiz. Above the din of conversation, we fielded questions about  literature, sports, science, beer, pop culture and other topics. I thought we’d be shouting out answers but the format was different — and better. After each question, team members had the opportunity to talk among themselves before committing to a single, written answer.

After four rounds, scores were tallied and, guess what, the Dream Team took first place. We promptly donated our prize — 50 percent of the trivia contest entry fees — back to the organization. The winner of the raffle did the same. Migration Brewing donated 10 percent of the evening’s profits. And Kate Berube, a local children’s author and illustrator, did the same from her book sales

I guess you’d call that a win-win-win-win situation. All for the benefit of young readers.

Want to know more about First Book and help out, too?

Read more: firstbookportland.org

Save the date: October 26 for the fifth annual Wine-ing for Literacy event, a wine tasting and silent auction at Olympic Mills Commerce Center, 107 S.E. Washington St.

 

Goodbye, sweet Otto

mister.otto.

Otto was never in a rush, always taking time to smell the flowers, on neighborhood walks.

Our home is so much quieter now. Mornings used to begin with Lori rising early to get ready for work, accompanied by Otto, our doe-eyed, gray-muzzled Jack Russell Terrier.

The two of them would take a short walk in the predawn darkness so Otto could relieve himself. Back inside, Lori would fix a pot of coffee and Otto would start in on his first meal of the day, a mixture of wet food and dry kibble.

Some 30 to 60 minutes later, Charlotte’s whimpering from her kennel would awaken me and I’d bring her downstairs to join her older brother. Without fail, Otto would wag his stump of a tail at Charlotte, our rascally rescue mutt, and make his way over to me to say hello.

Sad to say, our sweet Otto is no longer with us. He died a week ago today, July 10, just two days after we had returned from our last trip to Orcas Island.

Otto and Lori

Inseparable: Mister Otto and Lori.

Fittingly, he passed away in Lori’s arms as she held him across her lap in a quiet room at an animal hospital. The bond between those two was like nothing I’ve ever seen with any of our pets during our 40-year marriage — so much so that our three kids and I referred to Otto as “the fourth child.”

As an 11-year-old belonging to a breed that’s prone to heart disease, Otto had already slowed down quite a bit and was taking several pills a day to lessen the discomfort and prolong his life.

He’d made two visits to the E.R. in recent months and we had to hospitalize him the day after we got back from Orcas. He was battling heart failure and tachycardia, an abnormally rapid heart rate. He spent the night at the pet hospital and we hoped for the best. When we saw him struggling mightily the next morning, we knew the humane thing to do was to euthanize him.

Losing a beloved pet is always hard. In Otto’s case, even more so, owing to his sunny disposition and strong attachment to Lori. I don’t exaggerate when I say Otto loved everyone and everyone who knew Otto loved him back.

otto painting

An image of a younger Otto hangs on a wall of our home. (Painting by Michelle Noe.)  .

Otto came into our life at 9 months old when we already had Max, a Black Lab/Great Dane mix who was a 120-pound teddy bear. When Max died in 2009, Otto became the only canine in a household with two cats. When we adopted Charlotte in 2014, Otto had to accommodate his new roommate — a Terrier/Pug/Chihuahua mix half his size, with a big bark and energy to burn.

He did so gracefully.

Now that he’s gone, we vacillate between mourning his absence and celebrating an exceptional creature.

We miss seeing Otto curled up in his bed next to our street-facing window, his favorite soft toy typically beneath him. We miss the routine of feeding both dogs a handful of baby carrots at dinner. We miss the simple pleasure of taking a leisurely walk in the neighborhood, where everyone knew Otto and had a kind word to say.

I’ll even admit to missing him in our bed, tunneling under the covers, then coming up for air, then diving back in to get warm, then surfacing again to cool off. Annoying? Yes. But he did keep our feet warm and the nighttime routine was uniquely his.

otto bed

Otto’s collar and his favorite toy, a fuzzy frog, are still in the bed where he curled up near the dining room table.

We called our loyal, loving friend Mister Otto (because he had class) and Sheriff Otto (because he’d keep an eye out for shady characters from his vantage point overlooking the street).

In our last few minutes with him, there was only one thing to say as we stroked his face, his head, his ears: “Goodbye, sweet Otto.”

From the archives:

An aging dog

Mister Otto

The fourth child

 

 

Friday flashback: ‘Lucky number 13’

isaac-camo

Isaac, 13, and Camo, 8, in 2014

Orlando. Dallas. Istanbul. And now Nice, France.

We don’t even have time to properly grieve anymore before the next mass killing assaults our senses and heightens our sense of the world unraveling before our very eyes.

At a moment like this, it’s good to roll out a guest blog piece that is all about the positive.

My friend Tammy Ellingson, in a 2014 essay for Voices of August, wrote about her good fortune as the mother of a 13-year-old boy who goes against all stereotypes of a snarky, surly teenager.

“I feel privileged that my son wants to be around me and actually enjoys my company, or at least is kind enough to make me feel like he does,” Tammy writes.

As a fellow parent, it’s heartwarming to read Tammy’s take on her only child, Isaac:

“I notice his growing independence every day; coupled with his love and compassion for his father and me. There are times I know he has more patience with us than we have for our own parents. He spouts old soul practicality and wisdom, and exudes a grace that makes me realize I have a lot more growing to do.”

Read the piece right here: Lucky Number 13

Light to darkness: DCX

dcx ridgefield

Everyone — and I mean everyone — stood from beginning to end of Saturday’s 2-hour, 15-minute show by the Dixie Chicks.

With dusk falling, maybe it was fitting that storm clouds gathered over the outdoor concert venue where the Dixie Chicks had come to perform last weekend.

A few miles north of Portland, fans scattered across a sloping lawn bundled up in ponchos, rain jackets, blankets and tarps while light rain fell during two forgettable warm-up acts.

Days earlier, America seemed ready to burst at the seams, ripped apart by the newest spasms of gun violence in three states. Two African American men were shot to death by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Five white police officers were gunned down by a black sniper in Texas, evidently seeking revenge for the civilian deaths.

Even though I’d waited years to see the Dixie Chicks live, I couldn’t help but view the weather as a metaphor for the national mood and my own.

(Aside from dark emotions unleashed by the shootings, I also was thinking of the older of our two dogs, who was spending the night in an animal hospital because of worsening symptoms associated with congestive heart failure.)

dcx outdoors

Fans bundle up against the rain and a light wind as they wait for the concert to begin.

It wasn’t lost on me that all three of the Dixie Chicks were born or raised in Texas and that the band had gotten its start in Dallas, site of the mass cop killings. I wondered, would they address the ugliness?

Some two hours later, after a setlist of 20-plus songs, I had my answer.

***

From the opening notes of “The Long Way Around,” the mood changed in an instant. Thousands of people leaped to their feet and stayed there all night long — dancing, singing along, taking selfies and shooting videos. In the covered seats under a pavilion, the scene was much the same.

Saturday’s concert was at the Sunlight Supply Amphitheater in Ridgefield, Washington, and comes as part of the band’s first tour in a decade, dubbed DCX MMXVI.

The Dixie Chicks rocketed to fame in the late ’90s on the strength of “Wide Open Spaces” and “Fly,” but hadn’t released anything since 2006, when they won five Grammys, including Album of the Year for “Taking the Long Way.”

Lead singer Natalie Maines released a solo album in 2013, and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison (now Strayer) had teamed up to do the same in 2010. Neither, as far as I’m aware, found great commercial success.

Seeing the band reunited, three moms in their 40s with nine children among them, was worth the wait. There’s no question that Maines, a blonde spitfire, is the heart and soul of the band. Though Maguire (on fiddle) and Strayer (on banjo, mandolin, dobro and bass) are superb musicians and fine backup singers, it’s Maines that exudes a commanding presence and Maines who speaks for the band.

It was she who criticized President George W. Bush during a concert just days before the Iraq War began in 2003, drawing the wrath of many country music fans and performers. And it was she who led the pushback after her comments led to boycotts and cut into record sales.

dcx natalie maines

Lead vocalist Natalie Maines.

dcx martie maguire

Fiddler extraordinaire Martie Maguire.

dcx emily strayer

Multi-instrumentalist Emily Strayer.

On Saturday night, as the rain dissipated, it was Maines who bantered with the audience, who introduced the musicians in their backing band, who set the tone for the evening. .

And what a concert it was. If you think of the Dixie Chicks as a twangy, country-western band, think again. They hop back and forth across genres, from country to bluegrass to rock, performing ballads, foot-stomping numbers and covering songs by Patty Griffin (“Truth #2”), Stevie Nicks (“Landslide”), Bob Dylan (“Mississippi”) — even Prince (“Nothing Compares 2 U”) and Beyonce (“Daddy Stories”).

They performed all the crowdpleasers you would expect — “Goodbye Earl,” “Sin Wagon,” “White Trash Wedding,” “Cowboy, Take Me Away” and “Wide Open Spaces.”

And they didn’t hold back on their feminist politics.

During one song, a backing video showed caricatures of all the presidential candidates. During “Goodbye Earl,” the screen showed photos of O.J. Simpson, Chris Brown and other abusive men and also included an image of Donald Trump with drawn-on devil’s horns. And when it came time for the encore, Maines at last referenced the mayhem that weighed on my mind.

I can’t recall her exact words but they were something to the effect of urging everyone to get past the crazy shit that has us warring with each other instead of coming together as a nation. And with that, the Dixie Chicks ended the night with a rousing version of Ben Harper’s “Better Day.”

***

Before the concert, I marveled at the variety of people streaming into the venue. For sure, there were big hats, belt buckles and blue jeans on many of the guys, and cowboy hats, cowboy boots and long dresses on many of the women. But there were lots of gays and lesbians, too, as well as mothers and daughters, teenagers and senior citizens.

Somewhere between the Chicks’ speaking out against President Bush and their Grammy-winning CD — somewhere en route to becoming the biggest-selling female band of all time in the United States — “the band’s fan base apparently had shifted away from the red and toward the blue,” one writer noted.

I would agree.

 

dcx rainbow heart

Emily Strayer, left, and Natalie Maines perform against the backdrop of a rainbow heart.

When Natalie, Emily and Martie left the stage just before 11 p.m., I don’t think anyone left without having had their spirits lifted. Nothing like a talented trio of women to bring light to darkness through the gift of music.

Interested in more? Check out these two pieces:

“Dixie Chicks take the stage again on their own terms,” Erie News-Times.

“What it’s like seeing the still-political Dixie Chicks in the U.S. and Europe,” The Washington Post.

 

Celebrating on Orcas

orcas genoa view

Early morning clouds over Cypress Island.

Was it only a week ago that we were relaxing yet again on our piece of paradise in the San Juans?

Yes, indeed.

Lori and I arrived at our Orcas Island cabin on a Friday, prelude to the Fourth of July weekend, and wound up celebrating not just the holiday but a dear friend’s milestone birthday.

It was the first time we’d been up for the Fourth, but it may not be the last. Island life was on full display with a downtown parade and mayoral election, a community potluck, a farmers market and a fireworks show on the water. Totally charming.

Here’s how it all went down:

Saturday, July 2

Drove into Eastsound for the July 4th parade, a loosely organized event that’s more Starlight than Grand Floral for those of you familiar with Portland parades. Just about every activity or group on the island was represented — American Legion, Lions, Kiwanis, Garden Club, the library and, not least, a motley crew of men of all ages playing rainbow-colored percussion instruments and calling themselves the Odd Fellows.

There were antique cars and trucks, local politicians, and the five candidates for Honorary Mayor of Eastsound — four dogs and a newt (called Sir Isaac Newt’n). The winner was Lewis, a 12-year-old Corgi who campaigned for “dog park expansion and fresh water bowls (and treats) at all Eastsound businesses,” according to the local newspaper.

More than $15,000, a record amount, was raised for the Children’s House preschool program by islanders and visitors who voted for their favorite candidate. Very cool.

After the parade, we wandered over to the Saturday Market on the Village Green. populated by the usual array of organic farms, jewelers, painters, soap and candle makers, and other artists. With Lori’s encouragement, I made my way to the pie booth for a slice of blackberry pie a la mode. Had to do my part for the fundraising, you know.

4th of July Parade 2016

View a parade slideshow here, courtesy of the Islands’ Sounder: http://www.islandssounder.com/news/385321371.html

Look closely to the right of the truck (above) and you might notice two Portlanders, seated, viewing the parade.

Sunday, July 3

On a sun-splashed morning, we found ourselves at the Doe Bay Community Association’s  45th annual Independence Day celebration.

Talk about a Norman Rockwell scene. It was total Americana with an all-ages community band, led by a conductor in a baseball cap, playing patriotic music. There were speeches, silent and oral auctions, a raffle, singalongs to “Yankee Doodle” and “America, The Beautiful,” grilled hot dogs, and a potluck overflowing with salads, side dishes and desserts.

The event was held at the volunteer fire house, across the road from a field where several black steers munched on grass, and just a short walk from Doe Bay Resort & Retreat. All proceeds from the event — including a cutlery set that we won in the silent auction — go to fund the association’s annual operations, including the potluck. We were glad to contribute.

Monday, July 4

Our longtime friends, Bob and Deb Ehlers, arrived on the actual holiday for a three-night visit that began with Lori’s signature dinner — cioppino and Caesar salad — and ended with a soundless fireworks display.

The fireworks were set off in Bellingham, near the U.S.-Canadian border, less than 20 miles from our cabin on the northeast end of the island. We were far enough away that the red, white and blue patterns reflected off the Strait of Georgia without a sound. Quite the introduction for our guests from Salem, Oregon.

Tuesday, July 5

Hiked around Eagle Lake, the placid body of water at the heart of our island community, enjoying the solitude and multiple views of the lake. Postponed plans for an afternoon sea kayaking trip because of wind and rain, and went into Eastsound instead to browse the local shops.

Came back to the cabin for dinner and a brownie-and-ice cream celebration of Bob’s birthday.

Wednesday, July 6

The sightseeing continued with a drive up to the top of Mount Constitution, the highest point on the island at 2,400 feet. From there, you have a breathtaking view of Orcas and nearby islands, all laid out like so many chess pieces on a green and blue landscape of trees and water.

You can spot Canada’s Vancouver Island to the north, as well as the Washington coastline from Bellingham to Anacortes. On a clear day, you can see as far south as Mount Rainier, 65 miles southeast of Seattle. Spectacular.

We returned to Doe Bay in the afternoon for a three-hour kayaking trip in ideal conditions — clear, warm and no wind. What a difference 24 hours makes.

Bob and Deb got a kick out of the fact that our guide, Corey, was, like them, a native of Iowa. We’d been out with Corey a couple times before and were well acquainted with his friendly personality and deep knowledge of the islands. This time, we parked ourselves in a cove directly below a tree where a bald eagle was eating a fish he’d snatched minutes before. Magnificent bird. Memorable sight.

We freshened up and came back to Doe Bay Cafe for a delicious dinner, then ended the evening gathered around our outdoor fire pit, warmed by the flames and 36 years of friendship with Bob and Deb.

***

We bid them goodbye the following morning, kicked back with our canine companions Otto and Charlotte, and had a relaxing, do-nothing evening to cap off our stay.

We’ve been coming to our island getaway for more than a decade now, and it never gets old.

Each visit begins with a can-you-believe-this appreciation that we are fortunate to be here.

It’s a place where we can set aside the stresses of urban life and just turn things down a notch or two. It’s a place where we can enjoy simple things: feeding the songbirds that flock to our porch; sitting outdoors with a cool drink; walking alone or together on the dirt-and-gravel roads above our cabin. It’s a place where we can just pause and enjoy the silence, the blessed silence.

In view of all that, it’s a given that each visit ends with a pledge to return as soon as we can.

Atticus: The little giant

Admirably audacious or practically insane?

The question kept coming to mind as I read “Following Atticus.”

It’s a first-person account of the most unlikely tale. A self-described middle-aged, overweight, out of shape, scared-of-heights man with no romantic interests is the publisher, editor and sole employee of a monthly newspaper in Newburyport, Massachusetts, a coastal town of about 17,000 people roughly 35 miles northeast of Boston.

When a source, a good friend, dies, the chubby newspaperman decides to honor her by pledging to climb all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot peaks.

Not just once but twice.
Not during summer but during the winter.
Not alone but with the dog that is his constant companion.

That would be Atticus M. Finch, a 20-pound miniature schnauzer .

51ylQ2WbOEL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

The way author Tom Ryan tells it, he and Atticus are a common sight around Newburyport, virtually inseparable.  He takes the dog with him on his daily rounds, into city hall, into local restaurants and shops. Everyone, it seems, has a kind word and/or a treat for Atticus, even if they don’t care much for his owner.

I suppose I should say here that I had never heard of Ryan or his story. A friend, a dog lover of the first degree, bought the book for me, thinking i might enjoy an upbeat story about a man and his dog. Like Ryan, I’m a journalist and a blogger and pretty fond of my own four-legged friend, Charlotte.

Never climbed a mountain, though, let alone in winter.

Anyway, I dove in.

Some 273 pages later, I had finished the book. Clearly, it was more than just a recounting of an ambitious goal to climb four dozen mountains — twice — in 90 days. It was a story about an amazing little dog known as The Little GIant and an extraordinary friendship between man and animal.

It was a story about a mismatched pair showing they were capable of physical feats just about anyone would believe was impossible. Climbing in winter’s darkness by the light of the moon or Ryan’s headlamp, they would often trek up a mountain alone. Arriving at the summit, they’d sometimes meet with howling, biting winds that chilled them to the bone and made it nearly impossible to see.

Somehow this little creature would lead the way, slow but steady, while the lumbering Ryan, slow and sweaty, would follow.

Tom & Atticus

The mountain climbers: Atticus M. Finch and Tom Ryan.

In the process, Ryan says, they forged a bond of trust beyond imagining. Amid the most brutal winter conditions in the most remote New England wilderness, they depended on each other as any two humans would, and shared moments of solitude and introspection that transcended their biological differences.

Beyond that, it’s the story of a man seeking to repair broken relationships with his father and siblings, of a man reinventing himself and discovering his life’s purpose in nature, all with the help of a little dog.

“When I reached the summit of North Hancock, Atticus wasn’t waiting for me,” Ryan writes. “But I knew where he was. I pushed to the left through the snowy pines and saw him sitting on the ledge. It was a fine day, warm and calm, and he sat the way he did in the summer months, a little Buddha looking out at the Osceolas, watching the late-afternoon sun paint them a golden yellow. I regarded him for a while, not wanting to interrupt.

“I watched that little dog sitting placidly on a mountaintop in winter, miles away from the life we’d come to know, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be doing, and that’s when it struck me: Our quest was about so much more than reaching 96 mountains or raising money for a good cause. It was about us and what we shared and saw together and what we were becoming. It was one of those moments when you realize this is truly the time of your life.”

Far fetched? Audacious? Insane?

If you love animals, especially dogs, maybe you’ll want to read this book and decide for yourself.

Atticus-at-the-top-of-mount-washington

Atticus at the top of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast.

My takeaways?

— I marveled at what Tom and Atticus set out to accomplish,  even if I thought they were crazy to try.

— The quality of writing was a pleasant surprise. Ryan brings a literary sensibility to his work, often quoting Thoreau, Emerson and Frost.

— I had trouble imagining them doing this. Not so much the how but the where. I’m used to seeing Mount Hood and other Oregon peaks, rising 10,000 feet and higher. Ryan spent his time climbing peaks less than half that size. On some outings, he and Atticus traversed them and completed three or four peaks in a single day. It’s hard for me to visualize that.

— I’ve got to respect the man. It’s easy to go through the motions of everyday life. It’s much harder to step out of that comfort zone and commit to doing something extraordinary.  Something admirably audacious.  Even if it’s practically insane.

Hats off to Tom Ryan and his buddy Atticus M. Finch.

Photograph at summit: willmydoghateme.com

Friday flashback: ‘A purpose-driven life’

mother cheetah

Mother Cheetah and her brood.

As the fifth annual Voices of August guest blogging project approaches a month from today, I’m pleased to revisit a piece by one of my favorite contributors: Lakshmi Jagannathan.

Thanks to my well-traveled friend, I’ve experienced snippets of what it’s like to visit certain places in India and East Africa. I like the way she connects her observations to past and present, as an immigrant, a mother, a visitor, a lover of animals.

lakshmi jagannathan

Lakshmi Jagannathan

In a 2013 post, she described a day trip on the border of Kenya and Tanzania and the life lesson she drew from watching a mother on the hunt.

She began her piece this way:

“Pink sunlight filters through the dust. A cool breeze cuts through the windows of our jeep as it curves through a dirt track. We see her first in the distance — a quick movement in the bushes. A mother cheetah.”

Beautiful.

Read the entire post here: “A purpose-driven life”