A dazzling, discomforting novel

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“The Small Backs of Children” is like nothing I’ve ever read. It is a mesmerizing novel about art, war, love, sex, violence and devastating emotional loss that earned Portland author Lidia Yuknavitch double honors at the 2016 Oregon Book Awards — the Ken Kesey Award For Fiction and the Readers Choice Award.

I’d heard of Yuknavitch from a couple of writer friends, but I had no inkling of what I was in for when I settled down to read the novel during a recent vacation. It’s been several weeks now since I devoured the book and still I find it difficult to find the right words to describe it.

Haunting? Disturbing? Provocative? Yes, it’s all of those.

It’s also bold, ingenious and riveting, with a plot that revolves around a young girl, scenes that bounce between Europe and the United States, dialogue that crackles, and a cast of characters who remain nameless throughout the book. Instead, they are referred to simply by their roles as artists — The Poet, The Filmmaker, The Writer, The Photographer, The Playwright, The Painter, The Performance Artist.

The story begins one winter night in Eastern Europe, when a young girl, a war orphan, comes upon a wolf caught in a metal trap. By the light of the moon, the animal chews its leg off to free itself and runs away. Without thinking, the girl squats over the severed limb and urinates on the blood and snow, a steam cloud rising as the relief of rising heat warms her skin.

“This is how the sexuality of a girl is formed — an image at a time — against white; taboo, thoughtless, corporeal,” Yuknavitch writes.

“She thinks: I do not want to die, but my life will always be like this — wounded and animal, lurching against white.”

Wow. With an opening like that, I was hooked.

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Lidia Yuknavitch’s latest book is “The Misfit’s Manifesto,” which grew out of her 2016 TED Talk “The Beauty of Being a Misfit.”

The girl is central to the narrative, but hardly a singular figure, as the plot pulls in the community of artists, one-by-one, to her story.

The Photographer, on assignment in a war zone in a nameless Eastern European country, happens upon the girl and her family running from a house when a blast obliterates the mother, father and brother and propels the child toward the camera, her hair lifting, her arms lifted up and out, her face glowing from the explosion. The Photographer captures the shot and wins prizes and international fame, but feels a void.

“What about her?” The Writer asks her best friend. “What became of her? How could you leave her to fate?”

It is a question that gets at the moral conflict between professional detachment and personal compassion, and The Writer, having delivered a stillborn daughter herself and now battling depression, becomes obsessed with learning what happened to the girl.

Worried by her fragile health, The Writer’s friends hatch a wild plot. They vow to find the girl — despite not knowing her name or where she lives — and bring her to the United States.

With each chapter, Yuknavitch introduces us to a member of that artistic community, including The Writer’s filmmaker husband, her playwright brother, a bisexual dominatrix poet, a performance artist, and her ex-husband, an egotistical painter who is known for excess when it comes to drugs, alcohol and sex.

The author holds back nothing with language or plot, creating vivid scenes around sex and violence that leap off the page and burn into your memory. Yuknavitch experiments with form and voice, and even writes five endings to the novel. It’s an amazing piece of work that leaves me wanting to know more about this Portland writer.

A self-proclaimed misfit, Yuknavitch grew up in an abusive home, won a college scholarship to swim for the University of Texas, got caught up in drugs and alcohol and lost the scholarship. She’s had three marriages, lost a daughter at birth, dropped out of college twice and spent some time homeless. Somehow she found her voice, followed her own path, re-enrolled in school and eventually earned a Ph.D in English Literature from the University of Oregon. She now teaches in the Portland area.

Yuknavitch delivered a  2016 TED Talk on her journey from misfit to writer that has garnered nearly 2.5 million views. No doubt I’ll be reading more of her work.

 

Read two excellent reviews of “The Small Backs of Children” by writers for The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times.

 

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RBG: A woman to celebrate

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I wasn’t expecting much when I settled into my seat yesterday to see “RBG.”

Sure, I’d heard of this movie about Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and, lately, an internet phenomenon. I knew the film took a look at the life and work of a brilliant legal scholar. What I didn’t realize is how deftly the filmmakers would tie together so much rich material — from archival footage, Congressional testimony, news stories, TV clips, internet memes and interviews — to present a compelling portrait of a woman who has arguably done as much for women’s rights as the late Thurgood Marshall did for civil rights for black Americans.

In a word, Ruth Bager Ginsburg is a powerhouse.

Quiet by nature and tiny in stature, she has been tireless and fearless in using the law to champion the cause of equal opportunity for women. The film touches on a handful of cases she successfully argued before the nation’s highest court to help extend equity to females in the workplace.

While those accomplishments are extraordinary, it’s the personal side of the now 85-year-old justice that makes this movie so endearing. Through interviews with her late husband Marty, their daughter and son, and a host of other friends and professional colleagues, we get a picture of a shy but determined woman who overcame sex discrimination herself in pursuing a legal career when women were actively discouraged from doing so.

***

We admire Ginsburg’s resolve and focus as a young mother and wife in law school, caring for her cancer-stricken husband (who is also a law student), raising their newborn daughter, and somehow still finding time to keep up her own studies.

We come to realize that resolve and focus are lifelong attributes, that she personifies an only-in-America success story as a Brooklyn-born  daughter of immigrants who was educated at Cornell, Columbia and Harvard and taught at Rutgers and Columbia law schools on her way to being named to the federal bench.

(It was President Bill Clinton who named her to the Supreme Court in 1993, making her the second-longest serving justice on the current court.)

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 At 85, Justice Ginsburg has  become an intergenerational heroine and pop culture icon.

But more than a sterling legal career, we see different sides of Ginsburg: an opera lover who is witty and warm; able to become good friends with fellow Justice Antonin Scalia, an arch-conservative who was her opposite in temperament and personality; able to shrug off falling asleep at a State of the Union address; and able to laugh at a parody of her on Saturday Night Live.

***

Lori and I recently saw “Marshall,” a biographical film about Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court. While it was entertaining and educational and Chadwick Boseman was solid in his portrayal of Marshall, “RBG” has the added plus of presenting the real, live Ginsburg in her own words.

She, like Marshall before her, is a national treasure. Go see this film and you’ll come away with profound respect for a woman who’s left a towering legacy that benefits our daughters and our granddaughters.

Lessons from Watsonville

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Milagro Theatre’s production is based on a cannery strike in a California farming community. (Photograph: Russell J. Young)

When you love watching movies as much as we do, it’s easy to keep doing the same thing. Thankfully, we broke out of our routine and went to see a play on Sunday afternoon at Milagro Theatre in Southeast Portland.

Good decision.

Lori and I saw “Watsonville: Some Place Not Here” — a play written in 1996 about a cannery workers strike in Watsonville, California, from 1985 to 1987 — and came away vowing to do more of the same. I love the intimate space, where you can find an actor literally right next to you in the aisle, and I enjoy supporting Milagro (Miracle), which after nearly 35 years bills itself as the Northwest’s premier Latino arts and culture organization.

This particular play appealed to me because it was based on real events in Watsonville, a small agricultural town of 25,000, southeast of Santa Cruz, and featured Mexican and Mexican-American laborers. As teenagers, both of my parents worked in the area, picking crops with their farmworker families.

Though my folks didn’t work in the Watsonville canneries, I’m sure they could relate to the struggles of those who went on strike on Sept 9, 1985, to protest cuts in wages and benefits — and stayed out for 18 months, despite tremendous financial hardships.

What could I take away from a play steeped in the Mexican culture and based on real events 30 years earlier? Plenty, it turns out.

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A scene from “Watsonville: Some Place Not Here” (Photograph: Russell J. Young)

From an artistic perspective, there’s lots to appreciate.

— The play, written by the feminist writer Cherrie Moraga, an artist in residence at Stanford University, weaves together economic, political, social, cultural and religious themes while interspersing more than a little Spanish into the mostly English-language script.

— The ensemble of nine actors demonstrate great versatility,  ranging across emotional terrain including anger, humor, courage, cowardice and, above all, passion for a just cause. Particularly poignant was the role of Juan, played by Osvaldo “Ozzie” Gonzalez. Juan is an ex-priest whose doubts about God led him to break from the Catholic Church, but who nevertheless is looked to by many of the others for spiritual and moral leadership.

— The creative set design is also pretty remarkable. With just a few rolling tables and chairs and an upright piece whose two sides doubled as a refrigerator and a workers’ time clock, the cast was able to create different scenes and moods in a matter of seconds.

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A non-union worker uses a club to lash out at strikers in November 1985. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel file photograph)

From a historical perspective, there’s much that resonates.

— A majority of the 1,500 striking workers were women, and about one-third were single mothers whose children depended on their income to survive. Many of the workers were undocumented, as well, which put them at great legal risk. (In the play, a character playing the role of a union representative tips off federal authorities to conduct a raid, reasoning that any deportations will result in a reduced labor force and persuade employers to settle the strike. What an ass.)

— In Watsonville, one out of every seven people was a striker or a dependent of one, according to social service agencies. During the strike, most workers lived on $50 a week from labor groups and many were evicted or lost their homes. Some sent their children to live with relatives. Sales dropped in many of the city’s businesses and more than 150 people were arrested as violence flared, according to news reports.

— Workers walked off the job when their employers — the two largest frozen food companies in the United States — threatened to lower their base pay from $6.66 an hour to $4.75 an hour. About 18 months later, the companies agreed to $5.85 an hour plus benefits.

Read the Los Angeles Times’ account of the dispute, a year into the strike

Read the Santa Cruz Sentine’s account of a 30th anniversary meeting after the strike

The play’s director, Elizabeth Huffman, marveled at the strikers’ resilience in the face of poverty and racial discrimination: “The workers mounted an extraordinary resistance knowing that it would create an economic hardship that few of us could endure today…but they did it because they had to.”

“This story,” she adds, “is unfortunately timely as our country remains shockingly divided on these very same issues over 20 years later.”

I can’t imagine surviving the stresses on finances, family and faith that these brave workers had to face. Organized labor has had few successes to point to in the 30-plus years since these cannery workers stood up for themselves.

At the same time, I can’t help but feel a measure of ethnic pride is knowing that these Chicanas and Chicanos stood up for themselves and ultimately won back much of what their employers had taken away.

This is the final weekend to catch the “Watsonville” play. For more information and tickets to the Friday or Saturday night performances, click here.

 

Charlotte’s playground

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Charlotte romps at the schoolyard park with Coco, up close, and Penny in the distance.

Is there anything that quite defines “joy” as seeing a dog romping across a grassy field, ears back, eyes wide, running and tumbling with other canines?

Didn’t think so.

Lately, Lori and I have been treated to this sight over and over again at the neighborhood school two blocks from our home. For the past several weeks, Charlotte and a growing number of four-legged friends have been running with abandon in that sweet spot between dinner and dusk.

Our little black beauty is especially joyous chasing — or being chased by — Coco and Penny, two similar-sized dogs with similar temperaments. The three of them greet each other like best friends and quickly launch into play, darting in and around us, and invariably winding up in a whirling ball of fur.

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Charlotte gets a taste of her own medicine as Penny nips at her heels.

This wouldn’t normally strike anyone as remarkable — a few dogs running around a partially fenced-in athletic field. But if you knew Charlotte’s back story like we do, you’d appreciate how far she’s come in her socialization with other dogs and her trust of their humans.

Like Coco and Penny, little Charlotte is a terrier-mix and a rescue dog, with a past no one really knows. We adopted her in October 2014, as a scrawny 11-pound, 2-year-old mother who’d been picked up on the street with her puppy. She’s now five years old, tipping the scales at 16-plus pounds, and well adapted to our home. (Her puppy was adopted out to another home.)

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Charlotte catches her breath after another round of chase.

Two years ago, though, she and I were attacked by a couple of unleashed big dogs at a dog park in another part of town. Charlotte suffered a bite wound near her tail and I escaped with scratches, a bloody lip and a torn jacket. Even after she mended, we were wary of situations where she might get targeted again by larger dogs.

That’s why it’s been such a pleasure to see Charlotte run free in the company of other animals she knows and likes, and to also let other adults pet her between romps on the grass.

It wasn’t always like this. Charlotte’s always been one to bark at strangers rather than approach them.  But within this little circle of friends, she’s also becoming trusting of Penny’s owners, Arturo and Lindsey, and Coco’s human, also named George.

She also gets along very well with Yukai, a handsome Shiba Inu, and his owner, Laura, who carries around a small pouch of dog treats and jokingly refers to herself as “the doggie crack lady.”

On the most recent Sunday night, Charlotte was the first arrival at what I’ve come to think of as her own private playground. When Penny and Coco showed up, it was as if another party had begun. Another round of joy.

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Charlotte strikes a pose on Mother’s Day 2018.

Grandma Ora rocks it in Portland

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Ora enjoys her ride on the Portland Aerial Tram, rising 3,300 feet above the city.

Before Mother’s Day fades into memory,  let me take some time to express thanks, love and appreciation for my stepmother, Oralia Caballero Rede.

Earlier this month, Lori and I had the pleasure of hosting Ora in the days leading up to and following the wedding of our oldest son, Nathan. She arrived on a Friday evening and left at midday Tuesday, staying next door in the basement studio of a neighbor who makes the space available as an airbnb rental.

It was a great arrangement and we thoroughly enjoyed Ora’s visit.

Ordinarily, she would have stayed with us, but we had to save the one spare bedroom for our youngest son and his family, who would be arriving the next day and leaving the same morning as Ora. It all worked out fine, with just the right amount of privacy for Ora and the peace of mind of knowing she was literally a minute away around the corner.

But on to the main point for this post…

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Ora and George in Silver City, New Mexico: April 2017

We invited Ora to come out for the May 6th wedding, knowing it would be a rare opportunity for her to see all three of our adult children and meet her great-granddaughter, as well. Though we are lucky to have both Nathan and daughter Simone here in Portland, Jordan lives in the Midwest and will soon relocate to upstate New York for graduate school.

These days, it takes a special occasion like a wedding to bring all three kids and their life partners together. After the wedding, who knows when all three couples (plus us) would be in the same place again?

Ora was reluctant at first, not being particularly fond of air travel. But gentle persistence won her over and, at age 84, she got up early one morning and drove “only” 200 miles from her home in southwest New Mexico to the airport in Tucson, Arizona, where she could catch a direct flight to Portland.

Since my dad died about a year ago, Ora has dealt with the loneliness of a widow who lost her husband of 46 years. Slowly but steadily, she has reintegrated into the community in Silver City,  the small town where they retired after leaving the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ’80s.

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Dad and Ora came to visit Lori and me in Bend, Oregon, in the years before we had kids. Photo is circa 1977 or 1978. “Your father always had his arms around me,” Ora says.

Aside from daily walks and frequent lunches with friends, Ora volunteers with various community organizations, sings in the church choir, and tutors two Spanish-speaking priests who want to improve their English. This summer, she’s making plans to travel to Honduras as a part of a medical mission — the perfect role for a retired registered nurse who’s bilingual.

I’ve always admired Ora’s selflessness, whether it was donating time and skills to her community or giving up all her activities in order to take care of my dad full-time as his health declined in the last year of his life.

Having her visit here in Portland gave us all a chance to give back to her with all the affection and attention she deserves.

***

On Friday night, we had Ora to ourselves for a traditional Mexican dinner of tamales, refried beans and Spanish rice.

Saturday, she was with us as we joined the family of our newest daughter-in-law, Sara, for lunch a day before the wedding. At the same time, we celebrated Nathan’s birthday two days late. A special moment came when Ora, spontaneously, asked Nathan if she could sing him a song: “Las Mañanitas,” a traditional Mexican birthday song.

 

Those two have always had a special relationship, and it was evident when Nathan got up from his chair at one end of the table and came over to the other end to give his grandmother a hug.

Later that day, we took a walk in the neighborhood with Ora, daughter-in-law Jamie and granddaughter Emalyn. Ora marveled at the vibrant colors of all types of flowers, as well as the variety of architectural styles, as we went from block to block. “The whole city is like a garden!” she proclaimed.

 

We went to the school near our home and ran into fellow dog owners whom we’ve come to know. Ora stepped right in and spoke in animated Spanish to Arturo, originally from Barcelona, and his American wife Lindsey, who also is bilingual.

That evening, Simone and Kyndall joined all of us for another family dinner — this time it was Lori’s lasagna — and we spent more time catching up on each other’s lives.

On Sunday, the ladies all went out together to have their hair, nails and faces done ahead of the wedding. That evening, we arrived at the wedding venue — Victoria Bar, not far from the North Mississippi Avenue Historic District — and mingled with guests indoors and outdoors.

Ora, I swear, was like a magnet. While Lori and I danced, drank and nibbled on appetizers, people of all ages and gender identities engaged Ora in conversation, as if she were a longtime Portland resident. At one point, seeing her on the patio engrossed in one-on-one talk with a young woman, I almost felt like an intruder when I approached to check in on her.

Everything was fine. They went on to exchange phone numbers.

It was pretty special (there’s that word again) having Ora as the sole grandparent, and the only person of her generation at the wedding.  It was lovely to see her and Nathan share another emotional moment near the bar.

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Nathan with Grandma Ora during the Rede family reunion, held in July 2009 in Portland. As the oldest grandchild, Nathan has always enjoyed a special bond with her.

On Monday, friends of Jordan and Jamie came over to see them, so I took the opportunity to sweep Ora out the door and onto the Portland Streetcar.

We rode across the Willamette River into Northwest Portland, made a pit stop at Powell’s Books, hopped on again and rode through downtown and the Portland State University campus.

We got off in the South Waterfront District, where we had lunch and then clambered aboard the tram to the Oregon Health & Science University campus. She loved it all — the ride, the aerial views and the cluster of medical buildings atop Pill Hill. (Of course, she would. She’s  a retired RN!)

 

On Tuesday, we said a reluctant goodbye to our easygoing guest and I drove her to the airport to catch her noon flight. I appreciated the time we all spent together and felt truly grateful that she brought my dad so many years of love, loyalty and companionship.

She drew my dad out of his comfort zone by exposing him to the arts, music and foreign destinations he likely would not have sought out by himself. They traveled together to so many places — England, Spain, Italy, Hong Kong, Costa Rica, Israel, South Africa — and yet were so grounded in Silver City.

I’ve told Ora more than once that Dad truly seemed “born again” as a result of their courtship and marriage. She’s a remarkable woman, and no one knew that better than Dad.

Want to know more about this amazing octogenarian? Read “Shoutout to Ora”

Justice for George

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The contents of these envelopes helped ease the sting of two parking tickets.

For me, one of the most annoying sights in daily life is the bright yellow envelope tucked under a windshield, signaling that I’ve been ticketed for overtime parking at a city-owned meter.

I’ve largely managed to avoid them while teaching at Portland State University in downtown Portland, but I got nailed twice within the same week late last year — and that left me feeling pretty frazzled.

So imagine my delight when two envelopes of a different color (white) recently arrived in my mailbox, each bearing a document with an official seal of the State of Oregon Judicial Department. They were refund checks, and they arrived without a note of explanation.

But I knew what they were: Redemption! Double redemption!

I could have paid the $44 fine for each of the citations and just moved on. But considering that I typically pay $6 each time I park on the street (the hourly rate is $2), it would have cost me a total of $100 just to do my job on those two half-days. That was too hefty a price in my view, so I appealed.

Yes, I’m one of those who makes time to write to the court to ask for leniency, knowing I can’t take more time to appear in person before a judge.

I admitted that I overstayed the time limit — though it wasn’t by very much either time. But I argued that I was doing “meaningful work” that ran longer than I anticipated; I wasn’t just hanging out at a coffee shop socializing.

In the first case, I taught my regular 8 am class on a Monday, then returned in the afternoon – well outside my regular office hours — for two additional one-on-one meetings and a group discussion with four students. The latter ran long and I returned to my car to find I had received a ticket.

In the second case, on a Friday,  I came in to the office for a single meeting with a student – on a day that I normally am not even on campus – and again got caught up in a discussion that went longer than planned. Another ticket. Sigh.

I ended the letter with an apology and a pledge to adopt a new strategy to avoid further parking citations. I now set an alarm on my desktop computer and on my mobile phone so that I give myself an audible reminder before my metered time expires. It’s working quite well.

I’m happy the judge considered my appeal.

Each refund check was for $20, which nearly cut each $44 ticket nearly in half. With the combined $40, I took Lori to dinner. Forgiveness never tasted so good.

Postscript: Twice last week I pulled into a parking spot on the PSU campus and twice I was rewarded with “free” time.

On Monday, a woman who was leaving the space ahead of me waited until I settled in and offered me a parking receipt with about 90 minutes on it. Sweet.

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Free time? Why, yes, thank you.

On Thursday, I had moved my car from one spot to another one and was approaching the parking station with my debit card when a man called out, “Hey! Can you use 16 minutes?”

“Sure can,” I replied. “Just what I need.”

Maybe the parking gods have a way of evening things out in the long run. Thanks, generous strangers!

Hitched! Nathan and Sara

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Nathan and Sara clasp hands as their wedding ceremony gets underway.

On a lovely Sunday evening at a Portland bar two weekends ago, in front of well-scrubbed family and friends, our oldest son, Nathan, and his charming girlfriend, Sara, joined the ranks of the married.

For us, it marked the third time becoming in-laws. For them, it put an exclamation point on an eight-year courtship. For all in attendance, May 6th was a night to remember, with an emphasis on fun and celebration that stretched into the wee hours of Monday.

Unlike most weddings, which tend to follow a traditional format, this one had all the hallmarks of a mature couple doing things their way. As in no frills.

 

No wedding party of bridesmaids and groomsmen. No flower girls, no ring-bearers. No processional music. No father walking his daughter up the aisle. No printed programs. No posed photographs. No wedding cake. And, God forbid, no speeches by anyone.

Essentially, Nathan and Sara just invited everyone to come join their party with a drink or two and lots of dance music played by a half-dozen DJ friends of the couple. Half the crowd spread out at wooden picnic tables outdoors while the other half circulated inside the massive bar space.

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Big smiles as Reverend Jared does his thing.

The ceremony was short and sweet, and took place in subdued lighting inside Victoria Bar in North Portland. Jared, a 6-foot-7 teddy bear of a man and someone who’s known both Nathan and Sara for years, officiated, looking dapper in a purple fedora.

Reverend Jared told a charming anecdote about the early days of their relationship (something about Nathan being short on cash but offering to cook Sara a burger), then quickly got to the heart of the ceremony.  Each pledged “I do” to the other — having already shared their vows privately — and that was pretty much it.

We raised small flutes of Champagne to the newly-marrieds and then spent the rest of the evening socializing, dancing, and noshing on beef sliders, cocktail shrimp and other nibbles before the dessert came out: churros with chocolate and vanilla dipping sauces.

***

It was wonderful seeing our first-born at the center of things, along with his bride. So many of their friends, from the worlds of music, food and hair-styling, approached Lori and me to offer congratulations and express their affection for Nathan and Sara. As one would expect, a majority of the crowd were sporting tattoos or piercings or both, just like the bride and groom.

 

The evening was extra special for us in that both of Nathan’s siblings were there, along with his one remaining grandparent. Our daughter, Simone, and her wife, Kyndall, came from East Portland. Our youngest son, Jordan, flew in from Missouri with his wife, Jamie, and our granddaughter, Emalyn.

My stepmother, Ora, came out from New Mexico and chatted with assorted hipsters as if she were a longtime Portlander. (My only regret? That neither my parents nor Lori’s lived long enough to see Nathan get married.)

The day before the wedding, both sides of the family gathered for a celebratory lunch at Vivienne Kitchen & Pantry, a favorite restaurant near Lori’s work. We preordered a family-style meal, topped off by a Lemon Olive Oil Cake, and sang “Happy Birthday” to Nathan, who had turned 38 just two days earlier on May 3rd, three days ahead of the wedding.

 

We’d already met Sara’s parents, Jon and Katie, as they live in Hillsboro (Sara’s hometown) but we also got to meet Sara’s older sister, Leslie, and her boyfriend, Jeff, who flew in from Massachusetts. Nice, nice people.

All in all, it was a busy but enjoyable few days.

Ora arrived Friday evening. Jordan and family arrived on Saturday.  Nathan and Sara got married Sunday. Childhood friends came over Monday to visit with Jordan, while I took Ora out to see some of the city.

Early Tuesday morning, I took Jordan, Jamie & Emalyn to the airport, and a few hours later did the same with Ora.

Whew!

Don’t know when circumstances will bring all of us together again. For now, we’ll make these matrimonial memories last. Pretty special occasion with some pretty special people.