Life’s big dramas: Fact and fiction

Q. What does a white lesbian essayist in Portland, Oregon, have in common with a Mexican American novelist born in Tijuana and now writing from Chicago?

A. Talent, for one. And an ability to burrow down deep into the complexities of family and relationships, with humor, pathos and wisdom.

Kate Carroll de Gutes is the author of “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.” Her debut collection of essays won the 2016 Oregon Book Award for creative nonfiction and the Lambda Literary Award for memoir.

Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of “The House of Broken Angels.” He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for an earlier book and his latest was just nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

On my recent trip to London, I got ambitious and took both books with me. Thanks to a head start here at home, I finished de Gutes’ book on the flight over there and completed Urrea’s book on the return flight. Both were satisfying reads, different on the surface but similar in less obvious ways.

***

I was already familiar with Kate’s work. I dove into her second book, “The Authenticity Experiment,” after hearing her read from it during a book launch event a couple years ago. I loved that she took a 30-day challenge she gave herself to be authentic on social media and turned the collection of blogs into a book.

Read my blog post: “Daring to be real in a world of perfection

In her first book, she writes about a spectrum of big issues — self-identity and coming out; love and loss; marriage and divorce; quarreling parents dealing with failing health in their old age.

Kate is brutally, beautifully honest in writing about all of it. The inner turmoil and the out-in-the-open tensions as she embraced her sexual identity. The thrill of being able to marry a woman, followed by the despair of divorce. Coping with her mother’s failing memory while dealing with her angry father’s resentment that his wife’s heart bypass operation is taking away attention from his own cardiac surgery years earlier.

Kate Carroll de Gutes

In each of those situations, Kate opens up in a way that draws us into those relationships, where we feel the anticipation, the joy, the disappointment, disgust and resignation associated with life’s peaks and valleys.

Reflecting on her marriage that lasted 23 years, she calls it a success when compared to the statistic that most first marriages last 7 to 8 years and 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. In light of that, she says, she and her ex-wife Judy should be held up as role models.

“It took such a long time for our relationship to be recognized as legitimate by our families and society,” she writes. “Judy’s family, in particular, believed our relationship was ’empty and loveless,’ and I think they had been expecting its demise all along, as if we didn’t have, couldn’t have what it took to go the distance and make marriage work.”

But looking back on that marriage, she also sees what it gave her:

“This woman helped make me who I am. I am from her. We grew up together. Came out together. Figured out roommate, spousal equivalent, partner, and wife together. And I have removed myself from her, as well, expurgating my history as well as my heart.”

***

Urrea is someone I should have known about long ago but only became familiar with recently. A friend invited me to a talk he was giving in Portland and loaned me the book when I couldn’t make the event. How is it that I was in the dark about an accomplished Latino author who teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago and who’s written more than a dozen fiction and non-fiction books plus three volumes of poetry?

Urrea was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother. His newest book is infused with references to both sides of the border, though it is squarely set in the San Diego home of one Miguel Angel de la Cruz, affectionately known to his family as Big Angel.

Big Angel is the ailing patriarch of a sprawling clan that includes siblings, several children and too many grandkids to count, plus aunts, uncles, cousins and his own dying mother.

There’s a Little Angel in the story, too. It’s Big Angel’s half brother, born to an American woman who had a fling with their Mexican father. Little Angel lives in Seattle, where he teaches literature and is viewed as something of a puzzle if not an outcast by everyone else in the family who has remained in San Diego.

Luis Alberto Urrea

The story is built around the preparations for one last birthday party for Big Angel. But as the date nears, his own mother, nearly 100 years old, dies herself, meaning the family must bury her on the same weekend they’ve come together to celebrate Big Angel and thank him for all he’s done to create opportunities for them as first- and second-generation immigrants in a country that would just as soon rather not have them here.

Interestingly, the book stems from a real-life situation in the author’s family. Urrea says his eldest brother, Juan, was in the last month of a terminal disease when he had to bury his mother and the funeral landed on the day before his 74th birthday.

Like Big Angel, Juan sat in his wheelchair and accepted thanks for good deeds done during his life — think of an army of relatives paying their respects as if he were Don Corleone in “The Godfather.”

A reviewer in TIME magazine calls Urrea’s book “a celebration of the Mexican-American family.”

Read the review here: “The House of Broken Angels Is a Love Song to the Mexican-American Family.”

Reading it as a third-generation Mexican American myself, I had no problem recognizing the archetypal characters in the book and appreciating the many cultural references and food products referenced throughout. My mom, too, loved her instant coffee with Carnation canned milk to lighten it up.

Urrea’s characters drop a lot of Spanish and Spanglish into their conversations, which lends an obvious authenticity to the dialogue, but I have to wonder how many readers were left scratching their heads and missing out on the linguistic nuances.

It’s an entertaining book, though I have to confess I had trouble at times keeping some of the characters straight because of their sheer number. There are tensions and rivalries among some, teasing and flirting between others, constant judging of each other, and a lifetime of memories and their meanings for Big Angel to sort through in his final days.

Mexican families are known as big and boisterous and close-knit. While there’s a lot of truth to that stereotype, I also know the image doesn’t always hold up as true. In Urrea’s telling, Big Angel is at once the backbone and the beating heart of the de la Cruz family — and he writes with tenderness in a scene toward the end of the book where Little Angel and Big Angel have just finished fighting. Literally.

Little Angel took a deep breath. “I know you hated me for leaving. I know you thought I looked down on all of you. Well, maybe I did. All my life I thought I had to escape to survive. Maybe even to escape you. And now you are leaving me, and I can’t imagine the world without you. I always thought I didn’t really have the father I wanted. And all this time it was you.

“To be here now, to see what you have made, humbles me. The good parts and the bad. It doesn’t matter. I thought I was going to save the world, and here you were all along, changing the world day by day. minute by minute.”

Big Angel was going to say something but decided against it.

Beautiful.

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Shot in the Heart: A Portland story

People of a certain age might remember Gary Gilmore as one of America’s most notorious criminals. Sentenced to death after murdering two innocent men in Utah, he was executed by firing squad on January 17, 1977, just a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court had reinstated the death penalty.

I was living in Bend, Oregon, at the time and, as an opponent of capital punishment, I still remember being shocked when I learned from a radio news report that he’d been put to death.

These days, I have another reason to remember Gilmore and, frankly, it’s hard to shake. Turns out that Gilmore not only grew up in Portland, but one of his crimes was committed about a mile away from where I live. As a teenager, he raped a 14-year-old girl in an apartment on a street that I drive on virtually every week.

Creepy? To say the least.

I learned of that sordid crime and much, much more from reading “Shot in the Heart,” a sad but beautifully written memoir by Mikal Gilmore about his brother Gary and their dysfunctional family. I read the book last year and found myself drawn into it despite the dark subject matter, but I’ve never written about it until now.

Picking it up again, I was startled to realize it was published in 1994 — some 25 years ago. And thumbing through it, I am reminded of the powerful, honest writing that propelled me through 400 pages of a book that one reviewer called “mesmerizing…riveting and immensely moving.”

“You were Gary Gilmore’s younger brother, weren’t you? What did it feel like, having him die like that?” he was often asked.

“I was never really sure how to answer that question,” he wrote. “But I hated it every time the questions were asked. I tried for years to be polite or thick-skinned about it….I felt that nobody would ever forget or forgive me just for being that dead f—— killer’s brother. I learned a bit of what it’s like to live on in the aftermath of the punishment: as a living relative, you have to take on some of the burden and legacy of the punishment. People can no longer insult or hurt Gary Gilmore, but because you are his brother — even if you’re not much like him — they can aim it at you.

“It’s as if anybody who has emerged from a family that yielded a murderer must also be formed by the same causes, the same evil, must in some way also be responsible for the violence that resulted, must also bear the mark of a frightening and shameful heritage. It’s as if there is guilt in the simple fact of the bloodline itself.”

Gary Gilmore in Portland Police Bureau mug shots.

Gary Gilmore’s death ended a virtual moratorium on capital punishment that had lasted nearly 10 years in the United States, and it spawned a novel and a movie that both won critical acclaim.

Norman Mailer wrote a fact-based novel (The Executioner’s Song, 1979) about Gilmore that won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Mailer then adapted the book into a movie (1982) that starred Tommy Lee Jones as Gilmore and won the actor an Emmy Award.

Twelve years later, Mikal Gilmore wrote his memoir.

I already knew Mikal was an accomplished journalist as a music writer for Rolling Stone. What I didn’t know was that he was born here and grew up with his family in Southeast Portland (in the same impoverished neighborhood where Lori and I first lived when we first moved here) and in suburban Milwaukie (where I got my first reporting job in Oregon). Mikal attended Milwaukie High School and later graduated from Portland State University, where I now teach.

Author Mikal Gilmore (rollingstone.com)

But “Shot in the Heart” is not about Mikal. It is about his mom and dad and three older brothers, all of whom were scarred by the violence that defined their everyday life. The father, Frank Gilmore, was a petty criminal who beat his young wife, Bessie, and did the same to his sons, Frank Jr., Gary and Gaylen. Mikal, the youngest by seven years and born when his dad was 61, escaped that treatment.

Gary suffered the worst of those beatings, and he rebelled. As a young teen, he began ditching school and staying out late, drinking and smoking weed. Soon enough, he turned to the criminal life, stealing cars and robbing stores. To my astonishment, I found the book riddled with references to streets and places I know: 82nd Avenue, 52nd and Division, Johnson Creek Boulevard, Northeast Weidler Street (where the rape occurred).

Gary did time at MacLaren’s Reform School for Boys in Woodburn, the Rocky Butte Jail in east Portland, the Oregon State Correctional Institution and Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. He was arrested in Washington, Idaho, California and Texas before making his way to Utah, where he fatally shot a gas station attendant and a motel manager while on parole. He was 36 when he was executed — shot in the heart by a firing squad.

Nothing can excuse Gary Gilmore’s life of crime, culminating in the murders in Provo, Utah. But it’s also obvious that his father’s brutish, violent behavior helped set him on that path and, likewise, contributed to the death of his brother Gaylen, at age 27, from complications from a stabbing.

Sad to say, hope for any semblance of normal life was snuffed out at an early age for young Gary.

“My family’s ruin did not end with Gary, because it had not started with him,” Mikal, now 68, concludes. “…I realized I had grown up in a family that would not continue. There were four sons, and none of us went on to have our own families. We did not go on to spread any legacy or dynasty, to extend or fulfill any of our needs, kind or cruel, damaged or conscientious, through children. We didn’t even have kids in order to beat or ruin them as we had one been beaten or ruined…

“It’s as if what had happened to in our family was so awful that it had to end with us, it had to stop, and that to have children was to risk the perpetuation of that ruin.”

“Shot in the Heart” is hardly uplifting reading. But it is searingly honest and infused with empathy and insight. It truly is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.

Coming of age in a poor Texas border town

You know those little free libraries that you find on city streets? The ones that people stock with books to encourage passers-by to take one or leave one?

I helped myself to one earlier this year in my neighborhood and it turned out to be a gem.

“The Boy Kings of Texas” is a memoir by Domingo Martinez. It was a 2012 National Book Award finalist and I can see why. He is a gifted storyteller.

I recognized the author’s name, having come upon it two years ago when he wrote an essay about Brownsville, titled “How Scared Should People on the Border Be?” It’s the same south Texas city that would burst into the international spotlight a year later as immigrant families were separated at the border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

With sardonic humor, brutal honesty and luminous prose, Martinez writes of growing up poor with his Mexican American family in Brownsville, a place he describes as miserably hot and humid and devoid of any redeeming qualities.

Bored, uninspired in school, at odds with his womanizing, macho father, and feeling left behind when his older brother enlists in the military, Domingo despairs of being stuck in his hometown hugging the Rio Grande River.

He escapes eventually as a young college dropout and moves to Seattle, where he welcomes the rain and marvels at the “sincere and institutionalized absence of racial prejudice” in the Pacific Northwest city. It’s a far cry from what he knew in Brownsville: small minds, dead-end jobs, racial prejudice.

In 33 chapters spilling across more than 400 pages in this gently worn book, Martinez writes with a range of emotions — love, hate, hope, resentment, heartbreak and angst — as he describes growing up between two cultures in a house too often filled with violence, family drama and put-downs.

I could relate to a certain degree as Martinez reminisced about his barrio childhood, referring to curanderas (folk healers), Catholicism and his domineering Gramma, a pistol-packing, take-no-crap character that reminded me of my late mother. I could see myself in the same uncomfortable position as him, someone who stood out among the Mexican kids in grade school as someone who was bright and spoke fluent English.

But our experiences diverged wildly as we reached our teenage years. Whereas Domingo drank, used drugs and rebelled against his perceived lot in life, I walked a straight and narrow path to a four-year degree and after graduation moved to Oregon from my native California. Though I grew up in a Chicano neighborhood in a blue-collar town, I came of age in a middle-class, predominantly white suburb of San Francisco at a time when assimilation was the order of the day. No reckless behavior for me during my teen years.

Domingo Martinez with his grandmother Virginia Campos Rubio, a central figure in his “Boy Kings of Texas,” a National Book Award nominee. (Photograph by Brad Doherty)

Not so for Martinez. At one point in the book, he rages: “Seventeen years I’ve lived my life in this outpost, alone, isolated and with an eroding sense of wonder about America at large. I can dream of nothing but getting out of here and exploring the rest of the country, watching leaves turn color and following the winter; I want out of this shit hole of a border down at the bottom of Texas, out of this racist, ignorant, locus-eating, lower Texas toxic hell pit. I’ve endured my father, my grandmother, years of pathetic education, beatings, berations, concentrations of shame, and this heat most hellish. All I have to do is graduate high school in a few weeks and I can leave, I’ve been told. And I have listened. I don’t care what the means are. The military, a bus ticket, this “college” thing other people talked about, stowing away — I just want out. Out of here.”


The current border fence between the United States and Mexico runs along the road directly across from a residential area in Brownsville. (Photograph by Daniel Borris for The New York Times)

I sense that my praise for Martinez’s work falls short, so let me share a couple of quotes about this “lyrical and gritty” book from others.

“Martinez has a gift for storytelling, with alternately good-natured and sardonic wit, and quirky pop culture reference points.” — The Seattle Times.

“His stories are as eye-poppingly and bruisingly painful as they are funny.” — The Washington Post.

And then there is this, from author Carlos Eire, a National Book Award winner himself: “Domingo Martinez writes like an angel — an avenging angel who instead of bringing wrath to a fallen world redeems it by using beautiful prose to turn the most awful and gritty realities into transcendent gems. This is also a significant historical-document, a first-person account that reveals one corner of America as it has seldom been seen. What a voice, what a story, what a testament to the transforming power of self-knowledge and the right choice of words.”

Damn. Wish I’d written that. At least I had the good sense to pick this memoir out of the free little library a few blocks from my home.

August & Anthony

Anthony Bourdain and August Wilson: a pair of authors forever combined in my mind.

If you were to tell me that the famed playwright August Wilson and the chef-author-TV personality Anthony Bourdain had virtually nothing in common, I would say you’re right.

Wilson was born and raised in Pittsburgh and won two Pulitzer Prizes just three years apart for “Fences” (1987) and “The Piano Lesson” (1990). He died of liver cancer at age 60 in Seattle.

Bourdain was born in New York City and grew up in an affluent New Jersey suburb. He was the executive chef at a prestigious Manhattan restaurant, then became a best-selling author, and later the world-traveling host of two television programs centered on his culinary adventures. He died of suicide last year.

But as different as these two men were, they are likely to be linked in my mind for time eternal.

Why? Because I read their literary works back-to-back during the recent winter break from school. That alone wouldn’t be enough to seal them together in my memory. But the fact that I purchased Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” and Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” at the same time. thanks to a gift card from a friend, is what did it. (Thank you, Lydia Ramos!)

Both were enjoyable reads, for very different reasons, and I only regret that I didn’t get to them sooner.

I had wanted to read Wilson’s work ever since seeing the big-screen version of “Fences” (2016) with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the leading roles as Troy and Rose Maxson. The feeling intensified after having gained some familiarity with Wilson’s hometown as a result of three visits to Pittsburgh in recent years, including a brief stop at the August Wilson Cultural Center.


August Wilson discusses his play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Conn., in May 1985. (Bob Child | Associated Press file 1985)

“The Piano Lesson” did not disappoint. The play centers on the fate of an ornately carved upright piano that has been gathering dust in the Pittsburgh home of a woman named Berniece Charles.

Her brother, Boy Willie, comes up from the South bursting with restless energy and a plan to sell the antique piano that has been in the family for generations, dating back to when his and Berniece’s grandparents were slaves. The way he sees it, his share of the cash from selling the piano will give him the money he needs to stake his future.

But his sister refuses to sell, seeing the piano as a tangible link to the history of their family. In her mind, the piano is priceless, a stark reminder of what their ancestors endured.

The dialogue crackles. Boy Willie declares that as a black man, he has got to make this mark.

“That’s all I’m trying to do with that piano. Trying to put my mark on the road. Like my daddy done. My heart say for me to sell that piano and get me some land so I can make a life for myself to live in my own way.”

***

Likewise, I had been meaning to read “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” for some time.

Like millions of others, I was a big fan of Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” series on CNN. To me, it seemed that Bourdain had the coolest job on the planet, traveling all over the globe to sample the native cuisine while dining with local residents and chatting it up with the chefs.

Bourdain was insatiably curious about food — its origins and textures and tastes — and, in his weekly travelogue, he conveyed his sense of adventure, generous spirit, and appreciation for the men and women who prepared what he ate.

It was in 1997 that The New Yorker published an article by Bourdain that provided “a scathingly honest look at the inner workings of restaurants, specifically their kitchens.” The article led to the book “Kitchen Confidential” (2000) and sent his career on a different path focused on writing and television.


Anthony Bourdain films in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2015. (David Scott Holloway | CNN)

He found great success with both. One thing I enjoyed most about “Kitchen Confidential” is that Bourdain writes just as he sounds on TV — well, absent the frequent F-bombs and other crass terms found throughout the book. In other words, he tells stories in a fluid style that captures his unique voice, alternating between the elegant and the profane, and with descriptive detail that puts you there on scene.

For example, recalling his early days as a line cook in NBC’s famed Rainbow Room, he said he made an interesting discovery one day as he moved through the halls, back stairways, offices, dining and storage areas of the building.

“There was, in an unused area, a narrow passage through stacked tables, where employees could actually crawl out an open window. On my union-mandated fifteen-minute breaks, I would sit out on a narrow precipice, sixty-four flights up, my legs dangling over the edge, one arm wrapped around a hash, smoking weed with the dishwashers. Central Park and upper Manhattan splayed out before me. The observation deck on the roof was open as well, for a little mid-shift sunbathing.”

I had two “family” reasons for wanting to read the book, as well:

— Our oldest son is a line cook at a Northwest Portland restaurant. From listening to his stories over the years, I knew there was a special camaraderie among the cooks and kitchen staff he’s worked with, and I figured (correctly) Bourdain’s book would shed some light on that. though with nowhere near the level of shenanigans as described in the places where Bourdain worked his way up from dishwasher and fry cook to esteemed French chef.

— Our daughter attended Vassar College in New York, and Lori and I took her to the nearby Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park for a fancy graduation dinner. Bourdain had attended Vassar, too, though he flunked out in his freshman year in a haze of drugs. Years later, after he discovered the cooking life, he gained a foundation for his skills at the internationally-known C.I.A.

So, two authors, two books. One fiction, one non-fiction. One by a biracial, working-class playwright. One by a debonair media celebrity of French-American heritage. Both books a delight to read.

Mosley & Woodrell

 

As I was packing for my recent trip to London, I wondered if I should even bother bringing along a novel unrelated to my teaching. My mind was focused on the loose ends that still needed tying up before the class began and I didn’t think I’d have time anyway.

Well, I was wrong about that. Turns out I read not one, but two delicious crime novels on the way to and from England.

I’d picked up “Devil in a Blue Dress” by Walter Mosley several months ago. I knew of Mosley’s reputation as a crime noir author and also was aware it had been made into a movie starring Denzel Washington in the role of Easy Rawlins.

It’s 1948 in Los Angeles and Rawlins has just been laid off from his job when he stops in for a drink at a friend’s bar in Watts and lays eyes upon a stranger.

“I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar. It’s not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk stocks. His skin was smooth and pale with just a few freckles. one lick of strawberry-blond fair escaped the band on his hat. He stopped in the doorway, filling it with his large frame, and surveyed the room with pale eyes; not a color I’d ever seen in a man’s eyes. When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, but that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948.”

With that as the opening paragraph, I was hooked.

devil in a blue dress coverEasy agrees to do the white man a favor for a nice chunk of change. Of course, that leads to another favor and then another, with increasing reward and increasing risk. Soon enough, Easy is in deeper than he’d like. But the white man, Mr. Albright, seems to have all the leverage.

The plot revolves around Easy’s search for a blonde, blue-eyed beauty, someone whose whereabouts matter greatly to Mr. Albright’s client. It’s a captivating story, made all the more interesting because the woman, like Albright, sticks out in L.A.’s black community.

Mosley is a first-rate storyteller. His characters run the gamut of the working class and the dialogue crackles in a way that’s reminiscent of Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler, yet uniquely his own.

I’ll be reading more of Mosley, for sure. He’s written more than 40 books, including a bestselling series featuring Easy Rawlins. Two thumbs up for “Devil in a Blue Dress.”

***

On a whim, I stopped into a used bookstore in the Notting Hill section of London. I emerged with “Winter’s Bone,” a novel I’d read years earlier. The author is Daniel Woodrell and it’s the book that helped propel him to fame, along with Jennifer Lawrence, who starred in the lead role of teenager Ree Dolly when the novel was made into a movie.

Woodrell has long been one of my favorite authors. I wrote about him several years ago on the original Rough and Rede blog (“The best of Daniel Woodrell”) and had the pleasure of meeting him at Portland’s Wordstock festival.

winters boneI don’t re-read novels, and I can’t explain why I picked up this book again, but I’m glad I did. The story was familiar, but enough years had passed that I’d forgotten some of the details and the brilliance of Woodrell’s prose.

Ree lives in the Missouri Ozarks, part of a multi-generation clan of brawling, feuding, Dollys who are zealously tribal in their distrust of the law and outsiders and prone to keep their loyalties and secrets to themselves. Most of the men have been in and out of prison, and their hardened women marry young, resigned to lives of making babies, and physical and verbal abuse. Oh, and just about every Dolly is doing meth.

With an absent dad, Ree is raising two younger brothers and caring for her mentally ill mother when a sheriff’s deputy stops by one day to let her know they’re about to lose their family home. Seems that Dad put the house up for collateral in order to get out of jail for his latest crime. If he doesn’t show up at his court hearing, the house will be forfeited.

Panicked, Ree has to somehow find her dad — or proof that he’s dead — in order to keep the house. In a family that doesn’t take too kindly too snitches, she turns to her father’s older brother for help.

“Uncle Teardrop was Jessup’s elder and had been a crank chef longer but he’d had a lab go wrong and it had eaten the left ear off his head and burned a savage melted scar down the neck to the middle of his back. There wasn’t enough ear nub remaining to hang sunglasses on. The hair around the ear was gone, too, and the scar on his neck showed above his collar. Three blue teardrops done in jailhouse ink fell in a row from the corner of the eye on his scarred side. Folks said the teardrops meant he’ three times done grisly prison deeds that needed doing but didn’t need to be gabbed about. They said the teardrops told you everything you had to know about the man and the lost ear just repeated it. He generally tried to sit with his melted side to the wall.”

This is the kind of sinister character that populates the novel. And Ree has to hope one of them will gab? Fat chance.

Two thumbs up for “Winter’s Bone.” Loved the book the second time around. Reminded me of why I admire Woodrell’s work.

Photograph of Walter Mosley: huffingtonpost

Photograph of Daniel Woodrell: Little Brown/Bruce Carr 

“Slide!”

On this Fourth of July, I’ll pass on the fireworks and the patriotic fervor that has flipped our country upside down and cleaved a great divide among red- and blue-state Americans.

Instead, I’ll celebrate a delightful book about baseball, a boy’s adolescence, and a universal story of hope.  (And, boy, could we use some of that now.)

The book is “Slide!” and the author is Carl Wolfson, a neighbor of mine who was host of “Carl in the Morning” on two of Portland’s progressive talk radio stations from 2007 to 2016.

slide coverSlide has two meanings. One, the physical act of a runner sliding into a base. Two, the figurative act of a gradual decline.

In this case, Carl writes about his boyhood idols, the Philadelphia Phillies, and their historic collapse in the waning days of the 1964 season, when they suffered through an inexplicable losing streak (or slide) and squandered a chance to play in the World Series.

Several weeks ago, I attended an event at our neighborhood bookstore where Carl read from the book, took questions, and autographed copies for one and all. I’d just come off reading two books with pretty grim content, so I welcomed the respite offered by “Slide!”

I wasn’t disappointed. This coming-of-age memoir is fun, light reading, crafted with skill and wit by a guy who knows a thing or two about writing (he was a Communications major in college) and humor (he was a professional comedian before going into radio) and baseball. The subtitle hints at Carl’s tongue-in-cheek approach: “The Baseball Tragicomedy That Defined Me, My Family, and the City of Philadelphia — And How It All Could Have Been Avoided Had Someone Just Listened to My Lesbian Great Aunt.”

***

Though the event at Broadway Books was in mid-May and I read the book in June, it’s no accident that I’m writing about the book now. I’ve always associated the Fourth with baseball, the sport that truly was our national pastime when I was growing up. Inthe years since, Major League Baseball has been eclipsed by the NFL and the NBA, particularly among younger fans.

But in 1964, Carl and I would both turn 12 years old, cheering for teams on opposite sides of the country. Despite living near San Francisco, I was a Los Angeles Dodgers fan then. Carl was living in southern New Jersey, rooting for the underachieving Phillies. With just 12 games to play, the Phils had a seemingly insurmountable lead on their closest rivals in the National League and felt confident enough to print World Series tickets.

All of a sudden, they couldn’t win. They lost 10 of their last 12 games and finished in a second-place tie, one win short of the league championship. The St. Louis Cardinals, not the Phillies, would go on to play the New York Yankees in the ’64 Series.

Adult Carl writes about Young Carl and how the season unfolded for him against a backdrop of national tumult and change, amid a family filled with memorable characters, including his bickering parents, his staunchly Republican grandmother (who refused to carry a Roosevelt dime), and his mouthy lesbian great aunt, whose deep knowledge of baseball and strong opinions about the Phillies prompted her to write many a letter to the team’s front office about what they should do about this player or that one.

Though the book is undeniably about baseball, it’s also a broader look back at the early Sixties, when Young Carl is coming of age at a time of the Kennedy assassination, the Johnson-Goldwater campaign, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Movement. Race riots flared in several cities and Communist paranoia caused schoolchildren to dive under their desks during air raid drills.

Growing up with three sisters and as the new kid in town following a move from northern Virginia, Carl didn’t find much success on the playing field (his Little League nickname was “Lead Bottom”). But he did find in the Phillies a team to root for and bond with along with his parents and other family members.

In 1964, the Phillies were a newly and fully integrated team, with black and Latino players like Richie Allen, Cookie Rojas and Ruben Amaro taking their place in the lineup and on the bench alongside whites. That made a big impression on Carl.

“As a kid, my heroes were the Phillies — of all races,” he said at the May reading. “That was a very important lesson for a kid.”

The other lesson was one of hope, of holding onto optimism even as the defeats piled up. The Phillies had enjoyed a remarkable season, with star pitcher Jim Bunning throwing a no-hitter and outfielder Johnny Callison crushing a home run to win the All-Star Game. But they fell short, depriving Carl and his dad a chance to see the World Series, and breaking a city’s heart.

“The 1964 Phillies, though, had forever won my heart,” Carl writes. “If they finished in second place, they also gave me enough thrills for a lifetime. They were the team of my youth.”

You don’t have to be a Phillies fan or even a baseball fan to enjoy this book. It’s a refreshing take on the role sports can play in bringing people together, on the worldview of a suburban adolescent, and on the life lessons one can take away from disappointment and loyalty.

Well done, Carl.

Postscript: For me, this book was like a time machine. I remember my confusion trying to make sense of national politics and race relations at the same time, like Carl, that I found refuge in the sports section of the newspaper. I also vividly remember many of the ballplayers whose names are sprinkled throughout this book: Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Robinson. They were the luminous stars of the early ’60s, when I played Little League, and fantasized about succeeding Maury Wills as the Dodgers shortstop.

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.

 

Walidah Imarisha and a call to action

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Walidah Imarisha was the keynote speaker at Portland State University’s annual MLK Jr. Tribute on Jan. 22, 2018.

Last summer I got the chance to meet Walidah Imarisha, a Black Studies scholar and author, at the 2017 Oregon Book Awards.

A friend invited me to attend the event and we chatted with Walidah in the lobby as she received congratulations from well-wishers. I left with an autographed copy of the book, “Angels with Dirty Faces,” and the hope that I would have a chance to run into her again.

That opportunity came Monday night at Portland State University. Walidah was the keynote speaker at the university’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. lecture, an event that filled a ballroom on Jan. 22, one week after the holiday commemorating King’s birthday.

Walidah did not disappoint.

During an hourlong speech titled “Afrofuturism & Possibilities for Oregon,” Walidah mixed elements of history, science fiction, humor and seriousness. Along with references to civil rights icons Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and Dr. King, there was a mention of Ursula LeGuin, the celebrated author of socially conscious fantasy and science fiction novels. (Oddly, LeGuin died at her Portland home on the same day of the speech. She was 88, the same age Dr. King would be today had he had not been assassinated 50 years earlier.)

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Walidah Imarisha weaved several references to science fiction into her Jan. 22 speech at Portland State.

With an elegant Afro reminiscent of Angela Davis, Walidah alternated between the language of academia (“postcolonialism”) and everyday expressions (“nerding out” and “y’all”).  Mix everything together and the product was an entertaining, informative speech that made me glad I had read her book beforehand.

***

“Angels with Dirty Faces” is an eloquent critique of the U.S. criminal justice system. Ten years in the making, it’s a nonfiction book that begins with an array of statistics that paint a depressing picture – that of a country that incarcerates its citizens, particularly its black and brown ones, at a rate far greater than any other nation.

  • 70 percent of those incarcerated are people of color.
  • The majority of people in prison are there for nonviolent offenses.
  • The vast majority were never tried in front of a judge.
  • Over 90 percent of people in prison took a plea bargain.

But the book doesn’t dwell on policy recommendations or offer a magic bullet. Rather, its aim is to get readers to begin to see “those people who do harm” as human. “Flawed, damaged, and culpable, but still human.”

angels with dirty facesAnd so the book is presented as “three stories of crime, punishment and redemption,” with chapters devoted to a black inmate, a white inmate and the author herself.

One inmate, Kakamia, is Walidah’s adopted brother, serving a 15 years-to-life sentence for being involved in a murder when he was 15.  The other is Mac, an aging Irish mobster who worked as a hit man for the Gambino family in New York. Turns out the two men befriended each other while doing time together in a California prison.

Walidah tells their stories with empathy, not to excuse their criminal acts, but within the context of a bureaucratic system that dehumanizes the men and women who populate our nation’s prisons while also needlessly erecting petty barriers that make it next to impossible for visiting family members to connect meaningfully with their incarcerated spouses, children, parents and siblings.

It’s not a pretty picture. Walidah attacks the institutional racism that drives incarceration at starkly different rates for white and black Americans.

In telling her own story, Walidah recounts her childhood as the daughter of a black father and white mother, growing up on military bases overseas and eventually, at age 13, settling in Springfield, a conservative blue-collar town adjacent to liberal Eugene, home of the University of Oregon.

The overall approach – to put three faces on the criminal justice system – works well in driving the narrative. What could have been another academic treatise on a broken system instead becomes a compelling tale of two men – one black, one white – and a woman who is at once a scholar, an activist and a prisoner’s family member.

It helps that Walidah is a talented writer. She concludes:

“The pieces of the larger whole I hope to bring are the stories of angels with dirty faces. The capriciousness of fate. The idea that every person has the capacity to salvage their tattered humanity even in the moment before they take their last breath.”

***

Knowing Walidah’s personal story and worldview ahead of time made it easier to ponder the provocative questions that she raised in her MLK speech: What is the kind of world we want to live in? How do we go about building that kind of world?

The questions, she said, arose from an appreciation of Ursula LeGuin’s body of work in creating fictional worlds that turn convention on its head. Imarisha, in fact, is co-editor of the anthology “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.”

“Science fiction is not about escapism,” Walidah said. It is about envisioning a world of new possibilities free of militarism, capitalism and racism, she said. As I am not a fan of the fantasy genre, I had never thought of science fiction as a way to frame the idea of imagining a different, better world, especially when it comes to race relations.

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Walidah Imarisha invoked the words of the late fantasy fiction author Ursula LeGuin in challenging her audience to envision a more just world.

Walidah pointed out that the United States was founded as something of a utopia in the sense of ordinary people rebelling against an oppressive system in England. In turn, the Oregon Territory, encompassing the entire Pacific Northwest, was settled as a “racist white utopia.” Oregon, she pointed out, entered the Union in 1857 as a free state but also with a state constitution that excluded blacks.

The state’s racist beginnings led, perhaps predictably, to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and any number of policies and practices intended to perpetuate economic, social and political inequalities.

More than 160 years later, the question remains of how to build a more just society.

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Last fall, the Portland African American Leadership Forum unveiled the People’s Plan, a 130-page document that addresses the needs of the city’s African American population.

***

Walidah is an impressive figure, and not just because of her tall stature. As a public speaker, she seems comfortable in her own body and totally in command of her subject.

I wish I’d started teaching at Portland State when Walidah was still there herself in the Black Studies Department. More recently, she has been teaching at Stanford University while immersing herself in a variety of writing and research projects.

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Walidah Imarisha’s image is projected on a screen in an overflow room at the Smith Memorial Union Ballroom at Portland State University.

Putting a nice cap on the evening, I took my daughter out for drinks and appetizers after the speech. Simone is as socially conscious as they come and over the years she has gifted me several books that have exposed me to different authors and perspectives.

What better way to close out the night than with mi hija, recalling different parts of the speech and catching up in general?

We’re all dreamers, aren’t we?

More than a week after I finished my first novel of 2018, I’m sitting down to gather my thoughts. There is so much good to say about “Behold the Dreamers,” the debut novel by Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian immigrant with some serious writing chops. And there are so many ways to begin this post.

Do I reference President Trump’s ugly remarks last week about people from “shithole countries”?

Do I reference the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech? (After all, I am writing this on the national holiday named for him.)

Or do I frame this in the context of the universal American Dream, the one to which generations of native-born and foreign-born Americans have aspired?

Maybe it’s best to keep all three in mind, for Mbue’s novel touches on the sentiments of all of them — from crass ignorance and resentment of outsiders to the amazing work ethic and striving for a better life embodied by so many newcomers to the United States.

***

Let’s start with the author. Imbolo Mbue is in her mid-30s. She hails from Limbe, a beach town of about 85,000 residents (a little smaller than Salem, Oregon) in southwestern Cameroon, a California-sized country in central Africa that borders Nigeria, and a former colony of Germany, France and England.

cameroon-location-on-the-africa-mapMbue has degrees from Rutgers University in New Jersey and Columbia University in New York City, where she now lives. She became a U.S. citizen in 2014.

“Behold the Dreamers,” published in 2016, won the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian and several other news outlets.

The awards are richly deserved. Mbue has written a book rich with insight into both American and Cameroonian culture, laced it with diction from her native country (a place where more than 200 languages are spoken, by the way), and delved into the minds and attitudes of people at both extremes of the socioeconomic scale.

***

The story is a familiar one. Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant, has come to New York City with his wife Neni and their 6-year-old son, hoping to provide a better life for his family. Jende lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a workaholic executive at Lehman Brothers, but he also has the responsibility of driving Clark’s wife, Cindy, and their two sons on assorted trips across the city. Cindy at one point offers Neni temporary employment at the couple’s summer home in the Hamptons.

With these dual sources of income, and with Neni taking community college classes in hopes of becoming a pharmacist, the young immigrants make do in a tiny, cockroach-infested apartment in Harlem but are nevertheless optimistic about their future in America.

But there are two complications: Jende lied to Cameroonian authorities about his intentions in the U.S., so now he must rely on a sketchy legal adviser to help him gain permanent resident status or risk deportation, along with his wife and son. The other issue is that the story begins in the fall of 2007, a year before Barack Obama was elected president and the country was relatively stable. And timing is everything.

behold the dreamersAs the story progresses, the Great Recession takes hold and Mbue presents the perspectives of both couples.

From Cindy and Clark, we get the view from Wall Street and Manhattan; their affluence is beyond imaginable and the privileges that money brings seem to have no end.

From Jende and Neni, we get the view of constant struggle; nothing comes easily, whether it’s navigating the immigration system, trying to understand the ways of their new country, or conducting themselves in ways that will impress white Americans, or at least not threaten them.

With an extraordinary display of empathy, Mbue does not pass judgment on any of the four characters, She depicts their contrasting worlds — of the 1 percenters and of the newly arrived immigrants — not just through descriptive detail but also, more tellingly, through interactions and conversations between the husbands and the wives.

The lives of all four characters are inevitably affected by the tanking economy, and that’s when things get interesting.

Will Clark lose his job at Lehman Brothers? Will Jende lose his? How can Cindy maintain the appearance of a perfect life marked by material possessions and social outings with her equally rich friends? How can Neni stay on track toward her academic and career goals?

***

The beauty of the book is that it raises fundamental questions about the American Dream for both couples. Just what defines happiness? Is it money? Is it a feeling of belonging? Does professional success guarantee contentment? Does making a new life in America mean forsaking the previous one you had in the country when you were born?

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The writer Imbolo Mbue.

To her credit, Mbue presents the humanity in all her characters, as well as the path of upward mobility traveled by both couples. But it is in portraying the multiple pressures on the Jongas and the excruciating decisions they must face about family, finances and their future that she really shines.

I couldn’t help but read this book with a sense of appreciation for what immigrants have given this country along with a feeling of disgust toward those racist elements of our society that would gleefully slam the door shut on today’s immigrants — and even give the boot to DACA Dreamers.

All of us who are here in the United States aspire to some version of the American Dream, the idea that each generation strives to create a better future for our children. We may differ in the value we place on various material, social and familial markers, but I think it’s fair to say we are all dreamers, aren’t we?

Read more about Imbolo Mbue here.

Map: ontheworldmap.com

2017: A year of transitions

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In a year of transitions, Lori and George celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary in September.

This year has felt like no other.

Seeing the White House change hands from the most inspiring president of my lifetime to the least qualified and least compassionate was bad enough. Watching that train wreck of a human being proceed to drive even deeper wedges into an already splintered populace — well, that was even worse.

But I’m not here to dwell on politics.

No, not even Trump can take the luster off a year that produced plenty of memorable moments for the extended Rede family.

Yes, there was sadness with the passing of my dad, Catarino Allala Rede, just six days after he turned 91 in March.

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The scene at the funeral home in Silver City, New Mexico.

But even then, there was a silver lining to his passing. I got to do a mini-road trip with daughter Simone to and from the Phoenix airport to Dad’s home in southwestern New Mexico. There, we were reunited with my stepmother, my two sisters, a niece, a nephew, and assorted cousins that I hadn’t seen for several years.

It’s funny how life’s milestones — births, weddings and deaths — are those that bring families together from near and far. But when your siblings and other relatives are spread out all along the West Coast — from Alaska to Southern California — that’s the way it is.

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With my sisters Cathy (from Dillingham, Alaska) and Rosemary (from Oceanside, California).

Aside from Dad’s death, this year of transitions was dominated by our youngest son’s graduation from college, followed just days later by his move to Middle America.

In May, Jordan graduated with a degree in biology from St. Martin’s College, a small Benedictine school outside Olympia, Washington, where he had commuted for four years from his home in Spanaway, near Tacoma. It was a remarkable accomplishment for someone who began college just months after completing a four-year enlistment in the U.S. Army, including a one-year posting in Afghanistan, and who became a father during his junior year.

 

We had barely had time to celebrate before Lori and I returned to Spanaway to help Jordan and Jamie pack up their house for a 2,000-mile move to the University of Missouri. There in Columbia, Jordan would do science research in a fellowship program designed to help students prepare for the rigors of graduate school.

Father and son embarked on a four-day road trip, with me driving a 20-foot U-Haul truck and Jordan driving the family’s Honda Fit, packed to the gills and including their two dogs and one cat. I had envisioned the trip as an upbeat adventure, but it quickly took a dark turn when the U-Haul truck got a flat tire on the first day and again on the second day in remote areas of Idaho and Montana.

We made it on schedule, but only after pounding through really long third and fourth days where sightseeing took a back seat to the urgency of sticking to our schedule. We arrived late on a Friday, unloaded the truck’s contents on Saturday, and I flew home early Sunday.

 

How I wish Dad had lived to see his youngest grandchild graduate from college and become a father, as well.

As for the rest of 2017, well, it’s no wonder it feels like these 12 months flew by. Lots of memories and two end-of-year milestones.

Travel: We stuck close to home with three trips to our quiet cabin on Orcas Island. We always look forward to the week-long respite from urban life. The trips entails a 250-mile drive to Anacortes, where we board the ferry for a one-hour sailing to the island, and then an additional 45-minute drive to our place above Eagle Lake.

Pictures are worth a thousand words.

 

In early December, Lori and I returned to Missouri for a quick pre-Christmas visit. It was a joy to spend time with our sweet granddaughter, Emalyn, and her loving parents.

Books: Literature is a passport of its own, with talented authors opening doors to unfamiliar places, people and experiences. Among those I enjoyed this year were: “Among the Living and the Dead,” a memoir by my Latvian-American friend and former colleague, Inara Verzemnieks; “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest,” the last in the trilogy of Swedish crime thrillers churned out by the late Stieg Larsson; “Hillbilly Elegy,” a window into the Appalachian hillbilly culture written by one who escaped, J.D. Vance;  “Lab Girl,” a peek into the world of Hope Jahren, a pioneering research scientist; and “Evicted,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of American poverty through the  racist practice of eviction. (Racist? Read the book and you’ll see what I mean.)

 

Music: I like to think I have broad tastes, though family members would disagree.  But, what the heck. I think I did pretty well catching a handful of concerts featuring artists ranging from Janet Jackson and Coldplay to Lady Antebellum, Michelle Branch, Tuxedo, Liz Longley and ZZ Ward.

Movies: No links this year because I wasn’t as diligent as usual. But I did enjoy “Get Out,” “Lady Bird,” “Detroit” and, most recently, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Visitors: We had a surprise visit in early May from Chiho Hayamizu, a lovely young lady from Japan who was just 20 when she came to live with our family during a year of study at Portland State University. Our oldest child, Nathan, was just 13 when Chiho moved in with us in the spring of 1993.

Chiho, now 44 but still looking 20 (and even 30) years younger, was back in town for an unofficial reunion with friends who’d also been exchange students in Portland.

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Lori and Chiho: Radiant smiles, no matter the location or the year.

In October, my best friend, Al Rodriguez, came up from Santa Barbara to spend a few days timed to coincide with the annual Voices of August writers meetup. It was great hanging out with my longtime buddy, whether it was grabbing lunch from the downtown food carts or attending opening night of the Trail Blazers’ 2017-18 season. (They actually won!)

 

In November, two of Lori’s best friends, Terry (Long) Mullaney and Lin Dillon, came up from San Francisco for a long weekend of sightseeing and hanging out. Lori and Terry grew up on the same city block, and the two of them met Lin at the all-girls high school they attended. Nice to see such an enduring friendship.

Voices: For the seventh consecutive year, I curated a month of guest blog posts during the month of August. It’s become something that I look forward to every year, the opportunity to be informed, inspired and entertained by a changing cast of friends, relatives and online acquaintances, with ages ranging from 14 to 65-plus. Each person writes on a topic of their choice and does so in a way that brings variety and texture to the whole.

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This year’s VOA peeps gathered Oct. 20 at McMenamin’s on Broadway. Front row, from left: Gosia Wozniacka, Elizabeth Gomez, Jennifer Brennock, Lynn St. Georges, Lori Rede, Lakshmi Jagannathan. Back row, from left: George Rede, John Killen, Bob Ehlers, Al Rodriguez, Keith Cantrell. Not pictured: Eric Wilcox.

This look back at 2017 wouldn’t be complete without two final notes:

— This is the year both Lori and I moved into a new age bracket: 65. She’s still rockin’ it as the owner of her personal training business and I’m enjoying my work as well, as an adjunct college instructor and part-time communications coordinator for a local education nonprofit.

— Chalk up another year with our two pets: Mabel, the mellowest of cats, and Charlotte, the energetic mutt who’s won our heart with her antics and underbite.

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Up to no good. Again.