Shrinking the world, one person at a time

A casual connection made in London two summers ago has blossomed into a friendship with Anna, pictured with her workmates at the Over Under cafe.

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. When things happen by accident in a happy way and when they lead to new insights and new friendships, that’s hard to beat — especially when they involve people on the other side of the globe.

In recent weeks, through wildly differing circumstances, I’ve made one-to-one connections with fascinating individuals living in Europe, the Middle East and Africa — an aspiring actor in England, a novelist in Palestine, and an academic researcher in South Africa. (More on each of them below.)

These budding relationships on different continents have me thinking of the world as a smaller, more humane place. A world where we can discover common interests — food and film, history and travel, literature and pets — and learn from each other in a way that goes beyond textbooks.

These conversations, both virtual and in person, are not only fun but meaningful. I would even argue that they have the potential to shrink the world and help us better understand each other as fellow citizens of planet Earth.

If that seems like a stretch, hear me out.

In a previous blog post (“Global studies from my home”), I wrote about how much I enjoyed a recent college course on international studies that I audited. Since then, I’ve become hyperaware of all things international — where the food I eat comes from; where the clothes I wear are manufactured; where much of the music, movies and TV shows I consume are created; and, not least, why the world looks the way it does as a result of colonialism’s legacy.

It’s one thing to study these things in a broad sense — for instance, to learn that Brazil is the world’s leading producer of premium arabica coffee beans. But it’s another thing to learn from a new friend that coffee in Brazil is like water and have her share a childhood memory of drinking it with milk, as well as a lovely poem that she wrote as an ode to her favorite beverage.

Similarly, I can study the history of imperialism and globalization, but it’s another thing to hear the perspectives of people 8 to 10 time zones away with first-hand experiences visiting or living in places still so sharply divided by race, religion and nationalism.

***

So how did these connections come about? And what role did serendipity play?

I chalk it up to two things: one, the fact that things live forever on the internet; and, two, how graciously people respond when you reach out in a respectful way.

In July, I published a “Faces from the UK” blog post that featured a photo gallery of people that Lori and I met a year earlier at the end of a study-abroad program I taught in London. I sent a link to someone in one of the photos, a young woman named Anna we’d met at a cafe near our flat, but didn’t hear back until a month ago, just after Thanksgiving.

Turns out that Anna actually remembered us — and quite fondly — from our visits. Also turns out that she’s no longer working at the cafe but studying to be an actor; we were delighted to learn her “aunty” is Tilda Swinton, the Academy Award-winning actress. We’ve exchanged a flurry of emails since then and discovered much in common involving favorite actors and authors. And not only that. She lived in east Africa for a year working for a charity; wrote her university thesis on a linguistic aspect of imperialism; and returned last year with family to visit Kenya. (Below are some photos from that trip.)

With so much to talk about, we even connected on Zoom this weekend. Among other things, we chatted about holiday plans and how our respective families are dealing with different degrees of lockdown during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, an even more remarkable story. Just days after I heard from Anna, I heard from someone I reached out to after discovering a comment she’d left on my blog three (yes, three) years ago about a Roddy Doyle book I’d reviewed. I’d just finished another book by Doyle and wanted to refresh my memory of what I’d written before. Well, she wrote back — noting, coincidentally, that she’d also recently come across a 2-year-old comment on her blog that she had yet to respond to.

Long story short: that’s how I “met” Jina, who described herself as “freelance writer, a blogger, a mother, a baker, a chocolate fiend, a coffee enthusiast, and sometimes a poet.” Turns out she’s published several fantasy fiction novels under the name Jina S. Bazzar. She’s the one who shared the anecdote about coffee in Brazil, where she previously lived, and was kind enough to share her take on environmental threats to the Amazon rainforest. (Yes, I asked.) She’s now in Palestine.

Jina S. Bazzar: a writer, blogger and mother, formerly from Brazil and now living in the Middle East.

We’ve been talking about reading, writing, food and family. Our literary tastes don’t match at all, but that’s fine. Jina has a nice sense of humor (I was amused by her description of Brazil as similar to Florida “including the nutties, and minus the hurricanes”) and I look forward to more conversation.

And then there’s Elsa, a postdoctoral researcher at a university in Johannesburg. I actually met Elsa through a mutual friend when she was living here in Portland a few years ago, but I didn’t get to know her well. I came across a recent photo of her on Facebook and it reminded me she was down there in South Africa, where summer is about to begin. I reached out via social media and was delighted when she responded last week.

Elsa Oliveira: a former Portlander now doing postdoctoral research in South Africa.

These things I already knew about Elsa: that she grew up not far from me in San Jose, California; that she was recruited to play basketball at the University of Oregon; that she was of Portugese heritage and had lived in Angola, a Portuguese colony, for a few years; and that she had relocated to South Africa to pursue her academic career.

What I didn’t know is that her research is centered on Migration and Displacement, two issues that loom large over the African continent and, indeed, many other places in the world where imperialistic powers have exploited people and resources and left behind a tangle of economic, political and social problems.

As with Anna and Jina, I look forward to more conversation with Elsa.

***

Likewise, I hope to cultivate two more international connections I’ve made in my own neighborhood. Purely by chance and just days apart, I met two women from Germany at the local schoolyard where we gather to let our dogs run. Both ladies have studied or worked in Berlin, where I hope to teach another study-abroad course next summer. And both have offered to share sightseeing tips and connect me with people they know there.

Interestingly, Julia, who is a journalist, and Miriam, who’s taught German and worked as a linguistic tester, don’t know each other, so I get to be the one who makes introductions.

All of these serendipitous connections happened in just three weeks. Taken together, they make the world feel like a smaller and friendlier place. They stir memories of the six exchange students we hosted through the years and make me eager — whenever the pandemic lifts — to do more international traveling with Lori. So far, we’ve been to Mexico, Canada, Italy, Slovenia and England.

No one knows what the future will bring. But for the moment, it feels great to be in contact with interesting, intelligent people in such far-flung places. Brings a feeling of hope to a year that’s been marred by so much darkness.

What are the odds that Anna, the woman preparing our avocado toast at a London cafe, would share so many common interests in books, movies and international affairs?

Getting by with a little help from my friends

By Bob Ehlers

I have been thinking a lot about my circle of friends, among other things, how we came to know each other, how we have maintained contact, and how we view our worlds. As I look back to the beginnings of our friendships, I can easily identify the stages of my life when I met the people with whom I would forge lasting bonds.

Besides my older sister, there are only a handful of people left on the planet who have known me since very early childhood. All of them are my cousins, and I like to think, if we were friends then, we are close friends now.  

As very young children, our first friends were other kids we spent time with while learning about the world in which we live. We didn’t have the weight of having each other’s backs in difficult situations or being fully aware of personal tragedies, trust was implied and respect was a concept yet to be learned. We simply played and had fun together.

Regretfully, I no longer have contact with any of my playmates and classmates from elementary school through junior high years. Time, distance and family situations caused us to lose contact. As I fast-forward, my high school years in Oelwein, Iowa, are the point when I really developed and bonded with my very own circle of close friends, mostly separate from family connections. Five and a half decades have passed since we graduated and many of us remain in touch with each other.

Undergraduate college years at Upper Iowa University and the University of Iowa brought the exciting and fascinating prospect of, for the first time, meeting people from beyond the universe of my hometown. As my life flowed into private sector jobs, military service, more college, more work in the public and private sectors, and finally, a career as a general building contractor, at each juncture, I have met people who have remained dear to me throughout the decades.

Likewise, through parenthood, baby-sittting co-op, our son’s friends’ parents, and eventually, some of our son’s friends became our friends. Friends beget friends, through social gatherings, being next door neighbors, travel experiences, collaborations like Voices of August.

Friends celebrating the beginning of my 7th decade. From left, George, Deb, Lori and Bob.

My community of friends live across the street, around town, throughout the country and in a few other countries. Although personal schedules or hundreds or thousands of miles may separate us, there are emails and, especially Facebook, that powerful social media that keeps many us connected. On a daily basis, we are able to keep each other apprised of family activities, local news events, viewpoints. 

For me, a friend is, first and foremost, someone I trust to accept me, warts and all, and equally important someone with whom I enjoy spending time. We are there for births, birthdays, deaths, funerals, long soul-searching talks, boring soul-searching talks, parties, poker, Blazer games, to help with transportation, fixing broken stuff, arguments, differences of opinion, pie fights.

The mainstays of my life and my best, best friends are Deborah, my wife of 49 years and companion of 50+ years, and Chris, our son. Counting my sister, brother-in-law, sister-in-law and niece, we are a small family and we have it all, love, trust, shared experiences, common interests. I’m a lucky guy. 

Best friends: Son Chris and wife Deb with Bob,

Bob Ehlers is a retired general contractor now doing lots of gardening and yard work. Bob also has a garage full of leftover construction materials, yours for the taking. A fan of the Iowa Hawkeyes, Ducks, Beavers, and Blazers. Bob and Deb met Lori and George at Salem Hospital prior to the birth of sons, Chris Ehlers and Nathan Rede. 

Tomorrow: Boots | Jennifer Brennock

Remembering Kay Balmer, remembering Rich Holden

First, it was Kay. A friend and co-worker I can only describe as luminous.

Then it was Rich. A wise and dapper colleague on the national recruiting circuit.

Two deaths, one day apart. One on the West Coast, one on the East Coast.
Both people so influential in my journalism career. Both now gone. So many of us here in Oregon and across the country left to mourn their passing,

Feels small in the scheme of things, but here’s my tribute to both.


Kay Balmer succumbed to cancer on April 14. She was a proud Montana native who worked in newsrooms in California and Oregon, including The Register-Guard in Eugene and, most recently, The Oregonian here in Portland. She was a talented editor who brought out the best in others and inspired tremendous loyalty along the way.

For me, she was a sounding board and major ally in the effort to bring new talent and new perspectives to The Oregonian newsroom. I was the newspaper’s first fulltime recruitment director. When I left that job for another position in the newsroom, Kay moved into the role and built on those early successes to diversify the staff and upgrade the overall talent. And when Kay was promoted to a senior editor position, I eagerly returned to the recruiting job with an expanded charge to coordinate our newsroom training program.

At every step of the way, Kay was there to offer support, ideas and encouragement. Her big smile, distinctive laugh and warm personality made her a delight to be with.

The last time I had lunch with Kay was at Bollywood Theater on Southeast Division Street. We shared memories on that summerlike September day in 2018 and bites of Indian food off each other’s plates.

Little wonder that when she passed, our former colleagues reacted with the most beautiful of memories. One called her “a glorious burst of light and strength.” Another described her as “one of the kindest, smartest, funniest people I’ve ever known.”

For me, “She was the rare person who made you feel like you were just about the most important person in her life (well, except for husband Bob). She gave you her complete attention. She listened, fully and completely, and she looked you in the eye. She asked how you were doing, never failing to ask about your spouse and each one of your kids. Our conversations were most often fun and free-flowing, and other times serious and focused. Either way, my day always felt better having engaged with Kay.”

Oregonian editors past and present at The Alberta Rose Theater on Jan. 24, 2019. From left: Kay Balmer, Sandy Rowe, George Rede, Therese Bottomly

Rich Holden died on April 15 in a New Jersey hospital after a lengthy illness. He was born in Missouri, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the renowned University of Missouri School of Journalism, and spent his entire 41-year career with Dow Jones & Company, publishers of The Wall Street Journal.

An obituary shared on Facebook by his wife, Mary-Anna, aptly summarized Rich’s career. He began in 1973 on the Journal’s national news copy desk. In 1976, he moved to Hong Kong as one of the original staffers that started up the Asian Wall Street Journal. During his tenure there, Rich served as a lecturer in residence at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Returning to New York in 1979, he worked in numerous editing capacities at the Journal and branched out to recruiting, hiring and training.

In 1992, Rich left the Wall Street Journal for the non-profit side of Dow Jones as Executive Director of the Dow Jones News Fund, a position he held until retirement in 2014. In that role, he helped steer promising college students of all races and backgrounds to the copy desks of newspapers across the country, including The Oregonian.

The 20th annual American Copy Editors Society convention in Portland gave me a chance to reconnect with Ron Smith (left) and Rich Holden in April 2016.

Rich was a man of great influence within the industry and a fixture at minority journalist conventions, where he would give freely of his time to volunteer on student news projects, and mingle with young and midcareer professionals alike.

I never got to work directly with Rich – well, except for the couple of times we teamed up on student newspaper projects at industry conventions in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Through our work and connections made on the recruiting circuit, we knew many of the same journalists in newsrooms around the country and enjoyed seeing them as they progressed in their careers and also became spouses and parents.

Thanks to Rich, I was invited to serve as Journalist in Residence at DePauw University in Indiana, an experience that in retrospect helped set the stage for the college-level teaching that I’ve done since leaving The Oregonian in 2015.

Rich had a smoky, baritone voice and a full-bodied laugh. He was a stickler for detail, as you would expect from a master headline writer and world-class editor. He was also a stickler for fashion, known for his matching ties and pocket squares, shirts with coordinated collars and French cuffs.

More than 60 friends and colleagues attended a retirement party on June 21, 2014, for Rich Holden to pay tribute to his career with the Dow Jones News Fund and The Wall Street Journal. Photo credit: David Sullivan

The outpouring for Rich was both heartbreaking and heartwarming. From Los Angeles: “Of all the sad news in the world, this is the saddest. Rich had the kindest, most generous soul.” From Florida: “Rich Holden meant so much to me and my career at the Miami Herald.

And from me: “Rich was a giant. I’ll forever be grateful for the wisdom and mentoring he so generously shared as a recruiter and champion of diversity. He made thousands of us not just better journalists but better people by living his values.”

Rich Holden: a master of the pun and a champion of diversity.

Journalism lost two beacons in the space of 24 hours. The human race lost two wonderful people. I am grateful to have known both.

George’s 2020 book giveaway

Now here’s a cool idea worth repeating.

A year ago at this time, my daughter-in-law Jamie made a pitch on Facebook designed to encourage reading while also lessening the load on her bookshelf. I liked it so much that I stole the idea — and here I am doing it again.

The first five people to respond to this post — down below with an actual comment/request — will receive a book from me sometime this year.

Each book will be chosen specially for the person that will receive it. And I will decide how and when the book is delivered. Perhaps I will invite you out for coffee; perhaps I will send it via postal mail.

The only criteria is that you post this challenge to your wall, offering five books to five people. They don’t have to be new books or your favorite books. Just books selected with care and thought for each individual.

Let me be clear about one thing, however. This is a one-way giveaway. You don’t need to send me a book — in fact, please don’t. I have plenty, believe me, to keep me going all year long.

I’d much prefer to see your generosity channeled into giving away your own books.

Now, who’s down with this?

Southern California Dreaming: Romance and Reality

There’s nothing like a romantic wedding and a well-thrown reception to bring people together in the best of ways. At least, that was my takeaway following our visit to Southern California last weekend.

We hadn’t been to that part of the state for a while, so it was nice to get away and make the most of a few hours at a local nature park and beach access point. But the real reason for going was a special occasion.

My best friend’s daughter was getting married on Nov. 16th, and Lori and I were invited to join in the crosscultural celebration.

On one side, Nicole Lee-Rodriguez, the only child of our friends Al and Elizabeth, who’s grown up in Santa Barbara with parents of Mexican and Anglo heritage. On the other side, Andrew Myung, the oldest son in a family of Korean immigrants who’ve settled in Orange County.

They got married on a Saturday afternoon at Calamigos Ranch, a beautiful venue tucked away in a canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains a few miles inland from Malibu. The outdoor wedding was lovely, with chandeliers hanging from the trees, a string trio playing soothing music, and heartfelt vows that left no doubt these two young people were meant for each other.

Andrew was tearing up even before the first groomsman and bridemaid made their way up the aisle. Nicole looked radiant and relaxed. The groom’s two grandmothers were the scene-stealers, though, as “flower grandmas.” They wore colorful, traditional garments, carried woven baskets and tossed rose petals onto the ground, bringing smiles from everyone.

The reception was fun. How could it not be with an open bar, a sitdown dinner and good company at our table? The DJ kept people on the dance floor for hours — including Lori, who busted a move with the best of them and kept me out there for all but a handful of songs.

***

On the front end of things, our experience wasn’t quite what we had envisioned. We arrived on a Thursday about 5 pm, just in time to join rush-hour traffic on a 90-minute ride from LAX to our hotel in Westlake Village.

We had imagined we’d be closer to Malibu, where we imagined we’d be able to walk along the oceanfront and do some window shopping at local businesses in the central business district. Well, there really is no center. Malibu stretches out for 21 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway.

When we took a Lyft car to the oceanfront community, we were dropped off at the Malibu Country Mart, a boutique shopping mall consisting of high-end clothing and souvenir shops with eyepopping prices. There was a cool art gallery, a Starbucks and a Chipotle, but other than that it felt like I’d wandered into an exhibit of conspicuous consumption.

I don’t know why I wasn’t better prepared. I mean, the freeways leading to Malibu and nearby cities were lined with BMW, Porsche and Ferrari dealerships. And Calabasas itself is home to the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Drake, among others.

Thank goodness we discovered an asphalt path on one side of the mall that led us into a nature park dedicated to improving water quality, restoring native riparian habitat, and preserving open space. The 15-acre project is known as Legacy Park and it was a welcome respite from the Country Mart’s dedication to consumerist capitalism.

We enjoyed the peace and quiet along with the cartoonish figures of a coyote, an owl, a king snake and other critters scattered throughout the park. Little did I know this area was so arid.

Once we were done there, we crossed the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu Lagoon State Beach, where Malibu Creek meets the Pacific Ocean.

Once again, reality proved different than what I imagined. In place of wide-open beaches populated by visitors from around the world, there were several luxury homes literally built onto the sand, a solitary lifeguard shack, and lots of shorebirds on the small spit of sand we were able to walk on.

Don’t get me wrong. It was calm and I enjoyed the view of the lagoon, but it was hardly the postcard scene I had imagined.

***

Sunday morning came, bringing with it a chance to take a run in the residential neighborhood near the hotel and an opportunity to chat with Al about the wedding as he drove us to LAX for a mid-afternoon flight.

Lori and I both grew up in and near San Francisco, so I had something of a rose-colored view of Los Angeles and its environs as an adolescent. But as someone who’s lived in Oregon now for more than 40 years, the place holds little attraction other than to visit. Yeah, L.A.’s got some great fish tacos, but I’ll take Portland’s eclectic personality, bodacious food and beer, and change of seasons anytime.

Lady power on a Friday night

The muititalented Clara Baker in the lobby of the Alberta Rose Theatre.

Lori and I had second-row seats in the cozy Alberta Rose Theatre last night as we watched Portland native Clara Baker and her band Five Letter Word knock out an hourlong set during an evening of excellent music and beautiful harmonies.

Clara is a musical prodigy who plays guitar and fiddle, sings and writes songs, and someone we’ve known since she was a baby. (Her brother Marshall, an equally talented musician based in New Orleans, went to preschool with our youngest son, so we’ve known them and their parents, Greg and Rebecca, for almost 30 years.)

It was Clara’s mom and dad who invited us to Friday’s show, just days after they had joined me at a Liz Longley concert on the other side of town while Lori was out of town. And, boy, were we in for a thoroughly enjoyable evening of versatile musicianship and dazzling harmonies. .

Five Letter Word was the opening act in a show headlined by a Portland-area duo, Beth Wood and Ara Lee James, who perform as Stand and Sway and were celebrating the release of a new album.

Between the two bands, we heard folk, Americana and bluegrass and a couple of songs with a hint of gospel, thanks to James’ soulful voice. Each group did an a capella song that was just breathtaking. And when they all took the stage together during a couple of songs, well, it was pretty amazing to see all that female talent on display.

Five Letter Word takes its name from the unlikely fact that all three band members have five letters in their first and last names. In addition to Clara, there’s Leigh Jones on guitar, percussion and vocals and Audra Nemir on upright bass and vocals.

All three are songwriters and the music they produce is truly greater than the sum of their parts. (Check out Willamette Week’s review of their CD, “Siren” here.)

Jones has a striking soprano voice that reminds me of Alison Krauss. Nemir lays down the beat and brings great energy. In fact, she ended the set by climbing on top of her instrument while still playing it.

And Clara? Well, she does it all, and joined Stand and Sway for a song that highlighted her fiddling. She’s toured nationally, most recently in California, as a solo artist as well as in duos and trios, and has released a couple of CDs of her own.

We would have been happy had the evening begun and ended with Five Letter Word. But things went to another level when Beth Wood and Ara James came on out for their own set.

With 20 years of touring and 11 studio albums to her credit, the Texas-raised Wood also is an accomplished songwriter and poet. Her second book of poetry, Ladder to the Light, won the 2019 Oregon Book Awards Readers’ Choice Award — a remarkable achievement in a city full of writers. She plays guitar and piano and sings beautifully.

James, raised in Tennessee, has been singing professionally for over 20 years as a soloist and studio vocalist. If I had closed my eyes, I’d have imagined someone like Annie Lennox or Florence Welch. Together, the two have a lovely sound that’s been described as “gospel-infused folk.”

Oh, and did I mention their lyrics reflect their politics?

The first single they put out together was “Nasty Woman,” titled after the comment Donald Trump made about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. What was intended as a slur became an anthem for the pair and the subject of a video that you can see here.

We left the theatre on a musical high, grateful to know that both of these bands perform locally as well as throughout the Pacific Northwest. With any luck, we’ll see them again. Separately or together, either one will be fine.

VOA 8.0

The motley crew at McMenamin’s on Sept. 21, 2019. From left and across the front row: Al Rodriguez, Elizabeth Hovde, John Killen, Eric Scharf. Andrea Cano, Kate Carroll de Gutes, Lakshmi Jagannathan, George Rede, Raghu Raghavan, Jason Cox, Alana Cox (seated with Cece). Back row dudes: Bob Ehlers, Eric Wilcox, Leroy Metcalf. Not pictured: Melissa Jones.

It’s coming up on four full days since a motley crew gathered at a local brewpub to celebrate another year of writing, reading and friendship — and the glow is still mighty warm.

I’m talking about the Voices of August meetup, the annual gathering of friends, neighbors and work colleagues that happens after each iteration of the guest blog project I started in 2010.

We skipped a year last year because of my work commitments, but VOA 2019 was pretty awesome, both online and in person. We had the usual wide variety of topics, a high degree of writing quality, four new writers among us, and stimulating conversations on the digital platform.

On Saturday we had the opportunity to engage face-to-face in a private room at McMenamin’s on Broadway, a place that I think may soon become our official “home.”

We had about two dozen people in attendance, nearly twice as many as in 2017. I think the extra numbers contributed to an exceptionally positive gathering.

A few highlights:

— Once again, we had people come from Oregon, Washington and California, with Al Rodriguez and Elizabeth Lee coming up from Santa Barbara and Lakshmi Jagannthan and Raghu Raghavan coming up from the San Jose suburbs. Those who couldn’t join us contributed their blogs from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey.

— We had four new writers this year: Eric Scharf, who described his passions for cycling and food; Melissa Jones, who reminisced about her stash of ticket stubs; Kate Carroll de Gutes, the author of two award-winning memoirs; and 12-year-old Ayumi Mori. the youngest VOA participant ever, who wrote movingly about her gay older sister.

— A trio of writers/cyclists — Al Rodriguez, Eric Scharf and John Killen — took it upon themselves to organize a Saturday morning bike ride. Nothing like a 50-mile-plus ride to wake up the senses, right?

— After 8 years of doing this, VOA writers account for about 250 of the more than 700 posts on my humble blog. The beauty of this endeavor is that it draws out thoughtful commentaries on so many different topics. This year alone, we had essays covering the spectrum from birth to death and everywhere in between — pregnancy, miscarriage, breastfeeding and parenting. Writers also touched on education, religion, travel, wildlife, politics, gender identity and recreation (thanks for that put-us-right-there piece on skydiving, Eric Wilcox).

***

Finally, thank you and congratulations to the four writers whose essays emerged as this year’s favorites. They are not “the best” per se. But they are the ones that resonated most broadly with the writers and regular readers of VOA who cast a ballot for their three favorites.

The top vote-getters win a gift card to a bookstore. Oddly, not a single one of these four writers was at the meetup. Nevertheless, here’s a hearty online round of applause for those whose essays struck us as extra special:

Jennifer Brennock: “The way men sit in chairs” — A powerful piece about “manspreading” that calls out the way some dudes intrude on others’ physical and psychological space.

At the poetry reading, someone sits down on my left. The man extends both legs fully, each jutting out directly from the corners of his seat. It makes the lower half of his body into a big v. A big valentine v. As if he can’t help from spilling over. You know, cuz he’s so big. He has a right to all this space because he was randomly born with some anatomy that is apparently a foot wide. Men sit like this.

Lillian Mongeau Hughes: “When you’re sitting on a plane: a reflection about a mother’s love” — What does it feel like to be jammed into in a middle seat on a plane from Portland to Boston to see your mom when you’ve just learned she’s been diagnosed with cancer? This is how.

“(You) cycle through all the things your mother has ever said to you about living so far from her. And you cycle through all the things she hasn’t said to you, but you know she thinks. And you settle on the one she’s repeated the most. She wants you to be happy. If you’re happy, she’s happy. And because you have a daughter now, you know that’s true, so you try to stop the cycling.” 

John Knapp: “To no one in particular” — Laura was the oldest of six kids and the anchor in John’s eastern Oregon family. When his sister died on Valentine’s Day, she broke everyone’s heart. I’ve never read a more touching tribute.

“Laura was not famous, held no public office and was not high profile in her local community. She led a straightforward life, with the usual markers and life events that others experience. She was a wife, mother, daughter, sister, artist, baker, and did an above average job in all those roles. But still, you might say she was no one in particular, except to those who knew and loved her.”

Jacob Quinn Sanders: “Up to my ass in alligators” — A former newspaper reporter recalls the time a certain police captain in small-town Arkansas was left in charge of the department while the chief and the public information officer were away on vacation. When the captain refused to comment on a minor shooting, insisting he was “up to my ass in alligators,” Sanders was left with little choice.

“I went to my editor. People should know that’s what he said, I told him. I’m going to quote him directly in this little brief. From there, you can do what you like. No hard feelings if you have to take it out — but I’m putting it in there. My editor thought that was a pretty good idea.”

Ha! Already looking forward to VOA 2020!

Tears

By Andrea Cano

Lagrimas…Tears.

It was one of those lazy, sunny weekends with friends, wine flowing, laughter, the simple delight of being ourselves and enjoying one another – as we have for decades. 

Then a thought crossed my mind.  I could lose any one of them if their heart stopped beating or if they had one, last breath.  How could I live a day without any of them?  Not to say I haven’t had the same, heart crushing thoughts about my partner, son, father, and other family members.  But this was the first time I realized how much my friends meant to me as we step into our tercera edad  – our elder years and into the homestretch of our lives.

My eyes filled with stinging tears – not the kind that easily roll down your face. These flame your eyeballs first, puddle up in the crevices, then leave a burning, acid trail down your cheek if you don’t wipe them away first.

Glass beads symbolize our lagrimas or tears.

I don’t remember my last stinging tear episode, but this one jolted me. Not only the thoughts which prompted them, but also the physical reaction.

It reminded me that there are different qualities of tears. In the same way I learned to understand that Eskimos had numerous words to describe snow – because there are different characteristics of snow. 

Large, wet, clumpy snow.  Dry, flaky snow.  Pristine, artsy flakes.  Blowing blizzard snow.   Almost snow – ice pellets and sleet.   And a zillion other expressions of this phenomena.

Tears are like that.

They can signal a zillion, glistening expressions of what we are feeling or thinking, even when we don’t want them to.

They are in charge – even in a darkened movie theatre.

They are relentless ­ – during profound grief and sorrow.

They are what makes us human. They frame empathy, regret, frustration, disappointment, relief, anticipatory loss of any kind, and more.

On the other end of the tear spectrum, are the ones we are literally happy to shed.

The birth of a first child or grandchild, or any child.

Offering or receiving a proposal of marriage.

You fill in the blank _____________________________________.

A spontaneous carcajada (loud peal of laughter) among friends and strangers triggered and shared at the very same second.

And my personal favorite – during howling, uncontrollable and virtually unstoppable, almost pee-in-your-pants laughter.  You have to be with others to fully experience this, re-live it again five minutes later as you pick yourself off the floor anew. 

Then you recall this event and others like them years later with those same cherished friends, for those shared moments and shared memories are golden. 

Stinging tears or grateful tears.  They crystalize our connectedness to one another which is essential to our humanity – and to all who were breathed into being, into family, and into community.  I look forward to more.

Andrea Cano is now semi-retired, meaning she doesn’t go to work every day.  She still serves as an on-call clinical chaplain for Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital, leads conversations for Oregon Humanities, and enjoys collaborating on projects with the great team at the National Policy Consensus Center.  Her next personal projects are to organize Sunday suppers with family and tetulias at her home to conjoin the constellations of people in her social universe, and laugh until tears of joy runneth over.

***

Editor’s note: Even in semi-retirement, Andrea makes me look like a slug. She is a wonderful example of someone who is involved in her community on spiritual, cultural and policy levels. She is a former journalist who grew up in Southern California and chaired the Oregon Commission on Hispanic Affairs for several years. I was fortunate to meet her while I was still at The Oregonian.

Tomorrow: The treasure of diversity | Michael Arrieta-Walden

Viking Pavilion

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With my buddy Steve Beaven, formerly a reporter at The Oregonian and a writer for the Portland State University Foundation.

Portland State’s new Viking Pavilion opened in April with a lot of fanfare on the South Park Blocks — and now I can see why. The $52 million facility provides a new home for the university’s basketball and volleyball teams at the south end of campus.

The 3,000-seat arena has, at most, only about a third of the capacity of its two in-state sister institutions, the University of Oregon and Oregon State University, which both play in the more prestigious Pacific 12 Conference.

But the smaller scale is a big part of the appeal of Portland State’s arena. Having been there twice now, I can say that the more intimate space makes it a fun place to watch a game.

Last night, I went with a friend and former work colleague, Steve Beaven, to see PSU play its last preseason game of the year against Cal State Bakersfield. A couple weeks earlier, I went on my own, as a respite from Finals Week, to see PSU take on its intercity rival, the University of Portland.

The Vikings lost a close one last night, 76-71, but easily defeated the U of P,  87-78.

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I sat in the general admission area for the first game and had a great view from the second-level seats. At the second game, it was an even better view from the reserved section, just two rows back from the floor at mid-court. The action is so much faster and the athleticism so much more apparent when you’re that close.

The venue itself is open and inviting, and there’s not a bad seat in the house. At one end of the arena, you can sit as if you were at a long bar counter and look out onto the action. At the other end, there is a reserved section for large groups. On either side, there are additional reserved sections that pass for suites. (Nobody was using them at last night’s game.  Not a surprise, given the low stakes of a non-conference game when students are off for the winter break.)

There are just two concession stands and a couple of places to get a beer or cider (yes, cider, this being Portland). There is also a display of exhibits featuring Hall of Fame athletes as you enter the building.

During halftime last night, I noticed a couple members of the coed stunt team join the line for a snack, something you definitely wouldn’t see at the Moda Center, where the NBA’s Trail Blazers play. That little vignette underscored my overall take of the Viking Pavilion — that the place has the cozy feel of a high school gym.

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I’d never attended a PSU game before now. There was little incentive last year, when the Vikings had to play their home games across town at Lewis and Clark College. Now I’m inclined to go back again.

With affordable prices, convenient parking on the street and entertaining basketball, what’s not to like?

 

Trivia for a good cause

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Members of The Young and The Restless team at trivia night. Clockwise from left: Tom, Richard, Elsa, Lori and George.

Weeknights can be pretty routine at home and pretty slow at most restaurants and bars. But schedule a trivia contest and everyone wins.

Tuesday night found us at a North Portland brewpub where we joined family and friends at a fundraiser for the Oregon Center for Public Policy, a Portland nonprofit that does research and analysis of tax, budget and economic issues affecting Oregon residents.

The event was billed as Economic Justice Trivia night, in partnership with Willamette Week’s annual Give!Guide and in keeping with the Center’s focus on support for policies advancing dequity and inclusion. We were there at the invitation of our daughter Simone, who serves on the OCPP board of directors. We, in turn, invited our friends, Tom and Elsa Guiney, and the four of us had a great evening.

How could we not?

The food and drinks were just fine. We made a new friend. The trivia contest was fun and educational. We showed our support for the Center with a donation. And, to top it off, Tom walked away with the evening’s top prize — a basketful of goodies that included a candy-filled mug and a year’s worth of free haircuts.

The event was held at the Lucky Labrador North Taproom, a spacious and well-lit brewpub in the Overlook neighborhood. I’d say about 60-70 people attended, including guests and OCPP staff, and about seven teams competed to answer two rounds of questions. Simone’s wife, Kyndall, was part of a team.

Naturally, the Guineys and Redes formed a team, too, and we called it The Young and The Restless. A friendly guy named Richard was sitting at our table. He joined in as our teammate and helped us come up with answers to a slew of questions involving Oregon tax policy, state and national politics, and elected officials.

For instance:

We knew that there are 90 seats in the Oregon Legislature, that Tina Kotek is the Oregon Speaker of the House, and that Val Hoyle is commissioner-elect of the Bureau of Labor and Industries. But we overestimated the minimum wage (it’s $12 an hour in the metro area) and we didn’t realize that the home mortgage deduction is the largest housing subsidy program in Oregon — not the Section 8 renter assistance program, as we assumed.

Not your everyday topics of conversation, right?

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We finished in a tie for third place, a respectable showing. More important, it felt good to support an organization that works for the common good in Salem; good to support Simone, who is leaving the board after 4 1/2 years of service; and good to make a new friend.

Turns out our teammate, Richard Gilliam, moved from Chicago to Oregon many years ago to work as an labor organizer. These days, he works in the construction industry,  mentors young men at Jefferson High School and three other Portland public schools, and volunteers on community issues and campaigns.

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Richard Gilliam brought warmth and wisdom (and an occasional right answer) to The Young and The Restless team.

We’re going to try to meet for coffee and learn more about each other. With any luck, we’ll make a stronger showing at the next trivia contest.