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!

Voices of August 2019: Your favorites?

August may bring the hot, lazy days of summer but it also brings a month’s worth of great reading.

Thanks to those of you contributed to the 8th annual edition of Voices of August, we were treated once again to a daily dose of wisdom, laughter or contemplation.

Call me biased but I think it would be difficult to find another collection of essays with as many different topics, voices and perspectives with writers ranging from age 12 to 70-plus and based in seven states.

As much as I enjoy reading each piece, the greater reward is seeing the conversation each guest blog sparks among those of you in the VOA community and beyond.

I have my favorites this year — and I’m sure you do, too. So now comes your opportunity to give a tip of the hat to those who made time for VOA 8.0. Whether you were a writer or a reader, you’re invited to vote for your three favorites. Your deadline: Sunday, September 8th.

Here are the rules:

  • Who can vote. As with previous years, anyone who has written a guest blog (this year or previously) or who is simply a regular reader of VOA can vote for three favorite pieces. You decide if you’ve read enough of this month’s contributions to cast a ballot.
  • Criteria. There are none other than your own. What grabbed your attention? What resonated with you? What made you laugh or cry? What challenged your assumptions? What made you see things differently?
  • How to vote. Take some time to review the month’s posts here at the VOA 8.0 index page and then send the titles of your three favorites to me at ghfunq@msn.com.

As you go back through the essays, please take the opportunity to leave a comment on one or more posts. Be generous with your feedback, both on Facebook and especially on the posts themselves. Your comments are gold.

Thanks, everyone!

— George Rede

Photo: Thinkstock

VOA 8.0 index page

Words are like bridges, carrying us from one person’s experience and perspective to a place of broader understanding.

An archive of who wrote what during this month of guest blog posts for Voices of August 2019

Aug. 1: Tammy Ellingson | The last checkbox

Aug. 2: Jason Cox | The finite universe of opportunities

Aug. 3: Al Rodriguez | 3.5 months to go – Yes, I’m counting

Aug. 4: Rachel Lippolis | Just a spark

Aug. 5: John Knapp | To no one in particular

Aug. 6: David Quisenberry | To live is Christ, to die is gain

Aug. 7: Mary Pimentel | “Chez-soi est dans le cœur” (“One’s home is in the heart”)

Aug. 8: Tim Akimoff | The wild place next door

Aug. 9: Lillian Mongeau Hughes | When you’re sitting on a plane: A reflection on a mother’s love

Aug. 10: Gil Rubio | Our hands

Aug. 11: Midori, Ayumi, Aki Mori | A butterfly named Midori

Aug. 12: Michael Granberry | Fear and loathing between a farter and a fatso

Aug. 13: Alana Cox | Let’s talk about breastfeeding

Aug. 14: Elizabeth Hovde | Striving for higher ground

Aug. 15: Eric Wilcox | Falling from the sky

Aug. 16: Andrea Cano | Tears

Aug. 17: Michael Arrieta-Walden |The treasure of diversity

Aug. 18: Kate Carroll de Gutes |On meaning, memory, and desire

Aug. 19: Nike Bentley |Don’t blink

Aug. 20: Leroy Metcalf | Viva España

Aug. 21: Eric Scharf | My name is Eric. I am an addict.

Aug. 22: Lakshmi Jagannathan | One step at a time

Aug. 23: George Rede | The ‘other’ Thames

Aug. 24: Lynn St. Georges | It is never gone

Aug. 25:  Jacob Quinn Sanders | Up to my ass in alligators

Aug. 26:  Monique Gonzales | The meaning of democracy

Aug. 27:  Bob Ehlers | Renovating and reuniting

Aug. 28:  Jennifer Brennock |The way men sit in chairs

Aug. 29:  John Killen | Chasing Kristin

Aug. 30:  Patricia Conover | Thoughts on returning to Oregon

Aug. 31:  Melissa Jones | Please print! And don’t recycle.

Photograph: George Rede 

Please print! And don’t recycle.

By Melissa Jones

It was a big decision and a giant purchase for my friend Wendy and me: “Pit” tickets near the stage to see The Rolling Stones at Century Link Field in Seattle.

It’s the most money I’ve ever spent on a concert, dwarfing the $175 I spent for Prince and his all-girl band at the Roseland.

Wendy and I would drive from Portland to Seattle the day of the show, staying at the cheapest hotel we could find. The morning after the show, Wendy would get me to Sea-Tac at 4 a.m. for the earliest flight back to Portland, in time to make a 9 a.m. Portland flight with my son for a long-planned vacation that I couldn’t reschedule.

The planning was nerve-wracking.

So when Wendy told me she was having our tickets mailed to her house, I was confused.

Why would anyone get physical tickets mailed when she could download a ticket to her phone? It’s one less thing to carry. One less thing to remember. No shipping costs.

I’m an avid user of the “wallet” on my phone that allows me to save tickets and quickly access them in the airport security line or in the Moda Center bag check.

But this summer – before Janet Jackson in Las Vegas –  I started having doubts.

These doubts began during this summer’s Women’s World Cup soccer matches. No, I didn’t go see them in France.

But 20 years ago, I was present for the momentous game at the Pasadena Rose Bowl when the U.S. women beat China’s team.  It was another big event that took a lot of planning to attend. I drove to LA from Phoenix to go with my former UCLA roommate, Anita. I stayed at her apartment, and she drove us to the stadium; I remember hearing “La Vida Loca” in her truck on the way.

During this year’s matches in France, everyone harkened back on the team of 1999. The players were back on TV and sportscasters reminisced about Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt at the end and triumphantly falling to her knees in her sports bra. (I was there!)

My friend Anita and I played lacrosse together at UCLA and we traded texts during this year’s soccer matches; she asked me where we sat at the Rose Bowl.

While I remember hearing Ricky Martin on the radio and seeing J. Lo perform the halftime show, I don’t remember where we sat. And I don’t have any photos. In 1999, if you wanted a picture of something, you had to bring a camera, and I guess I didn’t.

I told Anita that I’d look through my ticket stubs, kept in a box in my basement with my yearbooks, my Olivia Newton-John program (first concert!) and my Go-Go’s bandana (first concert without my mom!)

Going through the envelope is like looking at a lifelong yearbook of live music. Ben Harper at Edgefield. Susana Baca at the Aladdin. Manu Chao at the Crystal Ballroom, where I talked to other women who were there by themselves.

There are sporting events too, like UCLA basketball in the Final Four in Indianapolis, when I happened to be living there. Cubs spring training in Phoenix just before I got married. Lots of Blazers and Timbers. I’m not sure why I saved my ticket to “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The earliest concert stubs bring back the most memories. Oingo Boingo at the Arizona State Fair with my high school friend Donna. The glittery text on the ticket for The Thompson Twins at Mesa Amphitheatre. Big Audio Dynamite when I was a student in London, drinking hard cider at age 19 and stage diving after hugging Mick Jones.

The most confusing ticket stubs are of things I don’t remember.

I saw Marjane Satrapi at the Schnitz? I have no recollection of that.

Maya Angelou? Wow. I saw her?

Jane Goodall at Arizona State? I’ve never had a great memory, but how does an anthropology major forget seeing Jane Goodall?

I couldn’t find a ticket stub of the World Cup game from 1999. It was probably lost somewhere in the many states and many moves I’ve made since then.

There are other shows I remember that have no record in my phone, inbox or basement, like Def Leppard in Phoenix at Compton Terrace, a venue long gone. And U2’s Unforgettable Fire tour at Compton Terrace. Did I also see Lollapalooza there?

I don’t remember.

But I will remember when, where and how much I paid to see The Rolling Stones in Seattle. Cuz I have the ticket stub.

Melissa Jones is a former staff writer for The Oregonian who was recruited by George Rede! She’s an Arizona native who now lives in NE Portland with her husband and son. She teaches journalism at Clackamas Community College, and her next show is Cher at the Moda Center. 

Editor’s note: Former staff writer at The Oregonian? Lives in NE Portland? Teaches college journalism? That could be me. Where Melissa and I diverge is Cher. But I’ve got my ticket to see Heart on September 3rd!

Thoughts on returning to Oregon

By Patricia Conover

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  — Robert Frost 

The flight begins its descent. I see the familiar tall pines and snow-capped mountains in the distance. When I step out of the plane, the fresh scent of green earth and recent rain hits me with such velocity that I close my eyes to breathe it in.  

I’m not an Oregon native. In fact, I’m about as far from an Oregon native as anyone could be. I grew up in and around Manhattan. I made my first trip to the West Coast when I was 25 years old and didn’t visit Oregon until my mid-30s when Kirk accepted a job offer at an architecture firm in Portland. We quit our jobs in the New York City area and packed up our three littles (including a newborn) and waved goodbye rise to our high-rise apartment.  

To say that the move was an adjustment would be an understatement. We didn’t understand the Oregonians and the Oregonians didn’t understand us. I felt as though I had arrived in a foreign country without prior knowledge of the culture, language or codes. 

Whenever I got into my car I risked someone yelling at me. “You can’t park there,” or “Are you really going to make a U-turn?” 

I enrolled my oldest daughter in school. We’d packed all her smocked Liberty of London dresses, bright Mary Jane shoes and the red Rothschild coat with a velvet collar for kindergarten.  

She was wiping tears away when she arrived home after her first day.  

“The kids made fun of my clothes,” she said. “They asked me why I was wearing a costume.”  

What were the other kindergarteners wearing?  

“T-shirts and jeans and sneakers,” she said. “I’m never wearing a dress again!” 

It wasn’t difficult to adapt to the more casual style of dress in Portland. The iron was put away and nobody missed it. 

I did miss my editing job. I tried to find publishing work but jobs like the one I’d had on Lexington Avenue were practically non-existent in my new city. I wrote several stories and hand-delivered them to George Rede, the young Southwest bureau editor of The Oregonian.  

Reader, he bought them! And he encouraged me to write more, fostering me in the writing career that I had dreamed of for years but never dared to attempt. 

Less successful: Dealing with the incessant rain. We’d been warned about it before we arrived but nothing can prepare you for the unceasing September-to-May of it. 

We moved in late summer and the sun never stopped shining until the moon began to rise. We snickered when our East Coast relatives inquired about the rain.  

“Rain? What rain? The sun is always shining here!” 

The laughter faded when autumn arrived. It rained incessantly every single day.  

As soon as the sky opened up, I called the girls inside. I postponed trips to the library or to the museum or the grocery store. My new neighbor, Judy, knocked on the front door after a few days of that.  

“You have to learn to ignore the rain,” she said. “The girls can play outdoors in raingear. Go outside when it drizzles or you’ll never leave the house!” 

We bought rain boots, fleece pullovers and waterproof jackets with hoods. In the winter, we added thermals and woolen layers to the mix. We learned to play and hike and ride our bikes in the rain. 

As a child, I was constantly told not to get dirty. Yet, for my girls, mud was no longer a four-letter word. They loved to play in the dirt. Being outside so much inspired me to plant a garden. The girls helped by digging holes and planting seeds. Soon, we were planning flowerbeds. Did I mention compost? We learned how to compost!   

Time moves forward and all three of our girls were enrolled in school. Their friends were hiking and skiing and windsurfing and climbing mountains. Pretty soon, they were, too. I’d never known anyone who spent so much time outdoors and now my children were living the active lives that we couldn’t have imagined in the Big Apple.  

Still, when we met people they immediately knew that we were from “back East.”  

I suffered the indignities of linguistic insufficiencies. I don’t have a particularly strong New York accent, but when I walked into a coffee shop and ordered a “Cwofffeee,” the barista couldn’t understand me. People asked me to speak more slowly.  

It took two years to learn how to pronounce “Oregon,” “Willamette,” and “Clatskanie.”   

We had no family on the Left Coast and it was too expensive to fly five people back for every holiday. Sigh. 

Somehow the Oregonians knew we were homesick. New friends invited us to Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas tree-trims and summer fun on the Pacific Coast or the Columbia River Gorge.  

The friends who took us in during what we called our “pioneer” years in Oregon are friends for life.   

The loneliness of being outsiders lifted. When newcomers arrived, we showed them the ropes. We coached them on the proper pronunciation of Oregon place names and the appropriateness of plaid flannel shirts and jeans for everything except the most formal occasions. 

Something happened. It started on the outside but slowly moved toward the inside—deep into our hearts—turning each of us into a kind of hybrid New York-Oregonian. Our daughter, who was then four, invented a name for us: Newyoregonians. 

Time continued to move forward. Kirk was offered a job in France. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. Our daughters were 16, 14 and 12. Portland was their hometown. There were many tearful goodbyes when we packed up and moved to Paris in 2006.  

That Oregon head-to-heart connection? It’s still there. Our daughters, now in their mid-twenties to (gasp) thirty, still refer to themselves as Oregonians.  

Along with our garden, our girls planted their roots in the rich soil of Portland. They developed strong wings, too, that have taken them to the four corners of the world.  

They always know where home is. 

And when Kirk and I return, however briefly, that deep feeling of connection wells up and somehow reaches our eyes.  

Did we leave our mark on Oregon? I’m not sure. But Oregon left its mark on us. And, like the ink from a Portland tattoo shop, it’s permanent. 

Patricia Conover loves books. She’s especially drawn to biographies, historical novels and travel memoirs. Born and raised in a suburb of New York City, she spent her first career at G.P Putnam’s Sons and Random House. She became a freelance writer after moving to Oregon. She’s written essays, features, profiles and criticism for publications including The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian, Kirkus Reviews and The Montclair Local.

Patricia is currently a project editor and writer for Going Global, publisher of guidebooks on culture, careers, economies, education, health, and travel. She’s also an English instructor. You can connect with Patricia on twitter @ParisRhapsody.


Editor’s note: Patricia and I have known each other long enough to agree we don’t want to know the precise number of years. Suffice to say that we met in the days when print journalism was thriving and before the internet as we know it was created in 1990. Though we’ve lived on opposite coasts for most of our careers, that was hasn’t gotten in the way of mutual appreciation and admiration. She’s a fine writer and a fine human being.

Tomorrow: Melissa Jones | Please print! And don’t recycle.

Chasing Kristin

Colorful signage marks the Kristin Armstrong Bikeway in Boise.

By John Killen

The road keeps climbing in front of me.  There are almost no trees.  Instead, the brown hillside is dotted with stocky blue-green sagebrush.   

The low cloud cover that was shielding the sun’s rays for much of the morning is burning off, so the temperature is climbing.  And I’m running low on water. 

But I’m wondering:  What would Kristin do? 

She’d keep going, of course. 

I should have started earlier in the day.  In fact, that was my plan.  I was going to begin my ride by 9 a.m.  But as I often do, I procrastinated.  I was staying with my brother-in-law, Galen Louis, at his condo in southeast Boise, and we were having a pleasant post-breakfast conversation about community theater, one of his passions in retirement. 

Before long, it was 10:20 a.m. Aargh.  Time to put on my cycling gear and go.  It’s supposed to climb well north of 90 again today, which is pretty normal for Boise in August. 

Galen has been battling some health issues and my sister, Peggy, was going to be out of town for a few days.  He said he would be fine, but she was a bit concerned, so I said I could come over to Boise for a few days and keep him company. 

And I had an ulterior motive.  Boise has some mighty fine cycling. So I threw some clothes and my road bike into the back of my old Volvo wagon and headed east. 

One ride that I wanted to try while there was the road that heads from town up to the Bogus Basin ski area.  It’s a steady climb, rising about 3,400 feet over 15 miles.  The road takes you from the foothills of Boise – elevation 2,700 feet — to the base of the ski area, which is about 5,700 feet. 

I had done this route once before, but that was 43 years ago when Marlie (my wife-to-be) and I were living in Boise. I was 25.  Now I’m 68.  But I’m a pretty avid cyclist and I do a fair amount of climbing in Portland’s West Hills, so I figured I could handle it.   

I wasn’t sure I would do the full 15 miles. Instead, I wanted to see how far I could get from the time I left the condo and headed up the road, which is in north Boise.  

So I aimed my bike north, turned west when I reached the gorgeous Boise River Greenbelt, pedaled through the Boise State University campus, and then took North 13th. I knew it would take me to the base of the climb. 

All the while, my mind was alternating between the traffic and thoughts of Kristin Armstrong.  For those who don’t follow competitive cycling, Armstrong is a bit of a legend — and a Boise resident.   

A former swimmer, distance runner and triathlete, she focused on cycling in the late 1990s and developed her true talent.  She won gold medals in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics in the time trial discipline.  She also won world championships in that event in 2006 and 2009. 

Along the way, she also helped promote cycling and bicycle racing in the Boise area.  Boise responded.  The city these days has a burgeoning network of cycling pathways, cycling events and bike boulevards.  It also has some of the best single-track riding in the West.  

In thanks, Boise renamed a city park after Armstrong and — more to the point — has designated Bogus Basin Road as the Kristin Armstrong Bikeway. 

Which is where I am right now. 

Awhile back, I passed the 3,000 foot marker and I’ve lost count of number of switchbacks as I climb — slowly but steadily — up the grade.  

I look down at my Garmin — the small bike computer fixed to my handle bars — and note that I’m averaging about 6 to 9 miles an hour.  Not speedy, but not bad given the heat and the steady 4 to 8 percent incline. 

So far, I’ve seen more bikes than cars on the road, which is nice.  It’s a Tuesday and most of Boise is at work, so that makes sense. 

I’ve heard stories that this was one of Armstrong’s main training regimens as she prepared for the Olympics.  I can see why.  I’ve climbed steeper grades in Portland’s West Hills, but none of them go on and on — and on — like this one does.   

I pass the 3-mile marker, the 5-mile marker and then the 7-mile marker.  Another sign says 4,000 feet. The heat is starting to build.  The grade isn’t doing me any favors.   

I’ve finished off one of my two water bottles and take a sip from the second.  I also pour just a bit through the slots on the back of my helmet. The cool water runs down my neck and onto my back.  The relief is short-lived, but much appreciated. 

A lone wild sunflower highlights the foreground while the city of Boise can be seen in the deep background, below the switchbacks.

I don’t know where Armstrong lives but I find myself wondering if there’s any chance I might see her as I climb.  I know she’s retired, but I hear she still rides.  In fact, I saw her on a YouTube broadcast a day or two ago when she was helping promote a cycling event in Boise. She looked ready to race. 

She’s actually become a sort of hero to me, partly because she’s a champion cyclist, partly because what she’s done for cycling in Boise – and the world. 

And there’s the fact that I actually met her once – sort of.   

It was in the summer of 2002 and Marlie and I were in Boise for our niece’s wedding.  The ceremony was actually held at one of the lodges at the top of Bogus Basin Road. Our niece, Brooke, was also a former collegiate distance runner and had converted — like Armstrong — to cycling.  She also had found that she could excel on two wheels and had been invited to join the women’s T-Mobile professional team with Armstrong. 

They became friends and Armstrong and some of her other teammates were among the bridesmaids at Brooke’s wedding.  I can’t say I have strong memories of her or the others, but I do recall being introduced to several very tan and fit-looking young women wearing bridesmaid dresses. 

There’s the 8-mile marker.  I’m about halfway through the second water bottle. The clouds are gone and the sun is truly getting hot. 

I’m also thinking about the fact that I told Galen I would be home by 1:30  p.m.  I do some mental calculations.  I know I will descend about three times faster than I am ascending. I roll the numbers around in my head.  I pass the 9-mile marker, and take another drink. 

I’m actually still feeling pretty good. Up ahead, I can see that I’m not too far from entering the pine forest that starts up at about 5,000 feet. Shade!  I also know that just after that, the road flattens out considerably and most of the climbing will be behind me. 

A little less than 1,000 feet and I’m on top. But there’s not enough time.  Not enough water.  And honestly, maybe not enough energy. 

Time to turn around. 

This photo looks uphill from the spot where I turned around. You can see that I was just getting into the pine forest.

I pull over, snap a couple of photos with my iPhone and begin the downhill spin.  I can hear the gentle, rapid clicking from the rear hub of my bike.  

I’m coasting at about 25 to 30 miles per hour.  The rushing air feels cool.  Boise is in the distance below, but crawling steadily closer. 

I’m mildly disappointed that I didn’t keep going, but I did climb about 2,600 feet, so it was definitely a good workout. Also, the Bikeway is well kept and the pavement was smooth. And very few cars.  As a cyclist, you can’t ask for much more. 

And as it turns out, I just missed Kristin. 

I’m a member of Strava, which is a social network for cyclists and runners.  One of its features is called “fly by.” After a ride or run, it allows you to see other Strava members who you passed or who may have passed you or ridden near you. 

I mouse over to “fly by” and there, two names below mine, is “Kristin.” 

What?  I click on the name to get more info.  Sure enough, the rider’s full name is Kristin Armstrong of Boise, Idaho.  I click on her route from that morning and realize she and I just missed each other.  She was riding some nearby roads as I was climbing the Bikeway.  In fact, for a brief time, we were probably within a few hundred yards of each other. 

For a second, I wondered what I would have said had I seen her. 

But I knew.   I would have smiled and waved and felt a momentary surge of excitement — and just said thank you.   

Marlie and John Killen

John Killen is a retired journalist. He worked for The Oregonian for 27 years and for two other newspapers before that. He now spends his time riding his bike and helping his wife Marlie take care of their two granddaughters.

Editor’s note: John and I started at almost the same time at The Oregonian. Though I’ve never biked with him, we’ve found common interests in teaching, basketball, bowling, hiking, journalism, parenting and now grand-parenting.

Tomorrow: Patricia Conover | Thoughts on returning to Oregon

The way men sit in chairs

By Jennifer Brennock

I leave the evening poetry reading and begin a non-buddied walk to the dorm. Someone is following me. The unlit field is too dark to see anything but a few unmarked figures making the crossing ahead. They’re nearly out of earshot. I cinch my coat a little tighter, walk a little faster. No dawdling. I am appearing assertive and aware of my surroundings. 

Once, my father sent me an email, something along the lines of “Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Get Raped.” He wanted me to learn not to park next to a van with cargo doors, to check the backseat before driving away, to never open the front door of my home to the sound of a crying baby. The father of four girls was concerned about strangers. He didn’t know that the statistic of one in four women didn’t spare his family.  

Decades ago, I was fighting with him. I wanted some independence he was denying me. I brandished my face in his and said, “I am a survivor!” He looked at me, not comprehending, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him, “It’s too late, Dad.” Instead, I folded my arms and told him if I was going to get raped it probably would be by someone I knew. He didn’t know it was the kinder thing to say. 

As I continue to stride briskly across the field, I take out my dorm key, just in case, and hold it between my knuckles like a dagger. To poke his eyes out. They give us all this responsibility when we are girls.  

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. On airplanes. On carnival rides. In church. Women are constantly shrinking themselves to accommodate the valentine v net to them. I fiddle with my notebook and pen. This is not the man who raped you.  

The poet is talking about oral sex. Once, twice, again and again. Each time he mentions it, the man pretends to be examining the fingernails of his right hand. He holds the hand out in my direction to do this. He’s not looking at his fingernails. It’s made-up. Then he looks openly. First at my mouth, then the top of my head, then a visual sweep down to my shoes like a teenage girl checking out the competition. I pretend not to notice because I was taught to be polite. I look straight ahead. He puts his hand in his lap. It keeps flinching there. He fingers are on the lowest buttons of his untucked shirt, resting on his crotch. He keeps doing it, the flinching, and he keeps looking at me while he’s doing it. I cross my arms, recross my legs. I try to take up less space in my chair. I try to extinguish my peripheral vision. You are being over-diligent. 

Now the poet is talking about rape, and the man rests his arm on the back of my chair. Comrade. We’re both grad students, you see. Now his bloodless fingers jerk repeatedly, quick and ugly, a self-pleasure tempo nearly grazing my shoulder. They aren’t touching me, they aren’t, but I know how they feel. They are the albino winter branches, the ones that snagged my hair as I ran after it happened to me. I was twenty. It was a different field on a different campus. I was barefoot. He was a professor. My roommate didn’t believe me, so I didn’t tell anyone else.  

I’m nauseous now, and I think I’m going to have to get up in the middle of the reading, everybody looking up with question mark brows. I look around. All the men are sitting like valentines. A room full of them. 

I don’t want to throw up. I force myself to think quickly of a man who doesn’t sit like this. I see my brother.  

My father’s only son knows women. He has two older sisters and two younger ones, and for most of our growing up he couldn’t get into the bathroom. He kept a toothbrush in his bedroom. He brushed in the kitchen on school days when four girls were trying to blow their bangs into feathers with AquaNet. My brother does not sit in a v. He sits with class. One time when I was a freshman home on a break, I called him in the middle of the night from a party gone sour. I begged him to pick me up. It was an hour’s drive, but he got there in 45 minutes. He got me the hell out of there, pushing his girlfriend’s little car faster through the night. He never asked why, and it wasn’t the reason he probably thought it was. At the reading, the memory works. The Ten Stupid Things list is stalled for the rest of the poems. Afterward I start walking to the dorm.

Halfway across, I dare to look behind. Oh, good. It’s just the poet who was reading tonight. I keep walking. He does too. Of course he does. What else would he do but walk back to the dorm? The pace becomes a little too in sync. As I stride, I can’t remember. For the life of me, I can’t. This seems so important to know right now, and I’m blanking. A fact that could save me. So essential to confirm. How could I not have noticed? Remember, try to remember. Before he got up to read, how did the poet sit in his chair?  


Jennifer Brennock is a writer, teacher, mother, and student of historic architecture. She has grown five cucumbers and ten tomatoes (so far) in the median of her street this summer. She considers this a small victory in the pursuit of adapting to Portland. This piece was written ten years ago, before Trump was president and before the metoo hashtag. She carries hope in the fact that she is raising a son who will soon be a man, and that together all mothers of sons can teach them enough to change the paradigm.  

Editor’s note: Thank goodness for coincidences. Ten years ago on a Saturday in August, I attended a writing workshop on Orcas Island. Jennifer was the workshop leader and I was one of a dozen people who attended. I wrote a short burst of fiction (300 words in 20 minutes) and, more importantly, made a new friend that day. Neither one of us lives on the island anymore but what a nice coincidence that Jennifer would relocate to Portland.

Tomorrow: John Killen | Chasing Kristin

Renovating and reuniting

With his son Chris back home in Oregon, all Bob Ehlers had to do is unretire to help turn a fixer-upper into a renovated home that’s now on the market.

By Bob Ehlers

A little over a year ago, my son Chris and I purchased a run-down house with a wildly overgrown yard. Our intent being to buy, renovate, sell and make a profit. But first, since this is also about reunions and reuniting, I want to share the following recent episode in my life.

A few weeks ago, I had plans to attend my high school class reunion in Oelwein, Iowa. I was really looking forward to once again reuniting with old friends, as I have every five years since graduating high school,  Since I live in Salem and the first leg of my travels was a 6:00 a.m. flight out of PDX, I got a room for the night at a hotel near the airport. The reception clerk at the hotel asked me if I needed a wake-up call. I accepted his suggestion of a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call in order to catch the 4:20 hotel shuttle to the airport.

I wouldn’t describe my room as nondescript. More accurately it was in need of updates of surfaces and furniture. But appearance and ambience weren’t high on my list. I was asleep by 11:00 p.m. Hours later I awakened to noises in the hallway and the sun peeking through the window blinds. Whoa, too much sun for 3:30 a.m. To my extreme dismay, the clock said 6:30. I grabbed the room phone to call the front desk – NO DIAL TONE. Scrambling around in a confused, frustrated, angry state, I stuffed my belongings in my travel bags, raced to the front desk, where the clerk listened to my rambling rant about the non-functioning phone, said the manager would be in at 9:00 a.m., and got the shuttle driver to take me to the airport.

I’m pissed off, it’s Thursday and the reunion events start on Friday, and I may not make it until the weekend is over.  Woe is me, goddammit. On the way to the airport, about a mile from the hotel the shuttle stops at a red light. I glance down the intersecting street and see several police cars, fire trucks and an ambulance. The traffic light changed, we continued on to the airport, the good folks at Delta booked me on a later flight at no extra charge, and I arrived in Iowa seven hours later than I was originally scheduled.

I read later that the accident involved a motorcyclist who had missed a curve, hit a tree and was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries. Whatever residual anger I had about my morning misadventure immediately dissipated. I was stewing over an inconvenience and the motorcyclist was in a fight for life. At the end of the day, I received my wake-up call — that I need to keep my personal dramas in perspective. Someone else somewhere may be experiencing real drama that matters.

Back to the story of the house.

After living and working for eight years in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, son Chris decided to return to Salem. His mother and I were thrilled that he would once again be within eyesight and hugging distance. Although we had a lot of phone and email contact during those eight years, we had only seen him once for a few weeks when he had come back for a visit. He had been employed teaching English and managing a restaurant in HCMC. Now he was back in his hometown, and wanted a totally new direction in his life.

Before retiring a few years ago, I had been a building contractor and had purchased and remodeled several houses over the course of thirty years. Chris had contemplated working with me but his wanderlust was a stronger draw. Jobs working for a sports tour company in Torino and Dusseldorf, and eventually working in HCMC, provided unmatchable experiences and enduring friendships, especially in the huge international ex-pat community in HCMC. But as with many ex-pat communities, the original group of pals usually has a lot of turnover. People move on to the next place, following a love interest or a new travel itch, or they return to their roots wherever that is. 

Evaluating job possibilities, Chris determined he was best suited for and happiest in a work environment with a lot of autonomy and control of the decision-making. This pretty much rules out most employment. Ownership was the remaining option. After watching a season of HGTV with Johanna and Chip Gaines doing fabulous renovations in Waco, Texas, he knew what he wanted to do. Find the right renovation project, get me to unretire and be the experienced foreman/worker and join the fun. It took a while to find the right project, a house needing some TLC, priced below market, in a good neighborhood and in a good school district. The search took a while, fixer-uppers get snapped up as soon as they come on the market. We lucked out and found one a few blocks from our home.

A wildly overgrown yard and a dead fir tree in the front yard were just two things that needed the attention of the father-and-son team.

Within a couple of days of cleaning out the previous owner’s detritus, we discovered more than TLC was necessary. The existing electrical wiring was suspect, not all the plumbing repairs had resolved whatever problems led to the repair, pets had been kept inside for long days, the place reeked of animal smells. There was a huge dead fir tree in the front yard. The back yard was a jungle of overgrown black raspberry vines and ivy thick enough to choke the life out of trees. I suffered so many scratches on my arms and legs removing the blackberry vines, I had to temporarily stop using blood thinner medication. 

Our investment project (flipper house) became a “what were we thinking”. Eventually, we gutted the interior of the house. At no small expense, we had the house rewired, replumbed, installed a new kitchen, bath, roof, heating system and every surface covering — floors, walls, ceilings — was replaced. We had the dead fir tree taken down and extensively landscaped the yard with a new lawn and shrubs. We are on a first-name basis with the staffs at Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware and several local building supply businesses. A year later we have finished our work on the house and it is now for sale. (Photos of the house interior and backyard can be seen on Zillow or Craiglist Salem –3345 Hulsey Ave SE, Salem, OR).

After months of work, the result is a beautifully renovated home in the Morningside neighborhood of south Salem

Chris and I have worked well together, we know how each other thinks, he appreciates my know-how, and I love having him for a partner and as a trusted companion. Plus, he is a fun guy to be around. He wants to do another project soon, after a few weeks break. He also wants to return to HCMC for an extended visit to see friends. For myself, unretiring to once again do a lot of physical work on a daily basis meant rediscovering muscle groups, sometimes painfully. I want to recuperate.   

Author’s note: My wife, Deborah, and I met George and Lori in May 1980 at Salem Hospital a few days before our sons were born two days apart. Nathan was first on May 3, Chris was born May 5. The boys have done well raising two fine sets of parents.

Editor’s note: I’ll second that. Bob and Deb are fine people with a Midwest friendliness that is genuine. We bonded forever as first-time parents and now we’ve known them for nearly 40 years. Over the years, Bob has been a regular at my poker nights and joined me at a number of Trail Blazers games.

Tomorrow: Jennifer Brennock |The way men sit in chairs

The meaning of democracy

Credit: Renew Democracy Initiative

By Monique Gonzales

I was so enthralled by this 5-part podcast series I listened to back in June, that I’m still thinking about the meaning of democracy and the impact it has on us all.  I was absolutely floored to discover that it does not mean the same thing to all of us. 

Democracy is not something I ever imagined being without, but considering what is happening in the world, it seems to be dwindling.  I understood that it was not the preferred government of many countries but always considered the U.S., Canada and Europe as strongholds for progressive ideas and liberty for all. 

Then Trump came.  I’ve learned over the years that there are usually multiple factors at play that lead to a problem.  There isn’t just one answer.  But even so, I still struggled to answer the question “Why, oh why?”  I couldn’t figure out why people were flocking to populism in the U.S. even though populism was quietly percolating in Europe.  It seemed that populism was being used to counter-attack democracy and liberal ideas. 

Democracy refers to a system of government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised through a system of direct or indirect representation which is decided through periodic free elections (Merriam-Webster).  Another way to view it is – the majority rules.  And that was the idea that was frightening to me in this podcast.  If the majority decides to exclude certain people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, etc., there would be nothing to check it.  That was not my definition of democracy. 

The series I listened to was titled “The Battle for Europe” and was part of The Daily podcast by the New York Times.  The series started off with Brexit in England, then went to France, Italy, Poland and ended in the reporter’s home country of Germany.  Although I knew that populism existed in Europe, I didn’t know that people disliked the European Union so much.  That’s what I came to learn through listening to this series.  I thought it would help me understand why populism was also growing in the U.S. 

Credit: The Economist

I had assumed that populism was growing due to anti-immigrant sentiments (which definitely exist), but that’s not the only reason.  I was prepared to hear the worst as the reporter interviewed people who had voted for populist candidates.  People are upset because jobs are leaving their country due to open borders and companies looking for cheaper labor.  One Italian mother simply said, “I just want my daughter to be able to work in Italy and be close to me.”  I found that to be a completely reasonable wish.  

Another lady said that she didn’t want to be forced to follow liberal values because they were contrary to what she believed in based on her religion.  I did not find this unreasonable coming from a person who is deeply religious.  So, she saw liberalism as the problem and therefore voted for populism as a way to protect her values.  If you flip the coin to the other side and think about something you truly value that becomes challenged by the government, you might be able to see her side of it. 

Another man talked about the fact that democracy could just be another ideology to run its course like communism.  That really blew my mind!  One could argue that communism was successful for a while and eventually saw its demise (although it still exists in China).  Maybe he was right to give it a time limit.  It sure seems like it today… 

When the reporter returned to her native Germany, that’s when democracy really took a turn for the worse.  She was debating with a group of young German nationalists and asked them if they thought someone like Hitler could be elected again.  They replied that Germany is not made up of the same people as it was before, and we do not think it will happen again.  I was hopeful, but I couldn’t escape the fact that Hitler was elected democratically.  And for the first time, I started to wonder whether democracy was the best solution. 

Overall, I do think it’s good to challenge your ideas and listen to different viewpoints.  Sometimes it’s good to examine your beliefs and hopefully it strengthens your resolve.   

You could say that Trump was also elected democratically if you downplay any potential Russian involvement and accept the electoral system as it is.  Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, so in my opinion he did not win but that is the system we have.  If we ever want anything to change, we need to keep voting, lobbying our representatives and keep spreading progressive ideas throughout the world.  My husband and I always say that progress might take a long time, but it always wins in the end. 

Monique Gonzales sitting down to a galette in Cancale, France. 

Monique Gonzales lives in Los Angeles with her French husband and 3-year-old daughter. They also have a cat named Cupcake. She works full-time as a controller for a visual effects company and tries hard to maintain a work/life balance.

Editor’s note: Monique is the youngest of  my four cousins who grew up in Gonzales, California, an agricultural town in Monterey County. She and her siblings are the daughters and sons of my late Aunt Ramona, one of my mother’s sisters, and my Uncle Eddie, who was my godfather.

Tomorrow: Bob Ehlers | Renovating and reuniting

Up to my ass in alligators

By Jacob Quinn Sanders

Neck immobilized, strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance, I couldn’t move. Minutes earlier, I’d been upside down, glass everywhere, trapped in a T-boned, flipped Rav4 in an intersection a few blocks from my house in North Little Rock, Arkansas.

I hadn’t lost consciousness, so before the ambulance left, a police officer had some basic questions for me to write down on his form: Name, employer, occupation.

“Jacob Sanders?” he asked. “‘Up to my ass in alligators’ Jacob Sanders?”

The very same, I told him.

“Anything you need,” the officer said, “you just let me know.”

And so now’s probably a good time to back up a little.


I was a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Covered law-enforcement across a lot of the state, but mainly the police departments in Little Rock and North Little Rock.

To the unobservant, the two cities could very much feel like one. Arkansas’ largest city and its capital separated from the city borrowing most of its name and holding a smaller fraction of its population by the state’s namesake river. Drive across one of the bridges and not much changed that would be visible from the inside of a car.

The police departments kept largely with the civic identity of each — big and self-important on the one side of the river, smaller and more outwardly neighborly on the other.

The police chief in North Little Rock was a man easy to get along with. If you showed you had a genuine interest in his department, in his city, in the people in his care, he was usually happy to make time for you.

Trick is, he did go on vacation from time to time. And this time, his public-information officer was off, too.

The person left in charge for anything of note was the major-crimes captain. 

That man didn’t like most people. Badge, no badge. Rank, no rank.

He especially didn’t like reporters.

The Democrat-Gazette was not yet an up-to-the-minute news organization on every little thing, so the goal was to get the basics and knock out a few paragraphs for the paper the next day without straining too hard.

Inevitably, there was a minor shooting. A person was wounded at an apartment complex where it was not surprising someone was wounded.

I drove over to the complex but missed what minimal action there would have been. Then I called the captain to get the basics from the report. Wasn’t official yet, he said. Call back later.

So I called every half hour. No information to release or simply no answer. 

My editor was frustrated. I was frustrated. All we needed were those couple of paragraphs — call time, call type, confirming the address, name of the wounded person, did the person live there, that kind of stuff. Nothing complicated. Nothing exciting.

The report he’s theoretically waiting on is simply awaiting his review in order to be official. I know the officer’s written it and a sergeant’s signed off on it. I know how this all works. 

Finally the captain told me, look, he’s got a lot going on and my request isn’t that important: “I’m up to my ass in alligators,” he said.

No information, no matter how basic, was forthcoming.

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. But we had a hurdle to clear.

Our copy desk tended toward the conservative in terms of what kind of license they’d allow a reporter on what should generally be pretty formulaic stuff.

We went to the copy desk in advance to make sure it got through.


I wrote it. It got published. Editors loved it. Other reporters loved it.

I didn’t have to wait long to find out what other people in the department thought of it. My cell phone rang at 8:30 the next morning. It was the public-information officer — a sergeant himself. He was still on vacation and had nonetheless heard about a little item in the paper buried inside the local section.

“What the hell did you do?” he asked me.

Why sergeant, I said, whatever do you mean?

“You’re gonna hear from the chief today, I hope you know that.”

He knows where to find me, I said.

My phone rings about 1:30 in the afternoon and it’s the chief.

“Jacob, what are you trying to do to my department?”

I asked him what that meant, and he said it made the department look bad, made him personally look bad, and that the captain was livid.

I asked if the captain disputed the accuracy of anything that had been published and the chief said no.

“That’s not our issue here,” he said.

We talked a little more about how it’s my job not to cover for his department or make them look one way or another but that basic and public information isn’t usually an issue between us and when it is, my duty is to the people who read the Democrat-Gazette.

We agreed to disagree. Still friendly, still professional. 

But it didn’t quite stop there.

A lot of folks in the department didn’t much like that captain either. They made, essentially, a meme. Made photocopies and stuck them up all around the department. This captain’s head on top of a little sailor-suited boy astride a massive alligator. Right there in glorious black and white.

No time to comment on a minor crime story, eh? Fine,

One guy made sure I got a copy. It remains among my favorite reporting mementos.

The crash was a few months later. And I had no idea what that officer was going to say when he got so excited about who he had tied down in front of him.

“Man, that was the best thing ever,” he said. “That guy’s such an asshole.”


Now it’s about a decade later. Now I live in Pennsylvania. Now I write code for a living. It’s a different life.

That story has stayed with me. A favorite war story, something to make other journalists laugh, the sense that one of the best pieces I ever had published was just four paragraphs long.

I decided to memorialize this appropriately. Among my handful of tattoos, there is one on my right forearm, just where it swings level with a certain area just below my waist.

I am, rather permanently, up to my ass in alligators.

Best tat ever.

Jacob Quinn Sanders is a Californian by birth, an Oregonian by upbringing, an Arkansan by experience and a Pennsylvanian by recent habit. A former reporter and editor and now a software developer working to contribute new tools to journalism, he spends too much time away from saltwater and too much time in front of a screen.

Editor’s note: We’re both former journalists now. But when we met about 15 years ago, I was a recruiter for The Oregonian and Jacob was a college student. We’ve kept in touch through the years and his many moves, and I have loved his many contributions to VOA. Great writer. Great sense of humor.

Tomorrow: Monique Gonzales | The meaning of democracy