A quiet Christmas

It’s coming up on 10 o’clock the morning after Christmas and all is peaceful in the Rede abode and in our neighborhood.

Slept in, had a leisurely breakfast, and put Norah Jones and James Taylor on the CD player. (Some things don’t change.)

Outside, the distant rumble of a garbage truck making its rounds is the only sound disrupting the silence. Patches of white on the street and sidewalk bear witness to the light snowfall that we had on Christmas Eve. The mercury hasn’t moved much since then, although I’m looking at sunshine and blue skies.

For the past several weeks, the message to Buy! Buy! Buy! has been hard to escape as retailers, advertisers and marketers throw all their energy at us from every which way — print, TV, radio and especially online. We’ve gone from Black Friday to Cyber Monday to Last-Minute Bargains to End-of-Year Blowout Sales without missing a beat.

Whew. And, no thanks.

***

We had a quiet Christmas this year. Simple and meaningful and celebrated in two phases.

With our youngest son and his family in Missouri, we took the opportunity to visit them in early December, well ahead of the stress that comes along with Christmas travel. We enjoyed the company of Jordan, Jamie and Emalyn over the course of five days and four nights without the manufactured pressure of the holidays.

We did indulge in the spirit of the season, however, with a nighttime visit to the ranch where Anheuser-Busch raises its famous Clydesdale horses. Holiday lights, hot cocoa, handfuls of kettlecorn, and a close-up view of these magnificent animals made for a chilly but memorable evening.

Back in Portland, we celebrated the holiday on Christmas Eve with our other two children during a Five Dog Night.

Nathan and girlfriend Sara came over with Uni, their Yorkshire Terrier, and Hector, their rescue mutt. Simone came over with Quimby, my favorite Chihuahua, and Templeton, a Mini-Me version of an Irish Wolfhound. (Her wife, Kyndall, was unable to join us as she was committed to visiting family members in eastern Washington and Idaho.) Charlotte, as the rambunctious hostess, made it five four-legged creatures.

Dinner, drinks and dessert were a nice set-up for Punderdome, a card game for pun lovers. (Truth be told, the gathering also served as an early birthday celebration for yours truly.)

When it came time to leave, the streets were slick and icy enough that Simone spent the night, resulting in bonus time with our daughter on Christmas morning.

As dusk arrived, we kicked our plans into gear: Grab an early dinner at Frank’s Noodle House, a family-run joint featuring Chinese hand-pulled noodles, and then head on over to the Hollywood Theater to see “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Frances McDormand delivers a powerful performance as a strong-willed mother taking extreme measures to prod local law enforcement into doing more to solve her daughter’s murder. Great movie with a cast that includes Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage.

(Interesting that the movie is set in Missouri. Not really, though. No such place as Ebbing. Plus, the film was shot in North Carolina.)

All in all, a very nice celebration. Even when it’s not possible to have all your loved ones in a single place, there’s a way to celebrate separately with meaning.

xmas-obama

A Christmas gift for the two of us. Miss him.

 

Advertisements

Daring to be real in a world of perfection

kate carroll de gutes

Kate Carroll de Gutes reads from “The Authenticity Experiment” during a promotional event at Northeast Portland’s Fremont Theater.

We are curators. Each and every one of us who writes a blog, shares Instagram photos or posts to our Facebook wall is choosing what and when to publish. Nothing appears there by chance.

We control the content — every word, every image, every YouTube video, every comment that we allow on our social media sites.

And the result? More often than not, it’s an endless stream of feel-good moments and milestones.  We celebrate births and birthdays, weddings, graduations and milestones.

We share photos of where we’ve been, whom we were with, where we ate and what we ate.

Less often, we interrupt the bliss to write about a death of a family member or beloved pet, about the loss of a job or other personal setback.

Soon we’re back at it, posting images of sunsets and mountains, cocktails and casseroles.

So what?

So what if the curated version of our lives represents a selective scraping and molding of those experiences?

So what if that version offers a distorted representation of our daily lives, untethered to reality?

***

In a new and wise book, Portland writer Kate Carroll de Gutes cuts through the facade and delivers a bracing alternative to the happy-face fantasy.

the authenticity experimentThe result is a compelling, entertaining, inspiring collection of short pieces presented under the title “The Authenticity Experiment.”

It’s a slim volume of 166 pages of 47 posts, essays and blog entries — essentially the product of a 30-day challenge she gave herself during what she calls “the best and worst year of my life.”

Could she be more honest on social media following the deaths of her mother, her best friend and her editor-mentor, all occurring within a few months of each other? Could she share the duality of her life — both the light and the dark — in celebrating the praise lavished on her first book (“Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appears’) as well as mourning the loss of loved ones?

Yes, she could be and, yes, she was. Each page crackles with the authenticity of someone who has laid aside pretense and ego in favor of honesty and heartache. The essays undulate from sad to humorous, self-deprecating to self-reflective.

The chapters are organized by the season — essays published during the summer, fall, winter and spring — and the entries draw you in with such titles as “Dear Mom” and “Death Is Like This” and “Wiping Clean Regret.”

In a prologue to the book, Kate says:

“The essays you’ll find in this book are raw and filtered through my lens as I think on the page and try to understand the journey I’m on and how my own privilege and power plays a role in what I think about death, class, self-worth, perfectionism, and other topics we usually keep to ourselves.

“I don’t offer any answers, and I don’t always find my ways to conclusions, or to better thinking. It’s like hacking a path through the forest: you can’t always see where you’re doing, and you can’t always see how far you’ve come, but you know you’re on your way to somewhere.”

***

I loved the idea of the book and admired its execution. It felt especially real having just met the author just three weeks earlier.

I didn’t know of Kate or her work until a friend invited Lori and me to a book launch event in Northeast Portland.

Read the blog post New space, new author here.

Kate was charming and witty, and stuck around to autograph the many books she sold that night, including one to Lori. They connected over the fact that Kate had spent several years living in the North Beach neighborhood of Lori’s hometown, San Francisco.

Kate-Carroll-BW-Cropped-766x1024

Kate Carroll de Gutes is a Portland writer whose debut memoir, “Objects Closer in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” won the 2016 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and a 2016 Lambda Literary Award in Memoir.

I picked up the book on a quiet weekend at the Oregon Coast in early October, but didn’t finish it until sometime in November. I’ve mulled about it since then, wondering when to write about it and what to say.

Read the blog post NaBloPoMo here

As a fellow blogger who once also challenged myself to write daily for a month, I tip my hat to Kate. She’s done a wonderful job demonstrating how we can fully share our whole selves in this era of the “digital back fence.”

B/W photograph: katecarrolldegutes.com/

Media literacy in London

london flyer front

A flier for the international program I hope to teach next summer

I keep pinching myself, but it’s looking increasingly likely that I’ll be teaching my favorite subject in historic London next summer.

London, England? That’s right.

Long story short: Portland State has an Education Abroad office that encourages professors to propose an international program of their choice, and then provides all the staff support needed to make it happen.

Adjunct instructors like myself are equally encouraged to submit a so-called faculty-led proposal, including course title, location and duration. With the encouragement of a key contact in the Ed Abroad office, I quickly came up with a syllabus and tentative daily schedule for a two-week course in a leading global media center.

The department chair approved the proposal and in late November, Ed Abroad officially gave Media Literacy in London the green light. The course is set to run from July 16 through July 30, 2018.

jen hamlow - george

I met Jen Hamlow in January 2014 when a mutual friend recruited us to play on a coed cornhole team. She’s the director of PSU’s Education Abroad office and the one who asked me this year if I’d be interested in teaching internationally.

 

***

Students have until March 15 to apply. The goal is to select 12 to 15 students to spend two weeks with me using London as our classroom for exploring similarities and differences between the U.S. and U.K. media — not just in journalism, but in advertising and entertainment media as well.  We’ll get fresh perspectives on immigration, terrorism, social media, media economics, privacy rights, Brexit and the royal family.

If all goes as planned, we’ll visit public relations and advertising agencies, a newspaper and a local TV station. We’ll meet with U.K. journalism students and their professors; tour historic Fleet Street, where British journalism was born; and visit the Houses of Parliament.

 

We’ll have a handful of guest speakers, share several meals together, and get out into the city to create individual photo albums linking the images to the key concepts in our discussions. We’ll also make time to see world-famous tourist attractions like Big Ben, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and the London Eye.

All this in one of the world’s most popular, important cities — a sprawling, incredibly diverse metropolis that serves as the cultural, media, fashion, entertainment and political capital of the United Kingdom. Imagine New York, Hollywood and Washington, D.C., all rolled into a single city of 10 million people and you have London.

I’ve never been to London; my one and only trip to Europe was five years ago when Lori and I visited Italy and Slovenia.

Now all I need are the students.

***

According to the Ed Abroad staffers I’ve been working with, I have reason to be encouraged this course will fly.

Even before it went “live,” students were inquiring about the dates and cost of the course. Last week, I teamed with the Ed Abroad office to hold the first of at least three information sessions planned between now and the end of February. Yesterday, I participated in a conference call with a Boston-based company that specializes in working with universities on the logistics of their international programs.

By enlisting their support — as well as that of the Ed Abroad office — I can focus on the academic aspects of the course while our partners make all the arrangements for housing, ground transportation, field trips, museum admissions, orientation sessions and other logistics. I’ll have a furnished apartment while my students will be housed two to a room. I have no idea yet where we will be located, but all that will be worked out in the coming months.

londontownFor now, at least six students have taken the first step of opening an application file. At least four dozen other students have expressed interest through sign-up sheets following classroom presentations I’ve made and an Ed Abroad fair I attended during the recently completed fall quarter. I’ll continue to market the course when the winter term begins in January.  I’ll have to renew my passport, too.

I’ve tried not to get overly excited, but it’s hard not to think ahead. I imagine myself immersed in central London, accompanied by a dozen intellectually curious students, and it seems unreal. Maybe the Londontown wall calendar I purchased yesterday will bring good fortune.

London photographs: Wikimedia Commons

The Snapper

Sometimes all you want from a book is a little relief. Work can suck up a lot of energy, even if you like it. And life itself can be full of commitments and surprises.

With finals week at Portland State all done and a long-distance plane ride ahead of me, I was more than ready to pick up a lighthearted novel. Roddy Doyle’s “The Snapper” filled the bill.

the snapperEn route to and from Missouri, I enjoyed this breezy little book (216 pages) as if Doyle himself were reading it aloud and sharing pints with me at a Dublin pub. Unlike most novels, which are heavy on narrative and character development, this one feels like it’s nearly all dialogue. Make that effin’ funny, sometimes crass, but always honest, dialogue.

The story centers on a working-class Irish family and the recently announced pregnancy of the eldest daughter, 20-year-old Sharon. She’s unmarried and living at home, working at a retail job that bores her, and she’s decided to keep the identity of the father a secret.

Jimmy Sr., the Rabbitte family patriarch, struggles at first to accept the news. Ireland, after all, is a Catholic country and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy is hardly something he’d celebrate with his drinking buddies. (Keep in mind, the novel was published in 1991, so many a real-life Irish family would have reacted in the same way.)

Friends and neighbors join the Rabbittes in speculating about the father’s identity. When Jimmy Sr. hears nasty things being said about Sharon, he gets into a fight at the local pub and comes home with a bloody nose, perceiving it as a badge of honor for defending his daughter’s reputation.

But instead of saying thanks, Sharon scolds her father, telling him to mind his own business because she’s an adult who can fight her own battles.

Jimmy Sr. shuts down in resentment, ignoring Sharon for weeks until she calls him on it. Chastened once again, he admits to himself that he’s embarrassed by Sharon’s situation. From then on, he adopts an entirely different attitude, coming to realize that his role to is support his daughter and love her baby, no matter who the father is.

It’s a sweet story with tender moments between father and daughter. The dialogue is wonderfully authentic, with more F-bombs than you can count — coming from Jimmy Sr. and his pals, as well as Sharon and her friends — and repeated references to Jaysis! (Jesus!)

***

Here’s one scene where Sharon and her friends are out drinking (yes, pregnant Sharon) and one of them, Jackie, is telling the group about breaking up with her boyfriend Greg at a cafe, after he’d accused her of stealing the cream out of his chocolate eclair.

“He stuck his tongue in me ear once,”  Jackie told them when they’d settled down again. “An’, I’m not jokin’ yis, I think he was trying’ to get it out the other one. I don’t know what he f***in’ thought I had in there.”

She laughed with them.

“He licked half me brains ou’. Like a big dog, yeh know.”

They roared.

Jackie waited.

“His sense o’ direction wasn’t the best either, d’yis know what I mean?”

They roared again.

“Jesus!”

“Jackie O’Keefe! You’re f****in’ disgustin’ ‘!”

 ***

Roddy Doyle is an accomplished writer with several novels, screenplays, film adaptations, TV scripts, children’s books and freelance articles to his credit.

I’d read Doyle once before, so I had a good idea of what to expect. Lots of sharp dialogue. Characters who are rough around the edges. Themes of love, loyalty and honesty.

roddy-doyle.jpg

The Irish writer Roddy Doyle

It wasn’t until after I’d finished the novel that I realized I had no idea what the characters looked like. That is, Doyle made no effort to describe anyone’s physical attributes — hair color, body shape, etc. — and instead invested all his effort into creating conversational dialogue that captivated me from the opening sentence to the final page.

Who cares what Jimmy Sr. or Sharon looked like? What’s more important is how they navigated the stages of her surprise pregnancy while dealing with the ups and downs of their own relationship.

That is what really matters. And that is the sign of one helluva writer.

Photograph of Roddy Doyle: rte.ie

Holidays in Missouri

MO emalyn2

Happy, smiley Emalyn. (Photo by Lori Rede)

The last time I set foot in Missouri was six months ago, at the end of a grueling four-day road trip to help our youngest son, Jordan, move across country into the college town of Columbia.

We unloaded a 20-foot U-Haul truck and I left, exhausted, early the following morning.

When I returned last week with Lori at my side, everything had changed.

  • The townhouse I had last seen piled with boxes and furniture had been remade into an appealing space.
  • Jamie and baby Emalyn, who had stayed with Lori during the move, welcomed us into their home.
  • Jordan was now six months into a fellowship program at the University of Missouri designed to prepare students for graduate study in biomedical research.
  • I’d just finished giving the final exam and posted grades for my class at Portland State.

Now, we were here — 2,000 miles from home — to spend a few days with the kids and our 18-month-old granddaughter.

***

The visit went well. In fact, as Lori remarked, it’s hard to imagine a better time.

We booked our flight months ago, opting to visit well ahead of the craziness of the Christmas rush yet close enough to feel the holiday spirit.

The weather was clear and crisp, with bright sunshine and subfreezing temperatures that reminded us of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we once lived for a year during a sabbatical.

We made a couple of trips to the local mall, did some shopping, saw Santa, put Emalyn on the carousel, and visited the ranch outside Columbia where the famous Budweiser Clydesdales are born and bred.

(Click on images to view captions.)

We did some babysitting, visited a nearby park and played with their dog, Jax, a gentle pit bull. We also watched a forgettable Netflix movie (“The Ref”) and a new-to-us TV series (“The Punisher”).

Jordan and I got some guy time, and he showed me the lab where he does his research.

***

Most of all, we enjoyed every minute around Emalyn. She is a delight.

At this age, she is walking confidently, communicating in sign language with a vocabulary I estimate at 50-plus words, and smiling her way through the day. She’s an adventurous eater (watch your hummus if she’s nearby), a lover of books and animals, and a physically active girl.

She takes Baby Yoga with her mom, goes to the municipal pool for swimming, clambers on the play equipment at the park, and throws a slobbery rubber ball for Jax.

Emalyn sees us regularly on FaceTime, so it didn’t take long for her to connect the small-screen images with the real-life Nonni Lori and Papa George.

What’s most striking about Em — aside from being the most photogenic child on the planet — is that she is just so happy. Jamie, as a stay-at-home mom, has done a wonderful job as a parent and teacher with Jordan’s help and reinforcement.

Lori and I arrived on a Wednesday evening and flew home Sunday afternoon. It was a wonderful visit and one we hope to repeat again next year.

 

Autumn memories

lin-george-lori-terry

A good way to start a weekend visit? With a hot drink at happy hour. From left, Lin, George, Lori and Terry.

Seems it wasn’t that long ago that summer turned to fall. Mornings got cooler. Trees went from leafy to naked. And another academic term began at Portland State.

And now what?

Halloween, Thanksgiving and the World Series all have come and gone. Today kicks off the last week of classes at PSU. And the winter equinox is less than a month away.

Before another day slips by, it’s time to pause and reflect on a few highlights of recent weeks.

Catholic school girls: Early in the month, two of Lori’s closest friends came up from San Francisco to spend a three-day weekend with us. Terry (Long) Mullaney is Lori’s BFF.  They grew up across the street from each other in the City by the Bay, and Terry still lives in her childhood home with her husband Mike.

Lori and Terry attended Catholic schools from first grade through 12th, and it was at the all-girls Mercy High School that they met Linda Dillon and became fast friends. After graduation, the trio took different paths to college and the world of work, but have stayed in close contact through the decades.

(Click on images to view captions.)

We tried to make the most of their time here, showing them a couple of neighborhoods to get a feel for Northeast Portland. We also rode the Portland Streetcar to and from the South Waterfront district for lunch and a trip on the tram to Oregon Health & Science University. We popped in at Powell’s Books, went to dinner at Aviary and had some great home-cooked meals as well.

It’s always fun to get the female perspective from hanging out with three longtime friends.

Rip City: November means the start of the NBA season and, in Portland, there’s no better ticket in town than the Blazers. Lori and I got to see only one game together last year, so I’m making amends this season, hoping to attend at least three more with her.

We saw the Blazers take down the Phoenix Suns on Oct. 28, the first Saturday of the season. After seeing them lose all six games I attended last year, it was good to see the team get off to a winning start this season.

Happy hour: Teaching has gone well this fall at PSU, and I’ve added a new responsibility as internship coordinator for the Department of Communication. But I’ve also enjoyed being part of the crew at my other job at the nonprofit Portland Workforce Alliance.

Our executive director is out on temporary medical leave, so the other four of us have been working extra hard to keep things going in his absence. We bring together local high school students, leading employers and community volunteers, helping to facilitate career days, classroom speakers, mock interviews, essay writing workshops and other activities that help teens prepare for college and career.

PWA happy hour

The Dream Team at Portland Workforce Alliance includes, clockwise from left, Susan Nielsen, myself, Sherri Nee and Kristen Kohashi.

Last week, my co-workers and I got together after work during a happy hour that was therapeutic for all of us. Our schedules often don’t mesh, so it was nice to finally get some down time together. I’m very fortunate to work with such smart, likable people.

Giving thanks: Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday simply because it is the most meaningful in terms of appreciating your loved ones and the least driven by commercial hype.

This year, Nathan was the only one of our kids available to join us. His girlfriend, now fiancee, Sara hung out with her parents. Simone and Kyndall were on vacation in a place with a tropical climate. And, of course, Jordan, Jamie and baby Emalyn were 2,000 miles away in Missouri.

We had a relaxing evening with our oldest child, and an obscenely delicious meal built around a roasted turkey prepared by Lori.

The next day, we invited Chris, a new friend from the neighborhood, and her dog Oliver to join us for leftovers. Chris is a warm and generous soul. Ollie, her trusty Jack Russell Terrier, is Charlotte’s best friend. The two romp together and walk together, and on this night wound up relaxing next to each other on Charlotte’s bed in front of the fireplace.

Four-star movie: This post began with Catholic school girls and it’s ending with another Catholic school girl. Lori and I saw a Sunday matinee showing of “Lady Bird,” one of those independent films with an engaging coming-of-age story and a quirky but lovable lead character.

Saoirse Ronan, who turned in an Oscar-nominated performance in “Brooklyn,” stars as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a restless 17-year-old who can’t wait to be done with her senior year of high school and move to New York for college. Lady Bird (a name she gave herself) is bored with her hometown of Sacramento, California, and oh-so-done with the rules and restrictions at her all-girls Catholic school. She’s also got a rocky relationship with her hard-working disciplinarian mom, played wonderfully by Laurie Metcalf.

The problem for Lady Bird is that her grades are mediocre and she’s just gotten suspended for mouthing off at school. Plus, she’s trying to navigate friendships and loyalties, romance and sex, and figure out who she is herself as someone who’s grown up poor and aspires to something more, whatever and wherever that may be.

It’s a refreshing film that lets you see the world through the eyes of a smart and still-evolving teenage girl. As writer and director, Greta Gerwig has come up with an entertaining story, believable characters and authentic dialogue. As the film’s namesake, Saoirse Ronan is sweet and funny, vulnerable and unsettled. I won’t be surprised if she, Metcalf, Gerwig and the film itself are nominated for Oscars next year.

fall leaves

Leaf pick-up day finally arrived last week, just as several piles in our neighborhood swelled to the size of a mid-sized car.

The perfect guest

george-al

Friends for a half-century: George and Al at the Moda Center after a Blazers win.

What do you say about a house guest who makes his bed, prepares dinner, washes the dishes. and walks your dog?

If you’re me, you say, “It’s just what I expected coming from Al.”

Al Rodriguez is my best friend, mi compadre. Has been since freshman year of high school. We met as grade school kids when our dads took us to a San Francisco Giants baseball game at Candlestick Park. (Actually, it might have been when we were in junior high — there’s some dispute about that. But there’s no disputing the friendship that’s stretched out across five decades.)

We ran track and cross country together in high school. Talked about girls and relationships over countless cups of coffee and late-night meals in suburban Fremont. Became roommates during our junior year at San Jose State after he transferred there from the private college he’d been attending in South Dakota.

Two years later, he was the best man at our wedding. All three of us were just 22.

rede wedding

Sept. 6, 1975: Lori and George with matron of honor Linda Hansen, best man Al Rodriguez and groom Michael Granberry.

In the years following graduation, Lori and I headed north to Oregon, where we’ve planted our roots and raised our family. Al remained in California, working in the public and nonprofit sectors, and for nearly 20 years has made his home in Santa Barbara, where he lives with his wife, Elizabeth. They are extraordinarily close to their only child, Nicole.

We sometimes went years between visits. We’d often rendezvous in Los Angeles when I was attending a job fair on behalf of my former employer. But lately we’ve been able to see each other at least once a year, and that’s been due in no small part to his willingness to come up to Portland for the annual Voices of August meetup.

***

That was the reason for his most recent stay. He arrived on a Friday, left on a Wednesday. In between, the three of us got to catch up in depth. And I got to spend some Bro Time with him on consecutive nights before he left for the airport.

Sunday: After Saturday’s small-but-stellar meetup of VOA contributors, we chilled the following day. Took an extended walk in our neighborhood, enjoying the fall colors and giving our excitable dog, Charlotte, some time to walk off a little energy. Came home and turned the kitchen over to Al, who prepared two trays of chicken enchiladas.

Monday: While Lori and I worked in the morning, Al hopped on a TriMet bus to a public swimming pool in North Portland. Took him to lunch downtown so he (er, we) could indulge in the food carts. Picked one that was selling Middle Eastern food — Kafta House! scrumptious! — and chatted with the Syrian owners for a bit.

(Click on images to view captions.)

In the evening, Al and I enjoyed a Pop-Up Magazine presentation at Revolution Hall. I’d attended one the year before so I knew what to expect: an evening of live entertainment featuring writers, animation, video, music, dancing and a karaoke piece that had the whole auditorium singing along to the Journey classic “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Tuesday:  Again, we had to work in the morning. This time Al borrowed my bike and rode south along the Eastside Esplanade and the Willamette Greenway down to the Sellwood Bridge. All three of us took an afternoon walk in the Alberta Arts District, from the Tiny Houses Hotel to Bernie’s Southern Kitchen and back. Stopped for a happy hour beverage and toasted our friendship.

After a multiethnic dinner of Al’s leftover enchiladas and Lori’s luscious lasagna, Al and I went to the Trail Blazers’ home opener against New Orleans. Traffic was really heavy, which caused us to miss the ear-splitting introductions and other hoopla. But we found our seats a couple minutes in and enjoyed the outcome: a Portland win.

Wednesday: We said our goodbyes in the morning and left Al to enjoy breakfast on his own, followed by an Uber ride to the airport.

Friendships can be hard to maintain in this era of texting and increasingly rare phone calls. In this case, I’m grateful for the enduring bond that took root in the mid-’60s, long before Al and I met our wives.

Simply put, Al (or Al Rod, as he was known in high school) is a rock. Someone I can talk to candidly — and listen to attentively — because we know each other so well. He calls me out when I deserve it. He needles me because he can. And he makes me feel valued because he listens carefully and responds thoughtfully and constructively.

Proud to have known this man for as long as I have and to call him my best friend. Mi compadre.

Heck, even Charlotte likes him.

VOA 7.0 meetup

VOA 7.0 group

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

There were fewer of us at this year’s Voices of August meetup  but that hardly took away from the good energy in the room.

A week ago today, 13 of us came together at a Northeast Portland brewpub to celebrate another year of great writing and great camaraderie centered around my annual guest blog project: 31 writers on 31 topics presented in 31 days.

In its seventh year, VOA has eclipsed anything I might have imagined when I first extended invitations to friends, family and work colleagues to choose a subject and write an original essay. Each piece reflects something of the writer’s interests and values. Each piece has something to inform, entertain, inspire or remind us of people, pets, ideas and events that are important.

Sometimes those essays are about taking new adventures or dealing with personal loss. Sometimes they are about facing our fears or celebrating an accomplishment. Sometimes they are about where we are in the stages of life and dealing with those challenges.

No matter what, they resonate widely. (More on that below.)

As good as those essays are, it’s the conversation sparked by these blog posts that is truly remarkable. Unlike the shouting and name-calling we see in too many reader comment sections, what you see within the VOA community is mutual respect and cause for reflection. From those online connections has emerged an annual opportunity to meet face-to-face with each other, renewing old friendships or making new ones.

Those good vibes were on full display last Saturday, with participants coming from as far as Northern and Southern California (thank you, Lakshmi Jagannathan, Raghu Raghavan and Al Rodriguez). Closer to home, we welcomed a VOA rookie to the party: Cynthia Gomez, a Portland State colleague of mine who’s just begun a masters program in Creative Writing.

I would have loved a larger turnout, of course. But several factors — out-of-town travel, family birthdays, health issues and more — conspired to chip away at attendance. Still, I marvel that we had contributions this year from a record nine states: Oregon, Washington, California, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Texas and New York. What’s more, those writers ranged in age from 60-plus to 18 to 13. Amazing variety.

***

Each year, I invite followers of VOA — regular readers plus writers, past and present — to vote for their three favorite pieces. It’s torture, I know, to select just three from the wonderful array of submissions. But here’s the deal: There are no criteria other than to choose what resonated with you, whether it was the quality of the writing or the subject of the piece. Either way, it’s good.

The top vote-getters win a gift card to a bookstore. This year, weirdly enough, not a single one of this year’s favorites was at the meetup. So, here’s a hearty online round of applause for those whose essays struck us as extra special:

John Knapp: “The Odometer” — On the eve of turning 63, John reflects on the matter-of-fact approach he’s taking toward life after learning his heart disease has advanced despite his best efforts:

“I was never going to get out of here alive, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life pining for that hot dog I wanted, but never ate because I was afraid it might raise my cholesterol. Life is short.”

Midori Mori: “What it means to have Pride” — A precocious 13-year-old living in Portland’s liberal bubble sets out on a path of self-acceptance as transgender but finds it doesn’t come easily.

“It seems mostly everyone around me can accept who I am and the only person who can’t is me. I don’t care if I have to shout out to the world that I am transgender, but for now saying that about myself still makes me uncomfortable. Some part of me is more in shock of my own label than denial.”

Aki Mori: “My beautiful child, Midori” — A father writes candidly about his struggle to embrace his daughter’s new gender identity.

“I am coming along, and Midori gives me plenty of space with her happy-go-lucky personality. With the passing of time I am beginning to treat Midori more and more like my son, even subconsciously in many cases.”

Mary Pimentel: “Monster”— What’s it like to grow up without a mom who fell into drug abuse as a teenager? An 18-year-old college freshman draws us into her world, revealing the pain and emptiness she felt as a child but also her own capacity to understand and forgive.

“I live my life with pride and appreciation knowing I share so many qualities with such a beautiful human being yet with sorrow knowing that something evil took away the chance of having a mom to braid my hair and wipe the tears from my first heartbreak. I love her immensely still, and no matter the negative, I am living.”

And, as an exclamation point on VOA 7.0, I’m giving an Editor’s Award to Nike Bentley, who’s been part of this project since Year One. She’s a former student of mine, now married and mother of two feisty girls, and she sets a high bar when it comes to reader engagement. Every comment she leaves at the end of a post is thoughtful and often just as eloquent as the essay itself.

Catch up with anything you missed: VOA 7.0 index page

The staggering genius of Stieg Larsson

rooney mara - girl with dragon tattoo

Rooney Mara starred as Lisbeth Salander in the American film adaptation of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” released in 2011. (Merrick Morton / Associated Press)

I just finished the last of the three novels in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of crime thriller novels — and it only took me three years to do it!

It’s true.

I read the first novel in the fall of 2014, when Lori and I were vacationing on Orcas Island. I bought “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” at a used bookstore in Eastsound and was blown away. Larsson delivered a masterful narrative that was chilling and creepy, and built it around two intriguing characters — an investigative journalist named Mikael Blomkvist and a reclusive genius hacker named Lisbeth Salander, the heavily tattooed girl referenced in the title.

It took me 18 months to get to the next one, “The Girl Who Played with Fire.” Same characters as in the first book, picking up right where they left off after the murders of two journalists at Blomkvist’s crusading magazine and the fingerprints on the murder weapon belonging to none other than Salander.

It took me another 18 months to get around to the third and final novel, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Fittingly, I read it during our most recent vacation to Orcas. With a week of free time to burn in mid-September, I vowed to plow through the 563 pages.

“Plow” is hardly what happened. More like “got sucked into and couldn’t put it down.” Just like the first two, Larsson pulled me in fast and deep.

girl who kicked the hornets nestAs with the preceding installment, the third novel resumed where the second broke off, this time with Salander lying in critical condition in a hospital, with a bullet wound to her head, and fighting for her life. If and when she recovers, she’ll be put on trial for the murders of three men she killed in self-defense.

But the authorities don’t know the true circumstances of those deaths and prosecutors are busy preparing a case against her that looks airtight. It’s up to Blomkvist, who is going through personal turmoil and is under surveillance by some bad guys, to help prove Salander’s innocence. To do that, he needs to penetrate the dark world of Swedish intelligence agencies and unravel the connections between the trio of murders involving Salander and other killings that occur along the way.

This is high praise, but let me say each and every book is superb. They average just under 600 pages each. Taken together, they are extraordinary.

***

Who is Stieg Larsson?

I’d call him a genius.

Larsson was an investigative journalist in Sweden who died of a heart attack in 2004. He was only 50 years old and had just delivered the manuscripts for all three novels, intending that they published as a series.

Imagine that. Creating compelling characters, intriguing story lines, dozens of plot twists and harrowing cliffhangers. Stitching everything together in a total of 1,783 pages and doing it all at an incredibly high level of writing.

It’s a staggering accomplishment.

stieg larsson

The prodigiously talented Stieg Larsson. (Photo credit: The Australian)

As of March 2015, the Larsson novels had sold 80 million copies worldwide and 25 million in the U.S. alone since 2005, according to TIME magazine.

Larsson’s journalistic background shows in the muscular sentences, precise wording and descriptive detail found in each novel. The newsroom scenes at Millennium magazine, where Blomqvist works, were totally on the mark. His knowledge of police investigations, courtroom procedures and computer technology was impressive. And he possessed a vivid imagination that drove the intricate master plot.

In addition to being a first-rate journalist and novelist, Larsson was considered a leading expert on antidemocratic, right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations.

The world lost a great writer when Larsson died. You’d think the series would have ended with his passing 13 years ago, but no. Interestingly, Lisbeth Salander lives on in two more novels — one published in 2015 and the other released just last month —  both written by David Lagercrantz, a Swedish journalist recruited by Larsson’s publisher.

I did a double take when I saw the newest one displayed at a grocery store. Absorbed as I was in the original trilogy, I hadn’t realized that the series continued with “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” (2015) and “The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye.” (2017).

I’m not sure how I feel about that. It was so satisfying to read the original series, even if it did take three years. I can’t imagine the next two novels being as good, but I could be wrong.

All I know is that each of the Larsson novels was incredibly satisfying despite sometimes gory content. The late author has given us an unforgetable anti-heroine in Lisbeth Salander, a pixie-sized woman with a photographic memory, a fierce will to live, and an indelible dragon tattoo.

Cannon Beach

charlotte sandy

When sand gets on your snout, it’s the sign of a good time. Little Charlotte.

Can it be just a few days ago that Lori and I were walking on the beach in sunny weather suitable for shorts and sandals?

With all the rain forecast today and tomorrow, and coming on top of yesterday’s downpour, it hardly seems true. But it was — and a nice respite it was for two days and two nights in Cannon Beach.

In the early years of our marriage, we used to visit Cannon Beach more than any other community on the Oregon Coast. Now, I’m hard-pressed to remember the last time we were here, given that we’ve been drawn to Manzanita, Rockaway Beach and Pacific City as our favorite getcaways.

cannon beach

Quiet, unpaved streets made for relaxing walks during our short stay.

Over the decades, Cannon Beach has transformed from charming little town to a mini-Lake Oswego, with boutique shops and a burgeoning restaurant scene catering to visitors from Portland and far beyond. The local grocery store, Mariner Market, and Bruce’s Candy Kitchen, everyone’s go-to for salt water taffy, are still there. But they’ve been joined by a whole lot of bistros, brewpubs, coffee shops and retailers, and the city several years ago added public parking lots to accommodate tourist vehicles that wouldn’t possibly find space along Hemlock Street, the town’s main artery.

So, while the city has retained some of its charm, it’s also embraced commercial development on a scale that other coastal towns haven’t.

***

A few odds ‘n’ ends from our 48 hours in Cannon Beach:

ferris buellerDown time. We stayed in a friend’s one-bedroom cottage about a quarter-mile south of the main shopping area, just right for the two of us and our dog Charlotte. Aside from walks on the quiet neighborhood streets and on the beach, we spent time reading, knitting (well, one of us did), and indulging in some old movies on cable TV, and watching some of the Oregon-WSU football game.

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” remains as funny as when it was released in 1986. (Yikes! 31 years ago??) The movie’s motto — “One man’s struggle to take it easy” — fit in perfectly with our low-key weekend.

Shopping. We dropped in on our friend, Lisa, who co-owns Vintage Viaje, a shop specializing in vintage items and imported goods. Lots of cool collectibles, used clothing and handmade goods. We each found something to buy.

We also went to the nearby Jupiter’s Books, a funky old spot specializing in rare and used books. Great to see an independent bookstore off the beaten path that marches to its own beat. Again, we found something for each of us.

(Click on images to view captions.)

Eating well. We opted for simple meals we prepared ourselves. Scallops for dinner, grilled cod and smoked sardines for lunch (Lori’s influence right there). Our one meal out? Cannon Beach Hardware & Public House, also known as Screw and Brew.

Imagine yourself at a corner table with rows of screwdrivers, drill bits and other items on the walls behind you as you dive into a basket of fish-and-chips or a tossed salad with grilled halibut, washed down with a draft beer or glass of wine.

Our waiter, a friendly fellow named Mason, told us that dual-purpose businesses under the same roof are actually pretty common in Ireland. A brewpub and a hardware store? A brewpub and a grocery store? A brewpub and bookstore? You’ll find all those and more combinations in Ireland, he told us. Works for me.

The beach. One thing I love about Oregon is that every mile of beach is publicly owned. That’s 363 miles, stretching from the mouth of the Columbia River to the California state border. And there’s no more iconic landmark than Haystack Rock, rising 235 feet in the ocean surf.

I’ve run into plenty of native Oregonians who love walking on the beach into the face of a pelting rain — and I get that. But there’s also something magical about strolling along the water’s edge when the sun is shining on your shoulders. It’s even more fun when your urban dog gets to run off-leash in the wide-open spaces. Charlotte had a great time and so did we, just watching her.

george-charlotte

Looks like Charlotte lost an ear, but it’s just blown back by the wind.

We were overdue for a quick getaway like this one. Hope to do it again soon, maybe after the first of the year.

Postscript: After this published, I noticed this was Blog Post No. 600 on Rough and Rede II. Not too shabby. (GR)