2016: What a year

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Dawn on Orcas Island brings a magnificent view of Mount Baker.

Three weeks from today, the nation will inaugurate a new president — not the one I wanted, not the one everyone expected, but the bloviating mess known as Donald J. Trump.

I shudder to think what the next four years will be like under this man who continues to defy every social and political convention while trampling on the bounds of common decency. Especially so after the model of dignity, grace and intelligence that we’ve seen exhibited by Barack Obama and his equally impressive wife, Michelle, a power in her own right.

It’s still beyond belief that a man so ignorant (and proud of it), so misogynistic (and proud of it), so narcissistic (and proud of it) has been elected to the nation’s highest office. Yet there’s no disputing that Trump’s election was the story of the year in 2016.

But I’m not going to dwell on him. I’ve got my own agenda today — and that’s taking a look back at the year that was. For all the sadness we felt seeing so many entertainers and other public figures pass from the scene — David Bowie, Prince, Maurice White, Elie Wiesel, Garry Shandling, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, et al — there was a lot of other stuff going on in the Rede household.

After all, this is the year I traveled a new path, away from the newsroom where I had worked for the past 30 years. This was the year I caught a glimpse of what retirement might be like, only to settle into a new work routine in the fall.

Here’s a quick take:

***

First grandchild: We welcomed a charming little girl into our lives in late July. Little Emalyn May Rede, the daughter of our youngest son, Jordan, and his wife, Jamie, has been nothing but a source of pride and joy.

Lori and I were privileged to be the first ones to see and hold Emalyn, other than her parents, when she was just hours old. In the months since, she’s already transformed from helpless infant to smiling, healthy baby, seemingly delighted to be part of the action.

A new job (actually, two): Just as my severance from The Oregonian/OregonLive was running out in mid-September, along came two opportunities to return to the workforce.

Portland State University hired me to teach in the Department of Communications. I got started with a Media Ethics class that set me on a course I’ve always wanted to explore — that of a classroom teacher.

At the same time, I landed a part-time job as communications coordinator with the nonprofit Portland Workforce Alliance, an organization that partners with local employers and schools to expand career and technical education opportunities for metro-area high school students.

In January, I will add a third leg to this stool as an adjunct instructor at Washington State University Vancouver. I loved being a journalist, but I also feel fortunate to have these new employment opportunities.

The big noventa: My dad turned 90 years old in March, so all three of us kids and our extended families gathered in a San Diego suburb to celebrate nine decades of good living.

My dad and stepmom drove in from New Mexico. Lori and I flew in from Portland. My younger sister Cathy flew down from Alaska. My older sister Rosemary, with help from her daughter and son-in-law, hosted the party near Oceanside.

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Thanks to a selfie stick, four generations of Redes gather around Dad (in black hat) in honor of his 90th birthday.

Catarino Allala Rede is the only sibling left from a family of seven brothers and two sisters. It was great to see my dad basking in the love and admiration of his children, grandchildren and great-children. For a man who did manual labor all his life and whose formal education stopped at the eighth grade before he went back later in life to get a G.E.D., he’s done pretty damn well.

A baseball road trip: In May, I made a whirlwind trip that allowed me to see four Major League Baseball games in three cities in five days. I flew into Pittsburgh, then drove to Cleveland and on to Cincinnati.

In all, I covered about 400 miles from western Pennsylvania to Ohio, traveling the length of the Buckeye State through gently rolling landscapes. With Lori’s blessing, I stayed in three airbnb rentals and took the opportunity to see new sights, experience unfamiliar places, and visit with new and old friends in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Cool concerts: There were only three this year involving pop artists, but each was satisfying in its own right.

Got to see Jackson Browne at Edgefield in August and he was outstanding. A month earlier, I saw the Dixie Chicks at a Clark County amphitheater just north of Portland and they were exceptional. Their July concert came at a time when I was feeling down, given a spasm of fatal shootings of both civilians and cops in three states.

In November, I saw Liz Longley, a favorite singer-songwriter, for the second time in 18 months, this time in the intimate space of the Alberta Rose Theater.

Excellent books: All that free time I had in the first few months of the year enabled me to dive into the world of literature. Although I slowed down considerably after going back to work, I still managed to plow through 15 books.

They ran the gamut — everything from a young reader books about a transgender youth (“George” by Alex Gino) and a deaf baseball player (“The William Hoy Story” by Nancy Churnin) to a gritty collection of stories about the Motor City (“Detroit” by Charlie LeDuff) to a rape survivor’s memoir (“Lucky” by Alice Sebold) to a sweeping novel about race, culture and class in Nigeria and the United States (“Americanah” by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie.

There was lots more by the likes of John Updike, Steig Larsson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lauren Groff, Celeste Ng, Anne Hillerman and Robert Goodlick. You’ll find a synopsis of each one here: Books & Literature.

PIFF: Early in the year, I joined the ranks of volunteers at the 39th annual Portland International Film Festival. In exchange for helping to greet patrons, take tickets, etc., I got to see six movies for free at three theaters during the month of February.

It was a lot of fun and I’d like to do it again, but not this year. Too much going on with my three part-time jobs to even consider it.

Urban hikes: Another luxury during the first half of the year was exploring my own city with the help of a great guidebook, “Portland Hill Walks” by Laura O. Foster.

I made a routine of selecting a route that took me into mostly unfamiliar neighborhoods, where I learned a lot about the city’s history, geography and demographics. Hard to say which were my favorites, but I do recall the pleasant surprise of discovering Marshall Park in Southwest Portland and getting thoroughly soaked when I hiked through the jewel that is Washington Park.

Island getaways: We made it up to our cabin on Orcas Island three times. Each time is like opening a valve and releasing the stress that comes with living in a city of 632,000 people and an urban area of 2.4 million. Compare that to maybe 2,000 folks total on Orcas.

We’re blessed to have a place where we can hike and kayak, read, play board games, feed the birds and watch old movies — all in a beautiful place that offers Solitude with a capital S.

This year, we enjoyed a parade and community potluck on the Fourth of July weekend and hosted our longtime friends, Bob and Deborah Ehlers. We did our best to make their three-night stay a memorable one, with excursions to Doe Bay, Eagle Lake and Mount Constitution.

Pets: We lost our beloved Otto in July, shortly after our final trip to the island and just a week before Emalyn was born. He was a Jack Russell Terrier, 11 years old, blessed with a sweet disposition, and loved by all who knew him. Otto was especially close to Lori and had earned the status of “The Fourth Child.” Fittingly, he died of an an enlarged heart.

Before Otto died, he schooled little Charlotte, our Terrier-Pug-Chihuahua mix, in the ways of the world. She misses him, for sure, but she has blossomed as the sole focus of our canine attention. Charlotte and I survived a run-in with two pit bulls at a dog park, but she’s healed completely and is becoming more social with other dogs and humans.

Mabel, now the senior pet, continues to rule the roost in her own bedroom, a sweet brown tabby who refuses to come downstairs and interact with Charlotte.

Voices of August: No recap would be complete without mention of my annual guest blog project and post-publication meetup. For six years now, I’ve opened up the blog to a different writer each day during the month of August. It’s a wonderful thing to see — a diverse group of friends, relatives and co-workers from all over the country (and even abroad) each taking a turn writing about an issue or an experience that never fails to entertain, inform or resonate with an online audience.

This year’s VOA gathering was held at a Northeast Portland brewpub not far from our home and drew folks from three states, including my compadre, Al Rodriguez, and his lovely wife (and first-time VOA contributor), Elizabeth Lee.

***

hillary-buttonLike the other 65 million-plus Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton, I wish we were inaugurating the nation’s first female president. Instead, I’m left to hope that in 2017 we can endure the worst of what a Trump presidency can bring and begin building a coalition that returns the White House to someone we can put our trust in.

Happy New Year, everyone.

The Lady and the Lotus

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In Asia, the delicate, beautiful lotus is a sacred symbol of transcendence.

By Lakshmi Jagannathan

The flat round leaves, anchored with bulbous stems, float gently in the water like giant saucers. A black-and-white bird steps on a leaf delicately with one leg, walks on water and gently skitters on to another leaf.  Scattered throughout the floating barge of green are ethereal blooms of water lily radiant in the morning light – pale yellow, pink or with a peach colored hue. In Asia, the lotus is a sacred symbol of transcendence – of purity rising from the muddy waters.

I am in a cottage on stilts on Lake Inle in Myanmar. The lotus-filled water stretches out for miles to hills in the distance.  It could easily be the time of the King Anawrahta, who founded a kingdom by developing an irrigation system in a dry land and turning it into the rice granary of the region. In a way, this trip is also a quest for roots. A great uncle lived in Rangoon in the early part of the 20th century. At that time, Burma was a province of British India. An aggressive Burmese king had prompted the conquest, not to mention the need for teak and rubies.

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A cottage on Inle Lake in Myanmar evokes a feeling of serenity, a world away from urban stresses.

I hear the gentle splish-splash of a boatman who stands on a stick and uses his leg to row the boat. It’s far away from a world of mass shootings and barbaric terrorist attacks. No traffic gridlock, no phone calls or appointments. It is life reduced to the bare elements, water, sunshine, air and lotus. Except for one thing – the 4G here is better than in the U.S. For years the country was undeveloped because of military rule, but now, since there was no slow evolution of technology here, cutting edge mobile connectivity is instantly available. So I post my lotus picture on Instagram – not so much for validation, but in a feeble attempt to freeze the present moment.

I love that the women seem empowered, somehow, in their fitted blouses and stylishly draped longyi skirts. No hiding hair with scarves or hunching behind veils to cover their breasts.  Whether it’s a village woman cleaning fish on the banks of the lake or a smart businesswoman in the capital, they seem confident and are treated with respect. The only restrictions are in pagodas. For some reason, the management is obsessed with “spaghetti straps” and there are warning signs everywhere not to wear them. Or shorts. And women are not allowed in the inner sanctum.

Lotus cloth is a big industry in Lake Inle and designers from Europe pay big money for this cloth more expensive than silk. I can see why as a woman at a weaving house extracts lotus fiber from a stem – the process is very labor intensive. And the end result is cool like cotton – not smooth and fine, but a great alternative if you have ethical concerns about silk.

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A couple worshipping at the Shwedegon Pagoda sport their longyis, traditional Burmese attire.

The night sky feels primeval as a full moon shines over the lake. This phase of the moon is considered holy, and there is chanting all night in the monastery across the water.

Coincidentally, the next day is also a major national holiday – Martyr’s Day – the day the “Father of the Nation,” General Aung San, was assassinated by a political rival. When we get back to Yangon we discover that admission is free at the Bogyoke Aung San museum (his former home) because of the holiday.

From the crowds that throng the house, it is obvious how much the brilliant statesman is still venerated. There are pictures of him with world leaders.  I read a letter he has written to the British government announcing Burma’s choice for independence. A picture of him playing joyfully with his young kids shows so much hope and promise, that it’s sad to see the following one –  of his wife weeping over him on his last day. The sadness seems to permeate the house even now.

At the doorway, you have to take your shoes off and carry them (this is something you have to do a lot in Burma – in temples and, apparently, sometimes even in offices). The furnishings are stark and simple – a teak bed with a mosquito-net stand, a coat rack and a glass cabinet displaying the leaders uniform. A wedding picture graces the wall.

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A wedding portrait of Burmese General Aung San, “the father of the nation” and his wife.

Another bedroom contains Aung San Suu Kyi’s crib. As it is with Burmese names, her name actually consists of her father’s first name, her mother’s (Kyi) and a grandmother’s – Suu. I can relate to this because in South India – we don’t have last names either. It’s hard for me to understand the sacrifices Suu Kyi was willing to make. She refused to leave the country to see her dying husband because she knew the military regime would never allow her back. But her prioritizing country over family can be explained by her spiritual beliefs – the Buddhist concept of embracing suffering as a meditation practice.  It might also explain the patience and gentle demeanor of the people that we encounter everywhere, despite the poverty and the hardship they must have endured.

Even though Suu Kyi’s party won a historic election in 2015, rules concocted by the military did not allow her to become the President.  Instead, she is the “State Counselor” and also has to share power with the military which retains 25% of the seats in parliament. She is poised to implement agricultural and infrastructural reforms so Myanmar can join the global economy, but the path could be difficult since democracy is so new. Another serious issue is the persecution of religious minorities and armed ethnic tension.  I learn that for an American NGO based in Yangon, conflict management education is an important task.

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Lakshmi Jagannathan with a woman who is a weaver and also teaches the skill to guests.

On the last day of our stay there is a heavy downpour – it’s peak monsoon season. We are in a fancy new pizza place, that serves microgreens, but when it’s time to leave, the compound is flooded. “No problem” says the manager. A taxi is hailed and people place benches on the water so we can step across and sit in the car seat. Burmese hospitality at its best.

Ever since Aung San Suu Kyi came into office, expectations are very high for her, but the challenges are many.  I hope the peace they have now lasts and the country continues on its path of reform and accomplishes its goal of a brighter future for its people.

***

Lakshmi Jagannathan is a writer, startup cheerleader, reiki healer/counselor and tree-hugger. “Lately,” she says, “I have found that if I call myself a writer I get asked too many questions by immigration officials in different ports, so now my official occupation on application forms is ‘counselor.’ It works — the junta left me alone in Myanmar.” Follow her @BeavertonWriter. Read her Living La Vida Pura blog on WordPress and her Veggie Travel posts on Facebook.

Editor’s note: I met Lakshmi in the fall of 2007, when she was one of a dozen people selected for The Oregonian’s Community Writers program. Then and now, I’ve admired her intelligence and writing ability, her multicultural sensitivity and love of the natural world. Through her VOA posts, I feel as if I’ve traveled to multiple Asian and African countries.

Tomorrow: Elizabeth Hovde, A haven for political junkies

America: Still ‘the beautiful’?

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Iconic greats James Taylor, at 68, and Jackson Browne, 67, still bring it. Big time.

By Michael Granberry

CHICAGO — On a cloudless night in late June, my wife and I began our vacation at Wrigley Field. Sitting in the outfield just a few rows back from the stage, we listened to James Taylor sing “America the Beautiful.”

Thus began my long period of introspection. Is it really “America the Beautiful?” Is it still? Despite Taylor’s velvet baritone insisting it was, I couldn’t help thinking of our national rage, of mass shootings, deep, ugly racial divisions and hopeless politics.

We had begun our 12-day vacation on the banks of Lake Michigan because I wanted to see my favorite singer-songwriter, Jackson Browne, team up with a fellow member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Browne and Taylor are iconic greats from the early 1970s, when I was in college, bursting with innocence and idealism.

Jackson and James did not disappoint.

Michael Granberry

Michael Granberry

With the sun still shining on the 102-year-old ballpark where Babe Ruth allegedly called his shot by pointing to where he would (and did) hit a homer in the 1932 World Series, Browne opened with “Rock Me on the Water.”

Oh, people, look around you, the signs are everywhere.

He played “Fountain of Sorrow,” from his landmark 1974 album, Late for the Sky; “Somebody’s Baby” from the soundtrack of Sean Penn’s 1982 breakout film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High; and “These Days,” which Browne wrote when he was only 16.

“These Days” ends with one of my favorite declarations:

Don’t confront me with my failures
I had not forgotten them

He played “The Pretender” and “Running on Empty” before inviting Taylor to the stage for a pair of duets: “Take It Easy,” which Browne co-wrote with the late Glenn Frey, who used the song as the Eagles’ signature anthem, and “For a Rocker.”

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A 12-day, multistate vacation began in Chicago with a concert at venerable Wrigley Field.

Then it was Taylor’s turn, and though I was there mainly to hear Browne, Taylor emerged as an AARP revelation. Browne is 67, Taylor 68. The tall, balding singer sang 21 songs, launching his two-hour set with “Something in the Way She Moves.”

He covered Carole King’s “Up on the Roof” and “You’ve Got a Friend” — which he said King wrote for him, back when Taylor, Browne and King were all performing at the legendary Troubadour in West Hollywood in the halcyon era of the early 1970s.

Taylor sang “Carolina in My Mind,” saying he wrote it in London, where he had gone at the invitation of a group called the Beatles to record his debut album on the Fab Four’s Apple Records. Despite the euphoria of reaching such a pivotal moment, what he mainly felt, he said, was homesick.

And so a classic song was born. He sang “Angels of Fenway,” drawing a smattering of friendly boos when he told the Chicago crowd how deeply he felt their pain. He’s a Red Sox fan who had to wait until 2004 to see the Curse of the Bambino — inspired by the Red Sox inexplicably trading the Babe to the dreaded New York Yankees – die a slow, painful death. After decades of futility and failure, the Bosox had emerged as champs. At the moment, Chicago is cautiously optimistic that 2016 will be the first time since 1908 that the Cubs might actually win the Series. (Footnote: Browne and Taylor played their second of two concerts on Aug. 3 at Fenway Park in Boston.)

At Wrigley, Taylor sang  “Fire and Rain,” one of the most magnificent songs ever written, about his friend Suzanne, whose suicide inspired this wondrous elegy, in the context of his own grueling battle with heroin addiction.

He sang “Sweet Baby James,” “Shower the People,” “Steamroller” and “Mexico” before giving me something to think about with “America the Beautiful.” He invited Browne to the stage for an encore; the two sang Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes.”

Taylor closed the show with his own fittingly sweet goodnight ode “You Can Close Your Eyes.” The 41,000-plus of us who populated sold-out Wrigley Field pounded toward the exits, most of us boarding the subway, where my mind continued to fixate on “America the Beautiful.”

***

Amid the clatter of the train as we returned to the downtown Hampton Inn, I chatted with a young woman who told me how much she loved Chicago, where, she said, she feels safe. “You have to know where you’re going,” she said.

It’s her kind of town, Chicago is.

She was warm, engaging and non-judgmentally curious about my hometown — Dallas — where I live with my wife and four sons. Everyone we met in Chicago was as friendly as that young woman.

And then we drove all the way to Cleveland, where I longed to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I should tell you at this point that my wife and I were combining our several-states car trip with an informal book tour. Nancy Churnin, to whom I am married, is the author of a recently published children’s book, which is doing fantastically well. (Nancy even got a rave from The New York Times and from the great George Rede.)

[Editor’s note: Who am I to argue with the author’s adjective?]

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Outside of Cleveland, Mike and Nancy (the one without the bonnet!) helped a Pennsylvania-bound driver who was transporting a busload of Amish children by driving him to a restaurant where he could tell the kids and their parents that he was headed their way.

After checking out of our Cleveland-area hotel, we spotted a broken-down bus in the parking lot. Its poor driver was beside himself. He was transporting a busload of Amish children and their families back to their home in Pennsylvania.

Finally, the driver, who had driven all the way from Nashville, got his tire fixed. We helped him out by driving to a Red Lobster to tell the Amish kids and their parents that he was headed their way. That gave Nancy a chance to tell them about her book, which she never tires of doing.

“The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game” chronicles the life of William “Dummy” Hoy, who played in the 1800s and early 1900s and who may have been responsible for the hand signals that everyone now takes for granted.

The Amish kids seemed fascinated, enthralled, as kids everywhere tend to be about Nancy’s book. They were so cute! Not to mention incredibly friendly. Maybe Taylor is right, maybe it still is America the beautiful.

From the young woman on the subway to the Amish kids, I was being shown that it is, despite my raging cynicism.

At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a spectacular building on the banks of Lake Erie, I met more friendly people, who love music as much as I do. There on the walls, I saw all my favorite musicians: Browne, Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, the Eagles, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

So many musical greats came from Texas! Those in the hall include Stevie Ray Vaughan, who like me is a native of Dallas; Eagles’ great Don Henley, who lives in Dallas; and native son Steve Miller, a 2016 inductee who graduated from Dallas’ Woodrow Wilson High School.

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Niagara Falls: “nothing less than amazing.”

From Cleveland, we drove to Buffalo, N.Y., and then in the improvisational chutzpah that only car vacations can produce, we drove all the way to Canada, where we stayed overnight and saw Niagara Falls, which is nothing less than amazing.

From there, we drove to the Catskills, where my wife and her Jewish family spent their treasured summer vacations, but not before stopping in Amherst, N.Y., where Nancy checked in at a Barnes & Noble bookstore. A sweet, young B&N saleswoman named Kaylee Willis took to the book instantly.

Again, America with its kindness was telling me it was beautiful.

Nancy, my brown-eyed girl, wept softly as she walked Thompsonville Road near Monticello, N.Y., remembering idyllic summers spent with her mom and dad, her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in the family’s Mountain View cottages. The Catskills are not what they used to be, but Nancy and I loved meeting a young Hasidic couple, who leave Brooklyn each year to spend their summers in the Catskills, just as her family did. Nancy saw a deer standing majestically on the same parcel of land where her grandparents had built their cottages and where their grandchildren played for years. The deer made Nancy feel better. These days, the land belongs to him.

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July 4 brought the opportunity to visit the grassy hillside where the Woodstock music festival unfurled over four days in 1969.

We celebrated July 4 by driving through the splendor of the Catskills to Bethel, N.Y., where the seminal Woodstock music festival was held in 1969, in August, the month I entered my senior year of high school. We strolled the grassy hillside where more than 400,000 people spent four historic days, awash in rain and mud, listening to the cacophony of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills and Nash and so many more.

But the best thing about stopping at the Woodstock site was getting to meet Rhoda and William Pollack, a couple from New Jersey. Two of the kindest people I’ve ever met.

On July 5, we saw a mama bear and two cubs scamper across the highway as we drove to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., where my wife would speak and where my all-time favorites appear in plaques on the wall: Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks and the one who became my friend, the late great Tony Gwynn.

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Tony Gwynn is immortalized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Nancy got a super-charged confidence boost about her Hall appearance from Kerry Featherstone, who works the night shift at our hotel in Oneonta, N.Y. Kerry gave Nancy the best hair-do she’s ever had. Kerry asked for $10. We gave her $20. Kudos to Kerry, who radiates kindness.

The next day, Nancy spoke to a packed crowd at the Hall, sharing with them the incredible true story of the great Dummy Hoy. Kids by the dozen asked her questions and (thank goodness) begged their parents to buy the book (which they did). The next day, Nancy did readings of the book at two Manhattan libraries, one in Harlem, the other in a Dominican neighborhood. The kids reveled in the story, asking her to read it to them again and again and again.

I could almost hear Taylor singing “America the Beautiful” as I drove our rented Subaru Outback onto the Hudson Parkway and gazed at the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
When we went to bed that night, we felt peaceful, so serene, as though we had savored the most exquisite vacation we’d ever had. And then we turned on the television.

***

Back home in Dallas, a gunman had fatally shot five police officers during an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protest.

Suddenly, it was hard to sleep, just as it was on the night of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when, as a 6th-grader, I struggled with the grim reality that earlier that day President John F. Kennedy had been slain in my hometown.

The new atrocity occurred only a few blocks east of where Kennedy was assassinated, taking with him to his grave so much idealism and hope. In my mind, America hasn’t been the same since 11/22/63. Much of its beauty died on a street in my hometown.

I was hardly surprised the next morning, when our editors called, asking me and Nancy to each write a story on deadline. The newsroom had entered one of those voracious all-hands-on-deck situations.

We extended checkout two hours, wrote our stories and began the 12-hour trek back to Chicago for the flight home. We got there a bit early and ordered two “very berry” hibiscus drinks at a Starbucks in Park Ridge, Ill., where we met Rob, one of the friendliest baristas you’ll ever meet. We talked about the Cubs, the Bears, the Rangers and the Cowboys. We joked about the Rangers and Cubs meeting up in the World Series. Hey, it could happen! We exchanged contact info. I hope he’ll visit Dallas, as he said he would.

And then Rob told us something we didn’t know — quaint, bucolic Park Ridge is the hometown of Hillary Clinton. We drove by the house where she spent her youth, the Methodist church she attended, the library where she loved to read and where she made a recent campaign stop at the historic Pickwick Theatre.

Rob was like all the other people we met on our amazing vacation — warm, friendly, someone you’d love to get to know, the kind of sweet soul who makes America beautiful.

Not once during our 12 days of summer did we meet a single unpleasant person.

Not once did anyone make an offensive comment when we announced where we lived, as a few nasty people did on a car trip to Colorado I’ll never forget months after Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas.

Not once did anyone make us think that Taylor is wrong, that America isn’t beautiful.

And yet, back home, five Dallas policemen lay dead, their homicides apparently triggered as a response to the grotesque epidemic of policemen using deadly force all too often. The resulting carnage has left black men dead in Louisiana, Minnesota and too many other American locales.

Since we returned, Dallas has been a city in mourning, and yet, we have shared many beautiful moments. Our recent memorial service at the Meyerson Symphony Center saw President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush share the stage in a show of unity. A Dallas gospel singer named Gaye Arbuckle filled the Meyerson with the most soulful, healing music you’ll ever hear.

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Gaye Arbuckle performs during the July 12 interfaith memorial service for the fallen Dallas police officers. Among those gathered were Jill Biden, Vice President Joe Biden, Laura Bush, George W. Bush, Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama.

At the moment, Dallas is a city pulling together. But as President Obama said, we have seen far too much of this. It has to stop. It will remain America the beautiful, but only if we let it. There have been too many examples of a country whose problems are beginning to feel … overwhelming, insoluble.

Don’t confront us with our failures. We had not forgotten them.

But we must act on those failures as soon as possible. Or it won’t be America the Beautiful.

Nor will anyone remember when it was.

Dallas photograph: Susan Walsh, The Associated Press

***

Michael Granberry is an arts and feature writer and a Sunday arts columnist for The Dallas Morning News. He is working on a book about the founder and first owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Clint Murchison Jr. 

Editor’s note: Mike and I met as college students when we were summer interns at The Washington Post in 1973, when the Watergate investigation was at its height. He was a groomsman in our wedding; some 43 summers later, I’m honored to call him my friend — even though he’s from Texas. He’s a prodigious, immensely talented writer with a great sense of humor.

Tomorrow: Lillian Mongeau, Mile 17

Friday flashback: ‘A purpose-driven life’

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Mother Cheetah and her brood.

As the fifth annual Voices of August guest blogging project approaches a month from today, I’m pleased to revisit a piece by one of my favorite contributors: Lakshmi Jagannathan.

Thanks to my well-traveled friend, I’ve experienced snippets of what it’s like to visit certain places in India and East Africa. I like the way she connects her observations to past and present, as an immigrant, a mother, a visitor, a lover of animals.

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Lakshmi Jagannathan

In a 2013 post, she described a day trip on the border of Kenya and Tanzania and the life lesson she drew from watching a mother on the hunt.

She began her piece this way:

“Pink sunlight filters through the dust. A cool breeze cuts through the windows of our jeep as it curves through a dirt track. We see her first in the distance — a quick movement in the bushes. A mother cheetah.”

Beautiful.

Read the entire post here: “A purpose-driven life”

 

The Queen City

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A Portland visitor on the Cincinnati riverfront.

First impressions can validate a gut feeling or they can be wildly misleading. In the case of Cincinnati, if my visit last week had been a first date, I’d be very open to a second one.

As with Cleveland the day before, I spent less than 24 hours in Cincinnati, barely enough time to form snap judgments. But since that’s all I’ve got to go on, my quick take amounts to this: Cincinnati is, on the surface, an appealing place with lots of hills and trees, a dynamic riverfront, a mix of gleaming and tattered structures, gourmet restaurants, and a historical legacy centered on its location directly across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slave-holding state.

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The Cincinnati skyline, viewed from the southern shore of the Ohio River.

Dubbed The Queen City because of spectacular growth in the years after its founding in the late 18th century, Cincinnati later became a major center for the Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing to the north. Yet, race relations, racial profiling and police brutality have been an issue, as they have in most U.S. cities, and I saw distressed areas north of downtown where large numbers of African Americans live in substandard housing amid few thriving businesses.

The city was wracked by a four-day riot in 2001, the largest in the U.S. since the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and last year drew national attention when a white campus police officer shot an unarmed black man after a routine traffic stop. (Of course, so did Cleveland, when a cop fatally shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old holding a pellet gun.)

In short, Cincinnati is an intriguing place I’d like to see more of.

***

I rolled into town just before 1 p.m. Friday, following a 250-mile drive that cut diagonally across Ohio, from the industrial Northeast to the more rural Southwest and passed through Columbus, the state capital.

It was Day Four of my five-day baseball road trip that took me to three major league stadiums in Pennsylvania and Ohio. I’d never been anywhere near Cincinnati but I had plans to reconnect with a friend who’d worked with me at The Oregonian and to meet a fellow blogger I’d only known through online correspondence.

Had he been in town, I most certainly would have spent time with Peter Bhatia, my former boss at The Oregonian and now editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer. Unfortunately, work required him to be in Chicago.

And so the visit began at Arnold’s Bar and Grill, the city’s oldest tavern, established in 1861.

I met Rachel Lippolis for lunch, finally coming face to face with someone who’d first come to my attention when I was first exploring the blogosphere. I came across her blog and was impressed with her intelligent writing and choice of topics, ranging from literature to politics to baseball.

She’s a librarian, quiet by nature, married and newly pregnant, and a native of Cincinnati. She’s been a contributor to my Voices of August guest blogging project from the start, and I anticipate she will write something for our online community once again this year. Nice to put a face to a name.

On Rachel’s recommendation, I headed to the riverfront and was dazzled by what I saw. From my vantage point facing south, I could see on my right the football stadium where the Bengals play and, to my left, the Great American Ball Park that is the home of the Reds.

Directly in front of me, the majestic John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, connecting Ohio and Kentucky. Below, a grassy park and asphalt path for joggers and bicyclists. Behind me, a 3D art sculpture proclaiming “Sing The Queen City” and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Oh, how I wish I had more time at the museum. Even a 30-minute visit was educational, though. I learned more about Cincinnati’s conflicted past. Though the city served as a center for abolitionists and safe harbor for fugitive slaves able to cross the Ohio River at its narrowest points, many white Ohioans moved south during the Civil War to fight for the Confederacy, according to Ohio History Central.

There in the museum, viewing an actual slave pen (chains bolted to the floor to prevent escape) and reading of the barbaric slave trade that thrived across the river, I felt an overwhelming sadness, along with contempt for all those who participated in an economic and social structure built on the backs of men, women and children who were treated as subhuman chattel. Shame on America.

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Brooke and George.

Wandering the riverfront, I was experimenting with different locations and angles for a selfie when a young woman approached and offered to take my picture. Sure, I said. She took several photos, all of which turned out nicely.

Turns out she was a professional photographer from Georgia who regularly offers to shoot pictures for tourists. Indeed, I saw her make the same pitch to a woman who was photographing her two girls. She introduced herself as Brooke and shot a quick selfie of us. A nice, random moment.

***

Checked into my airbnb room and briefly met my host, Ian, a high school physics teacher who lives with his dog and two cats near the University of Cincinnati. He struck me as a nice guy, but circumstances were such that we only had time for a quick hello and no sit-down conversation.

I headed to the ballpark to meet with Anne Saker, a talented reporter I helped recruit to The Oregonian and a bonafide baseball fan. Anne was born in Columbus, went to school at Ohio University, and is now back at The Cincinnati Enquirer, where she once worked as a college intern.

It was great to hang out with Anne, who is one of the most gracious and outgoing people on the planet. She knows her home state, her city and her hometown baseball team all very well, and it was a pleasure to talk with her about all that while swapping newsroom war stories. We traded thoughts about the past, present and future of journalism, shared baseball anecdotes, and reminisced about our shared history in Portland. Sure hope she makes it back to Oregon again.

As for the ballpark, what can I say?

Like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Cincinnati is an amazing place to see a ballgame. Great American Ball Park, GABP for short, opened in 2003 on the banks of the Ohio River. It’s equipped with a state-of-the-art jumbo scoreboard, a wide concourse featuring an actual market with chilled beverages and fresh fruit as well as the usual fare of grilled sausages, pizza and cheese coneys, a local favorite featuring the city’s signature Cincinnati Chili, onions and shredded cheese on a steamed bun and hotdog.

Our tickets were on the first-base side several rows up behind the Reds’ dugout. We sat in the shade on a warm night, a welcome contrast to Cleveland, where the night before the game-time temperature started at 54 and fell to 51. It was not only Fireworks Friday but Star Wars Night, so the whole Midwest vibe took on an extra layer of Disneyesque wholesomeness.

The game featured the two weakest teams in the National League’s Central Division and yet another one-sided outcome. The Reds won easily, 5-1, and fans enjoyed a post-game fireworks celebration.

***

On Saturday morning, I got up early, ran through the University of Cincinnati campus, checked out of my room and headed downtown for a final meal — a delicious croissant omelette with fresh fruit at the small and cozy French Cafe.

I crossed the Roebling Bridge into Covington, Kentucky, and admired the Cincinnati skyline, all the while aware I was looking across a body of water that separated North from South, freedom from slavery.

En route to the airport, which lies about 20 miles away in Northern Kentucky, I marveled at the physical beauty of the area — green, rolling hills — and soaked up the last few moments of my trip to the Midwest.

I packed a lot of activities and as many people as I could into my five-day, four-night adventure. Though the purpose of the trip was to see professional baseball in three cities separated by just a few hundred miles, I came home with new experiences, new and rekindled friendships, and a better sense of this region to add to my bank of memories.

I’d love to do it again. Next time, though, I may have to take Charlotte with me.

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Missed my little terrier mix, Charlotte. Toward the end of the trip, my wife texted: “I think she misses you.”

 

 

The city by the lake

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Progressive Field in downtown Cleveland features the most impressive graphic quality I’ve seen in a jumbo scoreboard.

Poor Cleveland.

Among U.S. cities, few have a national reputation as bad as Ohio’s second-largest city, located on the southern shore of Lake Erie. Chalk it up to high crime, bad sports teams, a faltering economy, white flight, and the infamous 1969 oil slick that caught fire on the Cuyahoga River, making the city a symbol of environmental degradation.

No wonder that an unwelcome nickname like The Mistake on the Lake persists.

I spent less than 24 hours in Cleveland during my baseball road trip last week. That wasn’t nearly enough time to make my own judgment. But what I did see — and what I’ve read since — is enough to make me think and hope that better times lie ahead for this beleaguered metropolis.

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A huge water tower on the Shoreway attests to Cleveland’s age, established in 1796.

Signs of blight are hard to miss. Arriving on a Thursday afternoon, I passed a number of shuttered storefronts, vacant homes and weedy lots en route to my airbnb rental on the city’s inner west side.

At the same time, I saw glimpses of improvement. Clearly, people are striving to make things better through new businesses and new or renovated housing.

According to a recent article in curbed.com: “…Cleveland has begun to embody another trend: The nationwide phenomenon of Americans, especially millennials, wanting to live a hipper, less-car dependent lifestyle in the urban core.

“Cleveland is among a group of mid-sized Midwest cities, including Cincinnati, Columbus, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Detroit, experiencing a downtown Renaissance.”

Read more: Millennial Influx Helps Cleveland Shake Rust Belt Reputation

The downtown population is rebounding, workers are racing to add 900 hotel rooms in advance of the Republican National Convention, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, hope to deliver an NBA championship this summer.

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Quicken Loans Arena, located nearby Progressive Field, is the home of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the site of this summer’s Republican National Convention.

With sincerity, I say good luck with all of that. Cleveland does have the Rock and Hall Hall of Fame and Museum, but residents deserve more as they strive to create a better future.

***

The 135-mile drive from Pittsburgh to Cleveland took a little over 2 hours, not counting rest stops, and had me on five interstate highways. I crossed the Ohio state line the day after Gov. John Kasich withdrew from the GOP presidential race.

Arriving around 2 pm, I had a choice: late lunch or a neighborhood run. I chose the latter.

My airbnb room was located in the historic Ohio City neighborhood, not far from the Shoreway that follows the shore of Lake Erie, connecting east and west Cleveland.

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My rental car and airbnb rental in the Ohio City historic district of Cleveland.

During a cool but sunny run, I saw a crazy quilt pattern of housing — older homes, some cared for better than others; newer apartments; and sad, boarded-up structures. Turning onto Detroit Avenue, I came upon the Gordon Square Arts District, where a $30 million capital campaign has helped beautify and revitalize the neighborhood with a focus on arts and culture.

(Portlanders: Think of the Alberta Arts District’s restaurants, galleries and tattoo shops, and throw in three major theaters.)

The biggest surprise? Coming upon the two-lane track where the Cleveland Area Soap Box Derby will host the 2016 National Derby Rallies Championship in August. On second thought, it does makes sense that such an event would take place here, given Ohio’s role in producing cars, tires and other parts for the auto industry. Cleveland is one of three cities with soap box derby races dating back to 1934.

Toward the end of the run, I passed a boarded-up elementary school — a sure sign, I thought, of strained school finances or dwindling enrollment. I was wrong. Turns out the school is one of two in the area that closed last year so students at both can be moved into a new building in 2017.

I returned to the arts district for a pregame meal at Rincon Criollo, a Puerto Rican restaurant that served up a tasty platter of roasted chicken, rice and beans.

I never did meet my airbnb host and her Boston Terrier, but the accommodations were great (a clean, compact bedroom with access to a bathroom of my own) and the location was convenient (a 10-minute drive to the ballpark).

***

With the Detroit Tigers in town to play the hometown Indians, I was prepared to catch some razzing as a visiting fan. Didn’t happen.

No flak necessary because Cleveland jumped to a 4-0 lead in the first inning and cruised to an 8-4 victory, thanks to two home runs and three outstanding fielding plays that kept the Tigers from scoring more runs.

I exchanged high-fives with a nearby Tigers fan after a home run that briefly narrowed the deficit to 4-3, but that was the only highlight.

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A solitary Tigers fan under the lights at Progressive Field. 

I bought my ticket on the street just as the game was starting. Paid $8 for a $36 ticket in the upper deck behind home plate, but didn’t sit there. Unlike other ballparks, the ushers didn’t seem to much care where you sit, so I found myself a seat at field level on the third-base side. Later, I wandered the stadium and plunked myself down behind home plate and the right-field line just to get different vantage points of the field.

Progressive Field is impressive, I have to say. The scoreboard graphics are the best I’ve seen, the field is spectacular, and the whole place is fan-friendly. Many seats were removed, I was told, so that several concession stands are closer to the action. Fans evidently like to stand while they watch the game, so there are a lot of bistro tables throughout the stadium.

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Progressive Field was ranked as Major League Baseball’s best ballpark in a 2008 Sports Illustrated fan opinion poll.

There were some colloquial touches during the evening: A group of young ladies known as the Cleveland Strikers performing dance moves in the center field bleachers. A handful of team mascots depicting sausages (on this evening, dressed up in ludicrous sombreros in recognition of Cinco de Mayo). A rendition of the state song, “Hang On, Sloopy,” complete with YMCA-type hand gestures spelling out “O-H-I-O..” And a Chick-fil-A sponsored contest where one fan was selected to use a camera to try to find the company’s cow mascot somewhere in the midst of screaming spectators. (Actually, the same Spot-the-Cow contest also happened in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.)

I spoke separately to two ushers between innings and they epitomized Midwest-friendly. One of them, John, said he’s a lifelong fan of the team who retired last year. He got himself a job as an usher and now gets to attend the games for free while making a little money on the side. Sounds ideal, I told him. Wish I could do the same but the Mariners are too far away in Seattle.

***

Friday morning I arose early, knowing I had a four-hour plus drive to Cincinnati.

Found a place for breakfast that would rival any in Portland. It was called Jack Flaps and, according to my friendly waitress, has received national acclaim. I can see why.

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What a way to begin the day: My favorite magazine, Esquire, and a bodacious breakfast at Jack Flaps.

I ordered the Benedicto Mexicano — a variation on Eggs Benedict that’s made of masa corn cakes, housemade chorizo with ranchero sauce, two eggs and herb crema sauce. It was divine.

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Along with fabulous food, Jack Flaps provided excellent service. Shannon exemplified Midwest friendliness.

Note: The Tigers’ loss that I witnessed was their sixth in a row to Cleveland this season and part of a seven-game losing streak that finally ended last night with a 5-4 win over the Washington Nationals. The way the Tigers looked, I won’t be surprised if they fall short of the playoffs for a second straight year.

Tomorrow: The Queen City

The Steel City

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Despite a 7-1 loss to the Cubs, I still had a smile as I paused on the Roberto Clemente Bridge. (Photo by Lauren Pusateri.)

I’ve got a soft spot for Pittsburgh.

The feeling took root in the summer of 2010, when I drove cross country with my daughter to help her get set up for graduate school at Carnegie Mellon. It grew stronger during two visits my wife and I made, culminating with graduation ceremonies and a baseball game at PNC Park on a clear, summer-like evening. Since then, I’ve been rooting for the Pirates.

When the opportunity came to make The Steel City the starting point for my 2016 baseball road trip, I jumped. Good call.

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Downtown Pittsburgh viewed from the Station Square light rail station.

During a two-day visit last week, I made the most of my time, visiting new and familiar places, hanging with friends and, of course, watching the Bucs play a couple of games.

My anchors were Lauren Pusateri and Kyle Nilson, a recently engaged couple who met in Portland and moved back to Pittsburgh (Lauren’s hometown) last year. I met Lauren through a mutual friend who was organizing a coed team to play cornhole — a popular game across the Midwest that’s similar to horseshoes. Soon enough, I met Kyle, who’s originally from Seattle.

As partial season ticket holders, they offered to have Lauren go with me to one game and Kyle to another. Couldn’t have worked out better.

Here’s how everything played out:

Tuesday: Drove from the airport to Smallman Street Deli, the same Jewish deli in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where Simone and I had our first father-daughter meal all those years ago.

Fueled by breakfast, I checked into the airbnb room I was renting from a young married couple, both medical students, then went for a run along the Allegheny River in the Lawrenceville neighborhood where Simone and Kyndall used to live.

Met Lauren, for a pregame meal at Fiori’s, one of the city’s top pizzarias. Sausage and pepperoni on hand-tossed dough never tasted so good.

Watched the Chicago Cubs — longtime patsies turned juggernaut — thoroughly dominate the Pirates in a 7-1 win behind Jake Arrieta, the best pitcher in baseball.

Wednesday: Met Kyle for breakfast at Pamela’s Diner in The Strip district, a place that’s popular with politicians, notably Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Gotta say, the Pittsburgh Hash is pretty wonderful — kielbasa with sauerkraut, mixed with potatoes, topped with Swiss cheese and served with two eggs.

Went to the nearby Heinz History Center, which was featuring a new exhibit on Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Talk about memories. There was everything from Gumby, Slinky, Mr. Potato Head, Cootie and Barbie to Tonka trucks, Star Wars, and Schwinn bikes with banana seats.

Upstairs was the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, which took up three floors with impressive displays of photos, uniforms, equipment and more, ranging from professional sports to all sorts of high school and amateur activities.

Naturally, there was a big focus on the Steelers (six-time Super Bowl champions, folks) and the region’s football history, as well as the Pirates and the Penguins, the hockey team. Proper homage was paid to Roberto Clemente, the first Latin ballplayer elected to the Hall of Fame who died at 38 in a plane crash as he was delivering humanitarian aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. But there was also lots of space given to Pittsburgh’s Negro League baseball teams and a slew of athletic clubs founded by the city’s European immigrant communities.

From there, we headed to the ballgame for a 12:30 pm game. Same result: Cubs throttled the Pirates again, 6-1.

Said goodbye to Kyle, had dinner at an Asian restaurant down the street from my rented room, then finally got a chance to talk with my hosts, Cecilia and Gil. Had an enjoyable conversation, learning how they met, what they are studying, and probing their thoughts on religion and the afterlife.

(For the uninitiated, airbnb enables travelers to rent rooms in private residences, typically for less cost than a motel room. Depending on circumstances, you may or may not meet the person(s) you’re renting from. And you may share the living space with pets, as I did.)

Thursday: Met for breakfast with Jacob Quinn Sanders, a journalist friend I’ve known for about 15 years since I was a recruiter and he was a college student. Though we never worked together, we’ve kept in touch through the years and his many moves, and he’s been a regular contributor to my annual guest blogger project Voices of August.

We reconnected at Nadine’s, a Southside bar and restaurant that’s been featured on “Diners, Dives and Drive-ins.” As promised, it was a “full Yinzer” kind of place, catering to blue-collar, native Pittsburghers in sports-themed T-shirts and caps. Among a handful of retirees seated at the counter that morning was a younger guy with a man-bun and Penguins garb, sipping on a beer at 8 a.m., no doubt having just finished the graveyard shift.

Jacob left the newspaper industry not long ago to follow his own path as a freelance journalist and web developer. As such, he represents the best of today’s ever-evolving journalists, a writer of content and code and totally at ease in the world of social media.

As I hit the road for Cleveland, it dawned on me that the social aspect of this trip was essentially like hanging out with my own adult kids. My fellow baseball fans, my airbnb hosts, my journalist friend — all are in the late 20s to early and mid-30s, just like my two sons and daughter.

Though it may seem odd or least curious that I’d hang out with people young enough to be my children, I felt totally at ease. I’d like to think they felt the same.

Tomorrow: The city by the lake

Midwest baseball road trip

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The Pittsburgh skyline looms above the right field fence at PNC Park.

Five days. Four nights. Three baseball games in three cities. Two states. One rental car. One baseball fan. One generous wife.

Add them all up and you get one jam-packed, solo trip to see six baseball teams in three stadiums in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

road trip map

As part of the deal, you get to hang out with new and older friends, stay in the homes of three strangers, feast on tasty foods, visit a couple of museums, and be alone with your thoughts as you drive hundreds of miles on interstate highways where Northeast meets Midwest and the Rust Belt transitions into America’s Heartland.

Self indulgent?

Yes.

Enjoyable?

Totally.

Call it the Great Midwest Baseball Road Trip of 2016.*

* (I understand western Pennsylvania is part of the Northeast, but five of the six teams I saw are from landlocked states so I’m keeping it simple and going with “Midwest.”)

***

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Progressive Field in Cleveland — one of three impressive baseball stadiums I visited within a four-day span.

As a youth baseball player and lifelong fan, I’ve always fantasized about seeing a game in every Major League Baseball park. Living on the West Coast, it was easy to get to the first six. Reaching those in other regions of the country has been challenging at times but after this trip I’ve now been to 25 stadiums, leaving just 5 to go.

Several years ago I’d done something like this on a smaller scale when I drove my dad from his home in rural New Mexico to Arizona so we could see 3 games in 3 days at 3 ballparks during spring training. That preseason fling was a piece of cake because we stayed in one place and the parks were relatively close to each other in the Phoenix metro area.

In contrast, this trip required not just more time but more planning. And I got a big assist with the logistics from my mother, a devoted fan of the Oakland A’s right up until the day she died. (More on that below.)

I flew from Portland to Pittsburgh late Monday night and arrived Tuesday morning. I saw games there Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon. I drove to Cleveland the next day and saw a game that Thursday night. I drove to Cincinnati the next day and saw a game that Friday night. I flew home the next day and arrived Saturday evening, just ahead of Mother’s Day.

Some might wonder why I did this alone. Why not ask a friend to come along?

Well, a trip like this isn’t out of the ordinary for me. When I traveled the country as The Oregonian’s newsroom recruiter, I was typically on my own, flying to cities I often hadn’t been to before, getting a rental car and staying in a blur of hotels.

Frankly, that’s how I managed to see ballgames in so many different places. If my work  hadn’t taken me to places like Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Minneapolis, I most likely would have gone there on my own.

Having retired at the end of last year, time wasn’t the issue in planning this excursion. Rather, it was a matter of finding game dates in nearby cities within a few days that wouldn’t cause havoc for Lori, knowing she had to maintain her work schedule, manage our three pets and respond to any household issues that came up in my absence.

Bless her. She agreed.

***

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Visiting Mom at her residential group home in July 2013.

My late mom had a role in this too. .

When she died in the fall of 2013, I had to cancel a work-related trip to Iowa. The airline wouldn’t refund the full cost of my ticket but I did get a voucher for partial credit. It was enough for a one-way ticket I could use at a later date.

Well, that opportunity presented itself when I made my travel arrangements. The flight from Cincinnati to Portland was essentially free. I’d like to think Mom would be happy knowing she contributed to my Midwest adventure.

For the record,  my two favorite teams went without a win in my presence.

In Pittsburgh, the Pirates lost twice to the Cubs. In Cleveland, the visiting Tigers fell to the Indians.

In Cincinnati, I had no vested interest in either team so I didn’t mind at all cheering the Reds to victory over the visiting Brewers.

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Wearing a Cuban National Baseball Team jersey at the Cincinnati riverfront.

Though baseball was the main attraction, I’ve got to say the overall adventure was mighty fine. The combination of new and familiar experiences, hanging with friends, and seeing more of this landlocked part of the country made for a great trip.

It was fun to be in Pittsburgh again. It was sobering to spend time in Cleveland. And it was an epiphany to visit Cincinnati for the first time.

Map: Zesco Inc.

Tomorrow: The Steel City

Downshifting on Orcas

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A walk around Eagle Lake is good for the soul.

Several years ago I was part of a Hood to Coast team that adopted a memorable slogan for the 198-mile relay race from mountain to the beach. It was so cool we put it on our T-shirts with an image of a snail: “Start out slow, then taper off.”

That thought came to mind during our recent vacation on Orcas, the gem of the San Juan Islands. If you’re already retired, how do you take it down a notch?

Lori is still working, so the question didn’t apply to her. But for yours truly, my “challenge” was to find a new level of relaxation during our weeklong stay at our log cabin in the woods.

Consider the challenge met.

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Mount Baker rises in the distance in this view from the Anacortes ferry parking lot.

From the time we board the ferry in Anacortes and find ourselves a table near a window, the process of decompressing begins. It’s a smooth, silent hour-long ride across the water to Orcas, meaning there’s ample time for a book, a snack or a nap.

Arriving at the ferry dock, we set off on a leisurely 45-minute drive to our place, traveling on two-lane roads that pass one pastoral scene after another. Our route takes us through the village of Eastsound and an expansive state park, along the shoreline of a lake and two bays, and then to the outer reaches of the island, where the locals sell farm fresh eggs, fresh-picked flowers and bundles of kindling.

(Fun fact: There is not a single traffic signal on Orcas.)

By the time we chug up the graveled road leading to our place at the top of a hill, we are tired from a day of travel, for sure, but also in a frame of mind to appreciate the slower pace of life in a place that oozes charm.

We hadn’t been up since July, so it felt great to reacquaint ourselves with everything we love about this place. Clean, crisp air. Confetti-like stars in the night skies. Greenery in every direction. And a blanket of silence. It’s quiet enough to hear a hummingbird’s beating wings, and the wind swooshing through tall treetops.

But enough of that. Here’s a fond look back at our favorite vacation place.

Every day started with a walk above our house, a much quieter experience than usual, when Charlotte and Otto are apt to see (and bark at) other dogs in the neighborhood.

 

We had a persistent visitor — an American Robin that kept flying toward our front-door window, wings flapping and claws extended. A quick internet search suggested the bird perceived us as a threat to a nest somewhere nearby. Felt sorry for him because he kept up this behavior the entire time we were there.

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This American Robin hung out on our porch the whole week.

We had no schedule and were content to mostly hang around the cabin, reading books, playing board games, watching a trio of movies on DVD, and preparing most of our meals. We made one exception: a lovely dinner at Doe Bay Cafe, which is part of the Doe Bay Resort, known for its hippie aesthetic.

We had our friends Carl and Julie over for dinner one night. A couple days later, I played golf with Carl and his buddy, Terry, and afterwards had dinner and played billiards  at the Lower Tavern.

While Lori knitted some days, I went on solitary runs in the Eagle Lake area. Together we went on a short hike at Obstruction Pass State Park, a favorite place of ours.

We also walked around the Eagle Lake area, admiring the many well-maintained homes and enjoying views of the lake and Georgia Strait, which separates the United States and Canada.

As if all this relaxation weren’t enough, I took it down a notch one afternoon. With the sun shining and no hint of a breeze, I headed toward the hammock down the hill from our cabin. Took a pillow and a book — John Updike’s “Rabbit Is Rich” — and read a few pages before nodding off.

I know. It sounds decadent. All this fresh air, R&R, good food and healthy living. So grateful to have the opportunity to enjoy it all. And so grateful to be able to spend the time with my wife.

Working and vacationing in Southern Africa: Guest blogger

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Victoria Falls, seen from the Zimbabwean side, is often graced by rainbows.

Editor’s note: For as long as I have known him, I have been impressed by the scientific mind and musical talents of Greg Baker. Our youngest child and his first-born, both boys, were classmates from preschool through high school and our wives are great friends.

Greg is an accomplished fiddler and birder, but it was a work trip to southern Africa two summers ago that piqued my interest. I asked him to share his experiences in a guest blog and so he did, recalling elephants, forests, brushfires and charcoal.

By Greg Baker

In August 2014 I had the good fortune to work in Zambia, a land-locked, south-central African republic of some 14 million people. I was assigned to the position of job site safety manager for the construction of a hazardous waste landfill in the northern Copperbelt Province of Zambia, not far from Chingola.

Construction of a large, lined landfill can only occur during the winter season when conditions are dry – it must be completed before the predictable rainy season commences begins in late spring. Our construction schedule would be tight. My charge on this project was to prevent deaths, accidents, injuries, equipment losses and uncontrolled releases of hazardous substances. This would present a few challenges, as approximately half the crew consisted of local, young untrained laborers, and you never knew what to expect from local suppliers and subcontractors.

Though I’ve traveled a bit in Europe and visited several Central American countries, I’d never been on the African continent. I imagined it would be dominated by lush tropic vegetation and teeming with wildlife. But I quickly came to realize that location, elevation and season matter.

During a four-month stay, I would get a ground-level view of the country’s environmental and economic challenges and shoot hundreds of photos of spectacular scenery and wildlife. I would come home not just with the priceless experience of viewing exotic animals and birds in their native habitats but also with a new perspective on the traditional practice of cutting down live trees to produce charcoal.

So there I was, on my first trip to Africa – a serious birder, and I was stoked! More than 98% of the plants, birds and other animals encountered during this trip would be new to me. Undoubtedly I would find time for some collateral birding, and photograph species new to my life list of world birds (aka “lifers”).

Click on images to view captions.

In Zambia people drive on the left hand side of the road, which is a throwback to former British colonial rule. Our construction management team drove through Kitwe to Chingola on a paved, but potholed asphalt road, recently improved by Chinese convict crews – they work for next to nothing I was told. My driver – a young fellow from Ndola – complained that the Chinese get much of the public works projects, because local Zambians simply cannot complete with the very low Chinese wages. (Over the course of the next four months I would come to appreciate that the Chinese aren’t exactly winning the hearts and minds of the African populace. And they appear to be underperforming on infrastructure development, specifically new road projects.)

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Typical potholes on a major two-lane highway.

Drivers swerve around potholes, constantly resulting in frequent collisions. Over the course of my four-month assignment while I was there, several pedestrians and drivers would perish along the stretch of road adjacent to our construction site. Loud truck tire explosions occurred about twice a month – the Zambians appear to habitually use their tread-worn semi-truck tires until they blow up.

While cruising along at 110 kilometers per hour (roughly 70 mph) I could not help but notice the speed limit was posted at 60 kh. I was surprised but not shocked to see large stands of pine forest plantations, not dissimilar from what I have observed back in the states, in southern Georgia and northern Louisiana. They appeared to be plantations of pine, perhaps imported from elsewhere.

I soon learned that our project site was at 4,000 feet elevation and 12 degrees south of the equator. Would I get to experience any dense wilderness jungle during this trip? I could hardly wait to explore the countryside.

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A typical informal roadside market at a railroad crossing where traffic normally slows down.

There seemed to be plenty of low-lying forests off in the distance, but very few wetlands, streams, ponds and lakes.

I soon learned that brushfires are daily occurrences during the dry season. Fires go unattended and the locals seem quite casual and unconcerned about them. The same goes for garbage fires in and around Chingola. People burn garbage around the clock and don’t seem to mind the foul acrid odors that offend the senses of a fellow from Portland, Oregon. (On one Sunday morning I arose at 8 am for a jog, but quickly gave up — the air pollution was too intense. That day I did not venture outside of my hotel room until noon.)

On a day off I visited the Chimpfunshi Chimpanzee Sanctuary with a few staff from the project and the Mokorro Hotel and Grille. We came across an uncontrolled brushfire, essentially out in the middle of nowhere.

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An unattended fire near Chimpfunshi.

The fire must have been displacing insects because several species of birds were actively foraging in front of the fire line, including a distant hornbill, and a small flock of iridescent Greater Blue-eared Starling – both lifers.

Back in the vicinity of Chingola, I occasionally noticed women gathering dead wood in the adjacent forest around the perimeter of our job site. They collected large bundles and balanced their loads on the tops of their heads. The wood is used to produce charcoal, which is the primary fuel used for cooking in rural areas. (Zambia does not have any natural gas, coal or oil resources, and must import such fossil fuels, primarily for commercial and industrial purposes.)

Back in the states African families are frequently belittled for relying upon “cooking” charcoal, which produces carbon dioxide that presumably contributes to climate change. (“If only those Africans would stop making and using charcoal we would have much less deforestation and less severe global warming to worry about.”) Westerners generally believe that the practice of cutting live trees down for charcoal production has resulted in deforestation in arid regions of Africa. No doubt this is a huge problem with unintended consequences. And it is a problem that is only exacerbated by unsustainable population growth.

landlockedzambia-africa2But after residing in Africa for a few weeks I started to gain a different appreciation for this custom and the impact that it appears to be having in this part of Zambia. From the few wildfires I had observed, I concluded that such fires do not burn very hot, and the trees and shrubs in the forest understory appear well-adapted for surviving regular light fires. If the dead wood was left in place, the accumulated fuel would burn much hotter and likely destroy large tracts of forest. What type of landscape would result then, and how much carbon dioxide would be sequestered and/or released?  Either way, that dead wood eventually IS going to get burned. And live trees should be left unharmed – at least that is the law.

Humans have been an integral part of the ecology in Africa for millions of years and have shaped the present day landscapes.  The age-old African custom of regularly gathering fire wood has apparently resulted in the sustainable forests which we observe today in this part of Zambia. Despite the well-intentioned criticisms of Westerners, the forests and landscapes surrounding Chingola appeared to be doing very well, thank you very much.

I wish I could say the same about wildlife around Chingola and our jobsite. Mammals and birds were few and far between. Many children carry catapults (i.e., sling shots), so any unwary wild creature that moves could wind up in a pot or on a skillet before the day is done. Same for road kill – the only road kill I observed were flattened dogs which were ritually left in place to become two-dimensional, and recognizable even a few weeks after meeting their maker. Perhaps there weren’t many wild mammals and reptiles around to be struck?

***

SEPTEMBER 2014

Towards the end of the first week of September our team learned that a major shipment of construction materials had been delayed; consequently, we would have an uplanned shut-down at the project site – and a furlough – for up to two weeks. I decided to stay in country, though, as I might have had to return to the job site to conduct inspections, risk assessments, and issue specific work permits. So, I decided to fly over to Livingstone, Zambia to check out Victoria Falls and the famous national parks that were said to be teeming with wildlife.

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My $40 per night private cottage at Jolly Boys in Livingstone, Zambia.

Since I stayed over a week in a private cottage, I got the 8th night free. The place had two cots with mattresses and mosquito netting; concrete floors; and screen windows. The shared bathroom facilities were in separate buildings, as were places to dine. Not bad at all!

I signed up for a day trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana with Kalahari Tours.  The morning was slated for a water trip to Sedudu Island.  Sedudu is a term for a group of hippos. Then following a brief lunch, the afternoon was scheduled for a game drive along a river bank and channel of the Chobe River, immediately across from Sedudu Island.
A bull elephant started crossing the Chobe River for Sedudu Island right in front of our boat.

This was my first encounter with a wild African Elephant. I was so pleased to observe this large bull as it swam across a river channel and ascended onto Sedudu Island.  Each elephant must consume several hundreds of pounds of vegetation daily, and during the dry season there are more than 100,000 of these giants in Chobe National Park.

I photographed hundreds of birds, reptiles and other mammals. (See www.bigdecadebirder.com to view the images.)

I took little comfort (from our boat) when a nearby buffalo assumed an assertive posture. (This species kills several people every year.) The Cape Buffalo is one of Africa’s dangerous Big Game Five, or simply “Big Five.”  The other four include the African Elephant, White Rhino, Lion and Leopard.  I was very fortunate to photograph all of the Big Five while visiting the Livingstone area for the week.

One day my destination was Victoria Falls, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.  Dr. Livingstone was the first European to observe it back in 1858, I believe.  How Dr. Livingstone ever made it here without dying of Yellow Fever, Malaria and a host of other life-threatening diseases is beyond me.  I took my prophylactic malaria medication religiously each morning.

It quickly occurred to me “You’re not back home in Oregon, Greg.” Victoria Falls is nothing like the Cascades of the Columbia Gorge. which is so familiar. For example, Multnomah Falls, while impressive, is essentially a single thread of cascading water. In contrast, the band of spilling water from the Zambia River is over a mile wide, dropping some 350 feet into a steep narrow gorge, shrouded in perpetual mist, punctuated by a persistent rainbow.

Mist from the falls maintains a small permanent rain forest, where I stood taking this photo. Across from this mist, I paused in a mini-rain forest and was rewarded by encountering a small mixed flock or “party” of small foraging birds, which I took time to identify and photograph.

LATE SEPTEMBER/EARLY OCTOBER 2014

Subsequent day trips took me back to Chobe National Park in Botswana and to the other side of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

Back at work on September 24th, we had a brush fire sweep through our construction site. Since I had wildfire fighting experience, I managed the fire response.

It wasn’t an intense fire, but we had to keep it away from a million dollars’ worth of heavy equipment and landfill liner materials!

I remained on site over night to conduct fire watch. I saw an adult African Eagle Owl flying around by an owl nest during the fire, and I was concerned about the owlets and their chances for survival.

The next morning both owlets were gone. They had vanished without a trace. I feared the worse. Perhaps they had dropped out of the nest because of the fire and were consumed by some predators?

By October 6th, nearly two weeks had passed without any sign of the owls. I happened to look up and spotted the owlets in the trees.

MID TO LATE NOVEMBER 2014

By mid-November we completed our landfill liner installation in the nick of time — just ahead of the first major wet season downpour. My job was done! I could now go meet my wife Rebecca in Livingstone. Later, we would fly down to Capetown and explore the South Africa coast.

DECEMBER 2014

After visiting the Livingstone area, Chobe National Park and the Wilderness area of South Africa I came to reconsider my previous impressions about charcoal production and the forests back at our construction site near Chingola. Perhaps the only reason there are ANY forests remaining around the Copperbelt and Chingola is related to the absence of elephants?

The folks around the Copperbelt exterminated the African Elephant long ago – this species is known for tearing down small to medium-sized trees and creating/sustaining savannah and grasslands habitats. If the African Elephant were reintroduced, protected, and allowed to roam freely (unlikely) throughout the Copperbelt, there would be very little shrubbery and understory left for the Zambians to collect for charcoal production – the landscape would likely be more savannah-like and there would be more grasslands.

After four months in Zambia I was not certain what to conclude about my Westernized preconceived notions concerning charcoal production, deforestation, climate change and elephants. I will simply have to return to Africa one day to ponder these matters again!

***

Greg Baker has chronicled the entire trip and hundreds of photographs on his website: http://www.bigdecadebirder.com.  He is currently employed as Director of Training at PBS Engineering and Environmental in Portland, Oregon. His wife, Rebecca Bauer, is a retired teacher from Portland Public Schools.

All photographs courtesy of Greg Baker

Map: zambiapretoria.net