Playing Tourist at Home in Oregon

Grotto

Five days ago, I wrote that no cases of the coronavirus had been reported in Oregon. Maybe people were overreacting. But those reactions had caused me to cancel my trip to the AWP conference in San Antonio and stay home. Now there are 14 known cases in Oregon, and Gov. Kate Brown has added our state to the ones declaring a state of emergency.

The Archdiocese of Portland has asked its churches to stop giving out wine at Communion and to stop shaking hands at the Sign of Peace. I’ve been to Mass three times at three different churches in the last week. At two of those Masses, nobody held hands, shook hands or touched in any way. At our own church yesterday, our pastor noted that life is full of risk and we could decide for ourselves whether to hold hands—so we did. He also reminded us to use the big bottle of hand sanitizer on the way out.

What’s going to happen? Nobody knows for sure. I still worry that the reaction will cause more harm than the disease, but I could be wrong.

I was supposed to be celebrating my birthday today with friends in Texas. Instead, I’m back at home with no birthday plans beyond eating a red velvet cupcake I bought for myself and watching the Bachelor finale on TV. Stupidest season ever? It is, but do not call me after 8 p.m. PDT.

Since I was already out in the world with a packed suitcase, writing materials and free time, I played tourist in Oregon last week. I wrote in the mornings and went exploring in the afternoons, which sounds like a perfect vacation for a writer.

The weather was sunny but cold when I visited the Grotto, a Catholic sanctuary in Portland. I walked the paths admiring the plants, statues and shrines, reading and thinking about Jesus, Mary and Joseph, walking the labyrinth, saying hello to the ducks in the pond, and feeling all my anxieties melt away. I was exactly where I needed to be. When my feet got tired, I sat in the warm glass-walled meditation chapel soaking in the quiet as I looked out over the city past the freeway to Mt. Hood. Leaning back in my soft leather chair, I watched the white clouds moving slowly by and felt blessed.

Salem RiverfrontFrom Portland, I headed south to Salem, where I checked into a much nicer hotel, then walked through the Riverfront Park, which I hadn’t even known existed. It offers miles of walking/jogging paths along the Willamette, a playground and a carousel. I walked, then sat on a bench in the sun watching the world go by, taking pictures, and writing in my notebook. When hunger hit, I treated myself to a steak salad at the Capital Café.

The next day, I went shopping in downtown Salem, where I was sad to see the sidewalks jammed with homeless people and their possessions. So many. And it was cold. I was heading into the stores with money to burn, having filled my wallet with cash for the Texas trip that didn’t happen. I found treasures—music supplies, clothes, books—but I felt guilty as I stashed them in the car and left for Silverton, the small town on the way to the Oregon Garden.

Oregon Garden 3520Early March is not a good time to visit the garden. The visitors’ center was closed, the fountains were turned off, and most of the plants were still dormant for winter. The roses looked like dead sticks, the trees were bare, and the daises were just dry leaves. Only the daffodils were blooming. On the good side, I had most of the garden to myself. I walked and walked, resting on benches in the sun, thinking and taking notes for a poem about “potential,” about how inside these bare sticks are the makings for glorious flowers and fruits.

While the world was going nuts over coronavirus and while my favorite candidates were dropping out of the presidential race, while the stock market was plummeting in panic and both sides violated their agreement in the war in Afghanistan, I roamed among the sleeping plants and let it all go. I felt the sun on my face, breathed in fresh air scented with fertilizer, and watched a squirrel watching me from a stone wall. He was close enough for me to admire the different shades of brown in his fur.

I usually give up French fries for Lent. This year, I have chosen to give up Internet, TV and radio for two hours every day while I do something physical and real. We all need this. It’s so hard to tear ourselves away from our screens and our perpetual noise, especially with so much going on in the news, but we need to focus on what’s real right here and now.

I’m sad that I missed AWP. I’m sad that I didn’t see my friends. I’m sad that today is my first birthday without my father, but the sun is shining, I played a ton of music over the last two days, and now I’m here at home writing in my pajamas as Annie dozes nearby. What’s better than that?

How about you? Has coronavirus changed your plans? Are you worried about the illness or its effects? Is there a way to make lemonade out of these lemons? I welcome your comments.

 

 

Me and Tom Hanks Selling Our Books

WW authors at Wordstock
Kerry Blaisdell, Jack Estes, John Dover, and Sue Fagalde Lick at the Portland Book Festival      Photo by Gail Pasternack

 

It’s 5 p.m., and the Portland Book Festival is winding down. Where once one couldn’t move for the crowds, now there’s space between the bodies. Formerly known as Wordstock, the festival has once again drawn thousands of book lovers to the Portland Art Museum and surrounding venues. Everywhere you turn, someone is giving a talk, reading from his or her books, offering services for writers, or selling books. People bring their babies and their kids, hoping to turn them into readers. Food carts line up selling tamales, pizza, donuts, and other goodies.

In a world where half the people say they never read books, it’s wonderful to see so many celebrating the written word, even if they wander around in a word-stoned daze, making it hard to move. We stand in line for the readings and talks, for food, for coffee, to buy books, and to use the restroom.

Now, with the festival ending in one hour, it’s getting easier to breathe, but it doesn’t bode well for sales. With several other Willamette Writers authors, I have drawn the last shift for selling and signing my books. My book bag is heavy coming in, but I hope it will be much lighter going out.

We stand behind the table, behind our piles of vastly different books and exercise our best selling techniques. Debby Dodds flashes her technicolor smile and plays her connections with seemingly everyone in Portland to sell her young adult novel, Amish Boys Don’t Call.

Jack Estes, whose wonderful books are about soldiers, shouts out, “Do you know any veterans?” because, well, who doesn’t, and tomorrow is Veterans Day. Sometimes the question backfires. People are like “What? Why?” Plus, people don’t give Veterans Day gifts. Maybe they should.

John Dover, creator of the “jazz noir” Johnny Scotch series, plies his local connections and offers readers a good time with his books and stories. Kerry Blaisdell hands out free calendars to lure people to her urban fantasy novel, Debriefing the Dead.

Me, I pass out postcards with the cover photo from Up Beaver Creek. “Would you like a pretty picture, something to look at and de-stress?” Mostly women accept it. A few turn it over, read my pitch and come back to take a look at the book. Success.

Since our table sits under the Willamette Writers banner, we give out information about the organization, about the various branches, our program for young writers, and our literary magazine the Timberline Review.

But it’s a tired crowd, with going home on their minds. It’s getting dark outside. Their bags of books are already too heavy. Many don’t even glance in our direction. Some dart in to grab the leftover Halloween candy set between the books. And some stop to chat. And chat. And chat. I want to scream, “Move on. You’re blocking my books. I don’t want to carry these damned things home.” Just as I wanted to scream when I was on the other side perusing the booths, “Pass on the right!” and, “If you’re going to stand still, get out of the way.” But I don’t scream any of those things. I smile and offer up pretty pictures.

My photo technique works. I sell a book. The buyer hands me a credit card. It’s the first time I’ve used the credit card app on my phone. Will it really work? It did when I practiced at home, but . . . Look! It works! I hand her my phone. “Finger sign here, please.” How crazy is that? In a minute, I get an email saying $15.00 has been deposited into my account. Magic. Somebody else buy a book. Let’s do it again!

Up until this year, I have not accepted credit cards. Cash or checks only. But that’s old-fashioned. Now we all have our little card readers on our phones. Zip, zoop, sold.

That one sale is it for the night, which is as good as any of us except Debby does, but as John Dover notes, this is not about sales. It’s about shaking hands and making connections. It’s about getting people to take our cards and our swag so that they might go home and order our books or at least remember our names.

It’s also about being with other authors after the solitary process of writing our books. We compare notes. Best and worst selling experiences. Bookstores that treat authors well or treat them badly. Places we might give talks. Favorite flavor of Ghirardelli chocolate squares. (Mine is mint.)

And it’s fun. I think of myself as shy, but I have spent the day talking to strangers, putting myself “out there.” “Hey, you need another book!” I hear myself shouting. I’ve turned into a huckster.

Afterward, walking the six blocks to the parking garage, my bag is no lighter than it was coming in. I couldn’t resist purchasing one more book from a Facebook-only friend I finally met in person. I don’t mind. My feet hurt, but my heart feels good.

It has been a long day, which started with standing in line with approximately 2,000 people for over an hour in 36-degree weather outside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to see and hear Tom Hanks talk about Uncommon Type, his new book of short stories. The ticket price included a copy of his book. We grab our books from the thousands piled on tables in the theater lobby and cuddle them like kittens. Tom Hanks does not have to stand behind a table with postcards and chocolate bars trying to get people’s attention. It helps if you’re an Academy Award winning actor.

Tom Hanks’ hour-long talk was fabulous. It was funny, sweet, loving, and wise. I’m in love. We all are. Last night, I dreamed about Tom and his big gray dog walking up my driveway. I greeted them like old friends, casual, not star-struck at all—until my sweet Annie dog turned into Cujo and attacked his dog.

I’m so sorry, Tom. Would you like a pretty picture of Beaver Creek?

***

  • Fun fact: Back in the early 90s, Tom Hanks spent a night camping in an Airstream trailer on my grandfather’s property at Seacliff Beach, California. Or so says my father, who is not impressed with all this book nonsense, but thought it was pretty nifty that I got to see Tom Hanks.
  • The Coast branch of Willamette Writers meets this coming Sunday, Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. at the Newport Library. Rachel Barton will lead a free poetry workshop. Everyone is invited to join us for lunch at the Chowder Bowl at 11:30 that day where we can chat and fill up on chowder. PM me or email me at coast@willamettewriters.org if you’re coming to lunch so we can save you a seat.
  • I just discovered this is my 500th post! That’s a lot of blogging.

 

Portland East: From the silence to the noise


Sitting on a bench in the Lan Su Chinese Garden, tranquility floods the air. It’s so quiet you can hear the fish splash in the lily pond and the breeze whistle through the bamboo. Although we’re in the middle of Chinatown, and there are many tourists of all ages here taking pictures on their smart phones and iPads, they move respectfully through the rooms and gardens.
The brochure tells us that meditation, discussion and storytelling were popular activities in Chinese gardens. This garden was built by Chinese artisans from Portland’s sister city, Suzhou.  Doorways and windows form views within views, the paths are paved with rock mosaics, and Lake Tai rocks rise up like sculptures throughout the garden. Plants range from bonsai trees to japonica, plum, bamboo, and silk. Inner rooms and terraces showcase Chinese paintings and calligraphy while soft music plays in the background. A teahouse offers a taste of Chinese tradition.
Volunteers do much of the work at Lan Su. The garden, located at 239 NW Everett St., hosts many special events, including lectures, concerts, art shows and tea tastings. People rent space for weddings and other occasions. For more information, visit the website at http://www.lansugarden.org.
In town on business, I stayed to see a little bit of Portland. From the garden, I drove south along the waterfront, looking for a spot to sit and write and relax. Ironically, I wound up at another garden, the Garden at South Waterfront Park. This too, according to the brochure, is meant to be a meditative space beside the Willamette River. Well, the garden is lovely. Lots of paved paths wind in and out of the plants, the brochure tells you what the plants are, and I found a great rock to sit on just above the water. Not far down the path, a young woman was already busy writing. I watched speedboats, sailboats, and a guy standing on a surfboard. I remembered a past trip to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry just across the water. I relaxed on my rock and got out my pen.
But this not a quiet, tranquil space. It was hot, about 90 degrees. An endless stream of people jogged, biked, and walked along the paths, half of them staring at their cell phones. From up the waterfront a ways, a rock band pounded the air with drums and bass.  And because we were under two of the city’s main bridges, the Marquam and Hawthorne bridges, the traffic roar was so loud and constant I could not hear speedboats zooming by. Quite a contrast with the Chinese gardens and with the forest where I live.
 
I retired to the cool dining room at the Lil’ Cooperstown Bar & Grill, where there were TV screens showing sports everywhere I looked, and the music was a little loud, but the food and the service were great.
Portland has many faces. These are just a taste of those on the east side. I hope to explore many more parts of Portland in the future.

What are your favorite east Portland spots?