Friday, December 30, 2011

December: Marathon`s End

Stany`s last month in the U.S. would be like the finishing of a marathon. The last week of classes would have him lecturing more than normal in his four courses, even as I was exceptionally busy with my five. A good moment captured would include half of my PS 201 U.S. Government class volunteering to pose in a group picture with Stany and I. This group had become acquainted with him as he sat in on the course as it met twice a week for the past 11 weeks.


Shelter week at Ascencion Church happened to fall on that same first week of December, adding to our collective exhaustion even as we sought to make Stany`s last days with us more memorable. After one overnight sleeping at the shelter. There was a need for someone to drive the families in the morning to the day shelter where they could continue efforts to find employment and subsidized housing. Pictured here are two of the children waiting in front of the bus I would soon drive. Kenny and Christopher are brothers who have, with their Mom and Dad, been homeless for over four months now. Prospects for finding a three bedroom place are bleak, but such is needed as these two need space separate from one another in order to avoid fighting. Their father is permanently disabled, using a specially trained dog to assist him. Their mother, while patient and generally cheerful, is almost always exhausted with the task of coping with constant stress. As we now approach the holiday season, in a land of advertised plenty, their reality wakes us to the fact that the American Dream for some is a nightmare. Though they are thankful to be sleeping on cots in a warm room protecting them from the cold winter air, being transported in a school bus as if they were the age of their sons must be disheartening for the parents. So it is not surprising they desired not to be in this photograph.


Considering the plight of this family, as well as the challenges faced by many of my students, complaining about my Final Exam work week would seem somewhat petty. Still, 86 hours in seven days pressed me to my limits. A deadline of Monday at 5pm had to be met for submitting course grades for the 140 students in my classes, or many of them would risk losing financial aid for the new year… Aid which several, I know, use to live on and avoid becoming homeless themselves. So it is that their stress becomes mine. Many are unable to but the textbooks, so I have multiple copies in the library. If they are fortunate enough to have jobs, they put off tasks when they can, just to support themselves and their families. This resulted in a more late papers being submitted than ever before in my 25 years of teaching in Portland. Over 70 late papers from 140 people added about 25 hours of grading to a weak normally overfull….

On the night before my grades were due, Stany insistent upon taking us out to NAMASTE buffet for a tasty Indian meal. My daughter Mira and her friend Naomi joined Kris and I , Stany and Shaman. Good conversation was enjoyed by all, including memories of how Mira and Naomi had fallen ill while visiting Stany at his home in Kerala nearly two years ago. Nursed back to health with the help of Shanty, these have become fond memories. Pictured here is yet another fond memory – of my son Shaman enjoying a beer with Stany as drinking buddy! If I were not so strictly against drinking alcohol, maybe my stress could have been reduced by more than good food!

The stress of such long working hours meant that my wife ended up doing virtually all of the Christmas shopping and preparations, as well as the planning and cleaning associated with a sendoff party for Stany. Naturally, that sendoff party was set for the evening of the day my grades were due! Thankfully she had some minimal help in preparing for the party from our son Shaman, and daughter Sonrisa: that could be their Christmas gift to us! Our friend Evonne baked a huge treslaiche (three milk) cake which was also a huge success at the party. The Maldonado family made about 10 gallons of seafood chowder which all of the non-vegetarians loved. Many guests brought deserts of drinks which, when added together, created quite a feast! Nearly 30 people came to the Sonnleitner home to bid farewell to Stany, including a great many people who had invited him to their homes during these last four months. Although personally exhausted, I was energized that evening by all who came, and by the appreciation which shown in Stany`s face.


Pictured above is one scene from Stany`s party. To the right of Stany is Christine Chairsell, PCC Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs. Then Chris, and English Instructor at Cascade Campus who was Stany`s officemate there. Then Bryan Hull, Chair of the PCC Internationalization Steering Committee. Stany had just been presented a certificate of appreciation when this photo was taken, and now folks were returning to the socializing which most contributed to the fond memories that would remain.

Mohandas Gandhi spoke of Ram Rajya. Martin Luther King of the Beloved Community. At Stany`s party we could glimpse what they meant. What a wonderful mix of people all getting along so well together: Ages 3 to 70, Caucasian and not, straight and not, ethnically ranging from Mexican to Palestinian, Indian to African, military veterans and pacifists, Hindus, Moslems, Christians, Agnostics, and Atheists. To one on all my wife would say ``Me Casa Su Casa` (our home is your home). As can seen from the photo of the front of the house that night, it is as if a light was shining from within it! The Kerala Star on the front porch, of course, is a reminder that wise men were drawn to see the birth of a miracle so many years ago. As for now, is not every birth a miracle? Are not the birth of lifelong friendships and communities built around them among the most miraculous events of all?


Two days after the Party Stany would be transported by us to the airport, to return to his wife Shanty and other family members within 36 hours thereafter. They would spend Christmas together, as would we, separated half a world away. Kris and I would host another crowd of about 25 people, including all of our children, three siblings of Kris (together with their families), Margarita and her family, as well as our friends the Maldonados. A full house of joy to share – though a little more empty for the absence of Stany and Shanty. Christmas Day evening we were able to successfully Skype to India and could fill the space in our hearts with at least a visual of our former housemates. Stany and Shanty looked so happy together! As we said goodbye, my final photograph of Stany waiving to us from behind the security line at the airport came to mind.


Peace Be With Us, One and All.

November: Activities Galore

The month of November continued the academic pace of the previous month, full of obligations for both Stany and I, plus additional planned activities including a planned trip to California, Sworam, and the Thanksgiving Holiday. Beyond our classroom responsibilities, Stany and I both made (separate) presentations as featured events during the annual International Week at Portland Community College (PCC). My event drew a crowd of one person to hear about the ``Power of Nonviolence``, while Stany`s talk on ``Reform Movements in India`` at least filled a small room! So much for the star power of Fulbright Scholar designations! With over 100,000 students attending all campuses of PCC this Fall Term, and a record number of international students that has exceeded 700, the traditional parochialism embedded deeply in much of the culture here was again on display. An International student fashion show as well as food events providing free samples were exceedingly popular, while interest rooted beyond the pleasurable remained disappointingly weak. The picture of Stany that follows here was taken during his International week presentation:


Political realities relating to things like high unemployment, underwater home mortgages, astronomical student loans, and a healthcare industry far more concerned with profits than people continued to fuel the Occupy Movement throughout the U.S.. With over a month of encampments and other displays of protest in hundreds of cities, including here in Portland, liberal politicians are joining conservatives in growing weary of actions which exceed liberal legal restraints. Corporate owned media complaints of allegedly unsanitary conditions in the encampments as well as actions like disrupting bank operations and closing down west coast ports have provoked a more heavy handed police response. By the month`s end, encampments in most cities (including Portland) had been cleared, with hundreds of arrests nationwide including severe incidents of using excessive force. It seems as if I can hear Gandhi say ``Hold firm: repression is a sign that the existing power structure is being threatened!`` Although I expect the inclement weather of winter will reduce the size and frequency of actions in the near future, come springtime it is my hope the movement will re-emerge stronger than ever.

A needed break from teaching duties and Occupy Movement activities occurred on the weekend of November 10-13. My wife Kristine, Stany, and I drove over 700 miles (with stops, 16 hours) down to Mission San Miguel (located between San Francisco and Los Angeles off highway 101. The occasion was the 30th Anniversary Celebration of the ordination of our friend Father Larry as a Franciscan Priest. As a testament to Father Larry, over 500 people attended events that weekend representing various communities he has served over the years: Native American peoples from New Mexico, African Americans from Oakland, Latinos from California as well as a mixed grouping of about 15 Mexican Americans and gringos from Ascencion Church in Portland! A few people from India also were present, along with Stany, as a reminder of the role Larry played in providing final rites for Mother Theresa with whom he had worked in Calcutta. Well known for his gregarious personality, Larry makes everyone he meets feel like they are special in both God`s eyes and his.


Now serving as ``Guardian`` (aka person in charge) of Mission San Miguel (originally constructed in 1797), Larry`s many guests were treated to a three-hour religious service (pictured below), with another musical extravaganza in the same venue, a wine tasting reception (with wine donated from local vineyards), and two celebratory meals with entertainment and dancing at the county fairgrounds pavilion!


The last two weeks of November were largely devoted to new Indian friends and family events. A great many new acquaintances were forthcoming from Stany`s invitation to be honored guest for SWORAM, an association of Malayali speaking families (mostly from Kerala) now living in the Portland metropolitan area. Gathering three times each year, upwards of 60 families (maybe 200 people) were celebrating their autumn event on the weekend prior to Thanksgiving. As my mother-in-law, Patricia, flew in on the same day and was tired, Kristine and she stayed home as Stany and I attended the Sworam event that was held in the theatre at the PCC Rock Creek campus. Preceding the talent show (which was followed by a very tasty catered buffet!) Stany and I both spoke as part of the welcoming ceremonial. He was very well received and folks welcomed me also with a warmth reminiscent of my time in India. Out of courtesy in my presence most people conversed in English so as to not unintentionally exclude the only non-Indian at the event. Pictured here is Stany in a front row seat watching the entertainment!


The end of the month is time for Thanksgiving, a harvest celebration often linked almost mythologically with the kindness of Native Americans to early English Pilgrims settling in America. Our Thanksgiving was a traditional affair, complete with the featured Turkey (which Stany had neither seen nor tasted before), in the company of family and friends. It was the first time in several months that Margarita and her family were together with our three biological children. This alone was served to warm my heart. My favorite photo of that day was not of the feast itself, but rather of the sharing of family members involved in preparing for it. Here are all the women in our immediate family (Sonrisa, Margarita, Hanilyn, Mira, and Kristine) surrounding the Turkey (and gravy, etc.) which would soon be on the table around which we would all gather.


Kris and I became more conscious of how, only two years ago, we were frantically finishing preparations for our flight to India which began these series of Blog entries. Such memories are easily remembered as our foster daughter, Margarita had just given birth to her first child, Hanilyn. That granddaughter celebrated her second birthday on November 21st. If the reader were to compare the photo attached to the first Blog entry (taken of me holding the newborn less than a week old) – with the photo of this glorious child as pictured below, it is clear that time can be so full of activity and also seem to pass in an instant. Be thankful always, Hanilyn for having a family that loves you! May that love be shared by you with all who touch your life and who may not have such a caring network of support.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

October: Politics & Halloween

Following the departure of Shanty, the rest of the month of October was a whirlwind of political activity, teaching tasks, all capped with the celebration of Halloween. Within 5 days Stany and I attended a March and Rally which had been three months in the planning – to occur on the 10th Anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Afganistan. This anti-war protest, coming only nine days after the massive Occupy Protest of October 6th, was swelled by Occupy Movement people to over 6,000 strong. As a lead ``peacekeeper`` for the event, I was stationed on the stage from which Rally speakers addressed the crowd. It was a fine vantage point also to take photographs, including the one below (which shows Stany watching intently among the audience assembled!

As can be seen in the poster on the right, the many uprisings in the Arab world were also featured, with these being among events inspiring the crowd to demand a more functional democracy in the U.S.A.. While the corporate-owned media continues to either ignore the Occupy Movement, or to portray it as without any coherent messages for change, all one needed to do at the Rally was listen to the common themes: get money out of political campaigns (public financing), create healthcare for all (single payer), end corporate personhood, and create jobs and economic relief (to homeowners, students, and others) rather than resources for banks and other institutions which are primarily serving the rich. Such themes are not hard to understand, except by those benefitting from the current status quo. Of particular interest to Stany was the fact that coverage of this event was virtually non-existent from newspapers the following day. Such neglect is a testament to why so many are now supporting basic changes to politics globally.

Nine days later, local papers covered in advance an action being contemplated by the Portland Public School Board. This action would require all school functions to which U.S. Military Recruiters have access, to also provide equal access by Counter-Recruiters. Sponsored by school board co-chair (Martin Gonzalez, long an acquaintance of our family), the front-page coverage of the vote seemed calculated to encourage opposition to it. While some vocal opposition did express itself during the Monday evening School Board Meeting, many more of those in favor attended. Sitting with Stany and my wife Kristine in the meeting room, I was struck at how no one complained about my holding a sign on my chest while seated. Some 7 years ago I had been arrested in this very room with five others protesting military recruiters having access to student files (without either student or parental consent). John Greschow and I were holding signs together then, and now we were being not only tolerated – but there he was speaking to the Board in support of the resolution which he had crafted! The political atmosphere had visibly changed. The Vote? 7-0 in favor of the resolution! Pictured below is John tolerating my taking a photo of him after the meeting as testament to his perseverance.


After the photo was taken Kris, Stany, and I took John out for some ice cream at a nearby Burgerville! Whenever we can, most any excuse for celebration may bolster the spirits!

Other highlights of this month included eating out at Namaste Restaurant as well as a kind invitation to join Wilson Jacob (a Chemistry instructor at PCC), his wife Alphonsa, and their child Gabby at their home. It is nice for Stany to enjoy some South Asia food from time to time and the Jacob family are such good company! After Stany leaves, here will be a relationship we should maintain (and no, it is not only about the food)!

At Portland Community College classes are now in full swing. Stany has classes he contributes to four days per week, commuting among three campuses. He is learning much about cultural realities here (like how few people talk on the shuttle bus), different teaching styles (from lecture to more interactive), and is generally being well appreciated by his colleagues and students alike. As he teaches one evening a week and I teach another, it was a rare opportunity for us to seize time to visit Powell`s bookstore: a tri-level building that covers an entire city block in downtown Portland. In our two hours there, Stany remained in one place (with Political Science books of all kinds tacked seven shelves high on both sides of a aisle running 10 meters! Asked why he did not wander about browsing elsewhere, Stany responded with ``I thought I might get lost``!

An outing with our housemate Tom one Friday took Stany to the campus of Portland State University, a walk through the Occupy Portland encampment, and then to an American bar to share a few beers. Though I felt guilty due to how little social time is available for me these days, it is good for him to spend time with Tom and others. Without Shanty here, it is clear that Stany does not enjoy ``mingling`` on his own. That said, he certainly has plenty to learn from and process!

Halloween was spent giving candy out at our home. Stany enjoyed seeing all of the children (large and small) dressed up in costumes ranging from angels to devils, pirates and cats, fairy princesses to vampires. Well over 100 people came to our door, with the two pictures below enjoying Stany`s generous spirit!

Week 7: Shanty Departs

An astute reader will notice that this entry was not made in real time. The departure of Shanty to India this week followed another weekend trip to the Oregon Coast as well as a frenzy of other activity which, when combined with my heavier-than-normal teaching schedule, left me with little time for writing. So it will likely be that the blog entries for the remainder of Stany`s time with us will be more brief than before and all will show something of the filter of hindsight.

Far back in June Shanty had agreed to remain in Oregon long enough to celebrate my wife`s birthday. So it is that Kristine had two celebrations! At the coast we joined her brother Tim (with his wife Terry) at their home in Astoria, feasting on a Saturday evening barbeque that all of the meat eaters agreed was amazing. Arriving the night before allowed us to spend the day again at the beach, visiting Fort Stevens Park, the Lewis & Clark museum across the Columbia River near Long Beach, with lunch at a restaurant that seemed to be Australian but wasn`t! The morning after the feast we all enjoyed the company of sea lions at the Astoria Marina, sunning their massive bodies on the docks within just a few feet of where Stany and Shanty could take all of the photos one could want. A pleasant two hour drive on Sunday back to Portland left us with a more simple dinner at the Sonnleitner household, complete with all housemates.

The featured photo this week shows (left to right), Iris (our housemate from Mexico and helper extraordinaire), my son Shaman, Kristine, our daughter Sonrisa, daughter Mira, Stany and Shanty. Housemate Tom (a former student of mine) was not able to attend, and I was taking the picture! It was a precious moment in our dining room, full of well wishing, but with a little remorse: Shanty would be catching her flight the next day. This would be her last dinner in the U.S. and a separation from her husband that would last 10 more weeks.

As much as was happening all around us, with the Occupy Portland encampment downtown (following last week`s massive march), a formal reception honoring Stany (welcoming him to PCC last Friday), and so much other interpersonal activity, by far the biggest event in our lives was Shanty`s departure. She will be as greatly missed by us all here as she will be welcomed home by those who love her back in Kerala. Her children, Hanna, Anna, and Tom are eagerly awaiting her return. We can and will be happy for them….

Our memories together will last a lifetime. That said, I will add a second photo to this entry that is my favorit e one of Shanty. Taken in the Washington Park Rose Garden (in Portland) three weeks ago, it may seem unreal but has not been modified in any way. Shanty described the place as ``a little piece of heaven``. So it is.

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Week 6: The New Tide Grows


The new tide grows. From last Thursday through this Thursday we have seen a spontaneous outpouring of sentiment reflected in the photograph from this week. In it you can see some of the range of people and signs among at least 8,000 protesting at the beginning of OCCUPY PORTLAND –a demonstration on October 6th that was the largest in this city since attempts to prevent the Iraq War from beginning in 2003. Inspired by the OCCUPY WALL STREET actions that began two weeks ago in New York, the demonstration in Portland was entirely illegal, with no permits providing permission to march or rally – and certainly none for hundreds of people to put up tents by the end of the day and camp out in downtown public parks.

Our week began with two day seminar long-planned at Portland Community College (PCC) and organized with the help of the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. Entitled ``Trade Winds: Asian Trade Today``, the seminar used a U.S. government grant to discuss expanding (free trade) opportunity with VIP speakers including a former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam and renowned scholars relating to China. Unable to attend most of the seminar myself because of my own teaching duties, it would seem very little (if any) questions were raised regarding the expanding gap between rich and poor in the U.S. and elsewhere which are a direct byproduct of the free market globalization of the world`s economic systems.

When Stany Thomas and I, together with our wives, were invited out twice to dine this week, OCCUPY WALL STREET was included in the conversations at the home of our PCC political science colleague, Herman Washington as well as later with Marlene Eid and her family – but not prominently. Pleasantries predominated, though personal sharing turned to some serious issues primarily relating to Mr. Washington`s experiences as an African American, and Marlene`s early life as a Palestinian in occupied Jerusalem. None of us could have predicted the events of October 2nd (Gandhi` birthday and the date St. Francis of Assisi died). Maybe the spirits of Gandhi and St. Francis are more present than is commonly accepted! On that day 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City and serious organizing began mushrooming in cities all over the U.S…

The week was so busy for us that I hardly had time to follow any news. Ascension Parish was hosting 15 homeless people (including 5 families, with one woman nearly ready to give birth). My wife or I slept overnight on three consecutive nights to keep the shelter open and filled in periodically to perform other needed tasks. Another evening out had us sharing the Hindi holiday of Durga Puja at the home of a PCC college from India, Usha Ramanuja. On separate days, two of my courses were open to the public as I had consented to feature an anti-war speaker (Paul Chappell) whose analyses were made more persuasive by his experience as a veteran of the war in Iraq who was graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In addition, I had two committees that I chair with meetings this week with one promoting weekly free speech events (in a series now seven years running called Open Mind, Open Mic) and another seeking to lay the groundwork for future international exchange programs.

In the midst of all my personal commitments, it was my students who made me aware of the expansion of OCCUPY WALL STREET to include an OCCUPY PORTLAND. Several of these students were planning to attend an illegal march on October 6th and, it was partly out of concern for them that I also decided to attend. Not knowing what to expect from the police or potentially undisciplined demonstrators, I had cautioned my students to prepare for potential tear gas and arrest. When I arrived near the Portland waterfront that afternoon, I was mentally prepared for trouble myself, but quickly realized (from police body language) that the prospects for trouble would be remote. The why of this became obvious as I saw the head of the March coming at me and stretching back as far as I could see. Filling the streets were such a mass of people that any police actions would have been overwhelmed. There would not be enough jail cells. To attack the remarkably peaceful crowd of demonstrators would have also risked harm to many families with children, senior citizens, and no small number of military veterans.

On October 6th, law enforcement was neutralized this day, as people chanted slogans like``This is what democracy looks like``, ``Bail out us, not the banks,``, and ``We are the 99%``! (of people who are not the super wealthy). A festive atmosphere emerged in which many people thanked individual police officers for stepping aside as the downtown Pioneer Courthouse Square was filled nearly to its 10,000 person capacity. After much chanting en masse, some dispersed (including myself, as I had a 3-5pm course to teach) and others proceeded to Chapman Square (a park near City Hall) which would become the site for an illegal encampment that the city had announced it would (at least temporarily) allow. With both great energy as well as exhaustion, this week would end for me with cautious hope for the future. Can these calls for change be collectively sustained? How far will this new tide take us into the future?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Week 5: A New Tide



The weekend prior to the start of classes was simple too beautiful not spend the day 100 miles away at the Pacific Ocean. Taking advantage of the rare sunshine of a late Saturday in September, we enjoyed the two hour ride over the coastal mountain range with some trees beginning their autumn colors and made a traditional family pilgrimage to what had been the oldest living thing in Oregon, a Sitka Spruce Tree. A sapling about the year 1215 (the time of St. Francis), it had grown to a diameter of over 30 feet (10 meters) towering over 300 feet into the sky until 2006 when the sky struck it with lightening boy which split the truck vertically and made it in danger of collapse. Now a monument cut off at about 30 feet up, it is left to celebrate a generation of new saplings that are emerging around it. As I have now gained senior status by some estimates, in the presence of this now deceased giant, I feel myself young and full of hope. Life will carry on when life leaves our bodies also. A new tide of time will begin to be grown out of the compost and debris we provide.

From Bapu Sitka, Stany, Shanty, Kristine and I stood in awe of the views from Ecola State Park, occasionally surrounded in the morning mist which comes and goes with the coastal winds. The sun break while traversing Cannon Beach was most welcome, though Shanty still found the waters there far more chilly than those common to the coast of Kerala. Gazing upon Haystack Rock we can see the power of the sea to wear away the stony surface reflecting millennia past. Enjoying a modest lunch with a window seat at Mo`s Restaurant, we were entertained by kites and bikes and people of all ages basking in the pleasure of the low tide. An afternoon stroll through the nearby old growth forest of Oswald West burned off what calories we had gained as we marveled in the glory of nature largely untarnished by human contact. So as to still appreciate what human hands can give, before the journey home we all enjoyed ice cream at the famous creamery in Tillamook with its vast choice of flavors. The diversity in nature can be joined by the diversity born of human hands.

Back in Portland this week multiple meals and fine company were plentiful . With David Rule and his wife Jean we shared with a number of faculty and staff from Portland Community College (PCC) who had never before been to the home of the PCC Rock Creek Campus President. A few days later, Stany and Shanty inspired an evening out with Linda Gerber (President of the PCFC Sylvania Campus), her husband Charlie, as well as Linda`s Administrative Assistant Kate Chester and Kate`s friend Canaan Canaan (a Moslem Palestinian now International Student Advisor at Portland State University). Conversations were rich in personal sharing as well as the discussion of issues transcending the normal superficiality common to most social gatherings. It is as if the presence of Stany and Shanty provide an opportunity for community building that many folks hunger for but are reluctant to find time to engage in on their own.

Fall Term classes began this week also like a tsunami! At Portland Community College the incoming tide of students is approaching 100,000 (a full Crore)! Of my five 4-credit classes four are full to overflowing, filling every chair in the room. The other is at 2/3 capacity, in part because it was added late and has never been taught in its evening time slot. With our open enrollment policy, a great many people take classes because of the poor economy using the time made available by their unemployed or underemployed status to improve their education (and so also their future job prospects). Pell grants and some other financial aid (including bank loans) are clearly used by some people to simply survive, signing up for classes (which little energy may be devoted to while books remain unpurchased) so as to be able to just pay rent and buy food. Hungry (and even homeless) students are among those enrolled, distracted by their severe personal circumstances so seriously as to have little prospect of academic success. As an instructor, I do all I can to be helpful – quite aware (and very frustrated with the fact that) no matter how much attention I devote, for many it will simply not be enough.

The beginnings of the OCCUPY WALLSTREET action reflect the desperation of a wide range of people, including many of my students and myself. Thus far largely unreported in the mainstream media, some of us are following in through Democracy Now and other alternative media and see it as a sign that an awakening of consciousness is possible. Sooner or later a critical mass of people will realize that government can serve the people – and need not primarily behave as a lapdog to the corporations and wealthy elite who feed their campaigns for electoral victory. Sooner or later and awakened public can circumvent the media controlled by the wealthy and their government proxies and demand that democracy become more real. We have seen it in so many contexts from the Movement for Indian Independence led by Gandhi, to the overthrowing of such dictatorships as that of Marcos in the Philippines, Milosevic in Serbia, and Mubarak in Egypt. More recent struggles for popular control in places like Yemen and Syria as well as in Greece and Spain may help inspire more people in the U.S. to act. Hopefully OCCUPY WALL STREET will become an outgoing tide and spread the message of people`s democracy more broadly.

Last but not least, this week we celebrated the birthdays of our two biological daughters. My wife Kris and I were joined by both Mira (21 last week) and Sonrisa (27 this week) in a family gathering including my son (Shaman), his friend and our housemate Tom Worth, as well as our housemates Iris (from Mexico), Shanty and Stany. Rare it is these days that we all are together in the same place! From Mira we learned of her recent band tour to British Columbia in Canada (why is a father so late in hearing a daughter has left the country and returned?), as well as her plans to spend two weeks later in October in New York and Montreal! From Sonrisa it was good to hear some of her adventures upon just returning from three weeks in Costa Rica working on an organic farm and learning to milk goats and produce methane for fuel! As a parent I greatly value these moments of sharing and wish that American cultural traditions valued family time as much as I have seen in India and elsewhere.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Week 4 USA: Wild Rides


Full of wild rides, the highlight of this week included the presentation of flowers to Stany and Shanty at an assembly of over 2,000 faculty, administrators, and staff employed at Portland Community College (PCC). Assembled only on the first day of each academic year, during 2-3 hours of speeches by the President of PCC and a few selected others Stany was allocated time to shared words with all present. His comments were very well spoken and received – leaving a fine first impression that should last throughout the coming months. I think he may not have realized how great an honor those at PCC feel it is to have him as a Fulbright Scholar here. Theirs were the only flowers presented to anyone during this event!

During the few days preceding this annual ``In-Service`` event, Stany and Shanty (together with my wife Kristine and I) spent three days and two nights a little over 200 miles away to the east. Shanty described traveling by car on the freeway as like ``floating on a cloud`` (so smooth and soft, with only an occasional wave of movement associated with a slight up or down in the pavement or sideways shift to the occasionally heavy winds in the Columbia River Gorge. As we floated our way for about 5 hours to Walla Walla in Washington State, we followed the course of the great Columbia River and marveled at the cliffs carved by it over many thousands of years. As we passed swiftly by small towns, three huge dams, and observed wind surfing, the landscape changed from the lush forests of the west to the high desert of the east and I shared memories long buried of life as I had known during a few pre-teen summers spent with my mother and step father at Sundale Orchards (as we drove by it): memories of sand dunes before the dams, of hunting for tribal arrowheads on the river banks and agate rocks in the hills.

Arriving in Walla Walla, we located our lodging at the Vineyard Inn, enjoyed lunch, and found our way to the office of Ashley Esary at Whitman College. It was in Dr. Esary`s ``Democracy in Asia`` seminar that Stany had his first U.S. classroom teaching experience – and where his wife Shanty was able to see him for the first time ever conducting a class! The chairperson of Whitman`s Political Science Department, Professor Shampa Biswas (a Bengali from Delhi who, like me, received a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota), also enjoyed Stany`s presentation which provided insights into the constitutional structure of government in India, how civil society movements relate to that structure, and prospects for reform efforts currently underway. Dean of the Faculty, Dr. Tim Kaufman-Osborne, graciously treated us all to dinner that evening at the Thai Ploy Restaurant where good conversations provided dessert to an eventful day.

Friday, September 16th, was spent at the Pendleton Roundup where we had a great time watching the annual ``Westward Ho`` parade prior to our going in to the stadium venue for the famous rodeo. The parade lasted fully two hours and included a total of 652 horses and more people carrying flags than I can remember anywhere! Covered wagons, marching bands, Native Americans in glorious traditional costumes, stage coaches, children scrambling for candy, and so many memories will remain from that event. Viewing it all were three little blonde-haired girls with family members next to us – two of whom took a great liking to Stany and sat with him. One unforgettably highlight involved a massive horse which stopped in the middle of the street to urinated such a large quantity of water as to have it flow down to the curb on both sides! Many of the horses which followed would balk at the mess and hop over it, providing chuckles in an ongoing manner. At the end of the parade, Stany and Shanty were amazed to see a street sweeping machine immediately using water to clean up all along the parade route. Smiling broadly, Stany observed how ``That would not happen in India``!

The Pendleton Roundup Rodeo was literally full of wild rides. With 101 years of tradition, over 50,000 people attend this yearly showcase of Cowboy and Native American athletic events that include bucking bronco horses, bull riding, calf roping, and bareback horse racing for both men and women. Our affordable $25 seats gave us a good view of both the crowd and the action. In the contests, it would seem the animals won over the humans about half the time, with each inflicting about the same pain upon the other. When the noise of the crowd permitted, Stany and I noted similarities between the violence of this entertainment and what is known of the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome – though here the objective is not to take life. In fact, two human contestants and one calf were sufficiently injured to require being carried off the field of battle. The courage of the human athletes is admirable and naturally evokes a level of admiration that even a Gandhi might have felt. That the animals are not voluntary participants, however, may give pause to a thoughtful person. That said, what souvenir did I purchase for Stany and Shanty to take back to India as a reminder of this experience?: a set of spurs that are worn on boots used to provoke the spirited horses to buck! How thoughtful is that gift?!!

Before returning to Portland we rode around to other sightseeing. The Native American Museum associated with the Tamastglikt Cultural Institute near Pendleton included excellent exhibits relating to life current and present. Especially touching to me was walking through a replica of an Indian Boarding School where, for many decades, native cultural was systematically undermined with attempts to make traditional peoples become culturally white. We enjoyed huckleberry pie and cookies, fry bread/elephant ears (with sugar and cinnamon), and walked around the many booths set up for tourists in Pendleton`s city center. Stany and Shanti were especially pleased to take pictures of apple orchards near Milton Freewater where they strode amongst trees weighed down with dark red fruit ready for harvest. As in the Portland Rose Garden last week, Shanty observed how ``This is like heaven``! Additional glimpses of the Columbia River Gorge completed the weekend adventure, with stops at Maryhill Art Museum and a replica of Stonehenge (a 1,500 BCE ruin in England) which was built on a site dedicated to U.S. soldiers who died in World War I.

A relative day of rest on Sunday preceded the wild ride of events and meetings that would commence with the In-Service event at Portland Community College (PCC) on September 19th. Included among the additional meetings Stany and I attended were those held for Subject Area Committee (SAC) Chairs, all employees at the PCC Rock Creek Campus, the PCC Cascade Campus Social Science Division, the PCC Educational Advisory Council (EAC), and the Internationalization Steering Committee at PCC. 6 meetings totaling 16 hours in four days (thankfully Wednesday was not booked)! Stany was recognized as a special guest throughout and had many opportunities to begin relationships with people throughout the PCC system. Though quite tired each night, Stany seemed to thrive throughout it all, enjoying the ride and while absorbing a vast amount of information in such a short period of time. As classes commence next week, I believe that he may be declared well-oriented to understand how this institution operates!

Conversations of interest generated through topics inspired by this wild ride of information could certainly fill a roller coaster! The most stimulating of these related to issues that included homosexuality, student leadership development, faculty teaching styles, educational cost and funding concerns, curriculum development, and competing views regarding the role of education in society. At the EAC Meeting, for example, two hours were devoted to small and large group discussions responding to an article entitled ``Libe and Learn: Why We Have College`` by Louis Menand of Harvard University. Summarized briefly, Dr. Menand sought to objectively outline three theories of education he sees as competing for our allegiance; 1) a Merit Theory which sees the role of the teacher to separate the ``more intelligent from the less intelligent`` students via a grading system, 2) a type of Liberal Arts Theory which sees the primary purpose to socialize students to become citizens reflecting the ``mainstream of reason and taste`` in society, and 3) a Vocational Theory which that seeks to prepare students for employment by focusing on developing specialized skills.

Stany and I were among only a few of the 40 faculty and administrators present who took the discussion to a level which questioned Dr. Menand`s claim of objectivity and rejected the three theories all reflecting a common but crippling flaw: All frame the discussion with an unspoken assumption that sees the student as a commodity which the teacher must will with knowledge and somehow prepare to fit functionally into society as it currently operates. The idea that our personal and institutional responsibilities should extend to caring for the social and emotional needs of each student is largely absent. To not enter that realm of responsibility, which (to use the psychologist Abraham Maslow as a reference) is to virtually overlook the addressing of physiological, security, social, and self esteem needs that may be foundational to any student being academically successful. What is more, the lip service we may give to fulfilling critical and creative thinking objectives remain hollow if we are more concerned about 1) ranking students, 2) socializing students, or 3) getting students jobs – than actually helping to empower students to make their own choices as more self-actualized individuals (and more capable of changing society as it currently operates)!

Should not struggling with considerations of what justice should mean be also central to an ideal educational process? Should not teachers of higher education be more than competent purveyors of information and (radical thought?) become Professors? Should not the best Professors be more than evangelists for their own point of view and become leaders among those who seek improved understandings of what is True? I have no doubt that those I look up to would say yes to all three of these questions. People like Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Mohammad, Galileo, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. are among those who inspire me to say yes. Yet to say yes certainly risks the enduring the wrath of society as it functions at the time. All of those I look up to have had to sacrifice the abuse of others (often giving up their lives) for the sake of greater justice in present and future generations. Shall the consequences of my commitments be any different? Should yours?

Life itself is quite a wild ride. That it sometimes includes honors and flowers is most pleasant. That it must include pain and sacrifice must be equally accepted.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Week 3 USA: Full of Activity


Connected to Stany and Shanty only by phone conversations this week, I will add some of their experiences from this week upon their arrival back to Portland. In their absence, our week has been full of activity that includes political demonstrations, a wedding, birthday celebrations, a religious retreat for my wife, several communications with our daughter in Costa Rica, and my preparations for classes to begin. The featured photo is of the Burnside Bridge in Portland where I (in the shadow) would later join others in holding 7 signs:

1) Bradley Manning, 2) Spilled the Beans, 3) Now War is Deadly by Any Means. 4) Our Lethal Drones, 5) Execute Civilians in Their Homes. 6) Stop War, 7) Free Bradley Manning.

For those who may have never heard about Bradley Manning (or have forgotten about him), he was a young U.S. Army soldier in Iraq who was arrested in May of 2010 on suspicion of releasing classified information (including 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables and footage of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Afganistan) to the website WikiLeaks. This information inspired the New York Times and many other newspapers to unveil many secrets in subsequent articles which, in turn, helped to fan the winds of revolutionary change in Egypt and elsewhere. After being held under inhumane conditions for over 10 months in solitary confinement (and often even without clothing), Bradley Manning awaits court martial proceedings in the medium security military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Local demonstrations throughout the U.S., including ours, seek his freedom and defend the principle that democracy functions best when secrecy is kept to a minimum.

In another event into which I had input, about 100 people gathered to commemorate the attack of 9/11/20 together with its aftermath. We met out of regards to the 2,753 mostly civilians who perished that day, and the over 6,000 U.S. servicemen who have died carrying out U.S. policies over the 10 years following that day. By some estimates, a total of over one million have lost their lives in Iraq, Afganistan, and Pakistan with more than 90% of these being civilians. A debatable combination of lies and erroneous information fuel by a cultural impulse seeking revenge accounts for most of this carnage.

We now know that, prior to the U.S. onslaught, the Taliban in Afganistan had offered to detain Osama Bin Laden pending a trial by an international tribunal, that Saddam Hussein had none of the ``weapons of mass destruction`` which were used by the U.S. to justify a pre-emptive strike against his regime in Iraq, and that President Musharif of Pakistan had been warned of a possible U.S. invasion of his country if he failed to cooperate with our ``War on Terror``. Might much, if not all of the suffering, caused by U.S. policies both prior to 9/11 and after have been avoided if we this country were to behave more as a compassionate neighbor than as an Empire defending its self-proclaimed ``way of life``? What would Gandhi say? Buddha? Jesus? Mohammad? What would you say?

Most of us say ``Yes`` to life most of the time. A dramatic example of that for our family this week were present in our attending a wedding for a friend of our housemate Iris where my wife and I were welcomed attendees of a Spanish Mass where two people of Mexican heritage exchanged their vows of lifelong commitment. Celebrating our former foster daughter`s birthday was another, with Margarita (Maggie) throwing a party for her daughter Hanilyn the next day at her home – with over 40 people overeating while enjoying the excellent music of a three-person Mexican band. Approaching 2 years old, Hanilyn and I played in a sandbox and later sat in my lap for a record 15 minutes (enjoying the scene and fascinated by my camera)! She also allowed my wife Kristine to feed her for the first time! After being neglected by us for the first year of her life (9 months of which we were traveling abroad), it seems that she is willing to forgive her strangely pale grandparents in her second year! All that certainly says ``Yes`` ~~ to me!

Much of the rest of the week was consumed by me preparing for Fall Term courses I teach as well as Kris attending a religious retreat for which she mostly maintained silence for three days. Shaman, Iris , and I managed some mindless entertainment while seeing the film ``Transformers III: the Dark Side of the Moon`` and, in fact, there was a lovely full harvest (orange) moon last weekend. Kris` niece Nicole gave birth to a healthy son with a great new name: Rory Boone (O`Neil). Our daughter Sonrisa has been having a fine time milking goats, picking coffee beans, and learning all about methane while working on an organic farm in Costa Rica. Our housemate Tom continues volunteering with Senator Merkely.

Overall, our lives this week have been fairly full of activity!From their week visiting relatives in Florida and Texas, Stany and Shanty had much to share. Their Florida adventure began with a long drive from Ft. Lauderdale down to the very bottom of the Florida Keyes. The beauty of the Palm Trees and tropical environment reminded them much of Kerala, though traversing the seven miles of bridges linking the islands was a sight almost beyond the imagination. Numerous waterways were reminiscent of the Kerala backwaters, though the alligators they saw in Florida are a contrast to what may be found in India. The weather, however, including the seasonal rainfall was much like that of Kerala, prompting Shanty to tell us that ``It was much too hot and humid, Uncle.``

In the way to Key West they had stopped to watch the launching of a satellite (Delta II) from the Kennedy Space Center where a whole day was spent. As the rocket made its way into the sky they were able to better imagine the reality of space exploration which they could see documented at the Space Center. There they learned all about the Apollo trips to the moon, together with artifacts from that time. There also was a Space Shuttle on display, open enough for them to see its inner workings. How amazing is the technology we humans have managed to create! Yet if we applied that energy to making peace on Earth, might that be an even greater ``giant step for mankind``? Perhaps a small step in that direct could begin with India and Pakistan working together to relieve their peoples suffering from a second year of belated and behemoth monsoon rains?

On their way back from Key West their tour stopped at Miami Sea Aquarium where they enjoyed viewing seals, sea lions, and dolphins. Apparently the dolphins were most impressive in the skills they displayed, leaping out of the water and high into the air seeming to smile all the time in accordance with their trainers instructions. Shanty observed how she had tried to use some of the hand signals on Stany but without much success (ha). I suggested that maybe Dolphins were smarter than her husband and I, and that she and my wife might have to employ other strategies on us to get what they want!

While there was no time during their few days in Florida to go to Disney World, Stany and Shanty were given the experience of going into a Casino. Stany observed the behaviors of folks ranging from younger people seeming to have a good time to a disproportionate number of senior citizens who appeared to take their gambling more seriously. Upon his return, we talked about the ``get rich quick`` attitude that many see as a growing cultural trend in the U.S. with many adverse consequences. For the few who do get rich quick, there is often a feeling of somehow deserving that which was not really earned, and a corresponding lack of willingness to share with others their good fortune. For the many losers the myth of the American Dream continues, together with the hope that only a little effort is needed to really score big! Ironically, Shanty played a little on the slot machines and won $100! Rather than celebrate and go for more, they stopped and gave the money away to help cover the cost of gasoline for the car transporting them around.

It is good that Stany and Shanty were able to share Saturday, September 11th in the company of family and friends. This is the climax of the Kerala harvest week of ONUM celebrated by all religious groups and economic classes. There children are released from schools for the week, family feasts are common, and traditional events are jointly celebrated. Had they been with us in Portland, Stany and Shanty might have been far more homesick. Skyping relatives in India provides some emotional sustenance – but there can be no real substitute for sharing with family in person at times like this. When I phoned them that day, I could feel the happiness in Stany`s voice.

Their flight to Dallas, Texas was like from a steaming pressure cooker into a fire. The dry heat of Texas was overwhelming for Shanty who was reluctant to leave the comfort of air conditioned rooms. ``It was like a desert, Uncle``! In fact, Texas is not unlike a burning furnace these days, with autumn heats still into the 90-100 degree Fahrenheit extending an historic period of draught which is still feeding wildfires near Austin that have consumed well over 1,000 homes. It is in this context, including extreme water rationing and livestock dying that Republican Governor and Presidential hopeful Rick Perry confesses his continuing skepticism regarding whether or not global warming is affected at all by human behavior. Such denial, perhaps, is made more possible by the most popular distraction (drug?) enjoyed in that state: American Football. Might sports be described as a great opium for the people? As long as the Texas Longhorn team (whose massive stadium Stany and Shanty were able to gaze at from the outside) stands tall, the painful death of longhorn steers can be of less concern those not too directly affected….

Shown great hospitality by their many cousins who live in and around Dallas/Ft. Worth, Stany and Shanty were encouraged to shop with them, but resisted in preference to good conversations in which they could affirm relationships which, in some cases had gone 15 years without personal contact. ``My father taught me well``, said Stany, ``that people are much more important than property``. ``Having more things does not bring happiness. Having loving relationships can do that.`` So it is that the Fulbright Scholar from India displays a more philosophical and spiritual side – a side that affirms to m that he and I have far more in common regarding basic values than I had realized when we were in India.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Week 2 USA: Seattle & the APSA


Stany and Shanty seem very small in this photograph of the most massive escalator I have ever seen. Inside the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle, there are three tiers cascading one after the other while extending to the fourth floor of the building! It is like a metal waterfall carrying people rather than water! By comparison with Portland or anything before seen in their experience, everything in Seattle seems massive: 60 story buildings (Shanty counted), extreme traffic on the streets, and the famous Space Needle rising to 605 feet (184 m.) making the skyline appear quite unique.

Driving 3.5 hours to Seattle from Portland, I decided the most dramatic entrance into the city would be by ferry boat across Puget Sound from the U.S. naval shipyard in Bremerton. It had been many years since Kris and I had taken this hour long ride and our timing allowed for the sun to be at our backs near sunset so as to have the best photo opportunities of the skyline from the water. My nostalgia was rewarded with sunshine as we drove our 10 year-old van onto the massive ferry (designed to transport up to 120 automobiles). An elevator up to the observation deck gave us access to an open platform on the front of the vessel where the only negative required us to endure a fairly cool evening breeze of salty air. The departing view of Bremerton was spectacular with three aircraft carriers docked in plain view. Large jelly fish could be observed in the waters passing quickly far below. Views of the Seattle skyline emerged as amazingly as expected. The ride was further enhanced by friendly conversation with a lone passenger, Paul, a software salesman now from Pittsburg who surprised us all by generously offering us drinks!

Upon arriving in Seattle nostalgia prompted me to suggest dinner at Ivar`s Restaurant on the waterfront. When I was a child living with my single parent father just south of this city, my Dad and I would take a pilgrimage to Ivar`s every time my grandparents visited from Kansas. Grandpa loved the fish & chips while Grandma liked the famous clam chowder and prawns. So it is we enjoyed the sunset over Puget Sound eating at Ivar`s. Only my nectarine salad was moderately priced and Stany successfully won the battle with me to pay the bill. Stany`s generosity was consistently present throughout this trip and he and I struggled to accommodate one another by generally taking turns on spending issues. He can be very insistent yet compromise was possible!

Our primary reason (excuse) to be five days (4 nights) in Seattle was for Stany and I to attend the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA) that was held at the Convention Center featured in this week`s photo. We soon discovered why such a massive venue was needed, as this year`s event had over 7,000 people registered! Book publishers present were housed in a huge ballroom, with at least 75 displays enticing attendees to browse, adopt texts, or buy. Stany and I spent hours in this ballroom and I left with five books (3 at no cost and 2 at a discounted $10/each), with 4 additional complimentary copies to be mailed to me. Together we also collected a large variety of pens and other souvenirs available free of cost by the vendors – a stash that will help satisfy the need for Stany to provide gifts to many acquaintances upon his return to India! In these ways we helped recoup the substantial APSA membership and conference registration fees!

A most pleasant surprise was when we found Andrew Reiss at a display promoting Fulbright applications. Dr. Reiss had come to Portland Community College in the Fall prior to my departure for India – and remembered me from that brief visit two years ago. Very impressive! He, in turn, was impressed with how Stany and I had organized ourselves to each be granted a Fulbright to one another`s institutions in quick succession. It seems that such a thing is quite rare and, Dr. Reiss thought, likely worthy of having an interview arranged by Fulbright folks in Washington, D.C. (probably via phone or teleconference). Stany and I agreed to cooperate with any such request as we both, with great sincerity, feel indebted to Fulbright both for the opportunities we have had and for positive future educational outcomes that cannot fully be now seen. Dr. Reiss and I will be in ongoing communications regarding how Stany and I might be helpful.

Other activities associated with the APSA Conference included attending several panel presentations (often with only as many people in the audience as there were members of the panel), my attending a meeting of the Political Science Education Section(PSES) of the APSA, and making contact with many folks who may evolve into future relationships. At least two such people may apply to fill forthcoming teaching vacancies at my home institution, while I may share with several others multiple common interests at the APSA Teaching & Learning Conference now scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C. next February. At the International Reception, Kris and Shanty joined Stany and I in sharing with many Conference attendees coming from all over the world. Conversations with Political Science Instructors from Ghana, Turkey, and Argentina were especially stimulating, resulting in photograph gifts being sent out by me after our return to Portland.

We also managed time to play tourist, taking three afternoons to explore the famous Pike Place Market area and Seattle Aquarium as well as the Space Needle and Seattle Center (where I had attended the World`s Fair in 1962). Memories too many to mention would include watching children play in the massive fountain at the Seattle Center, listening to live music from an Ecuadorian folk group while Shanty and Stany went up 605 feet to the top of the Space Needle (=184m), and listening to a lecture from a scuba diver while she was among the fish in a huge tank at the Seattle Aquarium (seen through a widow at least 10 meters high and 15 wide. Most tasty of all our meals out, by far (in my opinion) was an all-you-can-eat Indian lunch buffet at Pablo`s at 3rd and Pike. Stany and Shanty also seemed very happy with their first native food in at least 10 days!

During our nights of sharing a large (2 queen sized beds) room at La Quinta Inn, the four of us lived as harmoniously as members of one family should, excited with the prospects of each new day. Stany was able to achieve email contact with a former classmate of his from India living in the Seattle area, resulting in he and Shanty having dinner out with Krishna and his wife (a reunion after 25 years)! We hope that these family friends will come down to Portland to continue the sharing begun in Seattle.

Our 4th night in Seattle we stayed at the home of my former step mother Ellen and her new husband Al who live in Mill Creek (about 30 minutes from downtown Seattle). Stany and Shanty were in awe of their fine home (including gargantuan bedrooms) as well as the recreational vehicle (RV) in their driveway (complete with its kitchen, bathroom, living area, and bedroom with queen-sized bed). My step-brother Mike and step-sister Carrie (with her daughter Katie) joined us for a fine meal provided by Ellen and we were able to talk well into the evening. Very pleasant. The next morning, after calling my Aunt Eunice (who was not feeling well enough for us to visit), we decided to postpone attending church so as to get an early start towards Mt. Rainier
(a substantial detour on the way back to Portland).

How could we not go to Paradise, when we had the chance? The drive to Paradise Inn (as high as any road goes on Mt. Rainier) was slow due to traffic associated with the Labor Day Holiday. Nostalgia again was mine as we slowly wound our way up the two lane highway I recalled from my childhood. I last traversed this route with my father and grandparents when I was 12 years old. 50 years ago. Even in early September, there was still snow when we arrived at Paradise Inn (much to the joy of Shanty), but not the Ice Cave I had hoped to enter again. A park ranger told me that the famous Ice Cave in my memory had fallen victim to global warming some 20 years ago. Perhaps that can also be explained away by those politicians still denying the reality of global warming and the human factors contributing to it….

Having missed by 15 minutes an evening Sunday evening Mass in Portland, we attended church at The Grotto on Labor Day morning. The Grotto is maintained by the Servite Order of the Catholic Church and is an area full of tall evergreen trees set against a cliff that rises to about 50 meters. Quite, serene, spiritual. Close to The Grotto we went to the top of Rocky Butte where, from a fortress-like structure, there is a fine view of the Coulumbia River Gorge, the Airport, and (about 4 miles distant) downtown Portland. Later in Labor Day, our housemate Iris joined Stany, Shanty, and I to visit the Pittock Mansion in Portland`s West Hills (with an amazing view of the Willamette River, downtown Portland, and Mt. Hood). From there we went to one of the largest rose gardens in the world at Washington Park. Recalling how much her deceased father loved flowers and trees, Shanty there proclaimed how ``This is heaven``! The roses were still almost entirely in bloom, displaying a variety of colors almost beyond belief. Stany and Shanty will certainly remember Portland as many do: the City of Roses.

On day 13 of their time in Oregon, I gave Stany and Shanty a short tour of all three campuses of Portland Community College from smallest to biggest starting with Cascade (about 25,000 students), to Rock Creek (about 30,000), to Sylvania (about 35,000). Urban, to rural, to suburban. We managed to have time to meet and share with all three Division Deans with who Stany will be working Nancy Wessel (at Cascade), Karen Sanders (at Rock Creek), and Loretta Goldy (at Sylvania). We also met with two of three campus Presidents, David Rule (at Rock Creek) and Linda Geis (at Sylvania) – both of whom invited us out to share future meals prior to Shanty`s scheduled departure on October 10th. Judging from photographs taken, my impression was that Stany and Shanty were very taken by each campus – but may have liked the physical presence of Rock Creek the best, with its 240 acres of woodlands, wetlands, and farming area.

Tomorrow Stany and Shanty will begin their third week in the U.S. in Florida (where they will be for 5 days), followed by Texas (where they will stay 2 days). This hectic schedule is to see relatives from Kerala living in the U.S. while also finding out there is much variety to this country beyond the Pacific Northwest. They willo return to Portland in a week`s time full of new adventures to tell us all about!

Week 1 USA: Many Things New


Fulbright Scholar Stany Thomas and his wife Shanty arrived safely to Portland on August 25th after 22 hours of flying from Kochi to Mumbai and through Amsterdam! Our reunion was heartfelt as these are family to us and it has been 16 months since we last shared. Pictured here near Timberline Lodge on the slopes of Mt. Hood, we can see the excitement in the eyes of Shanty at having seen and touched her first snow! This was their favorite photo from week one of their time in the U.S.. Stany is keeping a detailed journal from which he intends to compose an account of his own impressions of the experiences coming at him fast and furious. We are agreed that I will continue to relay my impressions of what we experience, at least until he adds his own commentary.

Many things new for Stany and Shanty is an extreme understatement. Even if we had not arranged such a busy schedule of activities for them, the list of what has been new this first week would go far beyond enjoying the remnant of snow on Mt. Hood. In terms of food alone, new tastes would include a first time for strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries; cantaloupe, pears, and nectarines; crepes, waffles, and dutch babies for breakfast as well as Mexican, Italian, and Middle Eastern meals. Knowing Stany quite well, I had expected him to fully welcome every opportunity to experience new things, Shanty surprised me by do the same – and with gusto! Wide-eyed at the life that was coming at her, she embraced it all, honesty assessing everything according to her preferences: strawberries, waffles, and spicy enchiladas were all definite winners!

A recurring theme was established even from the short trip from the airport to our home: ``Everything is so very clean, Uncle, and so organized!`` It is odd that this was not much in my consciousness before. Having seen the rubbish typically to be found on the sides of roads in Kerala and experienced the normal chaos that is involved in traveling there, it occurred to me: they are right. Our streets in Portland are pristine by comparison – and so well paved and managed by stop lights as to be no adventure to us! Yet for Stany and Shanty that first evening, circling the downtown area of our city on a freeway with three or more lanes on each direction (and in only minutes at 55 miles per hour (about 90 km/hour), must have been nearly miraculous.

We finished their first full day ever outside of India with a trip to a video rental store (Movie Madness) which doubles as a small museum (including Julie Andrew`s dress from The Sound of Music) and some pie at a neighborhood café (The Bipartisan), where coconut cream was preferred by both of them over Marionberry. ``Clean and organized`` was also the impression left by this counterculture café with the rough timbered floors, when Shanty was observed by me starring at the tattooed waitress with the colorful hair who was sweeping the floor. As I asked her what she thought of the waitress`s appearance, Shanty replied that it was the broom that had been the focus of her attention. ``It is very different from what we use back home.`` Both she and Stany seem to be completely accepting of the diversity of cultural expressions that are found here and are most astonished by things like the freeways and brooms! Upon reflection, I wonder why that should be surprising? In the multicultural environment of India, a wide variety of appearances is not unusual, but seeing radically new physical environments is cause for wide eyes.

Oregon is known for the great beauty of the natural environments we take great care to preserve. On day two of their time here (and after resting to begin recovering from jet lag), my wife Kris and I took our guests on a 30 minute drive from our home to Vista House at Crown Point, a structure built in 1825 to provide a panoramic view of the Columbia River Gorge. This and nearby waterfalls remain breathtaking even to those of us who have seen them many times. We hiked halfway up to the top of Multnomah Falls, with waters crashing into a pool 620 feet (over 200 meters) below where gravity begins the descent. Blessed with a gloriously beautiful sunny day also on day three, we drove out to see the blueberry farm where I had picked my fill two days before, enjoyed a picnic at Wildwood Park on the Salmon River, and completed the nearly 2 hour trek up to Mt. Hood. All events associated with this lovely Sunday to see snow were enjoyed with in the company of Reynaldo Jr. (8 year old step son to our foster daughter Margarita). He also had never been to Mt. Hood, so he and I had a short snowball fight there (until my sandaled feet became numb with cold).

Before returning Reynaldo to his home (where Shanty was most pleased to hold our granddaughter Hanilyn), there was the traditional stop at the Dairy Queen for ice cream. I mention this only because it illustrates how small things that are often taken for granted become worthy of becoming photographed! Inside and out Shanty was taking pictures, including one of Stany coming out of the bathroom! When I laughed and asked why she did this, she simply replied ``So clean and organized, Uncle``. Again, should I be surprised? There are no such restaurants (if we can call them that) in Palai, Kerala. Not even in Kottayam, and hardly in Cochi. No McDonalds, Olive Gardens, or Thai restaurants. It is all so new. Being with Stany and Shanty helps Kris and I become more aware of small pleasures that abound in the environment we now share with them. It is like seeing life anew through childlike eyes. Hopefully they will not become too accustomed to everything too quickly, as this is a most enjoyable experience to be with them as they explore all that which is so new.

My wife and Shanty visited The Dollar Tree (a store filled with cheap stuff which all costs one dollar). We also went shopping to Target, to WinCo (a worker-owned grocery store where we buy most of our food), and to Fred Meyer (part of a chain now owned by Kroger Foods). Each of these stores are in size far beyond anything that has been seen by them before. As Shanty was taking photos inside the Fred Meyer store, I found myself remembering with fondness the small markets where we would purchase produce in Palai. Few of the corner grocery stores I knew in my youth remain in the U.S. now. Is big really better? Certainly more stuff is readily available – but does that stuff make us happier? Does the bigness of our stores today do much to build relationships? I think not.

Relationships are much more tight in Kerala. Stany and Shanti brought gifts with them from home, including my request for toothpaste! Five tubes of Meswak (a non-fluoridated mix of ingredients including a rare herb combined with a licorice-like fennel taste)! The funny thing is that I could only describe the color of the tube to Stany before he departed from India. He got the proper brand by going to a small store which we had gone to (maybe five times) – and the cashier there remembered what I had purchased (over a year and a half ago)! Even the fairly superficial relationship I had with that cashier, half a world away, allowed Stany to find it. What are the odds of such a thing happening in the U.S.? Traditional, rural, societies where businesses are small and people know one another – have much to be said in their favor. My wife hopes that this may encourage me to brush my teeth more. It probably will! I like licorice! This toothpaste is like candy!

The remainder of our first week together was all about building relationships here. Shanty and Kris attended church several times (a daily practice they both share), with Stany and I tagging along once. The Mass at Ascencion Parish was far less formal than they are used to, but was enjoyed by both of them with the same grace with which they embrace other new experiences. On day four we were invited to the home of T.K. and Cathy (for a pot-luck associated with the homeless program at the church), where Stany and Shanty were also able to share with other volunteers including a refugee from Vietnam and his wife, as well as a person of Italian heritage who came with her daughter and husband (who has advanced Alzheimer`s). As if talking with the church crowd were not enough, the following day we were all at Kris` sister Maria`s home for a dessert extravaganza/party for Elise (a niece who is relocating to Hawaii). It was there Stany and Shanty were able to meet a portion of the Pierie Clan: my wife`s family) as well as see our son (Shaman), two daughters (Sonrisa and Mira), as well as Mira`s friend Naomi all in the same place at the same time.

Shaman, Sonrisa, Mira, and Naomi had all enjoyed the hospitality of Stany and Shanty` extended family during their time in India with us. The reunion of all here was heartwarming for me to witness. It was wonderful to see how the former hosts (Stany and Shanti) can now be so well hosted! Needless to say, our two guests have been staying up late into the night processing photographs, writing emails, and talking together (in Malayalam) using excited tones. Excited tones go off the scale during the daily Skype sessions they have each morning on their laptop computer with their three young children (back in Kerala) as well as several other households of family members who have downloaded the free communications program. Kris and I are also invited into some of these sessions (giving all an opportunity to practice understanding our difficult, for them, American English accents). We really are ``Uncle`` Michael and ``Aunt`` Kris!

In short, this first week was a whirlwind of things new. So much fun. Details were easily taken care of with regards to setting a bank account up for our guests, arranging for cell phone service, and applying for a Social Security Card (required of Stany). Each day was another adventure for them as well as for us!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August, 2011: Tastes of Sunshine


Over 200 people attended this years` Hiroshima Day commemorative event In Portland Oregon, which featured Kathy Kelly as a featured speaker (seated in the foreground of this photo), Dan Handelman (local activist on camera upper right), and flags flying from the U.S. Veterans for Peace (that drew over 300 people to their conference the week before). This was one of many opportunities this summer to enjoy a taste of sunshine, both physically in warm temperatures and emotionally in the inspiration we give to one another.

The sunshine Kathy brings to her audiences does inspire both reflection and action. With a humility that is transparent, she speaks of experiences she has had over the years that include working in a meat packing plant as a youth and growing up with a catholic mother who immigrated in poverty from Ireland, working as a religion instructor in a parochial school and inspired by friends in Chicago to engage in a protest against nuclear weapons that gave her one year imprisonment in a maximum security prison, and then working as a peace activist breaking U.S. sanctions policies while traveling illegally to Iraq (throughout the 1990s) and to Palestine, Afganistan, and Pakistan many times since the World Trade Center bombing of 2001. Inspired by others, including Mohandas Gandhi and Dorothy Day, Kathy wages her own war on terror in tandem with others associated with Voices for Creative Nonviolence and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. With over 60 arrests now in her record and a long history military tax resistance, it is clear she cares far more about living in conscience than winning prizes. She inspires by practicing radical nonviolence, not primarily talking about it.

Kathy shared a Chicago apartment with Kristine, my wife, during our courtship nearly 30 years ago. Not at all famous then, she was still full of sunshine with a sense of humor than warms the heart. As she stayed in our home during part of her recent visit to Portland, we enjoyed a potluck event where laughter came easily. No one could match her story about how, a few years ago, she was arrested while getting off an airplane in New York City: ``There I was, about 100 lbs light after fasting for something or another, and I see this gang of police coming at me with their dogs! Me, little old me! It seems that I had 5 outstanding warrants for my arrest in New York State. It had been a busy year… Anyway, there I was, shaking a little in front of all the passengers from my plane who were watching the spectacle of another arrest. And it happened. I had lost too much weight in the fast. My skirt simply fell to my feet. So there I was, hands locked behind my back and unable to pull up my skirt!`` At that point I had to interject: ``So Kathy, was that your arrest for indecent exposure?`` That comment may have at least doubled the already side-splitting laughter.

Sunshine. We can bring sunshine into each other`s lives. We all taste it from time to time, and it is very sweet!

Dan Handelman (in the featured photograph filing the Hiroshima event) is another person who inspires more people than he likely realizes. Taking care to usually be out of the limelight himself, he shines behind the scenes, organizing planning meetings, getting demonstration permits, distributing information a tables, taking time to supervise volunteers… Coming from a Jewish cultural background, he is among the most vocal at insuring Muslim speakers at anti-war events. Reflecting outrage at each new death caused by lethal police use of force, he leads a group called Portland Copwatch which has earned the respect of local politicians who would (no doubt) prefer to ignore it but cannot. With a wry smile Dan also is full of stories that include traveling to Iraq with Kathy Kelly to distribute toys and medical supplies – and having his film taken by the U.S. Government (only to be returned to him later under court order).

It was primarily Dan and I who set up a speaking engagement for Kathy at Portland Community College (where we were able to secure a nice auditorium and parking free of charge). Those attending included several students enrolled in my summer classes, and a few other faculty and staff that were challenged to reflect not only about what Kathy shared, but also by the presence of a large number of other war tax resisters and other local activists. Many tastes of sunshine for all, and over $800 raised by voluntary contributions for Kathy`s work as well as (half) for funding a group planning more public demonstrations for Portland in September and October. So it is, when summertime ends, the sunshine will continue!

Course grades for my two summer classes were due yesterday, and the deadline was met. Today I will complete my Fall Term syllabi. Tomorrow the day is set aside for me to pick my year`s worth of blueberries (about 100 lbs.), and a former student at PCC (Tom Worth) will move into the house to stay for a week or two). The day after that, our friend Stany and Shanty arrive from India to begin their adventures in the U.S.! Our household has been preparing for their visit for weeks and all are excited. Although my back has been in pain for the last two nights (due to me being too cheap to hire someone else to shampoo our rugs), even that pain reminds me of how much I look forward to seeing these two wonderful people who showed us so much kindness while we were in India last year.

Even as my Fulbright experience may have helped a few people during our travels, it is clear to me that I have learned much more than I have taught – and it is always amazing me at how much more I have to learn! It may be that Stany will feel something similar during his time as a Fulbright Scholar from India to the U.S.. One of only 25 so honored this year, he is the only one assigned to teach at a community college. For that college to be Portland Community College (PCC) has many folks excited as this year we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of an institution that has grown to serve over 80,000 students each year. Stany will be a big celebrity here – able to give a lot of people a taste of the sunshine that radiates from his gregarious personality!

Beginning in the first week of September, Stany and I will collaborate in providing weekly updates to our experiences together during the four months of his stay in the U.S.. He (and I through him) may gain more insights worthy of sharing. Not knowing what even that near future will hold, we both hope light may at least be shed by sharing. May those who read of these experiences also be warmed by a few tastes of sunshine!

P.S. The day after posting the entry above, our family received some startling sad news. This regards Peter, a friend of my son Shaman who had stayed in our home for over a week in July and had planned to return to be with us in September as he intended to relocate to Portland. Peter has left this life at the early age of 25. The cause of death is not yet clear. Our hearts go out to his parents in Los Angeles as well as to all those who feel the loss of his presence. May the light that shone in him continue to inspire us to live as well as we may with what time we have left. Soon enough each of us will join him. Peace be with you Peter. May the God that is both Truth and Love continue to both enlighten you and embrace your spirit.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

July, 2011: Greenhouse Growing


This greenhouse is haven to life on the south side of our family home in Portland. Fed by compost of the previous year and watered by rain runoff from the roof of both house and garage, six varieties of tomato plants grow eight feet to the ceiling to provide a six month harvest. The spinach is done, with peppers soon to come and a variety of herbs in constant supply. Oregon weather has been unseasonably cool, including no days yet beyond 90 degrees F. (32 C.). Inside this area temperatures could rise beyond 122 (50 C.) without the widows open! All that grows there would perish. With the windows open in summer, life flourishes.

As Fall and winter comes, windows are closed and the sunshine adds 20 degrees Farenheit to whatever the outside temperature may be. Frost never arrives. When the furnace must heat our home, exhaust is sent into the greenhouse to help warm it and the growing season is extended through December. After washing our dirty clothing, the vent from the dryer also finds its way here, providing moisture enough to nurture a natural process where new plants sprout by Spring to reveal the death of the old crop to be merely an illusion. Life finds a way to blossom again, windows are opened, and the bees return to pollinate. A new harvest begins.

Of course it required labor to build this structure and effort to maintain it. Completed almost entirely with recycled materials (the windows were once part of a college gymnasium), some creative thinking was needed to implement a plan that would reflect harmony with the home and work well in the outside environment. Through trial and error, we build, sometimes learn from our errors, and make use of what resources are available. At the end of the day, we sleep fairly well if we can say that we simply did our best. Not perfect. But as good an environment for life to grow as may be possible under circumstances quite beyond our control.

The most sobering event of this month for our family was the passing of the only son of my step sister Carrie. My nephew Brian Hutton died in his sleep of a heart condition just prior to his 28th birthday. The funeral came the day before my own birthday when I turned 62. The funeral and burial brought family and friends together in what was Brian`s last gift to us: a celebration of his short life that might inspire each of us to live more fully before we also are harvested. The windows of our hearts were opened by grief and yet life began to blossom again. I had not known before that Brian was homosexual, and yet was here pleased to grieve with his first and only partner. His friends revealed the abundance of his life, including a phrase he would exclaim in good humor whenever faced with an ironically odd or apparently sad situation: ``Happy Birthday!`` Brian has now transitioned to another realm of life that is in the future for us all. He will be remembered fondly and yet will always be missed. ``Happy Birthday`` Brian!

Kristine and I continue to follow news from the Middle East. People throughout Syria, Palestine, the Gulf, and North Africa continue their efforts to open windows and build environments to benefit their lives. Our friend Kathy Kelly was among some 600 activists associated with 10 boats who sought to sail from Greece to Gaza in opposition to the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Detained by Greek authorities, under pressure from Israel and the U.S., the ``Freedom Flotilla`` to Gaza gained many days of international publicity which revealed the inhumane conditions under which 1.5 million people live under military siege. Mazin Qumsiyeh, who had provided us a tour of areas near Bethlehem being demolished by Israeli bulldozers last year at this time, was arrested by the Israeli military last week (and later released) for taking photos while witnessing the destruction of an olive orchard (including some trees over 2,000 years old). Hopefully such sacrifices will be appreciated, over time, as the struggle for justice goes on.

To, learn from our errors and those of others more people need to share their stories. An emotional evening of storytelling attended by 40 people in Portland last week included eight who had spent time in Palestine during recent years. For my story/contribution I described an event I neglected to write about last July: On a very hot day, Kris and I had enjoyed a fine lunch at the Wi`am Center for Conflict Resolution in Bethlehem where a bag full of left-over falafels and pit bread was given to us – and had just finished being herded through the security maze at the Israeli Military Checkpoint into Jerusalem. Finished with our ordeal, we witnessed a Muslim family on the Jerusalem side being denied re-entry into Bethlehem where they lived. Papers for the husband and wife and daughter were in order, but the Israeli soldier in charge was not satisfied with the permit for their baby. The wife and young daughter were near tears and the husband was close to shouting at the soldier ``But we only want to go home! We were allowed into to Jerusalem to see our children`s grandparents, but now you will not let us return home?!`` Definitely shouting in response, the heavily armed soldier replied ``Shall I call security? I am the one in charge here! Do you want to be arrested?!``

I wondered what would Gandhi do in a situation like this and then walked back to the soldier whose face was flushed with anger. ``Excuse me``, I said, ``but would you like my falafels?`` Making a joke about my somewhat oversized midsection, I patted my stomach and observed how wonderful these falafels were and how I really did not need them. The soldier at first was surprised, then looked confused, and then smiled while quietly saying ``No, thank you.`` I then turned to the mother and daughter who were sitting on the cement floor and asked them if they were hungry. The mother shook her head, but the daughter nodded vigorously a ``Yes``. Both the husband and wife (and, I think, the soldier) chuckled at this and I gave her my bag of falafel. Satisfied that I had, at least, disrupted the escalating conflict, I walked to where Kris was waiting and then turned for a last look as we walked away. It appeared like the soldier might allow the family to pass….

From my point of view, I am not much of a peace activist. There was little risk to me at that military checkpoint. The greater risk is that, little by little, we lose our humanity my not getting involved at all. This month and accurate accounting of my overt peace activism would include attending three meetings in four weeks (one to help prepare a fundraising mailing, another to provide input into planning a few future events, and the third to listen to others experiences while telling my 5 minute falafel; story. Together with a few emails, his totals maybe 10 hours of activity in 31 days = about 20 minutes per day on average = less time than I spend reading a newspaper each morning! Put that way, I really am not much of a role model revolutionary!

By way I defending me from the attacks waged by my over critical self, much of this month has been either devoted to my half-time summer teaching responsibilities or performing tasks around the house (as we enjoy other guests and prepare for our friends Stany and Shanty to arrive later in August from India). I also am doing my best to feel unapologetic about simply taking time for relaxing bicycle rides, watching an occasional movie (like the last of Harry Potter) or sports (Women`s World Cup Soccer), as well as making sure the greenhouse is minimally cared for. Ah yes, remember the greenhouse?

For my more frantic colleagues who share my desire to build a better world, let us remind ourselves of the words of St. Francis of Assisi when he was asked what he would do if he knew the world would end tomorrow(maybe the entire world, or maybe just our personal time to leave this body behind and leave this reality). He said ``I would cultivate my garden.``

In writing this months` entry, I am cultivating a few thoughts for consideration. Let us take care of our greenhouse, whatever that metaphor may mean to you. Let us take at least some time to tell others how much we care about them, and to act in small ways to show we mean it. Yes, and let us enjoy this life while it is granted to us, for tomorrow is really not much in our hands.