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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