Thursday, December 31, 2015

First Anniversary

Dad, last Christmas
Last year on New Year's Eve, Dad took Shameem, Chuck and I to his doctor so that we could hear a sobering truth: Dad was running out of time. Shameem, Chuck and I listened as Dad pressed the man to talk numbers. Dad wanted us to understand that he knew his life was coming to a close and that he did not want us to do anything to prolong it.

At the time, we three—Chuck, Shameem and I—thought the doctor was talking months, possibly a year. Maybe even more. Dad was an escape artist when it came to the Grim Reaper. In his life, he had slipped from the clutches of Malaria, Typhoid, Yellow Fever, The Black Plague. He had been in two nearly fatal car accidents, had broken his neck, survived a brain infection, and had been living with end stage kidney disease for more than a decade without dialysis. If Dad's end was near, it would take its time. But my dad knew better. Off handedly he suggested he might be gone in two weeks. The doctor disagreed. Dad had much more time then that.

The meeting ended and we all shook hands and thanked the doctor. Thank you, thank you. Thank you very much. Afterwards, we went for lunch and watched Dad beam with the pleasure he always got from talking with his doctors. Dad's relationships with these men and women were anything but simply professional. He would attend each appointment armed with folders filled with graphs of his weight, his blood pressure, his heart rate. Dad was a scientist and his failing health was his own study. He would read every article he could find on kidney disease, bone marrow, drugs, experiments. He studied graphs which would give him some idea, based on the trajectory of the numbers, when he might die. Sometimes those graphs would depress him. Sometimes they would energize him, giving him a sense of understanding and control. Occasionally, he was scarred. But visits with his doctors would bring him back to a solid place. After talking about his graphs and his latest blood work and all it meant the conversations would become a free for all, with Dad and Doc talking about all things in the universe, including the universe, its stars and planets, the earth and its atrocities and beauty: war, god, poverty, politics, food, opera, gangs, guns, you name it, Dad could speak to it. And did.

After lunch Dad asked if I had plans for New Year's Eve, and I said no, we were spending it at home nice and quiet. We would listen to Portland's All Classical's annual countdown of people's favorite music. It was a tradition, typically ending at midnight with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a piece of music I was taught to love at an early age when my parents would take me to the symphony, or as I would fall asleep to the sound of the radio playing in the living room.

When I told Dad we would stay home for New Years, I saw, felt, heard a sound of relief. Dad rarely imposed his desires, but clearly he was happy to know we would be together. And it was a beautiful night, ending with sparkling cider and Beethoven's Chorale and Elijah and I conducting and everything—every little thing... being just right.

Then, two weeks later on January 14, 2014, Dad fell on the Portland streetcar. Ten hours later, he died.

And I think of all that today for obvious reasons. Anniversaries are sometimes a burden.

But I think Dad would be proud of his children: Naseem, Amir and Shameem. We have survived our first year of being orphans, and we have all come together for this holiday. We are carrying on the traditions that Mom and Dad started—the Catholic and Muslim agnostics who put up a Christmas tree not because they believed in a Christian god, but because they loved us, and what better reason could there possibly be?

Me and my Dad -- Mohammed Allah Rakha


Naseem Rakha December 31, 2015


Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Benefits of Discomfort

“Direct experience is out best teacher, but it is exactly what we are most bent on obliterating, because it is often so painful. We grow more comfortable at the price of knowing the world and therefore ourselves."    Joe Kane, Running the Amazon. 


We are not meant to live our lives indoors, not meant to breathe caged and recirculated air or always be warm and comfortable. Discomfort builds callus and muscle and bone. It breeds ingenuity and community: a melding of talent and time. The Greek word for comfort is paregoria—the root for the word Paregoric—an opioid once given to children to put them to sleep. Comfort being a kind of drug that dulls the senses and leads us into a stupor. Living outside for 31 days reminded me of this. Being home, in front of the fire and feeling like I need a nap reminds me of it too.

Naseem Rakha -  December 26, 2015

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sun Worship

Kwagunt RM 56.5 - naseem rakha 

In winter, in the canyon, you worship the sun—seek it out like a moth to its flame. There it is—around the next bend, in that eddy, up that cliff. Once in its rays, you shed layers, and your face lifts and your hands are removed from gloves and stretch bare and free out toward the light.

It has snowed as low as the river, and in pre-dam times before the daily tidal shifts caused by the power needs of Phoenix and its outliers, parts of the river have even frozen. But we 15 on our river trip were lucky. The snow we saw was well behaved; sticking to the upper ledges of the canyon, spackling the Kaibab and Toroweep, icing on a 1.8 billion year old cake. After the sun set it was the fire we all huddled by, driftwood and laughter our fuel. Songs too, and chocolate bars. A little bourbon. We did wake to ice a few times, and frost on our tents and sleeping bags. But tea and coffee were quick to brew, and if it was a layover day the fire was re-lit and there we'd sit waiting for our sun: Helios, a nuclear fireball, massive and brilliant and blinding, and yet somehow, strangely, a life-giver, a sustainer, a distant yet giving god.

Naseem Rakha, December 21, 2015

snow falling in the canyon - naseem rakha

Grand Canyon Moon




For a month we lived under the sky—no ceilings, no walls, just skin and sun and water. Just stone and ice. And as we moved down river the moon followed, growing each night, lighting paths for night time walks, staring down, stark and white, big then bigger, rising later and later, night light becoming morning beam. We watched it rise and set, grow then recede back into full shadow, until all there was were long dark nights punctuated by the ion trails of falling meteors—the Geminids, yellow and orange against Orion, Cassiopeia, the Dippers - big and small - the froth of the Milky Way. It reminded me of breath. It reminded me of life, of cycles. Of all the things we do that eventually lead us back to where we began.

Naseem Rakha - December 20, 2015

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Living Beyond Walls


A storm has just moved in. The wind is gusting, leaves are cartwheeling across the grass. Trees arch, bend, dance. There goes my watering can. A cushion. A puppy...


Okay, not a puppy.

Maybe it was a squirrel.

Maybe, just a brown bag.

The thing is, I’m watching all this from inside my house, sitting at the kitchen table, safe, warm and comfortable. A well-protected front seat to Oregon's first good autumn storm.

Which is one of the reasons I decided leave for the Grand Canyon in 22 days. I and thirteen others will be rafting the Colorado River for a month. Mid November to mid December. It promises to be cold. Possibly stormy. The water will be unforgiving. There will be no shelter but my tent, and an evening fire. No escape but onward. And though this scares me, it feels necessary.

I lose something when I am too comfortable. It depresses or represses me—something like that. I think I become sloth-like. A creature moving from warm bed to warm coffee to warm car to warm fire burning by my warm leather chair with a nice warm cat purring on my lap. The both of us, sloth-like. Sleep curling its finger toward itself, a sexy lady licking her lips, encouraging me to slip on in—and out.

Branches are shaking themselves loose now. They shoot through the air — arrow like. And the sound of the rain on the skylight is like a million tiny tap dancers, amped on speed. The last of the Dahlias are being ripped of their petals. Purple, yellow and scarlet exclamation points punctuate the ground. And there goes another cushion. A potted plant. A bird feeder.

I love it when the weather turns rough. I love to walk in it, hike in it. Bike, even. I remember once my son, Elijah and I were riding our bikes through a bad spring storm. Wind, rain, cold, and then somewhere around mile 30—hail. We pulled over and high-tailed it to a tree, clinging as close to its trunk as possible to avoid the pebble-sized pellets of ice. When the hail stopped, we got back on our bikes and made our way down the road through a good three inches of slush. And you know what Elijah said?

"I'm glad we are doing this today."
That's right, he was glad.
"Of course, it would be nicer if it were seventy degrees and sunny, but isn't it good to know we can do this?"

He was fourteen then. A year earlier he had said the same thing when he and I were caught in a wild and windy, winter-like storm high up on Ross Lake in the Northern Cascades. This time we were in a row boat, him guiding the outboard motor. We were ten miles from our cabin on a long finger of a lake jutting into Canada, snow covered mountains towered beside the lake, the land entirely wilderness. The storm had come up fast, black clouds suddenly gathering up their breath then blowing hard, chopping the water into knife edged waves which crested over our boat, slamming us with icy water. I was worried. More than worried, really. Isn't this just the type of thing you read about? A woman and her kid lost on a lake? I looked back at Elijah, ready to make my to him to take over. But one look told me, I did not have to. He gripped the throttle and gunned the boat forward taking the waves head on, his eyes focused on the channel. He was entirely wet—wet face, wet hair, wet clothes, and it was entirely cold—the wind so loud we had to shout to be heard. I waited for his complaints, his fear, something. But nothing came. He had a job to do and he was determined to do it. He was thirteen, and he was saving our lives. Afterward, safe in our cabin, he did have something to say. He was glad to have had that experience. Glad to know it can be done, and that we did it. Glad. 

I found all kinds of new respect for my son on those days. He understands there is something gobsmacking special about stepping out into the weather—having the wind blow us sideways, and the rain pound against not roof and window, but flesh. Feeling it, smelling it, understanding in some essential way that it makes our days richer, bigger, better. He knows there is something altogether good and strong when we opt to feel the fullness of where and what we are.

No longer a sloth, but a high flying bird, catching the wind and soaring on.  



-Naseem Rakha 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Grand Canyon River Trip - A Winter Adventure

"Adventure is putting yourself out on the edge...finding that border line between your comfort zone and where you are a little bit uncomfortable. and then, hopefully, finding your way through."   Curt Joyce, Kayaker -- 1983-2014




On November 18, I will join a group of fourteen people for a one month 279 mile journey down the Colorado river from Lee's Ferry, Arizona/Utah to Pierce Ferry, Arizona through the heart of the Grand Canyon.

I was invited on the trip by Hazel Clark and her husband Tom Martin. Both Tom and Hazel have been a part of the canyon for decades: hiking, boating, learning about, writing about, talking about the canyon and its surrounds, organizing to help save it and its watershed. Good people, who have offered me an amazing opportunity to see and live in the canyon during its most cold and quiet season. Yet, the decision to go did not come easy.

Though I have rafted the canyon before, it was always either in the summer or fall with my family, and the trips never lasted a month. When I agreed back in spring to go on this coming trip, November seemed far away. I figured I had plenty of time to get my head around the idea of being gone for so long and during such a challenging season.  But it has taken me until this week to finally make my reservations to fly to Flagstaff where I will join the group I will live, eat, paddle, cook, camp and hike with for 30 days.

Entering the canyon takes commitment. There is no easy way out once those walls start rising, no way to call and check-in, no texting to see if Elijah's homework is done. There's no way to wish Chuck and Elijah a happy Thanksgiving, or Chanukah. No way to tell them what it is like to spend my 56th birthday at the bottom of the Great Gully.

As the days get closer to my departure, I find that my reasons for agreeing to go feel flimsy compared to my very substantial fears. How will I deal with being so disconnected from my family? How will I feel about the isolation in the dead of winter? How irresponsible of a mother am I being? How selfish? How will I ever stay warm enough? The temperature could drop below freezing, and the river water? I don't even want to think about it. Plus there is the dark. Winter nights are already long, and the canyon will cut our few hours of daylight short.

Still, I feel compelled to go. I met Tom and Hazel as a result of my writing about Kaitlin Kenney - the young woman who died while rafting the Grand Canyon during the winter of 2013. Search parties were looking for her while I lived on the South Rim as the National Park Service's Artist in Residence. Those essays about Kaitlin led to many personal revelations about what it means to be alive. Really alive. The risk it takes, the perseverance and bravery. They led to my hiking into the canyon on solo retreats, and then other challenges—always out and in the wild. Challenging myself. My mind, my body, my soul.

I will use this blog to describe how I am getting ready for this next trip—a month winter rafting the canyon. I will post about what geer I will use, what films I am watching, books and blogs I am reading, music I am listening to. What I am packing, and what I am saying to myself and my family as I get ready to walk out that door.

This morning, I found this beautiful Vimeo Film about a Grand Canyon river trip taken last year. During it, kayaker, Curt Joyce, lost their life. The film is called Why We Go. It explains some of my reasons for why I am leaving for the river in a few weeks.


Why We Go from Brett Mayer on Vimeo.


Saturday, October 17, 2015

Alder Springs Hike to the Deschutes


Yesterday, Waldo and I took what I think is the best autumn hike I have ever had. Maybe it was the weather, warm, yet overcast. Maybe it was my mood—happy to be out hiking after a 13 day hiatus. I returned from my Grand Canyon Rim to Rim hike less than two weeks ago, but in between there was a trip to Chicago for my Dad's memorial, and as usual, it takes me time to get the energy to leave home after I have been gone. Particularly after the Chicago trip. There was so much to process, so many emotions to hold, and goodbyes to say. So, it was probably all that that helped make my hike special—it was a quiet respite, a grounding walk among the bluffs and buttes of Oregon's High Desert.


Alder Springs trail begins on a high plateau overlooking a cleft in the ground where Whychus Creek (the Sahaptin word for "a place to cross the water") flows clear and untamed. Ponderosa Pine sprout from its base, a green stash on a bunch grass face. Soon Waldo and I started our descent into the canyon. Part way down we could hear the rush of water coming from Alder Springs. The springs is like the Metolius, which sprouts from the bottom of a hill a full fledged river. Like the Metolius, the water was clear and cold and Waldo and I drank from it. I was drawn to this hike because Bonnie Olin, author of Owyhee River Journals, posted that just last week she had seen Bull Trout in this creek. Waldo and I were not as lucky, but it was good to know the endangered trout had found shelter.

After another half mile, we forded the creek and then hiked along and above it through Basin Wild Rye, Rabbit Brush, wild rose, fern, Equisetum Hyemale (Horsetail Reed), Juniper, Ponderosa Pine and Sage Brush. And of course all along the lower path were the name sake of the trail—Alders—their now golden tear drop shaped leaves danced in the breeze and carpeted our path.


After just three miles, we reached the confluence of Whychus Creek and the Deschutes. The geology was largely exposed cliffs of volcanic ash and Columbia Plateau lava flows sculpted by wind and water. Interspersed were layers of river conglomerates. After I returned I learned that somewhere along those cliffs are petroglyphs. I did not see them, but will return to search.

At the confluence of the Whychus and the Deschutes there was a wonderful basalt outcrop, a perfect place to share a sandwich with Waldo, explore the cliff sides and dip in the water. The area was clearly a destination for the Eagle we had spotted earlier—it was littered with bird wings and feathers.


After our snack we headed the three miles back to the car, cresting the ridge just as the sun set behind the spine of the Cascades.

The public's access to Alder Springs is relatively recent. Up until a couple decades ago, it had been a private ranch. Then in the 1990's authorities took possession of the land after they discovered the old ranch house had become a meth factory. The structure was destroyed and the land given to the Forest Service. The eight hundred acre parcel is now part of the Crooked River National Grasslands. Alder Springs is closed to the public from December 1 to March 31 to protect its wildlife habitat. Elk, deer and antelope can often be seen roaming the area. The lack of cattle has given the plants some time to recuperate. There are healthy stands of native Blue Bunch Wheat Grass and Basin Wild Rye.


It took two and a half hours to get to Alder Springs from the Willamette Valley, so I drove back over the pass in the dark, feeling full and satisfied and utterly lucky to call Oregon home.




I like how this juniper looks like it has seeds blowing off it like a milkweek pod
Equisetum Hyemale (Horsetail Reed)
Common Teasel (thank you for the id. Scott Bowler)





- Naseem Rakha
October 16, 2015

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Male, Female or Other


If you've filled out a form on Google lately you probably have seen a brand new option when it comes to Gender. Instead of the standard Male and Female, people can now choose Other.

I just found a video about one of my town's "others." In it, then-Mayor, Stu Rasmussen is showing Statesman Journal reporter, Cara Pallone, the inside of his closets (as well as his handcuff collection.) Stu achieved international fame for being one of the country's, if not world's, first openly transgendered Mayors. He grew up in Silverton, runs the town's only movie house, and walks Silverton's streets dressed in a way which emphasizes not just his legs (which are enviable,) but also what he likes to call "the twins"—augmented breasts which stand out—literally as well as figuratively.

In most aspects, Silverton appears to be your average rural American town. It has the Elks, Kiwanis and the Lions clubs, is filled with churches, has a feed store, and a one lane train track that hauls grain and seed. It has cute parades featuring the high school band and local pets. It houses teachers and doctors and librarians and artists and folks who work for the state in one capacity or another. Your typical rural community, red white and blue bunting in July, Christmas tree lighting after Thanksgiving. Yet, in 2008 and again in 2010, Silverton residents voted in the most non-conformist of Mayors. They also came out in force when the Westboro Baptist Church came to Silverton to tell us we were all going to hell for having a transgendered Mayor. Many of the town's businessmen dressed as women to confound the Topica, Kansas "Christians."

I like that about Silverton. I like that once, while sitting with Stu at a garage sale, I watched him haggle with a farmer over a tractor. Stu had driven the tractor over and then put a pair of shiny red stilettos on the hood as bait. At first the farmer, dressed in overalls and seed cap, seemed taken back by Stu's attire: a mini skirt, six inch heals, and a shirt cut so low it exposed a good canyon of cleavage. But within minutes the farmer and Stu were talking away about gaskets and plows and whatever else one talks about when talkin-tractor. A few minutes later, the farmer was in, he wanted the tractor, but only if Stu would throw in the shoes.

"For the wife," he said with a wink.

My favorite line in the interview by Cara Pallone is when Stu tells her that typically two to three percent of the population of males are cross-dressers. "Which means on Halloween when you see a man dressed in a dress, if he knows how to walk in the shoes, he does it more than just once a year."

video


-Naseem Rakha
October 13, 2015

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Grand Canyon Artist in Residence




Last year while back at the Grand Canyon, I and a few other Artists in Residents were interviewed for this beautiful 5 minute film about the importance of AIR's. The students from Columbia University did a very nice job.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Homeless Dogs


Of note this morning: overweight woman in a scooter buys four large bags of candy. As she reaches into her bag for her wallet, she pulls out a plastic bag that contains a single large milk bone. "I haven't seen any dogs this morning," she says to the Rite Ad cashier. "I don't give money to 'dem bums outside. But if they have a dog, I'll give 'em a biscuit." 

Outside Rite Ad I hear several dogs barking. They are a block away, standing among a small group of people. Beside me, a man hosting a full length leg cast and tattered, street-stained clothes points a yellowed finger in the dogs' direction and yells, "SHUT UP!" 
And I think, "fat chance."

Certainly the sound of the street--the cars, the busses, light rail zipping by, voices haling cabs, shouting about the "all mighty Lord Jesus," speaking to lovers, to business partners, to friends, to enemies, into phones, into the wind to no one in particular--would drown out this one man's voice. 

Yet not minutes later, not even seconds, but immediately, the dogs quit their barking. I turn back and look at the man and he pulls his hand back into his pocket and smiles.

I am upon them now, three dogs two street people, all outside a Starbucks. The people hold signs, "Anything helps." The dogs sit beside their humans, one climbs on a back pack. Lies down. 

I give its owner a few bucks, and walk away, my eye out for the overweight scooter-woman with the bags of candy and the dog bone.

6/24/2015


Friday, June 19, 2015

Jon Stewart on the Emanuel AME Shooting


Last night comedian Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, set aside his jokes to speak directly to his audience about the deaths of nine African American worshipers at the historical Emanuel AME Church, in Charleston, South Carolina.

A solum and unscripted Stewart, stares straight into the camera - saying we the people of the United States are more of a threat to ourselves than foreign terrorists, and that our failure to see and remedy our racist presumptions is a blood toxin that is destroying this nation. His words are powerful, and he absolutely right.

Please watch.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Face of War


The Unknown Soldier, David Jay, Photographer


This is what we do.

We spend the bulk of our nation's resources on war, and then we bring our dead and wounded home and pretend there is no war.

The Unknown Soldier, Photographer David Jay
There is war.

As you get up this morning and drink your coffee—
there is war.
As you walk your dog—
there is war.
As you scan the aisles at the grocery store
and flip off the guy who cut in line
as you sit in your chair at home
and open another bottle of beer
and turn on Game of Thrones—
there is war.

We send young men and women into foreign lands and ask them to do things that bend their minds with what their eyes have seen, and their hands have done, with what they have heard and tasted and smelled.

Pictures like these demand we acknowledge our actions. That we be accountable. They demand we find a better way to co-exist on this planet. Be more humble, more grateful, more creative, more trustworthy, more open to the reality that killing will never—not ever—resolve anything.

Pictures like these ask us to not just look, but see.

Iraqi girl wounded in car bomb. Photographer Michael Yon, 2005

Facts:

Since 2001, approximately 2.5 million service members have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Almost half have been deployed more than once.  

Since the beginning of operations in March, 2003, 6851 U.S. soldiers have been killed

9% of evacuated soldiers lost a major limb.

In total, since the beginning of operations, 675,000 U.S. Veterans have been granted disability.

Studies indicate 22 veterans commit suicide every week.

In Iraq, over 70 percent of those who died of direct war violence have been civilians. Iraq Bidy Count conservatively estimates that at least 133,000 civilians have been killed in direct violence due to war between the invasion and early May 2014

Updated Death and Injury Rates of U.S Military Personnel During Conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congressional Budget Office, December, 2014

To see more pictures go to: The UnKnown Soldier, David Jay, Photographer

For a story on David Jay and his photos go to the NPR story: It's Not Rude, These Photos are Meant to be Stared At







Sunday, May 10, 2015

Happy Mother's Day, Mother Earth



Years ago, I worked for an organization created by Allan Savory called The Center for Holistic Resource Management. The Center's mission was to reverse the advance of desertification through a decision making model that incorporated community and social needs, values, economic priorities, and ecosystem requirements. Savory's theories were developed by his observations of what happened on the African veldt after he advocated for the extermination of more than 40,000 elephants in a mis-guided effort to stop overgrazing. It was tragic mistake, and led Allan to seek true answers to global warming.

My job at CHRM took me all over the country, working with farmers, ranchers, tribes, and government agency staff.

It was rewarding work. Important work. Necessary work. Through Savory's methods, many age-old conflicts between environmentalists and ranchers, ranchers and the BLM, tribes and the BIA, or city dwellers and farmers, were quelled. Ecosystems thrived. Wildlife responded. Farms and ranches were saved.

One of the tools I used when I taught was Peter Russell's amazing video, The Global Brain. I just watched it this morning, again, and I must say its message is even more pertinent today than it was 32 years ago, when the film was made.

So for today, on Mother's Day, give the earth a little squeeze, and watch the film I have posted at the top of this page.  Its message is clear, we each play a critical role in serving and saving this planet. Nothing lives in isolation, and it may very well be that we are living in just the right time and age to begin a true process of healing the damage we have caused to Mother Earth.

And below, is Allan's amazing Ted Talk. Here you will learn about Allan's experience in Africa, and see for yourself how much difference his programs have made to stop the process of desertification. I promise, if you watch this, you will see global warming and climate change in a very different light.


Friday, May 1, 2015

Climbing Mt. Hood

In March, I decided to do something I have never done before—climb a mountain. At first I thought I would try Mt. Kilimanjaro. I know a fellow in town that organizes trips up the snow-capped African peak. But having never climbed anything higher than 8,000 feet, I did not know if I could handle going up to 19,000.

Instead, I decided to join on with Climb for Clean Air. It is a fundraising effort put on by the American Lung Association. For the past ten years or so, they have been training people to summit some of the Pacific Northwest's most famous peaks: Mt. Hood in Oregon, Mt Adams and Mt Rainier in Washington. I chose the 11, 250 foot strato-volcano we call Hood, and the Multnomah Tribe called Wy'east. I began training for my summer assent two months ago.

Last week, I got the training schedule wrong and so headed off for the 10+ mile Boulder Ridge Trail alone. The day was a spectacular success: hours of meditation as I made my way up to Huckleberry Mountain, through trickling creeks, past sweet smelling waterfalls, then up into the snow, my footsteps loud on the ice, the clouds coming in, the wind, the cold, the quiet feeling of being somewhere alone, and getting there on my own, my own two feet taking me higher and higher, one step at a time.

One breath at a time.

I think of Dad when I hike. He just died in January, and I think of all the places he did not get to see in his years in Oregon, and I tell myself I am seeing them for him now. Experiencing them in a profound way, for him. Pushing myself and probing my limits. Expanding them.

Dad did that, in every possible way he expanded his limits. From moving to the United States in 1951, a twenty-two year old Indian engineering student who did not know a soul in America. A skinny, dark-skinned man who was confronted by an angry crowd when he ate in a restaurant in the South - "Where you from, Boy?" A man who was "suppose" to return home, marry the woman his father had picked, not a Catholic German/American with a brazen laugh, and Ingrid Bergman eyes. He was "suppose" to settle within eye-site of the rest of his family. A man who took up the study of Astro Physics at PSU in his eighties and always had his mind spread out towards the stars and the mysteries they held. A man who worshiped intelligence and freedom of thought and the beauty of music, and bird song and light.

And so I think of him and the boundaries he broke as my breath becomes labored and my legs begin to ache. Maybe I won't make it to the top of Hood. Maybe it will be too cold for me, or too steep. Or, maybe the volcano's fumaroles will overwhelm me with their sulfurous gas, my lungs simply unable to drink in enough oxygen. But at least I will have tried, and for that I thank my parents. My Dad and my Mom, too. Both of them boundary breakers. Both of them missed and loved and part of who I will always be.

If all goes well, I and my team will summit Wy'east the dawn of June 26th. If you would like to contribute to my climb, I would be honored. I have already exceeded my goal - BUT - please help me go even further. Every dollar will help the American Lung Association with their important work, and it will be so nice to know I am climbing with your support. Here is a link to my personal funding page, Naseem, Climb for Clean Air.
-Naseem Rakha, May 1, 2015




Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Six Weeks After




Yes, I went for a walk today. And yes, I fell asleep in the tall grass, leaning on a rock, the sun warm on my face, my arms.
Slept like a child sleeps — drifting into clouds of wandering thoughts — birds, leaves, stems of flowers. You. And then yes, I woke, and Waldo, waiting in the shade, stood when I stood, wagged his tail.
And then, yes, we walked up to places we have not walked in a while, then down to places we walk often. We got to the creek, and I climbed a narrow concrete ledge, then sat and read high above the water — dimpled and flashing with this sweet-surprising-springtime sun.
Sun, where there should be only clouds and rain. And yes, we in the Pacific Northwest will soon pay for this unblemished sky. No water for crops. Turbines. Salmon.
But today — today I sat on a ledge over the snow-melt creek and pulled out a book and I read and took notes, real notes for the novel I have not been writing, because fiction these past six weeks, seems worlds away.
But today it felt closer. Today in the sun, I could think about seasons and life and death, and the stories we live and the stories we tell. And then I carefully climbed off the concrete ledge, and got myself back to the ground, and Waldo stood up and wagged his tail, and then, yes, we walked on.
On to the park where we saw people, Dana and someone named Joe with a dog named Ricky Recardo, and we laughed about Ricky’s squeaky ball, and I admired the sparkle of light on the water that moves always away.
And now, yes, I am home. and the sun pours through the windows and lights my desk and warms my hands, and the cat stretches and her color turns from black to umber in this unlikely sun.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

My Own Damn Fault


I was a political reporter for the Consortium for Public Radio from 1995 to 2003, which means I covered most of John Kitzhaber's first two terms in office. I remember him as a smart, articulate and passionate leader—always with his eyes focused at least 30 paces in front of him, as if Kitzhaber, an ardent fisherman, were looking for a good hole to cast his fly. Meaning: he was a forward thinker: The Oregon Health Plan, the Sustainability Workforce, the Energy Plan, his focus on higher education and kids reading and early childhood development...

There is a long list of things Kitzhaber tried to tackle. Some were successful, many were not, but at least there was the effort—the call to arms, someone who supported workers and the poor and kids, even when partisans in the legislature appeared not to.

John Kitzhaber singing Margarittaville at his 1999 inauguration
I remember him coming to my office one day, this was when my son was about 13 months old and half my office was then a play room. He walked in, sat on the floor and played cars with Elijah, pushing them along the carpet. Making noises. That's a memory that will stick. So will him guiding an elderly lady out of the capitol after it had to be evacuated due to a post-9/11 anthrax threat. I remember him near tears when talking about how hard it was to allow for the execution of two prisoners, and I remember him during the endless "special sessions" that had to be called when the economy crashed. I also remember him telling me he was going to crack open the Wild Turkey when the legislature finally came out with a budget he didn't feel compelled to veto.

But of all the memories I have, the one that has been coming up in my mind as I watch the unfortunate unraveling of Kitzhaber's reign is related to the song Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet. I have seen the governor preform this twice. Once at a private party of reporters, and the second at his 1999 inauguration party. True to Kitzhaber's form, staff, friends and family were invited to a "hoedown," versus a formal affair. It was held in an old K-Mart and people came dressed for a square dance: all cowboy hats and petticoats. Halfway through the party, Kitzhaber took to the stage with the band, borrowed a guitar, and off he went singing about being, "wasted away in Margaritaville," and "looking for his last shaker of salt."

But of course it's not those particular words that stick in my mind now, but the ones at the very end.

"Some people say there's a woman to blame, but I know, it's my own damn fault."

If there's one fault I can find about Kitzhaber is that his iconoclast personality gave him a swagger and a false of sense of invincibility. He broke rules of dress, of social conformity, he never backed down from saying what he thought, never glad-handed. These are characteristics that draw people in. But in the end, they were not characteristics that could save him from himself. 

I have no inside insight into what happened these past months with Kitzhaber and his fiancé, and how their actions led to his resignation, but I do think the Governor's departure will find him focusing a little closer in, and maybe searching for a new song.

-Naseem Rakha February 18, 2015


Sunday, February 1, 2015

Undone




I have not written my dad's obituary yet. I have not cancelled his credit cards or opened the notebook that says what I am suppose to do, as executor. I have not boxed up any of his clothes, or thrown away any papers, or medications, or magazines. I have not thought about what date we, as a family, will fly back to Chicago with his ashes.

Some of his ashes. Some I will keep. Some we, the three children, will leave at places he loved. A scattering at the coast. Mt St. Helens. The Grand Canyon. The Ringside Steak House (no). Some I am going to plant under a tree. A gingko, perhaps. Perhaps we will donate a tree to the Japanese Garden. I think Dad would like to be a tree in a Zen garden. Some of his ashes, I may have made into a small glass orb I can wear around my neck.

Portland's Japanese Garden photo by David Cobb
The rain started today. It has been two and a half weeks since Dad died and the days have been clear and warm, but the rain started today, and it feels heavy and I feel heavy. In the hall, there is a suitcase of photos I need to sort through, then scan, then make albums of the very best, so I can give them to my brother and sister.

I made the mistake of watching the movie Beginners last night, a touching film about a middle aged man played by Ewan McGregor, living with the life and death of his 75 year old father, Christopher Plummer. It was about relationships and love and grief and getting to know your father in a different way as an adult, and about the sadness of seeing that go away.

And I know my Dad died the way he wanted, he was not drugged up, not filled with tubes. He had his beautiful mind and that beautiful mind said this is my exit. And I know he was lucky that way, and we are lucky that way. And I know he was 85, living to an age far surpassing any of his ancestors, and I know he was telling us he would not be with us much longer. And I know I thought I was ready.

But I was wrong.

And now I am the executor of an estate I do not want to take apart. I have to write an obituary about a life I can not confine to a word count. I have to look at these photos again and again, to see what there is to remember—the vase that sat on the table, the funky blue chair, the plaid slacks, the yellow house, the chipped sidewalk, the cottonwoods, the coffeepot, the kettle. All the things you never think are very important, until they absolutely are.

-Naseem Rakha, February 1, 2015

Dad and me. November 19, 2014 - my 55th birthday









Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Telling Friends

Dad is the one holding the child. 

Last night "Pete" called. Pete is Pethachi, one of Dad's colleagues from his days at Purdue University in the early 1950's. Dad arrived in the United States knowing no one. He arrived just days before school started. He was dazed and confused. Then he began to meet fellow immigrants. Pethachi is from Chennai, India. He was studying chemistry. My dad, engineering and physics. They and another Indian college, Silvi, became fast friends, and remained so. Growing up, whenever Pethachi came to town he would stay with us. There would be Indian silks, Indian sweets, Indian stories of a life so much different than the one we had in Illinois. It was from Pethachi that I learned that Dad had a nick name. It was Mo. And Silvi was Sam, and Pethachi was Pete. When I learned this, I remembered that a few years before someone had called the house asking for Mo. I told him no Mo lived here. And the guy said, Mo, you know Mo, Mohammed. I was aghast..... People call my dad Mo? 

Mohammed Allah Rakha, Pethachi Sivagami, and Silvi
A few years ago Mo, Pete, and Sam returned to Purdue to re-live the old days. Three aging Indian dudes bopping around Lafayette, Indiana recounting their first years in the United States. The freezing cold weather, the bland food, the new customs. 

Dad was very good at staying in touch with his friends. Always making sure to call them every few weeks. 

It has been hard to tell these men Dad is gone. They all, to a one, say the same thing. "Oh, no. Oh, no. I have lost such a dear friend. Such a dear friend. He was the kindest man. The kindest man I knew." 

Each phone call brings both empties me and fills me. First one, than the other.


Dad with his school friend Reddi, in Hyderabad. They knew each other since childhood.

-Naseem Rakha, January 28, 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Last Supper

Dad, in his kitchen - photos taken by Amir Rakha

Two days after Dad died, he made us dinner.


We sat at my table and we ate a feast of Qabooli Biriyani and Mirchi Ka Salan, both dishes typical to Hyderabad, India where Dad was born and raised.

Qabooli is a lentil Biriyani made with basmati rice and channa dal. It requires a careful hand washing of the rice, rinsing out all the starch from the grains until the water runs clear. It requires a sorting and picking of the dal (golden lentils), ridding any that may be of poor quality. Then the two, rice and lentils must be drained and let dry. It requires the finely sliced onions to be dried as well, squeezed tightly in towels before they are carefully set in a half inch of sizzling hot oil and stir fried to a delicate golden brown. It requires garlic and ginger to be peeled and puréed into a fine paste, and then a grinding of spices. It requires a precise measurement of turmeric, cardamon, coriander, cumin, cayenne, mint and fresh squeezed lemon. And then, and this is critical, it requires that both the rice and channa dal be par-boiled to a place that is not quite done, so that once the five elements—the rice, the dal, the golden onion, the garlic/ginger puree, the spices are all layered together—it can be covered, and sealed and baked to the exact point in which when a spoon breaks into the surface of the dish, each hand washed grain emerges tender and whole and separate and distinct.

The second dish, Mirchi Ka Salan or Green Chili Curry, is the equivalent of making a Mole, it is so time consuming and complicated. The paste itself has more than 12 ingredients. But the end product is so unique and so flavorful that it is one of my favorites.

When my sister came home on Monday the 12th of January, Dad was in the kitchen preparing to cook. It was 6:30 in the evening, the National Championships were on the TV, and dad was at his cutting board preparing the onions, his kitchen towel characteristically tossed over his shoulder. When Shameem asked what he was starting, she was, at first exasperated that Dad had taken on such a big project so late in the day. She had worked all day, she was tired. But, this was her Dad. And we all knew his days were limited. The kidney disease, the heart problem, the iron build up from transfusions. Dad talked about his death a lot. So she set aside her exhaustion and spent the rest of the night cooking with Dad.

What surprised Shameem most, she told me, was how much food he was preparing. This was not just for the two of them. Dad clearly had something else in mind. Perhaps a party the coming weekend. She didn't ask. Instead they chopped, and stirred, and fried, and mixed, and boiled, and baked their way through the might. Finally, somewhere around midnight, they finished and put it all in the refrigerator for another day.

That day was Friday, 45 hours after Dad died from a tumble on the Portland streetcar. Earlier in the day Shameem, Amir, and Renee and I went to the funeral home and arranged for his cremation. Then, before heading back to my house, we went to Dad's place, opened his refrigerator and took out the meal he had made.

When he came to the United States in his early 20's, Dad had no idea how to cook. None. That was the work of servants in his home, not the family and definitely not the men. Plus, trying to cook Indian food in the 1950's and 60's in the US, when Indian spices were not as ubiquitous as they are today, made the process of cooking even more challenging. Yet my father took on the job of learning.

One of his favorite things in his later years was to have friends and family over for large meals, even though those meals, particularly as he got older, would often take him more than a week to fully prepare. It frustrated him that it was taking longer for him to prepare these meals, it frustrated him that sometimes the onions would burn, or that he would forget some spice. It frustrated him that cooking would make him so tired. Still, just the weekend before he died, Dad told me he wanted to make Shrimp Pulau one last time. It is another time consuming dish, and it is also a dish that, due to my father's limited diet, he could not longer eat. Yet, that is what he wanted to make for us, his children, all of us in our forties and fifties now, all of us so graced by the abundance of his love and generosity.

Unfortunately, Dad did not get to make that dish. But he did get to make the Mirchi ka Salan and Qabooli with his youngest child, Shameem. And I believe he must have thought of that food while lying in that hospital on January 14th, fully aware that by not allowing doctors to treat him after his fall, he would die. And I believe, it gave him satisfaction knowing he would feed his family one last time.

His recipes are shared on my sister, Shameem's blog, Scratch: For the Love of all things Homemade.


-Naseem Rakha January 24, 2015