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


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