Archive for August, 2016

The Smart Mouth Book Club

When I was first invited to join my book club, I hesitated in saying yes. I adore the friend who invited me—she’s a librarian and has impeccable taste in books. We had several mutual friends who were also members, so I knew I’d have a good time, but I was thinking about my long to-be-read list, which includes a tower of books precariously balanced on my nightstand and quite a few novels on my bookshelf. Did I really want to commit to reading a prescribed book each month when I had so many other books I wanted to read? What if I didn’t like the selections?

In spite of my initial misgivings, I’m glad I joined. We’re a casual, low-pressure group. Nobody gets flogged if they don’t finish the book. We’re also democratic—we take turns picking books and hosting. And, we love food. Everyone brings a dish when we meet. Sometimes, if a book is food-oriented, someone will make an entrée or desert inspired by what we read. There’s no pressure over food though, which is nice. Some of us love to cook. Others (like me) prefer eating over cooking, so hanging out with talented cooks is a definite perk. Sure, sometimes I like to bake, but my good friend Costco makes a great apple pie, so why go to the trouble?

Besides sampling new recipes, we’ve gotten to read books we wouldn’t have chosen ourselves, or that we’ve always wanted to read but haven’t. We’ve been diverse as far as genre: historical fiction, humor, mystery, romance, memoir, fantasy, science fiction, and most recently, non-fiction. We just finished reading Wealth Woman, by Deb Vanasse, which is about a Native woman who was a prominent figure in the Klondike gold rush. I loved the book because it offered an alternative historical perspective. Since the author is local, we invited her to join us for our meeting. It was great to hear more about the book and her writing process.

smartmouthdesign3_5This is the second time we’ve had an author join us. The first time we hosted an author, we met with Holly Lorincz, author of Smart Mouth. This award-winning book is about a young woman’s first year as a teacher and debate coach at a small coastal high school. We had such a great time with Holly, we decided to name our group after the book. It seemed fitting, given that we all have an appreciation for humor and speak sarcasm fluently.

The socialization has been beneficial too. As a writer and an introvert, I spend a lot of time in my own head. Sometimes I get so immersed in writing, I forget to open the shades—I’m pretty sure my neighbors think I’m a vampire. Getting out of the house is a good thing for me, especially among people who love books as much as I do.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


Haunted Mansion?

One of the things I love about Astoria, Oregon, are the old houses. With its many Victorians and steep, hilly streets, Astoria reminds me of a smaller version of San Francisco. The most famous house in Astoria (besides the Goonies house) is the Flavel House. This Victorian mansion was built in 1884-1885 by Captain George Flavel, an important bar pilot on the Columbia River. Both the interior and exterior are gorgeous, and the house is worth a visit to see the architecture and learn about the history. It is rumored to be haunted by the captain, but the house is more interesting than creepy. Perhaps it would be more frightening if you were there alone, after dark.

There is another Flavel house in town, almost as famous as the captain’s. It was built by his son, George Conrad Flavel, who was also a captain. Built in 1901, the Colonial Revival-style house has wonderful views of the river and beautiful stained glass windows. After George Conrad Flavel’s death in 1923, his son Harry M. Flavel inherited the house, where he lived with his wife Florence and their two children, Mary Louise and Harry S. Flavel.

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Although the second Flavel house is not rumored to be haunted, it has a dark history. At age 20, in 1947, the younger Harry allegedly attacked a neighbor with a hatchet. After that incident, Harry and his mother and sister were rarely seen in Astoria, becoming recluses in their own home. Years later, in 1983, Harry S. served time for stabbing a man. When he was released from prison after seven years, he and his family disappeared from Astoria. For twenty years, the house remained abandoned and derelict until the city of Astoria claimed the property. With signs of neglect and boarded up windows, the house certainly looked haunted, even if it’s not.

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There is a happy ending to this story, however. In 2015, the house was sold to Greg Newenhof, co-owner of Astoria’s City Lumber Company. Since taking possession of the house, Mr. Newenhof has begun restoration, a long process to bring the house back to its former glory. In a partnership with the Clatsop County Historical Society, Mr. Newenhof recently opened his new home to the public, offering tours. Hundreds of people bought tickets. I was one of them—like the other visitors, I’d been interested in this house for years, and was so excited to finally be able to see the inside.

I wasn’t disappointed. The house has gorgeous historical details—paneled walls in the dining room, carved pillars in the sitting room, a beautiful fireplace in the living room, and marble sinks in each of the four bedrooms. My favorite room was the attic, because it still held some of the Flavel family’s belongings: an empty cradle, a tattered jacket, a drum, and old books.

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One of the reasons I wanted to see this house is it served as inspiration in my novel, Sunset Empire. I imagined one of my characters, Phantom, living in the house with his mother. To tour the house, and look out the windows at the Columbia River as I imagined my characters doing, was absolutely thrilling. It will be exciting to see the evolution of this house as Mr. Newenhof restores it. I hope he hosts a second open house when the renovations are complete.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


Stuff, Part II

Last night we placed a blanket on our lawn and watched the Perseid meteor shower. We had a good view on the Oregon coast—clear skies and no light pollution. Even though my boys are thirteen and already too cool for some of the things they used to enjoy, we all felt a sense of awe watching meteors leave brilliant trails of light on a black velvet sky.

IMG_8623I love these moments. I know we’re too plugged in most of the time, each of us in our respective corners of the house. We’ve been better about unplugging this summer. One of my sons goes to swim practice four afternoons a week, so my other son and I committed to taking the dog for walks on the beach during that time. It’s been a good investment, if only for the chance to have deeper conversations with each other. We’ve enjoyed small discoveries—interesting rocks and shells, sculptural pieces of driftwood, washed-up jellyfish and isopods, and sculpin swimming in the estuary. One afternoon we didn’t walk at all, but stood mesmerized as we watched a whale breach over and over. It’s been good for the dog too, getting regular exercise. She’s a better dog for it, and we’re better people.

Even though my other son hasn’t been a part of our walks on the beach, we’ve included him in unplugging experiences too. We tried new restaurants and went roller skating a couple of times. He loves to read, so we’ve made weekly trips to the library. It’s been a great summer.

A complaint I’ve often heard about my boys’ generation is they can’t function without electronics—they always have to have a device in their hands, and they never go outside to play. They’re not social. They have no imagination. This is not true.

While my kids don’t play outside as much as I did, and they do love their phones and computers, that doesn’t mean they don’t like the outdoors. They do. Sometimes they just need a reminder to unplug, as do I.

They do have imaginations, and use them to create all kinds of art. Sometimes that art is made using pencils and paint, other times it involves a virtual canvas. They problem-solve constantly, whether it’s building worlds in Minecraft or solving puzzles in online games. They learn all the time. If they can’t figure something out, they research it using online resources. They watch videos about science experiments as well as silly stunts. They learn social skills, working with friends to win games. Yes, they are chatting over a distance, but they are still communicating. They talk to their friends in person too.

I think the biggest difference between their generation and others has to do with stuff. It’s not that my children don’t enjoy material belongings, but what they value is often virtual. They are not into physical toys. They still receive them as gifts sometimes, and they do play with them, but the enthusiasm is not the same as for online games.

When they were little, they enjoyed toys more. They had stuffed animals, legos, cars, dinosaurs, even toys they could ride. We had a lot of fun playing together, but every year we’d sort through the toys, passing along older toys to make room for new ones. Somehow we ended up with entire collections of Happy Meal toys—the other day I found one under the seat of my car. We got rid of boxes of toys and clothes before we moved 1,500 miles from Arizona to Oregon, but still, we had boxes and boxes that made the journey. In third grade, the boys’ teacher mentioned a project to give toys to other children. To my surprise, my kids were eager to participate. We went through their closet and collected five boxes of toys to give away. I was proud of my boys’ generosity, and amazed by their ability to let go of material belongings. It inspired me to go through my closet too. Letting go of my own belongings was a relief—it made me feel less weighed down. I wish I’d done more purging before we moved all those heavy boxes across the country.

Virtual toys are certainly lighter than physical ones, and they take up less room. I love that my boys don’t go crazy when we visit stores, wanting to buy more stuff. They see things they like, but they weigh the costs of purchasing them. They have learned to save their chore money for things they really want. This year one of my sons has made three major purchases with the money he’s earned: a video game, a fish tank, and a ukulele. The other, who hardly ever spends money, has only bought two items: a video game and an ocarina, which is a small, ceramic wind instrument.

The only problem with the boys not being into physical toys is gift-giving. While my husband and I know what games they’re into at the moment, it’s hard to translate this for relatives who are shopping for birthday or Christmas presents. To me, it feels selfish to ask for a gift card or cash even though the boys’ interests are so specific I know it will be nearly impossible for someone to find the exact gift they’ve been wanting. Asking for that feels like a demand, even though I prefer gift cards because they don’t take up space and they save on shipping costs for the giver. I also feel we shouldn’t make demands about the amount spent—it’s about being thought of by the giver.

I actually wish people wouldn’t give me gifts at all—just send me a note with kind words or give the money that would have been spent on a gift to a charity. I have everything I need, and the few things I want, I tend to buy for myself. I have more than enough. I know it’s not fair of me to force that idea on other people, however—on my kids or the people who give them gifts.

I don’t have an answer about how to handle the gift issue except to make gentle suggestions to givers and to teach my boys to be grateful receivers. And to periodically go through our stuff and pass along what we no longer need.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


Harassed

This week Donald Trump made a comment to USA Today that if his daughter Ivanka were sexually harassed in the workplace, he hoped she would find a different company or career. The problem with this, as victim advocates quickly asserted, is many workers can’t just quit their jobs if they are harassed at work. They don’t have the financial resources to be without work, and it takes time to find a new position. Having a gap between jobs or a history of changing jobs can penalize job seekers. In addition, finding a new career can be expensive if you have to get more training or certifications. Most of us don’t have a wealthy father who can simply carve out a position for us in the family business, should we decide to leave our current positions.

And here’s the other thing: why should a victim of sexual harassment have to leave their job? Companies have a responsibility to protect workers and take action when employees encounter a hostile workplace.

Trump’s son, Eric, came to his father’s defense, stating that his sister is a “strong, powerful woman” who wouldn’t allow herself to be subjected to harassment. This is a disservice to anyone who has experienced harassment because it places blame on victims, suggesting they “allowed” themselves to be harassed. Sexual harassment is not the victim’s fault. It’s about a predator feeling entitled to another person’s time, space, and body. Harassment can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re strong or not. It doesn’t matter what you wear to work. It doesn’t even matter what gender you are, because yes, males can also be victims of sexual harassment. Because men are “supposed” to be physically stronger than the person who harassed them, they may be more hesitant to come forward.

I know both men and women who have been harassed, and it has not been easy for any of them to speak about their experiences. There’s a great deal of shame. Victims tend to blame themselves, wondering what they could have done differently. They worry that reporting will get them fired, and sometimes it does. It’s not legal to fire somebody for reporting harassment, but it happens. You could take your employer to court over it…if you had the money for legal fees.

Even if you do everything you’re “supposed” to do—even if you dress professionally and set boundaries—you can still receive unwanted comments or touching, and employers don’t always do what they’re required to do to help you. Unfortunately, I know this all too well. Here’s my story.

The summer after my first year of college, I took a retail job in a shoe store. I was nineteen.

I knew not to hitchhike or get in a car with a stranger, and I knew the best way to deal with catcalling was to ignore it and keep walking. I knew to check my backseat before driving at night, to make sure nobody was hiding there. I knew not to stay out too late, and to lock the door to my apartment when I got home. I knew that if I followed all these rules, I’d be okay.

I was utterly unequipped to deal with harassment at work.

Work is supposed to be safe. You do your job and you get paid. You dress modestly. You don’t cause waves with your co-workers and you show your boss respect. You are polite to everyone, especially customers. Because the customer is always right.

Except sometimes the customer is wrong.

My duties in the store were to unpack shipments of new shoes, place them on shelves and in displays, assist customers, ring up purchases, and, at closing time, straighten shelves and then mop and vacuum the store. The store was located at the end of a strip mall, with windows across the front and one of the sides of the store. As a joke, I called it the fishbowl, because it felt like anyone in the parking lot could see everything going on in the store.

I felt safe there at first, even when we experienced a series of shoplifting incidents. Nobody was threatened or hurt—the thieves would simply grab a pair of shoes and take off. The boss instructed us not to run after shoplifters, but to report the incident to her.

Then a man started coming to the store. He wasn’t much older than me. The first time he came, he asked for my assistance as he chose a pair of shoes from the shelf. As I helped him, he asked me out. Flustered, I told him, “No thanks, I have a boyfriend.”

He started coming in more frequently. He would buy shoes and come in the next day to return them. After a while, he didn’t even buy shoes in his size. Once he bought a pair of children’s shoes. I knew he wasn’t going to wear those, and I seriously doubted he bought them for someone else. He returned that pair as well.

Each time he came in, he asked me out. Even though I told him no repeatedly, he persisted. He would follow me around the store, trying to touch my arms, my shoulders, whatever he could get away with. I stopped being polite. When I saw him coming, I would immediately make myself busy, talking with other customers, surrounding myself with people so he couldn’t corner me at the back of the store. He’d try talking to me and I’d walk away, quick to engage with the next customer. Sometimes I couldn’t walk away, because I was working the register. He’d stand there staring as I rang up other people’s purchases.

I told my boyfriend about the man harassing me, and I told my parents. But what could they do? They suggested I quit, but I needed the money for college, and there wasn’t time to get another job before school started. They told me to report the guy to my boss. I did. It didn’t help.

When I told my boss about the man, she brushed off my concerns. She said, “Well, I guess you can work in the back when he comes in.” That was it. So, the next time the man came to the store, I identified him to my boss and went to work in the back, unpacking a shipment. As I stood there, taking shoes out of boxes, I realized I couldn’t hide in the back of the store each time the guy came in. If I did, I’d lose my job. More than that, I felt shame for hiding. I felt like a coward.

Truth is, I was frightened. Each night I closed up shop, I had a co-worker watch as I got into my car. I’d quickly run across the parking lot, check the back seat, jump inside, and lock my doors. Then, as I’d drove home, I’d watch to make sure no one was following me. I’d hurry into my studio apartment where I lived alone, lock my door, and set up an electric alarm my boyfriend bought for the door. Anybody who tried to come in while it was armed would be treated to a blaring earful. I slept with a can of pepper spray on my nightstand, a baseball bat beside my bed, and a carving knife between the mattress and box springs—all within reach if I woke to find him breaking in and didn’t have time to call the police. I didn’t sleep much, but I was ready to defend myself. Terrified and paranoid, but ready.

The harassment finally stopped, but not because anything I did made it stop. It didn’t stop because my company stepped up to protect me, because they didn’t. I don’t know why I never called the cops. The person I am now would have, but at the time I was just a scared kid. I guess I was afraid of going over my boss’s head. Since she hadn’t helped me, maybe the police wouldn’t either.

The last night I saw this man at the store, he came in to ask me out once again, and as always, I told him no and walked away to help other customers. He left, only to return after we’d closed down the register and locked the doors.

I was mopping the front of the store when he walked up to the glass in front of me. He knocked on the window, trying to get my attention. I saw him and immediately looked away, pretending I didn’t see him. I mopped the floor, refusing to look at him even though I could feel him staring at me.

He stayed there the entire time I mopped. I finished the job and took the mop and bucket to the back of the store to empty it. When I came back out to vacuum, he was gone.

I was frightened he’d come back when I tried to leave the store, that maybe he was waiting for me in his car. With the lights on in the store, I couldn’t see much of the dark parking lot. I felt more vulnerable than ever in the fishbowl, knowing he could see me, but I couldn’t see him.

Thankfully, I only saw him one other time. He was hanging out with a group of guys in front of the student union at my college. School had started and I quit my job at the shoe store to focus on academics. When I spotted him, I walked away as quickly as I could so he didn’t see me. The realization that he attended the same university filled me with dread, but our paths never crossed again. The next summer, I took a different job.

It’s not easy for me to share this with you. I still wonder what I should have done differently. But I think it’s important that we talk about these things, because the more we share about our experiences, the more empowered other people will feel to speak up. And I do want people to feel empowered. I never want anyone to feel as scared, vulnerable, and helpless as I felt. I never want anyone to feel like they weren’t “strong enough” or they “allowed” themselves to be harmed. Maybe if we keep speaking about these experiences, we can change perceptions about what it means to be victimized and how we can hold employers and aggressors accountable.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016