Category Archives: Essays & Ideas


According to the Statesman Journal, Marion County Commissioners are set to open the floodgates to out-of-state medical waste (up to 30 million pounds per year of biohazardous or infectious waste and up to 20 million pounds of non-hazardous medical waste) at their monthly meeting on Wednesday morning, June 29th at 9:00 A.M., more than doubling the amount of medical waste currently incinerated at the Brooks facility. This is important to local communities because incineration of medical waste is a source of dioxin and heavy metals, including mercury and cadmium.

Why is increasing the amount of dioxins released into the atmosphere from the incinerator in Burns, Oregon (or anywhere) a lousy idea?

According to the World Health Organization:

Key Facts

  • Dioxins are a group of chemically-related compounds that are persistent environmental pollutants (POPs).
  • Dioxins are found throughout the world in the environment and they accumulate in the food chain, mainly in the fatty tissue of animals. (Like it or not, you are an animal.)
  • More than 90% of human exposure is through food, mainly meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish.
  • Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer. (Fetuses, infants, young children and people with compromised immunity are among those most sensitive to dioxins. Once dioxins enter the body, they last a long time because of their chemical stability and their ability to be absorbed by fat tissue, where they are then stored in the body. Their half-life in the body is estimated to be 7 to 11 years. In the environment, dioxins tend to accumulate in the food chain. The higher an animal is in the food chain, the higher the concentration of dioxins.)
  • Due to the omnipresence of dioxins, all people have background exposure, which is not expected to affect human health. However, due to the highly toxic potential, efforts need to be undertaken to reduce current background exposure.
  • Prevention or reduction of human exposure is best done via source-directed measures, i.e. strict control of industrial processes to reduce formation of dioxins.

And if all that weren’t enough, according to the EPA, dioxins can get into drinking water from emissions from waste incineration and other combustion that get deposited into bodies of water.

And don’t forget that Marion County will be responsible for disposing of the ash left after incineration. All that residual material will be dumped in Marion County landfills where it will likely reside for lifetimes or until some man-made accident or act of God creates an environmental disaster.

With so much at stake, should the citizens of Marion and surrounding counties trust Covanta Energy Corporation, who was recently assessed a $2.3 million dollar fine by Utah state regulators after its incinerator there exceeded pollution limits. According to the Statesman, Covanta was accused of rigging a stack test.

There will be those who say that medical waste is dangerous and it needs to be processed somewhere, that “not in my backyard” is an irresponsible position. But I believe that if we as a people, stop making it profitable, easy, and cheap for companies to produce and dispose of products that are damaging to the environment and dangerous to human health, those same companies would be motivated to find solutions that are less toxic.

If, on Wednesday, Marion County Commissioners end up celebrating a deal they’ve made with Covanta as an increased source of easy cash, the rest of us might want to reconsider “going local” when we purchase foods, especially Willamette Valley foods high on the food chain like dairy products, fish and meat.

Relevant links:

Statesman Journal:

World Health Organization Media Center Fact Sheet:

EPA (Environmental Protection Agency):



Betty & Me

In Memory of Betty Rhea Stewart
October 4th, 1924 – June 20th, 2015

Betty, I remember:

• the first time I heard your name. I was washing my hands in the Women’s Room at the Salem Public Library in 1997. I had taken a first brave step and started attending a public writing group that met on Thursday afternoons. It was during a break. Carolyn Tracy, the writing group facilitator was washing her hands at the sink next to me. “I know another writer,” she said. “I think you two would appreciate each other. Her name’s Betty Stewart. She used to teach developmental psychology at Vassar, now she’s writing a book about a potter.”

• the day we actually met, at an invitation only writing group. There were seven of us at Cosmos’ house, and you read a draft chapter from what was to become your Still Life with Apples novel. I loved the easy cadence of your writing and admired the knowing way you glanced at your audience as you read. By the end of the meeting, I could already tell you were a perceptive writer, capable of both wit and sympathy. After the meeting, while others were getting in their cars, we stayed behind on the lawn to talk some more and set a time to have lunch together.

• the anticipation of meeting you for our long lunches at the Arbor Cafe. I’d always find you sitting in your favorite booth in the far corner – you’d have come early, an hour or more, to snag that booth—but also to plot your story and luxuriate, ensconced in a busy café with your tea and scone. We would read and critique our latest writings, then talk about what it is to write, and about the books we were reading. I was in love with writing and you were part of it, your enthusiasm, your observations and references, your ideas – being with you was like being in graduate school again.

• all those Willamette Writers’ Conferences we attended together. Weeks before, we would parse the list of agents and editors, and agonize over which ones might be most receptive to our novels. At the conference hotel we’d get rooms next to each other. We’d meet for breakfast and take in the early sessions together, then by mid-afternoon, we’d abandon the conference and go back to our respective rooms, inspired to write. At dinner we’d read and critique what we’d written, look at the roster of classes and events, and plan the next day.

• Stonecoast Writer’s Conference in Maine, our boldest move. We applied and were accepted—both of us! We traveled together, the most compatible of friends. We were assigned dorm rooms across the hall from each other. Each morning, we boarded the van from Bowdoin College to Stonecoast, a seaside mansion with broad lawns and a spectacular ocean view, where we parsed the first chapters of our manuscripts with 6 other writers just as excited to be there as we were.

• every spring, the two of us walking the aisles of local plant nurseries, looking for the perfect combination of seedlings for the brick enclosed flower bed beside your front door. We’d come back to your house with an armload, usually green beans, petunias and marigolds. Once you even planted corn—not to eat; you said you were thinking of Kansas, and you just wanted to watch corn grow.

• you the painter, answering the door in your spattered paint shirt with Lori, or Lise, or Picci at your heels – your face shining, eager to show me the light or shadow you’d caught in that last brushstroke.

• our New Years resolutions sessions, every year—in fact, every new beginning, anticipated and made official with high hopes, a new pen, and a blank notebook.

• the books you knew I’d love. Because of you I discovered Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor and Adrian Rich. We read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway together and Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. We re-read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and went to see Peter Jackson’s fantastical Lord of the Rings movies. We read the poems of Rumi and Jane Kenyon and T. S. Elliot aloud to each other. And one year, for your birthday, I bought us tickets to see Billy Collins when he was in Portland for a Literary Arts Lecture.

• more shining moments with you than I can count. You were my once in a lifetime friend, and I think about you every day.

Sucker Punched

My father died when I was eleven. He had been diagnosed with lymphosarcoma and I remember him slogging through the ups and downs of cancer treatment and remissions for more than two years. There were weeks when he lay on our couch, often with his head on my mother’s lap, and ate nothing but saltine crackers and soft-boiled eggs on dry toast washed down with sips of 7-up or sweetened Lipton Tea. But those lethargic wrecked weeks were predictably followed by better months when his pale skin would turn ruddy and his smile would be easy again. He would be back behind his workbench in the one-man television repair shop in our converted garage, the smell of solder wafting around him. Evenings and weekends were a parade of storytelling friends and card playing relatives.  There was laughter again, lots of it. And my mother cooked: baked bread and roasted browned meat with little potatoes and carrots, rolled out cinnamon-laced pastry dough for cherry pies.

My dad’s health was a precarious balancing act carefully calibrated by our family physician, the same doctor who gave us our vaccinations and made an emergency house call the night my brother spiked a fever and couldn’t stop convulsing. We had blind faith in Dr. Mason, and he’d proved himself by years and years of deserving it. Looking back, I can see how fragile our life was, held together by a kind of tenuous surface tension; one bump or shake . . .

Sucker punched memoir
My Mom & Dad


The blow, when it came, was a sucker punch, or more accurately, a whole series of them, and from directions we hadn’t even considered.

Late on a Wednesday afternoon, a day before my father was to have an appointment with Dr. Mason to follow up on his condition and review of his medicines, Dr. Mason collapsed on the stairs coming out of his office and died of a heart attack.  We found out that same evening when someone telephoned our house. We had just finished supper and I was carrying dishes from the table to my mother who was scraping and rinsing them at the kitchen sink. When the phone rang my mom wiped her hands on her apron and stepped to pick up the receiver.

“Hello,” she said. “Yes. . . . .  How?”  I watched as she slowly lowered herself to the seat of the slat-backed chair beside the telephone table.  “When did it happen? . . .  I see.  . . . Dr. Pope. . . .  Yes, I’ve got a pencil.” She scrawled a telephone number on the notepad. “We will. I’m so sorry.”

“Mom?” I said, but she shook her head, a tight-lipped hushing shake, and moved through the kitchen toward the living room.

“Johnny,” she called to my father.

He and my little brother were sitting together on the couch watching television. My dad turned to glance but caught her gaze. “What’s wrong?”

“Dr. Mason’s dead.”


Dr. Mason’s patients were referred to Dr. Pope. My father called his office the next day asking for an urgent appointment, but the receptionist told him that Dr. Pope was overbooked and he would be out of town for the weekend. Two weeks out, she said, that was the best she could do. But, he said, he’d been taking chemo and he had only a single capsule left in the bottle. He knew Dr. Mason was ready to change the dose or the drug, or, maybe, he hoped, take him off the drugs altogether. She agreed to have Dr. Pope review my father’s file and get back to him. Late that afternoon she telephoned to say that Dr. Pope had called in a prescription. Dad was to take the medicine and Dr. Pope would see him in two weeks.

Mr. Haffy, the pharmacist at our drug store was a round-faced man with a bristly chin.. He offered my brother and me fruit-flavored candy sticks from a large jar on the counter and handed the medicine to my dad in a white paper bag. I heard him tell my father it was the same drug, but the dose had been doubled and that didn’t seem right. He’d called Dr. Pope but Dr. Pope stood by the dosage. Still, he said – if it were him, he’d want a second opinion. When we left the drugstore, it was already Friday afternoon. When we got home, my dad tried to call Dr. Pope but he’d left town, and any second opinion would have to wait until Monday.

By Sunday evening my dad had already been transferred from the emergency room to the hospital. Most of the red blood cells in his body had been destroyed.  

My brother and I saw him one last time in a visiting room down the hall from the hospital elevators. A nurse brought him into the room in a wheelchair. My mother, who was sitting on a couch between us, rose and kissed him on the cheek and squeezed his hand. He smiled at us, getting reacquainted. We smiled back, awkward, sensing how very fragile he was.When it was time for him to leave us, my brother asked him when he was coming home. He said he had so many people taking such good care of him he hoped it wouldn’t be long. He was hoping; we were hoping. He died two weeks later.


I went to high school with Dr. Pope’s son, Tom. He played center on our high school basketball team and his father would come to his games. Often I would watch the two of them leaving together, Dr. Pope walking tall and proud, his hand in the middle of Tom’s back. It’s fifty years later, and I still think about them sometimes.