I should be in New York

On this Sunday morning in March, I should have rolled out of bed and looked out a window at a field of grass sloping downhill toward a cluster of trees beside a creek in upstate New York.

I should have been there with Lori, visiting with our youngest son, our daughter-in-law, and sweet granddaughter, at their home outside Ithaca, New York. Instead I’m spending my spring break here in Portland, catching my breath between Finals Week and the start of a new term on March 30, a mere eight days away.

Our travel plans were upended by the nationwide spread of the Coronavirus. Like so many others, we’ve had to confine ourselves to the familiar space within the walls of our own home as we do our part to minimize human contact for the next few weeks.

So I suppose now is a good time to reflect on the winter quarter that just ended at Portland State University and look ahead to what lies ahead in the spring quarter — my last term before retirement.

***

I taught three classes during the winter with a total enrollment of about 115 students, just slightly more than I had during the fall.

What a time it was to teach Media Literacy, with three major news events providing real-life teachable moments about the importance of credible journalism: the breaking-news fiasco surrounding the helicopter crash that killed NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and 8 others; the historic coverage of President Trump’s impeachment trial; and the all-consuming attention given to the Coronavirus pandemic.

The thrust of the course is to provide students with the critical skills for evaluating mass media — advertising and entertainment, as well as news — so they can better understand what they are viewing. One major objective to help them recognize the difference between misinformation (the result of an honest mistake) and disinformation (the product of intentional deceit).

In Mass Communication and Society, we examined the evolution of technology with an eye toward helping students see how a succession of mediums — print, radio, television, cable, streaming and internet — have affected not just how information is produced and distributed but how the technology influences how we communicate with each other.

We studied a variety of mass communication theories, some of which argue that we draw meaning from what we read, view or hear based on what our friends and family say about that same media content. Other theories argue that the most modern means of communication — including texting, memes and emojis — have a corrosive effect on nuance and on human relationships themselves.

I love teaching these courses, not just because they are timely and important but also because I gain so much from the perspectives and experiences of my students — a diverse bunch who may come from Portland, Seattle or San Diego as well as Bend, Beaverton or Bandon.

Many were born abroad, in countries ranging from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam to Ukraine, Somalia, Togo and Mexico. They are mostly 20- and 21-year-olds, but many are nontraditional students in their mid-20s and early 30s, and more than a few are moms. Because child care can be hard to arrange on short notice, at least three brought their young kiddos to class at some point this term.

People of color make up about one-third of my students. Many students identify as LGBTQ, spanning the entirety of racial and ethnic categories. Of the entire lot, an increasing number are asking for disability-related accommodations. Nearly all my students work at least half-time and many of them do so full-time, even with a full load of courses.

Last week should have been an easy glide to the finish line, with just two finals and a couple of pizza lunches with the 10 students who did internships for area employers this term. Instead, the lunches were canceled and it was nonstop work as I consulted with university staff to develop digitized versions of the final exams and worked out the glitches in my online gradebooks, all while grading about 70 final essays that had been turned in the week before.

***

With all that in the rearview mirror, this week demands that I spend a chunk of time getting acquainted with the various programs I’m going to rely on to teach remotely next term.

Along with virtually everyone else in higher education, Portland State has decreed all spring quarter classes will be done this way. There will be no traditional classroom, limited opportunity to engage with students in real-time, and a lot more reliance on writing instead of discussion.

It’s hard to imagine a leading a discussion of Media Literacy in this way, let alone Media Ethics, which I will be teaching this spring. That course reilies heavily on the airing of provocative questions and robust discussion of ethical principles, professional values and philosophical theories.

But there’s no sense whining because there is no choice in this matter. To keep everyone safe and healthy, we have to distance ourselves in an unprecedented way and muddle through everything together.

One thing still hanging in the balance is the fate of my study-abroad course in Berlin, Germany. The university’s Education Abroad office hasn’t canceled the program yet but is monitoring developments there and plans to make a decision by the end of this month. Options are likely to be two: cancellation or postponement. But postpone to when? Summer of 2021? Or is there a chance we could squeeze it in during early September? That would give students enough time to do the two-week program and return to Portland in time for the start of fall classes later in the month.

I’ll be curious to see how all of these things turn out when I sit down in mid-June to look back on my last term at PSU. I’ve got my fingers crossed in the hope that everything turns out well.

A world without sports

Until the coronavirus changed everything, I had two places very much on my mind: New York and Berlin.

If things had gone as planned, I would have caught a late-evening flight tonight and arrived Friday morning in the picturesque village where our youngest son and his family live in upstate New York. There I would have joined Lori for a weeklong visit during spring break.

If things had gone as planned, I would have been celebrating the official go-ahead for a summer course I was scheduled to teach in Berlin. There I would spend two weeks in the German capital with about 10 students, exploring the city and delving into issues where sports, culture and the media intersect. Lori would join me at the end of the program and, we hoped, we would use Berlin as a jumping-off point to visit Prague in the Czech Republic.

But now? We canceled our flights to New York. My employer, Portland State University, has put the Berlin course on hold, awaiting further developments. It’s unlikely that things will change quickly and for the better, but one can always cling to a sliver of hope.

In the meantime, here I sit on a glorious morning — the first day of spring — looking out the window at runners and cyclists, knowing I’ve got another full day of work ahead.

I’m nearing the end of finals week for the winter term, giving the second of two online finals and preparing to enter final grades for my students.

At the same time, I am gearing up — make that frantically gearing up — for the start of the spring term when I and my colleagues in the Department of Communication begin teaching all our classes remotely. I had looked forward to a week of down time between terms, but now I’m plunging ahead into uncharted territory knowing I’ll have to change my teaching methods substantially to reach nearly 100 students in two courses without the benefit of a traditional classroom.

That means becoming familiar with the video conferencing and messaging platforms Zoom and Google Hangouts, as well as Slack, software designed to enhance workplace communication and collaboration. I’ll also need to make better use of PSU’s online learning features. All of this before classes resume in just 11 days on March 30.

Rising early this morning, with the streets again eerily quiet and people cocooned in their homes, I had a moment to catch up with a beautifully written piece by John Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sports reporter at The New York Times. He explores a question that may strike some as trivial — What do we now without a world of sports? — but which sheds light on the important place that sports holds in our society.

Sure, sports are fun to play or watch. They serve as an escape from the stresses of everyday life. But they also reflect our society in every possible way on issues of race, gender, politics, economics, mental health and more. These are the issues I looked forward to exploring in Germany in July.

If the program is canceled this year, maybe, just maybe, it can happen in 2021.

Brian Doyle: A writer like no other

I had a respite from grading papers and exams last weekend, and the break allowed me to finish reading a book that I can only describe as exquisite.

It was Brian Doyle’s “One Long River of Song,” a collection of short essays published posthumously last year.

Brian died in 2017 from brain cancer at age 60, leaving behind a widow and three adult children, along with a city full of brokenhearted fans of his unique literary voice. He was an Oregon Book Award winner and a virtual writing machine.

Over the years, Brian wrote eight novels, six books of poetry, several nonfiction books, and dozens of essays and op-eds that appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The Oregonian and other publications, all while serving as editor of the University of Portland’s award-winning magazine. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting him and working with him on a submission or two to The Oregonian’s Sunday Opinion section, in the days when it was still a free-standing, broadsheet section of the newspaper.

Brian was a gentleman — smart, funny and self-effacing. And he was beloved by the community of writers and readers in Portland and beyond.

“One Long River of Song” presents this gifted writer at his finest. Fellow author David James Duncan collaborated with Brian’s wife, Mary Miller Doyle, to compile 81 essays and poems in a 241-page volume that captured his sense of awe at the natural world and his musings about love and grace and wonder and kindness.

Brian was born in New York and attended the University of Notre Dame. He had an extraordinary ability to see and appreciate the simple things in life — a simple word or gesture or emotion — and present them in a spiritual framework for a secular audience. Thought he was a devout Irish Catholic, he didn’t push his faith on his readers as much as he invited them to ponder the presence of the divine in the small, ordinary moments of our daily lives.

Those who’ve read Doyle know well that he made the English language his own, with a one-of-a-kind approach toward syntax and punctuation, often turning nouns into verbs or adjectives, or sometimes writing ridiculously long sentences that somehow always held together.

From an essay about his sons, “What Were Once Pebbles Are Now Cliffs.”

“I am standing in the middle pew, far left side, at Mass. We choose this pew when possible for the light pouring and puddling through the stained-glasss windows. The late-morning Mass is best because the sun finally made it over the castlements of the vast hospital up the bill and the sun has a direct irresistable shot at the windows and as my twin sons used to say the sun loooves jumping through the windows and does so with the headlong pleasure of a child.”

From an essay about an eccentric friend, “His Weirdness.”

“A friend of mine is dying in the fast lane, he says, smiling at the image, for no man ever loved as much as he did zooming those long stretches of highway in the West, where there are no speed limits or curves or cops and nothing to kill you but sudden antelopes. But now he can see his exit up ahead, he says, and he has slowed down to enjoy the ride. He’s been pondering the sparrows, who do not sow and neither do they reap, he says, shuffling into his yard armed with fistfuls of seed.”

And this, from an essay about how he, a self-described “meathead,” once laughed at gay people. “Mea Culpa.”

“The first time I saw the quilt I wept. The quilt is the biggest quilt you ever saw. It is more than a million square feet big. It is haunting and beautiful and terrible and lovely and bright and awful. Every panel is someone who died young. Every panel has tears in it. There are more tears in the quilt than there are threads. I started paying attention. I started listening. I stopped sneering and snickering. I began to hear the pummel of blows rained down on people for merely being who they are.”

This book was a year-end gift from my friend Molly Holsapple. I thank her fot it and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet read Brian Doyle.

University of Second Chances

Midpoint of the winter quarter has arrived, bringing with it midterm exams and essays in all three of my classes. It’s a lot of work, to be sure, spilling over into the weekend. But for every mangled sentence I read, there is a beautifully crafted paragraph or a surprising insight that gives me pause, making me appreciate why I love teaching at Portland State University.

It’s not just the diversity of the student body. I’ve grown accustomed to looking out at a sea of black and brown and white faces, knowing many of my international and immigrant students have grown up in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe or Latin America, while others hail from cities, suburbs and rural communities across the United States.

No, it’s more than that. It’s reading their stories and understanding what they have overcome to get here — and often what they continue to deal with in pursuit of their degree – that makes me feel privileged to have a hand in their education.

Many are the first in their family to attend a four-year college. Many attended high schools with less than stellar academic reputations. Many have transferred in from a community college. Some struggled at their first try (a euphemism for dropping out) and now have come back after a few years.

Many are parents – and, yes, there have been instances when a student (it’s always a mom) has brought her young child to class because no one else could take care of them. Some are going through divorce; some are helping take care of an ailing parent; and some (actually many) have learning disabilities requiring alternative learning accommodations.

And rising above all of this? A growing number of students who deal with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

I can’t say I anticipated much of this when I left journalism four years ago to begin a second career as an adjunct instructor teaching a single class at each of two public universities in the Portland area. Yet here I am, with a full teaching load on a one-year contract at PSU that ends in June, and I feel like I’ve been blessed with an opportunity to help students get a foothold in life – or simply just persevere.

***

It dawned on me the other day that while the acronym “USC” is most commonly associated with the prestigious University of Southern California (the expensive, private school often derided as the University of Spoiled Children), I’m teaching at a University of Second Chances. A place where students of all backgrounds come together with a common goal of improving their life through higher education.

Like every one of my colleagues, I do the best I can to offer a challenging course that introduces new concepts, provokes thought, and sparks engagement through wide-ranging class discussions. But, honestly, it is in the hours outside of the classroom where one can make a difference.

Often, this means meeting with a student who’s overwhelmed at home and at school and needs some help putting together an acceptable essay. Other times, it means a long conversation with someone in their mid- to late 20s – the so-called non-traditional student – who is having doubts about their declared major or uncertain career path.

I don’t mean to suggest that every day is marked by some kind of crisis.

In recent weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of doing interviews with really smart, accomplished students who’ve applied to be in my next study-abroad class in July. I’ve written letters of recommendation for former students seeking their first jobs as new graduates. I’ve also been asked to help read through a small stack of applications for a departmental scholarship, knowing we can choose only one candidate among so many deserving candidates.

In the face of so many challenges, what stands out to me are the hopes and dreams, and small victories, of students like these:

R.B.: A just-graduated senior who came to me to ask for a letter of recommendation to graduate school. Raised in poverty, abused by her stepfather, and hampered by a learning disability that wasn’t diagnosed until her teenage years, she barely graduated high school. At PSU, she gained her footing, built her self-confidence and now aspires to work in the nonprofit sector.

Z.G.: A sophomore who was born in Pakistan, grew up in Afghanistan and speaks five languages, only learning English after she came to the U.S. as a teenager. After a year at PSU, her GPA was below 2.0 and she was placed on academic probation. I wrote a letter of support that pointed out she had earned a C in every one of her classes during the fall and was now positioned to improve

I.P.: A senior who participated in my London study-abroad program, he’s taken all four of my classes. He floundered at community college, but found his focus at PSU. Now in his early 30s, he’s just completed an internship at Oregon Health & Science University and asked me for a letter of recommendation to graduate school.

L.D.: Another community college transfer who’s bounced from California to Oregon with a middling GPA. She’s in her mid-20s, a junior majoring in sociology, and in the midst of a remarkable turnaround at PSU. She earned a perfect score on her first essay in a class she’s taking from me now and will be among the students going abroad with me to Germany this summer.

***

Just over a third of U.S. adults have a four-year college degree. In times past, we would celebrate anyone who had attained their bachelor’s. These days among a considerable number of our fellow Americans, a college degree is viewed with resentment, as a token of the elite. Nothing could be more discouraging – or pathetic, frankly – than a view like that.

In my book, these students at PSU are heroes. I look at them and I see tired faces and slumped shoulders from the responsibilities they carry and the expectations they have for themselves. But as graduation nears, I hope those frowns will turn to smiles as they close in on their degree, celebrate their accomplishments, and embark on their post-graduation path, wherever it may lead them.

Lap dog

The Little Peanut: Charlotte

It’s 9:15 on a Saturday morning, utterly silent in the beach house where we’re staying. I’m sitting in a recliner with a hard-cover book and a mug of coffee.

To my left is a view of the ocean, with waves pulsing onto the shore. Straight ahead is a ceiling fan, its three blades soundlessly slicing the air. A black, furry creature has settled onto my outstretched legs, facing away from me and scrunched into a comfortable sleeping position.

It’s Charlotte, of course, and we’re enjoying the peace and quiet before everyone else in the house gets up to start their day.

I’m enjoying this book of spiritual, non-spiritual essays by Brian Doyle, the late Portland writer beloved by so many who embraced his one-of-a-kind approach toward syntax and punctuation, and appreciated his musings about love and grace and wonder and kindness.

I suppose it’s a combination of Doyle’s perspective and the luxury of sitting here alone with my thoughts that prompts me, ironically, to put down the book and let my mind wander.

If I were at home, I’d have opened this laptop and started in grading the latest batch of online homework submitted by my students. But, no, not this time.

This is what I thought of: my lap dog.

On a quiet walk above the water.

From her wet nose to her tucked-in tail, she measures about 18 inches. I can feel the rhythm of her breath as she inhales and exhales, inhales and exhales. My hand glides down her muscular back, from just below her collar to her haunches. I linger for a moment on her ears, soft as rose petals, gently rubbing them between thumb and two fingers.

She woke me up this morning, her chocolate eyes and fist-sized face about four inches from my own and her tail going like a windshield wiper.

We’ve owned five other dogs, but this one has captured my heart like no other. I think it’s because she is a perfectly imperfect dog.

Charlotte has an underbite that means her upper lip doesn’t quite come all the way down on the right side. She has a mouthful of teeth resembling two rows of craggy Chiclets, and a wispy beard that can make her look raggedy or regal, depending on your view. She’s also got a shrill bark that seems more likely to come from a dog ten times her size.

Lil’ Char is a rescue dog whose backstory we’ll never know. She’s a survivor of the streets, for sure, picked up by animal control when she was just a year old, with her puppy alongside her. They were separated at the pet adoption shelter. We got Charlotte, the assertive,  headstrong and surprisingly affectionate mother. Someone else took home her pup. Who knows what they got?

I really should get up and freshen my coffee, I think. I really should get started grading those online assignments. I really should pick up the book again.

But, no, not now. Let me gaze at the ceiling fan for another moment, Let me turn my head to the surf. Let me sit here, just sit, with my perfectly imperfect lap dog.

George’s 2020 book giveaway

Now here’s a cool idea worth repeating.

A year ago at this time, my daughter-in-law Jamie made a pitch on Facebook designed to encourage reading while also lessening the load on her bookshelf. I liked it so much that I stole the idea — and here I am doing it again.

The first five people to respond to this post — down below with an actual comment/request — will receive a book from me sometime this year.

Each book will be chosen specially for the person that will receive it. And I will decide how and when the book is delivered. Perhaps I will invite you out for coffee; perhaps I will send it via postal mail.

The only criteria is that you post this challenge to your wall, offering five books to five people. They don’t have to be new books or your favorite books. Just books selected with care and thought for each individual.

Let me be clear about one thing, however. This is a one-way giveaway. You don’t need to send me a book — in fact, please don’t. I have plenty, believe me, to keep me going all year long.

I’d much prefer to see your generosity channeled into giving away your own books.

Now, who’s down with this?

Resolved: Get outdoors!

Somehow I managed to go nearly an entire year without hauling my butt down to Tryon Creek State Park, one of the most scenic, soul-satisfying places in the metro area.

Until Monday of this week, I hadn’t paid a visit to this beautiful place, barely 10 minutes away from downtown Portland. It’s quite the urban refuge, with its second-growth forest, intersecting trails and meandering creek, fresh air and plenty of peace and quiet.

So after an invigorating half-hour run, I knew what my 2020 resolution would be: to spend more time outdoors.

Lately, I’ve been getting more of my exercise at the gym near our home, most often in the pool or on a bike in a cycling class. Running on those bark-lined trails at Tryon Creek reminded me how much I’ve always enjoyed doing so outdoors.

I followed up two days later with a New Years Day morning run, with a light rain that let up after a few minutes on another half-hour run in my urban neighborhood.

I’ve got plenty of resolutions to work on this year. Many are familiar ones: Drink more water. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Limit the sweets and second helpings. Others are new, private ones: No details here but they’re all aimed at improving my sense of personal conduct and consideration for others.

I hope to hold myself accountable on the “Get outdoors!” resolution in more than one way. Aside from running, there will be plenty of opportunity to hop on my bike, explore new hiking trails in the city and around the region, and take my little friend, Charlotte, with me on neighborhood walks.

Speaking of which…

Celebrating our Uncle Junior

For years, the death of a loved one meant trudging into church for a somber religious ceremony that dwelled on grief. These days, someone’s passing is more likely to be acknowledged with a celebration of life, giving family and friends a way to commemorate the deceased person in a less formal, more upbeat fashion.

Elements of both came into play this past weekend at services for my late uncle, Julian Flores Jr., and the symmetry couldn’t have been a better fit.

Uncle Junior, as he was known to all, was a big teddy bear of a man. He was the eighth of nine children born to my maternal grandparents, Julian and Mercedes Flores, and the youngest of my late mom’s three brothers. He died on Dec. 18th in his hometown of Salinas, California, at age 76, leaving behind a beautiful wife, four daughters and three granddaughters.

HIs family organized a funeral mass on Saturday, Dec. 28th, with a bilingual choir and a traditional Catholic service that was solemn in tone, and striking in the wide variety of family, friends and business associates who attended.

At the after-party that followed at a nearby American Legion hall, there were touching and humorous stories from his widow and several of my cousins that brought my dear uncle’s mischievous sense of humor to life. In addition, there was more than enough food, no shortage of desserts, and a DJ who kept things lively.

Uncle Junior would have loved it. True, he was a local businessman, as the longtime owner of a bookkeeping and tax services company and as a founding member of the North Salinas Lions Club. But nothing defined him better, at least in my mind, than the love and respect he held for all the women in his life.

My fondest memory of my tío was attending the 50th wedding anniversary of him and my Aunt Minnie, a retired teacher. When he died, they were up to 55 years and still counting.

***

There are very few of us cousins who’ve moved away from California, where the Flores clan — as well as the Rede clan on my father’s side — settled in three generations ago as farmworkers. I’ve lived in Oregon since graduating college in the mid-70s, which means I’ve often been outside the loop when it comes to family gatherings and milestones.

These days, unfortunately, it is funerals more than weddings that bring us together.

My mom died six years ago and my dad three years ago. I was grateful for the many relatives who showed up at one or both services, and glad that I could be there for Uncle Junior’s services. At this point, there is only one surviving aunt or uncle on either side of my family tree — my godmother, Lupe Rubio, who is 97, and the eldest of all her siblings.

Though I wish the circumstances had been different this weekend, it was still a pleasure to see cousins that I mostly keep in touch with via social media. (Heck, I even got to see my younger sister, who lives in Alaska.) Though we are separated by hundreds of miles, there’s nothing quite like looking into a familiar face and recalling times when we played as kids at each other’s houses while our moms cooked up the world’s best Mexican food and our dads sipped on a beer and shot the breeze.

There wasn’t enough time to get around to everyone before my sister Cathy and I, accompanied by a favorite cousin, Delia, headed out to a local cemetery to visit our mom’s gravesite. Following that, we spent time with my Aunt Lupe at the assisted living center where she now resides and then visited her oldest son, my cousin Ralph, at the regional hospital where he is convalescing after some recent health issues.

Sunday morning arrived way too early and I had to hit the road to catch my mid-day flight back home to Portland. It was a nice feeling to touch bases with many of those who’ve known me since I was a skinny, dark-haired kid nicknamed “Pudgie.” Go figure.

Our parents, our selves

Everywhere I turn, it seems, there’s someone sharing a list of the best books of 2019.

My list would be awfully short — I’ve read only 5 books so far this year. But one of them was especially memorable, and even writing about it now several months later, I’m still struggling to find the right words for my takeaways.

But if I were to recommend a single book to my friends, it would be this one: “Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents.”

It’s not a novel with a single narrative. Rather, it’s a collection of essays, knitted together from 25 diverse writers across the country, and focused on the idea that each of us carries a trait we’ve inherited from a parent. You know the old adage, right? “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Think about it. Are you a planner or a procrastinator? A heart-on-your-sleeve sentimentalist? Or a reserved introvert? Someone driven by ambition? Or someone perpetually lacking self-esteem? In what way, like it or not, are you like your mother or father?

In this collection, each of the writers reflects on how an inherited characteristic or quality of a parent has affected the lives they lead today and how, in many cases, it has shifted their relationship to that parent. In some instances, it’s caused them to rethink their sense of self.

The variety of viewpoints makes for fascinating reading. Each essayist tackles a different topic — such as race, dementia, personal independence, unrealized hopes — from an individual perspective that reflects differences in age, gender, sexual orientation and geography.

Several of the essayists reside in places like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., while others live in the Midwest and the South. Three, I’m happy to say, are from Oregon. (More on them later.)

***

“Apple, Tree” was conceived of and edited by Lise Funderburg, a writer, editor and lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. In the introduction, she reflects on the influence of her father, a black man, born in 1926, who grew up in rural Georgia, where his own father was known as “the town’s nigger doctor” and their neighborhood was called Colored Folks Hill.

Lise Funderburg

It was early September when I heard Funderburg speak at a promotional event at Broadway Books, my neighborhood bookstore. The book had just come out and she was ecstatic about “what we can learn from thoughtful people who are beautiful writers.”

Three of the writers, all from Portland, were there to read from their essays:

Kate Carroll de Gutes, author of two memoirs, winner of an Oregon Book Award, and generous contibutor to my 2019 Voices of August guest blog project.

Mat Johnson, a professor at the University of Oregon who is a novelist and a recipient of the American Book Award.

Sallie Tisdale, author of nine books, winner of a Pushcart Prize, and an instructor in the writing program at Portland State University.

Each of their pieces is outstanding. Kate’s, in particular, resonated with me in her description of her ailing mother as someone who was inclined to live in the past. (Just like my mother, I thought.)

Inevitably, some essays shine brighter than others. But as a whole, the book is both engaging and provocative. One of the criteria I weigh most heavily in judging a book is whether it enriches my thinking, either by teaching me something about a culture or way of life or presenting me with a new way of looking at something I thought I already knew.

“Apple, Tree” does all that. And the best thing of all? As a reader, you’re left to contemplate the influences of your own parents and try to puzzle out if the way you are is based partly — or largely — on the way they were.

More than three months later, I’m still wrestling with that.

My mom, who died in 2013 just a day short of her 86th birthday, was an outspoken woman who could be the life of the party but also quick to anger. As I wrote after her death: “She was feisty, strong-minded, stubborn, resourceful, independent and fiercely devoted to her three kids and extended family. “

My dad, who died in 2017 at age 91, was more reserved. You might call him the strong, silent type — a blue-collar guy who dealt with life on an even keel, keeping his thoughts and emotions to himself. “He was a man of few words but a man of strong words,” a fellow veteran said at his burial. “He was always concerned about others. He was a man of his word. If he said he’d be there, he was there.”

I suppose I would compare myself to my dad more than my mom. I’ve always felt more comfortable in the role of observer than participant. But in recent years I think I’ve evolved into something of an “extroverted introvert” — someone who can speak with confidence in public settings, but yet who also needs solitude and quiet time to reflect and contemplate.

I wish I weren’t quick to anger, but I recognize that tendency and hope to do something about it in the new year. Seems pretty certain to land on my list of new year’s resolutions.

Best to cut things off right here, but with a nod of thanks to Lise Funderburg and her stable of writers for taking a great idea and executing at a high level. Reading that collection of essays was truly one of the year’s highlights for me.

A fantastic fall

Final exams are done and official grades have been submitted in all three of my classes. I’m done with the fall quarter at Portland State University and looking to make the most of the winter break.

Under the teaching contract I signed for this academic year, that means one down, two to go. In other words, make it through the winter and spring terms and I’ll be done in June, ready to retire — although “retire” comes with an asterisk that I’ll explain below.

First things first.

Last Thursday felt like I had reached the peak of the proverbial roller coaster. That morning I gave my last final exam, and I’d already finished grading final essays the day before, so I took time to unwind.

Somehow, I squeezed in a massage, a meal out, a museum visit and an at-home movie — all in that same day.

It was a stroke of genius to schedule a massage right after the final exam. I came home rested and relaxed, then Lori and I went downtown to a Chinese restaurant for an early meal. From there, we headed to the Portland Art Museum to catch the final day of a special exhibit focusing on photography, advertising, and modern art and their role in perpetuating stereotypical images and ideas mostly pertaining to African Americans.

The exhibit, titled “Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal,” features the work of Thomas, a Brooklyn-based conceptual artist whose individual pieces and overall perspective I found both provocative and at times dazzling.

We viewed the exhibit at a leisurely pace and, upon arriving home, realized we had time for a movie, too. Popped in a DVD and enjoyed “On Chisel Beach,” a British film about a young couple whose seemingly idyllic romance runs into complications on their wedding night. Saorise Ronan, whom you may know from “Brooklyn” and “Lady Bird” stars as the young bride.

***

As for this fall, I did the usual: taught Media Literacy and supervised students in the Communication Department’s online internship course. I added a third course, Media Ethics, which meant I had a full-time teaching load for the first time at Portland State. Accepting the FT job here meant I had to give up teaching part-time at a second campus, Washington State University Vancouver.

It was a fine tradeoff. I moved into a larger office with a window, leaving behind a cramped, windowless space. I was able to hold regular office hours, made new connections with faculty outside my department, and even found time to attend a couple of lectures given by other professors.

By attending monthly meetings of Comm faculty, I learned more about campus politics and budget issues and the frustrations of working within the university’s bureaucracy.

In the classroom, it was all good. We had lively discussions about media ownership, real news vs. fake news, misinformation (honest mistakes) vs. disinformation (intentional deceit), ethical decision-making, credibility, transparency, social media influencers, native advertising, diversity in storytelling, and the intersection of entertainment, marketing and viral content, as seen in the “Baby Shark Live!” phenomenon.

Once again, I marveled at the diversity of PSU’s student body, with about one-third of my students coming from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds and a dozen foreign-born students in one class alone.

In addition, the LGBTQ community is well represented, as are as non-traditional students (mid-20s or older), first-generation students, transfer students, veterans, and native-born Oregonians from rural, urban and suburban communities. Most work part-time while going to school, some at more than one job.

As one example, my teaching assistant in Media Literacy grew up in Estacada and now lives in Molalla. He’s majoring in Applied Health and Fitnesss with a minor in Communication. In addition to a part-time job as a personal trainer, he coaches the girls’ wrestling team at his alma mater.

I’ve lined up TAs for the next two terms and that makes me happy.

***

My next challenge? Here’s where the asterisk gets explained.

I’m fully invested in recruiting enough students to join me in a new study-abroad adventure. My hope is to take along 10-12 students to Berlin, Germany, next summer for a class titled “Sports, Culture and the Media.” I’ve taught the course many times before at WSU Vancouver but never at PSU.

Why Berlin? Good question.

I would have been happy to return to London for a third year in a row to teach Media Literacy. But the Education Abroad staff I’ve worked with in the Office of International Affairs asked me one day, “George, have you thought about teaching another course in another city?”

I hadn’t. But once I realized all it would take is proposing a course, producing a syllabus and pitching it to my department chair, as I did with London, I was in.

At this writing, five students have started their applications. I’m excited but also a bit nervous about reaching the minimum number of 10. There’s still plenty of time to meet that goal, and I have faith that things will work out. Just hope it happens sooner than later.

I considered other European destinations but settled on Berlin because of its unique experience with regard to the 1936 and 1972 Olympics Games, its status as a soccer powerhouse, the doping scandals that characterized East Germany, and the country’s unique history during the 20th Century.

We’ll see how things play out.