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.

London Stories: Dover

Earlier this month, Americans celebrated Veterans Day, an observance that originated as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I.

One hundred years after the first Veterans Day, I found my thoughts skimming across the Atlantic Ocean to the southeastern coast of England and the humble little town of Dover.

During my second summer of teaching abroad, I had the opportunity to take a day trip from London. I considered my options and chose Dover for two reasons: One, the city is home to the world-famous White Cliffs of Dover and, two, I wanted to learn more about the community’s role in World War II.

I wasn’t disappointed on either count.

***

The White Cliffs are part of an 8-mile-long ridge of chalk hills along the English coastline facing the Strait of Dover and France. They don’t make the list of Seven Wonders of the World, but that doesn’t mean they are any less impressive.

From Dover, you can walk along a national trail that takes you up and above the seaport town, providing stunning views of the Strait as well as a path leading to Dover Castle, an 11th century fortress where the Brits first housed troops and equipment in a complex of barracks tunnels during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). During World War II, the tunnels were converted first into an air-raid shelter and then later into a military command center and underground hospital. Amazing.

You’re only 21 miles from the European continent when you’re in Dover. With the naked eye, I could barely make out the distant coastline.

I was captivated during the few hours I spent there, touring the city on foot and meeting a few people. I vowed to learn more and bought myself a book written by a couple of locals: “Dover in the Second World War.” (More on that later. Bear with me as I share more on one day in Dover.)

***

I left London’s Victoria Station early on a Sunday for a relaxing train rise that would take me about 67 miles east in roughly 90 minutes, allowing for several stops along the way. I brought along a book and a journal, looking up occasionally to catch glimpses of the pastoral countryside once we got beyond the city.

Arriving at mid-morning, I joined a gaggle of other passengers walking toward the center of Dover. The town had a working class feel, with mom-and-pop restaurants, tattoo shops, discount variety stores, and posters slapped onto walls and telephone poles advertising a pro wrestling event.

Near the town center, there was a church with an adjoining cemetery on the main street. It was St. Mary’s Church, one of several that would be mentioned in the book I bought. Nearby, the central plaza known as Market Square had a visitors center and museum, where I began to appreciate the historic significance and geographic vulnerability of Dover to invading armies over the centuries. During WWII, Market Square was bombed relentlessly.

From there, I headed to the seafront, where I observed new construction alongside older residential buildings, dipped my hands in the seawater at Harbour Beach, and met a young couple out for a walk on the esplanade with their charming niece.

I made my way to the White Cliffs, passing through a picturesque neighborhood and soon found myself among a passel of international visitors on the national trail.

The hike was an easy one along dirt trails and I welcomed the quiet after a week of being in London. Afterwards, I sought out a policewoman to ask for the best fish-and-chips place in town, only to discover it was closed. I settled for a tasty lunch of roast lamb that I consumed at an outdoor table as I watched townspeople and visitors alike pass by on Cannon Street.

I would have liked to stay longer but with time running short, I bought myself the aforementioned book and headed to the train station.

***

Back in Portland after the end of my study-abroad program, I, ahem, dove into the Dover book. I loved it.

At just 147 pages, co-authors Terry Sutton and Derek Leach do a masterful job of describing the hell-on-earth that Dover residents experienced during the Second World War. Though I’ve been exposed to stories of wartime loss in Britain and other countries, I have to say, somewhat sheepishly, that I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of death and destruction until I read this account.

Drawing on the first-hand descriptions of survivors, as well as newspaper accounts and historical archives, Sutton and Leach vividly recreate the terror of those times. And the assault was staggering.

Beginning in July 1940 and continuing for the next four years, 2,226 shells landed on the town of Dover with many more in the harbour waters, in the Dover Strait and in the nearby countryside. In addition, around 464 high-explosive bombs, 1,100 fire bombs, three highly damaging parachute mines and three V1 flying bombs dropped within the town’s boundaries.

No wonder, the authors said, Dover became known throughout the world as “Hellfire Corner.”

Dover’s population fell from about 40,000 in early 1939 to an estimated 12,000 in 1940-41 before some of those who evacuated began to drift back to the town. Imagine a similar-sized community in Oregon — Lake Oswego, Keizer or Oregon City — sustaining that kind of damage and losing two-thirds of its population.

Owing to its location, Dover had felt the wrath of war before, going back to the days of Roman invaders and up to World War One, when German planes dropped bombs on the town and enemy destroyers in the English Channel shelled the city.

King George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill both visited Dover during WWII as regular troops and reservists arrived in the port city in the early days of the war. As the fighting grew more fierce, schoolchildren were evacuated to the west to South Wales, and town councilors feared the city and its remaining shopkeepers would go bankrupt.

In 1941, Dover played a huge role in the evacuation of 338,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk. The majority of them — 220,000 — were landed at Dover’s western docks, and local hospitals were swamped by hundreds of badly injured soldiers and sailors. So many died that mass graves had to be dug at the town-owned cemetery.

The book is filled with black-and-white photographs showing before and after shots of bombed-out buildings as well as soldiers, civilians and children. What’s especially haunting is reading the names of ordinary people who were perished in the attacks.

One of the worst incidents came in 1941 when a parachute mine floated down onto a row of working-class homes, causing 16 deaths.

The authors soberly reported: “Those who were killed were Mr. and Mrs. John Willis, their sons Horace and Brian, their 16-year-old daughter, Vera; and a married daughter, Hilda Mills (six out of the seven in the family); Mr. and Mrs. Fred Moore and their two-month-old son, Frederick, and Minyon Elise (aged four); Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Cock; Doris Smith (aged three), and Charlie Talbot, whose wife Minnie died in Maidstone Hospital three weeks later from her injuries. The damage was so bad that more than forty houses on Randolph Road and Union Road had to be demolished.”

Every other page, it seems, there is a similar listing of three people killed here, five people there, 10 soldiers perishing in combat.

Reading about the pummeling that Dover took during both World Wars, and especially the Second, made me appreciate the resilience of the city and its people. To walk those streets in the present day, knowing that 70-plus years earlier they had been bombed into oblivion, is to behold the legacy of unbelievably courageous people who’ve rebuilt their city by the sea.

Dover’s population today is about 30,000. It’s almost beyond my ability to imagine a time when nearly every day brought air-raid sirens, low-flying planes and devastating shells.

As best as I can tell, nearly 500 civilians died in Dover and nearby towns and another 2,500 were injured, according to a tally by the volunteer-run Dover War Memorial Project. Never again will I join in honoring America’s armed forces without thinking of this scrappy little city on the other side of the ocean.

Southern California Dreaming: Romance and Reality

There’s nothing like a romantic wedding and a well-thrown reception to bring people together in the best of ways. At least, that was my takeaway following our visit to Southern California last weekend.

We hadn’t been to that part of the state for a while, so it was nice to get away and make the most of a few hours at a local nature park and beach access point. But the real reason for going was a special occasion.

My best friend’s daughter was getting married on Nov. 16th, and Lori and I were invited to join in the crosscultural celebration.

On one side, Nicole Lee-Rodriguez, the only child of our friends Al and Elizabeth, who’s grown up in Santa Barbara with parents of Mexican and Anglo heritage. On the other side, Andrew Myung, the oldest son in a family of Korean immigrants who’ve settled in Orange County.

They got married on a Saturday afternoon at Calamigos Ranch, a beautiful venue tucked away in a canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains a few miles inland from Malibu. The outdoor wedding was lovely, with chandeliers hanging from the trees, a string trio playing soothing music, and heartfelt vows that left no doubt these two young people were meant for each other.

Andrew was tearing up even before the first groomsman and bridemaid made their way up the aisle. Nicole looked radiant and relaxed. The groom’s two grandmothers were the scene-stealers, though, as “flower grandmas.” They wore colorful, traditional garments, carried woven baskets and tossed rose petals onto the ground, bringing smiles from everyone.

The reception was fun. How could it not be with an open bar, a sitdown dinner and good company at our table? The DJ kept people on the dance floor for hours — including Lori, who busted a move with the best of them and kept me out there for all but a handful of songs.

***

On the front end of things, our experience wasn’t quite what we had envisioned. We arrived on a Thursday about 5 pm, just in time to join rush-hour traffic on a 90-minute ride from LAX to our hotel in Westlake Village.

We had imagined we’d be closer to Malibu, where we imagined we’d be able to walk along the oceanfront and do some window shopping at local businesses in the central business district. Well, there really is no center. Malibu stretches out for 21 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway.

When we took a Lyft car to the oceanfront community, we were dropped off at the Malibu Country Mart, a boutique shopping mall consisting of high-end clothing and souvenir shops with eyepopping prices. There was a cool art gallery, a Starbucks and a Chipotle, but other than that it felt like I’d wandered into an exhibit of conspicuous consumption.

I don’t know why I wasn’t better prepared. I mean, the freeways leading to Malibu and nearby cities were lined with BMW, Porsche and Ferrari dealerships. And Calabasas itself is home to the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Drake, among others.

Thank goodness we discovered an asphalt path on one side of the mall that led us into a nature park dedicated to improving water quality, restoring native riparian habitat, and preserving open space. The 15-acre project is known as Legacy Park and it was a welcome respite from the Country Mart’s dedication to consumerist capitalism.

We enjoyed the peace and quiet along with the cartoonish figures of a coyote, an owl, a king snake and other critters scattered throughout the park. Little did I know this area was so arid.

Once we were done there, we crossed the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu Lagoon State Beach, where Malibu Creek meets the Pacific Ocean.

Once again, reality proved different than what I imagined. In place of wide-open beaches populated by visitors from around the world, there were several luxury homes literally built onto the sand, a solitary lifeguard shack, and lots of shorebirds on the small spit of sand we were able to walk on.

Don’t get me wrong. It was calm and I enjoyed the view of the lagoon, but it was hardly the postcard scene I had imagined.

***

Sunday morning came, bringing with it a chance to take a run in the residential neighborhood near the hotel and an opportunity to chat with Al about the wedding as he drove us to LAX for a mid-afternoon flight.

Lori and I both grew up in and near San Francisco, so I had something of a rose-colored view of Los Angeles and its environs as an adolescent. But as someone who’s lived in Oregon now for more than 40 years, the place holds little attraction other than to visit. Yeah, L.A.’s got some great fish tacos, but I’ll take Portland’s eclectic personality, bodacious food and beer, and change of seasons anytime.

Lady power on a Friday night

The muititalented Clara Baker in the lobby of the Alberta Rose Theatre.

Lori and I had second-row seats in the cozy Alberta Rose Theatre last night as we watched Portland native Clara Baker and her band Five Letter Word knock out an hourlong set during an evening of excellent music and beautiful harmonies.

Clara is a musical prodigy who plays guitar and fiddle, sings and writes songs, and someone we’ve known since she was a baby. (Her brother Marshall, an equally talented musician based in New Orleans, went to preschool with our youngest son, so we’ve known them and their parents, Greg and Rebecca, for almost 30 years.)

It was Clara’s mom and dad who invited us to Friday’s show, just days after they had joined me at a Liz Longley concert on the other side of town while Lori was out of town. And, boy, were we in for a thoroughly enjoyable evening of versatile musicianship and dazzling harmonies. .

Five Letter Word was the opening act in a show headlined by a Portland-area duo, Beth Wood and Ara Lee James, who perform as Stand and Sway and were celebrating the release of a new album.

Between the two bands, we heard folk, Americana and bluegrass and a couple of songs with a hint of gospel, thanks to James’ soulful voice. Each group did an a capella song that was just breathtaking. And when they all took the stage together during a couple of songs, well, it was pretty amazing to see all that female talent on display.

Five Letter Word takes its name from the unlikely fact that all three band members have five letters in their first and last names. In addition to Clara, there’s Leigh Jones on guitar, percussion and vocals and Audra Nemir on upright bass and vocals.

All three are songwriters and the music they produce is truly greater than the sum of their parts. (Check out Willamette Week’s review of their CD, “Siren” here.)

Jones has a striking soprano voice that reminds me of Alison Krauss. Nemir lays down the beat and brings great energy. In fact, she ended the set by climbing on top of her instrument while still playing it.

And Clara? Well, she does it all, and joined Stand and Sway for a song that highlighted her fiddling. She’s toured nationally, most recently in California, as a solo artist as well as in duos and trios, and has released a couple of CDs of her own.

We would have been happy had the evening begun and ended with Five Letter Word. But things went to another level when Beth Wood and Ara James came on out for their own set.

With 20 years of touring and 11 studio albums to her credit, the Texas-raised Wood also is an accomplished songwriter and poet. Her second book of poetry, Ladder to the Light, won the 2019 Oregon Book Awards Readers’ Choice Award — a remarkable achievement in a city full of writers. She plays guitar and piano and sings beautifully.

James, raised in Tennessee, has been singing professionally for over 20 years as a soloist and studio vocalist. If I had closed my eyes, I’d have imagined someone like Annie Lennox or Florence Welch. Together, the two have a lovely sound that’s been described as “gospel-infused folk.”

Oh, and did I mention their lyrics reflect their politics?

The first single they put out together was “Nasty Woman,” titled after the comment Donald Trump made about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. What was intended as a slur became an anthem for the pair and the subject of a video that you can see here.

We left the theatre on a musical high, grateful to know that both of these bands perform locally as well as throughout the Pacific Northwest. With any luck, we’ll see them again. Separately or together, either one will be fine.