Grateful for this day, grateful for this life

Today is the first Monday of the new year and it’s still dark outside at 7 a.m. The garbage trucks have come by, a couple of bicyclists have cruised past in their rain gear, and the heat just kicked on to warm our home on another chilly day in the Pacific Northwest.

In the early morning quiet, it’s a good time to set down thoughts about my 2022 resolution: to be grateful.

Grateful for what? And to whom?

That remains to be seen. But that is the challenge I’m embracing, thanks in part to a birthday gift I received a week ago.

It’s a “grateful journal,” featuring a red-orange cover, more than a hundred blank pages, and lots of prompts to keep me writing throughout the year. I’m encouraged to write about the people I am grateful for — people who’ve inspired me and helped me what I am — and to make note each day of three things I’m grateful for.

Coincidentally, I’d been leaning in this direction as I gave thought to my new year’s resolution.

In prior years, I’d resolved to eat better, drink more water, spend less time on social media, and spend more time outdoors. As a new retiree, I even vowed to reclaim my Fridays as a day for R&R, whether it be an afternoon matinee, meeting a friend for coffee or taking a long neighborhood walk with Charlotte, our lovable little dog.

Last year, I didn’t make a pledge — and I suspect I wasn’t alone. Recall that we began 2021 in the throes of the pandemic, still months away from wide availability of free, life-saving vaccines.

But now, with those jabs in the arm providing greater peace of mind and a gradual return to normal life, I’m more inclined to approach 2022 with a more positive mindset.

***

During the past year, I’ve expessed to my wife and several friends that I’ve tended to see life as a glass half-empty rather than half-full. It’s been a struggle at times to be optimistic about where this country is headed given the stark, ever-growing chasms in this country. Everywhere I look, I see impatient drivers, rude customers, signs of poverty and neglect, and too few instances of empathy and simple politeness.

I think about the world we are bequeathing to our children and everyone else who comes after: soaring housing prices, the proliferation of guns in our society, a preoccupation with online content and virtual reality at the expense of human interaction, and, above all, a failure to take climate change seriously.

That’s just a partial list, but it’s plenty to justify a gloomy attitude.

And yet…

There’s also good reason to look at things more positively.

Lori and I are in good health, physically and mentally, and committed to each other more than after 46 years of marriage. We share the same values and same joy in looking at how our three children and their spouses and partners are navigating the changes in their lives.

We live in a still-beautiful city, in a comfortable home with reliable utilities. We have friends all over the city; books, music and TV to keep us informed and entertained; fresh food to keep us nourished; and the means to do some travel this year.

In other words, there’s a lot for which to be grateful, to see the beauty and hope in everyday life. To appreciate a bird at the feeder, a stranger’s smile, a random act of kindness.

Starting today, I’ll commit to expressing that thanks regularly in my “grateful journal.” And from time to time, I expect I’ll share some of those same things here on this blog.

2021: Staying active, staying hopeful

George and Lori on the dining deck at Big T’s Grill in Stevenson, Washington, in April. We celebrated our 46th anniversary in September.

After the lost year of 2020, when everything slammed to a halt because of COVID-19, I was hoping that 2021 would bring us back to some semblance of normalcy.

We moved forward in some ways, thanks primarily to the arrival of the vaccines and reopening of the economy. With two jabs and a booster, I felt pretty comfortable going out and doing pretty much whatever I wanted — within reason and often still with a mask on. This allowed a return to indoor dining, basketball games and bowling, in-person college classes, and socializing in other people’s homes.

But we also spun our wheels, and even moved back a step or two, when you consider what happened around the country this year: The Jan. 6 insurrection; the efforts by Republican lawmakers to curtail abortion rights and voting access; the enormous cultural divides over racial issues, scientific expertise, cancel culture, and easy access to guns.

We’re not there yet but I’m hoping 2022 will bring us closer to a state of normal and — dare I express it — a return to common sense and shared values as Americans.

Looking back on 2021, I find much for which to be grateful. Broadly speaking, this involved some travel, some live entertainment, new chapters in lifelong learning, and the pleasure of curling up with books and other media. I cultivated new and continuing friendships, welcomed surprising developments involving our three adult children and, not least, celebrated wedding anniversary No. 46 with my sweetheart, Lori.

Here’s a look back at the year’s highlights:

The retired life: Year two of the pandemic brought many of the same activities. For Lori, gardening, knitting, playing the cello, long neighborhood walks, and reading — lots of reading. For me, cycling, running, hiking, cooking and a return to bowling. Thanks to a neighborhood friend, I’m now part of a regular Monday morning seniors group that bowls in suburban Milwaukie.

Travel: Newly vaccinated, Lori and I broke out of our cave in April with a relaxing two-night stay at Carson Hot Springs near Stevenson, Wash., in the Columbia River Gorge. We flew to central New York in May, where we visited our son Jordan, daughter-in-law Jamie, and granddaughter Emalyn; while there, we made a very enjoyable side trip to Cooperstown to see the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Other trips took us to the Sou’wester vintage trailer park on the Long Beach, Washington, peninsula, and to two spots on the Oregon Coast — Winema Beach and Manzanita — to hang with our longtime friends Tom and Elsa Guiney and Steve and Kelly Kern, respectively.

And then there was California. When I opted out of attending my 50th high school reunion in October, it opened up the opportunity to visit cousins in Salinas and Seaside, see the Monterey Bay Aquarium and tour the National Steinbeck Center. We also visited with Lori’s childhood friends in San Francisco, her older brother Bob and his wife, Darlene, in Los Gatos; and one of her cousins in Santa Cruz.

Hiking: This deserves a category of its own, considering that I branched out from my previous urban hikes to a new focus on suburban hikes. I checked out routes in Hillsboro (Orenco Woods, Jackson Bottom Wetlands), Lake Oswego (Nansen Summit Park) and Happy Valley (Mount Talbert) — and on three occasions had to return to the same park or location to finish seeing everything.

Friends: With all of our neighbors and friends vaxxed and boosted, we had little hesitation socializing at our local dog park, in coffee shops, restaurants and backyards; in our home and others’ residences. And when distance was an obstacle, we relied on Zoom. We maintained our trans-Atlantic friendship with Anna, an aspiring actress in London, and I kept in touch with Jina, a novelist living near Ramallah, Palestine. Both contributed essays to my Voices of August guest blog project.

Milestones: Speaking of VOA, this year marked the 10th iteration of that annual project. Once again, I delighted in the variety and quality of the submissions, marveled at the intelligence and empathy reflected in reader comments on the essays, and took great pleasure seeing so many writers and followers come together at our meetup on a Saturday afternoon at a Portland brewpub. A second milestone came earlier in the year on March 1st when I marked my 12th year of blogging — something I started when I taught my first weekend class at Portland State University.

VOA 2021 writers, from left: David Quisenberry, Lakshmi Jagannathan, Kristen Mira, Tim Akimoff, George Rede, Kathleen Bauer, Jennifer Brennock, John Killen and Eric Scharf. Not pictured: Nike Bentley, Eric Wilcox.

Music: For the second year in a row, our plans to see Steely Dan and Steve Winwood in concert were put on hold. Hopefully, the show comes off as scheduled in May. In November, we got to see a favorite indie artist, Mayer Hawthorne, at the Wonder Ballroom. He puts on a great show, with his retro R&B sound and great visuals, featuring a colorful wardrobe and a kick-ass all-woman band on guitar, bass and keys.

Entertainment: Can’t complain too much about the lack of live music because we got to see an exciting performance by NW Dance Project at the Newmark Theatre and take in a richly satisfying evening of storytelling via The Moth Mainstage at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Like everyone else, we plead guilty to watching a lot of streaming television. I’m sure I’m forgetting something but among our favorite TV series were these. Ted Lasso, Pose, Mare of Easttown, Bloodline, You, Dopesick, Love on the Spectrum. Favorite movies included: Summer of Soul, The Father, Promising Young Woman, Little Girl, Writing With Fire.

From left, Mj Rodriguez, Billy Porter and Angel Bismark Curiel in “Pose.” (Credit: Eric Liebowitz/FX)

Podcasts: Building off on the highly entertaining Dolly Parton’s America series, I discovered This Sounds Serious, a three-season gem featuring a fictional journalist whose obsession with 9-1-1 calls leads her to investigate true crimes, and Dead Eyes, starring Connor Ratliff, an actor/comedian who tries to solve a mystery that’s haunted him for two decades: why Tom Hanks fired him from the small role he’d landed in “Band of Brothers.” I need to make more time for a new program or two in 2022.

Books: As a lover of the written word, I continue trying my best to read new authors and open myself up to different genres. This year, I read 22 books for pleasure and 9 more in two classes at Portland State. Among the best: Homeland Elegies (Ayad Akhtar), American War (Omar El Akkad), Nomadland (Jessica Bruder), White Tiger (Aravind Adiga), The Final Revival of Opal & Nev (Dawnie Walton), Homelands (Alfredo Corchado), The Round House (Louise Erdrich), When The Emperor Was Divine (Julie Otsuka) and The Mothers (Brit Bennett).

Lifelong learning: I continued to soak up all I could through Portland State’s Senior Adult Learning Center (SALC) program, which allows seniors to audit classes at little or no charge. During the winter term, I absolutely loved Arab American Literature with Diana Abu-Jaber, a novelist who splits her time between Portland and Florida. Standout books included a novel, Towelhead (Alicia Erian), a memoir, Tasting the Sky (Ibtisam Barakat), and a collection of poetry, E-mails from Scheherazad (Mohja Kahf). After the class ended, I went on to read and enjoy two books by my professor, Crescent and Life Without a Recipe.

I got greedy during the spring term. Took Chicano History with Marc Rodriguez and African History Through Women in Film with Jennifer Tappan. The first one was outstanding and moved me to my core several times, as I learned more about my people’s history and hardships. The second one had potential but I’ll confess that I lost momentum during the week we were visiting Jordan and family in New York. Still, I came away with great appreciation for Rafiki, a lesbian film that in 2019 became the first Kenyan film to debut at the Cannes Film Festival, even though it was banned at home, where homosexuality is still against the law.

In the fall, I got back on track with a return to in-person instruction. Thoroughly enjoyed the class, the Jewish American Experience in Film, and the professor, Michael Weingrad. Most, but not all, the films were engaging; more importantly, I learned so much about Jewish immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and how succeeding generations have adapted, largely successfully, to life in America.

Family: Last but not least, the Rede munchkins. The last three months of the year brought a triple whammy.

In October, Nathan moved with his girlfriend, Erin, to Colorado Springs to be closer to her family and friends. Erin grew up there and hers recently widowed father lives there, as does one of her two sisters, with husband and four kids. So far, so good, with new jobs for both and a much larger, more affordable apartment than they had in Portland.

In November, Simone let us know of plans she’s made to potentially advance her career as a professional auditor. She’s worked for the Secretary of State’s Audits Division in Salem and the Metro regional government in Portland, and has her sights set on a new opportunity. My lips are sealed for now, but it’s pretty exciting to look forward to in the new year. At home, Simone continues to enjoy life with her wife Kyndall. We’re thrilled to participate in their annual backyard hotdog party, a highlight of our social calendar.

In December, Jordan surprised with us with the news that he and his family are moving back to Oregon. Evidently, he’s able to complete his Ph.D program in marine microbiology remotely, with only an occasional trip back to Cornell. They are putting their home up for sale next month and plan to hit the road with a moving van and the family car in mid-January. I’ll fly back there to help with last-minute packing and driving across the country.

They will live outside Medford, initially with Jamie’s parents, on the ranch where she grew up. Hoping for a safe trip and a nice transition back to the West Coast. Jordan estimates it will take about 1.5 to 2 years to complete his degree. After that, most likely comes a post-doctorate program who knows where. It’ll be nice to have them in Oregon, for the first time in their married life, after having resided in Texas, Washington, Missouri and New York.

And that, folks, is a wrap. Gonna stay active, gonna stay hopeful in 2022.

Under the streets of London

Left to my own devices, I never would have put the book “Neverwhere” on my reading list. I’m drawn to fantasy novels about as much as I am to Broadway musicals — which is to say, not all.

I’m more a fan of contemporary fiction, particularly works that shine a light on history, culture, and family dynamics.

Fortunately, however, we book lovers are connected on many levels. And sometimes we come together in serendipitous ways, almost if directed by an unseen hand.

Here’s what happened with “Neverwhere”:

Two years ago, a friend in San Diego (yes, you, Ioana Patringenaru) sent me a book as a thank-you for a one I’d sent to her as part of my periodic book giveaways. (The next giveaway is coming up in January, so keep your eyes peeled). I’d invited Ioana to send me anything she liked and she chose “Neverwhere,” a fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman, an author I didn’t know.

The book was pretty thick, so I resolved to set it aside until I had a good chunk of time to devote to it. And there it sat on my bookshelf until this month, when I vowed to read it during the winter break at Portland State.

Well, guess what?

The book was well-written and held my interest.

First and foremost, it’s because the novel takes place in London Below and London Above — two parallel worlds existing below and above ground in Britain’s capital city. I spent the summers of 2018 and 2019 in London, teaching a study-abroad course, and by riding The Tube every day, I became familiar with much of the city. When Gaiman mentioned Earl’s Court, where I lived and taught both summers, I was charmed. And when he mentioned Hammersmith, Blackfriars, Kensington, Oxford Street, Leicester Square, Pancras Station and more, I had an idea of where things were taking place. Ioana knew all this in choosing the book for me.

Traveling on The Tube gave me a sense of place as I read “Neverwhere.”

Secondly, I set aside my prejudices and let myself become absorbed in the fantastical tale that Gaiman was telling. Under the streets of London, there exists an entirely separate world — unseen to most who live in conventional London, but very real to an assortment of characters who’ve fallen through the cracks.

This is a magical place populated by monsters, murderers and an angel gone bad; by monks, noblemen and “rat-speakers,” those who translate the rodents’ squeaks into their wishes and commands. This is a place where doors and staircases lead to surprising and sinister places; where brilliant light exists along with darkness; where survival in the midst of uncertainty and frequent danger demands cunning, courage and alliances with fellow travelers.

Turns out this story has been around for 25 years.

“Neverwhere” originally appeared as a BBC television series in 1996, devised by Gaiman and two collaborators. Gaiman adapted the series as a novel that same year, and an audiobook version was released in 2013. The illustrated version of the book that I read (2016) features the author’s preferred text as well as drawings by Chris Riddell that helped me visualize the story.

And what a story it is.

***

Richard Mayhew is a Scotsman in London, leading an ordinary life as a businessman, somewhat bored with his routine, but recently engaged to Jessica, a beautiful and ambitious young woman who’s surely going places. They are headed to dinner one night to meet Jessica’s boss when they come upon a body crumpled on the pavement.

It’s a young girl, her face crusted with dirt and her clothes smeared with blood. Jessica urges Richard to keep going, as they are running late and surely someone else will come along to help. But Richard balks, seeing the girl is hurt, and insists on helping. The girl’s eyes are wide and scared, as if she is being pursued, and she asks him not to take her to a hospital. Richard picks her up, still bleeding and smelling quite badly, and takes her back to his flat for her to rest.

This chance encounter changes everything.

The morning after, the girl is greatly recovered and sends her rescuer to find a mysterious ally, the Marquis de Carabas, who can help her. Richard finds himself clambering down a metal ladder set into a wall beneath an open manhole cover and transported into a subterranean world where the girl is being hunted by a pair of assassins. The girl is an orphan and her name is Door. Not Doreen, just Door.

From there, the story takes off.

Richard finds himself navigating a new reality of sewers, tunnels, vampires and beasts, and struggling to make sense of it all. As the story plays out, there’s plenty of action — deadly battles, narrow escapes, acts of bravery, etc. — and Richard finds himself growing fond of Door and aware of a sense of being alive that he didn’t feel in London Above.

Eventually, Richard emerges above ground, wondering if he imagined everything that happened to him, and visualizing where the rest of his life might go if he followed a conventional path. He’d meet a new girlfriend, get married, get another promotion, have two kids, move out to the suburbs.

Or, he could find a way back to London Below. A place where he could trade in the comforts of life for an existence where he sees and feels things deeply, where intense adventures and newly forged friendships have more appeal than the blandness of safety and routine.

One fantasy novel isn’t going to change my reading tastes. But I’m starting to see the appeal of the genre. I can appreciate the vivid imagination it takes to create so many characters and a storyline that keeps a reader curious to see what happens next. I tip my hat to Neil Gaiman and to my friend, Ioana, for introducing me to a version of London I never would have known about otherwise.

Last word: Neil Gaiman will be on tour in April and May of 2022. His West Coast dates include Seattle, Eugene, San Francisco, San Diego (Ioana!) and Los Angeles. Details are here: Where’s Neil?.

These boots were made for walking

Following my most recent nature park outing a couple weeks ago, I faced an obvious reality: my hiking boots were toast.

They were size 11, Coleman brand, low-top, with leather uppers and waffle soles.

They’d served me a long time over the years, in two states, on varied terrain, in wet and dry weather, on solo hikes and on walks with Lori and other family members — plus two faithful dogs, Otto and Charlotte.

Lori and Charlotte take a break during a walk around Eagle Lake.

I honestly can’t remember when or where I bought them — either at a sporting goods store near Tacoma or in Washington’s San Juan Islands — but I do know I used them extensively over the years on Orcas Island and later here in the Portland area.

We owned a cabin on Orcas Island for 13 years and during virtually every visit, Lori and I would hike somewhere. Often, it was Obstruction Pass State Park to enjoy the solitude and view of the bay. Other times, it was around Eagle Lake, Mountain Lake, Cascade Lake or Twin Lakes, featuring magnificent views of pristine water ringed by evergreens.

Occasionally, we got out for longer, more challenging hikes — Turtleback Mountain or up to Mount Constitution, the highest point on the island with an incomparable 360-degree view of the islands, the U.S. mainland and Canada.

After we sold our cabin (reluctantly, but wisely) in 2018, I put the boots to good use on a number of urban hikes that I did following maps and tips found in Laura O. Foster’s terrific book, “Portland Hill Walks.”

I did all 20 hikes in the book, then started branching off into a few suburban hikes that took me into parks, subdivisions and wetlands I hadn’t explored or, in some cases, hadn’t even known about.

These boots went all over the city and then some: to Forest Park, Marquam Nature Park, up to Council Crest, down to Willamette Cove underneath the St. Johns Bridge, out to the Columbia River Gorge, into several Portland neighborhoods, and even through a few cemeteries (still among my favorite hikes).

It never occurred to me to total up the mileage from all these hikes (now, that would be a little obsessive), but I’m sure these boots racked up hundreds of miles and maybe even surpassed one thousand. (OK, probably not.)

What matters more are the memories, as you can see from the photos posted here.

I enjoyed communing with nature, enjoying the fresh air, the peace and quiet, the sounds and sights of assorted birds (including a majestic Great Horned Owl), the companionship with Lori and our dogs and, selfishly, the opportunity to indulge in pure solitude.

Looking at the leather that’s peeled away from the rubber, leaving a gap for moisture to seep in near the toes, it’s obviously time to get rid of these babies. But I do so with an appreciation for the places they’ve taken me and the sure footing they’ve provided.

With a new year just days away, one thing on my to-do list is obvious: buy myself another pair of hiking boots so I can lace ’em up for a new set of adventures.

The Second U.S. Civil War

Clear your mind for a moment and imagine a spring day in the year 2075 — 50-plus years from now.

A 6-year-old girl is sitting on the porch of her family’s home under a clapboard awning in rural Louisiana, not far from the Mississippi Sea. The girl and her twin, their 9-year-old brother and parents live in a corrugated steel container salvaged from a nearby shipyard.

The nation’s longest inland waterway has become a coastal sea, with the river mouth growing broader every year to swallow more and more land. New Orleans is totally submerged.

Florida no longer exists. For that matter, neither does old Anchorage, Alaska. In New Anchorage, it hasn’t snowed in years.

In the Lower 48, rising water levels have forced coastal populations inland, creating friction between longtime residents of the so-called flyover states and new arrivals seeking higher ground.

The federal capital also has moved inland — to Columbus, Ohio.

After years of political and social turmoil, the United States of America has ruptured into all-out civil war. The primary cause? Resistance by secessionist southern states to a ban on the use of fossil fuels anywhere in the United States.

As the war drags on, the northern states come to dominate their southern neighbors in every conceivable way: land mass, population, economic and political clout, and militarily.

The northern states extend all the way to the southern borders of Tennessee and North Carolina. A single entity called the Free Southern State, made up of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, with a greatly diminished Atlanta as its capital, is home to a patchwork of rebel forces. South Carolina exists solely as a quarantine zone, with a massive wall, guard towers and regular patrols to ensure no one sickened by a mysterious virus enters or leaves that forbidden area.

The South’s economy is wrecked and the climate ruined, leaving parched earth and dead trees across the region. Southerners survive only because the North permits humanitarian shipments of food, water, clothing and other supplies from two foreign superpowers, China and the Bouazizi Empire, a collection of formerly failed nations spread across the Middle East and North Africa.

In the midst of this bleak landscape, 6-year-old Sara Chestnut and her family are simply trying to survive.

Two centuries after the first war between the states, the Second American Civil War would begin in 2074 and rage until 2095. The second Civil War will cost 11 million lives, and 100 million more will die from a pandemic set off by an unknown terrorist who sneaked into the Union capital with the seeds of a deadly plague.

Feeling depressed yet?

Map of the United States During the Second Civil War circa 2075 (From the book “American War” by Omar El Akkad)

This dystopian future springs forth from the imagination of Omar El Akkad, a talented author and journalist who was born in Egypt and grew up in Qatar before moving to Canada and graduating from Queen’s University in Ontario. He worked as a reporter at the well-respected The Globe and Mail in Toronto and recently settled in the Portland metro area.

“American War,” published in 2017 and summarized above, is his first novel. His second, “What Strange Paradise,” came out this year.

I bought “American War” at the Portland Book Festival in November, where El Akkad spoke on a panel with two other authors. Earlier this month, I found the time to dive into it.

***

OK, so maybe writing about such a depressing topic isn’t the most uplifting choice two days before Christmas. But, hey, I didn’t plan to finish the book so close to the holiday. And maybe we do need a jolt.

Given everything else we’re dealing with in the real world, I found “American War” to be nothing less than a brilliant piece of fiction, as well as a cautionary tale about where we may be headed, if worse comes to worst. Keep in mind that the book came out during the first year of the Trump presidency.

One reviewer absolutely nailed it:

“Across these scarred pages rages the clash that many of us are anxiously speculating about in [this era]: a nation riven by irreconcilable ideologies, alienated by entrenched suspicions….Both poignant and horrifying.” — Ron Charles of The Washington Post.

“American War” is masterfully plotted, beginning with a narrator’s prologue and two maps of the United States, circa 2075, that serve as a handy reference point for all that follows.

The story unfolds sequentially in four parts, with major events occurring in Louisiana in 2074, in Mississippi in 2081, and in Georgia in 2086 and in 2095. At the end of each chapter is some kind of source document — excerpts from an oral history, congressional testimony, detainee letters, and a War Office compensation ruling — that a historian might use in retelling events.

But the novel revolves around Sara, the young mixed-race girl with dark skin, unruly hair and an inquisitive nature, who grows up to be an intimidating presence, at 6 feet, 5 inches, with a stout physique and shaved head — and revenge on her mind.

Born Sara T. Chestnut, she calls herself Sarat — the result of a kindergarten teacher who accidentally read the girl’s middle initial as the last letter of her first name.

Orphaned along with her two siblings, Sarat is recruited to become a fighter for the southern cause. She becomes an expert shot with a rifle, meets a mysterious man who befriends her, and takes on a mission that will have deadly consequences and profound political repercussions for both the Union and rebel states.

In one scene, Sarat asks this mysterious man, Albert Gaines, why he, born a Northerner, sided with the South when the war came. His response:

“I sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for — be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness — you can agree or disagree, but you can’t call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they’re fighting for, they’ll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day, changes like the weather. I’d had enough of all that. You pick up a gun and fight for something, you best never change your mind. Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind.”

Throughout the book, El Akkad strikes a great balance with so many characters and events in play. Against a desolate backdrop, we see friendships blossom, families torn apart and brought together again.

There are twists and turns in the plot that catch you by surprise, that depress you with descriptions of the desolate South or of physical torture of prisoners, but also stir hope as you read of the relationship between Serat and her young nephew Benjamin.

Omar El Akkad, an Egyptian-Canadian author now living near Portland, Oregon.

El Akkad does a wonderful job laying everything out — the people, the politics, the physical landscape and the National Reunification Summit in Columbus that officially ends the hostilities on July 3, 2095.

And just when you think you’ve gotten through it all, the final chapter sends you back to the beginning, to better understand just who the narrator is in the prologue and how he came to be writing from New Anchorage following the end of the Second Civil War.

“American War” is a great book, one of the best I’ve read all year. I look forward to reading more of Omar El Akkad’s work.

Clear, crisp and ‘crowded’ at Mount Talbert

When I saw the weather forecast at the start of this week, I knew where I wanted to be Tuesday: at Mount Talbert Nature Park, just north of Happy Valley.

I made my first visit to this spot in north Clackamas County about six weeks ago, and made it halfway around the 4-mile Park Loop Trail at the base of the park. I resolved to come back and complete the trail, and Tuesday was the perfect day, as it was the only dry and clear one this week.

Sure enough, it was clear, crisp and “crowded.” That is, if you count sharing a 216-acre park with no more than 20 people in the space of a 2-hour hike. I counted 6 joggers and about 10-12 more people who walked the trails solo or in pairs. All of us were spread out and many times I encountered folks coming toward me, so there was really no congestion at all.

When I visited in early November, I don’t remember seeing more than a handful of people. Then, it was misty and the trails were laden with rain-slickened leaves and rocks. This time, I think the sunny weather was a contributng factor to seeing more people on the trails, along with the fact that I didn’t start my hike until 10:30, an hour later than before.

Mount Talbert Nature Park is easily reached from I-205.

It was 40 degrees on the walk, cool enough that I could see my breath but not so cold as to need gloves. It was also clear, with great visibility in all directions.

I hiked on the western side of the park during my previous visit. This time, I hiked on the eastern half of the park loop and made time to check out a short side trail that led into a nearby subdivision. Descending the path, I could see rooftops, backyards and even a hot tub beyond the ferns and trees. At the trailhead, I had a great view of the green hillsides.

I hiked up to the summit again — 709 feet elevation — and was mildly disappointed by the view. I expected a better reward at the top of an extinct lava dome, but it’s just a small clearing with a pile of limbs and a southerly view dominated by skinny trees.

I kept my head down for much of the walk. Why?

  • Because the first section of the main trail, between the parking lot and the first signpost, has a lot of rocks and tree roots that will trip you up if you aren’t careful.
  • Also, because I like to notice what Mother Nature lays out for me, in terms of contrasting colors, interesting textures and shadows, and geometric angles.

Some of my favorite images from this hike are these:

I’m glad I discovered this park, so easy to get to from my home. I look forward to more exploring of the metro area’s suburban parks in the new year.

Unless I surprise myself, this week’s hike most likely was my last one of 2021.

Another fascinating class: Jewish American Experience in Film

A large number of colleges across the country returned to in-person teaching this fall, and I was delighted when Portland State University joined the crowd.

It made my experience all the better when I signed up for a course called “The Jewish American Experience in Film.” The 10-week class ended earlier this month, and I walked away from it with new knowledge and insights, as well as a growing appreciation for entertainment as a medium to convey important historical themes.

Topol, an Israeli actor, stars in the 1971 film “Fiddler on the Roof” as the patriarch of a Jewish family forced to choose between tradition and change as each of his three eldest daughters enter into marriage.

There were a dozen students enrolled in the class, which met Fridays from 10 am to 1:30 pm (yep, three and a half hours) for discussion and in-class screenings of films that weren’t widely available on YouTube or other streaming services.

The class was taught by Michael Weingrad, a professor of Judaic Studies, who lately has been expanding his teaching to include classes cross-listed in the School of Film.

Weingrad brought expertise, enthusiasm and a sense of humor to the course, along with life experience as a third-generation Jew born and raised on the East Coast. His knowledge of Jewish world history, of Hebrew and some Yiddish, and of Jewish religious beliefs and customs, coupled with extensive study in Israel, informed his lectures and shaped his selection of assigned readings and movies.

We viewed 14 movies during the term, ranging from “Duck Soup” and “Fiddler on the Roof” to “The Way We Were” and “Uncut Gems.” (A complete list comes later in this post.) We took in dramas, comedies and documentaries, highlighting the work of Jewish American directors, screenwriters and actors.

We also watched several clips of other films during class, which helped create an excellent base from which to study this relatively small but highly urbanized and hugely influential group of new Americans, starting in the late 19th century, when Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe was highest. New York City played an outsized role in their lives and, consequently, the setting for many of the films we watched.

As one author noted, practically all Eastern European Jewish immigrants arriving after 1870 through Ellis Island found their way to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The majority stayed within its nucleus – a 20-square-block area where Yiddish was the most commonly spoken language, Yiddish newspapers thrived, and the Yiddish theater provided mass entertainment in the years before motion pictures became popular and widely accessible.

With every film, we could see the conflict between tradition and change, and feel both the love and tension, as older and newer generations confronted the processes of acculturation and assimilation common to all new arrivals and their children.

Together, these films made for a rich narrative as our professor led us through decades of “cinematic representations of the American Jewish story, looking at immigration, Americanization, suburbia, antisemitism, politics, race, faith and nostalgia.”

Previously at Portland State, I learned more about my own heritage and history through a Chicano History course that examined similar issues involving Mexican immigration, discrimination in housing, jobs and education, acculturation, and the fight for civil rights and political representation.

I couldn’t help but be amazed at the contrast between Mexican Americans and Jewish Americans in terms of the latter group’s deep integration into contemporary U.S. culture and society. Though antisemitism remains a real problem, there is no denying American Jews’ educational and professional achievement, their profound influence in the arts and media industries, and high rate of marrying outside their religious and ethnic group.

In short, Jewish Americans turned these dense urban environments of 100 years ago to their advantage by establishing settlement houses and hospitals to care for their own, and enrolling in disproportionate numbers at premier universities like Columbia, Harvard and Yale. The result: highly accomplished people like Streisand, Spielberg, Sondheim, Mailer, Bellow, Steinem and RBG, plus a number of Nobel winners in physics and economics.

In contrast, the Chicano population remains largely spread throughout the West. During the 20th century, Mexicans typically migrated from small towns, did seasonal work on farms and ranches, often returned to their home country, held onto the Spanish language, lacked proximity to top colleges and universities, and had little political clout.

The 1975 film “Hester Street: has the feel of a documentary as it reveals what life was like in the 1890s for Jewish immigrants living on Manhattan’s densely populated Lower East Side.

***

With that said, here’s the list of films we saw:

On our own: Hester Street, Duck Soup, Fiddler on the Roof, The Princess Bride, Gentleman’s Agreement, Avalon, The Way We Were, Town Bloody Hall, The Weather Underground, State and Main, Uncut Gems.

In-class screenings: Next Stop, Greenwich Village; The Heartbreak Kid; Arguing the World.

A few highlights:

Hester Street (1975). This was a black-and-white film that made you think you were watching a documentary of late 19th century immigrant life in the Lower East Side. Joan Micklin Silver’s movie was based on Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novella “Yekl,” a fictional tale of a young Russian Jew eager to transition to a new culture. The newlywed husband, arriving in the U.S. ahead of his wife, has had time to learn English, get a job, and flirt with the girls at dance clubs, and is embarrassed and repulsed when his wife shows up at Ellis Island, looking like a peasant and smelling bad from the long overseas voyage.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971) – I hadn’t seen this universally beloved musical before, directed by Norman Jewison (a non-Jew, btw), so it was interesting to read a Harvard professor’s critique of it as an instance of Hollywood bowing to entertainment values over historical accuracy. As Tevye the Dairyman sees each of his three eldest daughters get married, he disowns the youngest one when she runs off with a Russian Orthodox soldier but then grudgingly accepts the marriage. In essence, Tevye chose assimilation (Fredya’s marriage to a non-Jew) over tradition (unbending loyalty to Jewish culture).

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947).  This film somehow won the Oscar for Best Picture. The story concerns a magazine writer (played by Gregory Peck) who poses as a Jew to research an exposé on the widespread distrust and dislike of Jews in New York City and nearby affluent communities in Connecticut. As a former journalist, I couldn’t help but view the actions of this character as misguided and unethical. Why not spend time with actual Jews who’ve faced actual discrimination and write their stories rather than pretend to be one and present your experiences through the lens of an upper-class white Christian?

Avalon (1990).  Barry Levinson’s tender motion picture is the tale of three generations facing the  challenges of acculturation. As the film’s central character, Sam Krichinsky, a Russian Jew and family patriarch, is in the eye of the cultural storm in Baltimore in the early 1900s. He tries to make sense of random crime (his adult son’s knifing during a robbery), a new language (“can I?” vs. “may I?”), new media (television replacing radio), and a painful name change (his son shortens the surname to Kaye). Lastly, he finds himself as a lonely widower in a retirement home, abandoned by his family.

The Heartbreak Kid (1972). Charles Grodin stars as Lenny, a newlywed on his honeymoon, who begins having doubts about marrying his Jewish wife, after the stunningly beautiful Cybill Shepherd (Kelly) flirts with him on a Florida beach. Lenny’s pursuit of the other woman brings him into sharp conflict with Kelly’s father (played by Eddie Albert), an uptight WASP from Minnesota who has no intention of letting this unsophisticated Jew near his daughter. 

The Way We Were (1973). Barbra Streisand distills the essence of Jewishness into the character of Katie Morosky, a working-class Brooklyn girl who embodies many of the qualities, characteristics and liberal values we’ve come to associate with second-generation Jewish Americans. Young Katie strives to better herself by pursuing a college degree. She throws herself into leftist causes; pays her way through school by waitressing and doing other jobs; and marries a gentile, Hubbell Gardiner, a handsome, athletic, intelligent classmate played by Robert Redford as the epitome of WASP privilege and entitlement. It’s hard to imagine two more opposite characters and socioeconomic arcs. Whereas Hubbell seems to glide through life, as a published author and surrounded by affluent friends, Katie brings a restless energy, steadfast moral principles, and a blunt style of speaking.

The Weather Underground (2002).  Filmmakers Sam Green and Bill Siegel present a broad-based explanation of the radical impulse that drove members of The Weather Underground to bomb multiple buildings as symbols of U.S. imperialism and domestic oppression during the early 1970s.The film is silent on the preponderance of Jews among the leadership cadre of Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground; however, all but one of the six former activists prominently featured in the film identify as Jewish, and the filmmakers are Jewish, too.

Uncut Gems (2019). Adam Sandler is brilliant in this film as Howard Ratner, a jeweler desperately trying to stay one step ahead of assorted debt collectors in the midtown Manhattan diamond district. Howie is a train wreck of a human being, frenetic and foul-mouthed. He cheats on his wife, ignores his kids, snorts coke, gambles on NBA games, and yet is convinced he is someday going to land a big, big bet. Is Howie heroic, tragic or pathetic? He’s all of these. Despite one setback after another, including being beaten and stripped by loan sharks, he remains relentlessly optimistic in pursuit of The Big Win.

In “Uncut Gems,” Adam Sandler plays the role of Howard Ratner, a cheating, conniving New York jeweler trying to land a big bet while stayiang one step ahead of loan sharks.

***

This was the sixth class I’ve taken as an “auditor” since retiring as an adjunct instructor at PSU in mid-2020. Any Oregon resident who is 65 or older can register at little or no cost to audit an undergraduate course, as long as the professor gives their permission. As with each of the previous five classes, this one added yet another piece to the context and understanding I’ve gained about world and U.S. history and of certain racial, ethnic and religious minorities in the United States.

I’ve already mentioned the Chicano history course. Separately, a World History class that I took was instrumental in helping me better understand how the Global North and Global South came to be through the forces of imperialism, colonialism, racism, capitalism and economics.

In addition, studying the history, literature and creative arts of Arab Americans and now Jewish Americans has enhanced what I know about the Middle East and set me up for another class that I plan to take whenever it is offered again: The History of Zionism.

I highly recommend the Senior Adult Learning Center program, known as SALC. Registration is under way now for the 2022 winter term that runs from Jan. 3 through March 13. Follow this link for more information: https://www.pdx.edu/senior-adult-learning-center/

Something old, something new in Clackamas County

Thursday morning brought the opportunity to step back in time but also spring forward into the present, thanks to a former employer, the Portland Workforce Alliance.

The occasion? I signed up to participate in a round of mock interviews with students attending the brand-new Adrienne C. Nelson High School in Happy Valley, a fast-growing community in the North Clackamas School District.

During a 90-minute block of time, I interviewed four students, all juniors in a College and Career Readiness class, for about 12 minutes each. I was one of dozens of adults from various backgrounds who volunteered for this exercise during a week of mock interviews at four high schools across the district.

I’ve done this before, most recently during the spring semester, when all of us had to do this on Zoom. I’ve also participated in college essay writing workshops that PWA does in partnership with select schools that have high numbers of students who are the first in their family to attend college.

Needless to say, the time spent is both gratifying and illuminating, providing a window into the activities and aspirations of today’s teenagers.

This week’s event gave me a chance to get out of the city and into a suburban area I rarely see or think about.

It also gave me a chance to see the changing face of PWA, a nonprofit that does a great job of bringing together employers, educators and volunteers to support high school students and nurture their post-graduation plans and dreams.

Aside from mock interviews and writing workshops, PWA arranges career days, mentorships and an annual expo to introduce students to jobs and careers they might not know about on their own. Much of this effort is directed toward schools with high percentages of low-income or students of color.

I had the privilege of working as communications coordinator for this small but robust organization for a couple years after I left The Oregonian. The part-time work was a nice complement to the college teaching I was doing at two state universities in Portland and Vancouver, Washington.

Sophie Hauth

Susan Nielsen, a former columnist and editorial writer whom I loved working with at The Oregonian, joined PWA in 2014 and serves as its executive director.

And on Thursday, I met her newest hire: Sophie Hauth, a Grant High School graduate and Barnard College alumna, who is now doing the job I once did. She was checking in with volunteers, shooting photos and, undoubtedly, taking notes for social media posts.

***

I drove through light rain and moderate traffic to reach the new high school, named for the first African American woman to serve on the Oregon Supreme Court. The school is situated in a hilly, newly developed area, north of state Highway 212, about 20 miles east of my Portland home.

The campus opened this fall, so everything is spotless, spacious and beautifully furnished.

The four of us volunteers sat at tables on one side of a wide corridor and met students one at a time. The teens came with a resume and potential answers to questions they might be asked about a fictional entry-level job they had researched. We came with work and life experience, and a set of suggested questions we might ask.

Every one of the four students I interviewed was polite, well-groomed and well-prepared — a welcome contrast to the stereotypical young people we often see in movies and TV.

One was a 4.0 student and the other three nearly so, with 3.8 or better GPAs. Collectively, they expressed interest in mechanical engineering, nursing, law enforcement and physical therapy as potential careers.

Their after-school activities include part-time jobs and volunteering at church. Three of the four are play on a school sports team (Go, Hawks!). The one girl I spoke with is captain of the wrestling team. Two of the boys are fluent in other languages — Romanian, Ukrainian and Russian, reflecting their heritage — and one of those is also learning Spanish.

They handled themselves well, conversing with a nice mix of enthusiasm and thoughtfulness. Twelve minutes isn’t much time to go deep on any topic, but I can say these young people made a good first impression.

These days, I’m too often focused on the proverbial glass as half-empty when I should see it as half-full. These four teens gave me something to smile about and a reason to think that maybe I should recalibrate my outlook toward more optimism.

If nothing else, I left with an appreciation for the school spirit behind hallway posters advertising “Pajama Day” and “Dress as Your Favorite 2000 Movie Character!”

A powerful novel evokes the shame of Japanese American internment

With the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor nearly upon us, I consider it a fortuitous decision to pull Julie Otsuka’s debut novel off my bookshelf and dive in.

For some reason, “When the Emperor Was Divine” caught my eye when I was in a bookstore in Ithaca, New York, earlier this year visiting our youngest son, who is studying at Cornell University. I saw there was gushing praise for the book from The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, and two-time Pulitzer-winning author Colton Whitehead, among others.

The author Julie Otsuka (Credit: Robert Bessoir)

I didn’t know of Otsuka, but I was intrigued by her story of an ordinary Japanese American family caught up in extraordinary circumstances during World War II. My curiosity was rewarded big-time.

This slim novel, told in lean, crystalline prose from the perspectives of four members of a family uprooted from their California home, conveyed more about the pain, humiliation and enduring psychological damage felt by internees than any history book I’ve ever read.

By focusing on a single family, Otsuka gives the reader a sense of what some 120,000 Japanese Americans — two-thirds of whom were U.S.-born citizens — went through when they were herded into regional processing centers and then held in incarceration camps in several Western states and as far east as Arkansas.

This is precisely the kind of book I wish I had read in high school or even college. And it is absolutely the kind of book we need now, in the face of efforts to ban the teaching of “critical race theory,” to ensure that today’s students are exposed to true stories about shameful episodes in our nation’s past.

I’m a notoriously slow reader. But I raced through this 144-page gem in just two days. Upon finishing, I was gratified to learn that the book was the 2013 selection for Cornell’s New Student Reading Project, designed to give incoming freshmen a common intellectual experience.

Published in 2002, the novel is on the cusp of turning 20 years old. And I sure hope it’s being widely read by young people in every region of this country.

***

The story begins on a sunny day in Berkeley, California, (the city where I was born) in the spring of 1942.

A young mother, wearing white silk gloves, is returning a book to the library when she sees a sign in a post office window. It’s an Exclusion Order, issued in the aftermath of the deadly attack on Pearl Harbor, advising people of Japanese ancestry that they will soon be relocated and stipulating what they can and cannot bring with them. Where they will go, how long they will stay, what life will be like — all of those are unknowns.

In just five short chapters, Otsuka takes us inside the lives of the woman and her husband and their two children. None of the characters are named and that only makes their story more wrenching. Their anonymity represents the suffering of many.

The woman, 41, is tasked with rounding up the family’s most critical possessions. Her husband has already been spirited away by the authorities and she must decide what stays and what goes into their bulging suitcases. A book? A baseball glove? Face cream? A picture of Jesus? What to do with the family’s aging dog?

As a slow-moving train carries the woman and her children across the Nevada desert, the daughter, 11, tries to comprehend what lies ahead after leaving the white stucco home on a wide street that she grew up in.

Arriving in Utah in late summer, the boy, 7, takes in the new surroundings: “A city of tar-paper barracks behind a barbed-wire fence on a dusty alkaline plain high up in the desert. The wind was hot and dry and the rain rarely fell and wherever the boy looked he saw him: Daddy, Papa, Father, Oto-san. For it was true, they all looked alike.”

Once there, the mother and children would endure stifling heat, scorpions and rattlesnakes, guard towers and bland food, as well as bitterly cold winters, lack of heat, lack of privacy and constant rumors: they would be sterilized, or stripped of their citizenship, or shot or deported to Japan.

Freed after 3 years and 5 months, they return to their Berkeley home to find broken bottles scattered throughout the yard, the juniper hedge unwatered even once by the man who had promised, for a fee, to look over the property in their absence. Inside the musty house: paint peeling from the walls, window frames black with rot, soiled mattresses.

“At school, our new teachers were kind to us, and the students in our classes polite, but at lunchtime they would not sit with us, or invite us to join in their games, and not a single one of our old friends from before…came up to us to say, ‘Welcome back,’ or ‘Good to see you,’ or even seemed to remember who we were.”

Throughout all of this, the family worried about the father. He’d been arrested on the same night of the Pearl Harbor attack, and been held in Lordsburg, New Mexico, in a camp for “dangerous enemy aliens.”

When he is finally released, he is a shell of the man he once was. Jobless, in poor health, seemingly with something always on his mind, he spends more and more time alone in his room, often going to bed early, right after supper.

In the concluding chapter, “Confession,” the father recalls being taken away in his bathrobe and slippers and questioned in a small, windowless room with bright lights. He was scared. Pressured to talk. Pressured to admit what his interrogators wanted to hear.

***

Otsuka has done a marvelous job of infusing her story with humanity. It’s impossible to read this book without grasping the range of emotions — bewilderment, shame, powerlessness, resentment, boredom, despair — that surely ate away at every person, young and old, who was forced to live in these isolated camps during the war.

No doubt, Pearl Harbor was a national tragedy. A total of 2,390 American service members and civilians were killed due to the attack, with almost half perishing on the USS Arizona. But that was the doing of the Japanese government — not of the Issei immigrants and second-generation Nisei who were residing in the U.S. They weren’t the enemy.

It would take more than 40 years after the war for the U.S. government to make amends. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act. The remaining survivors of the relocation camps were sent formal letters of apology and were awarded $20,000 each in restitution.

Otsuka’s book was as gripping as any that I’ve read this year. Born and raised in California, she studied at Yale and pursued a career as a painter for several years before turning to fiction writing at age 30. She received her MFA from Columbia and went on to write a second, well-received novel, “The Buddha in the Attic,” (2011) about a group of young Japanese “picture brides” who sailed to America in the early 1900s to become the wives of men they had never met and knew only by their photographs.

“When the Emperor Was Divine” is based on Otsuka’s own family history: her grandfather was arrested by the FBI as a suspected spy for Japan the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and her mother, uncle and grandmother spent three years in a prison camp in Topaz, Utah. If you can get your hands on it, do it.

Throwback R&B with Mayer Hawthorne

Date night: 75 minutes of upbeat music with Mayer Hawthorne and his band.

Saturday night gave us the chance to enjoy live music for the first time since before the pandemic, and we couldn’t have picked a better venue and artist.

Picture this: Lori and I leave our Northeast Portland home about 20 minutes before the 9 pm start time, drive less than 1 mile to the Wonder Ballroom, find a parking spot on the same block, and go through the security check, including proof of vaccination, in less than 3 minutes.

Voila! We’re in and ready for some Mayer Hawthorne — Lori’s first time seeing him and my third, starting when our oldest kid treated me to the show at the same place.

Read “Man date” (2014) and “Tuxedo” (2017) for a look back at previous shows.

For the uninitiated, Mayer Hawthorne is the stage name for Andrew Cohen, a Jewish kid raised by hippie parents in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His dad exposed him to a lot of Motown and taught him to play bass guitar at 5. Andrew grew up to become a DJ in Detroit, then a singer, songwriter, producer, arranger, audio engineer and multi-instrumentalist.

Now 42, he’s based in Los Angeles and has released seven full-length albums, including three with hip-hop producer Jake One as the band Tuxedo. He’s touring now to promote his newest release, Rare Changes, which has a laid-back, almost reggae sound to it.

His previous albums have always featured danceable music with a throwback R&B sound — and that made Lori very happy Saturday night.

Wonder Ballroom is one of those places where there’s plenty of room to shake your booty. Arriving on time as we did, we easily got ourselves a space of our own within the crowd of about 300 people, then moved up steadily as the night wore on, ending up maybe 20 feet away from the stage.

India Shawn, the opening act, did a half-hour set and looked positively radiant, with a tight-fitting white outfit on her ebony skin, and long dreadlocks.

She came out onto the floor after her set to hang out with a small group and Lori promptly approached her to compliment her on her music and looks. In return, she got a hug. How often does that happen at a concert you’ve attended?

Meanwhile, Hawthorne came out with a three-piece band of all women on guitar, bass and keys. They, too, were dressed all in white and kept things rocking.

The front man himself was a sight to behold. He’s tall and slender, with a headful of dark, wavy hair, and black-framed eyeglasses that are nerdy cool. He wore a red satin jacket that proclaimed “Time 4 Love” and then, midway into his 75-minute-long set, changed into a necktie and preppy sports jacket.

Throughout the night, he threw himself into the music, handling vocals and occasionally riffing on guitar and keyboards. More than once, he thanked the audience for coming out to support live music, noting that he’d had to wait nearly two years for this tour. (He’s playing in San Francisco tonight and tomorrow, Nov. 29-30, and then finishing in Los Angeles on Dec. 2).

So glad I discovered this versatile entertainer years ago. And I’m so glad we’re able to see high-quality musicians at our neighborhood concert hall.