Charlotte’s playground

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Charlotte romps at the schoolyard park with Coco, up close, and Penny in the distance.

Is there anything that quite defines “joy” as seeing a dog romping across a grassy field, ears back, eyes wide, running and tumbling with other canines?

Didn’t think so.

Lately, Lori and I have been treated to this sight over and over again at the neighborhood school two blocks from our home. For the past several weeks, Charlotte and a growing number of four-legged friends have been running with abandon in that sweet spot between dinner and dusk.

Our little black beauty is especially joyous chasing — or being chased by — Coco and Penny, two similar-sized dogs with similar temperaments. The three of them greet each other like best friends and quickly launch into play, darting in and around us, and invariably winding up in a whirling ball of fur.

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Charlotte gets a taste of her own medicine as Penny nips at her heels.

This wouldn’t normally strike anyone as remarkable — a few dogs running around a partially fenced-in athletic field. But if you knew Charlotte’s back story like we do, you’d appreciate how far she’s come in her socialization with other dogs and her trust of their humans.

Like Coco and Penny, little Charlotte is a terrier-mix and a rescue dog, with a past no one really knows. We adopted her in October 2014, as a scrawny 11-pound, 2-year-old mother who’d been picked up on the street with her puppy. She’s now five years old, tipping the scales at 16-plus pounds, and well adapted to our home. (Her puppy was adopted out to another home.)

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Charlotte catches her breath after another round of chase.

Two years ago, though, she and I were attacked by a couple of unleashed big dogs at a dog park in another part of town. Charlotte suffered a bite wound near her tail and I escaped with scratches, a bloody lip and a torn jacket. Even after she mended, we were wary of situations where she might get targeted again by larger dogs.

That’s why it’s been such a pleasure to see Charlotte run free in the company of other animals she knows and likes, and to also let other adults pet her between romps on the grass.

It wasn’t always like this. Charlotte’s always been one to bark at strangers rather than approach them.  But within this little circle of friends, she’s also becoming trusting of Penny’s owners, Arturo and Lindsey, and Coco’s human, also named George.

She also gets along very well with Yukai, a handsome Shiba Inu, and his owner, Laura, who carries around a small pouch of dog treats and jokingly refers to herself as “the doggie crack lady.”

On the most recent Sunday night, Charlotte was the first arrival at what I’ve come to think of as her own private playground. When Penny and Coco showed up, it was as if another party had begun. Another round of joy.

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Charlotte strikes a pose on Mother’s Day 2018.

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Grandma Ora rocks it in Portland

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Ora enjoys her ride on the Portland Aerial Tram, rising 3,300 feet above the city.

Before Mother’s Day fades into memory,  let me take some time to express thanks, love and appreciation for my stepmother, Oralia Caballero Rede.

Earlier this month, Lori and I had the pleasure of hosting Ora in the days leading up to and following the wedding of our oldest son, Nathan. She arrived on a Friday evening and left at midday Tuesday, staying next door in the basement studio of a neighbor who makes the space available as an airbnb rental.

It was a great arrangement and we thoroughly enjoyed Ora’s visit.

Ordinarily, she would have stayed with us, but we had to save the one spare bedroom for our youngest son and his family, who would be arriving the next day and leaving the same morning as Ora. It all worked out fine, with just the right amount of privacy for Ora and the peace of mind of knowing she was literally a minute away around the corner.

But on to the main point for this post…

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Ora and George in Silver City, New Mexico: April 2017

We invited Ora to come out for the May 6th wedding, knowing it would be a rare opportunity for her to see all three of our adult children and meet her great-granddaughter, as well. Though we are lucky to have both Nathan and daughter Simone here in Portland, Jordan lives in the Midwest and will soon relocate to upstate New York for graduate school.

These days, it takes a special occasion like a wedding to bring all three kids and their life partners together. After the wedding, who knows when all three couples (plus us) would be in the same place again?

Ora was reluctant at first, not being particularly fond of air travel. But gentle persistence won her over and, at age 84, she got up early one morning and drove “only” 200 miles from her home in southwest New Mexico to the airport in Tucson, Arizona, where she could catch a direct flight to Portland.

Since my dad died about a year ago, Ora has dealt with the loneliness of a widow who lost her husband of 46 years. Slowly but steadily, she has reintegrated into the community in Silver City,  the small town where they retired after leaving the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ’80s.

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Dad and Ora came to visit Lori and me in Bend, Oregon, in the years before we had kids. Photo is circa 1977 or 1978. “Your father always had his arms around me,” Ora says.

Aside from daily walks and frequent lunches with friends, Ora volunteers with various community organizations, sings in the church choir, and tutors two Spanish-speaking priests who want to improve their English. This summer, she’s making plans to travel to Honduras as a part of a medical mission — the perfect role for a retired registered nurse who’s bilingual.

I’ve always admired Ora’s selflessness, whether it was donating time and skills to her community or giving up all her activities in order to take care of my dad full-time as his health declined in the last year of his life.

Having her visit here in Portland gave us all a chance to give back to her with all the affection and attention she deserves.

***

On Friday night, we had Ora to ourselves for a traditional Mexican dinner of tamales, refried beans and Spanish rice.

Saturday, she was with us as we joined the family of our newest daughter-in-law, Sara, for lunch a day before the wedding. At the same time, we celebrated Nathan’s birthday two days late. A special moment came when Ora, spontaneously, asked Nathan if she could sing him a song: “Las Mañanitas,” a traditional Mexican birthday song.

 

Those two have always had a special relationship, and it was evident when Nathan got up from his chair at one end of the table and came over to the other end to give his grandmother a hug.

Later that day, we took a walk in the neighborhood with Ora, daughter-in-law Jamie and granddaughter Emalyn. Ora marveled at the vibrant colors of all types of flowers, as well as the variety of architectural styles, as we went from block to block. “The whole city is like a garden!” she proclaimed.

 

We went to the school near our home and ran into fellow dog owners whom we’ve come to know. Ora stepped right in and spoke in animated Spanish to Arturo, originally from Barcelona, and his American wife Lindsey, who also is bilingual.

That evening, Simone and Kyndall joined all of us for another family dinner — this time it was Lori’s lasagna — and we spent more time catching up on each other’s lives.

On Sunday, the ladies all went out together to have their hair, nails and faces done ahead of the wedding. That evening, we arrived at the wedding venue — Victoria Bar, not far from the North Mississippi Avenue Historic District — and mingled with guests indoors and outdoors.

Ora, I swear, was like a magnet. While Lori and I danced, drank and nibbled on appetizers, people of all ages and gender identities engaged Ora in conversation, as if she were a longtime Portland resident. At one point, seeing her on the patio engrossed in one-on-one talk with a young woman, I almost felt like an intruder when I approached to check in on her.

Everything was fine. They went on to exchange phone numbers.

It was pretty special (there’s that word again) having Ora as the sole grandparent, and the only person of her generation at the wedding.  It was lovely to see her and Nathan share another emotional moment near the bar.

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Nathan with Grandma Ora during the Rede family reunion, held in July 2009 in Portland. As the oldest grandchild, Nathan has always enjoyed a special bond with her.

On Monday, friends of Jordan and Jamie came over to see them, so I took the opportunity to sweep Ora out the door and onto the Portland Streetcar.

We rode across the Willamette River into Northwest Portland, made a pit stop at Powell’s Books, hopped on again and rode through downtown and the Portland State University campus.

We got off in the South Waterfront District, where we had lunch and then clambered aboard the tram to the Oregon Health & Science University campus. She loved it all — the ride, the aerial views and the cluster of medical buildings atop Pill Hill. (Of course, she would. She’s  a retired RN!)

 

On Tuesday, we said a reluctant goodbye to our easygoing guest and I drove her to the airport to catch her noon flight. I appreciated the time we all spent together and felt truly grateful that she brought my dad so many years of love, loyalty and companionship.

She drew my dad out of his comfort zone by exposing him to the arts, music and foreign destinations he likely would not have sought out by himself. They traveled together to so many places — England, Spain, Italy, Hong Kong, Costa Rica, Israel, South Africa — and yet were so grounded in Silver City.

I’ve told Ora more than once that Dad truly seemed “born again” as a result of their courtship and marriage. She’s a remarkable woman, and no one knew that better than Dad.

Want to know more about this amazing octogenarian? Read “Shoutout to Ora”

Justice for George

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The contents of these envelopes helped ease the sting of two parking tickets.

For me, one of the most annoying sights in daily life is the bright yellow envelope tucked under a windshield, signaling that I’ve been ticketed for overtime parking at a city-owned meter.

I’ve largely managed to avoid them while teaching at Portland State University in downtown Portland, but I got nailed twice within the same week late last year — and that left me feeling pretty frazzled.

So imagine my delight when two envelopes of a different color (white) recently arrived in my mailbox, each bearing a document with an official seal of the State of Oregon Judicial Department. They were refund checks, and they arrived without a note of explanation.

But I knew what they were: Redemption! Double redemption!

I could have paid the $44 fine for each of the citations and just moved on. But considering that I typically pay $6 each time I park on the street (the hourly rate is $2), it would have cost me a total of $100 just to do my job on those two half-days. That was too hefty a price in my view, so I appealed.

Yes, I’m one of those who makes time to write to the court to ask for leniency, knowing I can’t take more time to appear in person before a judge.

I admitted that I overstayed the time limit — though it wasn’t by very much either time. But I argued that I was doing “meaningful work” that ran longer than I anticipated; I wasn’t just hanging out at a coffee shop socializing.

In the first case, I taught my regular 8 am class on a Monday, then returned in the afternoon – well outside my regular office hours — for two additional one-on-one meetings and a group discussion with four students. The latter ran long and I returned to my car to find I had received a ticket.

In the second case, on a Friday,  I came in to the office for a single meeting with a student – on a day that I normally am not even on campus – and again got caught up in a discussion that went longer than planned. Another ticket. Sigh.

I ended the letter with an apology and a pledge to adopt a new strategy to avoid further parking citations. I now set an alarm on my desktop computer and on my mobile phone so that I give myself an audible reminder before my metered time expires. It’s working quite well.

I’m happy the judge considered my appeal.

Each refund check was for $20, which nearly cut each $44 ticket nearly in half. With the combined $40, I took Lori to dinner. Forgiveness never tasted so good.

Postscript: Twice last week I pulled into a parking spot on the PSU campus and twice I was rewarded with “free” time.

On Monday, a woman who was leaving the space ahead of me waited until I settled in and offered me a parking receipt with about 90 minutes on it. Sweet.

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Free time? Why, yes, thank you.

On Thursday, I had moved my car from one spot to another one and was approaching the parking station with my debit card when a man called out, “Hey! Can you use 16 minutes?”

“Sure can,” I replied. “Just what I need.”

Maybe the parking gods have a way of evening things out in the long run. Thanks, generous strangers!

Hitched! Nathan and Sara

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Nathan and Sara clasp hands as their wedding ceremony gets underway.

On a lovely Sunday evening at a Portland bar two weekends ago, in front of well-scrubbed family and friends, our oldest son, Nathan, and his charming girlfriend, Sara, joined the ranks of the married.

For us, it marked the third time becoming in-laws. For them, it put an exclamation point on an eight-year courtship. For all in attendance, May 6th was a night to remember, with an emphasis on fun and celebration that stretched into the wee hours of Monday.

Unlike most weddings, which tend to follow a traditional format, this one had all the hallmarks of a mature couple doing things their way. As in no frills.

 

No wedding party of bridesmaids and groomsmen. No flower girls, no ring-bearers. No processional music. No father walking his daughter up the aisle. No printed programs. No posed photographs. No wedding cake. And, God forbid, no speeches by anyone.

Essentially, Nathan and Sara just invited everyone to come join their party with a drink or two and lots of dance music played by a half-dozen DJ friends of the couple. Half the crowd spread out at wooden picnic tables outdoors while the other half circulated inside the massive bar space.

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Big smiles as Reverend Jared does his thing.

The ceremony was short and sweet, and took place in subdued lighting inside Victoria Bar in North Portland. Jared, a 6-foot-7 teddy bear of a man and someone who’s known both Nathan and Sara for years, officiated, looking dapper in a purple fedora.

Reverend Jared told a charming anecdote about the early days of their relationship (something about Nathan being short on cash but offering to cook Sara a burger), then quickly got to the heart of the ceremony.  Each pledged “I do” to the other — having already shared their vows privately — and that was pretty much it.

We raised small flutes of Champagne to the newly-marrieds and then spent the rest of the evening socializing, dancing, and noshing on beef sliders, cocktail shrimp and other nibbles before the dessert came out: churros with chocolate and vanilla dipping sauces.

***

It was wonderful seeing our first-born at the center of things, along with his bride. So many of their friends, from the worlds of music, food and hair-styling, approached Lori and me to offer congratulations and express their affection for Nathan and Sara. As one would expect, a majority of the crowd were sporting tattoos or piercings or both, just like the bride and groom.

 

The evening was extra special for us in that both of Nathan’s siblings were there, along with his one remaining grandparent. Our daughter, Simone, and her wife, Kyndall, came from East Portland. Our youngest son, Jordan, flew in from Missouri with his wife, Jamie, and our granddaughter, Emalyn.

My stepmother, Ora, came out from New Mexico and chatted with assorted hipsters as if she were a longtime Portlander. (My only regret? That neither my parents nor Lori’s lived long enough to see Nathan get married.)

The day before the wedding, both sides of the family gathered for a celebratory lunch at Vivienne Kitchen & Pantry, a favorite restaurant near Lori’s work. We preordered a family-style meal, topped off by a Lemon Olive Oil Cake, and sang “Happy Birthday” to Nathan, who had turned 38 just two days earlier on May 3rd, three days ahead of the wedding.

 

We’d already met Sara’s parents, Jon and Katie, as they live in Hillsboro (Sara’s hometown) but we also got to meet Sara’s older sister, Leslie, and her boyfriend, Jeff, who flew in from Massachusetts. Nice, nice people.

All in all, it was a busy but enjoyable few days.

Ora arrived Friday evening. Jordan and family arrived on Saturday.  Nathan and Sara got married Sunday. Childhood friends came over Monday to visit with Jordan, while I took Ora out to see some of the city.

Early Tuesday morning, I took Jordan, Jamie & Emalyn to the airport, and a few hours later did the same with Ora.

Whew!

Don’t know when circumstances will bring all of us together again. For now, we’ll make these matrimonial memories last. Pretty special occasion with some pretty special people.

Family, friends and hoops at Easter

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George and Lori on Easter Sunday 2018.

What a great way to end spring break: Easter dinner with family, followed by a Trail Blazers game with longtime friends.

I didn’t plan it this way, but it worked out just the same. Weeks ago, when I was scanning the Blazers schedule for a weekend game to attend, I bought tickets to the April 1 match-up against Memphis, thinking we would be returning from vacation a day earlier. It was only later that I realized the game would be played on Easter Sunday.

Oops.

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Simone & Kyndall

Simone & Kyndall and Nathan & Sara came over during the afternoon for an early dinner of ham, potatoes, salad, deviled eggs and carrot cake. We got caught up on recent travels (S&K to Victoria, British Columbia) and plans for next month’s wedding (N&S are tying the knot after a 8-year courtship — yay!).

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Carrot cake, topped by a white chocolate bunny, made by Simone.

It’s always fun being around our kids and their partners. Soon enough, we’ll have a chance to see all three reunited when Jordan, Jamie & Emalyn come out to Portland for the wedding.

(Love this gallery. Credit goes to Simone, the photographer.) 

After the meal, Nathan and I had a NBA game to catch. At the arena, we met up with Bob and Chris Ehlers, whom we’ve known since Chris and Nathan were born the same week in the same hospital in Salem, Oregon, in 1980. Bob and his wife, Deborah, were in the same babysitting co-op that formed among us and a few other new parents. So, clearly, we got back quite a ways.

For the record, the Blazers whipped the Grizzles, 113-98, behind the stellar play of All-Star guard Damian Lillard. With the win, the Blazers secured a spot in the playoffs for the fifth straight year.

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Dos amigos: Chris & Nathan

Far more entertaining was seeing our boys exchange hugs and launch into 2 1/2 hours of animated conversation as they sat to our left. They were best buddies in the co-op and seemingly have only grown closer over the years, despite periods where they’ve gone years without seeing each other.

Chris is an adventurous sort who has traveled across much of Europe and Asia, and only recently moved back to the U.S. after several years of teaching English and running a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Bob, Chris & Nathan

The two of us dads managed to interrupt our sons at halftime as we gathered around a bistro table with our beers. Next up: A gathering to include our wives.

 

 

Orcas photo album

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A dockside view of Eagle Lake.

Even when it rains five out of seven days, there’s no place I’d rather be than in our cozy log cabin, enjoying the warmth of a wood-stove fire and the tranquility of a remote location on Orcas Island.

Lori and I came home yesterday from a week on the island, where we enjoyed down time with our little dog, Charlotte. The premises were in good shape, so we spent more time relaxing and less time working than we would have otherwise.

We buried ourselves in books and magazines, played Scrabble and plowed through the six-part Netflix series “Wild Wild Country” on the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers. Lori did some knitting and we walked the Lake Trail around Eagle Lake on the one-year anniversary of my father’s death.

We took Charlotte on short nature walks above our home, had a home-cooked meal with longtime friends Carl and Juliana, tried a new restaurant for lunch in Eastsound, and capped off the week with dinner at the nearby Doe Bay Cafe.

When Saturday morning arrived, the sun came out and we had a leisurely drive back to Portland. Heading into a new month and a new week, it’s safe to say we’re both feeling refreshed and eternally thankful to have this island getaway to relax and recharge.

As always, here are a few (OK, more than a few) images to seal this trip in memory:

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Home: a welcome sight after a nature hike.

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The driveway down to the main road.

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Looking northward from the back of the cabin.

 

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Sunrise on Orcas Island, with Mount Baker (middle right) in the distance.

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The essence of serenity: Eagle Lake.

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Who doesn’t enjoy being the only ones on the trail during a weekday morning?

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Charlotte, our trusty guide, sizes up an obstacle.

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Words don’t do justice.

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A splash of color, thanks to skunk cabbage.

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Treetops reflected on the glass-like surface of the water.

 

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We had lunch at Wild Island Juice Bagels and Bowls, a new addition to the Eastsound restaurant scene.

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How’s this for a restaurant facade?

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Looking toward the village of Eastsound from our outdoor stools on the porch.

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Tasty: The Wild Island Bowl (left) and chicken pho with veggies.

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Peregrine Road, a favorite hiking destination, has a new sign.

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Puddles on the path of our walk.

 

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So long, Orcas Landing.

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View from the interior of the MV Yakima heading back to Anacortes, Washington.

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Circles and rectangles make for some cool photo aesthetics.

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A passing ferry on the Salish Sea, headed for Orcas Island.

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Aboard the MW Yakima, capable of holding 2,500 passengers and 160 vehicles.

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Looking over the stern of the MV Yakima, a super-class ferry operated by the Washington State Ferries system.

“I Am Muslim”

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What is it about the hijab that makes people so uncomfortable?

Only one student stepped up to the challenge in the Media Literacy class I taught during the just-finished winter term.

It was an extra-credit assignment: Write a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece and show proof of publication.

Sofia Velasquez, a soft-spoken junior who sat in the back row, wrote a short piece that she submitted to The Vanguard, Portland State’s student-run newspaper.

It appeared in print last month under the headline  “I am Muslim.”

During the term, we talked about “vulnerable audiences” such as children and “vulnerable subjects” of news coverage such as the mentally ill, the frail elderly and undocumented immigrants.  Individuals belonging to certain racial and religious minority groups (such as Muslims) also can be vulnerable because of overly simply, often negative characterizations that fail to take into account individual differences.

As Sofia wrote:

“In the U.S., I represent perhaps what many people don’t want to admit. I represent the new America: an America that is composed of multiple identities, languages and cultures. I have come to discover the most harmful and most dehumanizing thing to do within our society is to make generalizations. The harm that comes from putting people into certain boxes and labeling them is far more complex than we often realize.”

Take one minute (really, that’s all it takes) and read her piece: “I am Muslim.”

Then imagine you are me, standing at the front of the class and looking out at Sofi, chatting with her study partner, Phuong, an international student from Vietnam. Of course she is. A Spanish-speaking Muslim woman befriending someone who’s also perceived as an outsider in mainstream America.

Sofi is majoring in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and minoring in Communications. She’s barely 5 feet tall, give or take an inch, but she stands tall in my eyes.

Such a fine piece of writing, with a simple lesson: Get to know people beyond the stereotypes.

Photograph: Saloni Health & Beauty Supply

 

Remembering Dad

That’s my dad, holding my infant self, in Oakland. California, in early 1953.

We’ve been here on Orcas Island since Saturday and it’s rained pretty much nonstop. No biggie. It’s what the weather forecasters predicted.

So why am I thinking about the sunny Southwest? And why am I thinking about spring training just as it’s come to an end? After all, the regular Major League Baseball season starts tomorrow.

It’s because of Dad.

My father died a year ago today, six days after turning 91 years old. In the year since then, I’ve thought of him often – and always with appreciation for the man he was and the life he led.

Read “90 years and still kicking”

Read “A son’s remembrance”

A man who valued family and faith and an honest day’s work. A man who could build or fix anything. A man who encouraged me to pursue the college education he never had a chance to dream of for himself. A man who was proud of his service as a Navy veteran and who served his community in Silver City, New Mexico, the place where he and my stepmother Oralia chose to retire.

Time and again at his memorial service, I heard my dad described as kind and generous and, quite simply, as a good man.

***

Dad loved baseball. It was my favorite sport, too, growing up.

At his service, I told the story of how he bought me my first baseball bat – a heavily-taped, too-heavy-for-me Willie Keeler model that cost him 50 cents at a weekend flea market.

We played countless games of catch in our backyard, and watched the Giants and Dodgers go to battle on our black-and-white TV screen.

When I joined a Little League team, he volunteered to be an assistant coach. When I moved up to Pony League as a 13-year-old, he volunteered to be the manager. During my five seasons of organized baseball, I don’t remember him ever missing a practice or a game.

san-francisco-giants-logo-transparentSeveral years after he retired, I made good on a vow to take my dad to spring training in Arizona. I flew from Portland to Tucson, drove 150 miles to his home in Silver City, picked him up and, the next morning, drove back 300 miles to Phoenix.

For three days and nights, we hung out together, taking in three ballgames in three stadiums scattered around the metro area. It was all I’d hoped for as a father-and-son experience. Sleep in, get breakfast, go to the ballgame, grab dinner, relax in our room, sleep and repeat.

I still remember seeing these teams with him:

  • A’s vs. Cubs
  • Giants vs. Padres
  • Mariners vs. Royals

And I still remember how content he seemed, sitting in the cheap seats with a beer and a hotdog, enjoying his favorite sport alongside his adult son.

Now that he’s gone, I hope to take a walk around Eagle Lake today with Lori and keep him close in my thoughts.

Dad and Ora visited us here once at our island cabin, and we took them on a short walk on the Lake Trail. Though he had slowed down some, I know he appreciated the natural beauty of this place.

Yes, my father was a good man.

I miss you Dad. Love you always.

Your son, George

 

¡Esteban!

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Simone and Esteban, 18 years after we hosted our Costa Rican exchange student.

Nearly two decades have passed since we opened our home to a foreign exchange student from Costa Rica.

During just two weeks with our family, Esteban Villalobos struck as then as friendly, outgoing and destined to succeed.

Turns out we were right.

On Friday night, Esteban and his partner, Marco, met us for dinner with our daughter,  Simone, her wife, Kyndall, and their friend, Hunter, who happened to be visiting from California.

Esteban was the same as Lori and I  remembered: bright-eyed, with a big smile and a hug for each of us. But where there was once a head full of dark hair was now a neatly-shaven head. Now 34, Esteban is an architect, a habitual early riser who gets to the office by 6 a.m.

He was visiting Portland for a couple of days with Marco, and then they were headed up to Seattle for more sightseeing. Marco works in marketing for a liquor distributor, and seems well matched with Esteban. Both speak English very well, as they use it frequently, if not daily, at work.

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Marcos Arias and Esteban Villalobos

Simone was a high school junior and our youngest son, Jordan, was still in middle school when Esteban came to live with us in the spring of 2000. He would tag along with Simone as she went through her daily schedule at Grant High School. After school and on weekends, there was time for Esteban and Jordan to hang out, too.

We have fond memories of the two of them watching “The Matrix” (Keanu Reeves) and “Bring It On” (Kirsten Dunrst) in the family room basement. Esteban reminded me that I took him to a Trail Blazers game, a multi-sensory experience that included a victory over the woeful New Jersey Nets. I remember a drunken fan near our section being expelled from the arena before the game even started.

Friday was a treat in more than one way. It was our first time dining at Ken’s Artisan Pizza. The restaurant has been a fixture on Southeast 28th Avenue since 2006, but we’d never made it over there until now. The wood-fired oven serves up a nice, thin crust with more than a dozen toppings, along with tasty salads and a killer calamari appetizer. Simone and Kyndall chose a great place.

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Clockwise from left: Marco, Esteban, Kyndall, Hunter, Simone, Lori and George.

In an era when air travel is something we take for granted, it’s easy to overlook the distance that Esteban covered as a teenager to live with us: 4,400 miles. (Check the map.) We’re glad he had a sense of adventure, and we’re even more glad that he enjoyed his time with us so much as to come back and visit.

Foreign exchange students can enrich your life, even with a short stay. We recommend it highly.

 

Fantasy and reality

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Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer form a close bond as cleaning ladies in “The Shape of Water.”

I’m not much into movies that are rooted in science fiction or fantasy. I prefer those that are tethered to real life, with real characters and a plausible plot.

But my recent viewing experiences has me rethinking my preferences.

A couple weekends ago, Lori and I saw “The Post.” It was a very good film, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring the incomparable Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, and based on the true story of the newspaper’s legal battle with the U.S. government over the feds’ attempt to prevent the Post and The New York Times from publishing the top-secret Pentagon Papers.

A week later, we went to see “The Shape of Water,” a highly touted movie about a mute janitor who comes in contact with some sort of amphibious creature that’s being held captive at the Cold War-era research facility where she works. I’d seen the trailer and I was pretty skeptical going in, despite the 13 Oscar nominations it has accumulated.

Well. You’d think this veteran journalist would have liked the reality-based movie about the First Amendment better than the fictional one that asked you to suspend disbelief. But you’d be wrong.

***

In “The Post,” the 1971 newsroom was authentically recreated with lots of pasty-skinned editors and reporters in short-sleeved shirts and loosened neckties bustling around. Many of them are on the phone taking notes by hand and, of course, many of them are smoking like fiends. Women and minorities are few and far between.

Streep is marvelous as Katharine Graham, struggling to assert herself as the new publisher following the death of her husband Philip in an era when women were still a rarity in executive offices. Hanks is good but not great as editor Ben Bradlee. Definitely a notch below Jason Robards’ portrayal of Bradlee in “All The President’s Men.”

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Meryl Streep, as newly installed publisher Katharine Graham, and Tom Hanks, as hard-charging editor Ben Bradlee, are the focal points of “The Post.”

Spielberg tells the story well. Tension rises as the Post, historically in the shadow of the Times, joins its rival in arguing at the U.S. Supreme Court that it has a constitutional right to publish the classified documents. In the face of threatened censorship or punishment, the Post argues that Americans have have a right to know what’s in the documents so they can decide for themselves whether to believe the government’s claims about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

It’s a solid film, obviously based on real events and people and culminating with a landmark ruling that upheld press freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. And here I must say I watched it with the pride of having worked in that same newsroom just a couple years later as a summer intern: in 1973, when the Post broke the Watergate scandal, and in 1974, when a disgraced President Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment.

“The Shape of Water,” on the other hand, was pure fantasy. I won’t reveal too much here, but Guillermo del Toro has created a lovely story out of thin air. As director and co-writer of the screenplay, he pulls you in to the lives of three ordinary people — Elisa, the mute woman;  Zelda, her co-worker and interpreter; and Giles, her gay neighbor and friend — who all wind up collaborating in an extraordinary way.

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It’s a modern-day fable, really. The trio of characters lead lives defined by routine and simple pleasures along with disrespect from others. As the story plays out, each of them has a moral choice to make — and at great risk to themselves. If you’re willing to suspend disbelief, you’ll be rewarded with a story about relationships that shimmers with kindness and friendship, loyalty and love.

Sally Hawkins is a revelation as Elisa. I’d never heard of this British actress, but she is just perfect in a role that takes her from wide-eyed and vulnerable to fierce and fearless. Octavia Spencer shines as Zelda and Richard Jenkins is solid as Giles. Michael Shannon is superb, too, as the villain, a military officer who captured the amphibious creature and mistreats it.

“The Shape of Water” is exactly the kind of film I expected not to like. But, boy, was I wrong. If you’ve seen the trailer, too, and have your doubts, put them aside and go see the film. It’ll move you.