‘Homegoing’: Historic and timely

How fortuitous that I chose Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” (2016) as the first novel I would read in retirement — and, in fact, the first novel I’ve read in nearly a year.

During my first week as a new retiree, I settled into my favorite chair and promptly lost myself in a rich, multilayered story about slavery and its corrosive legacy through the centuries. Spanning eight generations on both sides of the Atlantic, the tale begins in the late 18th century on Africa’s Gold Coast, shifts to the United States, then returns to modern-day Ghana.

I could not have picked a better book to provide context for today’s political and societal convulsions unleashed by the videoed murder of George Floyd and given purpose by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The call for reparations to make amends for America’s racist past is wholly justified when you consider not just the evils of slavery itself, but the systemic second-class treatment of Black people which extended well into the post-World War II era and continues even today.

In “Homegoing,” Gyasi tells the story of two half-sisters who are born into different villages, unknown to each other, and whose lives — and those of their descendants — are defined by opposite sides of the slave trade.

Effia marries a British officer and moves into a life of privilege in the Cape Coast Castle while Esi is captured in a raid in her village and imprisoned in the very same castle, destined for the same, wretched existence as other men, women and children caught up in the evil trade of human trafficking As the story plays out over the next 200-plus years, Gyasi introduces us to their descendants, with one side of the family tree free to follow their pursuits, the other side shackled and deprived.

The book alternates between descendants of each matriarch, with each of 14 chapters devoted to telling one character’s story, initially rooted in the tribal villages of west Africa and then expanding to various locations in the United States.

We come to know these men and women as they fight to survive on a plantation in Mississippi, in the shipyards of Baltimore, the coal mines of Alabama, and the streets of Harlem during the Jazz Age. The last two chapters focus on Marjorie and Marcus, both college graduates living in Northern California but with different experiences and attitudes toward their ancestral homeland.

While the horrors and depravity of the slave trade are made painfully clear, the real impact of the book comes in exploring the psychological and emotional damage inflicted on the matriarchs’ children and the succeeding generations.

For some, those born into the side of the family with a white father and black mother, it’s white guilt and matters of conscience that they must deal with. For others, those descending from two black parents, it is coping with the anguish of separated families, the threat of real or implied violence, the limitations imposed by their skin color, the unfulfilled yearning for a better life. It’s no surprise when one character’s mental illness results in her own people calling her Crazy Woman.

“Homegoing’ is an ambitious work, especially considering it’s the debut novel by this talented young writer. The book won numerous awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Award and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book.

Gyasi was born in Ghana, raised in Huntsville, Alabama, and educated at Stanford. She went on to get a MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where so many famous authors have honed their craft.

Just 31 years old, she’s due to speak in Portland in December as part of the 2020-21 Portland Arts & Lectures series. Fingers crossed that I’ll be able to see her in an auditorium rather than on Zoom.

By that time, her second novel will have come out. “Transcendent Kingdom,” due out in September, is said to be a “a powerful, raw, intimate, deeply layered novel about a Ghanaian family in Alabama.”

“Homegoing” had been waiting for me since March 2019, when I bought it at a used bookstore during a visit to Ithaca, New York. What a perfect book to launch me into retirement.

Get to know Yaa Gyasi here, courtesy of The Vilcek Foundation, a New York City-based organization that raises awareness of immigrant contributions in the United States and fosters appreciation of the arts and sciences.

Charlotte’s on the mend

A familiar face at the dining room table.

The resilience of animals is an amazing thing to behold.

Yesterday, just six days after she was attacked by a large dog at our neighborhood school, Charlotte had a drain tube removed from her abdomen, right on schedule. And because the bite wound she sustained was healing nicely, she also had the sutures removed, more than a week ahead of schedule.

So today, our little Border Terrier mix is well on the road to full recovery. She’s been taking the stairs up and down in our condo since the weekend, she’s going on progressively longer walks in the neighborhood, and she’s the one initiating a game of indoor fetch with her stuffed animals. She grabs these hapless furry things by the neck, gives ’em a good shake and a menacing growl.

Oh, and her appetite is just fine.

Lori and I have appreciated the outpouring of support for our dog. The attack last week was the second one on Charlotte requiring a trip to the vet, and both came as a result of unleashed animals on the school grounds.

No update yet on the owner of the pit bull that attacked Charlotte a week ago today. Over text messages, he denied responsibility and refused to pay the $500-plus vet bill, so we had no problem reporting him to the county animal services office.

We’ll see what kind of consequences he and his dog face.

For now, we’re happy to have Charlotte on the mend.

The mother of all thank-yous

Ever since I started teaching college classes four years ago, I’ve made it a point to recap the just-completed quarter or semester with an eye toward cementing what I learned from my students, as well as looking ahead to the next term.

Typically, I’ve used these blog posts to also say thanks to my guest speakers and others who lent a helping hand.

Today I offer The Mother of All Thank-Yous.

It’s my way of expressing gratitude to a slew of about 80 people who contributed to whatever success I had teaching mass communication courses after spending four decades as a working journalist.

My list begins with two pairs of people who helped swing open the door of opportunity at both places I taught until this year.

At Portland State University, it was Cynthia-Lou Coleman and Jeff Robinson, both professors in the Department of Communication.

It was Cindy, a former department chair, who served as a first contact when I inquired about adjunct teaching possibilities after I left The Oregonian at the end of 2015. Years earlier, when she was the chair, she hired me to teach two weekend mini-courses that went quite well. Cindy put me in touch with Jeff, who succeeded her as chair and subsequently brought me on to teach Media Ethics in the 2016 fall quarter.

As I gained experience and the budget allowed, Jeff hired me to concurrently run the Comm Department’s internship program. Last year, he was able to bring me on full-time, which meant teaching two classes and managing the internship program all three terms of the academic year.

At Washington State University Vancouver, it was a former neighbor, Lori Callister, who provided an initial tip that led me to Dr. Nanu Iyer, director of the Integrated Strategic Communication program.

Lori knew someone who was serving on a professional advisory board at WSUV and looking to spread the word about an assistant professor position in the Integrated Strategic Communication program. With no advanced degree and no background in advertising or public relations, I knew I had no shot at the job.

Nanu gave me an interview anyway, asked me to do a guest lecture, and then hired me to teach two classes in the 2017 spring semester: Reporting Across Platforms and Sports and the Media. I wound up teaching there for two fulfilling years, giving up the job in May 2019 in order to accept the fulltime gig at Portland State that just ended.

I am grateful to those four folks and to dozens more who directly and indirectly influenced or supported what or how I taught. So here is a big thank-you to:

My Comm Department colleagues at PSU — Cindy and Jeff; professors Lee Shaker, Brianne Suldovsky, Erin Spottswood, Lauren Frank, David Ritchie, Kenny Bagley, Giselle Tierney, Tanner Cooke; and retired professor David Kennamer.

Tanya Romaniuk, another Comm professor who transitioned from teaching to a critical role as Academic & Career Advisor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She, more than anyone, helped me understand the Comm Department’s recent history; keep track of who was who and what was what in related programs; and make sense of a long list of acronyms for university buildings and programs.

Marisa Miller, a graduate student who later became Internship Coordinator in the University Career Center. She managed the Comm Department’s internship program each of the past two summers while I was teaching abroad and became a trusted ally in steering students to career opportunities.

Bailey Acord-Becker and Aurora Leichty, who coordinated all the administrative and front office work for the Comm Department, including scheduling and payroll and supervising work-study students who staffed the reception desk.

My guest speakers at WSUV — PR practitioners Mark Mohammadpour, Dianne Danowski-Smith, and Chris Metz; advertising executive Will Ulbricht; digital strategist Kate Lesniak; sports announcer Rich Burk; former Oregon State University athletes Taylor Ricci and Nathan Braaten; and the remarkable Brenda Tracy, a gang-rape survivor who’s become a prominent speaker in the fight against sexual and relationship violence in college football.

Current and former journalists who also spoke to my WSUV students — Lindsay Schnell, Gina Mizell, Tom Goldman, Casey Holdahl, Anna Griffin, Beth Nakamura, Lillian Mongeau, Kyle Iboshi, Stephanie Yao Long, Steve Woodward, David Lippoff, Katy Sword, Jamie Goldberg, Tyson Alger and Chris Broderick.

My guest speakers at PSU — From the worlds of PR, advertising, integrated brand promotion and digital strategy: Alberto Ponte, Emma Barnett, Brittni Busch, Kate Lesniak, Jean Kempe-Ware, Mark Mohammadpour, Kelly Bantle and Maureen O’Connor; fellow professors: Antonia Alvarez, Mike Caulfield and Will Ulbricht; and nonprofit leaders: Susan Nielsen and Sankar Raman.

Current and former journalists who also spoke to my PSU students — Therese Bottomly, Mark Katches, Samantha Swindler, John Schrag, Beth Nakamura, Kyle Iboshi, Andi Zeisler, Nigel Jaquiss, Jeff Mapes, Chris Broderick, Lillian Mongeau, Stephanie Yao Long and Steve Woodward.

My wonderfully talented and indispensible teaching assistants — Evelyn Smith at WSUV; Becky Kearny, Tullia Fusco, Andrew Swanson, Cole Eakin, Tristina Bumgarner and Margarita Maligaya at PSU.

The outstanding staff at PSU’s Education Abroad office, who made it possible for me to teach a summer course in London in 2018 and 2019 (and plans for another one in Berlin in 2021) — Jen Hamlow and Hannah Fischer; and graduate assistants Adrienne Bocci, Adriane Bolliger and Hannah Marrs.

The outstanding staff at CAPA Global Education Network, who provided additional support for my study-abroad course — Darin Smith-Gaddis in Los Angeles, Zion Griffin in Boston and Sheriden Kuech in London.

And three others — Sandy Rowe, my former editor at The Oregonian, who graciously loaned me a boxful of files and notes from her own college teaching and thereby enriched the content in my Media Ethics course this year; Elizabeth Hovde and Len Reed, former colleagues at The Oregonian who both went on to teach as adjuncts at WSUV. Meeting one-on-one with Elizabeth or Len for coffee or breakfast provided an opportunity to talk about the transition from the newsroom to the classroom and to lay bare our shared experiences, whether it was about lesson plans and teaching styles, or about our frustrations, breakthroughs and small victories.

It’s often said it takes a village to raise a child. In my case, it took several villages to prop up a single adjunct instructor. The hours were long but the rewards — reflected in the quality of work and insights gained from my students — were always worth it.

A conversation with Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah, the acclaimed author and humanitarian.

Even if you haven’t read his best-selling memoir, chances are you’ve heard of Ishmael Beah.

At age 13, he was conscripted to fight in Sierra Leone’s civil war. At age 26, he published “A Long Way Home,” a first-person account describing the horrors he had seen and participated in as a child soldier, an experience shared by hundreds of thousands around the world. Now 39, he’s come out with a new book, “Little Family,” a novel about five homeless orphans living on the outskirts of a city in an unnamed African nation.

According to a review in The Washington Post, the novel “speaks to the plight of extremely poor people in all countries riddled with corruption and violence. Distressingly, the experiences of Beah’s characters are the experiences of the powerless everywhere.”

I haven’t yet read the 2007 memoir, but after engaging with Beah in a Zoom video chat, that’s the next book I’ll be reading.

On Friday, Beah talked about his work as a writer and a human rights activist during an hourlong virtual session sponsored by Portland State University’s Conflict Resolution Program. About a dozen people logged in.

I thought I’d had my fill of Zoom for a while, having taught my spring quarter classes entirely on that platform. But I have to admit there is a certain intimacy with the featured speaker on Zoom that can’t be replicated in a larger, live audience setting.

I mean, here we were in Portland scattered across the city, with the ability to converse directly with the author and write comments and questions in a group chat, while Beah sat comfortably at his home in Los Angeles, able to see audience members individually instead of peering into a faceless crowd in an auditorium somewhere.

What came across in that one hour was the depth of Beah’s humanity, intelligence and gentle humor. And with that, a reminder that life is full of surprises and coincidences.

I mean, who knew that when he emigrated to the United States as a teenager, he would be adopted by a Jewish woman in New York and that they would travel to Oregon each year for summer vacation?

Beah spoke matter-of-factly about the human rights policy work he has done on behalf of the United Nations, and the writing and speaking he has taken on to illuminate the experiences of “children who come from war.”

He said he was moved to write about his experiences because so many media accounts about Sierra Leone’s civil war lacked any context of the political climate that allowed it to happen, let alone the perspective of a teenaged soldier who survived the bloodshed.

“Researchers believed that anyone who went through what I did would not be able to recover,” Beah said. “And so I started writing.”

“I never intended to publish a book,” he added, “but I grew up knowing words were powerful.”

Beah said he was educated under a British model and so grew up studying Shakespeare. He learned to speak several languages and was quite familiar with American pop culture as a youth.

He finished his last two years of high school at the United Nations International School in New York, then went on to graduate from Oberlin College in 2004 with a degree in political science. He’s now married and the father of three children.

During Q&A, Beah addressed my question concerning the Black Lives Matter movement, whether he thinks the activism we are seeing right now will have short-term or long-term impact.

He said that he sees “a very good opportunity” for change, but that it must come at a high level, as well as on the ground.

“We need to make sure institutions change,” he said. “It’s not just about people reading books or becoming allies. Attitudes need to change. The workplace needs to change.”

The momentum of the moment needs to be pushed, he said, and people “need to be willing to be uncomfortable — tremendously — for things to change.”

In his day-to-day life in Southern California, racism is constant and systemic, no matter if he is driving a car or checking in for a flight.

Living on the west side of L.A., “I get pulled over all the time,” Beah said, “and the first question I am always asked is, ‘Is this your car, sir?’ Immediately, you are criminalized. And you realize your response could get you killed.”

At the airport, it’s a familiar scene. Beah said he has the means to fly business class and so he does. Yet, when he approaches the airlines agent at the counter, “Every time, the person will say, “Excuse me, sir. This is the line for business class.’ “

Go for a jog in L.A.? Forget it.

“I can’t go for a run. I can only run in Sierra Leone. Because of how I look, I will be seen (here) as running from something.”

As a country, we have so much work to do. I wish every American had the opportunity to do what I did on Friday.

To sit with a man whose grace and intelligence and easy smile put everyone at ease.

To be moved by the experiences of a man who has lived through wartime violence and emerged somehow as a gentle soul, with his dignity and sense of self intact, to become a face of humanitarian causes around the globe.

Can’t wait to start “The Long Way Home.”

Wounded warrior: Our little Charlotte

Charlotte, on her 6th birthday last year, at our neighborhood school in NE Portland.

About a year and a half ago, two large dogs came charging across a high school field, intent on doing serious harm to our little Charlotte. I managed to snatch her up and hold her above my head while I screamed and kicked at the two beasts lunging at her and me.

I came away from that 30 seconds of terror with a bloody lip, bites around my right elbow, and torn sleeves on my windbreaker while Charlotte sustained a bite wound just above her tail.

Yesterday it happened again. This time at the neighborhood school where we take Charlotte nearly every afternoon. And this time with Lori.

I was at home putting the finishing touches on some fresh biscuits that we were planning to take to a social-distancing happy hour and dinner. Lori had gone to the school with a neighbor whose dog Ollie, also a terrier mix, is one of Charlotte’s best friends.

When Lori came in the door, she was glum and the right side of her light-colored top, just above her right hip, had a dark stain. Charlotte’s blood.

What happened?

Charlotte and Ollie were still harnessed on their leashes and situated in the middle of the grassy playfield with Lori and Chris, Ollie’s owner, when a young couple appeared on a dirt path on the perimeter of the field. They were walking a large dog, off leash.

Charlotte barked at the dog and it came charging. Lori yanked her up into her arms but not before the animal bit Charlotte in the belly.

As in the attack 17 months ago, the dog was a pit bull. I say this not to demonize that breed, but as a statement of fact. I know that pit bulls can be as sweet and docile as any other. (In fact, our son and daughter-in-law own one who is exactly like that.) But I also know these dogs, like German Shepherds, can also be pretty aggressive in the hands of the wrong owner.

Dinner plans were canceled, needless to say. Our regular vet clinic was booked but after calling around, we found a 24-hour animal hospital that would see Charlotte.

She had a puncture wound and bruising in the stomach area, but thankfully no apparent damage to her internal organs. She came home with antibiotic and pain medications and a drain tube in her belly.

Charlotte was groggy last night — understandably so, after being sedated — and no doubt traumatized again by another attack that could have been fatal.

This morning, she’s moving about gingerly and did manage to eat some breakfast. Doctor says she should avoid activity for 10 to 14 days while she recuperates.

We will treat her like the little queen she is. And we’ll keep an eye out at the school and in the neighborhood at large for the owners of the pit bull. Neither Lori nor her friend had their phones with them yesterday, so they weren’t able to get the owners’ name or contact information.

A guy who was there at the school volunteered to take phone numbers of both parties and send the information to each, but so far hasn’t followed through. If and when we run across the pit bull’s owners, we’ve got a sizable vet bill to lay on him. And we fully intend to report the incident to Multnomah County Animal Services.

Back to blogging

Credit: Hover.blog

If there’s one thing I plan to do more of in my second retirement, it is to get back to my blog.

From last October through May,* I’ve averaged a measly two blog posts per month, a far cry from when I used to post seemingly every other day.

* I invited friends and family to contribute to a “Voices of April” idea intended to share stories about how we all were dealing with the first few weeks of coronavirus quarantining. Eighteen people contributed guest blogs to that effort, which not only sparked some great conversations but also expanded the network of people who’ve written for this blog over the years.

It’s exactly that kind of experience which keeps me going after several years of managing the original Rough and Rede on Blogspot and its successor, Rough and Rede II, on WordPress.

When I dipped my toes into the ocean of blogging, it was March 1, 2009. Barack Obama had been inaugurated as our 44th president just two months earlier. I was still at The Oregonian, working as Sunday Opinion Editor, and I’d been hired by Portland State University to teach a two-credit class over a single weekend called “Opinion and the Blogosphere.”

I figured I should have a blog myself, my own virtual space to serve as a personal diary to record thoughts, ideas, experiences, emotions, etc.

Little did I imagine I’d still be at it 11 years later, writing about everything under the sun — our children’s weddings and college graduations; travel to Europe and Mexico; career and work; family pets and family reunions; favorite books, movies and concerts; and everyday scenes and moments all around Portland.

A highlight, surely, has been seven years of hosting Voices of August, the annual guest blog project that has pretty much taken on a life of its own. VOA has become a platform for friends, family, co-workers and even some people I’ve never even met in person to come together in the digital space and then meet up afterwards over food and drink at a local brewpub. Some terrific friendships have developed because of VOA.

Thanks to Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms, anyone can become a blogger without even having to set up their own website. We are all publishers now, free to share original posts, photos or videos, poetry or rants, or whatever strikes our fancy.

In my case, Rough and Rede II is one of an estimated 500 million blogs out of 1.7 billion websites in the world. Their authors account for over 2 million blog posts daily, according to hostingtribunal.com.

I’ve posted relatively little since last fall, owing to the amount of time and energy I’ve devoted to my college courses. But now that I’m officially retired as an adjunct instructor, I’d like to get back in the rhythm of regular posting, maybe three to four times a week.

For those of you who’ve been along for some or most of the ride over the past decade-plus, I thank you for reading and commenting and contributing.

Although this is an election year, I have no plans to flood R&R II with political content. I’ll share whatever comes to mind and I’ll make a point of dusting off some of my favorite blog posts from time to time.

And if anyone’s got an itch to scratch, you know I’ll be happy to publish a guest blog anytime.

My second retirement — after teaching in the Age of Trump

This time it’s for real.

Back in January 2016, shortly after I took a buyout after 30 years in The Oregonian’s newsroom, my wonderful wife threw a retirement party for me.

I had every intention of becoming a member of Sweatpants Nation. But life and luck intervened. I had an itch to scratch.

Eight months later, with the help of a longtime colleague, I wormed my way into a classroom at Portland State University and launched a second career as an adjunct college instructor, specializing in Media Literacy and Media Ethics.

That first, solitary class in the fall of 2016 turned into a four-year run that ended this week. For most of it, I taught part-time at two campuses in the metro area; for the last year, I eased into a full-time gig, teaching two classes per term while also coordinating an internship program for Communications students at PSU.

It was an experience that I quickly grew to love, engaging with young adults, sharing my personal and professional experiences and perspectives, and together making sense of the fast-moving world around us.

For all that I taught them about contemporary issues in Media Literacy and Media Ethics, they taught me even more. Not just about how they how, when, where and what media they consumed (or didn’t), but why — and how they defined “media” in the first place.

As a lifelong journalist, I defined the term as the news media in all its forms — print, broadcast, cable, digital. Most of my students tended to think of it as entertainment — movies, television, video games. Now, the youngest of them (born in 2000 or 2001) use “media” and “social media” interchangeably.

Clearly, all of us are right. “Media” today encompasses all of that: news, advertising, entertainment and social media. Equally clear is that these digital natives can access any or all of that with a single palm-sized device that also serves as their mobile computer, camera, phone, alarm clock, GPS guide and streaming channel for music, videos and podcasts.

But who knew that in my final quarter of teaching, we would not even meet face-to-face? Instead, because of the coronavirus and a mostly shuttered campus, we would log on to Zoom and engage with one another for two hours at a time, peering at inch-tall headshots splayed across our screens.

And looking back on it all, who knew that my four years in the classroom would be defined by teaching in The Age of Trump?

***

When I began teaching in September 2016, the polls were united: Hillary Clinton was on track to become the first female president of the United States. Donald J. Trump was written off by the mainstream media and widely scorned by mainstream Republicans. And this was before the Access Hollywood video was released and before Stormy Daniels became a household name.

Turns out there could not have been a better time to teach Media Literacy and Media Ethics than in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election and the ensuing chaos of the new administration.

My students and I discussed the real meaning of fake news, the presidential debates, the microtargeting of dark ads to unsuspecting Facebook users, the purpose of the Electoral College, and the news media’s failure to fully grasp what fueled Trump’s stunning victory in November — the extent of resentment toward so-called coastal elites that galvanized the white working class. Of course, immigrant-bashing that stoked fear and racism played a yuge role, too.

In January, Inauguration Day brought with it a cascade of lies, beginning with an absurd claim that Trump’s swearing-in ceremony drew a larger crowd than Obama’s, and a new phrase: “alternate facts.”

From there, it was nonstop nonsense and turmoil that continues through the present day, all of which provided “teachable moments.”

Charlottesville. The wall. Children in cages. The Muslim travel ban. The Mueller Report. Kavanaugh. Khashoggi. Russia. Ukraine. Impeachment. Coronavirus and COVID-19. And masks. Friggin’ masks.

And still the chaos continues. With conspiracy theories and middle-of-the-night presidential tweets now normalized, Trump has the audacity to demand a Bible photo op when our streets are seething with Americans of all ages and races demanding justice for George Floyd and other African American victims of racism and police brutality.

Today’s absurdity: A campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, coming one day after Juneteenth, that’s certain to be a superspreader event as coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise.

Were I to continue teaching in the fall, the course content would have completed a four-year cycle, with the 2020 presidential campaign coming into focus with a new round of conspiracy theories, doctored photos and videos, and a steaming pile of distortions and outright lies spread via social media.

***

To be sure, my students have learned plenty in the past few years about a host of other topics known simply by their hashtags: MeToo, OscarSoWhite, Parkland and BlackLivesMatter.

In addition, the important role of journalism in a democracy; how algorithms and self-constructed filter bubbles determine most of what we see and hear; how technology and digitization enable time-shifting and global sharing of all forms of media; and how we as human beings are being affected mentally, physically and socially by our exposure to addictive technology.

But not everything was so damn serious these past four years.

To my surprise, unexpected media exposure and opportunities for personal and professional growth fell in my lap.

I was interviewed twice by local television stations on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections about young voters. I was invited to be a guest commentator multiple times on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s News Roundtable. I spoke on panels at a public forum in Vancouver and at a journalism conference in Portland. Best of all, I was recruited to teach a study-abroad course in London each of the past two summers. I hope to teach a similar course in Berlin in 2021, if the pandemic has abated by then.

But enough about all that.

Today marks the first day of my second retirement. I’m ready for whatever life brings in the way of old and new friendships, experiences and travel. I’m ready to downshift into a daily routine with no obligations. No longer do I have to think about lesson plans, school calendars or work emails.

I’m free to read, run, write, cook and blog as I see fit. And I’ll do much of that with Lori, my partner in marriage for 45 years this fall. None of what has transpired in my second career would have been possible without her encouragement and support — and tolerance.

Books: A good place to start

“What’s next?”

Though I won’t be officially retired for a couple more days, the question is already popping up.

If life were normal, it would be simple: hitting the gym, meeting friends for coffee, traveling with Lori. I’d also like to get back to simple pleasures like bowling and poker, movies and concerts, and Blazers basketball.

But life is anything but normal right now.

So Plan B means diving into a stack of books that’s been building up while I’ve been consumed by teaching.

First up: “Homegoing” the highly acclaimed debut novel by Yaa Gyasi. Three chapters in, I’m absorbed by this multigenerational novel that begins with two half-sisters raised in opposite circumstances — privilege and captivity — during the slave trade in 18th century Ghana.

I bought the book 15 months ago during a spring break visit to Ithaca, New York, the last time I saw our youngest son and his family. Lori and I had scheduled another visit in March, but that got canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Interesting coincidence: Just as I started reading the book this week came the news that Yaa Gyasi will be speaking here later this year as part of the 2020-21 Portland Arts & Lectures season.

I’ve got plenty more books lined up. They’ve come to me as gifts, book exchanges and pick-ups from neighborhood lending libraries.

What else is on tap?

Well, a mix of entertainment media and a return to the outdoors both sound good.

I’m planning to explore the expanding world of podcasts along with lots more of the content available on streaming services. Totally enjoying the British crime show “Broadchurch” right now, after having recently finished “Schitt’s Creek” (hilarious) and “Doctor Foster” (gripping).

I want to resume the day hikes that I used to do so regularly before my part-time teaching job turned to full-time.

And I want to spend more time just hanging out with Lori and Charlotte, our feisty little terrier mix.

Once travel becomes safe and normal again, I’m hoping that can become a regular thing.

School’s out — and so am I.

Whew! Big exhale. The hour is approaching 8 a.m., but instead of setting up for another remote meeting with students, I’m here in my “home office” knocking out a blog post that looks back and looks ahead.

Today is the deadline to submit final grades for the three classes I taught during the spring quarter at Portland State University. I got my work done early and took care of that two days ago.

My teaching contract expires on Friday. After four years of college teaching, and an academic quarter completely transformed by a global pandemic, I am done!

All that remains to do are sending a few emails to faculty colleagues and scheduling a trip downtown to clean out my office. I haven’t been there since late March, when the coronavirus forced the shuttering of campus and thrust all of us — faculty, staff and students — into the world of remote learning for the past 11 weeks.

I’ve spent more time on Zoom than I care to calculate, with 8 hours of instructional time each week, plus faculty meetings and one-on-one sessions, since the term began March 30.

But that’s nothing compared to students.

Most take three 4-credit classes, some take four, and many have part-time jobs that require additional screen time. Add in more hours doing online research coupled with writing assignments for multiple classes and that’s a whole lotta time online.

Fortunately for me, I can say it’s ending.

No more getting up at 5:15 to fix breakfast, get the morning news briefing, and review notes for that day’s lesson plan. No more heading downstairs to the makeshift office I set up in our TV room to engage with students on a screen. No more having to slog through a gusher of emails from this or that university official or newsletter, telling me about the latest webinar, survey, initiative or campus event — all of it online, of course.

But enough about screen time.

***

I want to talk about my last term of teaching — about my wonderful students and, as always, my gracious guest speakers.

Classes began under a cloud of uncertainty, thanks to COVID-19. With the dorms emptied out and everyone suddenly on Zoom, students were logging on from all over the metro area, as well as Salem and Eastern Oregon. A handful were at home in California. My teaching assistant was in New Jersey.

It didn’t take long for problems to arise. Some students, unnerved by the intimacy of videoconferencing, were overcome by anxiety. Some began to skip class. Others would attend, but with their camera off, leaving me to look at a growing number of black squares on what was supposed to be a grid of bright, shiny faces. Still others had technology issues that made it difficult to stay connected during our two-hour class meetings.

As we got further into the term, it was the real world that caused distress and a painful epiphany about the combined power and reach of amateur videos and digital journalism.

First, we witnessed the stalking and killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Then, the horrifying murder of George Floyd, setting off waves of fury across the country.

As COVID-19 deaths soared past 100,000 in America, images of masked protesters, stone-faced cops and burning buildings exploded onto our screens, big and small. Many of my students joined the protests in Portland and used social media to watch live videos, and post and share information with their peers.

What a moment in history for them to study media literacy and grasp the importance of getting accurate news from credible sources.

As the quarter drew to a close, students could see how much they had learned so quickly about the overlapping mediums of news, advertising and entertainment; about the spread of deepfakes and conspiracy theories; about filter bubbles, algorithms, “news deserts” and more.

Along the way, students in my Media Literacy class learned from three guest speakers: Kyle Iboshi, an investigative reporter with KGW-8; Maureen O’Connor, director of the advertising program at PSU; and Kate Lesniak, chief strategy officer at the digital media firm ThinkShout.

Meanwhile, those in my Media Ethics class engaged with my former colleague Susan Nielsen, who’s now executive director of a local education nonprofit, and Kelly Bantle, a public relations executive and strategic communications consultant.

All were terrific.

***

The Class of 2020 graduates into perilous times. In the past three months, they’ve had to adapt to social distancing while suffering reduced hours or lost jobs in a ravaged economy. They’ve witnessed a national reckoning with racism and police brutality. They’ve seen family members fall sick and even die from the coronavirus. And for all this, PSU’s 6,000 new graduates were rewarded with an online celebration of commencement ceremonies.

It hardly seems fair.

Throughout my four years of teaching at PSU, I have treasured my interactions with students. This term was no different. With the gradebooks closed and no further work from me needed, I have all the more reason to cherish notes like these that came to me during finals week.

Thank you so much for two amazing semesters! You have been my favorite teacher through all my classes here and in Arizona. “ — A.B.

“This class was beneficial to me as a student and a media consumer in so many ways! Thank you for being such a great professor!!” — C.F.

“Thank you so much for making this course so engaging and relevant to current events, I absolutely can say that I got a lot out of it despite the challenges of a fully remote term! My understanding of mass media and media literacy will forever be impacted by these lectures and supporting materials.”  — K.H.

And then there was this:

“I’m working on a 9-year bachelor’s degree that I will finally complete this fall. When I first came to Portland State, I was unsure of my direction, and to be honest, I still am. I have never been a confident student and had been pursuing a degree because I felt like I had to, not because I wanted to. I discovered your media literacy class in fall 2018 and for the first time, felt like what I was learning was transforming my mind.

“I still have no idea what I plan to do with this degree but through media literacy, mass communication, and media ethics I feel equipped to navigate the world of communication more than any other classes have made me feel. George, through your down to earth views, real-life experience, vulnerability, and intentional, thoughtful feedback, you have made an enormous positive impact on my self-esteem as a writer and a human trying to navigate this world and media. Anyways, all of this to say: Thank you. Thank you for your time and your teachings.” — S.J.

.

Still running

I hope I don’t jinx myself by writing this but…

I am still running. Six weeks ago in late April, I thought I had finally reached the point where my body was telling me, “No. Just no.”

I went out the front door, like so many hundreds of times before, and started a slow jog. Couldn’t even make it to the end of the block. Argh!

My left hip was tender from a few previous runs but I thought I’d be able to power through another one, even with a sore knee and perpetually tight hamstrings. Not a chance.

Maybe, finally, all these years of running on neighborhood streets, pounding the asphalt, had caught up with me.

***

During these three months of stay-at-home living, I figured I would make up for the loss of access to a gym by alternating running and bike riding.

The bicycling has gone just fine, but running has been hit and miss. With my teaching schedule eating up my mornings, and related schoolwork often gobbling up my afternoons, I’ve found it hard to achieve any consistency. And that ain’t good.

I made myself lay off for a month after that aborted one-block “run.” Enough time for common sense to kick in. Enough time for my personal trainer (um, Lori) to suggest an alternative: Why don’t you think about running on a softer surface?

And that’s how I wound up driving to Wilshire Park, a city park about two miles away, to run on a bark-chip trail with patches of dirt and gravel.

Wilshire is a leafy, neighborhood gem in Northeast Portland and it’s proven to be just what I needed. Lots less stress on my feet and legs.

I ran just three laps around the park’s perimeter the first time two weeks ago. I went back six days later and did four laps. Today I went back and did four more. All went well.

At this point, with 10Ks and half-marathons in my distant past, I’m not worried about speed or mileage. I care more about whether it’s a pleasurable, pain-free experience.

Though I ran competitively in high school (and clocked a PR in the one-mile run of 4 minutes, 38 seconds), I’ve been running since then for the sheer enjoyment. Breathing the fresh air, taking in the scenery and sounds. Running in every kind of weather all year-around. Going in whatever direction, at whatever time and for how long I’ve wanted, whether here in Portland or on the road.

I’d hate to give that up. For now, I’m grateful…

To still be running.