Ruminating about ‘Roma’

The director Alfonso Cuarón in the Colonia Roma neighborhood, near where he grew up in Mexico City.

You’d think I’d fall in love with “Roma,” the film that’s earned critical praise and a slew of international prizes in the last year. After all, it’s a drama (my favorite genre) set in Mexico; written, produced and filmed by an acclaimed Mexican director; and featuring a Mixtec woman as lead actress.

Last week, at the Golden Globes Awards, the film won Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language and Alfonso Cuarón was named Best Director by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

The honors didn’t surprise me, but my initial reaction to the film gave me pause. Why didn’t I gush over it the way I did “The Shape of Water,” a fantastical fairy tale about an assuming deaf-mute janitor and a sea creature being held in captivity? That, too, was written and directed by another accomplished Mexican, Guillermo del Toro, and I found it refreshingly uplifting.

I think a small part of the answer lies in watching “Roma” on the small screen at home (thank you, Netflix), which lessened the impact of the black-and-white wide-screen cinematography. A larger part, I think, stems from not having adequate context.

It wasn’t until after I’d read a couple of reviews that I even grasped the meaning of the movie’s title, let alone its autobiographical theme. The film is named for Colonia Roma, the well-to-do neighborhood in Mexico City where Cuarón grew up in a home with domestic help. The movie was filmed there with painstaking care given to recreating the 1970s era of his youth.

In the film, a young woman named Cleo works as a live-in maid and nanny for a family of five (plus a live-in grandmother) who take her for granted as she rises early to wake the kids; cooks, cleans and does mountains of laundry by hand; and helps the harried mother from unraveling while her doctor-husband is away at a conference.

Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, and it’s a marvelous thing to see an indigenous woman in a starring role. But it’s a slow-moving film — purposely slow — and while there are a couple of dramatic life-and-death scenes in a hospital and at an ocean resort, there’s no tidy resolution either.

But after learning more about Cuarón’s back story and taking into account some discussion about the technical aspects of the film by two leading movie critics, I think this is one film that I need to see again.

I’d like to think I’m not overly swayed by reviews, as I recognize that critics and the public often are at odds on what they consider a good film. In this case, these reviews in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and an interview with Cuarón himself, shed a lot more light on the director’s intentions in making “Roma.”

‘Roma’ lives up to lofty expectations with a beautiful, deliberate and ultimately moving portrait of domestic life – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

‘Roma’ Review: Alfonso Cuarón’s Masterpiece of Memory – Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

Mexico City as the Director of ‘Roma’ Remembers It (and Hears It) – Kirk Semple, The New York Times

Now the question is, when do I find time for a second viewing?

Photograph: Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

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London stories: Hyde Park

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On my first weekend in London last summer, I visited Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.

I had the best of intentions last summer when I returned from England to share my experiences in a series of posts I was going to call “London stories.”

I produced exactly one. And funny thing, it wasn’t even about London. It was about my day trip to Oxford, an hour outside the city, where I stumbled upon something called “Soapbox Science.”

Well, here goes Round 2. If I don’t give myself a kick in the arse, it’ll never get done. (Besides, this is a good way to start thinking ahead to July, when I’ll return to teach Media Literacy to a new group of students.)

So why not start with the same place where I literally began my visit last summer? That would be Hyde Park, a big and beautiful green space that I explored during my first weekend in the city.

If you’ve ever visited New York City’s Central Park, then you have an idea of Hyde Park. It’s a gathering place for Londoners of all ages and social classes — a living, breathing tapestry of people sharing a public space with room for everyone. With more than 600 acres of greenery, the park has multiple entrances and activities of all kinds.

On my Sunday afternoon visit, I saw skateboarders, bicyclists and joggers on the paved paths; tourists and residents out for a walk; young adults and couples sunning themselves or cooling off in the shade; families picnicking on blankets; and people of all kinds, in hijabs and baseball caps, renting canoes and paddle boats on a man-made lake. All of this, plus a view of central London in the distance, made for a very inviting, cosmopolitan feel.

I accessed the park from the south side, just across the street from the Royal Albert Hall, where Adele and The Beatles and so many other musicians have performed, and passed by the ostentatious Albert Memorial, named for Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband), right at the entrance.

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As I wandered through, I passed by a grassy area where performers with a Flying Trapeze School were giving lessons, and later spotted a huge sign listing live music and theater at the park. Paul Simon was scheduled that evening, a night after Bruno Mars and a week after Eric Clapton had performed. Damn!

For lack of time, I decided to forgo a visit to the far northeast corner of the park to see the famed Speakers’ Corner, where soapbox orators can pontificate to their heart’s delight. Instead I made my way to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. It was the liveliest area of the park, with parents joining their children in an ankle-deep circular stream of cooling water.

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From there, I walked along the north perimeter of the park, adjacent to the trendy Notting Hill neighborhood, and headed for the western part of the park, known as Kensington Gardens.

If I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was still in Portland. Shaded trees, quiet paths shared by walkers and bicyclists, and a wonderfully relaxed vibe made me think of Laurelhurst Park in my own city. There are several markers and plaques describing the area’s history and wildlife, including foxes and Great Blue Herons, and I was pleasantly surprised by the park’s scenic lagoons.

Eventually, I made it to Kensington Palace in the southwest corner of the park. The elegant structure was the royal residence for nearly 150 years, from 1689 to 1837, before Buckingham Palace took over that role. Queen Victoria, the longest-serving British monarch during a 64-year reign that ended in 1901, was born here.

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Today it serves as the official residence of the young royals — William and Kate, Harry and Meghan. I balked at the admission price for a tour, especially as the day was winding down, and settled for a photo of the exterior.

I had begun the day by visiting two museums. After a long walk in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, I was more than ready to head home and rest my feet. But as I did, I felt I had treated myself to the best possible introduction to this amazing city.

Rollover resolutions

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More water, more fruits (and veggies) in 2019.

Three days into the new year and I’m thinking about what to put on my list of intentions for 2019.

I’ve got it: Rollover resolutions.

Since I did only moderately well on last year’s three, why not roll ’em over like rollover minutes on my cell phone plan?

For the record, here’s what I pledged to do a year ago:

  • Drink more water.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • Lighten up on the iPhone.

When I checked on myself in July, I acknowledged slippage in all three areas.

Read “About those resolutions” here

This year, I’m rolling over the first two and subbing in a third one:

  • Drink more water.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • Reclaim my Fridays.

The first two make a lot of sense. Coupled with a vow to resume regular exercise, they will do me good. More water, less coffee. More bananas, fewer cookies. More salads, fewer fries.

The third one makes sense in a different way. I see it as a dedicated one day a week when I do something for my mental or physical health as opposed to letting my four-day work week slop over into a fifth weekday.

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The first thing that comes to mind is doing my urban hikes again, with my tattered copy of “Portland Hill Walks” as a guide. When the weather warms up again, I’d like to go a step further and break in the “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles” I received as a gift last year.

Blast from the past: A catalogue of urban hikes

Other ideas that come to mind: daytime bowling, an afternoon matinee, breakfast or coffee with a friend, lunch with Lori (she works every Friday), a longer-than-usual walk with Charlotte.

As I write this, I know I’m giving myself some leeway to say yes to work-related events. Already, I’m committed to a lunch this Friday with school and work colleagues. Two weeks later, I’m going to speak to a group of student journalists at WSU Vancouver, something I committed to long ago.

This year, I’m going to hold myself more accountable on all three. Wish me luck.

 

2018: Looking back, looking ahead

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Sunday morning walk in Kensington Gardens, near my accommodations in London.

A wedding, a cross-country move, a teaching stint in the U.K. Those were just a few of the highlights of this past year, when a combination of factors resulted in far fewer blog posts than normal.

Let’s get after it, shall we?

The month of May brought the biggest, most welcome news. That’s when our oldest child, Nathan, married his girlfriend, Sara Bird, in a casual ceremony on a Sunday night.

The couple had been together for eight years and it was nice to see them take the next step, surrounded by friends and family at Victoria, a popular bar and restaurant in North Portland. The bride and groom said “I do” under dim lighting in the bar as a longtime friend of both, Jared White, officiated. At least six of Nathan’s DJ friends, including Reverend Jared, took turns pumping out dance music.

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

It’s funny that our oldest of three children would be the last to wed, and the youngest the first to wed. The newlyweds postponed their honeymoon until the fall, but then went big — to Spain and Barcelona. Back at work, Nathan is a line cook at Besaw’s and continues to DJ while Sara works in human resources for the Bishops haircutting chain.

Best thing of all: Now we have three daughters-in-law, as different as can be in personality, stature and interests. We love them all.

Among the guests that day was my stepmother, Ora. She flew in from New Mexico to spend a few days with us and we thoroughly enjoyed her visit. She sang a traditional Mexican song to Nathan at the wedding rehearsal lunch, and saw a lot of the sights in the South Waterfront district with me when I took a day off to ride the trolley and tram with her up to Oregon Health & Science University.

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Three generations: Lori, Grandma Ora and Simone.

The other big family news came in August, when our youngest child, Jordan, completed another cross-country move on his path to a Ph.D. He and his wife Jamie and their daughter, Emalyn, moved from Missouri to upstate New York so he could begin a five-year Ph.D program in microbiology at Cornell University.

They’re living in a rented farmhouse just outside the village of Spencer, about 20 miles south of the Cornell campus in Ithaca. They are 200-plus miles northwest of New York City, nestled in the Finger Lakes area, so named for five lakes that resemble fingers on a downward-facing hand.

They are in a beautiful part of the country,  marked by two-lane roads, rolling green hills and colonial style homes. Lori and I visited Jordan and family to help unload three big Pods and get them settled into their new place. Lori returned on her own in November for a pre-holiday visit and loved spending time with little Emmy, who at 2 1/2 years old grows smarter and more adorable each day. We’re making plans for a return visit in March.

Our time with Jordan and Jamie came on the heels of my teaching a summer course in media literacy in London, England.

It was a pinch-me, is-this-really-happening moment that lasted two weeks. I had six students come with me from Portland and Vancouver for an intense but thoroughly enjoyable time in one of the world’s leading cities. We visited the Houses of Parliament and leading media organizations, hosted guest speakers, crisscrossed the city on the tube, and saw a variety of historical landmarks and tourist attractions from a bus, a boat and on foot. On the final weekend, I took a day trip to Oxford by train and the next day saw an Agatha Christie play in a magnificent building set next to the Thames River.

Assuming I can recruit another group of students, I’m going back again in July 2019 to teach the same class. Only this time, we’re planning to have Lori join me toward the end for a shared British vacation.

(Because of my travels to London and Ithaca, I put my annual Voices of August guest writers project on hold. I’m anticipating more free time next year and looking forward to version 8.0 with contributions from near and far.)

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What else happened in 2018? Here’s a quick rundown:

Sports: While Portland is considered a backwater for major league sports, I still got my fill of professional and amateur events. I attended a handful of Trail Blazers games, saw my first Portland Timbers match, showed up for two Portland State basketball games at the new Viking Pavilion, and took Lori to see a Portland Thorns soccer game

Most enjoyable, however, was taking in Day One of the NCAA Track and Field Championships at the University of Oregon in Eugene. The four-day meet in June was one of the last major competitions at Historic Hayward Field, which is undergoing a huge redesign and rebuilt that will culminate in a larger, world-class facility in time for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials.

My friend Eric Wilcox works for a Portland architectural firm that is part of the stadium redesign project, so he was able to get us the NCAA tickets. We had great seats in the West Grandstand with a good view of the finish line for all the running events.

Music: I saw a handful of favorite artists in concert, all of them packed into the second half of the year: James Taylor, Hall and Oates, LeAnn Rimes and Liz Longley. The superstars need no introduction, but you may not be familiar with Liz Longley. She’s a Nashville-based singer-songwriter whose music was introduced to me by a longtime friend who’s also a professional music critic. I’ve seen Liz four times now in four venues in Portland. Wonderful voice and very happy to pose for selfies after her shows.

Books:  I did relatively little reading this year, so I have no trouble recalling “Behold the Dreamers” as my favorite. It’s the debut novel by Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian immigrant, and her story about a wealthy New York couple and a young immigrant couple from Cameroon takes place just as the Great Recession takes hold in 2018.

I re-read two books — something I never do — but these were extraordinary novels and deserving of another read: “Devil in a Blue Dress” by Walter Mosley and “Winter’s Bone” by Daniel Woodrell. I also enjoyed “Slide!” by my talented neighbor, Carl Wolfson; “Shot Through the Heart” by MIkal Gilmore; and “The Piano Lesson,” a play by August Wilson.

A related highlight: In October, I attended a Think & Drink event with the author Eli Saslow at the Alberta Rose Theatre. Oregon Humanities is presenting a series of four conversations on journalism and justice during 2018-19, and the Saslow event was the first. He talked about his book, “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist.” Sounds intriguing. I’ve put it on my reading list for 2019.

Sold: In September, we shared a bittersweet moment when we sold our beloved cabin on Orcas Island. During the 13 years we owned it, we treasured every trip to our little piece of paradise, a modest log cabin tucked into the woods with a view of the ocean water. It was a place to soak up the silence, appreciate nature’s beauty, and let the stress melt away. We take comfort in knowing that the place will be in good hands — those of a young Seattle-based writer who was looking for a quiet place to do his creative work.

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Here in Portland, we continue to enjoy good health, good friends and our furry companions – Charlotte, our feisty Border Terrier-Pug-Chihuahua, and Mabel, our sweet-natured brown tabby cat.

With a new runner’s watch (a birthday gift from Lori) and new resolve to use it, I look forward to a more physically active 2019. Likewise, new opportunities await at work and at play. Can’t wait to get started.

 

Another trip around the sun

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I’ve always enjoyed having a birthday that falls between Christmas and New Year’s. Three reasons why:

No. 1: I seem to always have the day off.

No. 2: In the long run-up to the major holidays, my special day has always seemed like something of a respite. If it gets overlooked, no big deal.

No. 3: The weather is usually cold and wet. If I’m driven to stay indoors, that’s not a bad thing. I can always read a book and/or get warm by the fireplace.

This year, I was off again from work. The weather was cool and dry. And while I enjoyed kicking back yesterday morning — with a book and a swim — there was no way my birthday was going to be overlooked.

Lori took me out to dinner and presented me with a pile of small gifts afterward, ranging from sushi-themed socks to a new runner’s watch. And thanks to assorted texts, voice mails, social media posts and other well wishes sent from near and far, I’m feeling the warm fuzzies that come from knowing so many fine people in addition to my extended family.

Now that I’ve reached, um, the big Sesenta y Seis (that would be LXVI in Super Bowl years), I suppose that I ought to have something halfway profound to say. You know, something along the lines of facing life’s challenges — or looking back on this or that path not taken.

But the truth is, I feel quite content and even a little guilty.

I’m happily married to my college sweetheart, 43 years and counting. We share a lovely home with our dog and cat in a cool neighborhood in a great, if imperfect, city.

I’ve got three wonderful children, three wonderful daughters-in-law, and one wonderful granddaughter. And though only two of our kids live here in Portland, we’re making plans to visit the third in upstate New York early next year.

I’m healthy and reasonably fit, though I know could (and resolve to) work out more regularly.

I’m enjoying a second career, having transitioned from the newsroom to the college classroom three years ago.

In short, I have nothing to complain about and much to be thankful for.

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A Christmas Day gathering with some of the people I love most. Clockwise from left: son Nathan, daughter-in-law Sara, daughter-in-law Kyndall, daughter Simone and my wife, Lori.

Funny thing, the book that I’m reading now centers on a larger-than-life character who couldn’t be more different than me. In his memoir, the guy holds back nothing about his thieving, drug-addled, promiscuous past, starting with a failed attempt at college, working alongside a swashbuckling group of heavily tatted, hard-drinking  cronies, and  rising, then crashing and burning, in his chosen profession.

As I’m reading this, I’m thinking “What a life!” From a publisher’s standpoint, how great to have such a talented writer so willing to share tales of wretched excess in a compelling narrative that surely culminates in redemption. From a reader’s perspective, how enthralling to experience the “bad boy” lifestyle through the lens of the one who’s actually lived it.

And from my point of view, how very different my own life has been.

Honestly, I’m one of those guys who largely stays within the lines. I’m not a big risk-taker. Hence, no broken bones (ever), no arrests, no sordid tales from college days or travels abroad. No teenage pranks, no school suspensions, no elaborate pranks. No tattoos, no piercings. Heck, I even drive the speed limit.

No best-selling memoir for me.

But, you know, I’m pretty happy all things considered. I know there are an awful lot of people out there dealing with all manner of stresses, whether it’s work, family, finances, relationships or retirement. Depression, anxiety and worries about physical health are widespread.

I’m fortunate — blessed, really — to be in this situation and I don’t take it lightly. Having just completed another trip around the sun, I look forward to another Year of Not Living Dangerously, with appreciation for all those people I love and all the things I enjoy.

If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll enjoy this soothing song that’s one of my favorites. It happened to come up on YouTube as I was composing this post.

A lesson in patience

patienceSometimes things don’t go as planned — and that’s a good thing.

Went to the gym late this morning anticipating I’d have a leisurely swim in a near-empty pool. No chance.

All three lanes were fully occupied with two swimmers each, and I found myself in a queue of six people waiting to get in. It was 11 am and the gym was going to close at noon for Christmas Eve, but no one in the water was making any accommodations for that.

Finally got into the water as part of a circle swim and was in and out in 10 minutes. I cut my workout way short out of consideration for others still waiting.

Went to the locker room, where I found a towel hook missing on my shower stall, virtually every soap dispenser empty, a paper towel dispenser also empty, and the water fountain broken.

Not at all what I expected. In fact, you might say I was a tad irritated.

On the way out, I stopped at the front desk and said to the woman behind the counter, “Excuse me, can you tell me the name of the manager?”

She smiled and said, “That would be me. I’m Danni.”

And before I could say a thing, she said, “I know, I know. I’m working on it.”

She explained that she’d been hired as manager a week ago, but had been told by her district supervisor not to report to this gym until after the day after Christmas, as she was already managing a different gym. Presumably, the outgoing manager would tie up loose ends at this facility.

Well, that didn’t sit right with Danni. She said she was trying to replace two janitorial staff and had interviewed someone with relevant experience that very morning, and hoped he’d be able to start on Wednesday.

She knew all about the broken water fountain and the empty soap and towel dispensers. She said she knew it was unacceptable and told me that if I ever noticed anything in the future that needed attention, to let her know.

I’ve had minor issues with this gym before involving billing and basic maintenance. I’ve also been aware of ongoing staff turnover, not just among group exercise instructors but also front desk and janitorial employees, so I can understand if it’s not the easiest thing to hire replacements.

On the day before Christmas, I might have come off as a jerk to the new manager had I complained. Fortunately, Danni didn’t even let that happen. With her disarming smile and promise to make things right, I left with an appreciation for the way she handled the situation and a valuable reminder to always give people the benefit of the doubt.

Once again, I’ve learned that you can never know the full story in a situation unless you give another person the space to explain. On this Christmas Eve, I salute Danni for being so honest and direct.

Lesson learned and taken to heart.

Image: Aubree Deimler

Letting go of Orcas

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Eagle Lake: beautiful from any angle.

After 13 years of enjoying a piece of paradise, we no longer own our lovely cabin on Orcas Island.

We sold our vacation home in September, a bittersweet moment for sure. The fact that it’s taken me more than three months to finally write about it suggests that I may be in denial. After all, this is a place that created so many wonderful memories for our family over the years.

But, yes, it’s true.

We sold it to the ideal buyer — a Seattle-based writer who had visited the island many a time and was looking for a quiet place to nurture his creative talents. We think he made a great choice.

We bought the place in 2005 with a hefty down payment we made with our share of an inheritance from Lori’s parents. In the years since, it’s been a place where we could come and relax for a few days at a time, knowing we’d find solitude and serenity at the end of a gravel driveway with a gorgeous view of water, mountains and forest.

 

The memories are too numerous to mention. But I list a few here just to remind myself of the special occasions and extraordinary number of places on the island where one could enjoy the sights, smells and sounds of nature.

None surpasses the day in August 2014 when our daughter Simone married Kyndall on a spectacular Saturday afternoon ceremony that extended into a lively, intergenerational party in the rented Odd Fellows Hall. Nearly 100 people came from a dozen states to join in a celebration that was preceded by a rehearsal dinner at Eagle Lake.

Another favorite: When I spent a long weekend alone with my two boys, Nathan and Jordan.

 

But there was plenty more:

— Family walks and solitary runs around Mountain Lake, Cascade Lake and Twin Lakes. Day hikes to Obstruction Pass State Park and Turtleback Mountain.

— Kayaking trips out of Doe Bay and Deer Harbor. Playing nine-hole rounds at Orcas Island Golf Club.

— Sitting at the edge of Eagle Lake with a beer or a glass of wine on a sunny afternoon, gazing at a bald eagle or an osprey as trout occasionally breached the water’s surface.

— Walking the Lake Trail around Eagle Lake, first with Otto, our Jack Russell Terrier, and then with Charlotte, our Border Terrier-Chihuahua-Pug. Doing the same on the trails above our home, leading up to Peregrine Lane.

— Driving through Moran State Park to and from Eastsound, the center of commercial activity on the island. Taking visitors to the top of Mount Constitution for a majestic view of the San Juan Islands, Canada and the U.S. mainland.

— Discovering the quirky vibe of Open Mic Night at Doe Bay Resort while savoring a tasty dinner. Patronizing local vendors at the Farmers Market. Buying farm-fresh duck eggs and live clams at Buck Bay.

— Sampling the many great places to eat on the island, ranging from the elegant Inn at Ship Bay to our favorite lunch spot, Asian Kitchen, to the old-school Lower Tavern, where I could count on a delicious burger and fries and a billiards table, to Brown Bear Bakery, with its luscious treats.

 

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Even with all of that, the greatest pleasure was simply being alone in our cabin, waking up to the sounds of songbirds and preparing a leisurely breakfast. We’d have lunch outside on the deck, go for an outing somewhere, curl up with a book in front of the woodstove, cook a nice dinner, watch a movie or play a board game, and go to bed in a loft bedroom partly illuminated by moonlight and a blanket of stars.

We would come up three to four times a year, usually for a week at a time. Part of the routine was stopping for coffee breaks and designated rest areas at the same spots along I-5 on our way to and from the ferry landing in Anacortes. During the years that Jordan and Jamie lived in Spanaway, just outside Tacoma, we’d stop in for an overnight visit.

But with the two of them, and our granddaughter Emalyn, now living on the East Coast and our two oldest kids and their spouses preoccupied with many other things in their lives, we realized the time had come for us to think about selling the property.  Plus, Lori wanted to be free of the burden of maintaining a second home, especially when we were only getting up there not even a handful of times a year.

 

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We will always treasure the friendships we made on the island, particularly with Carl and Juliana Capdeville, who took us under their wing as Eagle Lake caretakers when we first arrived in this neck of the woods. We shared many a meal with them, got to know their three adult children, and were pleased to have them prepare and serve the catered dinner at Simone and Kyndall’s wedding.

I found myself feeling sad the other day, realizing there was no place I’d rather be than in the living room of our cabin, dozing in the recliner with Charlotte in my lap, and absolutely nothing to do other than read a good book. The moment passed, however, when I realized that I have this blog to remind me of the beautiful images and wonderful memories made in this tranquil place.

Like it or not, I need to close this chapter of our lives. I am letting go of Orcas.

 

Viking Pavilion

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With my buddy Steve Beaven, formerly a reporter at The Oregonian and a writer for the Portland State University Foundation.

Portland State’s new Viking Pavilion opened in April with a lot of fanfare on the South Park Blocks — and now I can see why. The $52 million facility provides a new home for the university’s basketball and volleyball teams at the south end of campus.

The 3,000-seat arena has, at most, only about a third of the capacity of its two in-state sister institutions, the University of Oregon and Oregon State University, which both play in the more prestigious Pacific 12 Conference.

But the smaller scale is a big part of the appeal of Portland State’s arena. Having been there twice now, I can say that the more intimate space makes it a fun place to watch a game.

Last night, I went with a friend and former work colleague, Steve Beaven, to see PSU play its last preseason game of the year against Cal State Bakersfield. A couple weeks earlier, I went on my own, as a respite from Finals Week, to see PSU take on its intercity rival, the University of Portland.

The Vikings lost a close one last night, 76-71, but easily defeated the U of P,  87-78.

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I sat in the general admission area for the first game and had a great view from the second-level seats. At the second game, it was an even better view from the reserved section, just two rows back from the floor at mid-court. The action is so much faster and the athleticism so much more apparent when you’re that close.

The venue itself is open and inviting, and there’s not a bad seat in the house. At one end of the arena, you can sit as if you were at a long bar counter and look out onto the action. At the other end, there is a reserved section for large groups. On either side, there are additional reserved sections that pass for suites. (Nobody was using them at last night’s game.  Not a surprise, given the low stakes of a non-conference game when students are off for the winter break.)

There are just two concession stands and a couple of places to get a beer or cider (yes, cider, this being Portland). There is also a display of exhibits featuring Hall of Fame athletes as you enter the building.

During halftime last night, I noticed a couple members of the coed stunt team join the line for a snack, something you definitely wouldn’t see at the Moda Center, where the NBA’s Trail Blazers play. That little vignette underscored my overall take of the Viking Pavilion — that the place has the cozy feel of a high school gym.

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I’d never attended a PSU game before now. There was little incentive last year, when the Vikings had to play their home games across town at Lewis and Clark College. Now I’m inclined to go back again.

With affordable prices, convenient parking on the street and entertaining basketball, what’s not to like?

 

No easy path to a college degree

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Oregon State University athletes Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci co-founded the #DamWorthIt campaign in January 2018 to raise awareness of mental health issues. (Photo: Oregon State University)

Working with young adults as I do, it’s easy to celebrate their accomplishments in the college classroom and feel good about their post-graduation paths. During two-plus years of adjunct teaching at two campuses, I have enjoyed seeing the critical thinking and writing ability of many students come into plain view over the course of an academic quarter or semester.

This past fall, however, a different aspect of higher education has become more readily apparent. I’m talking about the multi-faceted challenges involving mental illness, physical health, finances and work that stand as barriers on the path to a college degree.

Whether it’s a single one of these obstacles or more, these issues can get in the way of a student’s academic achievement and even derail their best-laid plans.

For instance, during my just-completed fall classes at Portland State University and Washington State University Vancouver:

— One student withdrew from school because of depression and wound up being hospitalized for several days. Others, I learned, were dealing with anxiety and neurosis.

— One student withdrew because of a grandparent’s death. The student was already under stress from having to care for her adolescent brother while her mother was preoccupied caring for the ailing grandmother abroad.

— One student’s father was killed in a car crash. The student took off a couple weeks to grieve and attend the funeral, then came back and finished the term.

— Three students missed multiple classes because they had to take their mom, dad or significant other to get emergency medical care.

— Other students were absent or left class abruptly because they were called into work.

— A handful of moms and dads missed classes because they had to stay home with a sick son or daughter. A prolonged teachers strike wreaked additional havoc, forcing one student to bring her first-grader to campus when she couldn’t find child care.

Even when health wasn’t an issue, other issues popped up. Ever heard of the digital divide? It’s the gap between the “haves” — those with easy access to technology, including mobile devices and broadband internet service — and the “have-nots” — the ones who, lacking these amenities, must go to libraries and other places on campuses to do internet research and print hard copies of their work. I had several “have-nots” in my classes.

The digital divide leads to the homework gap, as seen in this video.

One student, a young mother with two sons, said this fall was the first time she’d been able to buy a laptop computer of her own, thanks to a generous scholarship.

Another student who received an “F” in my class pleaded with me to change the grade to an incomplete, explaining that she and her mother had been struggling financially and that she only had sporadic internet access thanks to a neighbor sharing their Wi-Fi during times of slow usage. (I had no idea this was happening so, of course, I changed the grade to an “I”.)

In many of these cases, the students involved are the sons and daughters of recent immigrants and the first in their family to attend college. As a first-generation student myself and coming from a working-class background, I too worked part-time and relied on scholarships to put myself through school.

But those were simpler and more affordable times, before the invention of these costly technological devices and the development of anxiety-producing social media. And, unlike some of my students, I never would have imagined working full-time and going to school, too.  No wonder some of them struggle to stay awake in class.

Heck, even food is an issue. On both campuses, I’ve seen fliers publicizing campaigns to restock food pantries. Naively, I thought it was cool that these students were collecting food for others in the community. Only later did I realize these efforts were for other students.

At Portland State, the average age of students is 27 and roughly 40 percent of freshmen are students of color. I love the diversity and the energy derived from working at an urban campus of nearly 28,000 students, set right in the heart of downtown.

At WSU Vancouver, a commuter campus that draws heavily from small cities and towns in Southwest Washington, just under 25 percent of students are ethnic or racial minorities. As at PSU, many are returning students, including veterans and community college transfers, and there is a growing cohort of LGBTQ individuals.

At neither place is there a sense of entitlement, as one find at the Ivies or other top-rated private institutions. And that’s exactly how I like it.

Steffi_MentalHealthInCollege-336x446From Day One, I’ve known my students are typically not the ones who were high school stars with a long list of extracurricular activities — and that’s fine. More often these are the ones who tap into their potential only after zigging and zagging in their early years of their life. Some of this is a result of not yet knowing what they want to do or what they are capable of. And some of this is a result of external factors such as those described above.

I now see with greater clarity just how much of a challenge it can be for these young men and women. As I ease into my time off between semesters, I can resolve right now to do a better job of keeping my eyes and ears open and reaching out sooner to those I suspect may be struggling.

Done with finals!

There’s nothing quite like back-to-back Finals Week at two campuses to make you appreciate the moment when you’re done.

Yes, it’s a lot of work. No, it wasn’t something that could have been avoided. But heck yeah, it feels good to have it all wrapped up. Now I can look forward to three weeks off at the holidays, enough time to reflect and recharge.

In this, my third year of teaching as a college adjunct, I’ve gained some new insights and plan to share those in my next blog post.

Today, though, is all about celebrating the end of the semester at Washington State University Vancouver and the end of the quarter at Portland State University. It’s also about celebrating my good fortune to have two outstanding students who worked with me as teaching assistants. More on them in a minute.

First, some context:

I began teaching at WSUV in late August. It was a 17-week semester that ended on Friday, Dec. 14, with the posting of grades and a faculty lunch at a Portland barbecue joint. In between, the 11-week quarter at Portland State started in early September and finished a week earlier in early December.

wsu.wreath

A holiday wreath adorns the Multimedia Classroom Building at WSU Vancouver.

It was inevitable that the end of the PSU quarter and the end of the WSUV semester would come right on the heels of each other.

At Portland State, I taught Media Literacy, a topic that examines the news, advertising and entertainment media, and gives students the tools to better understand the origin, design and purpose of the bazillion media messages that bombard us.

At WSUV, I taught Media and Society, a class that explores the social role of the media. It’s a wide-ranging topic that looks at the economics and government regulation of the media industries; the evolution of print, radio, television and the internet; media content and representation; and how the development of technology affects our social world and vice versa. (Think of the ripple effects of social media and online shopping, just to name two examples.)

Together, the last couple weeks meant 51 in-depth essays to read and a final exam to prepare and grade at one campus, and 41 essays and a final exam to prepare and grade at the other.

Oh, and there was the online internship class that I supervise, too, at Portland State. That meant rounding up employer/supervisor evaluations plus reading final papers and updated resumes from the 10 students who registered to receive credit for their on-the-job experiences this fall.

But I’m not complaining. On the contrary, end of term is when you realize you’ve made a positive impact on the lives of many students, especially those who came in with only a vague idea of what it means to be media-literate in today’s society — and why it matters.

Here’s a thank-you card from a single mom who was chosen as a Ford Opportunity Scholar this school year. The scholarship covers up to 90 percent of unmet financial need for students who are single heads-of-household. (She was one of two Ford Scholars in my class. Both earned an A-minus.)

psu.thanks

Note from a student at Portland State.

***

Nothing I accomplished this past fall would have been possible without the help of two exceptional young women who served as my TAs: Evelyn Waka Smith at WSUV and Tullia Fusco at PSU.

Aside from senior standing, each had to have taken a class from me previously and received a straight A to be eligible for the role. Each had to be someone I could rely on as accurate and impartial.  Each had to be someone I could trust. Both easily met that bar.

Evelyn was indispensable to my efforts at WSUV.  She came up with two to three questions for each chapter quiz that I gave during the term, plus the midterm and final exams, and did most of the grading. Once, when I had a photocopying job to finish in another building, she stepped in with no notice to lead a class discussion in my absence.

Tullia was essential, as well. She graded her peers’ work involving twice-a-week writing assignments and tracked their scores. Like Evelyn, she provided excellent feedback on my lesson plans, before and after, and some end-of-term suggestions of what to tweak for future classes.

Evelyn is graduating this winter. At 26, she is well positioned to launch her career as a Digital Technology & Culture major with minors in Business, English and Communication. She took a gap year off following high school, then obtained an associate degree and worked for a time as a nurse.

She switched gears, went back to school at a four-year university, and wound up in my Sports and the Media class. This past summer, while I was teaching in London, she was in Valencia, Spain, studying business under through a WSU Study Abroad program.

Tullia is on track to graduate in the spring or possibly the summer. She, too, took a gap year off after graduating from Grant High School, the same Northeast Portland school that two of our kids attended. Tullia spent a year in Italy studying the language, then enrolled at PSU, where she is majoring in Communication.

She took my Media Literacy class nearly two years ago, and was so impressive that I reached out then to her as a potential TA, not realizing she was just a sophomore. Now 21, she returned to Italy for her junior year for more in-depth study of the language as well as several required courses in English.

When the new year begins, I’ll be on my own with just a single class at WSUV (Sports and the Media this time) and the online internship class at PSU. During the spring quarter at Portland State, I’ll be teaching Media Literacy once again. If enrollment surpasses a certain number, I may qualify to have another TA. Whomever it is will have a tough act to follow.