Celebrating our Uncle Junior

For years, the death of a loved one meant trudging into church for a somber religious ceremony that dwelled on grief. These days, someone’s passing is more likely to be acknowledged with a celebration of life, giving family and friends a way to commemorate the deceased person in a less formal, more upbeat fashion.

Elements of both came into play this past weekend at services for my late uncle, Julian Flores Jr., and the symmetry couldn’t have been a better fit.

Uncle Junior, as he was known to all, was a big teddy bear of a man. He was the eighth of nine children born to my maternal grandparents, Julian and Mercedes Flores, and the youngest of my late mom’s three brothers. He died on Dec. 18th in his hometown of Salinas, California, at age 76, leaving behind a beautiful wife, four daughters and three granddaughters.

HIs family organized a funeral mass on Saturday, Dec. 28th, with a bilingual choir and a traditional Catholic service that was solemn in tone, and striking in the wide variety of family, friends and business associates who attended.

At the after-party that followed at a nearby American Legion hall, there were touching and humorous stories from his widow and several of my cousins that brought my dear uncle’s mischievous sense of humor to life. In addition, there was more than enough food, no shortage of desserts, and a DJ who kept things lively.

Uncle Junior would have loved it. True, he was a local businessman, as the longtime owner of a bookkeeping and tax services company and as a founding member of the North Salinas Lions Club. But nothing defined him better, at least in my mind, than the love and respect he held for all the women in his life.

My fondest memory of my tío was attending the 50th wedding anniversary of him and my Aunt Minnie, a retired teacher. When he died, they were up to 55 years and still counting.

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There are very few of us cousins who’ve moved away from California, where the Flores clan — as well as the Rede clan on my father’s side — settled in three generations ago as farmworkers. I’ve lived in Oregon since graduating college in the mid-70s, which means I’ve often been outside the loop when it comes to family gatherings and milestones.

These days, unfortunately, it is funerals more than weddings that bring us together.

My mom died six years ago and my dad three years ago. I was grateful for the many relatives who showed up at one or both services, and glad that I could be there for Uncle Junior’s services. At this point, there is only one surviving aunt or uncle on either side of my family tree — my godmother, Lupe Rubio, who is 97, and the eldest of all her siblings.

Though I wish the circumstances had been different this weekend, it was still a pleasure to see cousins that I mostly keep in touch with via social media. (Heck, I even got to see my younger sister, who lives in Alaska.) Though we are separated by hundreds of miles, there’s nothing quite like looking into a familiar face and recalling times when we played as kids at each other’s houses while our moms cooked up the world’s best Mexican food and our dads sipped on a beer and shot the breeze.

There wasn’t enough time to get around to everyone before my sister Cathy and I, accompanied by a favorite cousin, Delia, headed out to a local cemetery to visit our mom’s gravesite. Following that, we spent time with my Aunt Lupe at the assisted living center where she now resides and then visited her oldest son, my cousin Ralph, at the regional hospital where he is convalescing after some recent health issues.

Sunday morning arrived way too early and I had to hit the road to catch my mid-day flight back home to Portland. It was a nice feeling to touch bases with many of those who’ve known me since I was a skinny, dark-haired kid nicknamed “Pudgie.” Go figure.

Our parents, our selves

Everywhere I turn, it seems, there’s someone sharing a list of the best books of 2019.

My list would be awfully short — I’ve read only 5 books so far this year. But one of them was especially memorable, and even writing about it now several months later, I’m still struggling to find the right words for my takeaways.

But if I were to recommend a single book to my friends, it would be this one: “Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents.”

It’s not a novel with a single narrative. Rather, it’s a collection of essays, knitted together from 25 diverse writers across the country, and focused on the idea that each of us carries a trait we’ve inherited from a parent. You know the old adage, right? “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Think about it. Are you a planner or a procrastinator? A heart-on-your-sleeve sentimentalist? Or a reserved introvert? Someone driven by ambition? Or someone perpetually lacking self-esteem? In what way, like it or not, are you like your mother or father?

In this collection, each of the writers reflects on how an inherited characteristic or quality of a parent has affected the lives they lead today and how, in many cases, it has shifted their relationship to that parent. In some instances, it’s caused them to rethink their sense of self.

The variety of viewpoints makes for fascinating reading. Each essayist tackles a different topic — such as race, dementia, personal independence, unrealized hopes — from an individual perspective that reflects differences in age, gender, sexual orientation and geography.

Several of the essayists reside in places like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., while others live in the Midwest and the South. Three, I’m happy to say, are from Oregon. (More on them later.)

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“Apple, Tree” was conceived of and edited by Lise Funderburg, a writer, editor and lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. In the introduction, she reflects on the influence of her father, a black man, born in 1926, who grew up in rural Georgia, where his own father was known as “the town’s nigger doctor” and their neighborhood was called Colored Folks Hill.

Lise Funderburg

It was early September when I heard Funderburg speak at a promotional event at Broadway Books, my neighborhood bookstore. The book had just come out and she was ecstatic about “what we can learn from thoughtful people who are beautiful writers.”

Three of the writers, all from Portland, were there to read from their essays:

Kate Carroll de Gutes, author of two memoirs, winner of an Oregon Book Award, and generous contibutor to my 2019 Voices of August guest blog project.

Mat Johnson, a professor at the University of Oregon who is a novelist and a recipient of the American Book Award.

Sallie Tisdale, author of nine books, winner of a Pushcart Prize, and an instructor in the writing program at Portland State University.

Each of their pieces is outstanding. Kate’s, in particular, resonated with me in her description of her ailing mother as someone who was inclined to live in the past. (Just like my mother, I thought.)

Inevitably, some essays shine brighter than others. But as a whole, the book is both engaging and provocative. One of the criteria I weigh most heavily in judging a book is whether it enriches my thinking, either by teaching me something about a culture or way of life or presenting me with a new way of looking at something I thought I already knew.

“Apple, Tree” does all that. And the best thing of all? As a reader, you’re left to contemplate the influences of your own parents and try to puzzle out if the way you are is based partly — or largely — on the way they were.

More than three months later, I’m still wrestling with that.

My mom, who died in 2013 just a day short of her 86th birthday, was an outspoken woman who could be the life of the party but also quick to anger. As I wrote after her death: “She was feisty, strong-minded, stubborn, resourceful, independent and fiercely devoted to her three kids and extended family. “

My dad, who died in 2017 at age 91, was more reserved. You might call him the strong, silent type — a blue-collar guy who dealt with life on an even keel, keeping his thoughts and emotions to himself. “He was a man of few words but a man of strong words,” a fellow veteran said at his burial. “He was always concerned about others. He was a man of his word. If he said he’d be there, he was there.”

I suppose I would compare myself to my dad more than my mom. I’ve always felt more comfortable in the role of observer than participant. But in recent years I think I’ve evolved into something of an “extroverted introvert” — someone who can speak with confidence in public settings, but yet who also needs solitude and quiet time to reflect and contemplate.

I wish I weren’t quick to anger, but I recognize that tendency and hope to do something about it in the new year. Seems pretty certain to land on my list of new year’s resolutions.

Best to cut things off right here, but with a nod of thanks to Lise Funderburg and her stable of writers for taking a great idea and executing at a high level. Reading that collection of essays was truly one of the year’s highlights for me.

A fantastic fall

Final exams are done and official grades have been submitted in all three of my classes. I’m done with the fall quarter at Portland State University and looking to make the most of the winter break.

Under the teaching contract I signed for this academic year, that means one down, two to go. In other words, make it through the winter and spring terms and I’ll be done in June, ready to retire — although “retire” comes with an asterisk that I’ll explain below.

First things first.

Last Thursday felt like I had reached the peak of the proverbial roller coaster. That morning I gave my last final exam, and I’d already finished grading final essays the day before, so I took time to unwind.

Somehow, I squeezed in a massage, a meal out, a museum visit and an at-home movie — all in that same day.

It was a stroke of genius to schedule a massage right after the final exam. I came home rested and relaxed, then Lori and I went downtown to a Chinese restaurant for an early meal. From there, we headed to the Portland Art Museum to catch the final day of a special exhibit focusing on photography, advertising, and modern art and their role in perpetuating stereotypical images and ideas mostly pertaining to African Americans.

The exhibit, titled “Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal,” features the work of Thomas, a Brooklyn-based conceptual artist whose individual pieces and overall perspective I found both provocative and at times dazzling.

We viewed the exhibit at a leisurely pace and, upon arriving home, realized we had time for a movie, too. Popped in a DVD and enjoyed “On Chisel Beach,” a British film about a young couple whose seemingly idyllic romance runs into complications on their wedding night. Saorise Ronan, whom you may know from “Brooklyn” and “Lady Bird” stars as the young bride.

***

As for this fall, I did the usual: taught Media Literacy and supervised students in the Communication Department’s online internship course. I added a third course, Media Ethics, which meant I had a full-time teaching load for the first time at Portland State. Accepting the FT job here meant I had to give up teaching part-time at a second campus, Washington State University Vancouver.

It was a fine tradeoff. I moved into a larger office with a window, leaving behind a cramped, windowless space. I was able to hold regular office hours, made new connections with faculty outside my department, and even found time to attend a couple of lectures given by other professors.

By attending monthly meetings of Comm faculty, I learned more about campus politics and budget issues and the frustrations of working within the university’s bureaucracy.

In the classroom, it was all good. We had lively discussions about media ownership, real news vs. fake news, misinformation (honest mistakes) vs. disinformation (intentional deceit), ethical decision-making, credibility, transparency, social media influencers, native advertising, diversity in storytelling, and the intersection of entertainment, marketing and viral content, as seen in the “Baby Shark Live!” phenomenon.

Once again, I marveled at the diversity of PSU’s student body, with about one-third of my students coming from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds and a dozen foreign-born students in one class alone.

In addition, the LGBTQ community is well represented, as are as non-traditional students (mid-20s or older), first-generation students, transfer students, veterans, and native-born Oregonians from rural, urban and suburban communities. Most work part-time while going to school, some at more than one job.

As one example, my teaching assistant in Media Literacy grew up in Estacada and now lives in Molalla. He’s majoring in Applied Health and Fitnesss with a minor in Communication. In addition to a part-time job as a personal trainer, he coaches the girls’ wrestling team at his alma mater.

I’ve lined up TAs for the next two terms and that makes me happy.

***

My next challenge? Here’s where the asterisk gets explained.

I’m fully invested in recruiting enough students to join me in a new study-abroad adventure. My hope is to take along 10-12 students to Berlin, Germany, next summer for a class titled “Sports, Culture and the Media.” I’ve taught the course many times before at WSU Vancouver but never at PSU.

Why Berlin? Good question.

I would have been happy to return to London for a third year in a row to teach Media Literacy. But the Education Abroad staff I’ve worked with in the Office of International Affairs asked me one day, “George, have you thought about teaching another course in another city?”

I hadn’t. But once I realized all it would take is proposing a course, producing a syllabus and pitching it to my department chair, as I did with London, I was in.

At this writing, five students have started their applications. I’m excited but also a bit nervous about reaching the minimum number of 10. There’s still plenty of time to meet that goal, and I have faith that things will work out. Just hope it happens sooner than later.

I considered other European destinations but settled on Berlin because of its unique experience with regard to the 1936 and 1972 Olympics Games, its status as a soccer powerhouse, the doping scandals that characterized East Germany, and the country’s unique history during the 20th Century.

We’ll see how things play out.