The Greatest Generation?

I welcome today guest essayist C.J. Morrissey, huge history buff, a very “smaht” guy. He has written a deeply considered essay with great relevance on this particular day, June 6.

June 6, 2019

With Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book so named, many Americans were re-awakened to the efforts of that special generation of Americans who contributed to the defeat of the Axis powers, whether they participated directly in combat or acted in military support roles or worked in domestic industry. As a history buff and a son of two veterans of World War II, for a couple recent decades I had wondered why so few Americans woke up on June 6th each year and didn’t think of the striking significance of the date.  

With the passage of time, it seems the media has heightened attention to the significance of the date, the dwindling numbers of World War II veterans, and an increasing presence of, to paraphrase late Senator John McCain, an almost overblown respect for the role of the military.   For example, McCain’s feelings, among other concerns and related statements, that taxpayers funding orchestrations of military pomp and circumstance at sporting events seemed inappropriate.

Let’s revisit whether we think the circa World War II aged citizens should indeed be held above and considered “The Greatest Generation”.  It was very clear that the Axis powers represented a threat to democracy and freedom all over the world.  While early sentiment such as the America First movement reinforced an isolationist strategy, ultimately it was not hard for that generation to get behind the Allied effort after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  The threat was clear and present.

 Consider other generations or time periods where American citizens needed to contribute in difficult environments or made special efforts in support of their fellow citizens or mankind.  For example, Civil War regiments mustered in support of the cause that the Union was an ideal that must be saved.  This was done in the face of draft riots, early on bungled military leadership, inconsistent provisioning and other resources, racial overtones, and a fully divided country.  An argument can be clearly made to propose that generation of Americans as the greatest generation.  Millions of Americans led by Abraham Lincoln contributed in every sort of way to preserve the American experiment.  

Separately, by focusing on a “generation” of Americans as the greatest, we leave out the great Americans who contributed greatly to building our country in the absence of the motivational clarity provided to the World War II generation.  Several events and personal contributions come to mind.  We can cite original participants in the founding of this country, not just specifically the Founding Fathers, but the farmers, merchants and laborers who for a brief few years, became their own incarnation of the citizen soldier.  We can cite the contributions of those veterans who served in Vietnam who came home to an unappreciative, and in many cases, hostile reception.  We can think of the waves of Chinese, Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants who came to this country in the late nineteenth and early 20th century and whose labor built the modern America.  We can think of the Freedom Riders and other civil rights activists and causes of the 1960s who sought to fight back against the ingrained practices of Jim Crow in the southern states.  

My parents were part of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”.  I consider that generation everything about our America; apple pie, John Deere tractors, hard working, VFW halls, big families, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Marlboro cigarettes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, Ted Williams, non-fat dry milk, sun burns at the beach and so on.  What does not come to mind about the “Greatest Generation” are the moral, cultural, direct and indirect challenges of preserving and maintaining the best things about America that arise out of less obvious challenges to freedom and moral growth.  Here’s to hoping that the Millenial generation rises to the occasion and participates in today’s substantial challenges and, can therefore potentially supplant Tom’s “Greatest Generation”.

Bowie and Mona Exploit Mommy’s Shower Time

It cannot be said that the few minutes I stand beneath the shower head and feel the warm water cascading over my body are a sublime escape from the ordinary stresses of daily life. With two dogs lounging on my bed, too much can go wrong. And they know it. Although, from their perspective, so much can go right.

I heard the thump and knew precisely what was going on. Bowie had obviously not been thwarted in his quest for a good read by the framed picture I placed in front of the stack of books on my nightstand. It’s a teetering tower, and my boy intuits how much I like those things. The way I cuddle them, and calmly sigh with satisfaction when I arrange myself every night for a few minutes of pleasurable, pre-sleep distraction. How can she like those things? They don’t even do anything, he must think.

At the same time that I shrieked, “Leave it,” I stemmed the delightful aquatic cascade and stepped out of the tub, simultaneously reaching for a towel. Before I had even toweled off, I tugged the door open and squinted toward my bed, where Bowie appeared to be lying innocently. Mona looked up from her position next to the bed, innocent as well. My eyes without glasses in front of them are pretty useless, but I could just make out the small, blurry, rectangular shape next to Bowie.

Seeing that neither dog was engaging in criminal behavior in that particular moment, I took the time to towel myself off and put my glasses on. Still naked, I examined my teetering tower of books, trying to assess if any others had been tampered with. I suspected that there was one missing. You should be forgiven for daring to vividly imagine my body next contorting to see — and then reach — beneath my bed for my latest literary victim, which was lying just out of reach. It struck me how much it resembled a sunken shipwreck, its back broken and with parts of its cover surrounding it like spilled treasure.

Using the softball bat that I keep under my bed (for defense against home invaders*), I was able to sweep the book toward me. I then stood and held up the victim of this most recent misdemeanor. Bowie looked straight ahead, avoiding my gaze, while Mona looked up at me with angelic eyes. Both waited to see what stern words Mommy was going to say.

It was one of those moments where I favored the high road. I had no choice but to give both Bowie and Mona the “BOD”. As exculpatory evidence, the book lying next to Bowie was still intact — no chew marks, no sheared off pieces. The book I had retrieved from under the bed — the real casualty — was closer to Mona. But, how could I not place greater weight on a suspect’s reputational cache?

After a silent few seconds, I concluded the matter with a simple, You guys get a pass this time. At the sound of “you guys” both pairs of ears perked up. They only ever hear it followed by things that are wonderful, such as, You guys want to go for a walk? or, You guys hungry? The crime was already in the past, as far as they were concerned. With a renewed bounce in their step, both headed with great anticipation for my bedroom door. I decided I should probably return my weapon beneath the bed. . . and get dressed before taking them for a walk.

* * *

*I don’t have plans to ever keep a gun in my nightstand or under the mattress, but considering all the scary TV series I watch, I often am anxious when I head up to bed at night. Hence, I logically keep a softball bat beneath my bed. In a conversation once with my younger daughter, she asked, “Do you even know how you would use it in the moment?” I demonstrated my flawless batting stance and swing, a holdover from my early days of softball play. “Nope, that won’t work,” she offered with great certainty and finality. Apparently, for my weapon to have even the most remote chance of inflicting harm on a home invader (on the order of a “slight bruise” most likely), I’d have to choke up, really choke up, much more than I ever did when I played softball. It would feel so unnatural; could I even do it?

Nature’s “Mucklers” Extraordinaire

I begin the day with a glance out my bedroom window to take measure of the present degree of voraciousness of “my” wild birds and small rodents. When I note that all four of the bird feeders are empty after a mere day and a half, I slump in defeat.

If heavier animals climb on this type of feeder, their weight causes the dispenser to be closed off; squirrels defy by hanging by the tail above.

I don’t even know why I should have been hopeful; yesterday, too, began with distressing evidence of looting à la Peter Rabbit. I now have good reason to suspect either rabbits or voles (yes, that’s right — voles, mutualistic brethren of the mole) as the perpetrators who decimated in one day all the early spring growth of my newest perennials. Either way — rabbit or vole — my joyful anticipation of pinks, purples, and yellows has been scotched by an as-yet unidentified marauding vegetarian under the cover of darkness.

It had such promise.

While I bemoaned my loss, muttering personally satisfying things like little fuckers, Bowie exploited my inattention by hopping up onto one of my raised beds and digging up a corner’s worth of fall-planted garlic. Fortunately for him, he knew to spit it out; unfortunately for me, the garlic he got was in minced form.)

With regard to the bird feeders, I lack the energy to single out any one culprit — like a mother with too many children or a teacher on a Friday afternoon, it’s much simpler to hold the entire brood responsible. I rap on the window and issue an appropriately captious barb. A handful of foraging juncos takes immediate flight, as does a cardinal. Following their lead is a chickadee; zipping in a tight arc to land higher up in the spruce tree, the stalwart little warrior no doubt is countering with his own retort. He always has the last word. It takes me opening the window and smacking the siding with my open palm to get a response from the faction of squawky redwing blackbirds. They’re slow to clear out, and their abrasive utterances fade even more gradually.

It all has me remembering conversations I used to have when my father-in-law was alive. Knowing how much of a rule follower I was, he took pleasure in scandalizing me with stories of his youth in which he flouted authority. No doubt his tenth grade teachers broke into jubilant jitterbug gyrations the day he announced — for real this time — I’m never coming back. And he didn’t. Long before he made his consequential declaration, however, “Big George” was abrading what he deemed society’s suffocating strictures. He was forever “muckling” things, like cigarettes and “adult” magazines from various of the City of Lynn’s corner stores, unsupervised wine at St. Mary’s where he was an altar boy, occasional slugs from his father’s bottles of scotch.

“Muckle” was one of his favorite things to do. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never been able to assay the veracity of this word that was so important to my father-in-law, even though its meaning was clear to me from its earliest usage. Big George always said it with such gusto — the word would nigh detonate from the side of his mouth, riding across a loose bed of gravel. His eyes bespoke the remembered pleasure of the act.

I lean back inside, muttering my unoriginal little fuckers. Right now, they’re all little fuckers — the rabbits, the deer (don’t even get me started!), the voles, the moles, the squirrels and chipmunks, the blackbirds. I like the juncos and chickadees and cardinals. They play by the rules, so I don’t assign them to the depraved Pack of Pilferers and Irritants.

In appearance, this space looks like the outcome of an air-to-surface strafing. (I’m confident that all fall-planted bulbs have been extricated with clinical precision.)

At day’s end, as I coax my brain to float drowsily upon pre-slumber thoughts, I ponder the possible exploits of tonight’s creatures. Will the skunks be competing with the moles, raking the ground for grubs (they’re more plentiful this year now that I suspended my lawn service)? Will the rabbits shift their frisking about and foraging to another part of the yard, freezing — as ever — at the first sign of nocturnal predation?

Does everyone yearn for a personal oasis, I wonder. Even city dwellers with room enough only for a pot or two. . . of geraniums? Fountain grass? I’m daunted by the challenges that landscape and vegetable gardening brings. Truth be told, homeownership in general. Despite (by and large) a lifetime of rural living, it doesn’t come naturally to me. Most days I feel as if I’m engaged in a nonstop game of Whac-a-mole (befittingly), one in which I’m perpetually losing. There’s something reassuring about the madness, however. If I woke up tomorrow and failed to discern signs of plunder or strained my ears, hearing nothing but silence suggestive of abandonment by the opposition; the kinetic deprivation could be read as a chilling omen. . . existentially.

Before I spiral too deeply into apocalyptic thought, I’ll pull back in order to reflect on the upside of all this earnest pursuit to have our needs met. You know, the whole food chain thing. The circle of life. Granted, when my remedies result in me spending gobs of money on things like neem oil (to keep insects from destroying my cabbage and lettuce plants), chicken wire (to block rabbit devastation of just about every plant. . . except garlic), high fencing (to keep deer out), compost, fertilizer, trichlorfon (to kill grubs), etc., not only does it make me much poorer in the wallet, but it has a way of forcing me to cast a sobering look at what all I’m doing. Is that sweet, delicious tomato really worth the small fortune of investment? (Last September I would have answered with a resounding, yes!) And, aren’t I just tipping my hand and showing my arrogance when I say, You, cutie pie chickadee, and you, junco, are okay; you can occupy “my space”. But you, chonky squirrel, and you, clacky blackbird, are not welcome?

Besides which, rivalry is good. It keeps us on our toes. Bring it! I say.

These Are the Times That Try Homeowners’ Souls

Right before I canceled my contract with my pest service, the technician — a very friendly and helpful sort — gave me his earnest thoughts about how to resolve my problem with moles.

“You near any fresh water here?”

“Ah-huh. Right at the back edge of the property there’s a stream.”

Rudy (as I’ll call the technician, having forgotten his real name and having deleted his equally earnest report, a report that used phrases such as “moderate activity at bait station” and “no signs of entry into home”) wagged his head in a slow figure eight, tsk-tsking and clucking. He didn’t seem happy to hear about my proximity to water. “Moles are tricky. They don’t like our bait.” Pausing, he offered, “A pellet gun should take care of the problem.”

Subsequent online searches seemed to echo Rudy’s comments. Don’t waste your money on deterrents, I heard over and over by YouTube homeowners with this same problem. With growing alarm, I started to see that the favored means of eradication — the most effective — fell into two camps: either I was going to have to shoot the varmints or invest in spring-loaded, scissor-jawed traps that you set along their tunnels. I’ll spare you the technicalities of how they work, but knowing that the primary feature is a scissor action, any further elaboration is overkill. (Get it?)

It all presents me with a real quandary, and I don’t know how I will proceed. Selling my home is not a viable solution to my mole problem. Nor is any concession of defeat. I hear that one effective way to invite moles to leave your property is by encouraging hawks and owls to visit more regularly, something that I am loathe to do because I fear they might ignore any loudly issued injunction against harassing my small bird friends.

To my great surprise (and internal disgust), I’ve found myself wondering, how realistic is it to shoot a mole in the dark? (I texted my brother Bob with the question, also asking, do I need a gun license to own/operate a pellet gun? Bob became alarmed.)

Verging on desperation, I find a middle ground solution the most acceptable*. I’ll buy the trap, set the trap, and if it becomes triggered, I’ll call over my neighbor Charlie. With appropriate theatrical flourishes, I’ll suggest that we have encountered the times that try homeowners’ souls, and that tyranny of lawn is not easily conquered. Charlie is a good patriot. . . er, neighbor, and will take up the cause, I’m sure.

*(I can’t see myself even going the “death trap” route. I get as far as imagining pushing the “scissors” through to the tunnel, and I’m overcome with a sense of betrayal.)

Kitchen Counter — Smooth As a Baby’s Bottom

Do you ever have those kitchen frenzies, when all you want to do is find a purpose for every small appliance and tool you own? Make it worth the ongoing expenditure for a “well-equipped” kitchen? I just emerged from the rubble of one of those two-day frenzies. My kitchen is once again sparkling from all the granite polish I applied.

As I ran my hand over the surface of one of my counters, I was reminded of a conversation I had decades ago with a fellow teacher. Donna and I were assigned the same study hall in the cafeteria. After having taken attendance, which daily required nothing less than a seasoned teacher’s lusty bellowing to get everyone’s attention in an enormous space with the worst kind of acoustics, we would settle comfortably into casual conversation. One day, I described to Donna the kitchen plans for our new home. I was excited to be able to dream about all the counter space, something we lacked abysmally in our tiny first home. Donna pointed out how satisfying she found it whenever her counters had just been polished, “Oooh, there’s nothing compares. Smooth as a baby’s bottom.” Ever since, that’s exactly what I say, too, whenever I’ve polished my counters and run my hand over them.

There’s great usefulness for gadgets such as — and these are all items I currently own — the Instant Pot, the air fryer, the bread maker, the waffle maker, two sizes of choppers, the food processor, the ice cream maker, crockpot, and the Kitchen Aid mixer. I could part with just about all of them with the exception of the KA mixer, whose value I’ve only come to know and appreciate in recent years. Reflecting on this vast array of helpful kitchen tools, I’m struck with a sense of embarrassment — what would Mom think of all of it?

Mom was the most amazing cook. (Who doesn’t think their mother was “the most amazing cook”? Probably no one. Wait, that’s not true. My late husband George withheld praise where it concerned his own mother’s cooking, which, come to think of it, was probably the key reason why he married me. He was completely blown away by the meals Mom made for her brood.) She learned her trade in the dietary sciences program at Framingham State College when she attended from 1939 to 1943. She was one of those people who can skillfully crack an egg with one hand or swish ingredients around a skillet and then toss them expertly in the air to flip them all over at once. At the time, it escaped us entirely that she had a genuine understanding of the science behind cooking. (Alton Brown gets that, and who doesn’t love Alton Brown?)

In those years of living on Titicut Hill, I only ever learned how to make tapioca pudding and hot milk sponge cake. . . because I loved to eat those two confections more than just about anything. . . except Chocolate Town Special Cake (which I left to Nana Morrissey to present me with each year on my birthday).

My sister Margaret became the better cook. . . much better cook. Mom loved that she had a real protege to whom she could bequeath her store of knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that she, oh, let’s say, “enjoyed” when Margaret was in charge of the stove. My daughter Megan has a similar approach. “How is it possible,” I often wonder, “that there is whipped cream speckling the refrigerator door?” Or, “Egg yolk inside the gadget drawer?” It must be a culinary phenomenon, this combination of “good cook/creator of kitchen messes”.

One year, as a teacher at Triton Regional High School, I mentored a new “foods program” teacher. You can imagine the perks of that assignment. Oh, Nadine, don’t trouble yourself to come to my room — I’ll come to YOU! As often as I was on the tummy tantalizing receiving end of class exercises, I never tired of watching Nadine conduct her demos for the students. All the movements were well-practiced, and I saw Mom in every one. How she would tilt a bowl slightly — a cold, metal one, of course — and grab the whisk in the middle of the handle — not the end — before whipping, and not round and round, but rather across and back, how she broke up ground beef in the skillet with a fork, lickety split and with all the ferocity of a professional hurler, how she folded in a dob of egg whites before delicately folding in the rest. I’m quite sure that other structured food science programs all teach in the same way and have done so for generations, but I learned that Nadine, too, had completed the same program at Framingham State College. The familiarity of the scene always warmed my heart.

Now having recovered from my two-day frenzy, and having run my hand across the glassy surface of my counters — once again “smooth as a baby’s bottom” — I can’t help but ponder my need for all the kitchen gadgets. Mom likely would have challenged, “Other than a stove, you only need a skillet, a dutch oven, a mixer, a casserole dish, and maybe a good set of mixing bowls, one metal spatula, one rubber spatula, a wooden spoon, . . . and a wire whisk, of course.

Inter-Species Competition

There are whole days when I feel as if I’m engaged in an inter-species competition. That’s not to say that I don’t absolutely adore my two canine companions. They are my world. I have moments when my heart is so full just from watching them. They don’t even need to be doing anything. Just standing there watching me is enough to cause my chest to tighten with love. Sometimes I want to FaceTime my daughter and show her the cuteness of Mona or Bowie doing. . . well, nothing, mostly. But just look how “hopeful” Bowie is! (Bowie, meanwhile, is “hopeful” that I’ll sling his rope toy the length of the house so he can have throw rugs and chairs skitter out of his path as he sprints across the kitchen and into the living room, usually coming to an abrupt stop only by slamming into the couch. It is pointless to remind him each time of the predictable outcome of open-throttle indoor racing. The thrill of the chase exacts what to him seems an acceptable degree of indemnification.)

Recently (after three successful escapes — two by Bowie and one by Mona), I’ve altered our twilight and late night “potty runs”. No longer do we exit via the front door, which necessitates skillful navigation of stairs. Instead, we all traipse downstairs and exit through the basement, eliminating the risk that I will face-plant into the bushes or at the base of the front steps. And, obviously, I stand a better chance of remaining tethered to my end of the leash. It’s early, but the results are promising, even if Bowie still is inclined to charge out the door full speed. (I can hear the trainer’s voice reminding me, Be always in command. “With me, Bowie”. “Leave it, Bowie.”)

While the outcome of the daily smackdown is never a foregone conclusion, the win goes in my column tonight. As I’ve taken to doing, because I don’t like surprises (unless it’s one that involves Chocolate Town Special Cake made by Megan on my birthday), I push the curtain aside on the basement door and scan the backyard. No deer or rabbits within view. I open the door, Bowie charges and Mona prances. We make our way around the garden, heading further into the backyard, but I decide to glance behind us, toward the street. I catch movement on the other side of the line of pine trees. Yup, deer. And where there’s one, there are likely three more. As they do every night, they’re making their leisurely way along the ancient and invisible pathway.

I’ve seen them, but Mona and Bowie haven’t yet. I alter our own route so that I can be reasonably sure they won’t see the four deer when they emerge on their northward progression. Oh, but those canine noses don’t lie. The two little heads spring up at the same time, and two little noses lift. They’ve scented the deer, but can’t fix their location. Till they figure that out, Mona and Bowie stand still, but with noses twitching. I know I only have a couple minutes before the deer will be seen from our location. Before my charges have succeeded in triangulating the location of the deer, I tug on their leashes and coax them, promising a treat (because I’ve made a total mess of our boot camp gains, and achieve compliance using the path of least resistance.)

We take it one day at a time. Some days I win, some days they’re the ones giving each other high-fives. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow’s contest will be like.

But, just look at how stinkin’ cute they are!

Some Songs Are More Special Than Others

I’m sitting at my kitchen island, still in my pajamas. Well, my semi-pajamas — they’re the sweats I throw on first thing when my feet hit the floor, the perfect (if slightly schlumpy) ensemble that works for the early morning potty run with Bowie and Mona.

Glaring at the teetering mountain of dirty dishes both beside and in the sink, I rue my decision not to take care of them last night. Truth is, I often talk myself out of that last household task of the day, which means that I frequently have to psyche myself up before I can approach the more fulfilling activities of the day. You would think that the joyful anticipation of a gleaming kitchen in the early morning would produce the necessary burst of energy needed to wrap up the chore before retiring each night. Hope springs eternal.

To put myself in the proper frame of mind, I blurt, “Hey Alexa, play my Spotify ‘Liked Songs’ on. . .” I get mired in the details and pause before telling her which speaker device to play them on. (I should have more carefully thought this out ahead of time.) Alexa cheerily chirps and preempts my directive, beginning the playlist in the wrong room before I’ve finished my command. I begin again, “Hey Alexa, play my “Liked Songs” playlist on Spotify IN THE KITCHEN. (Sometimes I get confused on whether I should be bossing Siri or Alexa — Siri is much more fastidious about how I boss her. Her silence after any directive implies that I didn’t preface it all with “Hey Siri”. Alexa just does whatever the f*@% she wants in the end anyway, so sometimes it’s just more entertaining to see what she comes up with.)

A mellifluous version of “Under the Boardwalk” by John Mellencamp immediately permeates my disordered kitchen. Okay, okay, I can work with that, I decide.

I rise. Turn the water on while simultaneously reaching for the dishpan under the sink. Organize the mess.

And then, “As Long as You Follow” by Fleetwood Mac penetrates the air. Now we’re rockin! I think. This is the thing, my friends. When a song comes on that reaches into you, fills your every needful space, you can’t help but respond with deep feeling. A lot of Christine McVie songs have that effect on me. I can’t explain why. My hips begin to sway, my feet do what they do when I try to dance, my eyes close. The dishes are forgotten. I lift my elbows and and reach my arms as if to embrace a partner, the one who used to take the lead. I feel loved again. I move within a small space while the music wraps me in a protective cocoon. The song ends, but I’m not ready to return from its reassuring warmth. So I play it again. . . louder. And I sing along with it this time.

I would play it a third time, but an annoying voice in my head says, excessive. So I don’t, but what if I did?! Who cares?! For a few minutes of feeling loved again — even if only in my imagination — it would be worth it.

Moments like these always seem stolen. I’ve yet to feel worthy of them. For those who have lost their dance partner. . . the one partner who made you feel wonderful and beautiful and loved through and through, you get this. Special songs are the magic that allows us to kindle those deep feelings — if need be, over and over. And over.

Mission accomplished — a clean sink

Alexa, play “As Long as You Follow” by Fleetwood Mac. One more time is not going to hurt anyone.

(From my phone Siri pipes in, Still working on it. She eventually capitulates, admitting, Hmmm, I don’t have an answer for that. Is there something else I can help you with?)

Sigh. . . Siri just doesn’t get me.

You Know You’re in Portland

It has taken me too long, I realize, but I’m beginning to get a feel for Portland, Oregon and just generally the Pacific Northwest. There’s much still to be learned about the region, but I embrace the challenge. I had the use of my daughter and son-in-law’s car during my most recent week-long visit to Portland, which — among other things — allowed me to immerse myself more fully in the experience, make me feel (almost) like a Portlander. I thrilled, for example, that I was able to conduct a highly nuanced, scientific comparison; grocery stores and bakeries were my test subjects. The comparisons with New England are inevitable.

Example of a Portland truck “in fine fettle”

Each day found me, as well, doing daily strolls around the University Park neighborhood where I was staying, presenting me with delightful opportunities for discovery (despite invariably drizzly weather conditions). Keep in mind, my friends, I’m a country girl, so part of the challenge is learning how to navigate (comfortably) in a major city.

Observation #1: Once you understand that homeowners have the responsibility for the upkeep of the space directly in front of their houses in between the sidewalk and the street, you can’t help but observe how those intervals are tended. It becomes readily obvious which homeowners chafe at the responsibility and which ones view their assigned space as an artist’s canvas.

Observation #2: Skill in parallel parking is essential, as is threading the needle to manage the gap between the street and one’s driveway (if there is one), inevitably crowded by at least half a dozen cars parked impossibly close. Every night when I left my daughter and son-in-law’s house to head back to my rented apartment, I recited an impassioned dear Lord, please let me get out of here safely without hitting one of those cars. (Truth is, my appeal to the Good Lord sounded more like: The fuck’s wrong with people?! Why can’t they give you some fuckin’ room?! Fuckin’ dickheads!) By the end of my visit, however, I had learned the calculation well enough so that I didn’t have to apply the brakes countless times, and my exit took fewer than ten minutes. The memory makes me smile.

Observation #3: You can buy avocados and actually have faith that they’ll be perfectly ripe, and taste as one would hope an avocado should taste, not like cardboard or wallpaper paste, which is how avocados purchased in New England generally taste. (I’m only imagining what cardboard and wallpaper paste taste like. At least I think I am. There may have been a period in my childhood when I “experimented” with things not customarily earmarked for human consumption.) When I was unable to find nectarines, I asked one of the stockers at New Seasons if they had any. He replied, “No, they’re not in season; we won’t have them for a couple months.” Not in season! When has that ever stopped our Market Baskets and Stop & Shops from making attractive arrangements of imported, tasteless, out-of-season fruits and vegetables?

Observation #4: Through either peer pressure or inheritance, Portlanders eventually own an old truck. Said truck must be installed permanently on the street or as a yard ornament. They run the gamut of eras (70’s through 90’s, mostly) and can be found in various conditions, from the worst state of decrepitude to the most pristine. Walking through the neighborhood, I could easily distinguish between “proud truck owner” and “embarrassed owner of an albatross”.

So ubiquitous are these trucks, that over time they lose their sense of novelty. Through transmogrification they become part of the urban landscape. Until recently, for example, a little red Toyota truck sat mute and motionless in front of my daughter and son-in-law’s house. No one could say when it first appeared, and no one knew who owned it — everyone imagined that it belonged to some one else. Only when it became the casualty in a hit-and-run accident by an RV “behaving in a suspicious manner”, was one of the neighbors moved to call the city’s traffic division. The city promptly arrived to tow it away. The uncharacteristic speed and alacrity with which the city responded led all the neighbors to conclude that the little red Toyota truck must have been a victim of some high jinks and ultimate abandonment. Accounts such as these produce only desultory shrugs of the shoulder. It’s a Portland thing.

I’ll be back in Portland in May. At that time, just as we in New England will think to cheerily recite, “Mother’s Day, plant away”; bursts of color will already be everywhere. The spaces between the sidewalk and the street will once again be showcasing the creative talents of spade-wielding Portland homeowners, (or vexing the more reluctant stewards of the inter-spaces).

I’m very much looking forward to more opportunities to expand my understanding of the region.

A Special Valentine

I’ve known since 1976 that Hallmark’s most corny greeting cards were tailor-made for the man who would become my husband. Even before I said, “I do”, George was flattering me with the lamest commercially-made messages that have ever been created. I learned early on that if there was an occasion for it, he would send me one, the bigger the better. He especially loved to surprise me with cards that did more than supply thoughtful phrases. Pop-up cards were his favorite.

George never needed an excuse to remind me how much he loved me. It meant that over the course of forty years I accrued a trove of sentimental heartfelt messages of love. I’ve saved a lot of them, and this one I’ve had for at least two decades.

the classic Hallmark pop-up, a favorite style

William Clark Did Not Reward York with Freedom. . . at Least Not for Several Years

sculpture base at U. of Portland

Yes, it’s a pile of rocks. I came upon it while walking around the University of Portland campus one day this past week. Each day of my week-long Portland stay began with a walk around my University Park neighborhood before I headed over to my daughter’s house to hang with my new grandson. Anomalies always inspire curiosity.

To the uninitiated (such as myself), one of the first things you notice when you visit Portland is the abundance of memorials to Merriwether Lewis and William Clark and other reminders of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Corps of Discovery. Until my daughter moved to the Pacific Northwest ten years ago, there was really little substance to my understanding of that stage of what many of us call “American history”. (And of course, that understanding had been shaped by a K-12 Eurocentric curriculum.) If you asked me to explain what I recalled about the whole Lewis and Clark thing, I’d probably say something like, “One of them was Merriwether, and they wore buckskin outfits and traversed wide swathes of wilderness in our country’s vast interior, forded wrathful rivers, came upon hostile Indians — whom they either subdued or befriended if there was something to be gained through such exploitation — and they eventually arrived at the Pacific Ocean, whereupon they exclaimed, ‘We have thus succeeded in manifesting destiny.'” (My lack of genuine understanding is shameful.)

Multnomah River (aka Willamette R.) from bluff at U. of Portland

For a little over thirty years (from 1988 to June of 2020), the north campus of the U. of Portland held a bronze sculpture of William Clark, his black slave York*, and an unidentified Native American who had served as Clark’s guide. The sculpture showed a reverential Clark peering into the distance and pointing, with York and the Native American following his gaze. No matter that “Seekseekqua” (the object of Clark’s interest) was well-known to the Native bands who populated the area — and had been for thousands of years, Clark had “discovered” Oregon Country’s second highest mountain, which he pronounced should henceforth be called Mt. Jefferson.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, social media got busy by providing lists of potential “targets” for those wishing to express their frustration through acts of protest. When the University of Portland’s sculpture appeared on one of the protest lists, authorities removed first York’s figure, and then a day later, the Clark and Native American figures. What remains now is a pile of rocks, a list of original donors for the funding of the 1988 sculpture, and a very interesting interpretation of events. Read it yourself here:

In my mind, what is lost by the removal of the sculpture is the opportunity to supply a more accurate depiction and analysis of events and a more authentic statement about its symbolism. The sculpture should be returned. The plaque that accompanies it, however, should be refashioned to echo the historical truth.

*Like most sons of plantation owners, as a boy, William had been given a black slave — similar in age — who would serve as a companion and valet. Because York was not only trustworthy, but showed exceptional promise as a wilderness “survivalist”, he was deemed a creditable candidate for the cross-country Corps of Discovery. It didn’t hurt that he was tall and powerfully built, a reassuring presence in the expedition’s camp. Despite York’s contributions to the enterprise, he was not rewarded with manumission (release from slavery) for several years. (The record is unclear as to precisely when it happened, just that it is likely to have occurred before 1832, nearly two decades after the expedition.)

Read about York here.