Thursday, December 15, 2011

Muse of the Week: Happy Olive Days

I had the best time watching the KPTV-12 Portland morning news in the fitness center yesterday morning. Nothing makes time on a treadmill more bearable than a good laugh, and the closed captioning provided this in abundance. Perhaps the best item of the morning was a piece on the recent troubles of former French president "Joshua Rock," but I also greatly enjoyed the "water cooler" story on a bear found in a New Jersey man's "salary" (cellar), the periodic "Czech" on the traffic and a topical piece on the "Olive Days."

Amusement value aside (and these were particularly bad captions... I wonder about the enunciation of those commentators), closed captioning is a tremendously valuable service for the deaf and hard of hearing. My own 95-year-old grandmother is one of millions, I'm sure, who find this service useful -- and probably gets the occasional laugh, too, that is lost upon us hearing folk who don't regularly read the captions.

All this led me to wonder about the history behind closed captioning. Evidently the service started in March 1980, although tests were conducted as early as 1971 to determine the possibility of using a portion of a network's broadcast signal to send captions. The process of working out the details was undertaken by the Public Broadcasting System and meanwhile, early permutations first ran on "The French Chef" with Julia Child. In 1979, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare established the National Captioning Institute, charged with performing the task of captioning. The closed-caption television service formally began on March 16, 1980 for prerecorded content, and by 1982 technology had been developed to allow for live, real-time captioning. By mid-1993, all televisions sold in the United States with screens larger than 13 inches were required to have closed-caption decoders.

Captioning continues to be undertaken by real people; live captioning, for example, is done using a computerized system based upon stenographic shorthand used by court reporters and other people who have to transcribe quickly. According to the National Captioning Institute, it can take up to a year to train even someone who already works as a court reporter to do captioning for live content. Live captioners must type at up to 225 words a minute, and the service strives to maintain a 98 percent accuracy rate (the folks I was watching this morning must really have been mumblers).

The National Captioning Institute has a Web site with much more information at Meanwhile, Happy Olive Days to all of you! Uncle Sam's Attic will take a week's break.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Geography

On this day in 1898, the first steam locomotive pulled into the small eastern Oregon town of Moro. Completion of the Columbia Southern Railroad to Moro was occasion for celebration, connecting as it did the region's wheat farmers with shipping terminals on the Columba River and thence on to the wider world of commerce.*

We are perched upon the cusp of an interesting new era when geographic location may become less significant in mediating where we can live and work. Telecommuters can work from anywhere they have access to an Internet signal; data processing facilities for companies such as Google and Facebook, similarly unencumbered, seek geographic attributes far different from the transportation network links that once were so essential. Today, it is conditions like a mild, dry climate and favorable tax conditions that draw these corporations to formerly peripheral (but physically gorgeous) locations from The Dalles to Prineville.

One of the predominant narratives of the twentieth century was the enduring pattern of migration from rural areas to urban regions and the new sprawl of the Sunbelt. As someone interested in migration history, I am curious to see how the new geographic paradigm of the Internet age affects these processes. Will these conditions spell the salvation of the small town, or will lack of educational access and capital continue to spell the doom of rural and small-town America? The changing parameters of our relationship to the rest of the world are as potentially revolutionary as the steam locomotive that pulled into Moro in 1898.

* James Cloutier, This Day in Oregon (Eugene, Ore.: Image West Press, 1982)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Muse of the Week: Debates

I would like to officially record my delight that even some of the most stridently conservative individuals in the GOP presidential race have opted out of the farce masquerading as a "debate" that is sponsored by Newsmax and scheduled to be moderated by Donald Trump. Hooray for respect for the electoral process! Three cheers for decency!

Also, I just thought this was funny...

[Image credit]

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Pearl Harbor

Today's Oregonian included news that the Pearl Harbor Survivor's Association will disband today, the 70th anniversary of the Japanese bombing that drew the United States formally into World War II. Such an announcement was only a matter of time; after all, the very youngest among the Pearl Harbor survivors will soon cross the threshold of 90. It brings me some sadness. My late Great Uncle Jens Peter "Cy" Simonsen was a Pearl Harbor survivor, and it was an event that defined his life. He was on the USS Maryland, which was hit but not sunk during the attack. He proudly joined the Survivor's Association, and he and Aunt Marlys attended gatherings locally and across the nation. He shared his experiences for the benefit of countless school projects. I still have a survivors' mug in my kitchen cabinet.

Some of the survivors profiled in the article were concerned society would forget about the events of December 7, 1941. These are observations that point toward the paramount importance of telling our stories -- of triumph, of pain, and of everything in between. When we share our stories, we weave a tapestry of shared memory from which we can draw, learn and define ourselves (both within and against) long into our future.

I won't forget, Uncle Cy.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Then and Now

Super cool Web site: Historical photos of various cities, juxtaposed with Google street view to present fascinating montages of then-and-now. Includes Portland and Los Angeles (which is especially interesting).

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: What's in a Name

This morning the Oregonian reported that city planners intend to assign the title of "Pioneer District" to the area around Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland. Titles have influence, as those of us who have lived in Portland for years can appreciate when observing newer residents' embrace of the "Pearl District" as the, well, "pearl" of Portland. It's a lovely, revitalized area and I'm glad to see the development and fancy shops, but before it was the "Pearl" it was a rundown, somewhat scary district of often-abandoned warehouses and the Henry Weinhard Brewing Company. The "Interstate" district in North Portland? That was another, similarly blighted area.

The new titles that accompany and sometimes influence revitalization and renewal can be helpful things. I'm cautious when confronted with gentrification, however, because of the unintended consequences of such activities. What happens to the people who were once residents of inner North and Northeast Portland now that we have the trendy Mississippi Ave. and the 'new and improved' Albina District? How do we meet the needs of all the members of our population? Anonymity can breed neglect, but titles can bring some serious problems along with the opportunities they present.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Thanksgiving

In honor of Thanksgiving, this is a post of thanks... following are just a few of the many, many reasons why I am so grateful to live and raise my daughter in Oregon.

The beauty of the coastline...

Sand castle-digging on the beach at Siletz Bay, Lincoln County

Old Cannery and the Astoria-Megler Bridge, Clatsop County

The majesty of the interior...

Newberry Crater National Volcanic Monument in Central Oregon

Views of the Oregon Trail and the Blue Mountains, Baker County

Painted Hills, John Day Fossil Beds, Eastern Oregon (no worries, the kid is not actually in danger of running off the cliff)

The community...

Jeld-Wen Stadium During a Portland Timbers Soccer Match

Kid and Friend at Zoolights, Oregon Zoo, Portland

Friday, November 18, 2011

Muse of the Week: Historical Cuisine

Life has had a tendency to get rather depressing lately, from unrest and economic ruination abroad to protests and gridlock at home. Awareness and engagement remains important, and historical context critical -- but every now and then it is healthy to take a break and enjoy a less topical walk through world, or in this case, primarily Western, history. I found a fun blog the other day called The Old Foodie and I highly recommend taking a look at it. About five times a week this British-born Australian woman posts fascinating reflections on historical food ingredients and practices, antique recipes and fun quotations. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Railroads

This is a post of primarily local note, but I have long wondered about the history of the railroad line through Newberg and exactly what employees are doing when they route bits and pieces of train back and forth... and back... and forth... across the town's many railroad crossings. This Web page provides some interesting insight into railroad lines in Yamhill County, some of which (including the local ones that can drive a person bonkers when those gates go down) are still functional. (The grammar isn't spectacular, but the information is great.)

The inconvenience of an unscheduled stop aside, I've always been glad to see the activity on these lines. There is something about these big, imposing machines that makes the life of the town seem just a little more "real."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Muse of the Week: What's Good for the Goose

There was an interesting article in The Atlantic a couple months ago about the epidemic of sex scandals among politicians. (Male politicians, that is... anyone else notice how much better women are at keeping their hands to themselves? Or, at minimum, not getting caught?) The news of the past week about Herman Cain is just further evidence of how riotously inept humans tend to be at conducting themselves with any sense of decorum. Memo to the vast majority of these politicians who invoke a personal religious faith: Martin Luther's comment to "sin boldly" was NOT meant to be taken as a license to ill.

Herman Cain's behavior, if proven -- and there seems to be some pretty serious evidence gathering -- is inexcusable. Sex scandals are damaging to all concerned because they cheapen the value of our most private relationships, but even more troubling is the reality that such attempts to engage in improper behavior and assume one will get away with it demonstrate an alarming level of hubris. How could a person seriously think they could undertake such actions and get away with them? That no member of the relentlessly investigative American media would find out? What does this demonstrate about a candidate's fitness to make principled and above-board decisions on important matters of state?

Some on the right appear to be dismissing these allegations as nothing more than smears. This smacks of hypocrisy given how doggedly conservatives assailed politicians such as Bill Clinton for his picadillos, which were serious and wrong (albeit consensual). If wrong is wrong, improper behavior cannot be tolerated on either side of the political aisle. If we condemn John Edwards and Anthony Weiner for what they did, we cannot exempt Cain, should these allegations prove to have foundations.

An additional note: I have seen arguments to the effect that Cain is being victimized because he is a black man and the identified victim claimant is a white woman. Racially motivated allegations have a long and tremendously tragic history in the United States. Many innocent people have died because of the prevalence of inexcusable prejudices about the supposed depravity of black males. The people making these claims, however, are some of the very same individuals who have cast a shadow upon Obama's citizenship and denigrated his right to govern... using racially tinged arguments. We must pay heed to the tragedies of past experience, but we cannot pick and choose the context of our racialism. American citizens deserve better. Racism is always wrong, should always be fought, and should never be used selectively to justify or condemn. It is simply too serious a crime.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Notes from the Archives

The best thing about archives is the random material that springs forth from seemingly dull files. Find of the day, in the ever-so-tantalizingly titled "Jean Young Campaign, 1958 7th District":

There was once (I'm guessing this should be past tense as a google search brings up nothing but travel info) an organization called "Scandinavian Ticket, Inc." which distributed voting advice based upon "investigation and study made by a group of Scandinavian Business and Professional men." Were you a "voter of Scandinavian extraction," these fine gentlemen had for "the last THIRTY-SIX ELECTIONS" carefully composed their slate of preferred candidates just for you. Endorsed in 1958 were Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark O. Hatfield (score one for the Scandihoovians) and the aforementioned Mrs. Young (outcome there was a bit of a bummer). Go figure.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Renovation Stories

Interesting photos of one of Portland's historic buildings, gutted for renovation of its lower floor: Lost Oregon posting. I'm fascinated by the stories buildings tell about past use, old construction practices and so on. Our built environment remains quite young here on the West Coast compared to Europe or even the eastern United States, but even our (comparatively) new buildings have stories to tell. I'm reminded of the time my parents found an old camera behind the cabinets while renovating the 1926 home in which I grew up. No film, unfortunately, but fascinating nonetheless. The cabinets themselves told a story of past technology, having been constructed with openings to the outside, long capped, that would originally have been mesh screens--food preservation mechanisms for a pre-refrigeration era. Take a look at the sidewalk walking down the street in an older neighborhood... chances are good you'll eventually find a hitching ring. History is a story (well, many stories), and the stories are everywhere for those who take the time to see them!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Muse of the Week: Fresh Air

On the way home from the gym today I had the opportunity to listen to a few minutes of an interview with Rob Cornilles, the Tualatin businessman who is a candidate for the Republican nomination in the First District congressional special election (replacing the disgraced David Wu). I admit the primary ballot I returned on Wednesday didn't list Cornilles as an option, but that said, I found my spirits buoyed by several of his comments. Most notably, he had absolutely no hesitation affirming that he had refused to sign onto Grover Norquist's no-tax pledge--which would put him in the company of about 6 current GOP members of Congress. Asked if this bothered him, he replied no, not at all; he was running to represent the people of a notably eclectic district, and he felt such a pledge would counteract his ability to do this well.

Three cheers for representation! Regardless of the election's outcome, we need more elected officials on both sides of the aisle who think first of their constituents and who refrain from hobbling themselves with didactic positions. Informed policy-making is a complicated task. Pledges such as Norquist's (or, indeed, such pledges on any position, right or left) are profoundly counterproductive in achieving policy success. Perhaps the current environment of discord and disgust will lead toward more candidates willing to take such stands. I hope so.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: The Fed Again

While perusing the Oregonian's latest "Occupy Portland" photos just now, I came across one showcasing a sign stating "End the Fed." For reasons I outlined here following a ridiculous statement by Rick Perry in August about Fed chairman Ben Bernanke's "treasonous" activity, criticism of the Fed from the right or the left on the grounds that is somehow betraying the American public is ridiculous.

Yes, the Fed makes mistakes. Sure, decisions could have been made differently, both now and at various points throughout the Fed's history that would have alleviated suffering. (The 1930s spring to mind as a far better example of unfortunate Fed decisions than the present situation, however.) Human frailty aside, the Fed and the governmental administrative structure underlying the American banking system is one of the the 99 percent's best friends. The wisdom of bank bail-outs and corporate decisions can be debated endlessly, but the fact remains that because the Fed and associated institutions like the FDIC exist, citizens' money hasn't disappeared when banks have failed. The money supply hasn't been tampered with according to the individual whims of banks and other profit-making institutions. We need the Fed. The 99 percent --and the other 1 percent, too -- would be far better served by reasoned, informed discussion based upon the public interest than we are by the hyperpartisan, context-free banter that presently masquerades as a national debate.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Muse of the Week: Emotion

Like most of us on the West Coast, I awoke yesterday morning to news that Muammar el-Qaddafi had been killed in Surt by rebel forces and/or a NATO airstrike. I admit my heart jumped for a moment, pleased as I was to contemplate a Libya no longer wracked by civil war or the bizarre and weirdly personal violence perpetrated by its mercurial dictator. Then, later in the day, I clicked on a slide show to the side of Qaddafi's NY Times obituary and saw the photo of his lifeless body. Yep, that looks like him, all right. Another, disquieting pair of feelings struck me: sympathy and sadness. I didn't want to feel sympathy for this monster of a despot. And yet, viewing this battered wreckage of a human life, it struck me once again that the loss of life--any life--is sad. Qaddafi's death may save thousands, and I'd hesitate ever to argue that the sacrifice of his life was worth it. I'd say it was. But however delusional and destructive he was, he was a human, too.

Today, news headlines report that Qaddafi's body is being preserved pending an investigation into the circumstances of his death. International observers have called for an inquiry into whether he was killed as a result of the airstrike or other military engagement (an act of war) or summarily executed (vigilante justice). Again, I find my emotions conflicted. Much of me wants to say it doesn't really matter. He was a terrible, terrible man. Despite the sadness of losing any human life, he needed to removed forever from hurting his people, and his death has accomplished that. However: I hope for a world that protects human life under universal principles of justice. It perches us upon a slippery slope to argue that justice can be overlooked in one case because the individual involved is reprehensible. If we want to rise above the type of brutality that characterizes the reigns of dictators everywhere, we must place ourselves upon a higher pedestal.

Libya faces a golden opportunity to create a new society forged upon justice and good government. I pray they can accomplish what they have set out to achieve.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Nifty Web Site

Apologies for the muse-less previous week. Our DSL box gave up the ghost Friday morning and we've been offline since then, but the new box arrived yesterday, my saintly husband spent a significant amount of time on the phone with Frontier last night, and as of this morning I am happily emailing and blog updating from home. Our local coffee shops are wonderful places, but my Mr. Coffee is far less expensive.

I confess to a certain paucity of inspiration, likely deriving from the reality that my attentions are rather stretched at the moment among a variety of enterprises. However, I recently found the coolest timeline of Portland's architectural heritage. I highly recommend taking a look!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Train Robbers

Oh, look, here it is Wednesday again. This has been one of those weeks that proceeds at the speeds of light and molasses simultaneously. I can't believe it's Wednesday, and yet yesterday felt much later in the week than Tuesday. Ah, well. Time for my weekly digression into local historical matters, and while I try to refrain from using my handy "This Day in Oregon" book too frequently I couldn't help but enjoy yesterday's entry:

"The last great train robbery in the United States took place on Oct. 11, 1923, in southern Oregon. Twins Ray and Roy DeAutremont and their younger brother Hugh held up S. P.'s southbound train #13 in tunnel 13. The brothers jumped the train just before it entered the half-mile long tunnel, assuming that the blast of the explosives they planned to use would be muffled inside. Actually it acted as an echo chamber especially since they used much more dynamite than necessary, blowing not only the door off the mail car, but destroying the car itself, any money inside and killing four men in the process. The brothers fled and hid out in the woods. Ray and Roy were finally captured in 1927, following the most extensive and expensive manhunt in the U.S. up to that time."

With names like Ray and Roy DeAutremont, it's easy to see why slightly later criminals with more mellifluous names such as "John Dillinger" became the stuff of legend instead (although Dillinger's prominence was aided as well by the growing stature of the FBI).

Even so, this story of inept train robbers gives me a wonderful opportunity to share one of my favorite historical films: "The Great Train Robbery," filmed in 1903. This early film was produced by the famous inventor Thomas Edison, who just a year before had lost a court case that would have granted him a monopoly over moving picture technology. Other companies would grow and become increasingly dominant in the industry, but it was Edison cameras which captured many of the first significant events on film, from the Spanish-American War in Cuba to the actual assassination of President McKinley. (It's worth noting, however, that 'footage' of the US Navy at war in the Philippines was actually produced with toy boats in what was essentially a bathtub.) "The Great Train Robbery" is silent, choppy and admittedly cheesy from a contemporary perspective, but the film is well worth viewing with an eye toward the experiences--or lack thereof--early viewers brought to the piece. Watch it to the end and I defy even the most jaded of modern mediaphiles not to flinch.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Muse of the Week: Shuttlesworth

Rest in peace (or rather, dance in heaven), Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth: NPR obituary.

The death of Steve Jobs, also on Wednesday, was a loss; he was a visionary and his company makes beautiful, functional tools. But Fred Shuttlesworth? He was a hero, speaking truth to power in the face of overwhelming brutality. We as a society should know the names of more of these men who stood with King and played their own vitally important leadership roles.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Crossing the Mighty Columbia

Searching for inspiration, I took yet another look at my handy, dandy "This Day in Oregon" book and found a fascinating little tidbit that might place into perspective the commotion over a potential toll on the Columbia River Crossing bridge.

"Oct. 5: On this date, 1846, John Switzler was authorized the operation of a ferry across the Columbia River opposite Fort Vancouver for a period of five years. His toll rates were as follows: footman, 25 cents; horseman, 75 cents; one wagon with yoke of oxen or team, $3.00; horse or cattle, each 25 cents; sheep or hog, 12 1/2 cents; 100 pounds of freight, 25 cents."

Of course, people weren't commuting across the Columbia River daily in 1846. Even so, using a formula based upon nominal GDP per capita, 25 cents in 1846 is equivalent to about $116 today. (See this Web site for a really cool calculator.) Makes a couple bucks seem quite a bit more reasonable, eh?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Muse of the Week: Mail

I stumbled across this lovely paean to the dwindling art of the letter on NPR. While it can be very exciting to receive an email -- especially if it brings something more personally or professionally relevant than the latest Hanna Andersson sale or Ticketmaster spam -- the glow of excitement on the kid's face whenever her latest magazine or card from Great-Grammy comes in the mail is a helpful reminder that on some level there is no substitute for the tangible.

Historically speaking, I'm troubled by the decline in the fortunes of the US Postal Service because of the legacy it represents. Prior to the New Deal era of the 1930s, and certainly before the inauguration of Civil War pensions in the late 1800s, most Americans' only connection to the federal government came via their use of the postal service network. The office of Postmaster General was a Cabinet-level position into the twentieth century. Post offices played a significant role in knitting the various states and territories into a coherent whole, unified by common practice and networks of communication.

One could argue we have simply moved beyond a need for the postal service; that it has served its purpose and its day is now past. The quasi-privatization of the US Postal Service as a "business" of sorts rather than a true government service helps to legitimize this conclusion. If the USPS is just another business, one hobbled by extra regulations -- and failing, at that -- should it be propped up, or should it simply be allowed to fail, with private enterprise taking up the slack?

I believe the US Postal Service continues to serve two important functions. First, it allows us to preserve the civility of tangible, written communication. We might ship a relative's birthday present or an Etsy order via UPS, but what happens to the Christmas card, the thank-you note or the condolence card? Second, the demise of the USPS would sunder a bond that holds us together as a nation. Since the earliest days of the Republic, communication has been open to all for the price of a postage stamp. As well, we've been linked by common usage. In a fractured and fragmented country, the unifying power of an institution can take on an importance more significant than a purely financial bottom line. The USPS needs fixing, but I hope it will not be allowed to fail.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Tom McCall

[Photo credit]

Last Friday's mystery quote came from the mouth of former Oregon Governor Tom McCall, who held the state's top office from 1967 to 1975. McCall was a Republican; he was also a strident conservationist, defending Oregon's environment and livability with an eye toward preservation for sustainable use. McCall is most famous for a comment he made in a 1971 CBS News interview: "Come and visit us again and again. This is a state of excitement, But for heaven's sake, don't come here to live." Some found this a trifle unfriendly, but viewed in a larger framework it composes just one small part of a larger worldview geared toward protecting Oregon's livelihoods while sustaining the natural beauty that makes the Pacific Northwest such a special part of the country.

I came across this edited compilation of many other things McCall had to say about Oregon, growth, development and conservation--it's well worth a look.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Muse of the Week: Stewardship

I recently came across this quotation in my research. It wafted up like a breath of fresh air from the table of the archives where I was working. Unfortunately, the operative word here is "archives," i.e., it wasn't uttered recently, but it's an instructive piece of evidence that even in a contentious climate (and it was one when this quotation was first uttered), political figures can make the choice to follow the high road. Hooray for stewardship!

So: for the fun of it, any guesses as to who originally spoke these words? Later, I'll post some hints to narrow it down.

“Well, Norm, I can’t judge things in that kind of a context, whether I’m going to be elected, or unelected. I think it makes you too nervous and it makes you too political and it also makes you too cowardly. So, what you’ve got to do is surround yourself with the best advisors, use your head as wisely as you can, use their advice as wisely as you can and beat out the best kind of program on a broad area to serve the State.... And that’s the only consideration. In other words, I’ve got to think not so much about the next election as the next generation. And I hope I cleave to that kind of a context for everything I do in this office.”

Hint #1: This comes to us from 1969, in the Pacific time zone...

Hint #2: The speaker was a state-level official...

Third and final hint: He is especially well known for advocating state land-use laws...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Beavers

Interesting article in the Oregonian yesterday about the discovery of fossilized beaver teeth in the John Day Fossil Beds providing the oldest evidence to date of these bright-toothed rodents' residence in North America. The teeth had been buried under a layer of sediment produced during a volcanic eruption around 7 to 7.3 million years ago. To this point, the oldest evidence of beavers came from around 5 million years ago.

Prehistory is a field that helps demonstrate just how much history is intertwined with all the other things that impact life. This beaver wasn't jotting down notes on his or her day ("Sept. 21 / Wed. / Ash cloud on the horizon... better bring in the washing"). The tools of science are required to understand the deep past.

When we remove the written record, the other methods of gathering information about Earth's past come to the fore, but in reality the various dimensions of existence inform even modern history. Full understanding of the space race of the 1960s, for example, comes only when we learn about the science and technology of the era; the politics and economics of both major parties to the race; the social and cultural conditions that rendered such a strenuous dedication of resources possible; and the intellectual climate that helped Americans and Soviets envision the future of exploration beyond Earth's boundaries. Science; technology; politics; economics; societal mores; culture; intellectualism.

My universal response to those who proclaim they cannot stand history is to point out history is the study of everything. Unless they have absolutely no intellectual curiosity whatsoever, it isn't the history they can't stand... it's the way we have delineated history. In truth, history is the most significant subject in the educational canon simply because it touches everything else we study.

Meanwhile, this new little Benny (or Betsy?) the Beaver helps demonstrate at least one thing... this really is the Beaver State.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Muse of the Week: Depressing

I used to enjoy watching the NBC television program "The West Wing." On the whole, the program's focus was unabashedly liberal. I was always somewhere between amused and chagrined that the show's producers and writers were so convinced of their political rectitude that it rarely occurred to them to vary the ideological composition of their heroes and villains.

That said, I recall one episode that has me wishing fiction were reality. In this episode, key adviser Toby Ziegler set out on a seemingly quixotic quest to reform Social Security. I don't recall the details; perhaps Social Security was facing an immediate crisis, or perhaps he simply saw an opening nobody else did. In any event, Ziegler risked status, reputation and position to successfully broker a deal between Democrats and Republicans that restored Social Security to firm foundations by making changes that were unpopular with both parties. Each side of the aisle had to sacrifice; nobody was completely happy. But the end result was stability, and everyone in Washington could breathe a sigh of relief.

Risk. Reputation. Status. Where are we headed as a nation when the latter two occupy all the political space, leaving no room for the former? We are engaged in such a race for the lowest common denominator, more concerned with partisan jockeying than problem-solving, and re-election than restoration. The New York Times published an editorial today noting how Democrats appear reluctant to trumpet the successes they have had or to make a forthright challenge to Republicans' intransigence on fiscal questions because they are so concerned about their 2012 electoral prospects. Meanwhile, Republican candidates who once supported innovative ideas and programs, from Mitt Romney to the now-exited Tim Pawlenty, have backtracked their way into hollow support of a narrowly defined GOP orthodoxy. There is more to the Republican Party than this--or at least, there was. There was once more to Democrats, as well.

As I head for the archives this morning I find myself wishing I could crawl into the past physically as well as mentally. (Except for the garters and pantyhose part.) I hope someday we can recover the courage that brought the United States from 1776 to the present. We've made some HUGE mistakes over the past two and a half centuries. One thing that has distinguished American history, however, is that courageous people have brought us--even kicking and screaming--into a realm of greater freedoms and possibilities. Those people were Republican and Democrat. Now, however, we face increasing poverty, a growing gap between rich and poor, and politicians who can no longer hold civilized conversations. We're in a scary place. I'm deeply concerned.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: We're Off, on the Road, to Sacra-men-to...

Here's another tidbit from my This Day in Oregon book (see reference... somewhere below) that's guaranteed to make one take back everything ever muttered about Interstate 5's interminable boring-ness:

"Commencing this day [September 15] in 1860, the California Stage Company offered daily service between Portland and Sacramento, a distance of 710 miles, making it the second longest stage route in the entire country. Taking six days and seven hours, the passage required 28 coaches, 30 stage wagons, 35 drivers, and district agents, hostlers horses, feed and equipment to proportion. In all, 60 new stations existed along the new route."

Uff da. (I would point out to East Coasties, too, that this involves only one and a half states' worth of travel... we make em' big out here!) Hard to imagine, now that the entire distance could be traversed in one (admittedly long) day.

Perhaps just as fascinating, however, is the reality that there was a need for this service. The 19th history of the Northwest tends to be written in the broadest of strokes. "Little House"-style pioneer wagons... and then, the railroad in the late 1800s. A bit of a kerfuffle with Britain about who owned Oregon and Washington territories... and that's about it. The story of the California Stage Company and this Portland-to-Sacramento route helps demonstrate the network of white settlement that already existed in the Far West by the middle of the 19th century.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Muse of the Week: Coffee

I should probably be writing about President Obama's job speech and the ongoing fight to restore the American economy to some measure of health. However: 1) I find the entire situation profoundly depressing given the absolute refusal of most sectors of the government to listen to anything approaching common sense, and 2) I didn't get much sleep last night for some reason, making a completely different topic far more fascinating to me this morning...

That topic?


As a historian, I am fascinated by the manner in which products we take for granted have made their way around the world and into a state of ubiquity in our lives. Coffee is a wonderful example of the ways in which local, regional and international trade networks, colonial relationships and social dynamics have combined to render a once-specific crop an international staple (and, according to the International Coffee Organization--see their fascinating history of coffee here--the second most valuable source of foreign exchange for producing countries, after oil).

Despite our tendency to associate coffee with the western hemisphere, the coffee tree is actually native to the eastern Horn of Africa. Spread initially through local trade networks and the migration of slaves throughout northern Africa, it eventually made its way to the Middle East. For a period of time in the 16th and 17th centuries an active coffeehouse culture flourished in Yemen. Yemen also tried to prohibit cultivation of the plant from spreading to keep a corner on the market, but Dutch traders eventually managed to circumvent this prohibition and brought live plants back to the Netherlands by the early 1600s.

The problem with coffeehouse culture is that it tends to promote exchange of ideas. All those people getting together and discussing things tends to give people notions about how society might better function. This was not something Yemen's authorities wished to promote, and they clamped down on coffeehouse culture in their region of the world. Meanwhile, however, citizens in other regions started to prize the qualities of this new beverage. The Dutch colonies in India and Indonesia were some of the earliest non-African or Middle Eastern producers of coffee. Dutch colonizers were also responsible for bringing the crop to Central and South America in the 1700s. Coffeehouse culture, however, was far from confined to the Netherlands. By the end of the 17th century, coffeehouses were flourishing in many parts of Europe--and in North America.

What was happening in these coffeehouses? Well, for starters, the development of our modern economic systems. The famous insurance agency Lloyd's of London started as a coffeehouse. Both the New York Stock Exchange and the Bank of New York began in coffeehouses. Also? Well, the Boston Tea Party was organized in the rooms of the Green Dragon, a Boston coffeehouse.

One crop; a new economic and political way of life. Pretty impressive for a bean.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Old Portland!

As promised, here are a few more old Portland photos to enjoy...

The Montgomery Ward building on NW Vaughn. This is now an office complex with a "Montgomery Park" sign on the top. (Easy name switch... 2 letters!) My grandfather worked here for decades, and my grandmother worked here also. Which would help explain how they became my grandfather and grandmother, eh?

The old Forestry Center, constructed for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Expedition in 1905. This building, located very near the old Montgomery Ward building, burnt to the ground in 1964. My grandfather recalled being able to feel the intense heat from Wards' windows as these enormous old-growth logs burned.

Jantzen Beach Amusement Park--at one time, the largest amusement park in the nation.

Ice cream, anyone? This was a familiar venue throughout my school years for its "clown sundaes" and that ridiculous one-of-every-scoop-Farrell's-sold concoction that was accompanied by sirens and flashing lights.

The 82nd Avenue Drive-In, surrounded not by used-car lots or strip malls, but mysterious things called "farms."

Last but certainly not least, my favorite image for the wonderful memories it brings: Lloyd Center when it was an open-air mall. The only thing better would be one more trip through the forced-air heaters that blew vertically at the entrance to Meier and Frank. One of the largest malls in the world at the time it opened, in 1960.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Poolside Splendor

Even though it isn't a "Webfoot Wednesday," I just received an email forward from my great-aunt with a trove of fabulous old Portland images and I couldn't resist sharing this perfect postcard to start off a hot week here in the Pacific Northwest:

The Thunderbird was located just south of the Interstate Bridge on Hayden Island. There's still a hotel on the property, but now it's a Doubletree. Not nearly as exciting. Fun stuff!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Muse of the Week: Long Weekend

Ah, Labor Day weekend. A time to commemorate the struggles of those who worked so hard to ensure that everyday people don't have to work 12- or even 16-hour days, 7 days a week, without safety measures and worker's compensation and all those good things.

(Which raises the questions of a) why we so lovingly adopt devices bringing us squarely back into the realm of the 12- or even 16-hour workday and b) erode our workers' protections to the point where we edge back toward multiple jobs, lower benefits and other vestiges of our past. But that's a topic for another day. I am in the final stages of preparing a co-edited book manuscript for mailing and find myself unable to form coherent thoughts that don't involve copy-editing and final content adjustments. My apologies. The kid starts school next week and it should become far easier to be thoughtful on a regular basis.)

Meanwhile, here's a nice, restful picture of central Oregon's Smith Rock to contemplate on this weekend devoted to remembering our long struggle for rights and for rest:

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: A Comparative Moment

Thirteen hundred years ago...

* the Venerable Bede was alive and writing his history of England
* Charlemagne was just coming to power
* the Umayyad Dynasty was undergoing power struggles in its Middle Eastern heartland and tremendous expansion abroad, including in Spain
* the Chinese were inventing gunpowder
* the Tibetans were preparing an invasion of China (questionably advised, considering the previous piece of information?)
* Kyoto was founded

And in Oregon, the spectacular Newberry Crater complex of volcanoes was erupting:

Also, of course, various Native American tribes dwelled in the region, establishing, among other things, trading networks that extended from the rich Columbia River Basin hundreds or even thousands of miles in most directions.

When we read on a placard that a volcano erupted "1300 years ago" it can be hard to gain much perspective. We have no written records of what was happening in the Northwest in 700 AD, although we do know civilizations flourished. The far West can seem so removed from the rest of "civilization" that it becomes obscured as a place of mythic size and proportion, with similarly shadowy history. Once we place such significant events in global context, though, the picture becomes more clear. Our dramatic landscape tells stories as one part of an interconnected globe. Hence the value of comparative history!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Muse of the Week: Restoration

This muse is coming a day early... our wedding anniversary is tomorrow, and with it comes two days (hooray!) of kid-free time. I was surprised to find an article this morning in the NYT on the re-designation of the Los Angeles River as a navigable waterway, and even a recent float trip down one of its sections. Those familiar with the LA Basin will know the Los Angeles River as a sometimes-stream, sometimes-trickle through concrete culverts down the heart of the city. The concrete is designed specifically to channel water quickly through the urban area and out to sea -- a hedge against the occasional possibility of a flash flood and resultant destruction. Unfortunately, all that concrete has had a predictably destructive impact upon the viability of the waterway.

These recent efforts to reclaim the Los Angeles River as a river, and not just a glorified culvert, are part of a larger move toward reclamation and restoration of waterways throughout the West. Dams such as the Condit Dam in SW Washington are scheduled for breaching to restore traditional fish runs; urban waterways such as Portland's Willamette River are increasingly used for recreation; battles play out in farming country as southern Oregon and northern California attempt to reconcile 100 years of reclamation policy -- and 100 years of farm and ranch families' livelihood -- with the needs of the region's struggling wildlife population.

The issues raised by restoration efforts are complex. Our efforts to deal with them, however, reflect a broader understanding of all the dimensions of our livelihood in the West. After all, the West was built on resource exploitation. This exploitation has brought wealth, power and prosperity; it has also brought the destruction and elimination of much of what built this wealth and power in the first place. Only a conscious effort to manage the resources of the West will enable us to continue to live profitably -- not just in monetary terms, but in terms of quality of life -- in the future.

There is beauty even in what human hands have manipulated. My husband and I used to take walks along Ballona Creek, another concrete-lined waterway that courses through Culver City and Playa del Rey, and on out to the Pacific Ocean. Concrete, yes; but also home to flocks of pelicans, other shorebirds and the grand sweep of sky and water so unique to the Pacific coastline. Perhaps our growing understanding of restoration and reclamation will bring waterways like the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek into a more natural state. Appreciating them for what they are is probably the best way to begin. With conscious effort and enlightened policy, we can begin to create a West that can sustain and flourish for decades to come.

Ballona Creek, Fall 2004

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Old MacDonald

There was a great article in the Oregonian this morning about a stolen, and then abandoned, goat on the lam in SE Portland... it had been taken from a fenced, vacant lot upon which a herd of goats had been released to act as natural lawn mowers. The Portland Police took the burglary call seriously, the goat was located and returned, and all is well. (Now, people, leave those poor goats alone!)

Anyway, this got me thinking about the stories my step-grandfather told about herding dairy cows through inner NE Portland during his childhood. The whole back-to-the-earth movement in these gentrifying parts of Portland, with all the urban farms and chickens and so on, is really just a reemergence of what used to exist in these parts of the city.

In honor of the rescued goat and all those original "urban" farmers, here are a few fun photos:

[Photo credit] George Schreiber family and friends at their farm in the Albina District, 1910s-1920s

[Photo credit] Another view of the Schreibers

[Photo credit] This photo is captioned "Street Scene on the Peninsula [N Portland], ca. 1900"

Friday, August 19, 2011

Muse of the Week: Global Sports

The NBA Hall of Fame recently inducted new members, including Portland Trailblazer legend Arvydas Sabonis, the first Lithuanian player to be thus enshrined but one of a growing number of players to blaze the trail (pun sort of intended, but only because it's convenient) from Europe and other parts of the world and make their way in American sport. Ichiro Suzuki from Japan; Yao Ming from China; the list has expanded dramatically in recent years.

[Photo credit: Bruce Ely, The Oregonian]

Meanwhile, the United States is finally entering more fully into the most truly global sport--soccer/football--with the growing success of Major League Soccer. While the level of play still does not approach European leagues like the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga, Germany's Bundesliga or Italy's Serie A, older players with major stature are beginning to cross the pond. The LA Galaxy's David Beckham (England), of course, is the obvious example, but other players ranging from the New York Red Bulls' Thierry Henry (France) to the Galaxy's newest signing, Robbie Keane (Ireland), will continue to raise the league's international stature. Meanwhile, younger players from around the world are coming to the MLS and increasing our awareness of international sport. My own Portland Timbers boast players from all over the world, from Ghana's Kalif Alhassan to Columbia's Diego Chara and Jorge Perlaza.

The globalization of sport has significant consequences. Competition within the strongest leagues is incredibly intense, bringing with it concerns about the future of the domestic game in these countries. England, for example, is beset with controversy about the success of the Premier League in bringing in foreign talent at the possible expense of young English players. Smaller or less financially robust leagues can suffer. The Scottish Premier League poses one such example.

On the whole, however, and certainly in the context of American sport, I would suggest that the stories of Arvydas Sabonis, other sporting pioneers and the MLS bode well for our understanding of the world around us. Historically, we have exhibited such a strong tendency toward gating ourselves off from the rest of the world. Our domestic sports leagues tend to further our tendencies toward exclusivity--the "World Series" of baseball, for example, much as I love the sport, elides the sport's multinational story. The stories of these athletes from elsewhere can help us more fully understand everything from foreign policy to the commonalities among people from different backgrounds.

The Blazers made Sabonis a first-round draft pick in 1986, the first European to be drafted; he did not arrive in the United States to play until 1995. What kept him from coming? Most notably, international politics. Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union. They didn't want him to go. Sabonis was instrumental in the defeat of the United States national basketball team at the Olympics in 1988. Today, Sabonis is a booster of the sport in a tiny country known in Europe for its basketball prowess. International power dynamics, communist repression, the emergence of a freer labor environment and the global spread of a sport founded in the United States... all in one 7-foot, 3-inch package. That's a pretty amazing history lesson!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Powered by Orange

Another interesting tidbit from "This Day in Oregon": "The cornerstone of the new building of the state agricultural college was laid, on the college farm near the city of Corvallis, this day in 1887, by the Grand Lodge of A.F. & A.M. of Oregon."

This college would become Oregon State University. Go Beavs!

OSU was one of many land grant universities established following passage of the Morrill Act in 1862. The Republican Party of the 1850s and 1860s was descended from the Whig Party of the 1840s, a party advocating internal improvements, protective tariffs and developing America's infrastructure as a path toward growth and prominence. The almost exclusively Democratic antebellum South, on the other hand, favored low tariffs, as little federal government as possible and did not share the Whigs'--or later, the Republicans'--enthusiasm for technological development and infrastructure, because these were simply not necessary in a land-based economy that with low labor costs (i.e., slavery).

Once the South left Congress with the onset of Civil War, northern Republicans were suddenly in a position to pass all sorts of legislation that would previously have foundered on the shoals of sectionalism, including the Homestead Act (western settlement had been the hottest of hot-button issues when North and South were engaged in a zero-sum game of preserving "balance" between slave and free), the transcontinental railroad (before the South left, deciding which route it would take was an intractable problem), and the Morrill Act (scientific agriculture was the key to developing America's resources without the benefits of cheap slave labor). The results of the Morrill Act, in particular, range from Michigan State to Oregon State, and many universities in between.

See "This Day in Oregon" full citation Aug. 3.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"Treason" and Responsibility

In the words of Onslow, one of my favorite characters on the British sitcom "Keeping Up Appearances," oh, nice*...

Rick Perry Stirs Firestorm By Accusing Fed Chair Bernanke Of Near Treason

The article includes strong commentary from both sides of the political spectrum regarding what a ridiculous (and irresponsible) statement this was.

The Federal Reserve is not a partisan institution. It was created to deal with the needs of an expanding economy without leaving the money supply prone to the machinations of party politics [see "19th century, numerous catastrophic economic collapses during"]. Does this mean it is perfect? No. But is Ben Bernanke (originally a Republican appointee, as the article points out) going to throw the weight of the Fed behind an attempt to bolster any one politician's electoral changes in an "almost treacherous, treasonous" decision? I don't think so.

Treason is the gravest of political crimes. It is irresponsible and grossly unstatesmanlike to use such terms outside the bounds of a most heinous betrayal. Governor Perry owes the Fed, the country and his own party an apology for bringing it into such disrepute. The GOP can do so much better.

* insert tone of heavy sarcasm...

Friday, August 12, 2011

Muse of the Week: Recession (Again?)

Interesting article in the NYT about the parallels between our current economic situation and the recession-within-the-Depression of 1937-38.

The author makes some interesting points. As usual, there are elements of this argument that can be used to bolster both sides of the political aisle, but the central point is that when we too quickly turn our attention to post-recession issues, a fragile recovery can fall apart and send us spiraling downward once more.

The factor behind the second recovery of 1938 onward that is given too little attention in this article is the dramatic growth in military-related enterprises as World War II approached. We can take lessons from the 1930s, but we cannot use it as a uniform guide because the circumstances are just too different. It is easy for Americans to forget to that World War II was a serious international crisis long before we formally entered the conflict in late 1941. The Japanese began to overrun China in the early '30s; by the mid- to late-'30s Europe sensed the overwhelming danger Hitler's Germany posed; by 1939, the continent was at war. American industry fueled the European Allied war effort, in particular, years before we did any fighting--and furthermore, our military activity far outpaced the public rhetoric of 1939, 1940 and 1941, requiring additional manpower and materiel.

The last thing we need, of course, is (another) war. Our economic recovery must take place under the very different circumstances of protracted, limited conflict, a less cohesive series of security threats, a truly globalized international economic environment and in an era characterized by a more ideologically rigid, politically polarized party structure.

Even so, we would do well to carefully address the past parallels -- and important differences -- in our history. There are some positive signs, most notably in the Fed's understanding of the shortfalls in its 1930s fiscal policy shortfalls. Here's hoping we can continue to formulate more informed responses to the troubling dilemma in which we find ourselves.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mark O. Hatfield, 1922-2011

My favorite politician died yesterday (and I don't even self-identify as Republican). Mark Hatfield was not perfect, but he was a man of uncommon principle, decency and common sense. He stood up for those who could not defend themselves, from minority citizens in his home state of Oregon in the 1950s to those afflicted by war and poverty while in the Senate. He was not afraid to stand alone, but he also had the political savvy to know when to stand and when to compromise. He represented so much that I would love to see return to American politics. We are poorer for his loss, but I hope the news of his death and the recollections of his life in politics spur others to notice his legacy--and honor it with their actions.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Muse of the Week: Jupiter

I suppose some might accuse NASA of frivolity, but in my opinion it's nice to see that someone in this all-too-gloomy world can still have a bit of fun:

Lego figures to Jupiter on Juno spacecraft.

[Credit: Christian Science Monitor; click on caption for full story]

We are sadly bereft these days of larger missions and idealistic ventures, so preoccupied with fighting the "other" that we often fail to dream. If even one little kid sees Jupiter, Juno and ol' Galileo and decides she lives in a world of possibilities, this planet becomes a better place.

(Juno, by the way, is holding a magnifying glass and not a frying pan, as it first appeared to my eye. :-) )

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Rush!

The other day I (or, more accurately, the 5-year-old, who likes to go through the bookshelves) found a This Day in Oregon book a friend gave me a few years back. This nifty little volume is full of interesting tidbits, but I was particularly struck by the entry for August 1, two days ago.

"The schooner, Honolulu, docked on this day in 1848 in Portland. After quickly purchasing all the picks and shovels available in the town's two hardware stores, the ship's captain announced that gold had been discovered in California. Two thirds of Oregon's male population, including the future governor of California, left to join the rush, but not before buying out the captain's supply of implements at several times the original price."

Those Californians... they've been pushing up prices since the 1840s. ;-)

Source: James Cloutier, This Day in Oregon: Daybook of Oregon History Featuring Hugh Wetshoe (Eugene: Image West Press, 1982).

Friday, July 29, 2011

Muse of the Week: Association

This post can be considered my studious avoidance of all-things-debt-crisis as at this point, the entire ordeal makes my head want to explode in frustration.

So: something light and summery!

For years now there has been much handwringing over the status of American community organizations. We are told we no longer gather in groups to share fellowship, resources, or any of the other benefits of life in community. There is truth to this. There are also several signs that some people are "turning back," if you will, by moving forward into new organizations based upon old models, from food co-ops to intentional communities.

Summer is fair and festival season across much of the United States, and as I read others' postings about their community celebrations and look forward to the grand parade of Newberg's Old Fashioned Festival tomorrow morning, I'm struck by the continuity I see between past and present.

Many of these festivals derive from attempts to boost local agriculture and create frameworks for celebrating shared experiences. In some cases, they derive from the organizations created by the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry and the Farmer's Alliance, both founded in the late 1800s. These were political advocacy organizations, fighting for the rights of farmers, for an expanded money supply that would make obtaining credit and repaying loans less onerous, for railroad regulation and so on. The Grange was even able to win the Supreme Court's recognition in 1876 that facilities including railroads and grain elevators were “clothed with a public interest." This decision helped facilitate passage of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887. Perhaps their most important function, however, was social. The Grange and the Farmer's Alliance, and all the smaller guilds and cooperative organizations that sprung up across the United States as it grew and expanded in the late 1800s and early 1900s, were vehicles for belonging in regions of the country that lacked other social infrastructure. They allowed citizens to enjoy each other's company, to cooperate in barn-raisings and other mutual activities and to forge new regional distinctions.

Grange halls these days are likely to be venues for weddings and square-dance lessons rather than centers of political advocacy. Really, though, in providing the physical space for such activities they are continuing to provide one of their important historical functions. County and state fairs continue to provide opportunities not only for young people in rural areas to hone their skills, but they connect city folk to farmland and enable citizens to join together in community. Small-town festivals--and neighborhood festivals in cities--continue to celebrate unique regional identity and forge connections among generations.

I'll add a couple photos from the parade to this posting over the weekend... meanwhile, enjoy the opportunities summer provides to celebrate the legacy of American association and community organization!

Newberg VFW

St. Paul Rodeo Court

Kiddo and friends (small friend is distracted and slightly worried as the "Great Clips" mascot has just doused someone down the parade route with a bucket of water)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: The Party Line

Oregon's been in the news the past few days for the extremely unfortunate reason that our 1st District congressman, David Wu, has proven to be a complete and utter fool. Even more pleasant, guess which district I call home?


Why, one might ask, is such an individual elected? And, more to the point, reelected?

In my opinion, the answer has everything to do with the demise of the truly "representative" elected official. As our political parties have become more stringently ideological (contact me for a reading list if you want the historical background), our elected officials have marched ever more in lock-step with the political agenda of the parties and interest affiliations they represent. They fail to respond to the specific needs of their constituents. The result? Party-line voting becomes the only way to express even a modicum of choice as a voter. We can no longer be assured that by "voting for the individual," we will elect a representative who meets our region's needs. We can only choose a party that will more closely align with our perceived interests.

The result? Individuals like Rep. Steve Womack, Republican of Arkansas, who told reporters he'd had constituents calling all day yesterday and advocating tax increases. His response? "This economy is too fragile." The man is from Arkansas. Outside the bounds of the Walton clan I seriously doubt tax increases for the wealthiest Americans will have any impact at all upon Arkansans. Elected because a majority of his constituents believed the Republican Party would more closely align with their perceived interests, the voters of the 3rd District of Arkansas now have a representative who is refusing to represent the will of the people who sent him to Washington and advocate for them. This example comes from the right side of the political aisle, but it is not a problem specific to one party.

The only way to move on from the intransigence of the current political climate -- and the frustration of a situation like the Wu affair -- is to revive the practice of electing officials who will exercise independent political judgement that provides for their constituents' needs.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Muse of the Week: Connected

Interesting article on NPR about the increasingly integrated network into which devices like the iPhone are bringing us.

The author doesn't completely dismiss the idea that this 24-hour connectivity may have drawbacks, but he's rather condescending toward a graduate-student cabbie who observes that such devices have a downside, as well. The brave new world of always-on networking is something I've been pondering quite a lot lately. On the one hand, there are obvious benefits to the knowledge and capabilities such devices bring. (And I must admit I would love a phone with a data plan.)

I worry, however, that there are some significant limitations to the usefulness of such technology. Used well, it can do wonderful things. Used improperly, it does seem, as the cabbie says, to make us "stupider than ever before." We rely upon technology to tell us what our own good sense used to develop. GPS software, for example, is wonderful when we need to find somewhere new and complicated, but what favor are we doing ourselves when we fail to learn the dimensions of our landscape and rely upon electronic devices for basic tasks? We become seemingly incapable of living without stimulation. Need to wait a few minutes? Better turn on the "Angry Birds." We become so tightly woven into our online social networks, from Facebook to text-messaging to email, that we are unable to focus upon our in-person communication and experience the anxiety of worrying we have missed something the moment we put down our devices. Will the world end because we don't check Facebook for a few days? I highly doubt it.

So: while the best path will vary depending upon the individual, I suspect most of us would benefit from treading a line somewhere between the Amish and the author's Silicon Valley myopia. Technology offers exciting new horizons, but treated without care we can begin to lose the skills and interaction that make us fully human.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Centennial Mills

Interesting column in the Oregonian this morning about the Centennial Mills, a complex of mostly-derelict buildings owned by the Portland Development Commission and not doing much at the moment except rotting. Attempts have been made to renovate and reuse the buildings, perhaps for some type of foodie paradise (a very contemporary-Portland aspiration), but thus far all have failed.

The history of the buildings is a fascinating one. The site began as a single structure, serviced by clipper ships and producing flour from eastern Oregon farms. It survived the Depression years and boomed during the 1940s and 1950s, mechanizing in the process. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, foreign competition operating under less-stringent health and safety regulations rendered Centennial Mills noncompetitive. The city bought the 150,000-square-foot site in 2000, old office furniture, machinery and even grain stores intact.

Since then, the site has moldered. The barriers to successful reuse are clear; this is a huge complex, with old buildings and numerous safety issues. As a historian, however, what I find most intriguing--and troubling--about the history of Centennial Mills is what it indicates about our changing economy and the unintended consequences of a structure favoring lower costs above other factors.

This was a thriving industrial site that produced something of unquestionable good: flour. It did so according to American health and safety regulations; far from flawless, to be sure, but superior to many that replaced it. It gave Americans jobs, provided safe food, and contributed to the infrastructure not only of Portland's industrial and shipping economy but eastern Oregon's agricultural economy. In its place, the strongest proposal to date would have substituted new additions to the service economy. Yes, a local focus would have provided truck farmers with work, and this is a good thing, but it would feed yet again into a burgeoning population of relatively well-to-do Portlanders while continuing to fail in providing services to longtime residents in the poorer sectors of the community.

There is something broken here. I hope we can find ways to fix it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Muse of the Week: Compromise

A brief observation as we head off on a camping trip:

We spend our parental years teaching our children that they can't always get everything that they want, and that compromise is necessary. When they reach school age, teachers from elementary school through college offer the explanation that there are three branches of power in the federal government to preserve checks and balances and essentially mandate compromise. Moderation is built into the fundamental framework of the American political system.

And then we watch our elected officials steadfastly refuse to compromise.

It's frustrating, it's completely unproductive and it's downright un-American. And if we don't watch ourselves, we will entirely lose coming generations to the ennui of that disheartening realization that reality bears no relation to the principles they have been taught.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Greetings from...

It's an exceptionally busy week, but I hate to interrupt my regular postings now that they're underway. So, enjoy a vintage postcard of my father's hometown, Klamath Falls, Oregon:

[Photo credit]

I've attended many a Fourth of July parade on this street, albeit not with cars as nifty as these involved (except as parade entries). There was, however, a memorable inflatable pelican one year (Klamath Union High School teams are the "Fighting Pelicans"... there's a large, waterfowl-friendly lake abutting the town), and there was nothing quite like seeing a set of fighter planes from Kingsley Field come roaring down the sky, just above Main Street. The smells of sagebrush and juniper will always remind me of being a little kid, slightly sunburnt, going for a walk with my folks in the neighborhood behind Grandma and Granddad's house. Old growth in the north and west; sagebrush in the south and east. It's little wonder so many Oregonians are so firmly wedded to their home.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Muse of the Week: Vision

I found this great Frigidaire promotional film from the 1964 World's Fair on an American Historical Association blog (which I believe linked in turn to a podcast on the way we have envisioned the "future of food" over time): view film.

There are some seriously problematic elements in this film, from rampant ethnic stereotyping to blind faith in the possibilities of development (the section toward the beginning seemingly endorsing deforestation of rain forests is particularly alarming in this regard).

However: the blithe optimism and faith in technological progress that characterize this film have another dimension. It is arresting from a 21st century perspective to see Americans' mid-20th-century confidence in their capabilities to transform the world for the better. Yes, this is transformation within a specific frame of reference; Mother is still in the kitchen and dear old Dad is still carving the roast. Clearly the limits of imagination only extend so far. As well, the contemporary observer can point out unintended consequences right and left.

Despite all the problems, though, there's something to be said for trying. There's something to be said for an attempt toward a vision of the future that focuses upon possibilities.

One of the things I find most alarming about the current political climate is our persistent focus upon retrenchment and opposition. We are so busy assigning blame and talking about what we can't do that we forget to think about what we can. Some parts of the country are better at this than others. Oregon has actually managed to have a productive legislative session--a refreshing turn of events--but unfortunately other parts of the country have failed to follow this lead. The result? State government's ceased altogether to function in Minnesota, state representatives are running from each other in Wisconsin and the federal government is endlessly quibbling about how to avoid a default on the national debt without (at least until very recently... fingers crossed!) much willingness to compromise.

Is this the best we can do? I certainly hope not. What is our dream for the future?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Fireworks

Summer in Oregon doesn't usually arrive until July. Following a wet, cold spring like this one, warm weather and sunshine approaches the glory of a miracle. All the better for enjoying some nice, legal-in-Oregon* Fourth of July fun...

According to the Web site of the American Pyrotechnics Association (no, I'm not making this up), fireworks made their way to Europe from China between the 13th and 15th centuries AD. The Italians were the first Europeans to manufacture their own fireworks. This imported enthusiasm for black-powder explosions and the like made its way across the pond to colonial North America, where as early as 1731 the colony of Rhode Island imposed restrictions upon the proper use of fireworks. Fireworks were a part of celebrations commemorating the first anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in 1777.


* Non-airborne.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Birthday, United States!

We may have our foibles, but all the same, what a special place to live. And to study!

In honor of the holiday:

I'm thankful every day for the foresight shown by imperfect men in constructing a nation of promises. That universal rights business was powerful stuff; more powerful than they appreciated or envisioned at the time. We are so fortunate to have the ability to continue to grow toward the fulfillment of these promises.


Friday, July 1, 2011

Muse of the Week: The Vote

The 26th amendment to the United States Constitution, lowering the minimum voting age to 18, was enacted on this date in 1971.

Most election seasons are marked by commentaries bemoaning a lack of voter participation among young Americans, and it is true that voter turnout could be far better (this holds true for most age groups in the United States). Among those young people who are engaged and do vote, however, I have noticed some encouraging signs of hope. I am struck in the classroom by the pragmatism I see among my students. Yes, 18-to-22-year-olds are notoriously idealistic, convinced they hold the keys to ending society's problems in their generation. Lately, however, I observe signs that our youngest voters may have their feet more firmly planted upon the ground than many of their elders.

One example: I was lecturing last spring on the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and when we reached the realm of economic policy I noted that when the United States entered a recession following his election Bush opted to promote both cuts in expenditures *and* increases in revenue. While the latter betrayed his "Read my lips: no new taxes" pledge of the 1988 presidential campaign, Bush understood that government had more than one tool in its arsenal against economic recession and that using both might be the most prudent course of action. He chose to abandon dogma and make a pragmatic set of decisions geared toward the best interests of the country.

My students were flabbergasted that Bush had been willing to do this -- and vociferous in their endorsement of pragmatic decision-making to combat our current economic crisis. The prevailing commentary was a combination of sarcastic statements to the effect of "wow, you mean they actually were willing to use all the tools available to them?" and wistful desires for something similar to take place in the contemporary policy arena.

Young people know that they will inherit their elders' achievements -- and their problems. If the students I have taught recently are any indication, our future may well be in better hands than our present. Now, kids: get out there and vote! The sooner you do so, the faster we'll enjoy the benefits of your pragmatism.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Goin' to the zoo, zoo, zoo...

It's summer... the time of year when serious scholarship must occasionally make way for things like trips to the Oregon Zoo. Which is exactly where we were with good friend B on Monday, enjoying the birds of prey show, mongoose feeding time and the kiddo's first snow cone:

In celebration of summer, here are a few nice historical images of the Oregon Zoo -- known at various points as the Portland Zoological Gardens and the Washington Park Zoo, and originally the menagerie of a seafarer-turned-pharmacist by the name of Richard Knight, who evidently kept his creatures in the back of his drugstore at 3rd and Morrison. Go figure. (Thanks to B for the heads-up on the zoo's origins.)

Knight gave his collection to the city of Portland in 1887. One might suspect the animals were pleased to be released from the pharmacy and moved to the City Park, present site of the water reservoir at Washington Park... although they did have to put up with visits like this, made by Rose Festival Princesses to the bears in about 1920:


In 1959, Oregon celebrated its statehood centennial. Washington Park celebrated by constructing the Washington Park Zoo Railway, a 30-inch gauge railroad that still runs throughout the zoo and surrounding park:


In 1962, the zoo celebrated the arrival of Packy, the first elephant to be born in the western hemisphere in 44 years:


Packy was quite a big deal:


Packy's first birthday (he turned 49 this spring):


As the zoo Web site puts it, "The late 60s was a time when naturalistic exhibits were not yet a concept. 'Modern' meant bold colors and asymmetric structures, and the zoo reflected this trend":


Here's a great '60s era postcard view of the Penguin Pool: