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: