A True Idahoan

I was reading about the lineup of candidates running for president in 2020. The Vanity Fair article said that though Beto O’Rourke lived for a time in New York City, he would always be a Texan. I don’t know what that means. Did he “howdy” his way into performances at the Met? Did he walk the streets of Broadway wearing snakeskin boots and a rodeo belt buckle? When Donald Trump first ran for office in 2016 comedian Rosie O’Donnell commented on Trump’s combative style: “He’s from Queen’s. What do you expect?” Apparently, people from the New York borough of Queens like to get into fights. If an Idahoan ran for president, would it be apparent he’s from Idaho? How would an Idahoan be viewed in the political spotlight?

George Hansen became the unfortunate political face of Idaho for a brief time back in 1979. The country of Iran had just become our enemy and took several Americans working there, hostage. Into this international fray steps Hansen, one of two representatives from Idaho to congress. Hansen said he went to Iran to solve the hostage crisis. I remember seeing news footage of Hansen, a big, beefy man in a dark blue suit and tie, incongruously towering over crowds of angry Persians. The ABC news anchor voiced over this televised footage commenting that Hansen was acting as a lone wolf in Iran and did not have state department support or approval. The clear implication: Idaho Representative George Hansen thought he knew more than the rest of the federal government about how to resolve an international problem.

“No!” I shouted at the television (I was a young woman then and more prone to yell or throw things at the TV). Hansen did not represent me and other Idahoans I knew. Maybe he was a caricature of something Idahoan, people who like to think for themselves and act independently, but it was a cartoon caricature.

If I were to choose a figure in Idaho history to nominate as a representative Idahoan, I’d probably nominate Grace Jordan. Jordan gained the national spotlight briefly as the wife of former Governor and Senator, Len Jordan. She’s remembered more today for her classic autobiography of homesteading a run-down sheep ranch in Hell’s Canyon during the Great Depression. In that book, Home Below Hell’s Canyon, she chronicles canning peaches, making soap, and teaching her children to read and write. What stands out in her story is her good cheer, stamina, and courage through a difficult time. And though Jordan supported her husband’s political ambitions, she also managed to carve out her own career as a writer and author.

Idaho has changed greatly since George Hansen and Grace Jordan. We now have a much broader demographic including refugees from other countries, transplanted Californians, and an expanding Mexican-American population. I’d be hard-pressed to define a specific kind of Idaho character today. The old slogan about our state: “Idaho is what America was,” is less relevant. Idaho is slowly becoming America: a mishmash of many different cultures, each making their own rich and distinctive contribution. And that’s a good thing.

Freedom is Coming

I was looking over the produce selection at the supermarket yesterday and I found myself whisper-singing: “Freedom is coming, freedom is coming, oh yes I know . . . “ I stopped singing when I caught the eye of the construction guy in coveralls checking out the bananas. I smiled. He smiled. Hopefully, he realized I wasn’t a homeless person looking for attention. He probably said to himself, “Oh that lady’s just got a tune in her head and it won’t let go.” And he’d be right. One of the songs we’re singing in the choir I belong to is: Freedom is Coming.

But I’ve had other songs stuck in my head before. For a few years, at odd moments, like when I was boiling eggs or sorting through my book shelf, I’d hum this weird little melody I didn’t know the name of. It sounded vaguely classical to me, a little like that song Flight of the Bumblebee. The melody builds relentlessly like Bumblebee, toward its last notes. Finally, I approached one of the members of my choir and asked:

“Hey Carolyn, do you know what the name of this song is?” Then I stood in front of Carolyn and hummed it, my eyes wandering up toward the ceiling as I tried to get the pitches just right.

“Oh, that sounds like (she paused thinking)… well, it has something to do with a mountain king–no wait!” she snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it. It’s called In the Hall of the Mountain King. Yes, that’s the title.”

I had to look the title up and make sure this was the song I couldn’t get out of my brain. And indeed, it was In the Hall of the Mountain King, a song composed by Edvard Grieg, a Norwegian composer in 1875. In-the-Hall was the music played in a popular play of the time, Peers Gynt, about a troll king threatening a young man who’d ravaged his daughter. Where in the world did I hear this song before? I certainly have never seen the play, Peers Gynt. Then it hit me. I got hooked on this classical piece of music at the same time I became familiar with most of the classical music I know: Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 1960’s. Not only was I introduced to In the Hall of the Mountain King playing as a background track for Bug’s shenanigans, but I also first heard The William Tell Overture in a cartoon where Bugs was being chased through the forest by the mighty hunter, Elmer Fudd.

Is there a reason certain music catches our attention and erupts out our mouths over and over again as if we were broken bots? Whenever I’m around my mother and we’re driving together in the car both she and I have been known to break out into that old Baptist hymn: Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine. I’m not sure whether it’s the melody or the lyrics of various pieces of music that burrows so deeply into our psyche. But I think I know why I’ve been so stuck on Freedom is Coming the past couple weeks. Not only is it a beautiful, hopeful melody, but I think it has special meaning for our family just now. My 97-year-old father-in-law finally passed away this past week. Unsurprisingly, he’s wanted to die for some time now. He’d been imprisoned in a frail, sick body and it was time to let it go. For Wes, freedom has come—oh yes we know.

Drinking, Stealing, and Lying–Oh My!

Last night I dreamed I stole a can of beer from a gas station convenience store. Let me be clear: I don’t like or drink beer. Maybe I don’t like beer because my father drank enough Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, and Black Label beer to float a boat in Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is after all, a body of water not far from where I grew up in northern Indiana, and very near the Wisconsin breweries where the beer was fermented.

In my dream what made me feel most guilty was not that I’d stolen a can of beer, but the lie I told after that. I tried to explain away my thievery to the gas station owner by saying I wouldn’t have nabbed the beer if the clerk hadn’t refused to give me the diet Coke I’d purchased. The dream gods decided I shouldn’t get away with my lie. There was a video camera mounted in the corner of the store and in my dream I saw my grainy black and white image (I’m not sure if I dream in color—but the video of me was definitely in black and white) stealthily taking a beer—and a beer only—from the cooler. The next scene in my dream was me walking away, scot-free from my crime, out the store and through an attached garage—where several mechanics were working under my baby blue Prius as it was hoisted in the air. Dreams can be notoriously digressive.

Whence cometh these dreams of such perfidy and mendacious behavior? Does my subconscious know something about me that I don’t? At the core am I a thieving, sneaky, liar? The latest theory about dreams is that they don’t actually mean anything, for which I’m eternally grateful considering all the times I’ve dreamed I was standing in the middle of a high school hallway disturbingly naked. Dreams are supposed to be just random thoughts and imagery pulled from the subconscious and pieced together in a story—or not. Some people can’t make any sense of what they dream.

The thing that intrigues me about this theory is that I dreamed about stealing and lying. Why was stealing and lying floating around in my nighttime neural circuitry? I’ve always believed myself to be fairly honest but when I think about it, how honest am I really? Apparently, the average person lies a couple of times a day without even batting an eyelash. It becomes second nature. Some of this is harmless “white lies” or lies by omission. What people say, or don’t say, to get through their day more smoothly. Other lying is more deliberate and destructive. Some of our dishonesty we dismiss with: “Well, that may be true for you—but it’s not true for me.” Relativity and post-modernism birthed an unintended consequence: it gave us all an excuse for lying.

Probably I dreamed about stealing and lying because I’m a news junkie and though all politicians lie, our current president has taken the practice to new levels. Growing up, parents and teachers, adults around me, could shame me when I told a lie. Today, “alternative truth” seems almost fashionable. In fact, I just read that the New Orleans Saints football fans, since their questionable loss to the Los Angeles Rams, have taken to calling the NFL: “alternative truth” football.

I understand some of the president’s supporters dismiss his lies by calling them “puffery”—as in an airy nothingness that doesn’t mean anything really, like the feathery head of a dandelion that once you blow on it, falls apart in the breeze. But the feathery head of a dandelion is full of seeds, seeds that can take root. In our current political climate, alternative facts (or lies) are distributed into our culture in long chains of disinformation like that old party game: Telephone. Lying itself becomes entrenched and validated. There is something jittery-making when our leadership throws truth out the window like a discarded Big Mac box. We’re littering our landscape, our mind with all this refuse. I long for the clean-up crew. I long for a good, dreamless night. When’s the next election?

DeGrazia, Tony Doerr, and J. R. Simplot

I stood in front of Ted DeGrazia’s painting of Navajo children dancing in a circle, the one that UNICEF picked for their annual Christmas card in 1960, and tried to “feel” the painting. I like art and sometimes art can move me, evoke emotion and stir some ancient memory. I have a reproduction of a watercolor my old boss, Bill Trueba painted that I find absolutely haunting. It’s a picture, a silhouette really, of a man walking city streets at night. Bill brushstrokes loneliness and despair across his canvas in orange, blues and black. For some reason, though DeGrazia is a famous southwest painter and his Navajo children painting-turned-Christmas card sold four million cards, I’ve little attraction for the painting.

Who can understand why some art touches us and not others, or vice-versa? The other evening at a supper party, talk turned to movies likely nominated for the Oscars this year. I said, “I loved watching Roma on Netflix. That’s a beautiful movie.”

Leslie about spit out the water she was drinking. “What? You liked Roma? How could anybody like that movie? What was it about anyways? Does anybody know? I didn’t get it. It just seemed like a lot of family scenes down in Mexico during the 70’s.”

I could have told Leslie that Rotten Tomatoes web site gave Roma a 99% certified “fresh” ranking—but that was too much like telling someone the reason I like banana splits is because everyone else says they’re great–so I said instead:

“Yeah, you’re right Leslie. There’s hardly any plot in Roma. For me it’s more about the setting, the character, the mood of the film. So melancholy: this poor indigenous woman, destined to live her life scrubbing the laundry and tending the children of some other Mexican family, an upper-class, European-looking one.”

Books are another art form I’ve found, that can draw strikingly different reactions depending on the reader. For example, is there an Idaho reader alive, who doesn’t revere Anthony Doerr (our native son) and dote on his Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, All the Light We Cannot See? I’m going to speak sacrilege here and confess: this Idahoan was not awed by Doerr’s book. Though I think Doerr writes artfully, his book to me was not a work of art. I’ve considered this could be a case of sour grapes. Why didn’t I write such a book? Probably because I don’t have his talent. But I thought, generally-speaking, All the Light We Cannot See was too calculated in its construction. It was like he wrote today’s formula for a literary best-seller: a blind, handicapped girl and something about the Nazis occupation of Europe during WWII. Why didn’t Tony, being from Idaho, write about . . . well . . . an Idaho potato farmer?

Speaking of Idaho potato farmers, I’ll end this little essay on artistic taste by saying that a couple of years ago I took a tour of a Boise home that once belonged to the potato magnate, J. R. Simplot. One piece of art he’d mounted on his walls struck me more than any of the other artwork I saw in his old home. It was a framed poster of sexy Marilyn Monroe wearing a burlap potato sack, circa 1951. I stood in front of the picture for some moments, much like I did DeGrazia’s painting, waiting and wondering. What I concluded was: though the picture didn’t speak to me, it certainly must have to Simplot. Here was a billboard advertising the values of J. R. Simplot, an agribusiness-man in his prime. Thus, I think art can be as they say, many things to many people. Beauty, and what’s not so beautiful, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Lost in California

Henry quickly led me along the palm-lined boulevard of this southern California town determined to help me keep my walking pace up. My husband and I were vacationing down here and I decided to get some exercise by joining a morning walking group. Henry and I however, were the only ones that showed up for this morning’s walk. Which didn’t faze Henry. He was happy to act as my guide around the neighborhoods. He’d done this group walk a lot.

“You have to understand . . . ,” he paused a second, both of us were breathing heavy from race-walking, “. . . I grew up in New York.” Henry was explaining why he wanted to move away from this California paradise after living here several years.

“But it’s so beautiful here,” I said as we moved past trees loaded with yellow lemons, red cardinals flitting from branch to branch.

“It’s okay. But it’s not what I’m used to. I’d probably still be in New York if not for 9-11.”

“You were in 9-11?” That tragedy seemed so far away now, in terms of both time and distance from sunny California.
“Yeah. I lived eight blocks from the towers, in Tribeca, when it happened. It was horrific, you know. It just does something to you. Experiencing that. So then I moved out here. Got as far away from New York as I could get.”

“But it’s not home is it?” I said, recognizing Henry’s restlessness.

“No, not nearly,” then he picked up the pace again.

We finished our neighborhood walk and I went back to the motel thinking about what Henry said. He sounded like a refugee, a person displaced not by famine or war, but by a certain kind of terror none-the-less. His story made me think of the sad lyrics of an old Neil Diamond song I heard when I was a young girl: “. . . I’m lost between two shores. L.A.’s fine, but it ain’t home. New York’s home but it ain’t mine no more . . .”

Some people never find home, try though they might. Changing locations only increases the alienation. Even on this wonderful winter vacation, suddenly, I felt it: a longing for my home in Idaho. No lemon trees or red cardinals there. Just big-shouldered mountains and wide stretches of sagebrush desert—but it suits me just fine.

Happy New Year! Our Pipes Burst! (essay)

I was cleaning the first floor of a little rental house we own, getting it ready for occupancy. It felt good to dust the flies and cobwebs off the walls and counters. I thought about Annie Dillard’s quote: “The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives”–and though I didn’t relish the thought of spending my days cleaning, there’s something about tidying up a living space, making it sparkle and be beautiful, that is so soul-satisfying. So many problems I deal with each day are in my head and nonphysical, like paying bills or negotiating relationships. Turning a dirty window clean by simply washing it with a rag and some vinegar water is so doable, so refreshingly easy. In fact, I’ve read that some mental health professionals tell their depressed clients it can be therapeutic to make their beds first thing in the morning. Apparently, just the act of ordering the environment can make us feel better. It’s one small way we can exert control in our lives and be successful.

While I was dusting the rental house, control though, suddenly became a big problem. I heard a loud thud upstairs followed by my husband barreling down the stair steps. As he ran past me and out the back door I yelled, “What’s wrong?” –but my words were literally drowned out by a torrent of water pouring through the ceiling and on my head like a cloudburst. He’d been working on the plumbing and a brittle pipe had burst so he’d ran to turn off the pump. I quickly grabbed a broom and tried to sweep the raining water now flooding the laminate floor out the back door he’d flung open. By the time the ceiling stopped raining, I was soaked and completely disheartened. A quarter of the main floor of the house was a damp mess. If only the fun I’d had cleaning this morning had just went down a drain instead of settling on the floor, a floor that now needed to be moped up.

A couple of hours and a lot of sore muscles later, our little rental house was finally drying out and looking considerably better. Before the flood, I’d washed the dust off a drip coffee-maker I’d found in the cupboard next to some filters and a can of sealed coffee grounds. I decided my husband and I deserved a cup of coffee after all we’d went through. As we sipped hot coffee we watched the oscillating fan move back and forth, blowing air across the floor, both of us too exhausted to talk. Annie Dillard was right: the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives, each one full of ups and downs, joys and challenges. It’s a good thing to remember at the start of a new year. The days to come in 2019 probably won’t be smooth or effortless, but in the end we can still be okay. Floors dry out and life goes on.