Friday, October 31, 2008

The Pitfalls of Dog Ownership, or Contemplating 1970s Trailer Life

Ten years ago this December, a dog followed my daughter Sarah home. Well, not exactly followed. Sarah coaxed him back with soothing words. Sarah had been wanting a dog for some time. She knew that my childhood dog had been a Golden Retriever mix. The dog she led home looked a lot like him. When I got home that night, Kathleen said she had a surprise. I came into the living room and saw a beautiful Golden Retriever mix, with white paws and a black spot on his muzzle, sitting on my son Jim’s lap. I couldn’t say no. Jim named him Copper, because he was the color of a copper penny.

Copper was a stray, and he had been abused. For quite a while he was afraid of me. He had no problem with women and children, but he was terrified of adult men. We checked with the city, and the animal control people said that it we had him for 30 days, he was ours. We took him to the vet, and he got the requisite shots, along with treatment for three different kinds of parasites--hookworms, roundworms, and tapeworms.

About a month after we got him, some children came to the door and said that Copper was their dog. The family who owned him had taken off for the month of December. Recreational vehicle manufacturers often shut down for a month around Christmas, giving their employees an unpaid vacation. The dog had gotten out of their yard, and the family had left town without the dog. Kathleen told them that we’d already spent $150 on the dog, and that she’d have to talk to the children’s parents. We never heard anything from them again.

He’s been a wonderful companion for the past decade. For an eleven-year-old dog, he’s in good health, and can still do a walk of several miles and (unfortunately) jump a fence. But we’ve just learned the pitfalls of dog ownership.

We own a house in Elkhart, Indiana--a big, three-bedroom American Foursquare, which we have no hope of selling until spring. We’re slowly getting the house ready to sell--drywall work, plumbing, and electrical work, along with some other less important work. And slowly moving stuff out of the house to Davenport, Goodwill, the recycling center, or the landfill.

Meanwhile I’m staying in Davenport with my in-laws, driving the 55 miles each way to my job in Galesburg, and then a seven-hour drive to and from Elkhart every week. I have a week off, so Kathleen and I came to Davenport to look for a temporary place in Galesburg--a small house or even apartment to rent between now and next year. We figured there would be lots of places to rent. There are literally hundreds of vacant houses in Galesburg, a city which has yet to recover from Whirlpool’s closing of the former Maytag plant in 2004.

But nobody wants to rent, especially to a couple with a dog. People would rather let their houses sit empty rather than take a risk on renting. We visited two real estate agencies who gave us little hope. We got the same reaction from the third, but just as we were walking off in disappointment, an agent, appropriately named Carl Admire, asked us to come back to his office. He gave us some other alternatives, and showed real concern for us.

The one alternative that seemed to make sense was to buy an older mobile home, use that as my Galesburg residence until we sold our house, and then sell the trailer and buy a real house. It’s something we might be able to afford. The mobile home we looked at is in a decent park, populated mainly by retired people.

The trailer dates back to 1978 and looks it. Those 1970s colors of burnt orange, avocado, and harvest gold predominate. There’s even a built-in radio with an 8-track tape player. I’m not bothered by such things as orange carpets, though Kathleen is. But we’d own it (though having to pay lot rent), and Copper would be with us.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Voting for the Rooster

I cast my vote at the courthouse last week, just in case I get stuck working on Election Day. I voted the straight ticket, so I filled in the little oval right next to the Democratic Party rooster. In virtually every other state, the Democratic emblem is the donkey, while the Republicans use the elephant. Not in Indiana. It’s the rooster and the eagle here.

The rooster as party emblem goes back to 1840, during the presidential campaign between Democrat Martin Van Buren and Whig William Henry Harrison. It was a tight race in Indiana, and both parties were calling out their best speakers to speak, or in the lingo of the time, to “crow” for their candidates. Joseph Chapman, a Democratic state representative from Greenfield, in Hancock County, was one such speaker. George Pattison, editor of the Indianapolis Constitution, sent a letter to the postmaster of Greenfield, which read in part, “Tell Chapman to Crow.”

Somehow the letter got into the hands of Whigs, who used the line to ridicule the Democrats. But the Whig effort backfired, and soon Democrats were chanting “Crow Chapman Crow. While Harrison won the election, the slogan stuck. Sometime later the Indiana Democratic Party adopted the rooster as its emblem.

After the Whig Party imploded in the 1850s, Northern Whigs and Free-Soil Democrats (those who opposed the expansion of slavery), formed the Republican Party. When Indiana Democrats urged voters to “vote for the big chick,” Republicans adopted the eagle, and the slogan, “Vote for the bird on the dollar.”

Thus, the Indiana rooster and eagle. The rooster emblem spread to other states, especially in the South, where it had more sinister legacy. The Alabama “white rooster” became a symbol of white supremacy. In the 1968 election, the Alabama ballot listed Hubert Humphrey under the Democratic donkey, but George Wallace, the segregationist candidate of the American Independent Party, had the rooster. In 1996 the Alabama Democratic Party formally adopted the donkey as its emblem due to the rooster’s racist associations.

But the Indiana rooster had no such legacy, so it remains the symbol of Indiana Democracy. Still, the reason for party emblems is mainly to aid illiterate voters. Illiteracy is much less common now than it was in the 1840s, but it still exists. For that reason I’ve argued that the donkey and elephant--universally recognized emblems--ought to be used on the Indiana ballot. It doesn’t seem likely to happen. Hoosiers are pretty stubborn.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Madison and the Gender Migration of Names

A couple of weeks ago, Kathleen learned that her twenty-something friend and coworker did not know the state capitals. The friend is intelligent, but she had never learned this basic of American geography--something that we baby boomers had to memorize.

So Kathleen decided to try to teach her. She did this by putting the capitals into categories: religious--St. Paul, Sacramento, Santa Fe, Salem, Concord, Providence; Native American--Tallahassee, Oklahoma City, Topeka, Cheyenne, Honolulu (maybe Native Hawaiian for the last); French--Des Moines, Baton Rouge, Boise, Montpelier, Pierre. There was a big category of English place names, such as Boston, Richmond, and Dover. Little Rock and Salt Lake City locate the city with a natural feature. A few, such as Phoenix and Bismarck were one of a class (Mythological Creatures and Iron Chancellors?).

But the cleverest category she came up with was women’s names. One is stretching it--Juneau is pronounced the same as Juno, but was actually named after a prospector named Joe Juneau. But the categories are mnemonic, not historical. Most of the others are pretty obvious--Augusta, Atlanta, Helena, Olympia. Annapolis, named for Anne Arundel, is also on the list. And one more that I wouldn’t have put in the class: Madison. In the past twenty years or so, the surname of our fourth president has become a popular girls’ name. And as a mnemonic, it worked.

Which is a way to get into the tendency of men’s names morphing into women’s names. And after they do, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever be used for boys again. Most of these gender-changing names seem to fall into certain patterns. When men’s names share a traditionally feminine ending, they a seem to be fair game. Names ending in the latter a, such as Sasha, Dana, and Elisha have moved into the feminine column, at least in the United States. Judith (Hebrew in origin) and Edith (Anglo-Saxon), have made Meredith (Welsh) an acceptable girls’ name. Then there are the many-ley/ly names: Shirley, Beverly, Ashley, Kimberly, etc. (Somehow, Bradley has escaped feminization.) At one time, Lesley was a girls’ name, while Leslie was for boys. But in the States, it’s almost exclusively a girls’ name, whatever the spelling. Similarly, Tracy/Tracey and Stacy/Stacey are almost exclusively girls’ names in the USA.

Then there’s the “sounds the same” category. There are quite a few young women named
Aubrey today. I suspect it became a girls’ name because it sounds like Audrey.

A lot of surnames--Kelly, Taylor, and Courtney, for example, have become girl's names. I’m not sure why Kelly is a common girls’ name, while Murphy, despite the television program Murphy Brown, isn’t. Whether Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol will start a trend for that name, I don’t know. I hope not. Ditto for her boys’ names, Track and Trig.

When names make the transition, from masculine to feminine (I don't know any that have gone the other way), they usually do so completely. But Sidney, which shows up as a girl’s name as early as 1901, in Frank Norris’s novel, The Octopus, and Jordan, which is the name of a major female character in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1922), are still used for both men and women.

And then there’s Madison. According to Wikipedia, it started with the 1984 movie Splash, in which Daryl Hannah plays a mermaid who takes the name Madison from the avenue in New York. But I suspect it wouldn’t have caught on if the nickname Maddie hadn’t been popular as a result of Maddie Hayes, the character played by Cybil Shepherd on the TV series, Moonlighting. Madeleine (or even Madolyn, the spelling of the character's name) is currently out of fashion, so it’s Madison to the rescue.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Gate of Horn, Gate of Ivory

In my last post, I mentioned a Chicago folk club called the Gate of Horn, which flourished in the 1950s and '60s. While the origin of the name is fairly well-known, I'll repeat it here. The Oneiroi, in Greek mythology, were either the sons (according to Ovid) or brothers (according to Hesiod)of Hypnos, the god of sleep. These winged daemons would send dreams to mortals through one of two portals. If they came through the gate of ivory, the dreams would be false, but those through the gate of horn were true. Several years ago, when I mentioned the myth to Kathleen, she noted immediately that the true dreams came through the more common material, where the more precious ivory produced false dreams.

The earliest reference to the two gates comes from the Odyssey, in which Persephone recounts a dream that Odysseus, her husband would return:

Stranger, dreams verily are baffling and unclear of meaning, and in no wise do they find fulfilment in all things for men. For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them. But in my case it was not from thence, methinks, that my strange dream came.

-Homer, The Odyssey, book 19, lines 560-569, Loeb Classical Library translation (via Wikipedia).

The Loeb translator, in a note, comments that "The play upon the words κέρας, 'horn,' and κραίνω, 'fulfil,' and upon ἐλέφας, 'ivory,' and ἐλεφαίρομαι, 'deceive,' cannot be preserved in English."

The gates also appear in Virgil's Aeneid, in which the hero, Aeneas, returns from the underworld by way of the ivory gate, which gave classical scholars a lot of room for interpretation. It seems to me that Virgil is cautioning the reader about the veracity of his story. Wikipedia uses the Dryden translation of Virgil, most likely because it's in the public domain. But it's also simply beautiful poetry. Aeneas, after visiting his dead father in the underworld, returns to the living world with the Cumean Sibyl:

Two gates the silent house of Sleep adorn;
Of polish'd ivory this, that of transparent horn:
True visions thro' transparent horn arise;
Thro' polish'd ivory pass deluding lies.
Of various things discoursing as he pass'd,
Anchises hither bends his steps at last.
Then, thro' the gate of iv'ry, he dismiss'd
His valiant offspring and divining guest.

-Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 6, lines 893-898, tr. John Dryden

The gates of horn and ivory have turned up in modern literature, most notably in Robert Holdstock's novel Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn in his Mythago Wood fantasy series.

And of course the myth of the two gates gave the name t0 the Chicago folk club, where Odetta, Bob Dylan, Bob Gibson, Hamilton Camp, and virtually every other prominent folksinger of the 1950s and '60s performed.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Obama is the One for Me

I was just a bit too young to participate in the American folk revival of the late 1950s and early Sixties. Chicago's great folk clubs, Gate of Horn and the Earl of Old Town were closed by the time I got there. But the folk artists of that era continue to fascinate me, with their renditions of both new and old acoustic music, and their liberal to left-wing politics.

One of the great figures of that era was Peggy Seeger--Mike's sister and Pete's half-sister, who was married to another legendary folk figure, the late Ewan MacColl.

I was searching YouTube, hoping to find the Peggy Seeger/Ewan MaColl song, Come Fill Up Your Glasses, which used to be played every New Year's Eve on the WFMT Radio program, the Midnight Special. I didn't find it, but I found that Peggy Seeger is still active in folk music and politics. Her song, "Obama is the One for Me" reminds us that the idealism of the 1960s never really died, no matter what the last forty years have done to crush it.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

As American as...Chop Suey?

Sarah Palin, after finishing the vice presidential debate without saying anything really stupid, has now declared that Barack Obama “pals around with terrorists.” Yep, American presidential politics are back on the moral high ground. Which is why I’m writing about something else--traditional American food such as chop suey and German chocolate cake. Besides, it gives me an excuse to use Edward Hopper’s wonderful painting, “Chop Suey.”

“As American as apple pie.” Of course, apple pie isn’t originally American. Wikipedia shows a 1381 English recipe, which suggests that people had been eating apple pie even earlier. But there are some American dishes which most Americans believe are foreign, but are far more American than apple pie.

You won’t find chop suey in China. And while it’s harder to find it in the United States today than twenty years ago, it’s an American, or Chinese-American dish. Its origins are unclear. I had read in a Time-Life book on the cooking of the Great West that it was first served in San Francisco. The phrase means “mixed pieces” in Cantonese, and seems to have originated with Chinese immigrants in California. The dish caught on with white Americans, and chop suey houses were common all over the United States by the turn of the last century. A recipe for chop suey can be found here.

After eating chop suey at a Chinese-American restaurant, you usually have a fortune cookie. Another Chinese-American invention, though it appears to be an adaptation of a Japanese recipe. Still, the fortune cookie as we know it was developed in America.

When Americans go to Germany and ask for German Chocolate Cake, they’re likely to get blank stares, or perhaps an explanation that the cake isn’t really German. In fact, if Samuel German had been, say, Samuel Irish, then it would have become Irish Chocolate Cake.

Samuel German was an Englishman, working for the Baker’s Chocolate Company. In 1852 he created a chocolate bar with extra cocoa butter, which became known as German’s Sweet Chocolate. A little more than a century later, a Texas housewife sent in a recipe for German’s Sweet Chocolate Cake to a Dallas newspaper. The cake itself may be older than that, but its first appearance in print was 1957.

Somewhere along the line, German’s was shortened to German, and thus Americans believed the cake originated in Germany. But it’s clearly from the American South, complete with that staple of Southern dishes, the pecan. The original German’s Chocolate Cake recipe can be found here. It’s a delicious cake. It’s just not German.