Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mogollon Calendar

The Mogollon Calendar

Ellen Jo Roberts

The Outs

The Noise

January 2012

       Remember the Y2K Bug, the boogeyman of the new millennium? Because early computers were programmed with a two digit code for year rather than four digit, the change from 1999 to year 2000 was a cause for concern. Everything coordinated via computers would go haywire. You’d better get your survival skills in order, and stock up on drinking water, gasoline and toilet paper. Electrical grids will shut down. Planes will fall from the sky! You’d better take all of your money out of the bank and stuff it in your mattress, because all records of your savings will vaporize! People will be rioting in the streets! As we know now, none of that happened. What a ho-hum the Y2K Bug turned out to be. In 2012 the world is predicted to come to an end. On December 21st, 2012, the Mayan Calendar screeches to a halt. Is this just another failed Rapture? Another Y2K-style Boogeyman that ends up a non-event? Or is 2012 truly The End of Times? Like, This time we really mean it-End of Times? We are so not joking-End-of-Times?

      The Mayans actually operated off of three different calendars, all of them cyclical. December 21st, 2012 is considered the end-date of a 5,125-year-long cycle in the Meso-American Long Count Calendar. Many New Agers interpret the calendar’s finale as a dawning of a new era of positive transformation. Gloom and doomers (and Hollywood film producers) imagine a catastrophic end to planet earth, as it enters a black hole or collides with a global-killing asteroid. Scholars of Mayan culture refute predictions of catastrophe, as such events are not evident in any studies of the culture. The mere notion that the Long Count Calendar can end is contrary to Mayan history and culture. Astronomy scientists also refute the proposed cataclysmic end of earth, negated by simple facts and observations of the cosmos.

I cannot deny I feel big shifts in our world in a way I did not in the 20th Century. More uncertainty. More wild weather. More tragedy. These things all happened in the 20th Century too, but we were younger and more foolish. and we didn’t pay so much attention. We got our information more slowly so there was less to be worried about.

In addition to potential apocalypse, 2012 is also an election year. Election season generates its own special kind of stress, and the hoopla leading up to it is well underway. Rather than concern ourselves so much with the surly mix of ancient glyphs and alarmist instant news, we at the Noise interviewed locals about their hopes, dreams and fears for this new year: a Mogollon spin on the Mayan Calendar.

         Alex Rovang is Director of Education and Community Outreach at Sedona Recycles. “As a resident of the fine city of Sedona, I have noticed an emphatic attention to some arbitrary Gregorian calendar dates including the most recent ‘11/11/11’ gathering,” observes Mr. Rovang, “While much can be debated about the accuracy of calendars and how this one lines up with that one, I think that the logical fallacy behind these announced alignments is that it gives people the impression that something tangible will happen on these dates. That's why I find it silly. I like some things about it too, though. I feel that there is a universal consciousness, and that no matter what the date is, if people are meditating on a particular concept or idea at the same time great things can be achieved. Maybe even ascension.” Mr. Rovang feels that a group effort of positive thought, focused on a single idea or even a single word, can bring about positive change in the world. The power of positive thought has been proven at mass transcendental meditation events around the world. “So, the date need not be significant just the intention. I feel that ascension for our collective consciousness--plants and animals too!-- is possible, whether through a soft peaceful revolution or a violent cataclysm. The trick will be to work together. Meditate together. And we don't have to wait till some arbitrary date, we can practice meditation everyday starting right now.”

             A recurring thought sprung from 2011 is the need for unity as a nation, and the power of positive thought. Jason Benatz is an artist and owner of Ace’s Clarkdale Tattoo. His family has a long and illustrious history in the Verde Valley. Grandmother Dorothy Fain Benatz was Mayor of Clarkdale in the 1980s.

“With all the changes in our country and economy I hope we can all reevaluate how we live and spend, and what we value as people, as families and as a nation,” says Mr. Benatz, "I hope we can learn from the Occupy protests that this is not a bi-partisan issue, it is a national issue. 99 % of our nation is controlled by big business and is not dependent on our political views or party lines. Consumers have the power in 2012 to remind big business they work for us. 2012 is a great time for artists and craftspeople to strike out on their own and live their dreams. With the recession, I hope the value in the arts is revitalized from school age child to retired adult. I hope 2012 brings a renewed sense of human value, and solidarity.”

         Continuing on the theme of creativity, Mr. Benatz’s lady love and lingerie model, the very clever Miranda Gunnell chimed in with her “Classy Lady” fashion-forward (and amusingly tongue in cheek) predictions for the new year. For 2012 she predicts stiletto shoes for cats, designer duct-tape, and “Bedazzling” to the max. “If you don't have a lot of money, the trick to looking wealthy is to make your MONEY look expensive,” suggests Ms. Gunnell, “The rich have been doing this for years with their ‘platinum card’ this and ‘Black Am Ex’ that. You can do the same by bedazzling those one dollar bills and putting glitter in your coin pouch so that a spray of sparkles explode each time you open your wallet!,” says Ms. Gunnell, “Everyone will be so blinded by your bling money (and maybe the glitter in their eyes) that when you leave the Dollar Store they will be talking for days about the Classy Lady with the expensive pennies.” A floral designer and the chief proprietress of Peacock Flower Company in Clarkdale, Ms, Gunnell predicts 2012 will be a great year for mash-ups, celebrating interesting combinations of juxtaposed elements, “Beach weddings with an Old Hollywood Glamour theme. Backyard BBQ weddings with a Sexy Moroccan theme. Elegant weddings on industrial rooftops. Elements that traditionally would not be paired are being beautifully infused to create endless possibilities for unique weddings in 2012.”

          Regarding wedded bliss, many feel that 2012 should bring equal rights for same-sex couples to legally marry nationwide. Penny Smith is a USPS Mail Carrier in Cottonwood, Arizona. “As a lesbian, I am hoping that 2012 will be the year of equal rights for all of us. The right to love and marry the one you love is such a simple thing, yet it seems so difficult for so many people to understand. I'm hopeful that the ‘live and let live’ ideal will become stronger in the upcoming year. Equal rights, not special rights, is not much to ask for. I am hopeful that people in power will do the right thing as afforded by the Constitution.” As a cancer survivor, continuously grateful for her clean bill of health, Ms. Smith is immune to the Mayan Calendar scare as she has spent every day of the last 12 years savoring each day as if it were her last. “I am hoping for good health for all my family and vast network of wonderful friends. I am hoping that healthcare reform becomes a reality and people are given or able to afford basic healthcare. I have been a lifelong Democrat and stand behind President Obama 100%. I feel he has made great strides with the mess he was given when he took office in 2008. I am scared for our country if the conservative, religious right are allowed in such a position of power. I am hoping that I do not have to watch another person lose their home or job in the upcoming year. I am hoping the ‘working poor’ will be able to stay afloat and prosper once again.”

       The past several years have been very challenging financially, for both employees and business owners. Many have weathered storms in economies past, and use their skills, creativity and positive thinking to maintain strength in the current recession. Kelley Foy and Leta Hollon live in Jerome, and are the owners of Crema and Maison du Provenance in Cottonwood. They are active in the local arts scene, and avid supporters of area artists. "Optimistic about the coming year and thrilled to see the people of Old Town coming together, "said Ms. Foy, "I'm looking forward to more local collaborations."
Adds Ms. Hollon,"Accepting 2012 will bring changes here and afar, reminding myself to lend a hand in the direction I hope to see. This year, my focus will be staying open to whatever happens so we can adapt. Unless it's the end of the world, which doesn't require much adaptation."
       Nancy and Tracy Weisel live in Jerome, where they are long time owners of the Raku Gallery. “We wish for the continued success of our little town,” said Mrs. Weisel, “We're thankful for how well things have gone during 2011 and hope for the same or better in 2012. People enjoy the ease of our town. There’s an appreciation for the wonderful, positive local energy. We would love to see a community garden area for people who do not have access to gardens at their living space.”

         2012 may become the pinnacle of the Do-It-Yourself Revival. Knitting, home farming, bee keeping, pickle canning. It’s all quite chic and economical. Dani Vorves, of Old Town Cottonwood, is an analog photographer and the “resident hippie” at Jerome’s Caduceus Cellars. A Capricorn born in 1982, Ms. Vorves looks forward to joining the “Dirty 30 Club” when she celebrates her birthday this month. Her hopes for the new year are bountiful, upbeat and lyrical. “I look forward to enjoying my man and all the love we share. I'm hoping to further my knowledge on wine-making, nap-taking, smoke-breaking, leaf-raking and some foreign lands,” she says, “I am not afraid of much, so this year I have no fear, only dreams of wine and sweet little songs. Oh and maybe to own a Vespa. Love love love you all!”

Ryan Matson is Vice President of the architectural art installation Eliphante Village in Cornville. “Living at Eliphante on Oak Creek means January is cccccolddddd, so thanks, 2012, for starting off so harsh. Lighten up!” laughs Mr. Matson who quickly turns philosophical, “Perhaps 2012 is ushering in a collective vision of the horizon during a celestial dawn, welcoming a ‘great day’ of about 13,000 years in duration. In light of such, everyone just get over fear already and stop this war on emotions!” On a more personal note, Mr. Matson looks forward to kicking ass, being alive and “lightening [his] footprint while bringing more art into the world for anyone to enjoy!”

Those who cultivate a healthy enthusiasm for creativity may be best able to adapt to strange new situations. Simplicity and "back to basics" values also seem a recurring theme. Debbie Leavitt is a professional photographer who lives in Flagstaff. "My mantra is 'keep it simple and have fun with it. And my resolution for the new year is, as the world seems more and more extreme, to be calmer than ever. Maybe I should start doing yoga." Expressing concern for Arizona, and its future, Ms Leavitt adds, "My hope for 2012 is that we the people decide to Occupy Democracy. 'It’s not a spectator sport', as Howard Zinn said." Ms. Leavitt also hopes 2012 is the year a cure for cancer is discovered."Please could it be early in the year to save those loved ones who are fighting it right now?"

For many, the dawn of 2012 is of no significance, just another year, and a time to, as Wooderson says “just keep livin’”. Greg Sawyer is a Clarkdale resident who works at Jerome’s Mile High Grill. On the myth of 2012, Mr. Sawyer says, “I personally think it is overhyped. If something actually does happen on the projected date no one is going to have any idea until it takes place. Concerning the upcoming year, I mostly just take things one day at a time and see how things unfold.”

David Lindmark is a restaurant server in Sedona, and an occasional Bono impersonator residing in Verde Santa Fe, just outside of Cottonwood. “To be honest, I don't really think that much of the coming year,” confides Mr. Lindmark, “New Years has never held any rebirth or anticipated excitement for me.” Generally happy with what life provides, he hopes the restaurant stays open, his health insurance remains affordable and that his daughter continues to be successful, happy and healthy. “I just want a good night’s sleep. Friends tell me they admire how I live in the moment, and seem to enjoy the simplest to complex conversations with friends and strangers. And I do. I hope they're right and I'm not floating by naively.”
Big events and holidays are important but it's the little moments, the day to day joys, that comprise most of our time on planet earth.
Amber Godina is a part-time hair stylist, living in Clarkdale. “As a busy mom and wife, it is very hard to see more than a few moments ahead,” says Mrs. Godina, mother to two youngsters, “I would love to promise the new year a work-out everyday, to eat right and do more sewing and crafting, teach my children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and get them to mean it. I’d love to learn a new language. Ah, Mandarin sounds good. I would also like to put my cooking emphasis on Country French this year, learn to throat sing, learn to belly dance, and hoop. To throw random tea parties. And of course see the world become a better place. But in all reality I will be happy to just keep my house somewhat clean, to keep my kids somewhat clean, to keep my hubby pretty happy, and to just be able to keep my part time job.”

Every generation has had its panics, ranging from war, to disease epidemics, to great financial depressions. Contrary to what renaissance faires would have you believe, I bet the Middle Ages were a rough time to grow up. Back then you were lucky to keep any of your teeth, or make it to your 30th birthday. When I was a kid everyone was afraid of imminent nuclear war. A popular TV movie from the Reagan era, "The Day After" was a visit to a post-apocylyptic America, life in a nuclear winter. The free-wheeling hippies before us were naked any chance they could get, but a hit song of my teen years was Germaine Stewart's "You Don't Have to Take Your Clothes Off (To Have a Good Time"). My generation got gypped! We didn't get to have any of the same fun the Baby Boomers did! We grew up under the specter of AIDs and the Cold War. I wonder what it must be like for young folks coming of age in turbulence of the 21st Century.

Gabe Greenfield, 17, has lived in Sedona his entire life. "In the coming year I hope that I am able to get good grades, have fun with my friends, play sports and be healthy, " says the Red Rock High School senior, "Also, I have heard that the Mayan Calender ends towards the end of 2012 and the world is supposed to end. But for me, my life is just beginning," he says somewhat poignantly. With a hopeful expression he adds, "I will be graduating high school and moving on to college. 2012 will be a good year for me."

Make the most of your time here, be it long or short. No sense in squandering any of it.

Ellen Jo Roberts shares a historic brick bungalow with Bike Daddy Chad, Floyd, Ivan and Ned.

As a founding member of the "1972 Club" she is a little anxious about turning 40 in 2012.

Read all about it at

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ephemeral Lives

Ellen Jo Roberts
The Outs
December 2011
The Noise

Ephemeral: (from the Greek "ephemeros:- lasting a day, daily) Short-lived, transitory, fleeting, evanescent.

         Year’s end is always a time feel compelled to make sense of our lives, taking stock of things in meaningful ways.  Word on the street is the world is going to end come 2012. Perhaps it's just the end of the world as we know it. Some believe a “new age” is coming. A renaissance.
According to astronomers the actual "Age of Aquarius" isn’t due to arrive until the 26th century sometime.

         Each year I spend on this planet the Christmases arrive closer and closer together. Every year more memorabilia is collected: Paper and plastic, metal and ceramic, bric-a-brac documenting adventures and events, gathering dust on shelves and taking up room in boxes. Everyone has keepsakes, souvenirs, tchotkes... a favorite childhood toy; some bits of ephemera: photos, special cards, old love letters, books, newspaper clippings. It is the rare person who is blissfully free of “stuff”, living in spacious minimalism, and breezily traveling carry-on. Such a person consciously refuses sentimentality, and actively avoids allowing things to collect in the corners.

  On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the “hoarders”, pathologically collecting cast-offs and ending up crushed dead under 140 tons of newspapers in a booby-trapped NYC brownstone, like eccentric brothers Homer and Langley Collyer did in 1938. Hoarding has become a hot topic of late, with reality shows devoted to the habit and attempts made to break it.

7:35pm clarkdale kitchen

          Me, I fall somewhere in between the state of blissful breeziness and minor league hoarding. There are no empty shelves at our house. We're a museum of kitsch. My Scorpio rising sign causes sentimentality. I’ve been this way since childhood, imbuing cheap little trinkets with magic.
Having been born on “The Day of the Observer” also makes me prone to documentation, archiving pieces of my time on earth. In my file cabinet I still keep the first love note my husband ever wrote me, though he did not write it. He enlisted his English major buddy to “put to words” his feelings after a brief hallway conversation with me in the college boarding house we shared.

      I carry home found items, broken toys, ancient Shasta pop cans unearthed by rain, oddly shaped sticks. But there’s no need to call the TV crews or send in hoarder-rehab. The collection is culled now and again. Though the more years I live, the more photo albums, vintage cameras, iron-on patches, the more stones and sea shells.

more shells than ever

          Andy Warhol was a famous documentarian, keeping extensive diaries, and archives of cards, sketches and letters; filming, recording and photographing everyone around him all the time. Frequently his observations became famous art. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh celebrates his habit for documentation, inspiring me to step up my archives and observation-making. It may provide useful information to someone someday.
        It’s a good thing we didn't have Facebook when I was a 20th century teen. All of my embarrassing youthful angst is hidden in a box of hand-written journals under the bed. Eccentric folkie Daniel Johnston tape recorded every day conversations, created Super-8 movies, and flimsy paper drawings. If he had not, the fascinating documentary, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” could never have existed. There is something precious in the fleeting nature of ephemera. Most of what we consider art is made of materials requiring special preservation. Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger created an epic 15,000 page tome called, “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion”, on paper, newsprint, tracings, copies and collages and undiscovered until after his 1973 death.

          During visits to second-hand shops you will always encounter special keepsakes, so unbearably personal that it’s shocking they have been given away. On a recent thrift store excursion I found framed baby photos, and an original watercolor portrait depicting someone’s home. On my bookshelf there is a 1930s family photo album. It’s a treasure but I do wish I could find its rightful owner. My precious artifacts will one day suffer the same fate: scrutinized and rescued by thrift store hipsters-- that is, if they're lucky enough to avoid the landfill.

         Since I was 5 years old, I’ve owned a small plastic figurine of a dog, wearing a dress and carrying a bag of groceries. She's a Richard Scarry® character, given to me in kindergarten. In 1977, our teacher gave one of these animal totems to everyone in the class. The grocery dog has been with me ever since. She has become a “guardian angel” of sorts, still here with me as a common thread though most of my years.
1977 was the year my father died, and somehow heavy energy still emanates from it. Suffused with intense memories, the inanimate somehow comes alive.

happy valentine's day

    I begin to wonder what kinds of things other people keep hold of, and why. I asked people, “What item have you owned the longest, and why is it important to you?”
“I really like this question because it brings to light how objects attain significance in our lives,” replies Eva Romero of Tucson, “I'm thinking about Christmas presents, you know. My little niece is turning one. I think I'm going to get her an ornament so we can start a tradition that lasts every year of her childhood, maybe her life. The idea warms my cockles.”
Holiday memories always seem fragrantly fervent.
“I have two Christmas ornaments that I painted with my mom when I was 5 years old, ”said Tracy Henton of Cottonwood.  Early creative ventures hold a strong importance. Photographer Jason Gullo lives in New York State. His most precious artifact is one of his early artistic expressions, “Some pottery I made in, like, 1973. We had a wheel in my hippie alternative school.”
I have some very early grade school artwork from my childhood, as well as some stories I wrote about Elvis, a character called “TV Man”, space men, my brother, and “Fly and Bee’s Honeymoon”, a tale of two star-crossed bugs in love.
Jerome resident Nikki Czech keeps hold of “a small pink dragon sock puppet my best friend from preschool made me. It’s sooo cute!”
Noise contributor Sarah Irani, is also the chief seamstress of Bitchin' Bloomers She began her creative ways with fabric at a young age with a “ratty old teddy bear” she’s owned since infancy. “It's important,” she explains, “‘cause it has the story attached to it of when I halfway cut off its plastic nose and then tried to glue it back with honey, because, hey, bears like honey.”

first bear

bedroom 1972

        I still own my first teddy bear, the one that slept in my crib with me. It's threadbare in the closet, a pale shadow of its glossy newborn days.
“Mother Teddy,” shares Laura Jones of Clarkdale, “She was given to me on my first Christmas.”
Jan Miller from Scottsdale's Liberty Wildlife still has "Sugarboots", a stuffed Siamese cat from her childhood, "My grandma had repaired him so much and he barely has and fuzz left, but he was my fave out of all of my stuffed animals."
       Kira Knapp of Cottonwood considers her little stuffed animal dog “Cutie” to be a treasure. “It’s important to me because I got it in Jerome when I was 4 and have kept it ever since.”
My Mom still has all of my brother’s battered 1970s Winnie the Poohs, each more loved and more ruined than the next. When she brings out the box to show us, they’re so heartbreakingly cute we laugh and cry at the same time.

    Books, papers, tickets, magazines and posters can be classified as true “ephemera.” I keep concert tickets, yearbooks, letters, and a fair sized collection of Mad Magazines.
"Brother Aaron" Levy, formerly one of The Noise's rowdiest contributors, has managed to hang onto a little book of Edgar Allen Poe poems since he was 12, '"ordered out of one of those Scholastic Books catalogues when I was in the sixth grade. Somehow it's stayed with me all these years."
Clarkdale resident Lisa O’Neill, a bibliophile married to Cottonwood’s recently retired chief librarian, counts the book "Alicia en el País de Wondrelas" as a long-cherished possession.
Chicagoan Laura Litman feels connected to the written word as well. “When I was seven I learned how to write and mail letters and cards,” she explains, “and I have some stationery from around that time that every time I come across I just touch the paper and remember.”
     Carlos Godina of Clarkdale is an athlete and a sports nut. When asked what ephemeral goods he’s owned the longest he says, “My baseball cards I’ve been collecting since I was a small kid, and my baseball mitt.” (I have a collection of baseball cards, too, though basically worthless, populated mostly by terrible Cubs players who I loved despite their lackluster careers and lousy battings averages.)
  Jen Romero-Higgins of Phoenix still has all of her grade school and high school report cards. “I was a very organized kid and was proud of my grades,” she says, “And all my baby teeth too. Can you say ‘hoarder?’”
The Tooth Fairy isn’t the only one who keeps collections of teeth. Anne Miranda of Clarkdale still keeps her baby front tooth.  I’m sure our parents still have all of ours in cigar boxes in their closets. I keep several of my Chihuahua’s baby teeth in a tin, as well as a couple of old pieces of my orthodontia.

  People like to be reminded of their early days. We romanticize our careless youth, as well we should.
Jerome potter Tony Schadegg still has his 1939 Plymouth coupe, which he’s owned since he was 18. “Bought it for $250. Now it's in pieces but someday I'll be driving it again, up and down the mountain.”
Photographer Susie Beach, of Cottonwood’s Beaches on Location, still keeps a dress she wore when she was a junior at Schurz High School in Chicago. “I wore it again at a Rotary ‘‘50s dance’ in 1993. I was still able to get into it 30 years later.”
       For women who were children of the 1970s, Wonder Woman rates high.
Nena Barlow, of Sedona’s Barlow Jeep Rentals has a sentimental fondness for the comic book heroine. In her artifacts, “My Wonder Woman costume that was made for me when I was 4, by a famous Hollywood costume designer, whom my uncle was dating at the time.”
The Noise’s own Natasha Shealy still gazes into her vintage Wonder Woman mirror, “Because I am Wonder Woman,” she adds with a wink.
   “I've had a troll doll since I was about 5 and have schlepped it with me all over the country,” says Susan Baker of Jerome’s Skyfire, “Guess it reminds me of happy days in my childhood.”
Happy days of childhood can indeed be captured inside an object.
      Krysta Dehnert of Clarkdale owns a red fold-up booster chair from her family’s restaurant in Promised Land, Arkansas. “It was actually the living room of our house,” she explains, “When I was 3 years old I used to plop it down on the floor next to customer's tables and sing to them. Sometimes they would give me a quarter!” Clarkdale’s Town Manager Gayle Mabery owns the cradle she slept in as a baby. “It is made from the headboard of the bed my mom was born in. Both my daughters slept in it too!”
Family history represented in furniture, photos, or hand-me-downs is truly priceless.

ivan schwinn

         My grandfather purchased his big gorgeous Black Panther Schwinn in Chicago in 1970. It has a buzzer horn in the frame, and when my brother and I were kids we’d beg him to take us down to where he parked it, in the basement, so we could press the buzzer. In 1988 my grandpa gave me the Schwinn, though it was still always HIS BIKE, as in, “Are keeping MYYYY BIKE polished up, Ellie?”
In 1994 my grandfather died, and in 1995 I moved to Arizona. The Schwinn, all 85 pounds of it, remained in my mother’s Chicago basement for nearly 10 more years until she shipped it west for me, disassembled and boxed up by her neighborhood bike shop. Chad reassembled it, and even managed to get the long-silent horn to beep again. This bike is a family treasure. When I ride it, my grandpa is riding along with me, and I can hear him in my ears, “Are you taking good care of MYYYYY BIIIIKE, Ellie?”
 Like any object, the bike’s magic exists only in my own mind and memories. Its existence is fleeting, ephemeral, as are we all. It is the constraints of time and the brevity of life that makes each day a treasure.

Thanks to all who shared stories of your precious memories.
Happy New Year to all from your friends at The Noise!

Ellen Jo Roberts drives a 38 year old car, and lives in a 97 year old house with a 39 year old man, an 8 year old Chihuahua, a 7 year Boston Terrier, and a 8 month old cat. You can read more about it at

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Road to the White House

The Road to the White House:
A Mid-Atlantic Road Trip
November Outs 2011

Ellen Jo Roberts

impko© white house

Despite having seen the '80s box office bomb DC Cab nearly 100 times, I’d only actually visited Washington DC once. The District of Columbia, a parcel of land snuggled along the mighty Potomac and comprised of parts of Maryland and Virginia, has been our nation's capitol since 1790.

Most of my feelings on our nation's capitol are generated from movies.
The myriad political espionage films. Aliens blowing up the White House. The bratty yuppies of St Elmo's. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson crashing weddings. Marches on Washington. Secrets hidden in faded ink on the back of the Constitution. Hippie Jenny running across the Reflection Pool to Forrest Gump. A silly 1983 comedy about cab drivers starring Mr T., Gary Busey, Max Gail, Paul Rodriguez, Adam Baldwin, Whitman Mayo, a pair of bodybuilding twins known as "The Barbarian Brothers", DC Cab also featured an early role by a young stand-up comedian named Bill Maher. It was a cult classic in my household.

7 25 capitol holga

Washington DC is a place we see non-fiction news of daily, almost always in a negative light.
It is our national underpinnings, holding everything in place, like a girdle about to burst at the seams. Though it remains one of our country's most popular tourist attractions, I'd somehow avoided it for 25 years.

This summer I went back, on a road trip with my Mom, and my globe-trotting Chihuahua, Floyd.

7 25 ww2 memorial pearl harbor day baby

My Mom was born on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7th, 1941. "A day that will live in infamy!," my brother and I've always joked, "the DAY that MOM was BORN!" And like World War II, she'll turn 70 this year. She's a Sagittarius, fiery and quick to laugh. She's a shutterbug, a writer and an opinionated rabble rouser. She’s impatient and excitable. My Mom sees the joy in the world and she runs with it. All of my best and worse parts are inherited directly from her.

A widow at age 35, she raised my brother and me with a great deal of energy and good humor, always encouraging my creative pursuits. We live almost 2000 miles apart, and I miss her every day. To supplement phone calls and yearly visits, we plan a lengthy road trip together every few years. This year’s trip was a bit ambitious. Chicago to Washington DC: A big loop through Pittsburgh down into the nation’s capitol and the return trip a low slung arc through Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky.

While I may be an avid road tripper living in the grand scale of the open west, thinking nothing of eight hours spent in a car, this kind of commitment to the road might could potentially cause my mom to go haywire. On a visit to Arizona she once said, "I can drive for two hours and be in Milwaukee. Out here, you can start in the middle of nowhere, drive two hours and STILL be in the middle of nowhere!" A year was spent planning this DC trip, reviewing routes, timelines and making arrangements, so she knew what we were getting in to, at least on paper.

In the end, we survived a 2,000 mile adventure, through typhoon rains, record-breaking heat, and a near miss of Hurricane Irene and a very rare 5.6 earthquake.

7 24 11 pittsburgh bridges

Our road trip began during record-breaking rains in the Midwest. Floyd and I barely squeaked into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in between 11 inches of rain, and so much lightning it felt like a bad 1950s Dracula movie. The three of us hit the road the next morning and made it to picturesque Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the night. There we drank Irons (Iron City Beer) and ate "Primanti sammiches". The famous sandwich was invented in Pittsburgh so that steel workers could eat a complete meal one-handed. The Primanti Brothers ambitiously stuffed a bun full of meat, cheese, sauerkraut and fries. More than 75 years later, the sandwich is a Pittsburgh institution, much like the historic Monongahela Incline.

Pittsburgh Floyd atop Mt. Washington

We rode this small cable railcar to the top of historic Mt. Washington, named for the point where George Washington first surveyed the area bound by the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers. From one Washington namesake to the next, by early afternoon we arrived in DC via Maryland, following a shady old canal chock full of weekend kayakers. We checked into the excellent Quincy Hotel at L and 19th Streets. A pet-friendly, chic boutique hotel born from a historic apartment building, the Quincy was within walking distance to both the National Mall, and Georgetown.

7 25 11 the quincy

Its location was ideal for locking the car up in the adjoining parking garage, and touring the city by foot.

The Mid-Atlantic was experiencing a record-breaking summer heat wave during our visit. Arizona girl, acclimated to jogging in 100 degree desert temperatures, did not ace the oppressive humidity quite so easily. My jeans dyed my entire body blue with sweat. Yet we walked dozens of miles around town, braving the crowds, visiting all of the monuments. I got my National Parks Passport book stamped nearly 30 times! And everything is free! All of the monuments and museums are free.

7 25 korean war memorial 3 holga

New monuments since my last visit include the eerie and cinematic Korean War Memorial, and the Tom Hanks-endorsed World War II Memorial.

7 25 ww 2 memorial wreaths

Right after our visit, an earthquake damaged the Washington Monument. The 555 foot tall obelisk, omnipresent in the city's skyline, was completed in 1885. The stone tower suffered cracks that are currently being assessed by engineers.
7 25 washington monument looking up

My first visit to Washington DC, in 1986 with my church youth group, was during a completely different era. Marion Berry was the beloved (and later ingloriously discovered to be crack-smoking) mayor. Prostitutes lined 4th Avenue. At age 14, I spent a week assisting in soup kitchens throughout the seedy neighborhoods hidden behind the gleaming white marble façade of DC.

When our group visited the White House it was along with 1,000s of others lined up along Pennsylvania Avenue handing money to paid tour companies. Security was so lax back then I'm pretty sure I grabbed a handful of Ronnie Reagan’s Jelly Bellies® from his desk in the Oval Office. In 1986, Pennsylvania Avenue was open to regular automobile traffic like any other street. In the post 9/11 world, Washington DC is a much different place. Tightened and polished. Concrete bumpers block off entire streets to traffic. Snipers guard from the roof of the White House. The sex workers might not be truly gone, but they are no longer lining the tidy streets. Marion Barry, arrested and incarcerated on drug charges in 1990, returned to capitol politics not long after. Elected to city council and later re-elected mayor from 1995-1999 ("Mayor for Life" they've dubbed him), he remains a very popular figure there. Barry is currently a councilman for the city's Ward 8.

7 25 vietnam wall 1959

Seeing the Vietnam Wall again struck a deep chord in me. Designed by Maya Lin, a Chinese-American architecture student at Yale, and dedicated in 1982, the wall slices into a grassy knoll with sharp shock of gleaming black stone inscribed with over 58,000 names, listed in chronological order from the war’s start in 1958 to its finish in 1975. Though I knew no one directly who had died there, I know many veterans of that war, and have great respect for them. During this visit to the monument, I was on a mission to accomplish something I’d failed to do at age 14. Orrin Cassata was the only person I knew of who had died in the Vietnam War. He was the son of family friend Mrs. Bridget Cassata. She had his photo on her wall and a little shrine to him at her home in Chicago. I never met him, of course, because he was killed before I was born. Yet he was the only person I “knew” who died in Vietnam.

In 1986, while touring the National Mall with my church youth group, I tried to find Orrin Cassata’s name by reading the wall one name at a time! (Only a 14 year old thinks she could possibly stumble upon her goal by reading through all 58,000 names.) I wanted to get a "rubbing" of his name for Mrs. C. It wasn’t until we were leaving that I realized there was a directory, looking like a giant phone book, listing all of the names and their locations!

7 25 vietnam wall book 1

But we couldn’t wait. We had to leave. A quarter of a century later, here I am back at the Vietnam Wall.
I head directly for that big book, find his name and go right to it on the wall. Snapped a photo of it.

7 25 vietnam wall orrin cassata

All of a sudden I was overcome with emotion and started crying. Maybe because I was not able to find his name until after Mrs. Cassata died. Maybe because I’d been dreaming of this moment for 25 years. Maybe because seeing his name was just a tiny piece of something much, much larger, and the visual display of how this war decimated an entire generation. How we seem to repeat these mistakes, and the list of names lost in wars to follow continues this ongoing tally.

7 25 vietnam wall mom minolta 2

7 25 lincoln memorial 2

Seeing the Lincoln Monument also got me choked up, as my Mom and I stood arm-in-arm reading aloud the Gettysburg Address, engraved on a wall in front of us 50 feet high. She’d had to memorize it in grade school and had never truly forgotten it. The more you read about political history, and the trials and tribulations of our nation, the more you realize any of the issues of the past easily translate to similar issues today.

We strolled Georgetown for breakfast one morning, ducking up and down side streets to take photos of interesting homes in this fancy and historic neighborhood of Washington DC. All the chi-chi shops and picturesque townhouses line the M Street corridor.

7 25 georgetown mannequins

Building in DC's Georgetown neighborhood

DC is not so surprisingly diverse in population, with myriad ethnicities, a strong African American population, high powered dignitaries, and a many foreign-born residents. The morning rush-hour crowd bustling on the streets all share one trait, however. They all stop to smile at a tiny Chihuahua walking past.

Floyd in Washington DC

Our plan to tour the White House began months earlier. No longer can you simply show up like a herd of cattle. Back home, you must request a tour via your local congressperson, and your credentials must be cleared and approved well in advance. You must be on The List. We had a special connection directly with the Secret Service via our family in the Chicago Police Department, and they processed our request for a tour of the White House's East Wing.

7 24 many prohibited items

You cannot bring anything into the White House today. No purse, no comb, no lipstick, no wallet, no phone, no camera. No dogs, no guns, no beverages. Though, inexplicably, you can bring a knife, as long as the blade is smaller than 3 inches! (?!) Our tour of the East Wing was scheduled for a Tuesday morning. My Mom had never been to the White House, and had been koo koo bananas excited about it for months. We were met at the 15th street side entrance by a handsome, square-jawed Secret Service agent. Our very own Secret Service agent! The guards checked our identification and made sure we were on The List. We passed through the security check points, and into the East Wing, the residential section of the White House.

Our official escort was assigned to Michelle Obama’s detail, and previous to that, had been assigned to Laura Bush. “Laura Bush was far more anonymous,” he told us, “She could go about her business most of the time, and people often didn’t recognize or notice her. But Michelle Obama, she’s 5’11’’ and very much a star. People recognize her everywhere.” We passed through the Green Room, Red Room, Blue Room, Yellow Room, along with a steady stream of fellow visitors, all who had to jump through similar hoops to get their feet in the door. Fresh flowers decorate every room because the White House has its own in-house florist. A staff of permanent butlers, chefs, housekeepers, electricians, ushers, curators, beekeepers and many more keep this historic building (c.1800) in ship shape.

A plastic path protects the floor, and velvet ropes keep visitors from touching any of the art and artifacts. Docents well-versed in the portrait collection share details of the artists, years, and bits of historical trivia.

The official portrait of Bill Clinton captures his casual roguishness, leaning against a mantel in a come-hither pose. Suddenly a handsome curly-haired black and white dog trots down the steps in front of us, with a handler holding a clipboard and a cup of coffee.

“There’s Bo,” says our Secret Service Agent. “Bo?” we ask, nonchalantly.

Suddenly it hits us, “BO! OBAMA! You mean, The First Dog, Bo?” I restrain myself from hysterics and calmly ask the handler, who’s stopped to share brief morning chit-chat with our Secret Service Agent, if we can pet the dog.

“Yes, but make it quick,” he says taking a swift sip of his coffee and glancing around the hallway for signs of sudden mobbing. My mom and I both pet The First Dog, a handsome Portuguese Waterdog who probably sleeps in the bedroom of the First Daughters! Never was there a softer, sweeter-smelling dog!

Eager to get outdoors, his interest in our adoration was limited, and off he scampered, leaving me holding my hand aloft in disbelief. “I am not gonna wash this hand until Floyd gets a chance to smell it!” When we got back to the hotel, after a breakfast at the DC classic Old Ebbitt Grill, I let Floyd sniff my hand and he seemed completely unimpressed (though he did seem to know I’d had Eggs Benedict for breakfast.)

Checking out of the fabulous and friendly Quincy, we loaded back into the car and headed across the Potomac into Arlington, Virginia, location of Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial. Since my last visit, the Kennedy family plot has added two new graves: Teddy and Jackie now lay in eternal rest at Arlington.

to the tomb of unknown soldier

We spent a night with my cousin and her family near Richmond, VA, and the next night with Aunt Joyce, my Mom's sister, and Uncle Fred in Charlotte, NC prior to making the long journey back west.

7 28 marshall nc bridge view

Through the Appalachian hills along the French Broad River, we made a pit stop in Marshall, NC, in honor of friend and long time Noise contributor Natasha Shealy who has split her life between small towns in Arizona's Verde Valley and Marshall. A handsome one-road town nestled along the river, Marshall seems like a movie. We arrived in Louisville after dark, checking into a creepy bed and breakfast in the historic "Old Louisville" neighborhood.

waldman super-o whiskey

The area was just seedy enough to keep my Mom on alert, but I spent the next morning wandering the blocks of handsome brawny brick homes. Local weirdos smoking cigarettes on street corners. A wild-haired dude walked up to me and asked me if I had a light. "I'm sorry, I don't smoke," I say, and he walks with me, back towards his porch. He mumbles something about Floyd, and says, "Dog…Chihuahua."

"Yep, he's a Chihuahua. He's mean. Aren't Chihuahuas always mean?” I say, cautionary because the fellow seems like a bit of a loose cannon.

The weirdo pondered this a moment and said, "He's got a BIIIIIIG HEART.....but NO ASSSSSSS."

(Later I tell my brother this story. "That's all you, Ellen," he says, "You are a weirdo magnet").

7 28 self portrait in highway rest stop 2

After a brief midday stop in Seymour, Indiana, home town of Johnny Cougar Mellencamp, my Mom and I made it back to Chicagoland just ahead of rush hour on a Friday afternoon. Welcoming us back are my Mom's husband, and my brother with his wife and young son. We have just a couple of days together before Floyd and I board the airplane back to Arizona, and we make the best of it.

I’d encourage all American citizens to tour Washington DC at least once in their lives, to soak up the great archive of information, and stroll the streets of our nation’s history. It’s not just about what you see in movies and on TV. Rolls of spent film and a book filled with Polaroid photos are my treasures of the trip, along with the many new stamps in my National Park Passport Book. But the biggest treasure of all is the time spent on the road with my Mom.

7 26 mom and me in charlotte nc

Ellen Jo Roberts will be happy to watch "DC Cab" with you any time.

She lives in Clarkdale with Chad, Floyd, Ivan and Ned.

Read more about it at


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Every House Should Have a Cat

I wish I had as much fun anywhere as my cat has with a paper grocery bag left on the kitchen floor.
It's like an instant party for that boy.

Everyone knows I love dogs, and that I have dogs, since they frequently accompany us, and are often famous on the internet for wearing silly costumes or posing in front of famous locations.
But what many don't realize is I am a cat person as well. In fact, during the rare time when there was no cat in our house, things seem overloaded with canine energy. We need a feline to balance things out. This may be my Libra Moon talking, all balancey and stuff, but I do know a house is best when there are both cats and dogs inside.

very first group photo, June 7th 2011

I never had a cat as a kid. We were proudly, chauvanistically "dog people". My mom even had a silly book, popular in the '80s called "101 Uses for a Dead Cat." Though we thought it was funny at the time, in retrospect it seems a bit remarkable that such a thing was a comedic hit.  We didn't "get" cats. The only one we knew was this semi-feral tom named "Morris", who belonged to our neighbor. He prowled the woods along the railroad tracks looking for battles. He always looked like a raggedy mess, all torn up, bloody, missing pieces.
"Mo-o-o-o-o-ooom! Morris sprayed in my room!", I remember my friend Theresa yelling on more than one occasion. "What does that mean?", I asked.
"He pissed all over my wall!/bed/ garbage can/etc.!", she explained.
Dogs were gross in their own ways, rolling in and eating filthy things... but the cat pissing on my friend's belongings seemed much worse than anything the dogs ever did. Somehow more wild and dangerous. Claiming people as their territory.

As I got older, I knew cats, and had cat friends. But never had my own cat.
I worked at a garden center in college that had a mascot named Jack. Good ol' One-eyed Jack, Really he only had one eye. One was stitched shut and the fur grew right over it like there had never been an eye there at all. He was still a great mouser, despite sometimes losing his prey right in front of his face. Jack was a great animal. Sandy colored, and short-haired and stripey-ish. I dunno, my memory of his appearance has faded from lack of a photograph. I wonder what ever became of Jack. I went back to college and that cat probably got old and faded away. Or hit by a car on bustling Dempster.
My Mom got a big cream colored Persian cat named Alex sometime in the early 1990s. She trepidatiously offered to take it, as it belonged to her boss' family who had a new baby, or something, and needed to find a new home for the cat. Allergies or something. Surprising to us, she brought home this cat, this freaky long-haired exotic cat, with big golden eyes. He spent the first hours hiding under the basement stairs. Alex turned out to be a real gem of a pet, peacefully co-existing with our Scottie, MacDuff, in his final years, and living on into the 21st century as a companion to my Mom, and an inspiration for great photography. I was mostly gone, away from home at school, but my brother and Alex became pals. Apparently, Alex liked to be spun around by his tail. He was crazy.

We first became cat people in the year 1998, when we lived in Jerome, Arizona. A neighborhood cat named Raoul adopted us as his new family. Irritated by a batch of new kittens infiltrating his house up the street, he set off to find a new home. He ended up on our front porch. Wild, burly, black with white socks and chin, Raoul was handsome and loud-mouthed. He stood on our porch and meowed his fool head off.
At first we dumped Dixie-cups of water on him in an effort to chase him away. But he was steadfast and did not give up. Then we started to enjoy him being there serenading us, waiting for us to get home from work. We started looking for him and calling for him, "Ra-oooooooooooooooooo-oul! Ra-oooooooooooulie Boo-Boo-la!"
He liked for us to pick burrs out of his fur, and patch up his battle wounds. One time he had a flap of loose skin on his head, like a toupe. We called it his "flip top head" and doctored it with ointment until it was healed and reattached. He'd go on strolls around town with us, following us to the old high school, or down to a secret waterfall. Raoul would disappear on "walk-about" now and again, causing us much worry until his return, always looking a bit haunted. 

striped cat

Raoul met his end on the freshly paved Highway 89A, a December night in the year 2000.
Finding his body on the road that cold morning killed something in us too. We buried Raoul in a grave down by the Verde River that we still pay respects to anytime we're near it.

autumn forest clarkdale

Raoul's death actually propelled us towards leaving Jerome, and taking a leap into adulthood by signing up for a mortgage on a house in neighboring Clarkdale.

Soon after, Clyde arrived in our lives. The Jerome Humane Society staff has seen our Raoul tribute posters stapled aroud town, and thought we might be special enough to take on this kooky one-year old cat who'd become a handful for the elderly lady taking care of him. He was living in Cottonwood's Verde Villages, scrapping with wild critters. Something had nearly taken his tail clean off. The vet stitched it back on, and soon after, Clyde was our cat. Handsome and elegant, blue eyed, creamy colored, Clyde was a "flame point siamese mix" per the vet. He was very chatty, due to his siamese blood, and very friendly to everyone. He was not of the "hide under the bed" variety when guests came over. If there were visitors at the house, Clyde would stroll right out to the middle of the room, and flop over on his side as if to say, "Okay. You may commence to petting me now."

flat on his back

clyde and honey boy

Clyde ushered in the Era of the Dog at our house, treating a chihuahua puppy named Floyd as if he were his very own little project. He could have easily eaten the tiny little rodent-sized dog, and probably fought every natural urge to do so.

3 favorite pets

Clyde was the best cat ever. He was gentle and patient and never clawed the furniture (well, almost never). He liked riding in the car. He'd tolerate being walked on a leash. He was friendly and playful with the dogs. Except for our buddy Tim's miniature pinscher, Harrison, who was always his nemesis in the most amusing way. Harrison never was able to crack Clyde's code.

It was 10 years, almost to the day he first arrived, that Clyde got very quickly fatally ill and died.

Almost 11, he quit eating. He stopped grooming himself. He quit jumping on our bed at night, and most notably, he was quiet. This noisy loud mouth cat who is so vocal we frequently have to holler at him "Shuddup, cat!" was suddenly stone silent. We took him to the vet hoping he was merely constipated with hairballs or something simple. Turned out to not be simple at all. He was going into kidney failure from something called Polycystic Kidney Disease. It's genetic, common to "exotic"  (Siamese, Persian, Himalayan) cats, and something he's had since he was a baby. There is no cure, no treatment, and there's nothing we could have done to change his trajectory. He was born with his kidneys full of tiny cysts.As he got older, the cysts grew and began to crowd out the good tissue, and impair kidney function.

The vet said he had no idea how sick he is, and still was remarkably responsive and social considering the toxins building up in his blood. They sent us home with some special food which is easier on the kidneys, and bags of fluids, tubes and needles so we could subcutaneously flush his system this week (inserting fat needle between the loose skin between his shoulder blades--it was a bit daunting) and perhaps bring his crazy blood test numbers back to something more level. The prognosis was grim. Kidney failure is the most frequent killer of cats, and this disease in particular was also what killed my Mom's Persian, Alex.

"That's the thing about pets. They only last 10 years or so...But it's worth it."- Chad sobbed as we lay in bed, crying and trying to sleep. I certainly never thought my cat would die at age 11. An indoor cat, fed an organic meat-based diet, given dental care, vaccinations and filtered water, and everything they say a good pet owner should give...I thought he'd live to a ripe old 17. This makes me question my notions about everything. We're all falling apart. The rug can be pulled out from under us at any moment. No one knows the future. We must live every day like it's our last. I said, "When Raoul was hit by a car it was so sudden when we found his body in the road. I was buried in grief. Now, even though Clyde is still alive, I've already started mourning his death. We have time to say a proper goodbye. And I guess that is a good thing." Sobs took over my chest, making me feel hollow inside.

clyde at Verde River Greenway

We took Clyde on adventures to the river. We let him bask in the sunshine of the yard, hiding in the tall grass and rubbing his whiskers in the yucca. We cleaned his fur with a wet cloth, like he was a kitten and we were his mother. We fed him liquified food from a baby bottle.

In the end, on a sunny March afternoon, Clyde took his last breath in our front yard. He now lies beneath the eucalyptus tree in a grave Chad spent all day digging. Buiried with him: sea shells, favorite toys, locks of all of our hair, and a Polaroid photo of Floyd and Ivan.

 A couple of months after Clyde died, I thought it was time to return some feline energy to the house.
The dogs seemed positively lost without a cat bossing them around.
Then this guy shows up. Crazy kitten, getting into everyone's business. We named him Ned.

crazy cat on my leg

Born the first week of April 2011. We first saw these three tiny kittens at the Verde Valley Humane Society sometime in May. They'd been abandoned outside of Olsen's Grain on April 21st, and had spent most of their lives at the pound. One kitten was our favorite right away. Chad called him "Mr Personality." We returned a second time with Floyd to let him pick his favorite kitten, and he picked the same one as us. We named the kitten Ned.

7-11 choco Ned

I've never had a kitten before. All of our cats came to us as adults. Kittens are nuts! So full of life! Chasing every strange shape and sound. My friend Heather says kittens are "dumb, and full of the energy of the sun". The first few days at home with the dogs were rough, and had me in tears. The dogs, well versed in life with a cat, showed immediate interest in Ned, but the kitten, knowing nothing about dogs, hissed and spit at them, stirring them into an angry lather.

A few days passed, and they all started to settle down, grow less afraid, and more content. Soon things were peaceful. Perfect. Floyd doesn't have much patience with the cat's shenanigans, but Ned knows not to bother him so much. He's got Ivan, who is always willing to wrestle. We are convinced Ned is Ivan's pet, just as Floyd belonged to Clyde.

red box ivan ned2

Ned follows me constantly, weaving in and out of my legs, jumping into any drawer or door I open, attacking my belt as I put it on, jumping on the bathroom sink to get a closer look as I brush my teeth, attacking any shadow or wayward scrap of fuzz or paper, playing "peek-a-boo" behind the blankets of our rumpled morning bed. He is nuts! But in all the best ways. He always wants to be where we are, and has learned to line up for treats along with the dogs when they're getting their evening biscuits. Today he was draped over Ivan's neck like a feather boa. What a koo koo bird.

May Neddy be blessed with a long happy life, healthy kidneys and best buddies. I do think Clyde would approve.

relaxed gato

Friday, September 23, 2011

Go Postal: The USPS Evolves for the 21st Century

Go Postal:
The USPS Evolves for the 21st Century
Ellen Jo Roberts
October Outs 2011
The Noise

Mr. Zip! circa 1961

Fax. Fed-Ex. Anthrax. E-mail. Internet. Automatic Bill Payments. Over the past 20 years, our beloved and beleaguered United States Postal Service has struggled to keep pace in a world of ever more instant information. In 1861, the Pony Express delivered Lincoln’s inaugural address to California; just seven days on horseback to Sacramento from railroad’s end in Missouri. At the time, it was considered record breaking, remarkable, lightning quick. 150 years later, news of similar importance is delivered to us almost before it even happens, in real time via television, smart phones and Twitter.

1964 Postal Truck. Photo courtesy USPS

I know I am an analog girl living in a digital world, caught in a dreamland where everything is less instant and somehow more enduring. My cameras all shoot film. I read books, make mix tapes, listen to vinyl and the radio. I foolishly lament the demise of the telegram. I am a fan of handwriting, which they barely teach in school anymore.. And I get excited about mail. I subscribe to magazines. Sending and receiving post cards and hand-written letters from faraway friends and family is a regular occurrence, and far better than a Facebook wall post any day. The digital and the instant are oft forgotten as soon as they arrive, contributing to our insatiability for the constant flow of more. A card in the hand may be savored, revisited, treasured. Mail archives fill a file cabinet in my closet: artistic envelopes, picture perfect postcards, hand written memories forever captured at their peak ripeness, gorgeous stamps cancelled with dates and locations of various eras and past lives. It’s still remarkable the journey an envelope can make for a mere 44 cents, and the faith we have in its arrival as we feed it into the mouth of a big blue metal box.

In Arizona’s Verde Valley, each zip code is serviced by its own singular Post Office. Some of the area’s smaller communities, like Jerome and most of Clarkdale, do not receive home delivered mail. Instead, the town’s Post Office building serves as a central delivery location, with residents each assigned a P.O. Box for no charge. Jerome’s ancient P.O. Boxes are dialed open by alphabetical letters. With a decrease of nearly 30% in mail volume since the 20th century, the USPS continuously strives towards increased productivity, and “facility consolidation” is a term bandied about frequently. A euphemism for closure, facility consolidation is a threat to small town post offices nationwide, including my own.

clarkdale post office, 86324

The Clarkdale Post Office is staffed by hardy folks; smiling, friendly and proficient. The clerks are genuinely interested in the lives of their patrons, and we too are equally fond of them. They know everyone in town by name, and for this reason packages not addressed quite correctly will still always reach their intended recipient. The joys of small town life. You may apply for a passport, get a money order, purchase postage and send your envelopes and packages out fast or slow. Checking the mail is also a chance to see, and be seen by, your neighbors and catch up on local news. Always bustling with activity, the Post Office is an important element of Clarkdale’s identity. For a vintage company town, proud of its interesting history, losing the Post Office would be a huge morale buster, and great backwards blow to our identity on the map. Earlier this year, alarming rumors swirled that the Clarkdale Post Office was on the short list for closure. With no UPS Store, nor even a Fed-Ex drop box, our Post Office is our only method of exit from town. I sent several letters to local politicians, as well as to the Post Master General in Washington D.C., asking what we citizens could do to save our Post Office. Get signatures on a petition? Should I start a rally? Chain myself to the building? We would gladly pay a yearly fee for our (free) P.O. Box if it would assist in keeping the 86324 open for business. I received a form letter back from Washington, explaining that in order to be more efficient Post Offices nationwide were under consideration for consolidation, and though the Clarkdale Post Office was not slated for closure at this time, it could be reconsidered in the future.

our washer and dryer broke on the same day

“I can’t imagine life in small towns without the Post Office,” says Cottonwood Mayor Diane Joens, “The Post Office is weaved into the tapestry of life in every small town. At a recent meeting, we were discussing public notices, and one Northern Arizona community said they don’t even have a local newspaper in which to post notices, but if public notices were posted at the local post office, everyone in town would see them. I hope there is some way we can economically and efficiently continue to keep Post Offices in small communities.”
Despite what you might think, our tax dollars do not support the Postal Service, and haven’t since the 1980s.  In the words of the USPS, “A self-supporting government enterprise, the U.S. Postal Service is the only delivery service that reaches every address in the nation, 150 million residences, businesses and Post Office Boxes. The Postal Service receives no tax dollars for operating expenses, and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations. With 32,000 retail locations and the most frequently visited website in the federal government,, the Postal Service has annual revenue of more than $67 billion and delivers nearly 40 percent of the world's mail. If it were a private sector company, the U.S. Postal Service would rank 29th in the 2010 Fortune 500.”

The Postal Service is the nation’s second largest civilian employer, second only to Wal-Mart.
With the largest retail network in the United States, it has the world’s largest civilian fleet of vehicles.
Of these, more than 44,000 are alternative-fuel capable, operating with electricity, ethanol, compressed natural gas, liquid propane gas and bio-diesel. With the U.S. Department of Energy, the USPS is currently working on prototype electric vehicles, and testing hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles.

In addition to automobiles, mail is also delivered via plane, train, boat, ferry, helicopter, hovercraft, subway and snowmobile. The mule also provides very specialized mail service in Arizona. Every animal in the mule train carries about 130 pounds of mail, food and supplies down the eight mile trail into the Havasupai Reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, averaging 41,000 pounds per week! Of course in addition to all of these methods, mail is also delivered in a much more common (and very green) manner: on bicycle and by foot.  And regardless of delivery location, everyone pays the same and equal postage.

Solar-powered Post Office facilities dot the nation, from sea to shining sea, from California to Rhode Island. New buildings are being constructed, and older ones are being renovated, with the environment in mind, using green features like natural lighting, thermal windows, recycled fiberglass insulation, solar systems, rainwater harvest, vegetated roofs and native species utilized in landscaping. Sustainable features like high efficiency lighting/heating/cooling, recycled building materials, low water use fixtures and low-volatile organic compound materials combined with detailed energy audits aim towards the agency’s objective of a 30% reduction in energy consumption by 2015. They’ve already achieved a 24% reduction.

1923 Mail Carrier © USPS

“We are mothers and fathers. And sons and daughters. Who every day go about our lives with duty, honor and pride. And neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, nor the winds of change, nor a nation challenged, will stay us from the swift completion of our appointed rounds. Ever.” This is the unofficial creed of the United States Post Office, corrupted from a translation of the Greek “Herodotus' Histories”, circa 440 B.C. Carrying mail is a heavy responsibility, literally and figuratively. Mail is federally protected and tampering with it and any of its containers is a federal offense, as is sending fraudulent materials. Through rain, heat, gloom of night and winds of change, your faithful mail carrier completes the appointed rounds.

Over the years, even famous folk have paid their dues handling mail. Bing Crosby, Charles Bukowski and Sherman Hemsley all spent time as postal clerks. Rock Hudson and Walt Disney were both mail carriers. Hotel magnate, great grandfather of Paris Hilton, and one of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s many husbands, Conrad Hilton was Postmaster General of San Antonio, New Mexico. Future presidents Harry S. Truman and Abraham Lincoln were both Postmaster Generals at one time, of Grandview, Missouri and New Salem, Illinois, respectively. The Postmaster position was once rather politically significant.
          On July 26, 1775, members of the Second Continental Congress decreed "that a Postmaster General be appointed for the United States, who shall hold his office at Philadelphia, and shall be allowed a salary of 1,000 dollars per annum.” That first Post Master General was Benjamin Franklin, whose guidance built a system that bound the new nation together, supported the growth of new commerce, and perhaps most importantly, shared information and a free flow of ideas so crucial in our developing country. Recognizing the agency’s importance to the nation, from 1792 until 1971 the Postmaster General of the United States was part of the Presidents Cabinet, and last in line of succession to the presidency.

The Post Office is also featured prominently in our pop culture, with rock ‘n roll songs pleading please to Mr. Postman, getting emotional that baby wrote me a letter, and angry girlfriends sending things back marked “return to sender.”
The Post Office is all about anticipation, and promises of love arriving in a stamped envelope. Thought there has never been a TV sitcom devoted to the life of a mail carrier, there have been plenty of notable post office characters over the years, like the dreaded “Newman!” on “Seinfeld”. I grew up with that guy McFeely from “Mister Rogers Neighborhood”, Reba the Mail Lady on “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” and that loveable know-it-all, Cliff Clavin from the long-running “Cheers”.

“Ours is a proud heritage built on a simple yet profound mission: Connect every American, every door, every business, everywhere through the simple act of delivering mail. This idea of universal service is at the heart of a $900 billion industry that drives commerce, plays an integral part of every American community and remains the greatest value of any post in the world
.” –United States Post Office

Support your small town Post Office. Subscribe to a magazine. Pay the extra $1.00 for Priority Mail. Send charming postcards and letters to your people near and far. Not just for holidays, but for no reason at all. Go Postal.

Ellen Jo Roberts lives in a historic brick bungalow with Chad, Floyd, Ivan and Ned. Read all about it at
Send her a postcard at PO Box 832, Clarkdale AZ 86324.

Supplemental Photo Opinion Sidebar...

PHOTO OPINION: How would the closure of your local post office affect your life?

Rick Lovelace, Resident of Jerome, AZ.:
You can’t close that Post Office! Everyone’s gonna say that. It would drastically affect my life. I’d have to go all the way down the hill, using lots of gas and energy and whatnot to get my mail.”

rick lovelace of jerome az

David Wilder, Business owner in Jerome, AZ.:
“They can’t close the Post Office. We don’t get street delivery, so by federal law, I believe they can’t. That would leave 450 people without an address.”

david wilder- jerome arizona business owner

Birgitta Lapides, Resident of Cottonwood, AZ:
“In Sweden, the Post Office now is a supermarket. They have to have, as part of the supermarket, a Post Office. People in Sweden are very sheepish and they don’t complain. If the Cottonwood Post Office closed I think it will be bad. I don’t see how Fry’s, Safeway or Basha’s would act as a Post Office.”

birgitta lapides of cottonwood az

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


My Uncle Len was a loner, and he died alone.
He was a complicated and brilliant man, the oldest son of the family.
My Mom, the middle child, said she always felt like Lenny got the attention for being the smartest, and Joyce got the attention for being the cutest.

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Uncle Len was tall and gangly. He wore glasses, and leather loafers without socks.
In every family photo he looks like he’s remembering a joke with a sly smirk on his face and a slight tilt to his head. He had a trailer in the woods but lived in an apartment in the city. Surrounded by “gypsies” who might steal your Thanksgiving turkey off the grill if you weren’t watchful.

My memories of Uncle Len are tied up in cigarette smoke, woolen plaids, hunting artwork of Labrador retrievers, and Steely Dan’s “Aja” album playing on the stereo above the mantle. His forever license plate “FO 84”. There he is, hanging back on the outer edges of a conversation at Christmas, sipping his beer and laughing in that whistley snicker. His deep baritone piping in to share humor, or tell long tales of the Florida Keys, the gulf coast, the “Blonde Bomber” and wild adventures he shared with his buddy, T.C. Funny stories about the babes at Old Orchard where he worked as a Pinkerton guard.
He liked to camp out, travel, escape.
My great grandma Ana Komlenich always called Lenny “Chibo”, which meant something in Serbian. We all called him Chibo.

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“Helllll-LO”, he greeted us on the phone or at the door. Growing up we spent a lot of time with Uncle Len. Holidays and barbecues and random Friday night dinners.
His apartment, where he raised two kids with his ex-wife, was a famous mess.
Papers and books piled everywhere, stale cigarette smoke dusting everything.
He was like Hunter S Thompson, my Uncle Len, in style and comportment.
Cynical and poetic. His younger cousins all adored him, looking to him for amusements. My brother and I loved to banter with him at the dinner table. He made us work our brains harder, challenged us. His children, Tim and Susie, cultivated his same sense of irreverence and humor, laughing at the absurdities of life.

Chad and I moved far away West in 1995, and due to our distance I can count the times we saw Uncle Len on one hand since…. Christmas 1997. My Mom’s wedding in 2005. During a favorite special visit we saw him for a whole week in 2001, when he drove cross-country with my mother, to visit us in Arizona. My Mom cannot fly, so she cajoled Uncle Len into a road trip to the southwest, summer monsoon rains filling New Mexico with the sweet smell of wet sagebrush. When his “FO 84” license plate pulled up out front of our Clarkdale Arizona bungalow I couldn’t believe my eyes. I jumped for joy.
The two of them, brother and sister, were funny together, like an old married couple, bickering. In the sweaty Arizona sun Uncle Len smelled exactly like Grampa.

My Mom spent the trip being excited and fidgety, Uncle Len poking fun at her, and all but saying “Keep Cool” like how Grampa always said to Grandma. Uncle Len worked for the Milwaukee Road Railroad for many years. I’m not quite sure what his job was there, but I think it was in the offices, being a genius. We rode the Verde Canyon Railroad, a scenic wilderness train (where I later got a job and have now worked for since 2002). I remember Uncle Len’s broad smile on the train ride, and how it was a “highlight” for him. Bantering with the engineers afterwards as they buttoned up and tucked the train in for the night.

People say something changed in Uncle Len when his only daughter died of a rare cancer when she was a senior in high school. Something broke inside him. From that point on, a slow retreat began, until eventually nobody saw him much, not even his son or grandkids. He did his own thing. He didn’t come to Serbian Christmas and there were no more random Friday night dinners. He missed funerals and birthdays, and my brother’s wedding. He was invited and included but seldom participated, much to the chagrin of my mother. Tim’s wife, Anna said he’d never come over for a spur of the moment meatloaf, but if they ever needed help he would drop everything and come over to help. (Because he truly did love them, and he was a good man.)

Despite his lack of family participation, my Mom never gave up on Len, and tried to reach out to him. He rarely reached back. He died alone, my Uncle Len. Even though I’ve not seen him in years, and he lived nearly 2,000 miles away, the world seems different now with him gone. I wonder if my grandparents welcomed him into the pearly gates. My grandma probably wagging her finger at him about all the events he’d missed out on. I wonder if he’s there on the other side reunited with Susie again.

Being at the depot comforts me now, thinking of Uncle Len riding on that train that’s parked outside. What a kick he got out of it. He went on and on about the train ride.

I always appreciated my uncle’s great storytelling, and his "c'est la vie" attitude. I never heard him raise his voice in anger. Uncle Len had a positive influence on me growing up, without my own dad, and that will always stick with me, as will my fond memories.

feb1967 stacys