The Portland Phoenix

Leftovers: Yoda, Arya, Amy, and other heroes 

Amy Schneider on "Jeopardy!"

"Jeopardy!" champion Amy Schneider is one of the "New Brave Normal."(Courtesy "Jeopardy!"/Twitter)

A Yoda-like mentor once told me lists are the lazy way out for a columnist. That they take up space without saying much and show little skill.

Another mentor I value equally (let’s call her “Game of Thrones” champion Arya Stark) likes lists for their ability to cover various points in a concise and reader-friendly manner.

As a dutiful student of both schools, I’m sharing a shortlist for our times, but will do it mindfully, with Yoda’s words in my head. 

This year is starting off with the same uneasiness and anxiety-provoking energy as the past couple. We’re getting COVID-19 variants along with vaccine and mask pushback. Our health care workers are still short-handed and exhausted. Disruption in our schools and stress on kids and teachers make daily headlines. Beloved celebrities are passing away (may they rest in peace), leaving nostalgic memories and moving us one step further away from the old normal.

All of this and more is the background for my “New Brave Normal” list: 

• Nothing says normal like the “Holy Hour” on TV. Weekdays from 7-8 p.m. we watch “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!,” testing our word recognition and knowledge, cheering for average citizens to score cash or an orange Audi. 

As of this moment, the reigning “Jeopardy!” champion is 42-year-old Amy Schneider, the first woman to win $1 million and in the running for the most consecutive games ever won. Schneider is also shedding light on what it means to be a trans woman. Her very presence moves the stereotype away from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (although season 24 rocks) to, well, Amy Schneider. Hopefully, new LGBTQIA conversations are happening in living rooms across America as Amy wins again, representing smart, honest, and brave women everywhere. 

• Entrepreneurial dreamers are also pushing forward. Kayla Cavallaro, 27, took a risk and switched careers to open The Mainely Dog, coming this spring. She is turning the location at 130 St. John St. in Portland into a dog day care and boarding business. Long a proponent for difficult rescue and foster dogs, Cavallaro knows that some dogs are pack animals and some are loners. By offering socialization skills, The Mainely Dog wants to help all dogs adjust mentally and physically, taking individual needs into consideration. Slowly changing my mind about the nature of pit bulls (who I now see as loving and adorable), and taking a career-changing risk during the pandemic, Cavallaro is another member of the brave new normal. 

• Also tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit during these unstable times is high school student Sam Carter. Carter has a car detailing operation that rivals any dealership in efficiency, affordability, and workmanship. Calling his business SC Detailing, he offers exterior options, interior options, and combination packages, all professionally spelled out on a menu he emails to new clients. From the lemonade stand to Carter’s lucrative side hustle, it shows America’s youth want to work safely and be productive members of society. What could be more old-school normal in these new normal times? 

• No new normal list is sufficient without mentioning the generosity that fills people’s hearts when others are in trouble. The pandemic doesn’t care about layoffs or climate change, but weird weather and (un)natural disasters are happening now, more than ever. Tornadoes, floods, fire clouds and cliffs falling into the ocean leave people homeless or worse. But many of us still want to help favorite reputable organizations.  

According to a recent Gallup poll, “Most Americans do not plan to cut back on their donations, and roughly one in four plan to increase them. The duration and severity of the economic downturn will be a key factor in whether Americans are able to fulfill those intentions.”

I’ve been both encouraged and saddened by the increasing number of local GoFundMe fundraisers. Within my own friend group, people are sharing links to raise money for funerals for friends-of-friends who have died of COVID-19, and for their families. Or for a mom being evicted. Or to rebuild a house that burned down. The tragedies checked out as legit, and maybe the increase in visibility is due to an algorithm. But I doubt it.  

It takes a lot for a brave Mainer to let someone seek donations on their behalf. It may not be normal to see such requests, but helping out when possible is very normal. And most campaigns that I’ve seen have exceeded their fundraising goals.

Just as the real Yoda channeled the Force to do good, and Arya Stark raised her sword with precise intent, we’re finding that the new normal is unknown but still familiar.

The key is tapping into our bravery and remembering Yoda’s words: “Impossible to see, the future is.” 

Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at

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