02 August 2023

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

When I first came to the United States of America more than 30 years ago, I was naturally curious about things that were very different from what I was used to in Sri Lanka. The ‘American accent,’ I knew was different and it took me a while to get used to it. There were things that I just couldn’t get and things that really fascinated me. Like vehicle number plates, or ‘license plates’ as they were called.

I can’t recall what made me notice them. I was struck by the fact that vehicles registered in different states had unique signatures. The backgrounds were different but this didn’t catch my attention as much as the taglines.

Since I was living in Massachusetts at the time, most vehicles were from that state. A large number were from the New England region, so I did catch the mottos, let’s say, of Connecticut (Constitution State), Maine (Vacation Land), New Hampshire (Live Free or Die), Rhode Island (Ocean State) and Vermont (Green Mountain State). New York wasn’t too far away, so I got to see the ‘Empire State’ signature as well. Massachusetts plates had ‘Spirit of America.’

This was pre-internet, note. I couldn’t look these up online. I had to depend on chance sightings of out-of-state vehicles and memory. I did travel a bit so at one point I knew what was written on the license plates of probably half the states.

This is about Pennsylvania. Officially, ‘The Keystone State,’ Pennsylvania cars did have that on the license plates, but the legend on the majority of vehicles from that state that I noticed was ‘You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.’

Warm, I thought. Welcoming.

Now, back in the USA and resident in Philadelphia these days, I hardly see vehicles from New England. It’s mostly Pennsylvania with a sizable number of vehicles from New Jersey (Garden State) and some from New York (Empire State).

I am yet to see ‘You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.’ I am yet to see ‘Keystone State.’  Instead, there’s ‘visitPA.com.' An invitation, yes, but not welcoming, not warm, and nothing to tell me why I should be visiting PA (the letters that precede the 2213 Pennsylvania zip codes — and yes, I got that from the net, the number not the letters) assuming I was in some other state and had seen a Pennsylvania number plate.

Why, I wondered. Why had they changed it? Why should I visit PA or Pennsylvania? It’s like saying ‘I am good.’ It’s as if the point needs to be made in order to dispel any suspicion of me being bad. It’s like saying ‘Buy this.’ Or ‘that.’ Or ‘something else.’ Buy, but we won’t tell you why you should buy it; buy it because we say you should. Something like that. There’s a dash of arrogance there.

The plates of New Mexico (Land of Enchantment), West Virginia (Wild, Wonderful), Arizona (Grand Canyon State), Minnesota (10,000 Lakes), South Dakota (Great Faces, Great Places), Washington (Evergreen State) and even Kentucky (Bluegrass State) are advertisements. There’s something that makes one curious, makes one think about visiting.  ‘Virginia is for Lovers,’ is cute while Kentucky’s ‘In God We Trust’ made me think, ‘Um…okaaaay…’ Not compelling enough. You have your beliefs, I have mine and anyway, what you believe is not what makes someone want to visit you, is it?

Pennsylvania. I’ve got friends in Pennsylvania. They are warm, friendly, decent people. ‘You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania,’ is something else. It would tell me something like this, ‘don’t worry if you don’t know anyone in Pennsylvania, we have friendship and warmth and you won’t feel like a stranger.’  

‘visitPA.com'? Nah.  


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is 187th article in the new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

Other articles in this series: 

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road