Hoosiers

Author’s note–this post was written before the March 28th Indiana and Syracuse basketball game in the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. However, much of the sentiment below is timeless.

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Some people never move away from their birthplace. Perhaps the circumstances and desire to leave was never kindled. Or perhaps some native sons and daughters looked around the world and agreed that there is no place like their small town. John Mellencamp captured that sentiment in one of his better diddies:

“No I cannot forget where it is that I come from/
I cannot forget the people who love me/
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town/
And people let me be just what I want to be.”

Mellencamp is a native Hoosier. And for a time, I was a Hoosier too. I wasn’t born Hoosier. I was a Hoosier by choice—spending over five years deep in the American heartland. I also married into the tribe./

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What is a Hoosier? As Aaron Sorkin plagurized in his series The West Wing, “A Hoosier’s someone from Indiana.” That may seem like a smart-aleky answer, or an answer that carries no meaning–no answer at all to the query. However, a Hoosier might view the question as dunderheaded–a contemptuous question put down best with a straight-forward answer.

In truth, the etymology of the word is unknown. Storytellers and factotums have their theories, but I agree with the great travel diarist Bill Bryson that there is no universal agreement on the term. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia (*cough*), a Hoosier could be:

  1. A derivative of the English Anglo-Saxon “hoozer”–a “hill person;

  2. An Ohio River steamboat slang for an Indiana farmer operating a flat-boat;

  3. The last name of a black Methodist circuit preacher of the second Great Awakening; and

  4. A poem, “The Hoosier’s Nest” described people from Indiana.

None of those answers are very satisfactory, are they? Debunked in order, firstly, there are no mountains or hills in Indiana, really. In southern Indiana, the best you get is something the locals call a “knob.” And the settlers of the river valleys of Indiana were from Germany, not England. Secondly, as for the Ohio River contender, let’s suppose that “Indiana Farmers on Flat-Boats” is the definition. How does the word “hoosier” derive from that? Thirdly, as for the itinerant preacher, Indiana sadly held the largest per capita membership of the Klan in its history. It is unlikely that the those old-timey citizens would have accepted the last name of a black minister as their handle in 1850. Moreover, like the second explanation, contender number three seems to be a non-sequitur. Lastly, the poem explanation also proclaims a Hoosier is someone from Indiana, with no context.

My favorite explanation goes something like this:

Two Frenchman are in a frontier tavern. They get just plastered on moonshine, and when it comes time to settle the tab, they have a quarrel over the bill. A fight ensues, knifes are wielding, people are getting cut up. A third Frenchmen, watching the melee, reaches to the floor, to pick up a grizzly hunk of flesh. He then asks the mob:

“Hoo’z ear?”

Maybe a Hoosier is a redneck—a French redneck.

Outside of Indiana, to call someone a Hoosier is hardly a compliment. In other parts of the Midwest, “Hoosier” is another word for “redneck” or “hick.” Given the Midwestern predilection for unalloyed kindness toward strangers (a habit that puts the New Yorkers ill-at-ease), the Indiana Hoosier grins and proudly wears their name, a name that means, well, that they are from Indiana!

And how does a transplant to the land of the Hoosiers develop such a deep appreciation for this rather eclectic tribe? I had two educations in my experience among the Hoosiers. The first education was purely academic, cloistered away from native Hoosier territory. A student could breeze in and out of Indiana and never really understand much about the state outside of his college bubble.

The second education was cultural–as I lived and worked outside of the college bubble for a time. And when you open yourself up to the customs and habits of a new world, you become acculturated—you become part of the tribe. The Hoosier tribe has its deities. As the recent NCAA basketball wunderkind Victor Oladipo as said, the reason he chose to play basketball at Indiana was because “it is like a basketball atmosphere everywhere you go.”

That is what the Hoosier is to me—a disciple of basketball. Or a least the love of basketball is the foundation stone of being a Hoosier. The Hoosiers’ love of basketball borders on religious. While Indiana has several universities, each where the roundball is played on glossy hardwood, the Mother Church can be found in Bloomington, Indiana—home of the state’s flagship Indiana University whose teams carry that eponymous name.Image

But certainly, the dear reader may ask, is there more to the story than a bunch of fanboys and midlife-crisis alums wearing candy-striped pants and jerseys, cheering on a college sports team? In fact, there is. If the NCAA tournament is the New Testament of Hoosierism, the Old Testament is found in the state’s old high school tournament system. Until 1997, every Indiana high school, large and small, competed for a chance to play in the statewide tournament. There were no divisions among large and small schools. All high school teams were able to qualify. While bigger towns were always the favorite, the legend of the most hick-infested, most Hoosier, Podunk village sending its team into the heart of Indianapolis to compete for the state title gave hope to any young kid nailing a backboard and rim to their old barn and practicing hoops. Hinkle Fieldhouse, the home of the state championship, was Zion. And in the 1950’s, a small town team did make Hoosier history by winning it all. That story was immortalized by native Hoosier Angelo Pizzo in his “Hoosiers,” a 1986 movie staring Gene Hackman as the single-minded coach who fashioned a championship team out of very small town.

In truth, there are other parts of America that could lay a better claim to their supreme devotion to roundball. Duke has been dominant in college basketball in recent memory, and UCLA has more championships than Indiana. However, winning alone does not make a definition. In this case, passion is the measure. And any good Hoosier—either native or transplanted—will tell you all basketball roads lead back to Indiana. Coach K learned the art of coaching from IU’s Bobby Knight (though both at Army at the time). UCLA’s basketball dominance in the 60’s and 70’s was led by Indiana native, coach John Wooden.

Generations of Hoosiers played youth basketball under little Woodens or Knights. Fundamentals meant something more than the three R’s–the boys knew hoops as well. And while Title IX has only recently opened up the sport to women, grandmothers will also know the fundamentals. I have heard old women crying foul at bad calls, doubting play calling, and developing their own zone coverage analysis. Every grandma in every town hoped that their team would reach the tournament, each town hoped their star player might be the next “Mr. Basketball” and maybe even don the cream and crimson for Coach Knight someday. Basketball was hope.

There are of course, other admirable qualities in the land of the Hoosiers. Tom Petty mooned over the girls who grew up in Indiana towns in his “Last Dance with Mary Jane” (as did your author.) Multimillionaire race car drivers will consider their career incomplete unless they kiss the brick finish line and douse themselves in the “sweet milk of victory” at the Indianapolis 500. From the Indiana seedbed came not just Wooden and Pizzo and Mellencamp, but the Rebel James Dean, Late Night’s David Letterman, Larry Bird, songwriters Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael, violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, Johnny Appleseed, Lincoln for a time, and the novelist Theodore Dreiser.

As America learned during the NCAA 2013 March Madness college basketball tournament, Hoosiers and basketball are synonymous. Or perhaps they learned that “Hoosier” is really another word for blissfully infectious hope.

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Hoosier Hay Photo credit: cindy47452 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Mellencamp Painting at the Bluebird, Bloomington Photo credit: lobstar28 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Assembly Hall Photo credit: spablab / Foter.com / CC BY

Hoosier Barn Photo credit: cindy47452 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

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The Sultan of Tea

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Turkey and her denizens are nationalist in a way that even Americans might find embarrassing. The Turkish flag waves large and tall over the hills along the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul–from apartment buildings, along the narrow streets, and in every public place. The red flag with its white crescent are everywhere, always reminding the people of their proud, national, secular country at the edge of the Muslim world. Ataturk (translated literally as “Father of the Turks”) is their George Washington and his statue is on every street corner it seems. As a general, Ataturk defeated the British as the Allies sought to carve up the old Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Spared from the fate of Turkey’s Middle Eastern nations, Ataturk had won the Turks freedom from colonization, then Balkanization. He founded a republic based on the American idea, abolished the Sultan and Caliphate thus severing the tie between mosque and state. He converted the beleaguered Hagia Sophia–the once cathedral, then spoil of war, then mosque–into a secular museum. Ataturk banned headdress–fez for men and scarfs for women. He gave women equal rights under the law. He changed the Turkish language from its Arabic script to Roman letters. In short, the modern country of Turkey looked west for reform. Think of Texas pride without the swagger. Turks come first in Turkey.

However, some habits are hard to break. And just as Texas has its own toast, the tea in Turkey isn’t just tea, it is Turkish Tea.  The Turks are not going for the subtly of Chinese oolong teas or the ritual of Japanese green. They are purists first–no British adulteration of their topaz delight with cream or lemon. And since the Turks do nothing in moderation, it should come as no surprise that the Turks are among the greatest tea quaffers in the world, second only to India. They do add sugar to their tea, which to me seems less about taste and more about fortifying and amplifying the effects of the caffeine–a supercharged shot. While Turks are more libertine than their Arab neighbors and will drink alcohol, tea remains the beverage of convivial companionship and hospitality. And so, this tea is served continuously and caffeinated, strong and sweet.

Everything about this tea, from its preparation to its presentation is uniquely Turkish. This is nationalism in a cup, in the same way America has its Coke, the Turks have their tea.

Turkish tea is a black tea. It has been consumed since the times of the Sultan, and Ottoman Empire. It is rare to see a Turk in a cafe without the tea standing guard over his plate. The tea is prepared in a double boiler pot. The top pot has the loose tea, which is scalded with hot water, and left to sit all day. The bottom pot has boiling water on reserve. When pouring, the Turks draw off the “strong brew” off the top pot, and dilute the beverage to the taste of the customer with the bottom pot’s clear water. And, as a test of manliness or perhaps courage, the Turks drink their tea very strong and in very small, hot glasses without a handle.

First-time tourists to Turkey will have tea thrust upon them at every turn. Every cafe serves it all day long. Young boys make some extra money running tea from the local grocer down back alleys where Turks may be having as siesta (again, western looking), playing a pick-up game of backgammon. They’ll fetch the tea for you as well. However, most tourists will be served some instant variety, especially in the bazaars, where merchants will ply you with instant apple or herbal teas while they charm, encourage, and shame you into buying that extra rug or bric-a-brac for the house. No Turk would ever drink an instant apple tea–a hot Kool-aid lacking everything that the Turks seek in their high-octane beverage of choice.

The tea grows along the Black Sea. For the beginner and foreigner, the standard tea is Rize (REE-zay) Chai (they use the Indian word), from the Rize region. When I purchased my first pound of tea from the local grocer near my Istanbul holiday apartment, the owner had many varieties of tea behind the counter–Filiz, Cicigi, Altinbas, and so on. Wanting to drink what the locals drink, I ask what we should get.

“Merhaba!” (Hello!)

“Merhaba, Efendim! Hoshgeldiniz!” (Hello, Dear Sir! Glad you are here!”)

“Hoshbulduk!” (“Glad to be anywhere!”)

“Chai var muh, lutfen?” (Where’s the tea, please?)

“Chai? Filiz, Cicigi, Altinbas….”

At this point, the owner of the bokol (the tiny, locally-owned grocer) rambled beyond the scope of my Berlitz phrasebook. Time to turn it over to my travel buddy, who’s fluency in Turkish would carry me to my goal.

What about Rize? (Rize, again, being the tea with training wheels)

“I am from Rize, but I don’t drink Rize, I drink Filiz!”

” Chok Tessekur Ederim, Iyi Gunler!” (Thank you very much, have a good day!)

What is the difference? To a newbie, I couldn’t tell. However, as my tea palate has grown over the years, the Filiz offers a slightly smoother brew. In fact, the variations simply refer to tea growing regions within Rize. Perhaps the soil and air are just slightly different in Filiz. All Turkish tea offers a very slight floral flavor that rises above what might otherwise be politely called a “high-end Lipton.”

Making my own in the apartment, with the double-boiler, I find those little tea glasses. The tulip glass honors the Sultan Ahmed III, the “tulip” Sultan, who loved the flower so much that he adorned the city parks with it. Great mosques were bedecked in ceramic tiles painted with tulip themes during his reign. Since tulips do not have handles, neither do the glasses traditionally. (However, you can buy tulip cups with handles today). The Ottoman Turks were ahead of Riedel’s wine glasses and even brew masters with their pilsiners in crafting a fluted glass that would offer just the right amount of cooling with the right opening to amplify the bouquet of their favorite beverage.

Off to tourist locales, we stop in Ortakoy, where a large square sits right on the edge of the Bosporus Strait underneath the Rococo-styled Ortakoy mosque, another blend of east and west. A ubiquitous cafe with sea-side views offers a chance to relax in the morning sun.

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The glass arrives in a steep red and white saucer, with an ample bowl of sugar cubes, and a rather tiny silver spoon aside the glass.  I like mine chok sekerli (very sweet). In goes the cube, rapidly deteriorating in the piping hot crucible of tea. The spoon is for turning the tulip glass into a centrifuge, spinning the granules through the tea before the sip. The cup is raised with just the tips of the fingers–to much finger pad on the glass will leave a burn mark. The sip is slurped a bit–the air cooling the tea before it hits the tongue.

A blurted utterance, not an “Oww!” but an “Oooh.” I surprised myself.

Looking up from the tea, still spinning a little in the glass, the vista changes. And looking out over the Bosporus, with the minarets of Istanbul piercing the sky, the domes of innumerable mosques rounding out the horizon line, the chatter of seagulls interrupted by a thousand muezzins calling the faithful to prayer, you realize that you are as far from home as you can be, and yet, are comforted by a new, proud, and slightly hyperactive friend.

Turkish Tea Photo credit: Carlo Rainone / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Ortakoy Photo credit: Dietmar Giljohann / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Post-Script: Any vacation will leave the traveler changed for the better.  New ways are learned while on vacation. And the traveler should take something back home from the experience and make it part of daily life. Those rituals can make for a mini-vacation right at home. For me, I can escape to Istanbul anytime, with Turkish tea at home. Of course the experience will not be identical to the trip, but I find a cup or two or five of the tea does change my mood, leaving me literally warmed over with nostalgia.

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Photo credit: iriskh / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

(NB–The Turkish is not the exact transliteration, I tried to add some Anglicized syllables to help the dear reader)

Chowdah, Coast to Coast

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New England Clam Chowder was noticeably absent from my Midwestern childhood. After all, the nearest clams to the Midwest that were not shipped or flown in were found in nature, at least 600 miles away. The Midwest is corn country. We have fresh corn. If we eat chowder, it is made of corn. And that chowder is yellow. This is hardly what the Puritans had in mind with their creamy masterpiece.

If you really wanted clam chowder in fly-over country (or as we called it, the Mid-Best), you could try the canned variety. The tinny, brackish bowl of grey with chewing gum bits and perplexingly geometric potatoes was hardly a substitute for the real thing. You can only imagine the true chowder’s revelatory impact on the tongue of the innocent Midwesterner–a cream-based, salty, tender, vibrant, rich restorative. It was ecstasy–as in the manner of St. Theresa.

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The chowder purists of New England, like their Puritanical ancestors, insist upon a brief list of ingredients in their “chowdah”–clams, stock, cream, onions, and potatoes. The ecstasy was not included nor probably appreciated. One can almost imagine Sam Adams himself declaring “A plain soup, for a plain people.”

Legal Seafoods, a Boston-based restaurant that in recent years has expanded along the East Coast, makes the definitive New England Clam Chowder. A family business now in its third generation, Legal strives to support local fisheries and fisherman in their operation, often supporting sustainable fishing efforts. Their flagship clam chowder has been served at presidential inaugurations since the 1980’s. They have expanded over the years to a behemoth 30+ locations, but it is one of the few chains I can happily support.

Legal doesn’t mess with success. They use quality ingredients that make this New England Clam Chowder tops for me. In the words of David Chase, voiced by his character Uncle “Junior” Soprano, this soup “comes heavy, or not at all.” Cream is part of the base, and if you are a 2% milk person, you are going to notice the milk fat immediately. Then you are going to wonder why you have denied yourself cream your whole life. Add in butter, onions sauteed in salt pork fat, clam juice simmered with garlic, potatoes cubed, and toothsome fleshy Littleneck clams with a hit of black pepper and oyster crackers adrift in the cup, and you have what I think is a perfect chowder. Legal offers a light version to satisfy the American obsession with no-flavor, non-fat cuisine. It is fine if you are into that self-flagellation. (Same goes for pointless light beer, I suppose. Someone has to eat and drink it. And that someone is not me.)

There are other claimants to the chowder throne, even within New England. They are the Voldemort’s of chowder–the red variations of Rhode Island and Manhattan. They are not the inspiration for this essay. So perplexing is the tomato and broth based chowder that certainly it is this reason–and not religious conviction–that the pilgrims told Roger Williams to get out of the settlement and go found Rhode Island, taking his septic, red brine with him. Maine in fact banned the inclusion of tomato in clam chowder (can a state actually do that?) in the 1840’s to prevent its return to the land of cream-based chowder. But by then, New Englanders were off to settle America, and new immigrants to the East Coast would follow them.

No traveler is left unchanged by their travel. And clam chowder is no exception. As the settler’s spirit moved across the American frontier, taking the memories of their sea breeze and soup with them, the chowder was transfigured by the American Experience. By the time the settlers and immigrants got to the ends of America, to the place where Lewis and Clark saw the Pacific for the first time–the Pacific Northwest and her Puget Sound–the settler’s palate had gathered up the flavors of the the heartland, the terrior that includes aromatic veggies and bacon.

One of those immigrants to the Pacific Northwest was Ivar Haglund. Old Iver was a folk singer and an adventurer in the spirit of Mark Twain. Entrepreneurial, he founded an tourist trap aquarium on Elliott Bay on the Seattle waterfront. However, by the 1940’s, his seafood stand was doing better business, and he focused his efforts on his restaurant, Ivar’s Acres of Clams, with outlandish and pun-riddled slogans (“Keep Clam and Carry On!) and encouraged locals to engorge lazy seagulls with his french fries off of Pier 54.

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The clam chowder of the Pacific Northwest doesn’t really have an official name. I have seen it as “Ivar’s Puget Sound Clam Chowder,” “Northwest Clam Chowder,” “Seattle Clam Chowder,” and so on. How Pacific of the west coast, so laid-back, so unassuming, that they can’t be bothered to give this variation an official handle. What I have found consistently in the Pac-Northwest varieties is a more pronounced use of celery, onions (sometimes green onions) and smokey bacon added into the traditional mix of New England ingredients. What you end up with, is a wholly unique flavor adapted to the overcast, cool and calm Pacific coast.

Ivar’s seems to be available day-long–from the early hours on the morning ferry boat ride to the Olympic Peninsula to the late-night line to ward off an impending hangover.

Those varieties of the clam chowder, the foundational New England Clam Chowder and her cross-continental cousin in the Pacific Northwest, accomplish the task for their climate. They provide the weary with a cauldron of dense warmth that will reach the coldest bone. As for this traveler, I seek out a reunion with a cup or bowl of the stuff often. It is the first order of business when arriving in Boston or Seattle, and when I depart, I think longingly toward the next encounter with this American classic, in its rightful setting–whether in the east or the west.

Legal’s Chowdah Photo credit: Jack Amick / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Ivar’s Chowder  Photo credit: I am Jeffrey / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Ivar’s Seagulls Photo credit: Laurent Bugnion / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SASt.

Teresa’s Ecstasy Photo credit: profzucker / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Post-Script: Ivar’s Acres of Clams, his restaurant, takes its name from the folk song, “The Old Settler’s Song.” Ivar surely could have played the tune on command:

(This tune instantly transports me to the Puget Sound, leaving that spinal chill, and a slight tear in my eyes for one of my favorite places in the world.)

Sequestered in Portman’s Atlanta

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By population alone, Atlanta has to be considered a capital of the south. It is a regional hub, like New England’s Boston, the Pacific Northwest’s Seattle, the Midwest’s Chicago, and the Rocky’s Denver. Atlanta’s place in the American pantheon of first cities rests on two main pillars. First, the immense Hartfield-Jackson Airport brings in air traffic and gives ATL the capacity to handle major events–like the 1996 Olympics. Dallas built their airport with the same idea in mind, and Chicago’s lifeblood in the conference business rests on its twin airports–Midway and O’Hare.

The other major pillar is the conference capacity of the city. Atlanta invested in its Peachtree Center in the 1970’s as the core of its conference culture and a beachhead for a new, un-blighted downtown. The problem with the idea of the “conference destination”–a facility attached to major hotels in very close proximity–is that in the end, the charm of the particular destination is replaced with the ubiquitous marquees of Marriott, Westin, Hyatt and Sheraton.

Peachtree Center is a relic of a different decade–the 1980’s and its business largesse. This era of hotel architecture was commanded by John Portman, Jr.

Portman was a master of designing hotels and buildings that turned their backs on the cities in which they resided, and looked inwardly for separation from the local masses. Corporations were looking for a safe, neutral and clean place to conduct business, and in the 70’s and 80’s, many downtown areas in the major cities were decaying from crime and neglect. Portman designed futuristic looking interior spaces–immense hotel atria, pedestrian bridges above the dark sidewalks of the urban poor and tunnels to the underground, and antiseptic food courts and common spaces.  These spaces are designed to create awe. Their immense size diminishes a human’s sense of scale. Portman did not originate the concept of architecture as a means to diminish the human scale. Cathedral architecture accomplishes the same feat, as did the architecture of the Fascist period. Both worked, for good and evil, to create the impression that the church or state was more important that the individual. And likewise, Portman borrowed the scale of the Vatican’s St. Peter’s or Mussolini’s EUR district to achieve a similar effect. He, like Speer, saw art in his architecture. However, like Pope Julius II and his St. Peter’s Basilica, the patron of Portman’s projects saw a new vocabulary for the 1980’s corporate culture.

The style offered an alternative to failed urban renewal programs in the cities. Portman created an interior corporate universe that didn’t require much interaction with the unique cities in which he developed.

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Detroit’s Renaissance Center, a cloistered hotel and conference center that also calls GM its corporate home.

Examples of this oeuvre abound in the US–the Detroit Renaissance Center that is segregated from blighted Detroit, the “town square”  at the New York Marriott Marquis on the 8th floor well above Times Square, and in my latest excursion, the Atlanta Marquis Marriott in downtown Atlanta.

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With the Atlanta Marquis, Portman achieved his magnum opus–an interior atrium reaching 48 stories in height, creating a surreal interior void reminiscent of the rib cage of a great leviathan. This space, separate from the streets of Atlanta would remain the largest interior space until the nouveau-riche Emirs built the Burj al-Arab in Dubai in 1999.

Experiencing a Portman building for the first time is of course, a unique experience. I was not immune from riding the glass elevators from the very top of the building right to the very basement without a sense of awe. However, the future as envisioned in the 1980’s doesn’t age well–like watching sci-fi flims that lack a touch screen panel or Bluetooth communicator. Sometimes the futurists just miss.

But once the initial awe faded, several ideas crossed my post-modern mind. Consider the incredible waste of interior space  Certainly the vast atrium could have held more room space, or made for a smaller downtown footprint. And how much does it cost to air condition a 48-story void in Hotlanta in August? This sort of building has acquiesced to the energy costs of the 21st Century and LEED-certified construction. It is no coincidence that it is the decadent oil Arabs who now build in the extravagant new-to-money ways that Americans did in the 1980’s. Oil-rich Dubai is the heir to oil-rich Dallas.

Americans have grown up a little, and are now seeking the best of what locals do in food, entertainment and culture. Value is placed on the small, unique and rare. When Portman built his New York model, Times Square was a seedy, blighted core. Portman made a bet in his monumental architecture that the street level was dead. Twenty years later, Times Square and the downtown’s of many US cities are on a comeback based on the desire and marketability of the locavore seeking quality over quantity. Those vast sequestered worlds are the useful ruins of a decadent decade that has moved into history. They are in a way, a living museum of the 1980’s.

Other charming areas of Atlanta are flourishing around that notion of embracing the street level. Midtown and Buckhead to the north are enjoying an urban renaissance led by the legions of twenty-somethings that are establishing a foodie and hipster territory inside of the city. Sadly, the downtown core remains burdened under the weight of its massive hotels. Peachtree offers what everytown USA offers the weary traveler–a Hooters or TGI Fridays, the occasion hotel lobby restaurant masquerading as haute-cuisine, and new immigrants filling the niches with Chinese and Indian cuisine fast food. A few blocks over, the tourist can discover the Centennial Olympic Park, the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca Cola, as well as the home of CNN. All is not lost in Peachtree, but the architecture of the past will do its best to keep the traveler locked up among towering, 40+ story sentinels connected by footbridges over a sad downtown, cement core.

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Post-Script: As a rule, dear Reader, poke your head into hotels when you travel. If you walk confidently through the lobby, you can find a nice public bathroom, usually. Also, some hotels, like the Atlanta Marquis are worth a look.

Peachtree Skybridge Photo credit: hoyasmeg / Foter.com / CC BY

Atlanta Marquis Marriott Interior Photo credit: mhaithaca / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

and  docoverachiever / Foter.com / CC BY

Detroit Photo credit: memories_by_mike / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

A Failure in Billings

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Montana was supposed to offer everything that the urban megalopolis east coast was not—big sky and big country, cowboys and cattle. Montana is the fourth largest state in the union, but has a population of just over a million. Montana ranks 48th in population density. This was a state that very recently had a speed limit of “prudent” to allow for more speedy travel between the state’s few populated areas—Missoula, Billings, and Helena.

Billings is the largest city in Montana, but small by comparison, perhaps 100 thousand people with a modest state university in town. Think of a “county seat”—the city in a small county that houses the county courthouse, a smattering of mom and pop shops, and the requisite Anytown, America row of fast food, big box stores and gas pumps. The state was hosting my work team for a meeting of state and county officials and decided to keep things on very low budget, renting out a Holiday Inn on the south side of town–the Anytown–for the event.

I had only been at this quasi-consulting gig for about six months, and Billings was the first of my “technical assistance” work “products” (oh, the banal language of government and corporate Newspeak) under our program. The goal was to fly in, help the state’s project team make a strategic plan worthy of the governor’s and legislature’s time, and get out of there. Despite that narrow mission, I was convinced that I would be able to try to find a bit of Billings’ charm and explore the environs. After all, this was Big Sky country. Beyond the buttes lie the Beartooth Mountain range, and Yellowstone to the south. To the southeast was Cody, the site of Custer’s Last Stand. I debated renting a car for a little excursion on my own time, but my team lead didn’t seem interested, or perhaps felt that any side trip would be an abuse of company time.

Company time, what a phrase. In our tech-heavy world, the concept of company time has become muddled. Once upon a time, you clocked in, you clocked out and you went home. Companies assign laptops and cell phones in the name of productivity, but in fact, the gadgets are a leash. They put the worker on call, 24/7. In my estimation, my office is in my pocket now. If I take a phone call while overlooking the Battle of Little Bighorn or even in my hotel bathtub that is my prerogative.

When I first started posting some photos from my work travels on facebook, my high school nemesis, my “Lex Luthor,” commented that my side-trips are a violation of “portal to portal” rules. In labor law, portal to portal laws try to protect the employer from time theft and liability. For example, if an employee takes a smoke break, is that his time or the company’s time? If an employee breaks his leg on the way to work, can the employee claim workman’s compensation? In my case, if your employer is sending you on work travel, do they own your time, from wheels up to your return to home?

The last case is not so clear cut. An employer that sends you on the road needs to care for your basic needs. You get a good flight, taxi, hotel, and reimbursement for food. I can’t pack my lunch and dinner for travel, nor can I see my family at the end of the work day. My work day has to end at some point, and the time thereafter, whether on travel or not, is my own. Some employers might have a policy describing in detail what time they own when you are on business travel. Mine did not. The inference was, we worked a 35 hour work week, whether at home or on travel. In those moments, off the clock, I maximize the experience that has been presented before me—a travel opportunity. And every town has something worth experiencing, from Boston to yes, even Billings.

Or so I thought. We land at Billings airport, a solitary terminal with a high school chow line in lieu of McDonalds and Starbucks.  The airport was situated on a butte—a rather high hill in the Piedmont of the mountain ranges to the west and east. After a considerable wait, a cab, perhaps the only cab in Billings, shuttled us to the Holiday Inn.

Being a city slicker, I expected a few more sidewalks in Billings, but they were scarce. This was a driving town, not a walking town it seemed. Hungry, and looking for a local flavor, I couldn’t find anything that did seem like goop. My colleague, whom I’ll call Tex, eyeballing for similar discriminating options, looked over at me in the cab with a shared, mutual woe.

“There’s a Cracker Barrel,” Tex said despairingly.

“Seriously, a Cracker Barrel? Is that it?”

After weighing our options with the hotel staff, we ambled across the concrete expanse for the Cracker Barrel. Billings sits in a bowl of sorts, surrounded by the buttes on all sides, with high and defiant chain restaurant signs puncturing the Big Sky.

A chain restaurant can be an indulgence from time to time. After all, the whole reason that chains even exist is to offer the traveler a familiar flavor while on the road. This used to be touted as a good thing, but I could never see the value or comfort in eating the same burger in every town in America. Certainly there are local pleasures to be had, but not at this moment. Given how long we waited for our initial cab from the airport, necessity won over peculiarity.

The weather was gloomy, bone chilling cold. I opted for the chicken and dumplings, hoping for some comfort. The waitress brought out the plate, and there before me was what I first suspected to be avant-garde art. White chicken breast, atop a mound of bleached white flour dumplings with a white gravy. On a white plate. This was minimalist. Performance Art. I am not sure that Warhol could top the banality. A sprig of parsley would have been too liberal, too effete for this plate. However, salt is white, and the dish sorely required it. I did upset the balance by adding black pepper, but this only tricked my vision into thinking I was seeing in black and white. The dish was perhaps the most unappetizing thing to behold after a five-hour flight, but for a soul running only on coffee fumes, the meal would do.

Tex didn’t fare much better, his steak a grisly grey. Tex is more of an Austin Texan rather than an Amarillo Texan. Whole Foods over Wal-Mart.  I knew Tex wasn’t taking this well. Facing days of similar rubbery fare at the Holiday Inn, we had to come up with some other strategy, and to salvage Billings from the annals of travel perdition.

We asked the hotel desk where the best restaurant in Billings could be found. Bringing our east coast swagger and high cost of living into this very remotest of places, we figured we could swing the Billings high life.

Tex wasted no time here. “The Rex? Book it. For tomorrow evening.”

Of course, the restaurant was not in such demand to require a reservation—our party had the run of the place. Now, here was a menu that I thought Big Sky worthy and challenged the east coast pocketbook. Smoked BBQ,  certified Angus, Big Sky Brewery microbeer–all for about $40 a head.

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Billings did let up some of its charm, but I had to hunt for it. The Holiday Inn did have a shuttle evidently, though the driver was not supposed to make runs into town, only the airport. He offered, and we tipped happily. (Travel note—hotel shuttle drivers will do that sort of thing if they are not too backed up with pick-ups. Make the tip worth their while). I asked the shuttle driver to drop me downtown, as I had to find a good coffee before my head exploded. I stumbled over the Rock Creek Coffee Roasters, a modest independent roaster in the “downtown.”  I have more often than not had great coffee at independent coffee shops, especially those that are roasting in small batches. Most coffee-addled humans will reach for the familiarity of the Green Mermaid’s burnt brews, myself included. Another chain offering universal comfort to the travel weary. If you do drink that much coffee, especially the ‘bucky’s variety, you will instantly notice the enlightened state of your taste buds as you imbibe an small batch, medium roast espresso. It is the difference between Franzia and Bourdeaux, or McDonand’s and caviar.

After coffee, I walked downtown, taking in the window shopping and poking my head into several Indian shops, where the proprietors sold hand-made jewelry, leather ware and baskets from off the reservation. As this would be the closest that I would get to the Little Bighorn, I took a look around. Indian crafts is tax-free in Montana, and that only encouraged my shopping, picking up some small baskets woven by the Crow tribe.

Indian baskets, good coffee, and the dinner at The Rex the night before, I was able to set some memories of the place before I was recalled to the “porthole” to finish my official business in Montana. Had I had a few more days, and a better start, I would have discovered the Yellowstone art gallery, the Montana and Yellowstone Valley Breweries, and a multitude of more local options in Montana’s first city. Instead, an early failure set the tone.

In the emergency management business, FEMA likes to take every crisis as a learning opportunity. Mistakes are evaluated, wounds opened and egos are bruised. FEMA will issue a “lessons learned” report, owning up to their mistakes and making plans for future disasters. In the case of Billings, the lessons learned are manifold:

  • Don’t judge any city by its “Anytown, USA” expanse of strip malls and McBurgerBell establishments–ask the locals what is good in town.
  • Rent a car–especially if there is no public transportation.
  • Don’t hesistate–if you have a moment on the trip, take it.
  • Do your homework before you travel—a Google search about the best local experience in your destination will save you from digesting a plate of white goop.

Photo credit: the@w00d / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Habemus Papam

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For only the third time in my life, and the second time in my living memory, the eyes of the Catholic world turn to Rome, where in an ancient tradition, the princes of the church–the Cardinals–will elect the next Vicar of Christ–the Catholic Pope.

For me, a collector of the eclectic, the Papal conclave that determines the successor to Peter is a fascinating institution. Many pundits and observers have sounded off on the minutiae of the ritual–the decision made below Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and before his version of the Last Judgement, the symbolic burning of unsuccessful ballots in a special oven, the white smoke of decision vs. the black smoke of stalemate wafting above St. Peter’s square, the “papabile” or “popeable” among the cardinals, the palace intrigue of Vatican insiders vs. cardinals from outside of Rome, and so on.

The conclave provides an opportunity to draw a comparison that I haven’t read much about–the parliamentary procedure of the conclave and its place in the history of deliberative, electoral colleges. Yes, that’s right. The medieval practice of papal selection is at its core, an electoral college, akin to the modern US Electoral College system that elects the President of the United States.

The idea of picking a guy who picks a guy to be your leader is very old. The Germans used their regional princes to elect the Holy Roman Emperor for a thousand years. The most famous of those Electors, the Elector of Hanover, awoke in 1714 to find himself next in line to the throne of England, when Queen Anne died. Some historians trace this idea, of some spokesperson for each tribe back to the Visigoths and Ostrogoths of the ancient Roman frontiers.

The pope has been selected in the same manner since the 1060’s–about the same time the Holy Roman Empire was at its apex in the “electoral college” department. Prior to this, the pope was selected, and submitted to the approval of the masses in Rome. This tradition persists, in the declaration to the gathered faithful in St. Peter’s square to the ringing of bells and in the words–Habemus Papam. We have a Pope. Of course, the decision is a fait accompli before the new pope appears from the papal apartment balcony.

You can almost imagine what it might be like if the crowd could still “advise and consent” to the new pope….

“The crowd has grown since the white smoke appeared from the chimney, the billows lifting toward the heavens, the bells ringing, the announcement ‘Habemus Papam!’ Hundreds of thousands are in the streets, pilgrims from every corner of the globe. Here he comes, we think. There is some commotion on the balcony. It’s….It’s….Aw Shucks. The multitudes groan in disappointment. They picked an American, and he will go by the papal name, Bubba the First. The people declaim him, they shout him down. They have rejected Bubba, his reign–mere minutes!”

In fact, one can imagine the bias and passionate Italian majority, who take a significant siesta during the Sede Vacante period, would groan a little. Italians have a sort of expectation that the Pope should be Italian. After all, for 600 years this was the case until the Pole, Karol Wojtyla, became John Paul II.

Ostensibly, the cardinals as electors speak for their respective diocese. Unlike the selection of the Holy Roman Emperor, the faithful believe the will of God influences the cardinals in the selection of the next pope.

Across the pond, Americans went through their conclave of a kind in 2013. The presidential election in November, as most Americans know, tallies the individual votes of citizens in their respective states to determine how that state’s electors–individuals chosen by their state legislatures–will vote for president. The electors meet after the November election (officially the second Wednesday in the month of December) to sign the state’s official ballot as elector representing one of the state’s electoral votes. Even then, the election is not over. The president is not officially elected until January 6. The certified state ballot is sent to the Congress, where in a joint session, the Congress hears each states vote and accedes to the result.

Those state electors are relatively unknown to the public. A state’s electors–the people who cast the vote on behalf of the masses–can be as varied as favorite sons, power brokers, donors and the party faithful. They are in fact selected by the political parties. The winning party’s slate gets to certify the state ballot.

The electors are to vote the will of the citizens in their state, but on a rare occasion, an elector may vote for another candidate in protest. Those curmudgeons are known–in irony for this post–as a faithless elector.  In the past three examples of faithless electors, two were faithless by mistake. An elector in 1988 accidentally reversed the Dukakis/Bentsen ticket with their vote, affording Lloyd Bentsen a lone electoral vote for president. In 2004, John Edwards received an electoral vote from someone from Minnesota. The faithless elector remains unknown to this day, as the state electors file one ballot for their state, with each elector voting anonymously.

The American Electoral College is elitist by design, as the early founders of the country did not trust the mob–or in more polite terms–the public. They removed the election of the president from direct vote to a vanguard selected on their behalf. Every election cycle, the American public mulls why the country must be bound by a practice that has colonial, if not medieval roots. Two of the most powerful jobs in the world–the American presidency and the Catholic Pope–are filled indirectly.

This brings us back to the conclave. What would a direct election of the Pope look like? Certainly, if based solely on population, the next pope should hail from Latin America and Africa, and not Europe and North America. If the Catholics held a global vote, would the flock select a non-European outright? Would they select a reformer more liberal minded than the conservative Vatican bureaucracy would prefer?

We will never know. In fact, we really will never know what calculus goes into selecting the next pope. But we do know that old traditions die hard, and the idea of some guys voting for some guy on your behalf has very deep roots.

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Benedict XVI Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

College of Cardinals Photo Credit:  Sergey Gabdurakhmanov / Foter.com / CC BY

Brewing in Sin

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There are only three reasons to be in Vegas in August. First, you are an addict. Doesn’t matter what kind of addict–showgirls, gambling, or Bellagio fountains–you will go to Vegas on Easter Sunday or your Mom’s funeral day.  Second, you work there. Third, you are on business travel.

Conference goers and conventioneers host big meetings in the hotel industry’s off-season. When I travel for business, I do get to see the great cities of America, but at the worst possible times of year. Winter in Boston, Minneapolis and Chicago. Summer in Georgia and Phoenix. And of course, Vegas in August. I suppose the benefits are mutually assured–the hotel can fill its rooms in the off-season, the conference organizers can be assured that no one will tour the host city in foul weather. Of course, Vegas can squelch that attempt at putting conference goers on lock down. Air conditioning does wonders to temper the desert. Sure, walking the Strip in the stale 103-degree heat is akin to hiking in a dry sauna, but it is a pain the traveler will endure for the pleasure at the end.

For me, that pleasure awaited in a microbrewery. The Sin City Brewery is a little oasis off the Strip, making their own oat sodas since 2003. Founded by the former brew master for national chain Gordon Biersh, I knew that Sin City was going to serve up decent microbrew to stave off my impending hyperthermia. The brewery crafts their ales after the medieval Bavarian purity laws, or the  “Reinheitsgebot.” The Bavarians insisted that beer be made from nothing more than water, barley, and hops–none of which can really be found in the Nevada desert. You can do a lot with those three ingredients. The brewing is all in the timing. A litter more boiling here, a little more fermenting there can add real complexity to the brew. The longer the hops are in, the more savory and bubbly– or “hoppy”–the beer.

Given the time I had in-between conference meetings, I opted for their outpost in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood on the Strip. Planet Hollywood has perhaps seen better days as a casino, looking a bit dated compared to the newest MGM and Wynn properties.  The brewery was a bit of a trek through the renovations at the former Aladdin Casino–an erzatz indoor Marrakech with the paint peeling from the faux minarets. I arrive at my oasis, and I realize that I made a strategic blunder. This is a kiosk, a mere bar stall in a mall corridor, and I came on an empty stomach, unfortified to take the punishment that might come with sampling their entire catalog.

What follows, dear reader, should be taken with the following in mind: Your author had an empty stomach, hiked half the length of the Strip in 103-degree heat, and would soon be under the influence of Sin City’s handcrafted suds.

Since returning to the desert blast outside offered the least appeal, I settled in at the bar, and ordered up the Sin City Weisse. Hefewisen–a beer based on a wheat mash–is my particular favorite, like drinking a loaf of yeasty bread straight from a German “Bäckerei.” The bartender, a young women pierced in places I didn’t know could be pierced, and her corpus templum festooned in really amazing ink, kept the beers coming.

I began to notice that I was the only person at this bar in “tourist/conference attendee gear”–khakis and polo shirt. A seasoned sun-worshiping Mama–mid 50’s–sat at the bar with a beau who looked very much like Krist Novaselic (from the band Nirvana).  The incarnation of Egon Spangler, in a Hawaiian shirt, also sat at the bar, requisite desert-bronzed skin, chatting up Krist and the Mama. Then the last guy, the kind of beady-eyed sort you avoid at bars, rounded out this particular band of brew fans.

The bartender leaned over to give Krist a kiss. Turns out she is Krist’s girlfriend. The Mama laughs, telling the bartender that if she didn’t like Krist as much as she does, she’d smack the guy for hitting on her daughter. Egon laughs, then notices that I am the only tourist at the bar.

“So, I take it this is a local’s bar?” I ask Egon.

“Sure thing, we are here every day. Come over here, take a seat. The view is better.” he says.

I am invited into this inner circle. I take a seat between Egon and Krist, with the beady-eyed guy at the end. Looking down the dilapidated Aladdin’s corridor, I ask Egon what is so special about the view.

“You are looking up? Look straight ahead.” he chuckles.

A pair of young women, with the kind of shorts that might make a hooker blush, badonkadonked down the hall.

“Of course,” I blushed, “Thanks for the change in perspective. So, what’s your story?”

Turns out Egon is a computer guy. He moved his company from the increasingly tax-happy California to Nevada three years ago. He works from home, is a vegetarian, and loves this little local’s pub. Krist is like many aspiring aspirants in Vegas. He’s worked at half of the big casinos–craps, black jack, bouncer–but lately has been hocking herbal supplements from his Jansport backpack. As I sit there, working my way through the brew, I decided that dinner was worth skipping, as talking with this life-loving bunch was far more satisfying than any Vegas food-trough buffet would be.

When I think of Vegas, I tend to be cynical. I think of the nameless, faceless corporate monstrosities of the Strip–monuments to Baal–where clearly the house always wins. I thought that Vegas was designed to extract every last dollar from you, and perhaps your soul. What I found, in a random beer stall was some of the real people of Vegas–people who are free-spirited and living life on their own terms. In this vast cultural wasteland, sincerity blooms.

The late afternoon moved into evening, with your typical yarns, big-fish stories and hyperbole. Other locals would stop in for a quick pint, venting about their crappy day dealing with demanding tourists at the tables.  The panel takes in their comrades, offers them solace, and they return to the company store, renewed.

At one of the many pauses in conversation over those hours, Egon offered, “We are here every weekday, you should come back here tomorrow.”

Was this proof of my acceptance into the in-group?

“As much as I’d love that, my flight leaves tomorrow morning.”

“Next time then!”

Egon took his leave, as did Krist and the Mama, but the beady-eyed guy stepped in pretty quickly.

“Next one’s on me.” he offered.

“What’s one more, after five already?” I returned.

Beady-eyes overheard me telling Egon about my line of work, the politicians I have known over the years, and what brought me to Vegas–a lecture spot at a public safety convention (just imagine that, 5000 cops, fire guys and EMTs. One city. Safety guys can throw down.) Beady-eyes satisfied for me the quintessential Las Vegan. A gun-toting libertarian, he claimed that he was a “certified” tax protestor–he hadn’t paid any taxes in a decade. Clearly cash games appeal to his sense of covert earnings. He sported a gold bracelet–the kind you either win in Texas Hold’em, or buy from a jeweler so you appear to be a winner at Texas Hold’em. He came to Vegas monthly from LA, where he was only one win away from buying his Rolex and retiring. He also claimed a black belt and a Harvard degree. Again, big fish stories and hyperbole, but the not pretty variety.

“So, single then?” I asked. At this point, I realized that I might need to slow down, as my hope of recalling this revelatory evening about the charm of Vegas might prove unreliable.

According to his manifesto, Beady doesn’t need women right now (need?), not until he wins big. He proceeded to unload every conspiracy theory of the modern political age–our Kenyan President, the merits of the gold standard, the tenants of Islam as best as one can understand with a half keg pumping through his system. Most establishments might show such a lively raconteur the door, but in Sin City, Beady is pretty vanilla.

Beady runs to the can, and the bartender takes advantage of his absence, hurrying over to me.

“Is he bothering you?” It was more of a declaration than a question.

“Bothering me? He’s picking up my tab!” I said.

I have sung for my dinner before, and saw no reason not to chirp away for another free beer.

“O-kay” she said, lingering between the syllables with that twenty-something sound of female disbelief. “That guy has been here ALL week. He has been annoying all of my regulars.”

Realizing that I had spent about five hours of my time at the bar, I not only missed any hope of a reasonable dinner, but some of my evening commitments. I had one last chance to see those Bellagio fountains before I had to get some sleep before my 6 AM flight. I bid Beady farewell. I looked over at the bartender, as she has been putting up with us for her entire shift, and mouthed an apology on Beady’s behalf. I left her a healthy tip when Beady’s attention was averted.

Photo credit: Brokentaco / Foter.com / CC BY