Texan Thermopylae

Leonidas

In 2006, a film adaptation of the ancient Spartan Battle of Thermopylae wowed the American movie-going crowd with its pornographic-like violence. The film, 300, introduced to the masses the story of King Leonidas and his paltry band of soldiers who met the Persian King Xerxes  and his force of 300,000 men on the battlefield. Of course, the film plays with history a bit, as Leonidas had ancillaries to his battalion of 300, raising his force to about 5,000 or so men. Nonetheless, the story is remembered for the immolation of Leonidas’ army–himself included in the melee. Xerxes showed no quarter, slaughtering all of the Spartans and would win the day. In fact, Xerxes would go on to conquer and hold much of Greece during his lifetime, only to abandon his campaign due to civil unrest in his capital. The Greeks were able to route the remnant Persian forces and win Greece for Grecians.

FalloftheAlamo

Santayana’s maxim (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’)  is made true by the retelling of the massacres of small bands of brothers against insurmountable odds. Not every outnumbered commander wins the day. And when it comes to the Alamo in San Antonio, Thermopylae is a mere skirmish compared to the those who, as the Daughters of the Republic of Texas say, immolated themselves in the name of Texas freedom. Texas settlers sought to break free from Mexican rule over what is now Southern Texas. Mexico was granted independence from Spain, but Texas was left as part of the newly independent Mexico. In late February of 1836, a small battalion of volunteers, led by William Travis and supported by James Bowie and Davy Crockett, defended the fortifications known as “the Alamo” from the 2000-strong Mexican Army led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The Texas defenders, at 189 volunteers, women and children, faced a well-organized force under Santa Anna. Retreating to the old mission chapel on the grounds of the Alamo, the Texans refused surrender. Santa Anna laid siege to the makeshift fort, and declared that no quarter would be given–everyone who fought against him would die.

The events ended as dramatically as Thermopylae, with the utter destruction of Travis, Bowie, Crockett and 189 others. Santa Anna would hold dominion over San Antonio for a few years, until his exhausted supply chains and distance from home led to his own defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto. Texas would briefly exist as its own, free nation, under constant harassment from Mexico. These skirmishes would continue until the Mexican-American War in 1846 that ended not only the Mexican claim over Texas, but the Republic of Texas itself–as it joined the US as a state.

Downtown San Antonio - November 2010

Like any monument, the Alamo seems smaller in person than on postcards. What is known as the Alamo started off as a house of peace. The modest stone mission chapel was once part of a grand compound where the Spanish missionaries hoped to convert the local Indian tribes to Catholicism. By 1790, the mission closed, and the stone chapel became first a hospital, then a military garrison for the settlement of San Antonio. The incursion of the Spanish padres into what would become Texas lay the foundation for this future battle, as the Spanish, through their mission work, established a colonial foothold in a region populated by migrating colonists from the British colonies and later, settlers from the United States of America.

Walking the grounds of the Alamo, I found myself in a constant cognitive dissonance. Here was a battlefield dressed in the vocabulary of the Spanish Catholic mission. The once prairie fields were full of manicured sod and parking lot cement. Signage and markers help to solemnize this place, asking the visitor for silence and respect. At the doorstep there is a brass bar, where legend says William Travis drew his “line in the sand” asking volunteers to give their lives for Texas independence. The prose of these historical markers uses turns of phrase such as “martyrdom” and “immolation” to describe the acts that happened on these “hallowed” grounds. Walking down the nave of the old chapel, with fieldstone floors polished and worn by millions of curious footsteps, I arrived at the back of the nave, in the old “choir” section of the chapel. It was here that the last of the Alamo defenders were slaughtered. One could easily be convinced that the dim, dank chill in the air is of death, indelibly stained on this place. It is of course more probable that the chill is from the piped in air conditioning. What caused this dissonance was not the tranquility that this shrine provided on a busy San Antonio day, but how something so sacred could be so profitable.

AlamoMemorial-5478

Looking at old photos of the compound, the Alamo was victim of a different Texas innovation–unbridled free marketeering. Within 30 years of the battle, and 20 years of the victory of the US over Mexico in the Mexican American War, the Alamo grounds became a commercial center. The old buildings were not set aside as a memorial, but were re purposed as a storehouse and retail establishment. While the chapel was left alone to ruin, the barracks and grounds were sold off to develop the new San Antonio. Hotels now stood sentinel where Davy Crockett and James Bowie once did. After 50 years of neglect and abuse, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas began to administer the grounds as a “shrine” to Texas independence. And even after that development, billboards, towering hotels and souvenir shops sit proximate to where Santa Anna’s army once camped. It is hard to take the Daughters seriously, not when so much of the Alamo story can be had so cheaply.

File:Hugo&Schmeltzer.jpg

While much of the site has been stripped of its old, commercial past, retail seems to be as indelible of a stain as death on this place. Upon exiting the chapel, into a modest side courtyard, the visitor passes through the gift shop before earning parole. The tourist can stock up on all kinds of memorabilia, from a coon-skin cap to a commemorative Bowie Knife to thimbles and pressed pennies. While these sort of souvenirs do keep museums afloat, there is something particularly cheap about a place of such sacrifice offering wares so close to where so many died so tragically. One can’t help wonder a hundred years hence if say, the World Trade Center memorial might look the same way, with ample gift shops alongside benedictions and bronze markers.

I breeze through the gift corner, wanting to re-capture my sense of poignancy about this place, a place that for a brief moment held the last gasp of people seeking to live a free life as they understood it. And like those much older Spartans sacrificed on the war altar, this overall battle in the annals of history is muted, meaningless even. There is no Republic of Texas, just like there is no Sparta. The vanity of nations can be fleeting, especially upon those who cling to that ideal so very closely against odds. We like to think that those sacrifices are not in vain. We like to ascribe timeless meaning to days like the Battle of the Alamo. But perhaps those days belong to only to those who lived them, and their time, and their nation as they knew it in that moment. All we have are lessons not to repeat, and the detritus of past events to remind us of those lessons.

Alamo Night (HDR)

Leonidas Photo Credit: Photo credit: Maurdyn / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Battle of the Alamo: Photo credit: Foter / Public domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FalloftheAlamo.jpg

Hugo Schmeltzer Photo: Public Domain/CC/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hugo%26Schmeltzer.jpg

Cradle of Liberty Photo credit: Loadmaster / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Alamo daytime Photo credit: nan palmero / Foter.com / CC BY

Alamo HDR Photo credit: Knowsphotos / Foter / CC BY-NC

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Delightful Wilmington Delaware?

Delaware-Greeting-Card-fr-001

When most people are asked to name all 50 US States from memory, there are always a few poor states that are left behind in the retelling. Most people know the states that have North or South in their names (Dakotas, Carolinas), the ones who share a name with a big college football team (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, Florida, ‘Bama, Missouri), the big states (California, Montana, Alaska) or even 12 of the 13 original English colonies. But it is that little first state in the Union, Delaware, that goes overlooked. After all it is but three counties, hiding on Maryland’s backside. Up until Joe Biden’s ascendency, no one knew anyone from Delaware even. As for pop culture, Delaware’s only recent claim to fame was Ed Norton’s implosion of Wilmington, home to the great American insurance industry, at the climax of the 90’s cult classic, Fight Club.

I didn’t find Wilmington to be worthy of implosion on my visit to America’s insurance and chemical capital. Rival states may seek such an implosion, as the key to Delaware’s survival has been to become a bit of a tax haven for corporate interests as well as offering tax-free shopping. Not every state could pull this off of course. as Delaware’s tiny footprint on the east coast allows for a better balance between its population and its corporate settlers. Delaware is a bit like the Switzerland of America in that respect–hands-off and regulation free.

Nestled on the Acela line on Amtrak, Wilmington is a modest stop along the American eastern seaboard, between Baltimore and Philadelphia. At a mere 70,000 people, Wilmington is Delaware’s largest city. Too small to be a Philly metropolis, and too big to be an unnoticed suburb to Baltimore, Wilmington is a bit of a Goldilocks. Culturally, the presence of Philly food (cheesesteaks, pretzels) served by polite people with Bawltimore accents (hon!) can be a bit disorienting.

Wilmington Station

I often wonder, when pundits gripe about politicians and their pork barrel spending, if they ever see the fruits of their own Senator’s labor. In DC, the debate seems abstract. But to visit far and away states and to stand in great buildings, upon mountaintops, and on bridges named for long-time pollcats is another matter. On the very day that my train pulled into Wilmington’s Amtrak station, Joe Biden was there to kick of the rehabilitation of the decrepit, Victorian age rusticle that was Wilmington Station into a gem of the Amtrak system. It of course, didn’t hurt that Biden’s long tenure in the Senate allowed him to move most of Amtrak’s operations to Delaware, and of course, to be honored by having the station he used to commute from Delaware to DC named in his honor.

V051310DL-0053

Politics aside, the station gives a glimpse of the golden age of US rail travel–an age that never ended in Europe, but was thoroughly demolished after World War II in the new, big, free, Buick-in-every-driveway America. Amtrak sometimes feels a bit like the worst of social democracy. The Germans keep a tidy, efficient system. Ours feels a bit like the thread attaching a morose American version of the Gulag Archipelago.

Once on the streets outside of the station, I began my walk up to my hotel. It was only a mile and a half, but the taxi drivers insisted it was safer to drive. Wilmington did have a reputation as a crime-ridden place, but in the years after 9-11, Wilmington pioneered the use of street cameras to deter and record crimes. I felt safe enough to make the sprint up to Rodney Square, where I was staying. Of course, upon arriving at my hotel I checked the stats. Wilmington remains one of the deadliest cities per capita in America, with 150 murders in a city of 70,000 in 2013. This might explain the absence of foot traffic I saw at noon, on a sunny day. How could it be, that in a town noted for being a corporate headquarters haven, could such crime exist? Perhaps it is because the great divide between financiers who live in the Brandywine Valley and commute into the tiny downtown enclave pretty much avoid the daily bustle of Wilmington.

Caesar Rodney

At the center of town is Rodney Square; its centerpiece is an equestrian statue of Delaware’s founding father, Caesar Rodney (who is also featured on the obverse of Delaware’s contribution to the US Quarter series). Only known to A students of high school history, Rodney cast Delaware’s vote for independence, after making a midnight dash by horseback from Dover to Philadelphia.

Hotel DuPont lobby, Wilmington, Delaware

If staying in Wilmington, it doesn’t get much better than the Hotel DuPont, built by scions of the great American chemical manufacturer. Modeled to resemble a French chateau, the lobby’s ancient wood coiffured ceiling is worth a look, as artificial Honeysuckle aromatics are pumped into the lobby to create that calming effect.

Wilmington, and most of Delaware, was founded not by Brits (as in Pennsylvania), Catholics (as in Maryland) or the Dutch (as in New York). Swedes first Steeple for Webemigrated to this corner of America in 1654. The settlement of “New Sweden” was short-lived, as the few Swedes who made the trek were quickly subjugated by Peter Stuyvesant’s New Amsterdam (which was in turn, sold off to the British). Aside from the Swedish flag serving as a stand in for the city’s banner, the only other evidence of this early heritage is by way of the Christina River–named for Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689).

Other colonial roots, of later settlers include one of the fee strongholds of the Swedenborgian Church, located a few blocks from Wilmington’s downtown core. The Swedenborgians were a schismatic sect of Christianity, founded by the Swedish scientist Emmanuel Swedenborg in the 1750’s. The main tenants of his teaching was vegetarianism, a rejection of the Trinity, and the belief that he witnessed the Last Judgement in 1757, visited Heaven and Hell, and wrote treatises to guide his followers through a new, uncharted age.  After his death, devotees in England expanded his teachings into a new sect. A mere 10,000 worldwide members keep the church alive today in pockets of America, such as Newton, Massachusetts and Wilmington. It not a growing church but a bit of an insular sect–its most famous members being the Gyllenhaal actors.  The church’s decor is English Gothic, matching the period in which the church was founded by English followers of Swedenborg. The old church is still attended by those few members, who likely commute into Wilmington to attend church before scurrying back to their suburbs.

Feeling a certain need to get back onto the main drag myself, back in view of the cameras, I headed toward the “Riverfront” park along the Christina River. The walk terminates at a renovated warehouse-turned-boutique mall. I looked for what the locals seemed to eat. Again, being wedged between Philly and Baltimore left bizarre options. Settling for the local Dogfish Head ales, made in Delaware, I chose the Philly pretzel–that smushed, soft variety, as a pairing.

Philly Pretzels

Wilmington, like Charlotte, North Carolina and Hartford, Connecticut, presents a business traveler with a real challenge. It is very easy to miss the charm of the city, as so much of it has been rendered charmless by the presence of corporate glass office buildings and a foreboding citizenry under the watchful and odious eye of Big Brother. That is one take of Wilmington, and ostensibly the whole of Delaware. Wilmington can come off as the dour old maiden aunt to the counter-cultural Newark and Rehobeth Beach that offer something more exciting for the young. The town seems to be one best taken on foot, and at least in my experience, I didn’t find myself dodging bullets. What lies beneath is a quixotic heritage, a cultural blend of the best of Philly and the kindness of Baltimore with nodding references to its Swedish past and Biden-filled present. And those things do make this corner of tax-free Delaware, well, delightful.

Welcome to Wilmington: Source–http://www.theguardian.com/business/2009/apr/10/tax-havens-blacklist-us-delaware

Joseph R. Biden Jr. Wilmington Station Photo credit: RW Sinclair / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Crazy Uncle Joe Photo credit: The White House / Foter.com

Hotel DuPont Photo credit: Boston Public Library / Foter.com / CC BY

Rodney Monument Photo credit: ChrisHConnelly / Foter.com / CC BY

Philly Pretzel Photo credit: slgckgc / Foter.com / CC BY

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day Historic Marker

Received wisdom is a tricky thing. Most folks will meander through life rarely bothering to ask why things are the way they are. This is especially true of holidays on the calendar. Over the years, I have tired of a lot of those “received” holidays–those days reserved by tradition or federal law. When I think of the holidays set aside as “federal holidays,” the array does seem like a decision made by committee. Consider that we celebrate Columbus Day, honoring a man that was truly vile and was probably a pirating genocide artist. But Columbus was Italian, and to make Italian-American voters happy (and to continue with the farce that America was “discovered”) we continue that holiday. Or take Presidents’ Day, a holiday that was once reserved for Washington and Lincoln alone, now extends to the likes of Millard Fillmore, Richard Nixon, the Bushes and Obama. Independence Day was believed by some founding fathers to by July 2.  Labor Day in the US is not May 1 like it is everywhere else in the world (because May 1 was the communist and socialist holiday), etc. Then there are of course the homage holidays–those set aside for momma, daddy and valentines. Every day is their day, really.

Here on the Eclectic, I have taken up honoring some other holidays (Knut’s Day, The Armistice, Guy Fawkes Day, September 11), days that I revere and remember. Those days tie into my own family heritage, a certain rekindling of our Old European roots. Those days are also personal, having influenced my professional life. And chief among these holidays, for the former reason, is Groundhog Day. This peculiar observation, started by German immigrants to Pennsylvania centuries ago, was a turning point in my childhood calendar. Here, on this day, a rodent was invested with the duty to declare the winter doldrums to be over. In preschool, we would draw a Punxsutawny Phil groundhog on paper and glue his likeness to a popsicle stick. From there, we’d draw a landscape on another sheet of paper, with a little slit in the heath for the marmot to poke up through. Amazingly, I recall coloring the sky grey, earning a scolding from my Baptist schoolmarm. She declared that the sky could only be colored blue (how stereotypical). Clearly she didn’t bother to look out the window for the past five months. Thus, my earliest memories, of the Pennsylvanian homeland are of this odd ritual, and of course, questioning received wisdom and authority.

Groundhog-Standing2

Unless that wisdom springs from the groundhog of course. Like so many traditions, the roots of this particular holiday trace much farther back in time. Ancient Celts and pagans centered much of their worship on sacred animals. In one tradition, called Imbolc, the pre-Christian Germans and Celts would honor the passing of winter by worshiping a bear,  badger, or marmot; looking to the fuzzy mammal for a sign of winter’s end. As the old world was converted to Christianity, the tradition was absorbed by German Catholics as part of the celebrations of Candlemas (Read: The feast of the presentation of Jesus at the temple. How is that like presenting a rodent to the faithful?) For the Candlemas holy day, the devout often place candles in their windows. That tradition is also ubiquitous in Pennsylvania and beyond, as their denizens often keep electric candles on the window sill year ’round.) As the casting of a shadow by the morning sun would allegedly scare the sacred animal away, and with it, the hope of spring, Light (holy or otherwise), plays a role in the tradition.

The light in the Window

As the first waves of Germans settled in Pennsylvania, they brought their winter tradition with them. However, no sacred bears or badgers could be found. The groundhog, that lovable over-sized ground squirrel, became a substitute god. While these observations occurred in several immigrant towns around Pennsylvania, it was the event at Punxsutawny that grew beyond the mystic and became a festival, beginning officially in 1887, and enduring. Their official god is named Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.

Groundhog Punxsutawney Phil climbs on the top hat of his handler after he did not see his shadow, predicting an early spring during the 127th Groundhog Day Celebration at Gobbler's Knob on February 2, 2013. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Phil

The basics of the tradition, according to the Groundhog Club’s “Inner Circle” at groundhog.org, goes like this:

“Myths such as this tie our present to the distant past when nature did, indeed, influence our lives. It is the day that the Groundhog comes out of his hole after a long winter sleep to look for his shadow. If he sees it, he regards it as an omen of six more weeks of bad weather and returns to his hole. If the day is cloudy and, hence, shadowless, he takes it as a sign of spring and stays above ground. The groundhog tradition stems from similar beliefs associated with Candlemas Day and the days of early Christians in Europe, and for centuries the custom was to have the clergy bless candles and distribute them to the people. Even then, it marked a milestone in the winter and the weather that day was important.”

Under the constant care of the “Inner Circle,” local fanboys in tuxedos and top hats tend to the needs of Punxsutawny Phil. Now in his 125th year, Phil is kept alive with a special elixir that gives him 7 more years of life, so they say. As a weatherman, he is about as accurate as any other, coming in correct about 39% of the time. When not on the clock, that is to say, during the other 364 days a year, Phil lives in an elaborate wing of the local public library, on display for tourists, with his “wife” Phyllis to keep him company. On the big day, Phil is transferred to the ceremonial Gobbler’s Knob, a big empty field with a stump on a stage, where he is fitfully hoisted from the tree stump at the appointed hour. He then whispers into the president of the Inner Circle’s ear, in “Groundhogese” (a form of Pennsylvania Dutch, or Amish German), his proclamation for the year.

Groundhog Day

In its nadir in the 1970’s, the day would draw a few dozens souls would brave the cold and hike out to Gobbler’s Knob, the ceremonial home of Phil, and await his prognostication. Today, this event has gained national notoriety, picked up by the news media and popularized in the 1993 classic film, Groundhog Day. Pennsylvania politicians and presidential contenders seek him out for a photo op. The modest town of 5500 people grows to 30,000 or more for the week. The region cashes in–this year’s economic benefit could top $5 million as Time magazine reports. Of course, animal rights activists have pleaded to let Phil return to the wild, instead of being held in a large zoo-like display at the public library (he does live there with his “wife” Phyllis.) Other towns around America have tried to promote their own rodent as the true seer of seers, but the faithful know that Punxsutawny Phil is the one, true groundhog.

I am not alone in my adoration of this day. The 1993 eponymous film has become a legendary part of American culture. The central plot, of Bill Murray’s vile weatherman forced to relive Groundhog Day until he becomes a compassionate human being, has been lauded for its Eastern philosophy-like exploration of cyclical rebirth and renewal. In 2004, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg declared that film the greatest of all time (and I am inclined to agree). And in The Atlantic in 2013, the film was praised for its exploration of metaphysics. You needn’t go that far to realize the film is inspired by the very nature of this holiday–the natural declaration of rebirth and renewal, heralded by an unlikely mascot.

Aside from going to Pennsylvania to join the revelers at Gobbler’s Knob, how might you celebrate this day of renewal? Well, I tend to watch the film, just as people at Christmas might watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Story.” I make an excuse to eat meatloaf (Ground Hog, get it?) and root vegetables, unless a Super Bowl intercedes. I might dust of my Pittsburgese and start “yammerin abaht how awful the Super Bowl will be withaht the Stillers innit.” Chances are, the Pennsylvania Polka will be played more than once.  I often retell my preschool story and revel in my proud Pennsylvania heritage, to the ire of my friends and non-native family. Someday, I imagine I will take my kiddo on the pilgrimage to Gobbler’s Knob, to behold the world’s greatest weatherman at the height of his powers declare in his native Groundhogese the end of winter. Maybe I’ll teach him to color his skies grey instead of blue for his preschool class. Maybe he’ll yammer about Phil to his own kids.

But most of all, I celebrate the end of another long, hard winter…either now, or in six weeks.

Candlemas Photo credit: martinak15 / Foter / CC BY

Preschool Craft Photo Credit http://kiboomukidscrafts.com/preschool-groundhog-day/

Historic Marker Photo credit: jimmywayne / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Standing Groundhog Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Phil, Hoisted Photo credit: scottobear / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Phil Photo Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images

Modern Mona Lisa: Afghan Girl

Afghan girl

This image is considered by many to be the crowning masterwork of the National Geographic Magazine’s photographers. Taken (a perfect double meaning, as I will explain) by Steve McCurry in 1984, the image appeared on the cover of the June 1985 issue of the magazine, highlighting the refugees of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. She made an encore appearance in the October 2013 issue–the 125th anniversary issue of the magazine, a cover girl again. And in between, she has been used as a model for coffee table compendiums, wall posters and other ephemera.

America didn’t know much of Afghanistan when the photo was snapped. What we did know even then was that it was a place where empires go to die. After all, the Soviet Union’s excursion would set of an economic ripple that by 1989 would level the great rival of the Cold War. Afghanistan was more than the USSR’s Vietnam, it was its Waterloo. As for the girl in the photo, so perfectly composed, so innocent and fiery, so beautiful, Steve McCurry captured humanity in a way that Da Vinci did with his medium centuries beforehand.

National Geographic’s team took this image at a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984. Her tribe of Pashto Muslims were being exterminated by Soviet gunships. She was orphaned shortly before this photo was taken of her. She was 12, before her age of maturity, before her wearing of the veil, and before her child marriage, as we would learn some years later.

Over the prevailing 17 years, no one knew what happened to “Afghan Girl.” But in America, her image became a cultural icon. Determined to find what had become of the magazine’s most successful cover girl, McCurry headed back to Afghanistan in 2002, with a team of scientist, to try to find those sea green eyes. McCurry found her, amazingly alive. If you are interested, her whole story is recounted in the April 2002 edition of the magazine.

Le Louvre - Mona Lisa

For this posting, I began with a sense of wonder at this image–a true modern icon like that of the Mona Lisa. I thought of approaching it a bit like an art historian, expounding on the composition (filling the frame in a near-triangular composition), use of color (greens and contrasting reds with a sfumato background), medium (glorious old Kodak Kodachome!) and context (as described above). No one who sees this image cannot help but be arrested by those eyes. Only later do you notice the tattered clothes, the dirt and grime and the overall intensity. Like the Mona Lisa, the image has lost some of its impact over time. As a work of art, it is a masterpiece. And the same qualities that make the Mona Lisa an icon are the same for Afghan Girl. For nearly two decades, so little was known about the sitter for this portrait that wild speculation filled the void. And given her age, she remained forever young in the eyes of the Western World, a vibrant gem among the killing fields of Afghanistan.

But that art critique is as far as I could go, for at what expense do Westerners get to exploit the girl in this portrait for art’s sake alone? After all, this is a picture of a pre-adolescent Muslim girl, whose religion forbids the iconic fascination with a “graven image.” While it tells the story of refugees, and surely creates a sense of pathos, I can’t help but feel a bit like a slum tourist after gazing too long. Her adulation by photography critics seems intrusive, if not an exercise in cultural voyeurism.

When McCurry found her years later, she seemed so very worn, so cold. This is of course due to custom–to speak to a man outside of one’s marriage is grounds for death in Afghanistan. Most astonishingly, when asked if she had ever seen this image, she said she had not. What could have McCurry and National Geographic expected? The first image was a photographer’s dream–capturing that perfect instant, serendipitously, and winning accolades. Going back to relive the moment seems a bit like going on vacation to the same place over and over–the first experience can never be recaptured. And in this poignant case, the young girl has grown up. Time has been no friend. Her fearful eyes now flash contempt and confusion.

When I read the April 2002 issue again, I realized the bittersweet nature of this art.  I have been a subscriber of this magazine since I was nine years old–a gift from my great uncle who gave me the world each month in my mailbox. I love their work–they are a worthy institution. They are not above criticism though. Taken once, the photo is artful. Taken and used again and again, this work is exploitative of another culture, and plucks the woman from her context. She is no celebrity, though many have made money off of her. She is no victim either. She is a survivor within her culture. And that to me is the frame for this portrait–a true enigma, like Mona Lisa. We think we know her so well, and yet we do not know her at all.

(NB–I have left out her most recent photo from the less famous April 2002 edition of the magazine. Some things are best left alone. We even know her name, but even that seems like an invasion that I am not willing to pass onward through my own blog. And yet, I too cannot look away.)

Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sharbat_Gula.jpg (See ‘Fair Use’ Rationale)

Mona Lisa Photo credit: Gregory Bastien / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Minnesota Nice: On Nicollet Mall

Minnesota!

When most Americans think of Minneapolis, all roads lead back to the cultural curiosities that have come from that very northern metropolis. The land that Bob Dylan comes from (“called the Midwest”), where Prince developed his signature sound (named for Minneapolis), the locale of Mary Tyler Moore’s eponymous show, the location of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon and perhaps the Minnesota Vikings come to mind. Poll cats know it has been the home of progressive politicians like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, as well as libertarians like Jesse Ventura. Business folks know it as the home of the Radisson and Target corporations. And of course, the University of Minnesota calls Minneapolis and its twin city, St. Paul, home.

Minneapolis Skyline

If politeness has a source like the fountain of youth, then Minneapolis is that font of kindness for the Midwest. For me, the city has one of the nicest dispositions. Perhaps the bitter cold of their winters keeps bad attitudes in circumspect. Perhaps there is something in the DNA, as so many Minnesotans claim Scandinavian heritage (That may explain the love of socialism and progressive politics). Maybe it is the Swede-like dialect that adds to the coziness.

I am not alone in this observation.  There is a term for this stereotypical mild-mannered, polite-to-a-fault, self-deprecation: It is called Minnesota Nice. And while it may appear saccharine at first to the uninitiated, I find that the experience is like a mental spa day, as the armor of urban anger, social Darwinism and existential ennui melts away under the kind charm of the Minnesotans.

Minnesota Nice pops up in every venue. On one trip to the Twin Cities, I arrived on a college game day, back when the Golden Gophers used to play at the Metrodome. Seizing up an upper deck ticket, I took in a Big Ten football game. There is something rather hysterical about hearing 20,000 Minnesotans chant their battle cries at a football contest, as the dialect makes even the most aggressive chant sound, well, nice.

MinneSOHTA. See? Nonplussed. Too polite. Especially the wiggly-wrist maneuver at the end of the chant. Much of that “niceness,” I believe, comes from that sing-song dialect so common among Minnesotans. That dialect is a legacy from those sons of Sweden who immigrated to the Northwoods. Swedish is a tonal language–a language that places value on the pitch of certain vowels just as much as the grammar in words. And that musical concept carries over into the modern day. The Coen Brothers celebrated that local color in their film Fargo, as the clip below exemplifies:

I took my singular seat, mid row, tripping over a bunch of fans as I apologetically took my place. And of course, I forgot to buy a beer before I sat down. Despondently looking toward the vendor as he came and went, the couple next to me decided to go get some food. Without missing a beat, they asked.

“So, we are going downstairs to get a beer Brat, we can bring you back something if you want.”

I was puzzled. I didn’t know these people.  “Oh, that is okay, I appreciate the offer, but I am fine.”

“No, it is no trouble at all.”

“Really?”

“Youbetcha” they offered (before a certain Alaskan destroyed that plesantry)

I surrendered to the Minnesota Nice. After a rousing victory, and some new acquaintances made, the Golden Gophers nation spilled out into two main pedestrian areas. Some head back to campus to hit up the bars in and around Dinkeytown. As for me, I headed with the older crowd downtown to Nicollet Mall–the core of the revitalized downtown Minneapolis.

Nicolette Mall is an historic landmark of a kind. Like many downtown urban areas, Minneapolis’s center enjoyed a vibrant economic boom until the 1950’s, when the growth of suburbia, the automobile culture and white flight from urban centers hollowed out the downtown core. In 1968, the progressive politicians in Minneapolis took back their downtown before the last of the major department stores abandoned it. Nicollet Mall became the first pedestrian/transit mall in the nation, converting an otherwise boring street scape into an outdoor mall–perfect for strolling, window shopping and grazing at supper clubs (as they say in the Northwoods).

Mary Tyler Moore statue, Nicollet Mall

Government Plaza, Minneapolis

Nicollet celebrates Minnesota’s cultural heritage–as Mary Tyler Moore and her iconic hat toss from her sitcom is preserved in bronze outside of Macy’s. Hubert Humphrey holds court outside city hall. And the Minnesota Orchestra (or what is left of it) performs in their boxy Orchestra Hall. The recent strike and lockout of the Orchestra has been particularly hard on a city that is so used to being nice to one another.

Orchestra Hall

After the game, I was looking for pub fare, and Brit’s Pub fit the bill. It is perhaps the biggest draw on the strip and for good reason. Aside from an excellent gastropub menu of bangers and mash, the bar features an expansive second floor outdoor bowling green. Here, under lights even,  the pubcrawler can take in a a game of lawn bowls (or if you must say it, bocce ball) roof side, with metal stands waiting to hold your pint while you roll.

lawn bowling at Brit\'s

I bellied up to the bar (as those who frequent pubs are able to do after a few years of pints) and ordered up some bitters. A gent in the Golden Gophers gear heard my funny Pittsburghese and offered “Oh, that pint’s on me.”  I had never had a perfect stranger buy my first round before, and my natural east coast instinct would have thought that this guy was making a pass at me, or had some other agenda. No, this is just Minnesota Nice again.

“So, where are you from?” he asks.

I offered up the usual list of places, and asked if he’s been to any of them.

“Oh no, I do not leave MinneSOHta much,” he said.

Where Brit’s begins to quench the thirst of this traveler, I met up with a friend at The Local to finish off my the desire for a hand-pulled pint of ale. At the Local, the waitress saw that we were two guys with nothing to do. She offers that she had been given two tickets for a concert over at the Target Center by another patron (Minnesota Nice again), and that we could have them (Minnesota Nice Paid Forward). My drinking buddy was obligated to ask if she was included in the deal, almost costing us the tickets. But again, in that Minnesota Nice sorta way, gave us the giggle, and the tickets.

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The headliners were the Violent Femmes, and well, for the price they were worth the experience. While not Minnesotans, they did get their start in the nearby burg of Milwaukee, Wisconsin–a place that could rival Minnesota for nicest in the Midwest. The Femmes played through their set to their one hit wonder, featured below:

You may think this litany to be a singular experience, but I assure you it has not been. Perhaps I have been fortunate that Minneapolis has never shown me her bad side. But of my several visits, people are eager to chat, eager to pick up your tab and more than happy to please. And why do they do it? Because niceness begets niceness.

Feeling the need to pay this niceness forward, I have taken on the same tone when traveling, chatting up some other business road warrior at the pub, sharing my wisdom and offering up convivial conversation.

Minnesota! Photo credit: cali.org / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Minneapolis Photo credit: Jvstin / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Mary Tyler Moore Photo credit: dianecordell / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

HHH Photo credit: Coco Mault / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Brits Photo credit: massdistraction / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Minnesota Orchestra Photo credit: amy_kearns / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Hoosier Food in Autumn

Weizenfeld

We have finally passed from “Pumpkin Spice” season. So many foods have been shellac’d with the tell-tale pie flavors of the gourd–all spice, cinnamon and nutmeg–that the once-beloved trio has lost all meaning. This is made most evident in J. Bryan Louder’s experience on the “Pumpkin Spice Diet” as told in Slate.  To this we’ve come; a world where the Heartland flavors are exploited; the harvest bounty expressed as a mere additive to processed foods. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the things we love most become commodified and often do. I have noticed the Autumnal assault on pumpkins, for example, and I am sure you have as well. When I was a kiddo, pumpkins came in two basic forms–the pumpkin pie, and the jack-o-lantern. Big Food, Big Candy and Big Coffee have taken that cherished seasonal flavor and applied it to every other consumable in the free market. Consider that the “Green Mermaid” is celebrating its tenth year of Pumpkin Spice Lattes. Hershey has infused pumpkin into their Kisses. Booze comes in pumpkin flavors. And all fail to satisfy like Grandma’s pumpkin pie.

I blame the foodies and their saints who hold court on food television. They have scourged every corner of America to upend those special foods for poaching by opportunists. Having said that, I am conflicted about sharing some of my guilty food pleasures found in the American Heartland. Yet I am reassured that since they have survived unsullied in their natural habitat for so long, that they will remain a regional favorite beyond the interest of mass production. In her 2011 cookbook, Heartland, Judith Fertig captured the agrestic qualities of the cuisine, even if some of her recipes were gentrified for the East Coast dwellers and Midwest expatriates that miss the flavors of the breadbasket but cannot surrender their acquired Champagne tastes and passion for places like Dean and Deluca.

324/366 - Ron

When I think of food from the Heartland, the fare is simplified. A farmer’s breakfast is much like its cousin from across the pond—eggs, pork in its glorious incarnations of bacon, sausage and ham, a hearty carbohydrate in the form of white or wheat bread, with canyons to hold the reservoirs of butter and jam. Unlike the full English breakfast, the Heartland variety will have potatoes—either hashed or home fried. This particular diet has been recently made famous by Ron Swanson, fictional libertarian bureaucrat of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” fame, who subsists on a farmer’s diet of bacon and eggs and steak. This diet is called “paleolithic” by the jet-setting, bi-coastal, urban types. Farm boys can eat 10,000 calories with abandon, knowing they will burn it off over the course of a hard day’s labor farmside.

Popcorn

Hoosier food–food favorites from Indiana–is a subspecies on the Heartland culinary family tree. As is most often the case, the cuisine is a blend of what is produced on the farm and off the land, using the old-world recipes and vocabularies passed down from pioneer mother to native-born daughter. At first glance, Hoosier cuisine seems nothing more than an invitation to a heart attack. Surely, it could be so. However, the ways by which Hoosiers take the fruits of the farm and transform them into plated pleasure is worthy of protection and esteem. That is at least the opinion of the Indiana Foodways Alliance, that seeks to protect Hoosier food in the same manner as Kentucky Bourbon or French Champagne. There is a bit more to Hoosier food of course than a Rockwellesque idyll. Orville Reddenbacher, from Valparaiso, Indiana, made popcorn ubiquitous. Little known outside of Indiana was his cross-state rival, Wilfred “Cousin Willie” Sieg. Even a state as small as Indiana can have an industry rivalry akin to PC vs. Apple. Or on the dessert end, Hoosiers added dairy to the Pennsylvanian shoo-fly pie to create an even higher octane sugar creme–or “Hoosier” pie. Lastly, the burger chain Steak and Shake, while founded in Illinois, is headquartered in Indianapolis.

Steak \'n Shake Steakburger and Fries

Deep in Hoosier country, the region of Southern Indiana is a best kept secret of the Midwest. When the bi-coastal snobs think of Indiana, they think of flatlands filled with amber waves of grain. To the contrary, the Ohio River Valley–where the region lies–is hardly flat. Unblemished by the brute force of glaciers, the region remains hilly and remote. And in those hilly knobs and deep ravines, people have lived relatively quite lives, playing up their proximity to Kentucky Bluegrass, Bourbon and river rats. In one such hamlet, named Gnaw Bone, the traveler can find a remnant of the region’s German heritage, adapted for its Hoosier surroundings–the Hoosier Tenderloin sandwich.

Drew vs Tenderloin

The tenderloin, as the locals call it, is essentially Wiener Schnitzel on a hilariously tiny hamburger bun. Using pork over veal, the tenderloin fillet is pounded paper thin, drenched in flour and deep fried. While likely “invented” in Huntington, Indiana, the folks at Gnaw Bone Food and Fuel (now the “Gnaw Mart”) have perfected it. So popular are the sandwiches in the region that they have become required eating for politicians. In 2006, for example, then-Senator Dick Lugar took the Gnaw Bone breaded tenderloins to DC for his fellow senators for a luncheon. And when offering advice to national politicians campaigning in Indiana, pundit Brian Howley offered this advice:

“Get [the candidate] familiar with the pork tenderloin sandwich and what to say about it. Remind him that we are not “Indianians” but Hoosiers. Give him better lines than “South Bend is in the north and North Vernon is in the south.” Have him listen to some Mellencamp. He needs to know about Tony Stewart, Butler Bulldogs and Crystal Gayle.” [emphasis added]

Further down the road, in the hill town of Nashville, Indiana (pop. 3200) is the Nashville General Store. At the back of the store is a short-order kitchen that serves up the local favorite–fried biscuits and apple butter. The biscuit is a misnomer–this is a small, fried doughnut coated in cinnamon sugar. The hot oil absorbed in the biscuit combined with the sweet local apple butter creates Indiana’s answer to umami.

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Those foods are not likely candidates for the next Starbucks Latte or small plate boulangerie, as consuming them daily may lead to an untimely demise. Of course, not all local delicacies are found in the hillside. My first re-entry into this corner of America was at a Circle K. And the exchange there reminded me that I was no longer among the Michael Bloomberg’s of the world. At the Circle K outside of Bloomington, Indiana, I was looking for a fountain soda. And, as any Circle K customer knows, the store is home to the Polar Pop–their answer to the 7-11 Big Gulp.  All sizes of the Polar Pop are always $0.89, as if the laws of economics do not apply beyond the threshold. Being modest, I reach for the 20oz Styrofoam chalice, pointedly erect alongside the gauntlet of Pepsi and Coke products.

melting ice

A local notices my action, taking it for a lapse in judgement.

“You know, you can get the 44 oz for the same price,” he offered, in a twang that sounded more annoyed than sympathetic.

“Nah, that’s alright,” I said. “I’m just not that thirsty.”

I thought I detected, above the buzz of the soda nozzle and clunking of the ice dispenser a polite, yet definite “Hmph.”

I’d like to think that Hoosier food is, to borrow the phrase from Gershwin, a “sometime thing.” Admittedly, many of my neighbors do not find it so. And here in the Heartland, it is no crime against humanity to consume these things routinely. Mr. 44oz was spry, and dare I say, fit. I was the one chained to an office desk for 6 years. He’s been working with his hands twice that long, and likely burned off whatever carbs he freebased into his system. Maybe next time, I’ll get my 89 cents worth, and take a long walk too to try to balance out the bloat.

Aside for the obvious market for the Polar Pop (not an Indiana native, but happy carpetbagger), I do not know if Hoosier food will ever be commodified like pumpkins, wasabi peas, PBR our whatever else the hipsters are into. It would be a sad day if I saw apple butter exploited the same way, or a Hoosier tenderloin available at a drive-thru in Seattle or Miami. Some foods are best enjoyed in situ–in their natural setting. I couldn’t imagine Hoosier food outside of Indiana. It’d cease being Hoosier food.

Wheatfield Photo credit: Photo credit: downhilldom1984 / Foter.com / CC BY

Hoosier Food Photo credit: davitydave / Foter.com / CC BY

Tenderloin Photo credit: CrazyUncleJoe / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Fried Biscuits Photo credit: http://oc2seattle.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/exploring-dining-in-nashville-indiana/

Polar Pop Photo credit: Idiolector / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Ron Swanson Photo credit: GmanViz / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Popcorn Photo credit: Micky** / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Steak and Shake Photo credit: arsheffield / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Dealey Plaza

Looking up Elm Street, Dealey Plaza, Dallas

So much ink has been spilled over the events of November 22, 1963, that I can hardly add anything new here on this blog. After all, since the very day of President Kennedy’s horrific demise on the freeway entrance in Dallas, every pundit, hack, conspiracy theorist, celebrity and average Joe has engaged in this parlor game. If Caesar’s murder was for the ancients the great story of intrigue and regicide, JFK’s story in some ways in the modern parallel.

Kennedy’s murder gave birth to the American pastime of indulging conspiracy under every turn. From JFK to RFK, then Malcolm X to MLK, we do not experience a national event without some nutter spinning the most elaborate explanation. TWA-800 was bombed, they say. President Bush colluded with bin Laden to bring down the towers, they say. Elvis is alive they say. As David von Drehle highlights in this week’s TIME lead article, indeed, Dealey Plaza is a festering wound on the American spirit. Like Lady MacBeth, the blood stain is indelible. We can’t let the story go. Paraphrasing Cokie Roberts, Americans cannot believe that an event of such historical magnitude may in fact have been caused by such a small, weak little loser, like Lee Harvey Oswald, alone.

 

 

I have been to Dallas on two occasions, and took time to wander about Dealey Plaza—the scene of the crime. Dealey is the sort of tourist attraction that a city has to learn to live with. It is an embarrassment to a city. But to demolish it would be to rob future generations of understanding. Humans seemingly need these haunted places, to allow the scenery to engage the senses and create vivid impressions and understanding. After all, why would I want to visit such a ghastly place but to satisfy my own historical curiosity and to think through my own conspiracy theory?

When I was a kid, upon the 30th anniversary of these events, the news was full of Oliver Stone’s hagiography of the events—his film JFK. That effort was beautiful theater but not much more. (And a rather beautiful score by John Williams). Seen through the lens of 20 more years of history, I have a hard time indulging the wild collusion of forces (CIA, FBI, LBJ, Oil men, the military-industrial complex, the Cubans, the Mob, the Russians) that allegedly came together to off their greatest nemesis, a presidential playboy who was about as liberal as Reagan. Nah, Occam’s razor applies here. Occam said that among competing theories, the one with the least assumptions is most likely the truth. Americans have such little faith in their government to deliver the mail on time, let alone conspire to commit a coup d’état.

DealeyPlazaAbove

Dealey Plaza is a sad place, but not simply for being the site of the assassination. The plaza is a bit isolated from the downtown core. Developed as part of an urban renewal program, the plaza is really nothing more than a green space connecting the on-ramps of the highway to the downtown core. The architecture is a modernist version of Bernini’s great arms that hug St. Peter’s Square in Rome (though much more modest). The impression I get is that this space was to provide the motorist an interesting approach into the city. Perhaps in the 1950’s, when America was in-love with the automobile (and, the cars were works of art unlike the fiberglass heaps of today), an office worker might want to take their lunch outside, and watch the Bel-Airs and Corvettes drive by.

Dealey Plaza

Today, it is an exhaust-filled no-man’s land. Tourists meander through, taking photos for their own mememto mori. They stand on the pylon where Abraham Zapruder shot his film. They wander behind the dilapidated fence behind the grassy knoll—the place where the conspiracy types believe the real shooter took aim. They stand in the road, where an “X” tackily marks the spot of Kennedy’s death. They look up to the Texas School Book Depository and perhaps begin to think the Warren Commission had it right—from his sixth floor sniper’s next, Oswald had a clear vista toward the motorcade. They tour the Sixth Floor Museum and take in the official history.

reading the paper on JFK

On my two visits, much had not changed—the city was trying to raise funds to restore the plaza to its 1963 appearance. Hucksters sold tattered, acid-yellow newspaper souvenirs to the tourists, providing the barebones about the history and space. This cheapened what seems to be hallowed ground, much in the way the souvenir slingers crowd around Ford’s Theatre in Washington (the site of Lincoln’s assassination) or the underpass in Paris where Princess Diana met her end.

On that last note, touring the death places of the famous and powerful seems to be a universal human behavior. In Turkey, tourists stand in the room where the founder of the country, Ataturk, died in his Sultan-sized bed, some 70 years after the fact. Tourists still go to the place in the Forum Romani where Caesar was immolated 2000 years ago. Christians go to a church they believe to be the place of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus rose. Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, the site of his suicide, is paved over. Yet tourists still linger there.

DallasTrip_09Oct2010 122

Down the road from Dealey Plaza is the city’s official memorial to JFK, a modernist pile developed by the architect Phillip Johnson. Johnson, a friend of the Kennedy’s, designed the great outdoor space to be a cenotaph and temple to JFK–a place for quiet reflection in the bustling city. Locals raises money for the monument, but didn’t care much for the modernist memorial. Dallas conservatives—the sort that wished death upon Kennedy in private only to live in shock over their wish coming true—hated the monument as well. But what other memorial could pay tribute to Kennedy—the first master of television media, the telegenic president in full color who championed the arts (albeit at Jackie’s behest)? No exact sculpture would do, nor a Lincolnesque Greek temple. This memorial is a large, white box–a canvas by which the viewer can cast his own contemplative memories about the 35th president–with nothing but the open blue Texas heavens above. It is an awesome temple—a place that forgives Dealey Plaza a few blocks away.

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Dallas has changed greatly since 1963. It is still a city about big money, but it is about other things too. My generation knows it as the city of the Dallas Cowboys, of the Dallas TV show (and its remake), of hipster beer spots and an enormous airport. Today marks the first time that the city has memorialized the event (aside from the memorial by Johnson), a city looking to move forward. City officials removed the tacky “x” from the road, cleaned up the plaza and kept the conspiracy theorists at bay.

The boomers obsess over the Kennedy era, as they quiz one another about where they were on that day. But 50 years on, the gloss is coming off of Camelot. Kennedy’s presidency can be critiqued with a critical eye. Kennedy’s philandering doesn’t go unnoticed. However, none of those transgressions ameliorate the “undignified end” that this president met in Dallas. We are the inheritors of those days—of increased security, restricted freedoms and armies of security that will prevent another November 22, 1963 from happening again. In many ways, Dealey Plaza is a memorial to the end of American innocence. 

President Kennedy (left), Texas Governor John Connally, and Jacqueline Kennedy, minutes before the president was shot.

Dealey Plaza Photo credit: StevenM_61 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

X Photo credit: martin_kalfatovic / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Dealey Aerial Photo credit: Foter.com / CC BY-SA

JFK Memorial Photo credit: brad_holt / Foter.com / CC BY

Memorial Pediment Photo credit: brad_holt / Foter.com / CC BY

Newspaper readers Photo credit: incendiarymind / Foter.com / CC BY-NC