Tipple the Hitch

Glass of Scotch

April 13th marks the 65th birthday of the late Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the most prominent polemicist and essay scribbler of his generation. Hitchens was a rakish provocateur in the model of Dylan Thomas’ style, George Orwell’s indignation with a command of English all of his own.

When working in the DC area, I discovered that Hitchens would stop off at the bar in my office building—Johnny’s Half Shell—before and after his appearances on C-SPAN, Fox and NBC News. At that time in my nascent career, I didn’t quite recognize the rumpled, khaki-suited man in the elevator, perfumed in eau de Nicotine. Sadly, that is my only memory of the man in the flesh.  However my co-worker—an intense analyst we dubbed “Lattimer”—was a passionate media junkie and celebrity hound. Lattimer was the kind of guy who’d stop off to offer up unsolicited recitations on his intense weekends.


                “Good morning, [Lattimer].”

Hwaet! What’s with the trench coat and penny loafers, G. Gordon Liddy?”

                “Funny. Don’t you have an education policy to ruin this morning?”

“You won’t believe who I drank with yesterday at Johnny’s”

                “No, I probably won’t.”

“Christopher Hitchens.” he said, allowing the name to resonate in the cube farm. “There he was, and I sat down and ordered him a Scotch.”

                “Expensive date, Lattimer.”

“Worth it.  Worth it. He talked to me for a full half-hour.”

While usually I’d dismiss this as a big fish tale, there is a kernel of truth in this retelling. Hitchens was known for his generosity of time with people, not just fellow intellectuals, but anyone, who could carry a conversation. He was also known for his love of Johnny Walker Black Label. Lattimer was no dumb jock—he knew policy and he knew people. I am sure Hitch would have dismissed him early on if he were boring (which was Hitch’s existential fear, boredom). For the fan-boy Lattimer, he engaged in near pick-up artist tactics to capture a leading mind of our time for a moment.

Hitch’s preferred poison was Johnny Walker Black, cut with Perrier. Like getting into Wagnerian Opera, Slow Foods, and Baseball, Scotch requires patience and perhaps a bit of personal tragedy to enjoy. I tend to look at my own preference for Scotch through the lens of honoring my Scots and Scots-Irish ancestors, as a communion over time, enjoying the same taste experienced by each generation. For Hitch though, Scotch provided inspiration and bestowed panache.

And how should one tipple like the Hitch? Only his own words will suffice the explanation:

“I work at home, where there is indeed a bar-room, and can suit myself. But I don’t. At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal. No “after dinner drinks”—most especially nothing sweet and never, ever any brandy. “Nightcaps” depend on how well the day went, but always the mixture as before. No mixing: no messing around with a gin here and a vodka there.”—“Hitch-22


Martin Amis, Hitch’s best friend in the world, advised him that “making rules about drinking is a sign of an alcoholic,” but nonetheless, rules there were:

“Of course, watching the clock for the start-time is probably a bad sign, but here are some simple pieces of advice for the young. Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain. Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night. (If you really don’t remember, that’s an even worse sign.) Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed—as are the grape and the grain—to enliven company. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won’t be easily available. Never even think about driving a car if you have taken a drop.” –Hitch-22.

Perhaps too much thought has been given here to something delightful. I don’t particularly find rules and relaxation to go hand in hand. However, for those in the production of the arts—whether essays, music, craft or other culture–letting the rules go and indulging too much has led to exquisite cultural touchstones (The Beatles, Picasso, Oscar Wilde) and conversely I suppose, death (Kurt Kobain, Ernest Hemingway, Tchaikovsky).

Perhaps rules are a good thing, at least for the mixology. What is it about Scotch and soda that works exactly? For me anyway, bubbles are the difference between drinking a glass of motor oil or experiencing something transcendent. Think about it, like wine, Scotch sits a long time in a barrel, aging and growing grizzled, adding complexity where there was none before. Scotch develops character in the dark, dank underworlds.

(An aside: a few years back, I got to perform a stage production of Beethoven’s Fidelio. There is a moment in the opera where the prisoners are given a chance to see the sun for the first time in what must have been decades for them. I often think of Scotch’s liberation from the barrel with this music in mind.)

Water alone cannot help the Scotch along to breathe again in the sun. Bubbles—by way of club soda—is an accelerant. But the problem here is that club soda is just cheap carbonated water, cranked off in a factory, pumped through a bartender’s nozzle into a glass of finely crafted elixir. This is where Hitchens steps in, to champion an alternative solution—natural carbonation. And Perrier? Seems snobbish at first, but those natural bubbles and minerals seem to dance with the Highlanders, like French mermaids. In fact, when trying to think of an historical context where the French and Scots have aligned before, I think of Mary, Queen of Scots—the Scots-born Queen Consort of France and pretender to the English throne too. If not for Hitchens, we might think of the combo of Perrier and Scotch ordering up a “Queen Mary” instead.

So, in homage to Hitchens, and perhaps Queen Mary and (if I must), Latimer too, think of cutting your Johnny Walker with Perrier, the up-scaled Scotch and soda of our time. And on April 13th, remembering days of Auld Lang Syne, I join other Hitch fans in honoring the man of letters with his favorite restorative (Of which, several posts of “Henry’s Eclectic” have been aided tremendously.).


Photo credit: dvanzuijlekom / Foter / CC BY-SA 
Hitchens by Paintings on the Side by Cara and Louie: An original painting of Christopher Hitchens. Ink and Paint on Panel Original available for sale on Etsy.com

Voices of the Past: Gore Vidal and Abe on Jealousy and Patience


“Every time a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

Vidal, one of the great craftsman of written English, was probably not being facetious in his quip, above. He was as erudite as he was vain. But in this bon mot, he is truth telling–it is hard not to feel a bit of defeat in the success of others. By our very nature, humans in are in a constant state of making comparisons. The best of us can shelve that proto-behavior. And in many cases, we outgrow the comparison behavior (at the basest level) once the wild oats are sewn. Or at least, we learn not to take things so very personally, thus why only a little something dies instead of a big something. Vidal had his own victories in life of course, very early success in literature set up a life of being the public intellectual–a sort of philosopher-king of the chattering class. But for those whose triumphs are small and hidden, or a long way off, Vidal doesn’t offer much solace. For that, we turn away from Lincoln’s biographer to Young Abe Lincoln himself, who for many is the ur-American, the undefeatable and the persistent, who said:

“I will study and prepare myself, and someday my chance will come.”

Some people in life are prodigious, like an F. Scott Fitzgerald or Salinger. Their success comes very early in life. Others must prepare, and develop their craft over time. They pay dues. They pay forward. They build up the reserves. They are the Mark Twain’s of the world. Vidal seemed to have Fitzgerald’s wunderkind success but Twain’s long view. Lincoln would have to face many more defeats than victories before his chance came. Where do you fall? Prodigy or Sage, or somewhere in between?

Young Abe by Torrey

Photo Credit Gore Vidal: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GoreVidalVanVechten1.jpg Photo Credit Young Abe Lincoln: Photo credit: TV19 – DD Meighen / Foter / CC BY-SA

The Original Little Black Book: The Moleskine

Sad, lonely , unloved, Oops !!!

My default mode is to protest newfangled contraptions. I postponed my exploration of the world of Harry Potter for ten years, waiting for the fuss to calm down a bit so I could enjoy the world of JK Rowling without the opinions of the chattering mainstream. Put another way, I buck trends as much as possible. Another example? I took to the Seattle sound of 1990’s grunge–the music of my generation–fifteen years after the fact (and as a result, will not indulge hipsters or the music of Macklemore no earlier than 2029).

Moleskine ruled notebook, inside view

I prefer analog approaches over digital, when possible. Of course, there is irony here, given my choice of blogging (a habit I didn’t begin until microblogging made plain old blogging obsolete). While I will admit to using a tablet to read the newspaper nowadays, six years passed before I gave up newsprint. I will still grab a Sunday Times (New York or London) if I can find an abandoned hard copy. But when it comes to scribbling notes, I just cannot embrace the digital post-it, Microsoft’s One Note or Apple’s gizmos. No, there is only one tool, timeless and true, that I use. And thanks to one of those venture capitalist types–the Moleskine has been saved for those of us who still believe that the pen–and not the stylus, pointer finger or app–is still mightier than the sword (and the pad of paper, its scabbard).

Oscar Wilde\'s notebook

Oscar Wilde’s Moleskine
Trusted reliquary of inspiration, the Moleskine appears at first to be a modest notebook. What gives it is character is its quality, and the protection it provides to what is stored within it. The simple device sports rounded edges and flexible paper weight that moves with its master while stored in a pocket. Stiched binding keeps the folio taut, yet perforations allow for hasty snatches to be removed from the inventory. The originals wore black. When presented in a salon or mixed company, the black book announced to the group that these words and statements would be recorded. Journalists kept the raw material stored on its pages to later sculpt into dispatches by twilight back to the AP or press syndicate. Artists no lesser  Oscar Wilde, Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, Van Gogh and Bruce Chatwin would allow their creativity to splash the tiny canvas, holding onto ideas for later casting and cultivating.

the little black book

Black books, in any form, have always been potent. Some of the earliest uses of the black book–by British peers and headmasters–was as a shit list. Being in the black book meant you were blacklisted, persona non grata. The black book was an important record. Nixon would have appreciated the early example of his own “enemies list.” But, like all phrases, meaning changes with the passage of time. Perhaps the use of the black book by bohemians led to the American idea of the Little Black Book–the whimsical lists of the ladies man, a place where a Casanova records not only the names and phone numbers of his paramours, potentials and friends with benefits (to use the modern parlance), but perhaps lurid details, rankings and measurements. (I believe this function has been replaced by facebook, smartphone and the “sext.”)

As a companion for inspiration instead, the black book survives. According to the current maker of the book, it was Chatwin who called the little device a “Moleskine.” Before that, they were just little black books. These notebooks were a rarity found only in France and in their own way were a talisman of the traveled intellectual. Crafted by a small family in Tours, the slightly expensive notebooks became increasingly rare in the post WWII world of mass production and the “Big-Mart”-ing of the global economy. By 1986, the little black notebook had gone the way of the Dodo, on display only in the museums of those great thinkers and artisans, also extinct.

As Moleskine explains, Chatwin was determined to use these notebooks until the very end:

“In the mid-1980s, these notebooks became increasingly scarce, and then vanished entirely. In his book The Songlines, Chatwin tells the story of the little black notebook: in 1986, the manufacturer, a small family-owned company in the French city of Tours, went out of business. “Le vrai moleskine n’est plus,” are the lapidary words he puts into the mouth of the owner of the stationery shop in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, where he usually purchased his notebooks. Chatwin set about buying up all the notebooks that he could find before his departure for Australia, but there were still not enough.”

A connoisseur of this analog technology, Modo&Modo revived the little notebook in 1997 in Milan. And, in the 21st century economy, good products with a niche market (such as Hostess Twinkies and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer) can be salvaged by venture capital, Syntegra Capital, manufactured under the nom de guerre “Moleskine SpA.” I do not care who makes this thing of beauty today, whether Paris or Milan or Turkey or China. Each book is handmade and can be returned in the unlikely event of a defect.

I have burned through about a dozen of these notebooks since discovering them a few years ago, and continue to fill them at a clip of four to five a year. They are not slick like a Jobsian glass screen, nor do they contain titillating apps (though doodles abound). My inquires, inspirations and ignorance fill these pages. They are as close to a sketch of the author as any brooding diary could capture. The Moleskine captures not so much my sentiment, mood or thoughts but rather, the way I think; the things that intrigue or revile me in the moment, the turns of phrase I can stow away for future use. They are thoroughly broken in by the time I am through with them, but still stand up as a reference, a personal encyclopedia.

Little Black Book

I cannot imagine a device that could ever connect me with my own thoughts as efficiently as acid-free paper, capturing the ink of my roller ball, spell-check free and uninhibited, as the Moleskine. And whether Hipster or Crankshaft, Steampunk or Conservative, do reach for this pad, before the iPad, next time you have a thought worth keeping.

Picasso's sketchbook

Picasso’s Moleskine…looks like “Blue Period” work.

Mangled iPad Photo credit: Nina Matthews Photography / Foter / CC BY

Open Moleskine Photo credit: Sembazuru / Foter / CC BY-SA

Moleskine in Red Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Little Black Book Photo credit: vince42 / Foter / CC BY-ND

Open Notes Photo credit: djwtwo / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
Acknowledgement: MOLESKINE is a trademark registered worldwide by Moleskine SpA, located in Milan, Viale Stelvio No. 66, 20159 – Italy.

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.


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)


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

America’s Grandpa: Pete Seeger


Valedictories were piled high this week for Pete Seeger, a singular American troubadour who lived a huge, long life. Like the recent passing of Mandela, no one looks at the death of a nonagenarian with the kind of sorrow that we hold for those who die young. No, for people like Pete Seeger, we are of course sad to see them pass, but we praise the meaningful life they led.  Everyone has their pantheon of music gods who they revere. And over the course of our lives, we tend to change out those Rock and Roll tin gods for others, based on our tastes. For me anyway, I have a very short list of musicians whose art I hope survives the human race and echoes through the universe forever like an annuciation of the human condition. Those are: Bach, Beethoven, Led Zeppelin and Pete Seeger.

There is a slight irony that this wise old banjo picker died on the night of the Grammy’s. A continent away, a commercial industry lauded whole genres of performers whose music may capture the vapid, white hot void of pop and hip-hop, but offer nothing really to exalt the human condition or highlight our collective plight. Nor do those shiny, autotuned people celebrate what is good and noble about us all.

Pete Seeger’s music did the opposite of winning platinum records (though the man had hits of his own, and his songs covered by others were hits in their own right.). For Seeger, music was a convener and motivator for social action. A life-long pro-union socialist, he was the last of his generation that truly fought for workers rights, then civil rights, then against war and poverty. Wherever there was an injustice, he showed up with his banjo to provide hope for those who fought for freedom and justice.

As a music innovator, he popularized folk music, the banjo itself and brought folk melodies out of the mountains and into the movements of his day. Most people may not realize that the peace anthem “We Shall Overcome” was popularized by Pete, and became the song of the civil rights era. When approached to lend his name to the production of a “Pete Seeger” banjo, he took no royalties. He lived an esthetic, almost monastic life in an old cabin along the Hudson River, giving away much of his winnings to causes around him–the preservation of the Hudson Valley watershed, civil rights and liberties.

There are plenty of obituaries out there getting into the marrow of the man–his activism, his defiance of the McCarthy-era witch hunt. What I loved about Pete Seeger was his moral consistency and his impulse toward justice for all. He was ahead of his time, and was until the very end. Here are some of my favorite songs by Pete. They are simply beautiful, and are among the few works of art that I can say changed my life. Or rather, helped me get back home, to my own people–those working folks, their condition and the need to help those who are less fortunate. Some have called Pete as secular saint. I can’t disagree.

Thanks Pete. Time for my generation to pick up the banjo, I think. We’ll take it from here.

Pete Photo credit: Joseph A. Horne / Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Minnesota Nice: On Nicollet Mall


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.”


“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.


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

Voice of the Past: Oscar Wilde on Drollery

A Wilde time 3

In high school, I had a Lex Luthor. Most people have and do have one and know the type–the kid that was out to get your goat no matter. Sometimes the adversary was indeed a bit smarter than you. Like Lex however, the ego that came with the intellect was often his undoing.

Kitbash Lex Luthor

Later in life, Lex found his way into trolling on facebook, often making incredibly lethal remarks on the postings of my peers. However, the other day, I caught Lex engaging in vile plagiarism. He posted a quotation that looked a bit too familiar on his page, without attribution:

“Our Democracy is self-destructing because it abused the right of freedom and equality, because it taught it’s citizens to consider rudeness as a right, breaking the law as a freedom, audacity as equality, and anarchy as blissfulness.”

Sounds great, right? His toadies fawned over his wisdom, but not me. A simple web search of the the quote proved that he gleaned it from an ancient Greek philosopher, Isocrates.  Intriguingly, the quote is a mis-attribution. No matter, Lex expropriated it to burnish his own name.

Isocrates pushkin

Now, my inclination was toward humiliation, but my better nature took over. After all, in this analogy, I am Clark Kent, and well, Superman doesn’t use the tools of evil for good. I let it go. But I relate the story here. And that might have I said to Lex? As irony would have it, I would have employed Oscar Wilde, who famously said:

“Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.”

This of course raises a lovely analogy game for Lex:

If Quotation:Wit,

then Plagiarism::Asininity!

Lesson: Always quote your source material. Understand that you are borrowing their wit, not being witty yourself.

Oscar Wilde Statue, Dublin

Isocrates Photo credit: Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Lex Luthor Photo credit: shaun wong / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Oscar Wilde Photo credit: Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Oscar Wilde in Dublin Photo Credit: Photo credit: anaxila / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND