Saturday, 31 December 2016

Geekrant vs The New Year Retrospective

So 2017 is on the horizon and here I sit at ten minutes past ten at night in the living room of our apartment here in Madison, Wisconsin and I must admit that I am reflective.

It has been some months since my last contribution to the pages of this blog, a hiatus that can be explained by work, lack of sleep, the endless turning of the wheel of the rat race and, obviously my mixing of metaphors. However it all adds up to the same thing. Life can get busy and when your life is caught up in the gradual transition from one culture to another, it seems somehow busier.

The legal process of leaving Country A for Country B, can be a lengthy one and when, on top of that, the person you love is in Country B and you still in Country A, is can seem interminable. On top of that, there is the adjustment to a new country and its way of life. So Mrs Geekrant and myself can find ourselves feeling rather burnt out from time to time. That's not to say that we're unhappy, far from it! However it is natural to wish that the merry-go-round that is existence would slow down for a while. Give us chance to catch our breath.

So, as I said, I'm reflective. I'm sitting here, caught in a strange moment. Everything and everyone that I ever knew lies in 2017, 6 hours ahead of me on the other side of a rather large body of water; Mrs Geekrant, myself and our life here hangs tenuously on to 2016.

It feels quiet with a kind of stillness, the night seems silenced of its noisiness of city living. The ever-present distant hum of traffic stilled. Everyone is out somewhere at New Year's Eve's parties and the city centre is undoubtedly rife with revelers, heaving with humming hostelries and busy bars.

Life is good. Every new day seems to bring something fresh to our doorstep. It feels strange to know that it has been over a year since I saw my native shore. It doesn't feel that long and yet it feels like an eternity. Whenever I visit, I wonder, will I fall to the ground and kiss the dirt, crying for sweet England as the Californian accented Kevin Costner does in Prince of Thieves? Or will I realise that now I will always feel slightly at home and slightly alien in both worlds. Maybe that's what it means to be an immigrant. Or maybe that's just what it means to move away from home.

I have done many things this year, that I could never have imagined doing before. I have driven a boat, nearly killed myself going down a hillside on a quad bike (I ended up underneath it in case you wondered, although it should be acknowledged that I got the thing up there in the first place.), I've learned how to make bread, Mrs Geekrant's Uncle Jim showing me how in a relatively basic kitchen, in a cabin, by a lake somewhere in the North of Wisconsin, I've eaten a venison roast and seem the remains of deer strapped to the roofs of hunter's trunks on the highway. I have felt overwhelmed, despite my political geekery, by the endless onslaught of U.S. Political ads during the election. I have seen one of my favourite bands play in a venue only a 15 minute drive from our apartment (the previous two times I'd seen them it had taken me over 2 hours in a car to get to the venue.) and been amazed at the fact that every band's American tour passes somewhere nearby.

I have learned the drawback to the warm temperatures of an American continental summer, seemingly never-ending humidity and swarms of mosquitoes1; I have faced the harshness of arctic cold and seen my first true snow drifts. I have journeyed along the banks of the mighty Mississippi in every season that this world has been granted and have fallen in love with the landscape in all of them.

I have introduced a friend to the epic landscape that is the Mid-West. I have seen an Ice Hockey game and a Baseball game. I have seen opossums, chipmunks, hawks. Our car was once flown over by an eagle not 4 feet above our heads. I remember being a child and wondering if I'd ever see an eagle in the wild, now I have.

I have tilted my head back in the back seat of a convertible and watched as the trees bordering the road slowly drifted past and have understood the calling of the road in so much American literature. Maybe it is the echo of the pioneer in each American, to find some unspoiled piece of land and find their true selves there.

I am not an American, the thirty two years I spent growing up in a small steel town in the North of England mean I am pretty much a British man for life. Yet, despite my, by now well documented, difficulties with adapting to this culture, I find myself feeling more than just occasionally, at home.

The Mid-West of the United States is not the place that, as Rupert Brooke once said, “Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam” to me, but it is, somehow, my new home. I have fallen in love with much that it has to give and offer. There is a poetry to be found in its landscape, the optimism of its people. Its funny, to see that culture that has influenced so much of my life from afar, now from the inside.

When I was young, they repeated “The Waltons” on television, I still don't really know how I ended up watching it but I remember how it made me feel, the land and the sky, the world that was different. I also remember the credits from “Little House on the Prairie” where the little girls run down the hill, I was always intrigued by the history of those days. Those pioneers who set out to find a new land. A land that seems to go on forever under a sapphire blue sky.

I sometimes forget, I have been there. I have trod the same streets that Laura Ingalls Wilder trod and have seen the small hill town where Ulysses S. Grant lived before he went to war. The Republican party was founded in Wisconsin, Happy Days was set here, Harley Davidson manufactures here, so does Miller Beer, can you get anymore American than that?

So I'm pensive, because I love our life here but it still is sometimes strange to me. I am in a land of television dreams, a land that always intrigued me but I never wanted to visit. Maybe my whole life will be lived in the six hours time distance between the land of my birth and the land of my marital existence.

Still we make it work, we're happy. I get excited for tomorrow and wonder what's on the next horizon. I am an immigrant in a new land and tomorrow is a brand new day and a brand new year and there's so much more to see. Perhaps there is something of the pioneer within me, maybe all it needed was some unspoiled land and an open sky to come alive.

So, I hope you enjoyed my little rant tonight, I hope its not too disjointed. I didn't plan it as well as I plan most of my blogs, but I wanted to say “Thank You” to all of you for reading my little blog, so that required me to write something. It is a great pleasure to write it and know that somebody reads it. You are all wonderful.

So, Happy New Year and to borrow the Facebook sign-off of my wife's grandmother “Love to All!”

1Each state had its own state bird, of which Wisconsin's is the American Robin. However a running joke seemingly throughout the Mid-West is that the real state bird of every state is the mosquito.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Welcome to the UnConventional. The Internet and The Primary Season.

One of the strange things about moving here at the time I did rather say, ten or more years ago, is just what the advent of social media has done to the size of our world.

Now, I should make the point that I obviously have no problem with the internet or social media. It is a fantastic tool and I wouldn't have met my wife without it. It really did change my life. That's why I'm posting blogs about what its like to live as a British subject in an American world.

It can however have another effect, it has made the world appear much smaller to many people. We live in a world where the borders that exist between countries and cultures seldom exist in our minds anymore. No one is a foreigner in the electronic netherworld of the internet. We take in information, watch videos and form opinions based on what we find in cyberspace. So, while I try to understand this new world that I find myself in, I find that many people seem to already know more about this country than I do while living back in Blighty. Not that I'm making a judgment on anyone. Its just strange.

I have tried to stay away from politics while writing this blog, as its primary purpose is to talk about my adjustment to life here, it is a blog naturally more concerned with the minutiae of life than the cut and thrust of political debate. I have a tendency to be more than a little opinionated when it comes to matters of an ideological bent, but I'm not totally sure that I have the right to comment on the rights and wrongs of U.S. politics just yet.

Being a recent immigrant to these shores, I have a extremely defined legal status. I am a “conditional permanent resident”. My permanent residency is as a result of my marriage to Kelly but as we were married for less than two years when we applied, my residency is of a conditional nature for its first two years. After that I can apply to remove the conditional nature of my status.

Permanent resident status is what many people refer to as possessing a “green card”. I am required to have my card with me at all times, as it serves as my I.D. as well as proof of my right to stay in this country. It has many benefits that I share with U.S. citizens, I can work, I can pay taxes, I can gain a driver's license etc. However I have to tell the government every time I move house and I can't vote.

Voting is a reserve of full U.S. Citizens and I can't even apply to become one until I have been a full, non conditional permanent resident for 5 years. As I still have a year till I can apply for a change of status to reach such a categorisation, it means that it will be a full 6 years, at the very least before I can vote. So not only can I not vote in this Presidential election but I won't be able to vote in the one in 4 years time either.

Which is where the strangeness of the information super-highway hits me. Here am I, living in America, reluctant to make any comments relating to social and political issues because my voice really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of the American political system, if it ever does. However in the world of social media, everyone has a say in everything. It seems not to matter that you live 4,000 miles away from the U.S. because your opinion obviously matters in the coming Presidential election. And of course, everything posted online is more trustworthy than things found in the print and television media.

Now I'm not meaning to judge anyone who posts on this issue, but it shows just how the world we now live in feels connected like never before. We see it on the screen and we sympathise with our friends overseas and so we're going to let our voices be heard. Even if it doesn't directly affect us at all.

One of the subjects where this is most evident is in the videos posted online and the response to the convention season. In the classic, late 90s-early 2000s TV series “The West Wing”, the White House Communications Director, Toby Ziegler, attempts to pressure television networks into guaranteeing coverage of the entire Democrat Convention in the face of their natural opinion that no one will watch it. For many years, the convention has been covered less and less, with only the keynote speeches and candidates acceptance of the nomination getting any airtime at all. Now however, the Internet allows for the mass dispersal, promotion and spin of the whole over stuffed shebang.

This, of course, has been at least partially influenced, by the fact that the candidates this year are among the most controversial of recent years, neither of whom came out of the primary season looking like undisputed leaders of their parties.

So welcome to convention season, two weeks which amount to the most public, most drawn out and by far the most dramatic committee meetings in the world. Officially that is what they are, a meeting of each parties national committees where they each have delegates from every state in the Union and they each nominate their candidate for election to the highest office in the land. I am discovering in the midst of watching these conventions and people's reactions to very carefully selected excerpts of speeches that the Internet, watching “The West Wing” all the way through on no less than three occasions and knowing who Ronald Reagan's opponent was in the 1984 election have not prepared me for the experience of viewing this election from inside this great country.*

The Conventions however are only a footnote, merely a formality as it were and therefore the culmination of an entire primary season. By the time a candidate gets to the convention, they have already been on the campaign trail in some form or other for the last 18 months and still have nearly 4 months left to campaign. In answer to the question of when their journey to this exalted stage of their career started their speech writers will inevitably have concocted some heart warming story of the moment in their history when they realised that they wanted arguably one of the most powerful jobs in the world. But that is just hype.

Practically their journey begins with the formation of an exploratory committee. An exploratory committee's job is to gauge the level of support for the candidate both within their party and in the country as a whole, to start to acquire financial capital, no-one after all makes it even to the candidacy of their party without spending a stupendously large amount of cash. They also start to create the infrastructure for a national campaign.

If the exploratory committee thinks they have a shot then they will officially launch their campaign for the candidacy of their party. This is masterminded with just as much attention to detail and often flamboyance as a national campaign would be. They have a professionally designed campaign logo, a slogan designed to grab the public's attention, political directors, speech writers, spin doctors and media experts. They also have an ideological platform which will become the basis for their general election campaign position. That is if they make it to the convention as the nominee, of course.

The primaries are a battlefield, like any election. The battlefield is America and the individual battles are for the individual states. America is a federal republic which means that numerous aspects of political life are devolved to the states. Article IV of the U.S. Constitution defines the relationship between the individual states and the national or “federal” government, at least in theory. Each state has it's own laws, its own executive (a governor), a legislature (called numerous things depending on the state but generally mirroring the two chambered system of the federal Congress in Washington D.C.) and a judiciary.

The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are no exception. They have always been organised on a state level. The building blocks of the two party system in the United States is often found in the strength of their “grassroots” state organisations. This means that although the Office of the President is the executive arm of the federal government, the first electoral step on the road to it's oval shaped glory is to convince individual state parties that you should be their candidate in November.

Now, this isn't easy, America, for all its patriotic fervour is not some monolithic imperial power with a group mind that brooks no disagreement. Each state is motivated by its own issues. My adopted home state of Wisconsin, for instance, is obviously going to be extremely interested in the candidates stance on agricultural issues and awareness of rural and conservational issues as well as the economy and jobs. However a state like New York, while having a large rural area within it, will often tend to be more interested in the candidates stance on social issues directly affecting the inner city, primarily because the state is dominated by and named after New York City and its 8 million inhabitants. Water conservation and rights are going to be of interest to south western states with their dry climates but of no interest whatsoever to Washington state or Oregon with their abundance of rainfall.

To win the primaries therefore, the campaigns have to be ready to run fifty smaller campaigns for each state's hearts and minds. This was a revelation to me, even though I knew that, in principle, this was the way it worked. It turns out that when its your state's turn on the electoral merry-go-round, especially if yours is the only primary scheduled for that day, you start to wish that democracy itself didn't exist. That nobody wanted your votes for anything and that the candidates would kindly hurry up and get off your commercial breaks.

They advertise the candidate, like trying to get you to buy a used car. You are a consumer. Part of a demographic and a state they desperately need to win and so exposure to the candidates views are a must, this, after all is the ideological battlefield.

There are debates and mud slinging, gaffes and mistakes, speeches and less well intentioned oratory. It becomes a knock down drag out fight just to gain the chance to do it all again in November. Everyone is looking for that one vital moment to land the knockout punch and proceed to the convention as the presumptive nominee. The earlier you win, of course, the easier you can hide the fact that you verbally attacked the rest of the candidates from your party and present a unified front long before the convention winds around.

The conventions are supposed to exude a kind of celebratory party like kind of vibe. If the state rounds were all about trying to get the party to choose a candidate, this is all about showing off the candidate to the party and showing them that everything is ready for the general election.

This years conventions were held in Cleveland, Ohio, (Republican Convention) and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, (Democratic Convention). The Republican National Committee had tried to inject a feeling of rock and roll into the proceeding by placing their mascot, an elephant, onto the silhouette of an electric guitar, referencing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nearby. This might have worked, if the Governor of Ohio, John Kasich, hadn't been one of the defeated challengers in the Republican primary and decided not to attend the Convention. Meaning that every news story that first day was about that decision. Not the start that the National Committee would really want to see. But something that often happens when the Convention isn't really sure about how committed the winning nominee is to the party's platform.

The Democrats had on the other hand gone with the tried and tested formula,you hold anything in Philadelphia, you use the Liberty Bell as your logo. And there it was, replacing the “0” in “2016”. No over the top drama here the first day. The winning nominee for the Democrats being a woman who many within that party have dreamed of having on this stage for a long, long time.

The conventions then proceed as usual, a working weeks worth of speeches, exhortations, rabble rousing, Bill Clinton talking about cartoons, Melania Trump talking about fashion and how she loves her Multi, Multi, Millionaire husband, Meryl Streep squealing like a teenage girl at a One Direction concert at the prospect of a female president. Everything is heightened, every emotion is extreme. America is after all one of the few nations in the world truly founded on an idea, a concept. Its not just that there is an American Dream, but that America is the dream and all of these people feel that it has been lost somewhere, like Richard Nixon dropped it down the back of the couch one day and nobody's been able to find it since.

There is no cynicism to the party faithful that flock to the conventions. They really do believe that they are the only ones who can save the American dream. They turn a blind eye to the failings of their nominees (because all politicians have failings) and the whole thing becomes a beatification, the nominee raised to sainthood, the standard bearer of their party. The opposing parties candidate now is seen in the opposite way. Like an enemy to the true fulfillment of the dream, at best a sadly deluded personage who should really have stayed at home.

There are many who believe that this election could be incredibly close, despite the Republican candidates tendency to indulge in silly posts on Twitter that help his campaign very little. People in the U.K. and that includes many who have become entitled to have an opinion by watching You Tube videos, wonder how that can be. The Democratic candidate comes across as a much more sensible bet, surely she's going to walk it. Why isn't she doing a victory lap already?

The fact it is, as the primaries are conducted on a state level so, to a degree is the general. Each state has a series of votes attached to it. In the same way as the primaries decide how the delegates will vote at the National Convention, these decide how the Electoral College will vote.

In the days before instantaneous communication, the Presidential election was decided by delegates to an Electoral College sent from their state to vote in Washington D.C. for the candidate their state had voted for. States with larger populations got more delegates than states with smaller populations. It was considered the only way to hold the election on the same day everywhere and get reliable results. Now although things have changed in terms of communication, the Electoral College still exists. This means a simple majority of votes in the country will do, you have to win states across the board.

This is where things could potentially get a lot closer. The Democrats have for many years easily taken the East and West Coasts. This means they take the largest state in terms of electoral college votes, California and also New York. They succeed in large cities and urban areas, but the American system is set up so that smaller rural states can't be ignored and have a say. And as the Republicans just as invariably take the second largest electoral college state of Texas. It forces candidates to have to listen to everyone in the country not just their natural voters.

The states in the centre of the country are often referred to as “Flyover States” because the Democrats have tended to ignore their issues while flying from their power bases on the East and West Coasts. These states have not always been fertile ground for the Democratic party and many that once had industrial cities within them blame the Democratic candidate for her agreement with her husband's signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which they feel destroyed manufacturing in America's heartland. They don't want food to be cheaper for inner city children because they have farms that need a fair price to survive. They also feel that all the money they pay in taxes to the Federal government goes predominantly on inner city areas with social problems that they don't have. They own guns for hunting, but feel vilified for possessing them by the anti gun lobby when they feel the real gun problem in the U.S. is with unregistered gun owners in the inner cities.

So this is the strangeness I find, we sit now on our computers and make decisions about candidates and politicians across the world based on our own ideologies defined by our own lives. I may listen to the Republican candidate and find much of what he says repugnant but I can't deny the fact that many in the heartland of America, couldn't care less about what he says about those issues so long as he brings prosperity back to them. There is an area known as the Rust Belt, it is made up of former manufacturing towns whose jobs have trickled away, Detroit, for instance, once provided much of America with its cars, now many worry that it could become a ghost town. There are many who hold the Democratic candidate at least partially responsible for this state of affairs. Many also feel that although the current President has done a lot for the big cities he has done little for rural areas and states which are majority rural.

So maybe this, I feel, is what I'm learning, the Internet has a great potential to inform us, to teach us, to show us the future and inform us of the past. It also, however robs us of our experience of the world around us. We no longer try to find out what the people around us think because so many of our friends are now like minded individuals who live on the internet making us feel like everyone in the world thinks the same as we do.

I am here in the midst of this country, trying to understand its many different ways and cultural peculiarities. I'm not sure which way I would actually vote in the long run. I know that for many this year, its going to come down to which of the candidates is despised least. The lesser of two evils. I am learning that sometimes the Internet allows us to get flippant about issues that many people take incredibly seriously and which affect many lives.

I have no judgment to pass on anyone. I can be as guilty of this as anyone can be. I just wonder whether the next time we find some video of a politician speaking in another country about things that we can't hope to truly experience, we seek to learn more, not put the video on our Facebook feed and say “I'll just leave this here...Mic Drop”, no matter how amusing the man's orange hair-do is.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Baseball, Brats and British Ex-pats

It wasn't until Neil asked where the Away fans end was, that I remembered just how different American sports and their supporters are to the British way of thinking. If its true that you can tell a lot about a nation and a culture through the sports they choose to pursue and how they pursue said sports, then Britain and America's special relationship is not as close as some might think.

Neil and I were sat, along with my wife, Kelly, high above first base at Miller Park, the home stadium of the Milwaukee Brewers, Wisconsin's only Major League Baseball team and Neil was trying to find his bearings. Come to think of it, looking back, he wasn't the only one.

Sometimes, when my working week runs smoothly, the weather stays just below unbearable on my own personal humidity scale and I manage to grasp the intricacies of some overly simple part of living here in America (such as operating the tumble dryer) I try to tell myself that I'm finally getting my bearings, learning my way around this deeply complex country and generally doing pretty well. Around about the time I get to thinking like this, circumstance tends to clip me around the ear and tell me I've still got a long way to go in learning to understand this foreign country.

Truth is, I am, on the whole, doing pretty well on the whole adjustment thing. I've learned, in most occasions, what is a correct amount to tip in restaurants, I'm getting better at understanding how jobs work over here and I have some inkling of how tax returns work.

However despite this, I still have a long, long, way to go.

It is fairly accurate to say that when we British think of the Americans, it has always been with a sense of familial relationship as if America is a younger sibling with a rebellious attitude and loud taste in clothes and music but family all the same. We don't think of ourselves as foreigners, not deep down, as saturated as we often feel with American movies, music and culture. But we are, even though we don't feel it and so, more often than not I find that my bearings are still a little eschew.

Despite following the NFL(National Football League), since before I was a teenager and gamely making an effort to do the same with the NHL (that's the National Hockey League) this past season, MLB, or Major League Baseball, is still mostly an undiscovered country to me.

On the verge of moving here, it occurred to me that I should probably choose a professional team to follow from each of the major sports in the United States. I figured that it would give me something to talk about at work with the guys, if nothing else.

So I set about choosing five teams using criteria which, quite often, verged on arbitrary and in at least one occasion, just plain ridiculous. I have followed the “Green Bay Packers” since well before the onset of puberty, so that was a given. Wisconsin doesn't have an NHL team so I looked across the Mississippi to my wife's people in Minnesota and the “Minnesota Wild”. The “Minnesota Timberwolves” stole my basketball allegiance with their logo, which, unlike the “Milwaukee Bucks” logo, looks absolutely nothing like a dead deer's head stuffed and mounted on someone's wall. Living in Madison, my college sports team had to be the “Wisconsin Badgers” and then I had to address the baseball situation.

Baseball was definitely at the bottom of my list of U.S. Sporting pastimes to get into. At times in Britain, we can see baseball as merely an overrated game of rounders, a schoolyard sport elevated to a ridiculous level of seriousness, but over here it is seen as “America's Game”. So I eventually realised that I had to at least find a way of taking it all in and learn to like it.

Baseball is the oldest of America's professional sports, as it was definitely the earliest to be organised into anything approaching the structure of a modern sporting organisation. The National League, which is one of the two leagues which make up Major League Baseball, (the other is the American League) was founded on February 2nd 1876. This makes it the oldest of the professional sports leagues in the United States, by far. The NHL wasn't founded till 1917 and until the 1960s only had six teams in operation most of the time, the NFL likewise wasn't founded until 1919 and didn't reach a national following until the advent of television in the 1950s and 60s. The National Basketball Association is strictly a postwar organisation, not being founded until 1946.

To put it simply, before the advent of television, cable sports broadcasts, multi-media extravaganzas, pay per view internet podcasts; before the birth of our increasingly connected hyper-active information super-highway influenced world; before all of that, Baseball reigned supreme over the American nation and its collective psyche.

Even now it has the oldest teams. There are still teams present in MLB that were found on that very first National League rosta, albeit with different names or locations. And it is this longevity that separates baseball from other sports here in the U.S. Baseball, I am learning, truly represents something deeper than just sport to many Americans. It is more than a sport, it is memory, nostalgia, a symbol of a more innocent time that many worry that this nation has forgot.

Baseball is the sport that comforted them through the great depression. It came of age as America itself did, soldiers in the Civil War playing it on hastily constructed diamonds in camp. Then it grew to professionalism at the the same time as the United States started to look beyond its borders to the rest of the world. In the 1960s, Paul Simon, caught up in the social upheaval and artistic milieu of counter-culture, desperately searches around to find an image to denote innocence, nostalgia and integrity for his generation. He ends up looking to a baseball player, Joe Di Maggio, asking where he has gone, as if baseball could, even then, save America from its own culture wars. Di Maggio, “Joltin' Joe” proved that maybe Simon was right in that assumption, when they eventually met Di Maggio asked Simon whether he was calling Di Maggio to account for something he'd done wrong. Simon merely said that Di Maggio was a hero and they were in short supply.

Baseball is innocence to Americans, its also dreams and nostalgia and echoes of the past. Kevin Costner builds a baseball field in a cornfield to find absolution in the arms of a father he couldn't talk to because of the difference in generations. So having realised this, it seemed that I should promote baseball further up my list of U.S. sports to start following.

Which is why Neil and I were sitting alongside Kelly, in the seats of Miller Park, watching my final choice of baseball team, the “Milwaukee Brewers” take on the “St Louis Cardinals” one of the oldest teams in baseball.

Milwaukee is Wisconsin's most populous city and, according to my sources, the fifth largest urban area in the mid-west. Located in south east of Wisconsin, it lies on Lake Michigan, making it the northern end of a band of built up urban areas that wrap around the western and southern sides of the lake. The other end lies at Chicago, Illinois, of course. And in between them lies cities like Kenosha and Racine.

According to the all knowing Wikipedia, Milwaukee revels in a plethora of nicknames, such as : “cream city”, “brew city”, “beer city”, “brewtown”, “beer town”, “miltown”, “the mil”, “mke”, “the city of festivals” and “Deutsch-Athens” (German Athens)

Like many other cities within Wisconsin, Milwaukee was founded by French settlers coming down from Canada, but as time went on it became defined more by German and Polish influences along with lesser amounts of immigrants from other central and eastern European nations. If Minnesota, as I mentioned before, is known for its Scandinavian heritage then Milwaukee and much of Wisconsin, is known for its central European roots. Why else would the official “state dance” be “the Polka”?

Milwaukee celebrates its German heritage, glorifying in the German sausages known as “Bratwurst”, here known more often as “brats” and often boiled in a mixture of beer and onions and then thrown on a grill. They are pretty amazing and end up tasting like the best hot dogs the world could ever have created. They also love their beer, for many years Milwaukee was the largest single producer of beer, in the world. Despite losing three out of the four major breweries that used to make their home there, its still has the last one, “Miller” brewery, which is still one of America's most popular beers.

Milwaukee is also known for its festivals, with one happening virtually every week. This is a city of celebration. It even has its own Oktoberfest something not seen that much outside Germany, apart from in the rest of Wisconsin, that is. It boasts “Summerfest”, a massive music festival that boasts many more acts, three times as many days and definitely better weather than wading around in a muddy field in the English countryside and convincing everyone that Glastonbury Music Festival is not actually a colossal waste of money.

Milwaukee is also the closest Wisconsin comes to an old-fashioned, working class, blue collar, industrial powerhouse of a town, like Detroit, back in the day, or Pittsburgh. During the 1920s, 30s and 40s, it was the only city that the Socialist Party of America made a serious impact in politics and city government.

So what better place to go watch baseball in Wisconsin, or for that matter, any where in the Mid-West. A quintessential American industrial city, a melting pot of races, cultures, festivals and “America's Game”, the only game that travelled to this continent at least partially formed. The pomp, ceremony and the history.

The Milwaukee Brewers are the city's second major league franchise, since the Milwaukee Braves (originally the Boston Braves, who moved to the city in 1953.) left in 1965 for Atlanta. The Brewers first played in Milwaukee in 1970 and from then until the year 2000, they played at “County Stadium”. Then they built “Miller Park”

There is always a discussion when building American sports stadiums about whether to build an enclosed, indoor stadium or a traditional, outdoor, bowl-shaped ground.

Many areas, in the U.S., have extreme climates, of course. Arizona, for instance, with its desert heat or New Orleans, with its marshy, river delta humidity. In these cities, an indoor, temperature, controlled environment makes sense, it is even desirable for sporting contests. However, conversely, there are other sports teams, such as the veteran leviathans of the NFL's National Football Conference North, the “Green Bay Packers” and the “Chicago Bears”, who use the adverse weather conditions of their open air grounds to intimidate opponents. (If you interested in just how “adverse” this can be, search for the “Icebowl” game of the 1960s on the Internet.)

Miller Park is actually something in between, a stadium boasting a fan-shaped retractable roof which opens and closes to match weather conditions. When we went it was a Tuesday night game and there was the threat of rain. So the roof was closed.

So back, eventually, to where I started, in answer to Neil's question, there is no home end or away end in American sports in general. Home and Away supporters sit together and enjoy games together. While quite willing to “trash talk” opposing teams fans in the run up to the game, there is very little “hooliganism” associated with any American sport.

When watching such a game, it rapidly becomes obvious why many people in the UK don't like watching U.S. sports. In many nations, particularly the UK, sports are contests of strength, wit, skill and dedication. They are all about the game itself, the spectators are almost incidental. American sport, on the other hand, is different. My father always complains to me that the NFL, for instance, is not actually a sport, its theatre, a spectacle for the masses and he's only partially wrong.

American sports acknowledge the need to entertain, to put on a show to reward the spectator for coming. It is an attractive package, even though to say so seems like a betrayal to the no-nonsense northern town I grew up in. I have to say I'd rather watch a spectacle of some over-the-top American sport, designed for the fans as much as anyone else, than spend just under two hours on a wind swept, rain drenched, Saturday afternoon in February with nothing to take my mind away from the home team's dismal performance than a round of “Crossbar Challenge” at half-time and “Scunny Bunny” running round the sidelines like he's on some illicit substance.

Maybe that's one of the reasons we British, struggle to get our bearings over here. We're traditionalists, in it for the sport itself and while I admit to enjoying the trappings of U.S. sporting contests, it is with a fair amount of guilt. That this is too much ceremony for a game. “You're coming to watch the game, why do you need anything else?” We like to think we're on the right side of this argument, but maybe we're not.

America seems to accept fundamental concepts of modern sports that we British choose to ignore, even in their oldest game. They acknowledge that sport is a business. That teams are a brand. That if you want to appeal to families, you need a greater incentive that promising them they won't be sat next to a fan, screaming obscenities, questioning the parentage of the referee and chanting about if he was a bird, he would fly away and defecate on the away team's home ground.

So, here, the prices are generally better, the food in the stadiums is better. I had cheese curds and a brat and although I had a soda, Neil and Kelly both had a beer. This isn't the sort of place to give you a luke-warm pukka pie which you have to devour in 15 minutes while wondering how full the toilets are going to be.

When a home run is scored in Miller Park, there are fireworks under the roof, at the New England Patriots, a group of minutemen fire off a musket volley to greet touchdowns and Tampa Bay's Buccaneers employ a cannon shot from the pirate ship built into their home stadium to signal the same result.

This is still alien to me, as much as I enjoy it. We British, are purists, closing our eyes often, to the business-like footing of modern sports and shaking our collective fists at so-called progress.

We still believe that the point is to compete, even if we have no hope of winning, why else do we send so many athletes to the Winter Olympics when it barely snows at home anymore.

Maybe, we're not purists, just fearful pessimists. Maybe that's why I struggle to get my bearings. The Americans are the ultimate optimists. We look warily across the Atlantic, not wanting the Yanks to come and mess up our games with their brash lights and commercialised competitions. They see as part and parcel of making sports fun and inclusive to all. Even in baseball, where during the game we watched, there were at least two sing-a-longs, a mascot race involving different sausages, the “Famous Racing Sausages” and numerous chances to get yourself on the scoreboard with your outrageous dancing to the music played at the end of each inning.

So, maybe this blog is deeper thinking than some of the others, but I do wonder whether this is what it feels like to be an immigrant, ever torn between two ways of thinking, even when people share a language like we do. Maybe its about what you decide to keep from home and what you decide to discard. And maybe sports and entertainment and other forms of popular culture are where you're going to feel it the most. I am not sorry to be British and to have grown up in the North of England but I'm also now aware that no country is totally right and sometimes even the things we hold on to tightly are the things that should be traded in.

So I told Neil about the fans and we had a good time. The Brewers lost but they really aren't that good of a team at the moment. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Independence Day : Bluegills and Freedom

In the not too distant past, as in within the last month, a man who never really expected to achieve his goal in the first time of asking stood and like a proud Olympic gold medalist made a bold triumphant statement, his name was Nigel Farage, the leader of the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)and his nation, the United Kingdom, had just voted to leave the European Union. As he basked in the glow of the slightly unexpected referendum result, he declared with typical grandiose verve and overly dramatic flair that that day should from now be known as the U.K.s Independence Day.

Now I'm not passing judgment on any of the various arguments that have been made or will be made before, during and after that monumental referendum campaign nor am I passing judgment on Mr Farage himself. Far too many words have been written in anger, sarcasm and arrogant superiority, by both sides of said debate and upon every single medium of information dispersal available to the world. I would only point out, however, that no part of the United Kingdom has been conquered by an external force for nigh on a thousand years and so his statement while it will be loved by his supporters and hated by his detractors will probably be considered in the light of history as excitable ideological hyperbole.

The reason being, the UK is one of the oldest states in the world, has one of the oldest Parliaments and was formerly a major colonial power. The whole reasoning behind the “Leave” campaign's stance is that the United Kingdom has never bowed to anyone, least of all, in their mind, to a group of faceless bureaucrats in some European city somewhere eating foreign food and trying to get rid of pounds and ounces and other British ways of doing things. “Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves” displays the attitude of a people who have never needed an Independence Day.

The truth is, Independence Days are the reserve of colonies. They are a commemoration of the moment a new country cuts the constitutional apron strings that ties them to a mother country and step out onto the international stage, like a newborn, blinking in the light. It is for new countries to lay claim to, not former imperial powers. Independence Days remember violent births not the slightly bad tempered “conscious uncoupling” of recent European debate.

I say all of this by way of introduction to this addition of my impossibly popular blog ( I say impossibly popular, I do know that it gets read. I think...) and to acknowledge that due to the interruption of everyday life into the complex act of electronic epistle composition, I find that I now don't just have to recount the events of my friend Neil's visit over Memorial Day but also now I find that the United States Independence Day has come and gone and I should say something about that as well. Neatly both occasions took place in the same location. I spent Memorial Day in one place and then we were back there for Independence Day. Which gives the events a certain symmetry and also makes it easier to write. I don't have to describe the same place twice and being a slightly lazy writer, that does have an appeal to my desire for an easy life.

And what was that location, I hear you query. It was a cabin and a lake under open skies, the shallows all sun dappled under the trees. It was a dock and a boat, with fishing rods and lazy moments where time seems to stand still and all is well in the world. Which is admittedly about par for the course around here.

Despite the fact that I have waxed poetic about my wife's home state of Minnesota and when I last wrote, I left Neil and I stuck in the largest Mall in the United States which is situated in Minnesota. Despite all of this, the lake was in Wisconsin. Admittedly it was situated in the North West of Wisconsin and was far closer to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St Paul than to our humble apartment here in Madison but it still lay in Wisconsin.

The cabin belongs to my wife's aunt and uncle who own an agricultural supply company “up North” as people in Wisconsin say. They are a wonderful couple who have always been wonderfully supportive of my wife and I throughout the length of our courtship and actually were able to travel to the UK for our wedding which was a blessing. They are also accomplished in all the things that people in the north of Wisconsin should be.

Wisconsin is a beautiful state and each day I live here I find that I fall in love with it more. It is a state of great forests, lakes, rolling hills, lazy rivers, exciting and thriving cities. It has the Mid-West's continental climate of warm humid summers and freezing cold winters, its no exaggeration that Lambeau Field, the home stadium of the state's NFL team, my beloved Green Bay Packers, is known far and wide as “The Frozen Tundra”.

The state was originally settled by the French and discovered by them as early as 1634, barely twenty years after the first British settlement in the New World. They came for the furs, trapping animals such as beavers and trading their pelts back to the old world. Then came miners, many originally from Cornwall in the United Kingdom, who when the harsh winters came used their mines as shelters burrowing in like badgers, giving the state it's nickname, “The Badger State”.

Milwaukee grew and developed a famous brewing industry. Kenosha became known as a stereotypical 50s Mid-Western town twenty years after the fact when “Happy Days” was set there. The Republican party was founded in the state in a small white schoolhouse in the equally small settlement of Ripon, Wisconsin. Madison's radical university politics of the 1960s led to it being named “The Berkeley of the Mid-West”

It is an agricultural state, famous for its dairy farming, cheese and bizarrely enough, its cranberries. Wisconsin produces more cranberries than any other state in the Union. And you thought it was only New England states that got in on that kind of action. It also produces a good proportion of the United States' cheese, which is why Packer fans wear foam hats in the form of cheese to games (Go Cheeseheads)

Everyone, it seems in Wisconsin, fishes, hunts and camps or knows somebody who fishes, hunts and camps. This is especially true the further north you go in the state. Wisconsin has a population of roughly 5 and half million people but a total land area of over 54 thousand square miles. And when you consider that Milwaukee and the surrounding area account for somewhere in the region of 2 million people out of that total and that Madison and its metropolitan area account for approaching 600 thousand people, that means there's a lot of empty space out there to hunt and fish in. Another point to take into account is that all the state's large cities lie in the bottom half of the state which means the North is full of excellent opportunities for fishing, hunting, camping and all those other things that John Candy failed so badly at doing in “The Great Outdoors” (and yes, there are bears), When Wisconsin feels like some outdoors recreation, they head North.

Which brings me back, via a wide tangent I know, to the point that Mrs Geekrant's aunt and uncle are real Northern Wisconsin people, he hunts upon occasion, they both fish, they both ice fish which is a pursuit which I would approach with some trepidation. They once woke up one morning to find a bear on their porch and as I previously mentioned they supply some great agricultural machinery.

So being born in the United Kingdom, in the untamed semi urbanised wilds of the North of England and having very little training in outdoorsy things, (other than how to make a fire and pitch a tent.) when they bought a cabin on a lake, I was obviously ecstatic to spend some time up there.

On Memorial Day, we drove up from my In-Laws place in Minnesota in Melissa's convertible with the top down, (a new experience for me as let's face it, an open topped car in Britain is a recipe to get rained on and after my mother finally dragged my father's hands of the keys of his beloved, yet apparently slightly dilapidated, MG long before I was born. She was never allowing him to buy a new one... well its not really practical with four kids.) We crossed the Mississippi at Red Wing and wound our way through quiet small towns and past red painted barns and eventually reached the cabin.

The name of the cabin is “Bluegill Bay” and it lies next to the road as it curves to turn around the edge of the lake. It lies shaded by trees with a little dock from which to fish from and a pontoon boat anchored there. Mrs Geekrant's Uncle Jim greeted us as usual wearing dungarees or bib overalls as they're known here. He's an authority on many of the things you didn't think you needed to know about living here, but later find out that you really, really did.

Not long after we got their, my brothers in law turned up, one with his children, all sun bleached blonde hair and blue eyes. It turned out that Mrs Geekrant's other aunt and uncle were already out in their own boat they'd bought with them fishing. So Neil's first American holiday was spent with my wife's extended family, messing about on the lake. Which, I'm learning, is exactly how its supposed to be.

We fished, hanging rods of the end of the dock, wrapping worms around hooks and angling for the bluegill, sunfish and crappie that make up a lot what are known as panfish here. The fish could be seen, the sun cutting through the water reflecting off their scales as they took the bait.

The lake is surrounded by trees, shading the banks and creating privacy for the other cabins one could see poking out in places from gaps in the foliage. The sun was brilliant overhead, we ate brats and salad and chips and all the other foods that make American picnic food some of the best in the world and time stops and slows down and you know what peace is, and solitude is, away from cellphones and business meetings and the next season of “Whatever Country you happen to be in right now's Got Talent” And then we took the boat out.

We went out twice, the pontoon speeding its way round the relatively small lake and floating slowly past lily pads and mini marshes. We marvelled at the size of the cabins on the shore, less cabins than mini mansions with outdoor kitchens and guest quarters bigger than the house I grew up in.

Then my wife grew nervous, as here Uncle Jim asked me if I wanted to drive the boat. Now I can't even drive a car and mechanical things have never exactly been my forte but I've been getting quite comfortable on my father in law's ATVs after I nearly flipped his brand new one last autumn so I took the plunge and hoped that I didn't make everyone else take the plunge as well.

The controls aren't that difficult, just a steering wheel and a hand operated throttle. I drove us around one of the lakes of the chain we were in for a while, grateful that my niece and nephew were wearing life jackets and then with my wife mentioning slightly stridently in my ear that we didn't want to crash the boat and ruin our relationship with her relations, I steeled myself. In one place, a roadway crossed a narrow channel that separated one lake from another and that was the way Uncle Jim wanted me to go. So I decided he must know what he was doing trusting me, so I went for it.

I succeeded, with Uncle Jim and my brother in law standing in the stern to push the boat of the wall if I ran into them. The irony amused me, I have successfully steered a boat for a good ten minutes before I've driven a car successfully for ten seconds. I was stupidly impressed with myself.

Neil fished most of that day, sat with a fishing rod hung over the edge of the dock, I think he enjoyed the solitude, even in the midst of the crowd of family. Maybe that it something we've lot in the United Kingdom over the years. The ability to be alone. To be separated from the rest of civilisation and find ourselves in a place where nature has more hold on the land than we do. I wonder if that is something that my friend found there, for he certainly enjoyed his time at the cabin that day.

When we returned for Independence Day, we found more of the same solitude. This time only myself and Kelly (Mrs Geekrant), joined her Uncle Jim and Aunt Sue at Bluegill Bay.

We also stayed there for two nights, sleeping in a small extra cabin behind the main cabin that Sue called the “shiner shack”. Being uninformed and arrogantly certain of my own deductive skills, I assumed this referred to moonshine, but I was put right on that score, a shiner is apparently a small fish used a bait, traditionally prepared before being used to fish with.

It was a beautiful cabin to stay in, simple and peaceful, the reflected sunlight from the lake breaking through the shades and dancing on the wooden ceiling. It bought to mind boathouses in the years before the Second World War, where the aristocracy had whiled away their time.

I slept peacefully there that night, as far from the lights of towns and the endless noise of never ceasing traffic as I have ever been. Outside, the stars were as bright and as numerous as I have ever seen them. Somewhere in these woods, bears make their home and raccoons scurry along tree branches. Herons flew down to the lake shore merely feet away from us and geese, ironically, played chicken on the road.

We fished off the boat on the Sunday and I caught a large Bluegill, which was an achievement for me, as I was worried that it would prove to be similar to a lot of my practical endeavours, fruitless. But it proved to be otherwise. We fished off the boat for most of the weekend, ending up terribly sun-burnt (at least in Kelly's case) and bitten up by mosquitoes (in my case, I must get used to the fact that if I wear shorts at sunset, I am presenting an all you can eat buffet to the little blighters.) but happy and relaxed at the end of it all.

We lay in giant inflatable tyre toys for two or three hours, floating on the lake, completely relaxed. However when I came to extricate myself from said device I found that my short legs and tubby tummy left me in the same state as a tortoise. There was much flapping around until I was able to get out. Kelly thought it was funny... it very well may have been, I could not possibly comment.

There was a boat parade the next day, the 4th, the inhabitants of the cabins choosing to celebrate Independence by a flotilla of craft bedecked, for the most part, in the Stars and Stripes. Their identity wrapped up in all that that flag represents.

For it is to that flag they pledge their allegiance. They are not tied to a Queen like we British, or to similarity of tribe like the Germans or France or even to a hardcore hard-line ideology like the Chinese or the Cubans. They pledge their allegiance to Independence and to Freedom, acknowledging that those two principles mean something different to everyone else but that their nation was founded and still exists to discover whether a people can reconcile those differences and establish “a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people...” and that such a government “shall not perish from the earth.”

This blog started talking about one man declaring the United Kingdom's independence, I have already made the point that this might be a little over the top but once upon a time, men truly did break away from a larger power in a way that cost them their lives through war, not their sanity through pathetic mean spirited vitriol on social media and established “on this continent a new nation”.

I am a subject of her majesty and her United Kingdom lately moved to this great nation and all its contradictions. All its potential for good and for ill. I love it as only a immigrant can, looking in from the outside. I first went to the cabin on Memorial Day and returned on Independence Day. In this article I have quoted Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, given at the dedication of the Civil War cemetery in November of 1863. I am realising all the more, the people still hold their flag in the same honour as they did on the fields of Gettysburg, 153 years ago.
Our flag represents the union of three kingdoms, a physical reality, theirs represents the ideal of a their nation far more than just a reality. This is their symbol of their nation, all its successes and failures and as it fluttered behind our boat on a sun drenched 4th of July, I caught a glimpse, maybe, of just what that means to an American.

P.S. For those who wonder how Neil and I got out of the Mall of America, think about it. Neil knows his way around Abercrombie and Fitch, he is an accomplished shopper. The only difficulty was getting him to make a decision on a sweater.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Geekrant vs the Cafe and the Baseball Mall

Greetings, to everyone who thinks these humble musings of mine are worth reading, much thanks. I hope my latest blog is worthy of your readership.

As I adjust to life in America, I find that much of the United States is governed by the tension between two different ways, attitudes and opinions of life. Right from its founding, this nation has been been defined by how each and every person defines and sees it in a different way and manner. And that includes every part of life here. Anyway, more about that later.

So sometimes, the light here is too strong for me. I'm unsure of any scientific reasoning for this, but the light feels brighter, a quality of light not found upon that somewhat clouded island that bore me and gave once “its flowers to love and its ways to roam”. Four straight years of working permanent night shifts before I moved here didn't exactly help either. At times I try to increase my tolerance for this helical overload by sitting in the sun out on the balcony of our apartment accompanied by our dog, Reba, an animal much more adapted to basking in the sun than I am.

Here I find myself writing the next missive of my journal of transatlantic adaptation on the longest day of the year and it reminds me of the way the light feels finding its way into my parent's kitchen at home or into my in-laws house above the river in Frontenac which I mentioned in my last blog.

The light wakes you early in that house, that morning it splashed over Melissa asleep on the couch in the three season porch*, it found its way through the cracks in the spare room curtains to tickle Mrs Geekrant and myself asleep on the bed, it warmed Reba awake and finally it alighted on Neil, asleep on a couch in the living room.

We were waking in the breath-taking and friendly state of Minnesota, as beautiful and as welcoming a place to lay one's head than I have ever known. Waking in Frontenac always means one thing however. Breakfast needs to be arranged and when we're visiting, at least one day of our stay, that means Breakfast at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

The Whistle Stop is what my wife likes to call a “mom and pop” style restaurant (which is American for “locally owned not a chain”) which cooks up pretty delicious food for what feels like the entire area. I have never been there when its been less than packed to the rafters. So as is our tradition and because we wanted to show our guest as much of America as is possible in course of ten days, we dragged ourselves down to the Whistle Stop.

The Whistle Stop Cafe is a simple building, a square block of wood framed quaintness. Inside, nothing is sophisticated, no tasteful bar chairs bought from Ikea or super enlarged pictures of coffee beans. Instead it feels homely and real, like sitting down in a friends kitchen and talking with family. Pictures on the walls reference the wildlife of the area and the trains that pass in front of the cafe on the other side of Highway 61 and give the cafe its name.

To the Whistle Stop, we ventured and as I have mentioned before Americans make a bigger deal of going out for breakfast than we British do. It is a time to meet, to catch up, to spend time together. So Mrs Geekrant and I went, and of course, Neil and Melissa. Also, my wife's parents went and her brother and sister in law and their children, our niece and nephew. We never go to the Whistle Stop without going mob-handed, it has to be said. But in this cafe, that seems to be the general idea.

They do a great job of feeding entire clans of people. The food always excellent, simple but filling and wonderfully tasty, inexpensive with portions always larger than you think they'll be so you always end up ordering more than you need. “Eyes bigger than bellies”, as my Grandma used to say.

The Hash Browns are wonderful and wholly unlike the batter covered fried creations of a million fast food breakfasts world-wide. Here Hash Browns mean piles of shredded and fried potatoes and onions, covered with cheese, if that is your fancy. The country fried steak is something that I wouldn't immediately associate with breakfast but makes a fine addition. Steak pounded thin, dipped in flour and batter, and fried like chicken. It is then covered in what the Americans call “Sausage gravy”, a white sauce, thick and creamy, probably closer to hot custard in consistency than beef gravy. Its full of that spice that all good sausages should have which is less about face melting heat and more about taste.

The eggs are done pretty much anyway you want and there's sausages and bacon, of course.

So you sit there for an hour or so and just be, just exist. Spending time with friends and family in a place than doesn't seem to care about the endless onslaught of the modern world and its obsession with progress. When it comes to paying, the Whistle Stop only takes cash or cheque, so put that plastic away, good sir, its not going to work here. Neil enjoyed himself I think, although the “Trucker Special”defeated even his pretty large appetite. And so we sat happy and content like hobbits in some novel by Tolkien, well fed. Places like this are dotted throughout the American Heartland, roadside oasis' appearing along the highway like some Tolkeinian hostelry. All welcome and good food.

After a time of basking in the afterglow of a good feed and with my in-laws off to church*, we decided to set off on the next stage of our journey. We took Neil to a baseball field. Well not exactly, we did take him to a baseball game that week* but that was at Miller Park in Milwaukee. The baseball park we took him to that Sunday had long since ceased to be any such thing.

When I was a young boy in the United Kingdom and urban developers decided to build a shopping centre (that's what the British call a mall) in Sheffield, they used land that had previously been used primarily for industrial purposes. They called it “Meadowhell”, I mean “Meadowhall”. In Minnesota, they did exactly the same thing but they built it on a ball park instead. They called it “The Mall of America”

One of the interesting things about Minnesota that I may not have mentioned in my brief “Ode to the North Star State” in my last entry, is a feature that sets it apart from any other state in America. It is the only state in the U.S. whose professional sports teams are all named for the state and not for any single city. The reason for this is the Twin Cities.

Minneapolis and St Paul each lie on the Mississippi River, one on either side, adjacent to one another. Minneapolis is the larger of the two but St Paul is the state capital. To all intents and purposes, they make up one urbanised mass, sitting on the upper Mississippi. But to the cities themselves, they are separate and equal entities, none more influential or important than the other. So, keeping that in mind, the teams are named for the state. The Minnesota: “Vikings*” (American Football), “Timberwolves” (Basketball), “The Wild”, “Lynx” (Women's Basketball), “Swarm” (Lacrosse)and, of course, their baseball team named after the state and the cities themselves. The Minnesota Twins.

The Twins and the Vikings, played, for many years at the indoor “Hubert H Humphrey Metrodome”, a stadium that gained world-wide notoriety when its roof collapsed from the weight of snow upon it, but before that they played in a stadium known as the “Metropolitan Stadium” which is located in Bloomington, a suburb of Minneapolis, an open air stadium, now unusual in Minnesota, the Metropolitan Stadium was used by the Twins and the Vikings from 1961 to 1981. After it was demolished, they built the “Mall of America” on the same site.

Now when I say they built a Mall, they really built a Mall. In the same way that the Whistle Stop is a hymn to small town simple living, unencumbered by modernity, the Mall of America is a cathedral to America's love of commercialism and convenience. It has over 520 stores spread out between what varies between 3 and 4 stories of airy light filled shopping heaven (or hell depending on your opinion of shopping). It has an amusement park in the centre, a thirty odd feet tall Lego sculpture of some Japanese Mecha above the Lego store and a Sealife centre in the basement.

Some stores have multiple outlets all in space that I reckon you could fit Meadowhall in about 8 times. Neil wanted to go to Abercrombie and Fitch, like any good preppy English boy who doesn't get to go that often. The first Abercrombie store we entered was specially for children. Which kind of gives you a feel for the size of the place.

A bewildering and confusing world of glass and chrome. Stores that we could we only dream of back home. Entire streets of restaurants and fast food outlets. One store, dedicated to the selling of all things made of Alpaca, another a gift store for all things Minnesotan. Whole department stories like Macy's and Sears.

America truly is a country of contradictions. Two worlds always pulling at the other. Not in a bad way but in a process of still trying to find out what America should be as a nation. This day we had breakfast in a cafe not much bigger than our apartment, that afternoon we ate dinner in one of 40 restaurants bigger than that, in a entire town of such shops. One side seems so alien to the other and yet somehow not. They are born out of the same belief in their own country, the same desire to define for oneself what American means what it will mean in years to come. This is still a nation of immigrants, of starry eyed dreamers looking to the skies for tomorrow or to the hills for yesterday. And am I becoming one of them? I can not say. But it seems to be a good place to leave this blog post. Myself and Neil wandering bewildered in a shopping mall. For isn't that most male's condition when faced with that much shopping?

*A three season porch is like a conservatory although less middle class, more wooden and more homely in my opinion.

*My wife's parents go to Valley View Assembly of God, in Lake City. Any Sunday you're in the area, drop in, Pastor Orin Sandberg will be happy to have you.

*The Brewers lost to the St Louis Cardinals 3-10. More about that in another blog.

*The Vikings have not always experienced success, which is a pity. However if you want to engage in trash talk with a Vikings fan, it appears to be a good start to refer to the team as the “ViQUEENS” and go from there.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Geekrant vs the Tourist and the North Star State

Hello, Geekrant readers, I would call you “Geekranters” but that hardly seems complimentary or edifying does it. So I'll just call you “readers” until someone comes up with a better name. The next few blog posts I make will involve the visit of my friend Neil (a.k.a “Samik”, a.k.a. “Sanj”) to the shores of the United States of America. They also will include reference to and some of the events recounted take place over the Memorial Day weekend.

Memorial Day is a national American holiday originally created in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War to allow for the tending and commemoration of the graves of the fallen. On these electronic pages, I try to temper my natural urge to serious opinionated thought but I would for a moment allow it. In my opinion there is no greater sacrifice than laying down one's life for another or for a cause, a dream, a nation. Those of us who have never experienced such times can sit in the peace bought by their sacrifice and wonder about whether the wars were justified or otherwise, whether there was another way or was diplomacy the answer. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, three men of roughly my own age from my home town died bringing home the pain of that loss to a generation who had never known it until that point. We should always honour their sacrifice, the reason they gave their lives and never once think that our opinions on the righteousness or otherwise of war can allow us to treat them with anything else than the highest honour. These were British soldiers, obviously, but I hope that my next few blogs do not dishonour all veterans, regardless of nationality or dishonor the meaning behind Memorial Day.

Also, writing this has made me think of my hometown and just what home means. After in the same town for the first 32 years of my life, there are few places that compete with it to feel like home. One is our apartment here in Madison and Wisconsin in general. Another lies further north and west. My wife's home state of Minnesota and her parents' house.

If one were so inclined to set out on the journey from Madison to my in-laws house, they would leave Madison from the north and travel along the highway in the direction of the Minnesotan twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul. They would pass Baraboo (home of Circus World and the Ringling Brothers Circus), skirt the water-park loaded tourist oasis of Wisconsin Dells and drive virtually straight through Mauston (pronounced Moss-ton). They would then come to a fork in the road at a place called Tomah. If one dreams of the lights of the Twin Cities, then take the north fork but as is often the case with life, our intrepid traveler should take the road less traveled by and head west.
 After Tomah the hills that guard the way from Baraboo start to become more rolling and now start to become more bluff like in places as the road descends towards the Mississippi.

And that, dear readers, is where the feeling of home begins, the highway crosses the river at a place the French imaginatively called, “La Crosse” and enters Minnesota, The North Star State.

The road then turns north and travels alongside the river. On the driver's left side are high wooded bluffs which rise out of the river valley steeply, in places the trees give way and glimpses can be seen of sheer rock-faces. Here and there, houses cling to the hillside, wooden framed wonders, bleak and isolated looking in winter and incredibly inviting places to live in summer. On the driver's right, the river passes lazily by, although it is in reality far from lazy, full of barges transporting cargo south as far as the sea and dams generating valuable hydro electric power and all the other things dams do. And between these disparate landscapes the road winds itself, sometimes far from the river and then sometimes not as the bluffs stick out into the river like some weather beaten headland on the North Sea.

The names of towns come quicker now, Winona, Wabasha, Kellogg. Each town similar but also different. Making a claim to its own small part of the world. And then after about an hour or so of driving the river road and 3 hours plus of total driving time, the road enters Lake City.

Lake City is a small (pop. 5,063 at the 2010 Census) quiet, pretty town of simple timber frame houses, Lutheran churches and a High School which Mrs Geekrant attended. It is also where Laura Ingalls Wilder, writer of “Little House on the Prairie” lived for six months as a child, where water skiing was invented and lies on the magnificent Lake Pepin, the widest point on the Mississippi.

My father, has always expressed surprise that the widest point of that river could lie on the Mississippi. My father, it is fair to say, enjoys maps and seeing where towns and cities are in relation to everything else. However for him and for many of us bought up in other nations than the U.S., we think of the Mississippi as a entity of the southern states of the U.S. All Memphis Blues and New Orleans Jazz, Alligators and Cajun food. It never occurs to most of us that the same river begins in a mid-western state that borders Canada, a state less known for shrimp fishing and gumbo, as for hockey and lutefisk*.

Here, the river widens into a wide lake called Lake Pepin. Ingalls Wilder mentioned it in at least two of her books. It's area is 45.7 square miles, it freezes over in winter and it has its own legendary monster, which I hope that someone has decided to call “Peppy”. It is also incredibly beautiful and picturesque and much used for water sports although they can forget asking me to join in if Peppy really is chilling out somewhere in the depths.

Five minutes drive down the road lies the small settlement of Frontenac and there, on the tree lined summit of a low lying hill lies my in-laws house.

There is a stillness and a wildness to this state, a sense of timelessness that makes me feel that, whenever I set foot there, I am reclaiming some primal part of my soul which too much modern city living has eroded away. It is the 32nd state of the Union. Admitted to the United States on May 11, 1858, just in time to send troops to the Civil War. It is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”. It is a landscape of woodlands and farms, lakes and prairies. The LA Lakers take their name from the time that they spent as the Minneapolis Lakers. It was also the only state to vote for Ronald Reagan's defeated opponent in the 1984 Presidential Election, native son Walter Mondale.

It was settled predominantly by northern Europeans, in particular, Scandinavians and Germans. The state reflects this in many different places including the name of the state's NFL team, the Minnesota Vikings, the plethora of Lutheran churches and a particular form of Mid-western American English making use of Scandinavian expressions known as “Nordski”. Judy Garland was born in Minnesota, so was Prince, of course and being a geek, I love the fact that Macgyver is from Minnesota. Oh and did I mention Bob Dylan?

So what better place to bring my friend, Neil to give him a deeper taste of this part of America than just one state can enbue.

We had set out on the journey from Madison upon the Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend, Neil having flown into O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on the Friday before. Having spent the morning at Madison's annual “Bratfest” (of which more in another blog), we then spent the afternoon chasing storm clouds along the river road to Lake City and Frontenac. The rain crossed our path in bands, the tree covered bluffs looking, in the misty rain, like something more suited to a tropical Jurassic Park than this northernmost of the contiguous United States.

We arrived at Mrs Geekrant's childhood home under grey skies, during a break in the rain. Neil might have been expecting a subdued welcome, instead he got our niece and nephew running around the house, my father in law grilling burgers out on a still damp deck while his father kept him company, the house full of members of Mrs Geekrant's extended family (including her father's mother who I would be remiss in not mentioning as she is partial to this blog and her encouragement to my writing is appreciated) and as we'd also brought my wife's friend Melissa with us too, Neil could never question the Minnesotan capacity for hospitality and welcome.

I am, truth to say, enamoured of that capacity. The whole Mid-western approach to hospitality and community rivals the Northerners of my own native country where I grew up. But back home, our natural welcoming nature tends to be tempered by British reserve and dare I say a slight cynicism and world weariness that comes from the difficulties that declining industry and damp weather can bring. The Mid-westerners have such an optimism and a friendly politeness that I feel there is not much that can suppress their natural jollity.

I find myself in the midst of my own British reserve incredibly blessed by the apparently automatic way my wife's family accept me. My accent maybe about as far from Nordski as you can get but when I'm there, there is no question of me being treated any less than family, which I know is not everyone's experience with their in-laws. The Midwest, it seems to me, doesn't care about your past, or previous failings, your heritage or your nationality, they welcome you with open arms and try to feed you hotdish (or casserole depending on your state), take you out to breakfast and treat you like a brother or sister from the moment they meet you and I am thankful that I married into it.

So, there really was no better place to start my friend's ten day sojourn than in a old wood framed house, with a porch, on a hill, five minutes drive from the Mississippi with friends and family ready to greet anyone who comes rolling through. I am proud of where I come from and my own family back home and the town I was born in but I have found a place to call home here too. And I am quite happy with it.

*Lutefisk is fish steeped in water and lye until extremely alkaline and then steeped in water till bought to neutral PH. It has a jelly-like consistency.

Frontenac is also known as Frontenac Station, at the time of publishing it was unclear what its present official name is.