Saturday, 16 December 2017

Geekrant vs the Wilderness of a Winter Wonderland.

Greeting Geekranters!
Welcome to the latest edition of my perennially popular blog, “Geekrant!”. You know you've been wallowing in misery since I last wrote, bereft, caught up in sheer desperation..., okay, so I might be exaggerating a little but I truly hope that the return of my humble offerings of the literary sort on the subject of my cross cultural adventures are welcome to one and all.

Winter has reached us here, the first frigid icicles of its frozen fingers creeping across the landscape and although we have not yet seen the first full blizzard of the new season... it will come. Rolling across the prairies and the vast open spaces of the plains states, it will come.

The northern states of the American Mid-West, you see, aren't exactly known for the mildness of their winters. It is not by accident that Lambeau Field, the home stadium of Wisconsin's beloved Green Bay Packers, is known as the “Frozen Tundra” and multiple cities, throughout the area, such as St. Paul, Minnesota and Des Moines, Iowa, have skyways. These enclosed walkways, bridging streets between buildings, were built simply so that people didn't have to venture into the frigid atmosphere just to go about their daily business. So it's a fact that you have to be ready to make the most of the weather if you're going to live here for any length of time.

For most of my life, I lived in an area of the UK where it very rarely snowed to any great degree and when it did it would be melted and gone before a couple of days had passed. When it did snow, children would rush as one great horde to every hill in town, desperate to be the first to go sledging (that's sledding to my American readers) which was necessary because if you were late, you'd be sledging through mud, the oh so thin snow having been sledged and melted away. It seems to me that there is something so magical about snow to a child. As a young boy I would look with wonder at the stories on the television news of snowstorms blanketing the United States and puzzle what it would be like to see so much snow in one moment, to not have to go to school because it was snowed in and to know what it was to see a lake completely frozen over in the winter cold.

Well, living in Wisconsin and having family now in Minnesota, means that I'm often in the middle of those news stories that I used to see back home. There is generally a lot of snow, ice and generally sub-zero temperatures (both centigrade and fahrenheit, by the way) and although sometimes it can look and feel like a scene out of “The Day after Tomorrow”, the truth is its really not that bad. Primarily because the Midwesterners know how to deal with it.

Now it is somewhat of a cliché that the British adult is generally not known for their sensible reasoned response to the news of impending snowfall. So while the children of the UK rush to enjoy the fleeting flakes falling from a suddenly overcast sky, a single one of those flakes touching down upon the tarmac of a British motorway such as the M25 is more than enough to cause traffic jams, tailbacks and a general inability of any part of the country's adult infrastructure to deal with even the smallest amount of arctic weather. The trains fail to run, people spend hours on the roads, my mother worries that she'll slip on the ice, that kind of thing. Indeed it is like the world has slipped into a new Ice Age.

Now it is possible, that over the last paragraph that my penchant for dramatic license has been in evidence, but the simple truth is as British people, we are just not used to the sort of the weather that makes the countryside look like the set of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (the classic BBC version obviously) and leaves us snowed into our houses.

In Wisconsin and the surrounding states, however, it is as if they stand guard all year waiting for the first hint of Winter, like an army on patrol. Not that they dislike the season, they just want to make sure they have fair warning to get the snowmobiles ready for action. Around here they say that there are but two seasons in the world, Winter and road construction. They're not even slightly joking.

They know its going to come and are well prepared for it. Four wheelers (quad bikes) are put away in exchange for snowmobiles, hunters bring out their snowshoes and fishermen start hoping that the ice will soon be thick enough to carry the weight of their ice fishing shacks. At times it feels like Laura Ingalls Wilder's memoirs of pioneer life in the Mid-west and the harsh winters those hardy homesteaders faced, are only a fleeting moment in the past.

Even the mighty Mississippi freezes over in places, truly, I have sat on a frozen night outside a motel on the banks of that great river and heard in that frostbitten silence the sound of the ice moving like waves across the surface of that great waterway and crashing into its banks. Suddenly I felt very small, knowing that the weather here is truly something to respect and honour and prepare for and that a millennium ago some Native American probably sat on the same banks and heard the same unearthly noise and in that solitary moment felt much the same as I.

Cars have to be winterised here, of course, antifreeze being a must have and windscreen/shield washer fluid has to be changed for a type that will not freeze in the Siberian temperatures. Here in Madison, cars parked out on the street have to alternate the side of the street they park on, so as to give a clear passage for the snow ploughs in the morning's early hours (it is, in fact, a city ordinance to do this, ignore it and you get a parking ticket). Gritters are out every night and you're not going to make it through a interstate journey without your car being covered in a thin layer of rock salt.

And in the midst of it all, it is beautiful. Back home it can seem that during the winter it rains non stop, day after day, or the sky just sets in a grey visage staring back at me. So it has to be said that while the nation of my birth has its beautiful moments and places, after over 30 years of living there, a winter of snow filled days makes a nice change. And I even find I enjoy shoveling snow.

There is something untamed about the weather here, like this land secretly is still the frontier and it wants to remind the people who live here of this fact. They call Wisconsinites, “Badgers”, not because that small ground dwelling nocturnal mammal is particularly seen around this parts, but because many of the early settlers, who were lead miners, dug homes into their mines to escape Wisconsin's harsh winters. Just like Badgers.

And that is the way everyone here responds to Winter. They find a way to work around it. At some point this winter, Mrs Geekrant's aunt and uncle, will no doubt venture out from their cabin on the lake, cut a hole in the ice and go fishing. The vista will be entirely different to when we visited them in summer and it will be bitterly cold, but the desire to make the most of what this land has to offer is still there.

The land here is itself enticing, reflecting all the beauty of its Creator and the wildness of the divine and unknown. There are a hundred stories to be heard, a thousand lives to be lived and a million moments to gasp in wonder, even in the depths of the coldest winter night. And it works for me, because even after all these years, I am still that young boy fascinated by a place where it snows so much that the world is transformed in a night and where its so cold that the snow stays around for weeks on end. And hopefully at some point this year I will finally ride a snowmobile. And find something yet again new in a Midwestern sunrise.

Goodbye, Geekranters!

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Geekrant vs Lafollette's Land.

Greetings, geekranters, yet again my blog has arrived on your electronic doorstep, jampacked full of witty anecdotes and well executed "bon mots" or at least my attempt at those two things.  

Most of my last few blogs have centred around Madison, how this city is a great place to live and my adjustments to living here. These have been relatively light blogs about how attractive the place is, the people to be found here and the stuff people get up to. However, now I have to go deeper, for no analysis of Madison and Wisconsin as a whole can be considered complete without addressing the issue or rather issues, as there are many, of politics. 

I have endeavoured, for the most part, in these digitised pages to keep clear of talking in this area. I am an immigrant here, a transplanted individual and I feel it would be bad form of me to pass judgement on a place that has been so welcoming to me. Still, it is a subject that must be addressed in any blog that talks about life in a place different to the one that the author is familiar with. The rythmns of our lives are set by the decisions, ideas and, all to frequently the arguments of politicians. My life here, therefore, is directly affected by this, so I probably should spend a little while on the subject and then be done. 

I am a child of the 1980s, that's not to say that I remember much of them, but the fact remains that I am a child of the 80s. A child of Thatcher's Britain, brought up in decade of Gordon Gekko and filofaxes, Top Gun and Duran Duran, The A-Team and the Hoff's perm. My first memories of anything deeper than TV in terms of America, are of a face on the news. A man who fascinated me in retrospect, because even as a child I wondered how could a man that age have jet black hair with only a touch of grey. That man was Ronald Reagan. 

So one of my first memories of the United States was the "Happy Cowboy" of 80s legend, despite the fact that he left office in January 1989 when I was 5 and most 5 year olds don't watch the news. As you may have noticed from my previous blogs, I'm kind of a geek. 

I mention this not because I have any great love for the late President Reagan or great dislike, for that matter. Instead, I mention this to show how fascinating I have always found American politics, despite living (for most of my life at least) too far away to take meaningful sides in the debate. 

Most nations are defined seemingly by their political leadership, at least to those looking in from the outside, America is perhaps the ultimate example of this. Many other nations find themselves defined by other things like ethnic identity or ancient borders, some by allegiance to a certain monarch, others still are divided by religious issues. 

 The United States, however, is different. Its foundation has always been found within the maelstrom that is political and ideological struggle.  It is a nation created around a concept, a nation founded upon a 18th century notion of what freedom is, what liberty looks like lived out in a government and a citizenry. Its existence is a product of just such a violent struggle, a war between the feudalistic mercantile past and the new ideals of The Enlightenment. 

Such musings bring me, eventually, to Madison. I'm writing this blog in our apartment which lies on the East side of Madison. Five minutes away lies a crossroads known as Union Corners. Nowadays, It's an easy place to dismiss, to ignore, after all it's just an intersection, a bar on one corner, across the road a purveyor of the sort of literature that the British government used to call "Obscene Publications". Still another corner has a little shopping area with pizza takeout places. An anonymous place.   

But 150 years ago, this place meant a lot more. This was the place that Union regiments assembled before marching away to the bugle call of the US Civil War and the rebel yell of the grey coated Confederates.  To stake a claim in the battle for just what the word "America" means and just what "liberty" is all about. 

"We hold these truths to be self evident..." Begins the preamble to the United States Constitution and it this area that makes American politics so fascinating to me. No two Americans are ever going to exactly agree on what that phrase means applied to a person's life, which is okay, for it is in the midst of these opposing viewpoints that America grew to be the nation it is today. It is also the question that drove men to the U.S. Civil War. Even now the United States is continually asking the questions, " Just what truths are self evident?", "Are some truths more self evident than others?", "Where is liberty best expressed". Everyone seems to see their own beliefs and ideals to be supported in the Constitution. Madison is no different. 

To say Madison is a liberal city would probably be an understatement. Madison's politics engender amongst many in Wisconsin an attitude that is similar to the attitude many American football fans have to New England Patriots Quarterback, Tom Brady, if  you're a fan, you're a fan, if not... well you pretty much can't stand the guy.  

Some quick geography here, (if I may digress slightly and primarily for my British readers) because the way a state is made up can get kind of confusing when talking about political stuff without some orientation, so to speak. 

So when it comes to the United States, state politics are almost as important to ordinary people as federal politics are. In fact, state politics are essentially a miniature version of the larger federal political merry go round. There's an executive (the Governor), a legislature (State House's and Senates) even a judiciary with a State Supreme Court. These organisations are as representative of the people as the federal government is.  

The Wisconsin State Assembly (the lower house of the State Legislature) has 99 representatives from every part of Wisconsin. That's where geography becomes important. As I noted on many occasions, the American Midwest is made up of many states with a similar geographical makeup; mainly agricultural states with a few large cities and a multitude of much smaller towns. This geographical reality directly affects politics in these states and that is certainly true of Wisconsin and, of course, Madison. 

Madison lies in Dane County, which as it happens is arguably the most liberal county in Wisconsin. This fact is relatively hard to escape from within the city, not that anyone would ever force politics down your throat in Wisconsin, but the political sensibilities of the populace do exist as a kind of background radiation to life here. 

There's the University, UW Madison, which was at the centre of anti-war protests during the 1960s, one of the former governors, a man called Robert "Fightin' Bob" Lafollette pretty much founded progressive politics in the United States and union activity abounds. 

 In fact, in 2012, there were large protests within Madison, in response to Governor Scott Walker's attempt to limit collective bargaining by unions whose members were employed by the state. The protests went on for weeks, if not months, depending on how you measure it, and even involved the occupation of the Capitol building by the protesters and a recall election for the Governor. 

 Hippies and hipsters both equally find a home here, which is reflected in the city's rich cultural life. There are several top music venues which are regular stops on American tours for many top bands, stand up comedy and improv nights are everywhere, even downstairs at a pizza place (that's Glass Nickel on Atwood if you're interested), Madison even has its own symphony orchestra.  

All of which can separate Madison from the rest of Wisconsin, it has to be said. While Madison has remained as liberal as it ever was, much of the rest of the state now returns Republicans to the state legislature. It is interesting that Wisconsin in 2016 voted Republican in the general election for the first time since 1984. By the way, that's the last time Reagan was on the ballot. Although you couldn't drive the city in November without being swamped by "Clinton/Kaine" posters and bumper stickers, a 15 minute drive out of the city would lead you into an ocean of "Trump/Pence" flags. Scott Walker, a Republican,  survived his recall election for just this reason. 

Madison, of course, isn't alone in this difference. Nationally in the United States, the votes for Hilary Clinton were predominantly found in areas with a large urban population, whereas votes for the Republicans came from small towns and rural areas.  

It is true therefore at times, that Madison can seem like a cosmopolitan liberal island floating in a sea of rural neo-conservatism. Wisconsin divided, like many other states, by different ideas of what America means. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness being found, like so many other things, in the eye of the beholder. 

I have no side to take in this debate, I am not a citizen and therefore proscribed from voting. In this blog, I am simply writing as an observer. I love Madison, my adopted home town and the rich cultural melting pot that comes partially from its political leanings  but I also appreciate the simpler way of life that many seem to seek in the countryside here. I truly hope that conversation and debate never ceases between both sides.  

America, it seems to me, is a nation that has always experienced tension between differing visions of its identity and maybe it has grown most through those tensions. So I am glad of both sorts of people and both opinions, for in the space between them, I wager, lies a brighter future. 

Thanks for reading. 

Goodbye Geekranters! 

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Geekrant vs The Case of The Northwoods Fishing Expedition

Greetings, Geekranters!

Welcome to another edition of that perennial favourite of the internet, my blog! Don't applaud all at once now, not that any of you are... at all... even remotely... not even a little bit... Anyway, moving on from that, I hope you enjoy this blog and all the ones that I write, because its all for you dear readers, every word.

A journey of much hardship lead me to the writing of this blog. Seriously, it has been hard work but then I always go the distance to bring you the highest quality blogs on the planet. Truly, it has been difficult.

I had to spend a weekend in a lakeside cabin, fishing off a pontoon boat, hanging out at a beach waist deep in the tepidly warm lake water. Now I can see you're feeling my pain, right now. It was extremely hard, dear readers, eating freshly grilled meats, fish and delectable cheeses by the still, still waters of a pristine lake.
So, maybe it wasn't that hard, but all sarcasm and humour aside, its maybe not to everyone's taste either. The cabin is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, there's no cable TV, there's no supermarket nearby, there's also no pub or bar either, so you have to bring your own alcoholic beverages with you, “fellas”. The lake's no swimming pool and the mosquitoes come out in the delicate hour between afternoon and night, regular as clockwork.

So this place isn't for everyone, but this is the sort of place, where a fair portion of the Midwest decides to holiday (or vacation to use the local vernacular) in. Now if you think about it, its not really a surprise, many Midwestern states are not covered by huge amounts of urban sprawl but large amounts of agricultural land, small towns, forests and areas which could easily be described as wilderness. Midwesterners are surrounded by nature (outside the big cities at least) and therefore filters by osmosis into their lives (which includes by extension, my life).

Here in the Mid-West, weekends and national holidays are made for lakes, cabins, fishing, canoeing, inner tubing down lazy rivers, camping and as Ratty said in “The Wind in the Willows” “simply messing around in boats!” As I was writing the first draft of this blog, I was further north than I normally am and was sat writing on a dock jutting out into the lake as my wife fished in her aunt and uncle's boat moored at said dock. The sun was still high although not as powerful as it had been earlier in the day. The breeze made gentle waves on the sun dappled surface of the water, fluffy white clouds dotted the sky and everything had descended into a level of quiet that we urban dwellers never experience.

It was a moment trapped in time, and although I was nursing a major cold throughout the weekend, it was a wonderful moment. There is something magical about this landscape, not witches and wizards or Native American shamen, but the magic that lies in stillness and peace and a world not overly interfered with by the hand of man.

This magical realm is on the edge of an area known as “The Northwoods”, a roughly defined area of the Midwest found towards the North of the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and if the Upper Peninsula is included, Michigan as well. This area does not appear to have any official borders or definition but it does have a unique feeling all to itself.

The landscape here, perhaps obviously, is defined by myriad lakes and dense woodland, with farmland dotted in between. This is a country on the edge of the wilderness, with an ancient feel. Little urban development has come here, save small towns with unfamiliar names and the services and fast food restaurants that grow up around exits on the inter-state. Once you escape the fast lane and start down back country roads you encounter a country that is much as it was when the Native Americans first fished here or when the French trappers, the “voyageurs” turned up in their canoes.

This is the land of Paul Bunyan, a legendary lumberjack of giant proportions who tramped around these parts with his equally gigantic blue ox, Babe. The lakes here are said to be the remains of his gargantuan footprints filled in with water. Mr Bunyan's likeness can be seen throughout Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. It is quite common to stop at a gas (petrol) station and see statues of giant lumberjacks towering above you, also at truck stops, roadside services and sometimes just standing by lakes. Giant cow statues can also be seen and huge chairs ready for Paul Bunyan himself to take a seat (or for tourists to take pictures sat on whichever is more likely to happen).

These are not the only emblems of the Northwoods. There are the town water towers easily seen from the road, rising high in the air decorated in bright colours like some medieval standard hanging high above their town. In Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, there is one even shaped like a fishing bobber. On the subject of giant fishing items, in Hayward, Wisconsin, there is 143ft long (that's 44 metre long) giant jumping Muskellunge, which people can actually walk around in and look out the mouth of. The Muskellunge is a huge fish native to this area of which more later.

That brings me to fishing and, as it happens, my mostly unsuccessful attempts at this pursuit. Growing up in the U.K., I never particularly warmed to the sport, as it there mainly seemed to consist, to me at least, sitting in the pouring rain by a pond for ten hours, then catching a fish put into the pond by humans for just that purpose, taking a picture with said fish and then throwing it back in the water. This (with apologies to British anglers) has always seemed to be an exercise in futility. Here it is different.
Fish here can be kept after they are caught, for one, which I'm sure probably does happen somewhere in the British Isles, here it appears to be the norm. That's not to say that they're aren't limits to the amount of fish that can be caught, there are, enforced in Wisconsin by the state's “Department of Natural Resources”. That being said, these limits are generous enough to allow for the catching of a myriad of the smaller fish, a small number of bass (so long as they're over a certain weight) and even Pikes which are often called “Northerns” here in the Mid-west.

I am not, it has to be said, in the habit of catching any of them, that is not to say that while I have been in the United States, I haven't tried. I have fished for many hours now, both at the cabin and back on lakes and ponds near Madison. However, I must confess, if there's such a thing as a fishing gene, I don't seem to be in possession of it. Maybe I don't have the patience for it or perhaps I just don't “set” the hook just right when I do get a bite.

My wife does a lot better, but then she was born in a town on the banks of the Mississippi and has been fishing, in some form or other, since she was a child. My wife's uncle tries to give me tips as we fishes off the side of his and Kelly's auntie's boat (its their cabin too), giving me rods with fancy lures on telling me what's wrong with my cast. I persevere but I don't think I'll be landing Muskies anytime soon.

Fishing is important in these parts, as I have mentioned, the abundant waterholes here are a magnet for anglers from across the world. The Great Lakes themselves bring fishermen in their droves. It's therefore fitting that the “Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame” (yes, there really is such an establishment) is located in Northern Wisconsin in the small town of Hayward. This is the reason that there's a giant muskellunge there that I mentioned earlier.

The Muskellunge is the fish that draws people to this area from across the world. The “Muskie” is the fabled “Fish of 10,000 Casts”, a massive fish of the Pike family, which does indeed look like a pike but a pike that has spent time training with Arnold Schwarzenegger (1970s ripped Arnie at his bodybuilding peak not the later “Governator” years). The Muskie is also the state fish of Wisconsin and is the ultimate “one that got away”. Some people may fish these waters for a lifetime and never catch one.

This, of course is something that adds to the elusive eeriness of this place. This is a place of light and shadows, not darkness mind you, but a quiet stillness that can make you feel very small and in awe of this landscape that has been this way since the dawn of creation. If you are up very early in the morning and the water is still on the lake, you might fancy you glimpse a hunting party of Native Americans moving through the trees on the shore or French “Voyageurs” crossing the lake quietly in a canoe. The sound of distant thunder is Paul Bunyan massive voice talking somewhere in the distance. These are the shadows of the Northwoods, echoes of eternity, glimpses of a past the land has not quite forgotten. A place to be still and reflect but also fish, hunt, boat and, in my case, sit and write by the water.

This is a place that brings peace, so its understandable that so many Midwesterners come here on vacation. In contrast many British people visit America, just to go to Disneyland or New York or L.A. I have to say that I think you're missing out, next time you're thinking of traveling here, trade in the House of Mouse and white knuckle rides for a cabin on the lake and a gentle splash around on the beach. Come on, you know it makes sense.

Until next time, Goodbye Geekranters.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Geekrant vs The Case of The Cultural Capital Clique

 Greetings, Geekranters! Thank you for flattering my humble blog with your patronage (note to self: feigned humility is excessively annoying) and coming on this journey with me. Seriously, all joking aside, it means a lot to me that people read my words and take some enjoyment from them. It also brings a degree of catharsis to the experience of living so far from all I once knew. I am an exile, after all, albeit a willing one and an individual who exiled himself for love, but I am still disconnected from whence I came.

Many would be surprised the difficulties that occur between two cultures externally similar but internally separated by many things. So much of our identity, no matter how much we feel that we chose to be the way that we are, is defined by our culture. We are products of our environment, our upbringing, our education, our relationships (romantic, filial, platonic or otherwise), the world around us. As a man who lived in the same town for most of his first 32 years of life, I have never been separated from my cultural comfort zone, until I moved here.

Now that isn't to say that I am unhappy here, I regret nothing about my path to this place. As I have said, this is an exile but one of my own choice and an exceedingly happy one at that. Still, I have to accept that despite my happiness, I am still far removed from acting or thinking like a native Wisconsinite and Madisonian, and I am definitely a great distance from thinking like an American.

Sometimes cultural differences and the slight disorientation that they can bring are front and centre, easy for me to spot and come to terms with, other times they are unseen, hovering outside of sight, humming, like the mosquitoes that define the hour of summer dusk here.

I am not complaining, but explaining why I write this blog and extending a thank you to everyone who reads it. It helps to know that people are interested in my petty internal conflicts of the day. I salute you! To all Madisonians and Wisconsinites, thank you for accepting me into your city and state, for this is my home now, even if it is not the place of my birth.

As it happens, Madison is full of culture, so that makes more to adjust to but let's face it, that's not really a bad thing. For many people in the rest of the world, who encounter America primarily through television, music and film, it can seem like only two Americas exist, one is urban, fast paced, full of action and adventure, it is the locale of cop shows, superhero movies and hip hop music; the other is rural, slow paced, full of old fashioned morals and ideas, so called “rednecks” and survivalists, it is the locale of feel-good heart warming tv shows, the Waltons and country music and bluegrass. These are of course, stereotypes and exaggerations but maybe we still view America in these terms.

We are, of course, missing out. America, I am learning is so many different countries in one. One of its traditional mottoes, appearing on “The Great Seal of the United States”, is “E Pluribus Unum” (literally translated “out of many-one”)which shows that the United States considers itself the sum of its people. So while it is definitely “one nation, under God, indivisible...” it is also a melting pot of civilisation and culture.

Each city is unique and although America has more than its fair share of bland suburban settlements, it is in love, for the most part with its myriad of cultural cliques. Madison is definitely a fantastic example of this. Simply from looking at the place names within the city and its surrounding communities, one can see the influence different sets of immigrants have had on the place. There are Native American (Waunakee, Monona,), English, (Middleton, Cambridge), Italian (Verona), New Glarus (named by Swiss immigrants after their home town). There are also French place names throughout the rest of Wisconsin.

Madison is an enigma, combining a bustling college town (complete with leafy academic streets and fraternity houses), a working class blue collar area (Oscar Meyer, one of the largest manufacturers of processed meats in America used to have its main factory here), hi-tech green community (Epic Systems, a computer software company specialising in healthcare software has its HQ in Verona, a Madison suburb, not to mention the parks and bike trails) and state capital. politicans, labourers, construction workers, students, young professionals all find their homes here.

Madison somehow seems to live to kickback, even at its busiest times, people find something to do to relax and enrich their lives. Somewhere down on the University's Memorial Union Terrace, where many a day can be whiled away in the summer simply watching boats on the water, you will see someone wearing a Wisconsin Badgers shirt, which is hardly surprising because the whole city wears them. Sports are an important part of the culture here, be they the more traditional summer type or the more unusual, to us British at least, winter sports.

The lakes are never truly empty, whether it is in the form of some variety of boat tacking its way across the aquamarine surfaces or a man ice fishing in the dead of winter, there is always movement on the water. There are kayakers and canoeists, runners jogging along John Nolan Drive past the summer breeze blown white caps of Lake Monona, triathletes braving those same whitecaps and swimming for glory.

It is a dizzying plethora of different hobbies and interests. Semi professional and amateur teams are all around. The summer has its baseball in the form of the Madison Mallards, who play on the North Side of Madison in the Northwoods League, the winter, its ice hockey, in the shape of the Madison Capitals. The town has a soccer club, the Madison 56ers, an Ultimate Frisbee club, the Madison Radicals, even a rugby union club.

Of course that doesn't even begin to match the status that the University sports teams enjoy here. The football team's stadium Camp Randall, built on the site of a Union army training camp from the U.S. Civil War, easily seats over 80,000 people and is often full on game days. That is equal to over a third of Madison's total population contained in a stadium that up until 2013 seated more people than the state's NFL stadium. The student section is famously raucous.

Speaking of raucous students, no true analysis of Madison's cultural backdrop would be complete without mentioning State Street, a thoroughfare that begins at the University Campus and ends on Capitol Square. Home to bars, theatres, unique shops and stores filled with oddities, all leading up to the Capitol building.

State Street Brats is a perfect example of the eclectic mix of building styles and uses along the street, it is essentially a hot dog restaurant (although here in Wisconsin, the subtle difference between the humble hot dog and the meatier Bratwurst is accentuated, another cultural difference that blows my mind) with its own condiment bar (for stacking the Brat up just as you want) and wooden badger statue, housed in a Germanic style building, this is a favourite with students and visitors alike.

The cultural influences here come in a hodgepodge, a mishmash, if you will of different architectural styles and unique hostelries which at one moment threatens to overwhelm you and yet somehow works. The neo-classical feel of the Capitol, the red brick of the Red Gym, Bascom Hall's feeling of 1800s academia, the marble broadside of the Monona Terrace, Frank Lloyd Wright's posthumous masterpiece standing like a medieval ceremonial landing for distinguished guests and royalty.

Busy and at the same time, strangely peaceful, Madison manages to go about the business of a regional urban centre and state capitol while never feeling like it is. It never feels crowded, something that is strange to me coming from an island country with limited space especially within its urban areas. Madison has an incredible feeling of space and openness even within its narrower streets and maybe that has something to do with the proximity of farmland and wilderness to the city.

One day on a trip outside the borders of the city, not twenty minutes from where I sit right now, my wife and I had our car overflown by a bald eagle, something that I would never would have imagined I would see in my lifetime outside of a zoo. I have also had my driving practice interrupted by the presence of a flock of turkey vultures in the middle of the road. This feeling of wildness only being a matter of miles away suffuses the city and adds to its character.

This is the land of my exile, this new world where I find myself with my wife (of three years as of yesterday) and our new life together. Madison is a beautiful city, an enigma of different influences and cultures, it is at the beginning of my adaptation to this new life, this is where I live and the unique place that I must understand. Maybe that is the experience of every person who comes to this new world, right back to the first settlers at Jamestown in Virginia, a world to be understood and mastered until you feel at home. I intend to do just that.

This post started out with the intention of talking about culture and cultural differences but as I wrote it, I realised that I am still trying to wrap my head around the city that I live in. It fascinates me, because it is so different from anything where I am from. I am an explorer, a wide-eyed debutante in “The City of Four Lakes” and I am happy to be such.

So, thanks for bearing with me on this journey through my Madisonian feelings and I promise I will talk about hilarious differences that I've found between the nations in due course. Until next time. Goodbye Geekranters!

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Geekrant vs the Capitol Caper

Greetings Geekranters! Welcome to another edition of the obviously world-wide, nay universe-wide phenomenon that is my blog. I exaggerate, of course, but what writer doesn't?

Summer has arrived in Wisconsin, although it seemed to want to take its time getting here, lingering somewhere in the wings while spring rains hogged the main stage, until the point where I felt like I was on a daytrip to a British seaside town in late February not living in a American Midwestern city in early summer.

Summer did arrive in the end, although bringing with it a torrent of thunderstorms that hurtled their way east across the prairies of Nebraska and the cornfields of Iowa until they unleashed their fury on the City of Four Lakes. They opened up a barrage on us, unlike anything I have ever known. I am rapidly learning that despite the average Brit's stereotypical obsession with conversations that centre upon the regional meterological characteristics of our homeland, living on an island in the middle of the North Sea protects from most of the truly severest weather.

Here we live on the edge of tornado country, the weather forecasters actually break into regular programming to warn you about the storms they're tracking. Hailstones can turn a car's windscreen (or windshield, for my American readers) into a pretty useful colander in only a few minutes. Tornado sirens are regularly tested and people are instructed to make for shelter if they do touchdown. Looking out of the window at the storms with the lights off in our apartment, the sky became lit eerily by lightning that didn't seem to have any time and space from one bolt to the next. The atmosphere was full of magnesium bright flashes, on and off, as if some galactic preteen had found the light switch for the heavens and was flicking it on and off.

Looking down the street, the wind and rain pushing the trees one and way or another, looked like a news report from tropical islands hit by hurricanes, at least to my inexperienced eye.

We weathered the storms though, coming out unscathed, which is more than can be said for our neighbour's cars after a tree fell on them in the maelstrom. The atmospheric temper tantrum rumbled away east, disappearing somewhere over Lake Michigan and the mitten shaped state of the same name.

So now “eternal summer reigns around the bright city of Ward Drobe...”... sorry... wrong story. (although a reference or two to Narnia is never a bad thing.) Now summer has come to Madison, and the Lake City lies shimmering like a emerald jewel surrounded by pools of pure sapphire blue and everything seems right with the world.

I exaggerate, maybe a little, poetic license has to be employed from time to time or you would very rapidly get bored with reading my humble missives. Madison, as a city, has an amazing ability to seem permanently at rest, even at its busiest times of the day. Its like the city itself is a laid-back Midwesterner who just enjoys being by the lakes and having a good cookout with a beer.

The parks are full of games of flag football and softball, the cycle paths packed with people taking the opportunity to see the city in a more sedate and environmentally friendly way than by car, college students engage in every kind of outdoor recreation activity known to man and then some, boats of every kind meander their way across the aquamarine surface of the lakes. Above it all, the Capitol sits, like some citadel in a fantasy story looking over its kingdom and beyond.

Madison sparkles in the sun and the Capitol is everywhere you look. It completes every pristine view of Madison. Photo-bombing every good picture of the city, as if it was built to do just that, which, of course, it was.

To many British people, like myself, the significance of the capitol buildings of each of the individual states here in the U.S. is something that isn't always clear. To many of us, it might be seem to just be a glorified local council building but in a American state it is so much more. State governments here have a lot more influence than some local council in suburban England.

Most state governments are modeled after the United States federal government, being that each state has three branches of government: an executive (the state's governor), a legislature (often made up of two chambers, although the names of the chambers can vary) and a state Supreme Court. All of these distinct branches have their chambers and headquarters located in a state's capitol building.

As such the Capitol is where state law is written and voted on, judicial decisions are made on the constitutionality of the state laws and the governor and attorney general have their offices.

Madison's Capitol building can be found at the southwestern end of the Madison Isthmus. It is the highest building in the city. Legislation exists within the city that prevents any building from being taller than the columns which support the dome of the capitol.
So it truly was built to photo-bomb every picture of this city.

The more that I live here, the more I realise that the civic buildings in Madison, the parkland, even the landscape reflects the character of the people who live here. Madison is the people who live here and the people who live here are Madison. The Capitol is where the voice of the people of Madison and the rest of Wisconsin is heard. It is probably the greatest and most recognisable symbol that the city has. It can be found, in symbolic form, on the flag of the city, on the shield of the police department, on postcards and in the names of a bunch of businesses.

Interestingly it is nearly always open to the public to look around and as a place to petition the state government for pretty much everything. I'm pretty sure that I could sit within the Capitol underneath its granite dome, the largest such dome in the world, for hours and never get bored of looking at its beauty. From the dome, four wings spread out, so from overhead the Capitol looks like a cross at the summit of the Isthmus.

When I was growing up, my parents, particularly my mother, were always keen on my siblings and I having an appreciation of old buildings with their art and architecture and the history that those buildings reflect. They grew up in the Roman built cathedral city of Lincoln, so when they came to visit Madison with my brother, it seemed a “no-brainer” to take them to see the capitol building.

My mum loved it, of course. The Capitol was finished in 1917, a time which, historically speaking, puts it somewhere between the nature inspired forms of Art Nouveau and the more geometric, angular forms of Art Deco. Combined with that is the same neo-classical architecture that can be seen in much of the federal buildings in Washington DC. All of which, in a lot of ways, make it somewhat different from much of the architecture found in the U.K.

The interior of the Capitol is a secret oasis of art, with mosaics representing classical personifications of concepts like truth and justice. Different floors can be accessed by means of open marble staircases or by entering the elevators with their distinctly Art Deco feel.
Statues and busts are everywhere in the Capitol, many of them being representations of badgers, the state animal. Robert La Follette Sr, “Fighting Bob”, one of America's earliest progressive politicians can be found, in bust form at least, protecting one of the wings, with his shock of unruly hair and stern, determined gaze.

Madison has a history of progressive politics, going back to Mr La Follette Sr and so it should come as no surprise that during 2012 the whole building was occupied by progressive and labour union activists. They were protesting the present Governor, Scott Walker's plan to limit the collective bargaining rights of certain public sector unions in an attempt to bring down the state's budget deficit. This occupation developed into what amounted to a mini community located within the public spaces of the Capitol building and propelled the protests to the forefront of national and international attention.

Now, I can't make a comment on the righteousness or otherwise of the protesters case, that isn't the point of this blog, but it helps to show the regard that Madisonians hold their Capitol building. This is a place of influence, of power, of protest. This is a forum for the public's voice to be heard.

When my family came, we took the elevator up to the place where you can walk out beneath the Capitol dome and look out across the City of Four Lakes and see all that it has to offer. Later we stopped for a drink in a bar on Capitol Square, under the shadow of the Capitol and I reflected, in my own heart, on how different this place is to nearly everywhere else I have been in the world.

Here, government sits with the people, not among busy, traffic choked streets and metal fences designed to keep people out but surrounded by bars and restaurants, museums and art, aging hippies and coffee mainlining hipsters. Madison has a chilled out, open handed, welcoming vibe and that extends even to the Capitol building. I have only once been to the Houses of Parliament in London and then our time there was monitored, wandering freely definitely not an option. I have stood, in the cool surroundings of the Rotunda of the Madison Capitol and felt like I could stand there for an eternity, with nobody saying a word.

So summer reigns over the city of Madison, one of the most welcoming cities in the world and I am glad to be here, and it won't be long, I'm sure, before I sit in the Rotunda again and marvel at my surroundings and be amazed that I made it here. 

Till next time. Good Bye Geekranters!

Friday, 7 July 2017

Geekrant vs The Arboretum Attack

Greetings, Geekranters and thanks for reading. Welcome to another riveting edition of my soon to be inter-galactically popular blog. And another slice of my needlessly grandiose writing style. I hope you enjoy it.

So this week, as I mentioned in my last blog, was Independence Day, which along with the plethora of patriotic pomp and circumstance and flurries of fireworks is a pretty wonderful excuse for a day off from work.

My wife picked me up from work on the 3rd of July and she suggested that we celebrate the holiday by doing something in the great outdoors, which as we were supposed to be going to the gym sounded like a great idea. I just didn't know where we were going.
We did some errands, including posting my final paperwork to change my conditional Green Card into a permanent one (we're both very glad that's done), and then headed towards our destination which my wife now told me was the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Arboretum. My wife has always wanted to take me to the Arboretum but somehow we have never managed to find the time.

An Arboretum is, at its most basic level, a collection of trees kept, generally for some kind of scientific study. UW-Madison's Arboretum is like that only on some kind of arboreal steroids.
The Arboretum was created in the 1930s as a kind of experiment and scientific study in what is now known as “ecological restoration”. The idea being to use the land of the Arboretum to create the sort of landscapes that existed in Wisconsin before the Europeans turned up and started turning everything into farmland and timber woods and generally messing around with nature.

The Arboretum contains a large amount of different landscapes, mainly prairies of various types, (including Tallgrass Prairie) savannas, (including Oak Savannas) a lot of forest land, wetlands and horticultural gardens. It is very impressive to look at, as if opening a window on the past to see what the original inhabitants and early settlers must have seen on a daily basis. It also is a lot of land to cover.

Back in Britain, many a sunny afternoon in my youth was spent exploring the grounds of Normanby Hall, the onetime summer home of the family who built Buckingham Palace and sold it to the Royals a couple of hundred years ago. Those grounds were extensive enough but I have a feeling the Arboretum would easily have dwarfed them.

One thing Normanby Hall has to offer over the Arboretum in July, is that wearing shorts isn't a matter of severe discomfort. That day at the Arboretum they definitely were.

The truth is we barely saw any of the Arboretum aside from the area around the visitor's centre. We had forgotten one of the many fundamental rules of Wisconsin, rules such as Brett Favre never played for the Minnesota Vikings, it was all a mass hallucination, Governor Scott Walker is a walking advert for “Just for Men” and if you're going out in summer never forget bug spray... oh and wear something more than t-shirt and shorts.

We had barely made it 200 yards into the Arboretum before we had to retreat before attack wave upon attack wave of Wisconsin's unofficial state bird, “The Mosquito” caused us to beat a hasty and hopefully dignified retreat from the Arboretum's verdant environs. The actual state bird of Wisconsin, the American Robin, is definitely prettier and less harmful to humans than the insectoid dive bombers known as mosquitoes. Alas, it was the mosquito that we ran into that day, my short clad legs inundated by itchy red wounds and our desire to see Madison's ecological restoration experiment postponed to another day with more planning involved and possibly some form of armour plating.

Trudging back to the car and thankfully removed from most of the blood-thirsty swarms, we chanced upon two more of the residents of Wisconsin's animal kingdom.

The first of these was a chipmunk, who, in my 1990s cartoon addled mind at least, went by the name of Alvin Simon Theodore ChipnDale III, and appeared to be nibbling something on the path in front of us. He was apparently oblivious to our attention but as any person who has tracked the wily chipmunk before knows, this is merely a clever ruse to lull you into a false sense of security so that you look even more foolish when you creep up on the creature and it runs off at the last moment. Which the young Mr ChipnDale did, leaving me and the wife most flummoxed.

Alvin having headed off into some prairie type grass which I would struggle to identify, we next met something that before I moved here and when I first moved here would have been astounded by but now has become somewhat commonplace to me. Strolling, or should that be strutting?, along the path in front of us was a wild turkey whom I shall call Nigel. As I have just mentioned, this sight while still impressive, no longer amazes me as it may once have done. Turkeys are native to the continental United States and can be often seen within Madison's city limits, clumping together in groups that might be seen in parks and woodland. Nigel the turkey looked at us with complete disinterest and then waddled off into the undergrowth. We made it back to the car and headed for home.

Every day here seems to be full of moments like this. Not just because I now live in America generally but because I live in Madison in particular. This is the city that I now call home and its got a vibe and an ambiance all of its own.

For those who you don't know, Madison is Wisconsin's state capital, home of the various sections of its state government and its headquarters, the visually impressive Capitol building. For a man who grew up in a nondescript industrial town, where not a whole lot ever really changed, in the North of England, one far removed from the sophistication and influence of a large city like London. (albeit a home town that I love)Coming from a town like that being in a city like Madison is a little different.

Not that Madison ever really feels like a hustling and bustling metropolis, its inhabitants would never allow it to become that. Located roughly in the centre of the southern third of Wisconsin and surrounded by farming country on nearly every side, Madison is a city of over 200,000 people but one that still mirrors, in some ways, the small town feel of much of rural Wisconsin while retaining a uniquely cosmopolitan, innovative and liberal viewpoint on most of life's great issues.

The city was founded by James Duane Doty, who started the whole city on a piece of swampy forestland located on a isthmus between two of the four lakes of the Yahara river chain, Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, Lake Waubesa and Lake Kegonsa being the other two. Doty was a former federal judge who lobbied extensively even before the city was built for it to become the capital of the newly created state of Wisconsin. As such, from its very beginning, Madison has been at the heart of every aspect of Wisconsin, an influence that the city takes seriously. From its world famous university to its liberal stance on political issues, to its environmentally friendly miles and miles of bike trails, this is a city determined to show a different way of living to the rest of the world.

Aside from the lakes, the city is full of green spaces, as if the urban planners couldn't bear to keep Wisconsin's countryside in the country and bought it right into the town. Cycle lanes are everywhere, with people regularly using this quick and easy route to get around.

This is the city of Frank Lloyd Wright, of course, the American architect who sought to marry architecture to the nature in which it must sit. This is also an American city with no skyscrapers, a consequence of a city rule that states that no building can be taller than the Capitol on its perch at the very top of the isthmus.

It is lovely place to spend a warm afternoon by the lakes, especially if you happen to make it to the University's Memorial Union Terrace, which sits right on Lake Mendota, with the boats on the lake and the sun high in the sky, it can be difficult to remember that this is a city in the middle of the continental U.S., not a seaside town on a sun drenched bay.

Unique culture is everywhere, from the intriguing signs that signify the entry into each neighbourhood from another to the student fed quaint chaos of State Street's shops and bars, this is every place you've been too and no place you could ever imagine. This is a place where plastic flamingos randomly appear on a hill in the centre of the university and summer evenings lead to concerts in the Capitol Square.

Madison is a city that feels welcoming, that feels laid-back. Even on the busiest, most stressful day in the middle of a brutal Wisconsin winter, it feels like the whole city is still one step away from going out on the lake, cracking open a cold beer and fishing with friends. That's because they all go ice fishing, of course.

Madison is full of music, bars and restaurants. Nirvana's breakthrough album, Nevermind was recorded here and Otis Redding's plane came down in the cool waters of Lake Monona. It is a place that at one point is full of high culture and dreams and on the other hand still manages to deal with the daily grind of work and more work that so many people find themselves in. In the end, I think we all need a place like Madison sometimes.

So this blog is my introduction to Madison for you, if you've never been here. It is by no means complete. Ever since I moved here, this place has welcomed me into its slightly off kilter embrace and I'm glad I ended up here, of all places. If the waves of love and romance are going to sweep you across an entire ocean, you couldn't do much better than finding yourself here. It is a wonderful place to live, even if I don't know even a tiny amount about it yet.

So there will be more blogs on this subject, the subject of Madison that is, not insane mosquito attacks and mad dashes back to the car.

Frank Lloyd Wright deserves many blog posts, the city's love of sports does, a whole series could centre on what can be found on State Street alone. I could write for months and still not tell you everything there is to know about Madison and even then my friend Ralph, a native Madisonian, would still tell me more that I didn't know. But it doesn't matter, I'll keep writing about this place because its home now and that's no bad thing.

So keep an eye out for another blog from me and if you want me to blog about anything you think it would be interesting to read my perspective on, just let me know. Till next time.

Good Bye Geekranters!