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!



Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Geekrant vs The Backwoods Rifle Range


Greetings! Salutations and Happy Independence Day, many thanks to all readers (of all nations) of my altogether too infrequent blog. I must apologise. I have been remiss, I have allowed the maelstrom that is the everyday world of a adult male living in the Western world in the first half of the 21st century to take its toll upon my bringing my blog to you. I have also, as can been seen by the last sentence had a tendency to ere on the side of melodrama.

Much of the point of this blog is to chronicle my experiences as a British person living in the United States, an ex-pat, as the phrase goes. As such I live in a world full of discovery and wonder, adjustment and growth, cultural misunderstandings and social serendipities. This is my life. It is reality, just as much as it was a dream before I moved here. Sometimes the greatest adjustment I have to make living here is to try to marry the dream and the reality together.

I find myself between two worlds. Before I moved here and even when I visited, I was the dreamer, the tourist and I although I live in the everyday humdrum reality of making a life for myself and my family here, I am not an American by birth and therefore still find myself caught between reality and the dream. So it is both interesting and a little bit strange to see another person see this place for the first time and understand that I can never solely be the dreamer again.

So what has triggered such introspection? My family came to visit, of course.

Now, I love them but it has never been said that any member of my immediate family is anything but a person of strong opinions and entirely lacking in fear to express those opinions. My wife has had to restrain me on many occasions from expressing my dissatisfaction with a whole myriad of things which include, but by no means are limited to: American News Anchors, the lack of chips(fries)at Chinese takeouts in the U.S., the Ellen show, the Dr Phil show, Peyton Manning, the seemingly superhuman American ability to not require a type of potato at EVERY meal, doing your own tax returns, football (soccer), football (American Football). Truly my wife is amazing for putting up with these rants especially as she is “Minnesota nice” and therefore doesn't quite understand my opinionated Britishness.

So I was interested to see my family's reactions to America. My parents and my brother came to see us, which means a lot, as it means my father's first flight at the age of 62 was a full on, long haul, 8 hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean. We had a good time, although as most family holidays go, it had its short tempered and chaotic moments as well. It is strange, to see someone experiencing something for the first time that still seems so new to you, but is in fact, rapidly becoming a normal part of life. And, on top of that, there were guns.

Now I don't want to get into the inevitable arguments that ensue whenever Guns and America are mentioned within the same article. So much has been said on that issue by people better informed than I and, for that matter, far less well informed than I. It is a argument that everyone seems to now feel they possess a right to comment on equally whether they live here or not. Such is the ability of the internet to make us all experts and political commentators within our own lunch times. That being said, my brother wanted to shoot a gun while he was here and, bearing in my mind that I live in a state with a lot of hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, I reasoned it was a good idea that I was, at least familiar with the workings of a firearm.

This is the point, of course, where anyone who knows me and occasional clumsiness, runs screaming for the hills in hopes of protecting themselves from a stray bullet flying their way, but bear with me, dear readers, if only for a little longer.

The first week of the visit of my kinfolk (as I imagine Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone or some other gun totin' frontiersman might have said) we took them over the Mississippi into Mrs Geekrant's home state of Minnesota. We wanted to show them where my wife comes from, let them meet the rest of our extended Nordski family (including the newest addition, our niece Gabby, barely a month old at time and making her first appearance in her uncle's attempt at literature when she's not even three months old), and generally experience a side to America that most British people don't get to see.

We showed them the town of Red Wing, famous for its work boots, its pottery (at least locally) and for being one of the places young Bobby Zimmerman wrote a song about on his way south and out to New York and his new identity as Bob Dylan.

We talked at my in-laws kitchen table, my family and my wife's united in a way that reminds me of where I come from but is also somehow uniquely mid-western. No matter how distant the relationship, you're family and you always will be. My mother enjoyed the chance to dote on our newborn niece and my dad enjoyed playing games with our other niece and nephew (all three children are I suppose my parents grand nieces and nephew. I never really thought of my father as a great uncle). Suddenly I saw how marriage can tie families together, making distant people one and whole.

And, after all that, we took my brother Andy, shooting. Now I'm not really sure why Andy wanted to shoot so much, although he always was a fantastic shot on any video game you care to mention. Still he wanted to go and so Andy, my wife Kelly and I, went shooting. And when I when I say we went shooting, we were going back to basics.
When British people think of Americans shooting nowadays, we often think of television, cop shows and movies with dimly lit gunnery ranges, where some crack-shot makes a perfect grouping of shots on a paper target 50 yards away and pulls it back towards him to show his unbelievable coolness and skill. We were weren't doing that.

We were shooting empty storage tanks, hanging from a tree, in the middle of nowhere, with no cell/mobile signal. With myself, my wife, my brother and my father in law there in the back country. In all truth I fully expected Richard Thomas' voice to start narrating what surely would be the most high octane episode of “The Waltons” ever.
Despite the lack of official firing range though, this was as safe as could be. The men showing us were friends of my in-laws from church and were fire-arms safety instructors and they told us, in no uncertain terms that if we started messing around or if we even got some basic part of gun safety wrong, that was it, they'd pack it all up and call it a day.

My parents had stayed back in Lake City, Minnesota, where our hotel was, walking around the marina, pottering around in little riverside shops and cafe's. We, on the other hand, started from hand-guns and progressed up to rifles.

We were on the edge of a meadow at the edge of a wood on the side of a hill in the middle of what is often known as the boonies. Each gun was shown to us and how to fire it properly. My brother excelled in handguns, I definitely didn't. I fared better on rifles, although the recoil on a 12 gauge shot-gun nearly broke my shoulder. My wife, shot fantastically and my father in law, who I neglected to mention earlier, former Navy man that he is, easily held his own, not that it was a competition.

It was surreal, I often find it amazing that I made it here to America, I definitely didn't expect to see my brother shooting rifles in a Minnesotan wood while my parents looked for nick nacks in Mississippian gift shops. But such are the surprises of life.

I have already said that I don't want to add to the already voluminous cascade of opinions on the issue of American gun control or lack thereof and I don't, but I think I understand the conflict better now than I did before I moved here.

America is a nation, more than any other, built on one concept above all else. That concept is freedom. We can all sit and scoff, make noises about the nation's failing in that regard, especially if we sit on the outside looking in. It seems to many like an impossible concept to build a country upon. It probably is. Maybe, in the end, the ideals America was founded upon are its greatest strengths and also its greatest weaknesses.

Each man sees freedom as a different thing, wants freedom to be defined in a different way. Sometimes that leads to conflict. Every man sees themselves in the Founding Fathers, believe that if George Washington were here today, he would side with them. However I think I understand now, I will probably never be a hunter or a gun owner but the men who showed us how to use these weapons were and I could see how seriously they took that ownership and how sacred it was to them. To them this is something basic to a human's ability to make their own way in the world and to define for themselves what freedom looks like.

I feel unable to make a comment of who is right and who is wrong about the whole issue of America's attitude to guns, truthfully I'm not sure I really have a right to. But on that messy meadow on the edge of a wood, I think I gained an insight into what it is to be American. I realised that, for many, being American is about a never ending quest for freedom, the conflicts within its society coming from the different ways in which each person sees freedom. And maybe its victories come from that quest too.

I don't know what George Washington would think about America today, but I am happy to be here, despite its difficulties and contradictions. It has given me a wife, has allowed me to live miles away from everything I have ever known, welcoming me freely and it has given me a new life.

So from the pen of a Redcoat, Happy Fourth of July, whichever amendment is your favourite and whatever you think is freedom, I'm glad to be here.