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!

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