Wordshore

Writing in the long form
April 21st, 2013 by John

The Boston Red Sox

The first time in Boston was December 1995, for the fourth World Wide Web conference. The last time was two years ago almost to the day, on a night stop-over on the way to (finally) meet – in ‘real life’ – the person who would be my fiancee.

The events of the last week – not just in Boston, but elsewhere in America, and much more personally closer – have been strange, turbulent, upsetting, downright scary, annoying as hell, thought-provoking and personally defining. Sometimes, in life, you never know your exact feelings about something until a situation or crisis occurs. That’s happened a few times this week.

Fenway Park, Boston, Massachusetts - HDR

One of the (by far) lesser things, personally, was finally deciding which baseball team to support. I know a lot about cricket but, despite going to several matches over the years, hardly anything about baseball. Apart from the basics (e.g. loading the bases, top and bottom of the innings, of which there are nine). The statistics aspects, the tactics, the culture surrounding it look enjoyable and reminiscent in some ways of cricket, and no other sport. And above all, it’s fun to go and watch; a truly social spectator sport that fits the “pursuit of happiness” ethos of America well.

But, which team to support. It was easy with cricket; Worcestershire County Cricket Club, my home county side, based at one of the most scenic sports grounds around, a few miles from where I went to school.

Not so easy with baseball. I’ve been to many matches now, in cities including Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit and Seattle, and seen teams play in major and minor league baseball. I have no geographical affinity to any side – there is no major baseball team within a good 6 hour drive of the place I consider ‘home’ in the USA. I have no baseball heros or players I follow closely, past or present. And people advise me to pick a major league side, and a minor league one close by so I’d not have to take a plane to always support my side.

Who to pick? Not an urgent question, but one dithered with for several years. A team is for life, not just for a season. Choose wisely, young padawan. You may be explaining this choice for several decades yet.

Fenway Park

But this week it clicked. Boston. The Red Sox. Of course. The first baseball match I went to in America (or anywhere), over fifteen years ago. The events of this week, with a city (and a country, and a people) I recognise, and like, and like a lot, in the news, across all news and disposable social media. The city where I got my online web work mojo together. The home city (near enough) of JFK, after whom I was named, and various presidents, patriots, and signers of the Declaration of Independence.

And the city where I first thought “Hey, maybe I’ll move to this country one day”.

Those reasons are more than good enough for me. So the Boston Red Sox it is. Here’s a video taken by someone three years ago during a Patriots Day match between the Red Sox and the Yankees at Fenway Park in Boston:

November 9th, 2012 by John

The fifteen hundred

There was an era in U.S. political life “that began with Ronald Reagan, where there was a conservative dominance powered by conservative voters and Southern whites,” said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “That era is over.


You know those news stories of religious cults, approaching a day of judgement where they are convinced that they will ascend to some form of heaven, leaving all the unbelievers behind? And they gather on the anointed day, often in some place in an American desert (Utah seems particularly appropriate). And right to the end, they believe that they are correct and everyone else is wrong.

And the time passes. And they don’t go to heaven, but just stand there, all upset, some in denial, many angry, some forever angry, some crying ‘lies’, some broken, some think they have been cheated, some blaming it on a lack of faith and action, some rearranging the date according to a hastily-justified reason, and some bewildered why the non-believers “just don’t get it”.

That was the core of the Republican party on election night. Cue Karl Rove in disbelieving mood. Cue the disbelieving party workers and Romney faithful in Boston. Cue the many viewers of Fox News, now spewing out angry disbelief on the comments sections of a thousand online news reports, and warning that the apocalypse is now upon us and the country is doomed and it’s all the fault of the non-believers, those strange unbelieving liberals who seem inexplicably angry with the prophecy of an imminent Conservative heaven.

Flag-waving "Patriots"

Their day, their moment, of judgement did not come. They weren’t transported to a land of low taxes, no medical cover, abortion or gay rights, ruled by a mean-sounding and uncomfortably white God. They’re still in the USA, a country still beset by significant problems – many of its own making – but one that is slowly, gradually becoming more racially and sexually accepting and socially liberal. More fair.

For them, the cult members, this is not pretty. And on the other, European side of the Atlantic, some rejoice and many are relieved while others, often intolerant extremists from the left who are boringly determined to be miserable about anything and everything Americana, whine about the result to the annoyance of more rational Americans. Maybe there is something in the horseshoe theory after all.

And for some of these more rational people watching from near or far away, it’s weird, this post-election feeling. A mixture of relief, fear, trepidation and exhaustion. The analysis of how Obama won – and why Romney lost, and lost an election many thought they could and should have won – is underway in a myriad of media, political centers, and television studios and smoke-filled back offices across America. The excuses from the losers – careful to point the blame at everyone except themselves – have begun. And so this experiment to change the Presidency by subtly and not-so-subtly brainwashing a significant proportion of the richest country in the history of mankind and throwing a billion dollars at an election, is over. As is a multi-level campaign featuring some of the most hateful and negative electioneering for a while, both widely known and not so widely known.

And, for a complex set of inter-related reasons that people are figuring out, it failed.

US Constitution

Good. And many good moments came out of the election. Possibly one of the most satisfying was the story of the damaging 47% video, shot at a private Romney event ($50,000 a pop to attend) where he dismissed that proportion of the population for allegedly never paying tax, living off handouts and always voting for Obama. And why was this video reveal particularly satisfying? Because the Republican Party, and Romney in particular, had spent many years castigating Jimmy Carter, the 1976 to 1980 US President. And the person who brought the video to the attention of the mass media and voters … was his grandson. A typically American twist of justice.

But the enduring struggle which maybe defines America, and what it means to be an American, goes on.

This ridiculously newly reborn country, where people alive today have watched a witness to Lincoln’s assassination describing it on TV. Where the last verified widow of a civil war veteran died just four years ago. And where the grandchildren of the tenth president, who took office in 1841, are still alive and farm. Heck, it’s less than four hundred years – which is nothing in European or Chinese historical terms – since the Mayflower arrived, had to winter out at sea and half the passengers died.

From here in the “old world”, post-colonial America sometimes seems almost too comically young, like a third grade schoolboy trying to buy beer, to call itself a country.

But it’s managed to pack a lot of turbulence, expansion, internal and external conflict, into those few hundred years. As well as, or possibly resulting in, staggering progress, the only country in history to go from the basic survival of newly arrived immigrants to safely putting its own citizens on the surface of another world within three and a half centuries. That’s pretty damned impressive. But is it the perpetual struggle between the religious and the humanist, the republican and the democrat, the farmer and the land, the homeowner and the tornado, the north and the south, the native and the settler, the free and the enslaved, the President and Congress, which defines America? If these struggles, endless and enduring, somehow ended, would this remove the character, identity which is America? I’m not sure.

But there’s one definite thing about America. It can be, often is, a peaceful and relaxed and above all a friendly place, even though it is always at conflict within itself. This perpetual conflict; maybe it’s the lack of post-colonial history, with only fifteen or so generations since the first Europeans walked off the boat into an already populated land, and stayed there. Maybe it’s because the underlying issues, feelings and prejudices which culminated in the civil war are not wholly resolved.

Or maybe it’s because the Declaration of Independence explicitly, optimistically and positively, tells the citizens of the country to go in the pursuit of happiness. Or maybe it’s because much of the Constitution, although written a mere ten generations ago, is open to interpretation, misinterpretation and re-interpretation. Or maybe it’s because within a single digit number of generations of that document, a period of almost impossible growth and advance, the country somehow managed to become the most powerful (in good and not so good ways) in history.

Even now, like unexpected volcanic eruptions off the coast of Iceland spewing out new lands, the United States of America is rapidly changing in terms of population, land mass, size. The lower 48 only became as such a century ago, with the 1912 additions of Arizona and New Mexico. In 1968, when I was born, the population was 200 million. In the 44 years since then, just a couple of generations and 11 presidential elections later, it’s increased to 315 million. Soon, another star may be added to the flag as Puerto Rico moves towards joining the union. (How cool is that? One nation, stretching from the eastern Caribbean to Alaska) Understanding America is difficult because of this constant, rapid, change. Even some of those born and living there, such as many of those Republicans from earlier in the week convinced to the end that America would vote “their man” in on a landslide, miss or don’t understand the rapid changes.

old glory. venice beach, ca. 2012.

And a lot can, and does, change in America during a lifetime. Even in just a few years. In 1,500 days, the country will have dealt (or not dealt) with the fiscal cliff, more hurricanes, economic turbulence, incidents, tragedies and triumphs of almost Shakespearian drama. And it will have voted and decided on (so long as Florida gets its act together) a new president-elect, waiting for inauguration while President Obama sees out the last few weeks of his two terms. Who that president-elect will be no-one knows, but the speculation across the media and the campaigning seems to be well underway.

And beyond 2016, who knows? Perhaps the American political dynasties of the last century will re-emerge; more likely than you may think. Hillary (Clinton) may run in 2016, win, and be re-elected in 2020. Though not yet a politician, her (and Bill’s) daughter, Chelsea Clinton, is racking up media and political experience. Don’t rule out another of Jimmy Carter’s grandchildren, Jason Carter, recently re-elected to the Georgia State Senate. There’s also plenty of Roosevelt’s around, a few of whom are active in politics. Then there’s George Bush. Yes, another one, except this one is the son of Jed, nephew of George Dubya, is half-Latino, speaks fluent Spanish, and is already nicknamed ’47 in relation to which US President he may become.

And finally, this election has also brought a new Kennedy into the House, Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, the grandson of Bobby. He looks like a Kennedy, really like his Grandfather, and talks like one, and is starting to campaign like one. Unlike his Grandfather, he can use social media to promote, and has a twitter account with (at the moment) a mere seven thousand followers. I have a good, hopeful, feeling that, as the next few presidential cycles roll by, we may start to hear a lot more about Joe at the level of US presidential candidate…

The drama and the change and the struggle that is America, continues.

I love the place, and its people, dearly. One day, I’ll be one.

June 27th, 2012 by John

Don’t shush me, I’m tweeting the speaker

(The title is a play on librarian cliches and stereotypes, and on the worst book title in the field of games in education)

A better title is Dealing with Bunheads.

Twitter has been around for over six years. Other forms of social media have been around longer. Phones, tablets, laptops, and other devices where you can type while sitting at a presentation, seminar, workshop, conference or other event, have been around for many years, decades. And emails, mailing lists, usenet news groups, and other digital textual forms of presentation have been around for longer than quite a lot of the population, possibly some of the readers of this post.

And yet, at library and librarian conferences, there’s still reports of people in the audience asking, or telling, other people not to tweet. Seriously. I can’t believe I’m typing this in mid-2012.

It seems to happen on a regular basis at UK library events, less so – but not unknown – at US ones. Here’s a tweet from a conference earlier this week:

Tweeting problem

Here’s a comment by Jo the librarian on a post by Phil Bradley, from 2010 about a regional library organisation AGM from earlier that year. The whole comment included to give some context:

Ciliplondon

At the same event, another tweeter was also intercepted by a dinosaur who had some kind of objection to her ‘blackberry’. Lots of comments on this one. And lo, another post by someone else at the same event.

This hasn’t just happened, in the UK, at CILIP events:

biall

This has also happened in the USA, at the American Library Association annual conference this week past, where it happened to Kate and she posted about it on the ALA Think Tank Facebook group (a recommended thing to join):

ala

Kate adds some info on who and why the tweetophobe said what they did:

kate2

There are variations on this type of objection. For example, Sophie writes:

sophie1

There are far worse things than someone next to me using a smartphone, laptop or other device, at a library conference. These, ALL of which I’ve experienced at library conferences in the UK, include:

  1. The agent orange. Ridiculous amounts of aftershave or perfume, creating a natural ‘killzone’ around the wearer. Perhaps they are on ‘the pull’. Or perhaps they are too lazy to shower, and it’s to mask…
  2. The hobo. Bad body odor. Not the kind you get for running for the train that morning, but from seriously deficient personal habits.
  3. The muncher. Crunching their way through tube after tube of polo mints. Or some other bag or container of rustling sweets, due to an inability to wait until the break for refreshment.
  4. The slurper. People who have a cup or mug of coffee or tea, and loudly slurp. Every. Single. Damned. Mouthful.
  5. The stirrer. Usually the same person as the last one; people who stir their tea or coffee, in a mug, noisily using a metal spoon for several minutes. This is the only time (I think?) I have physically threatened someone with actual violence at a library conference. He left, suddenly, probably as a better option than having the metal spoon surgically removed later in the day. I’m a little unnerved by how close this came to violence, and I retrospectively apologise to everyone who overheard. Even if I was provoked.
  6. The yakker. People who talk through the whole session with the person next to them, on stuff that has nothing to do with the presentation. I mean, why the hell did you bother to turn up?
  7. The sniffer, who sniffs every five seconds, as regular as clockwork. Closely related to the throat-clearer.
  8. The crotch fiddler, as you’re aware of it, and as it is repeated, you’re not sure how innocent it is and whether you should move far away.
  9. The frakker. So called because they are their own personal gas drill well, emitting – sometimes loudly – gaseous material into the near locality. This seems to be prevalent amongst men of a certain age at UK library events. Or maybe I get repeatedly unlucky about who I sit next to.
  10. The tutter. He or she tuts at nearly every comment the speaker makes.

Suggestion to ‘The tutter’. If you want a wider audience, join twitter and tweet about what’s wrong with everything the speaker is saying.

If you can articulate your displeasure.

If.

Okay, I’m turning into Jerry Seinfeld. But, whatever. All of those are far worse than someone silently, without offensive odor, typing away on a device. People don’t publicly object to any of those ten, saying “Sir, you smell worse than the rear end of a dead horse!” or “Madam, if you suck those boiled sweets any louder, windows will shatter and dogs scatter!” Perhaps they should? But some people will complain about tweeting, despite tweeting being a positive and useful thing:

  • More people – many, many more – get to hear what the speaker is on about. That’s not disrespect; that’s amplifying. Tweeters are doing the speaker, and the event organisers, a huge favor.
  • The event itself is promoted more.
  • The speaker is critiqued. This is good. And from the many, many events I’ve followed on twitter, it doesn’t turn into an anti-speaker mob; at worse, there’s snark instead of vitriol. At best, there’s praise.
  • Extra information; links, context, additions, corrections, are added by the event twitterati to the speakers presentation. Good for him or her to review afterwards.
  • People tweeting, like note takers, will retain, remember, more information about the speaker.
  • Tweeting is good. It shows that at least some in the profession are comfortable with information flows through all media. Or, to put it more shortly, that they are information professionals.
  • Actively blocking tweeting is bad; contributing to the death knell of the profession. It’s off-putting to many people to join and gives ammunition to anti-library organisations that librarians are stuck in the past and irrelevant.

The objections to tweeting appear to fall into three categories:

  1. “You may be showing disrespect to the speaker.” I have a tiny bit of sympathy here, as the twitterophobe possibly has good intentions, but is just utterly in a different – previous – world as to how things work at events. Some education is required.
  2. “I don’t like technology, and therefore I’m going to make up ridiculous reasons why you shouldn’t tweet.” No sympathy here, and the twitterophobe shouldn’t be at Information Professional events. Or, arguably, in the profession.
  3. “I hate change. And I hate you, because I’m not young any more, and you are, with your virility and technology. This is my organisation, because I’ve been in it for decades and you haven’t. And there’s nothing you can do about it, because myself and like-minded people run it, and others in the organisation are too frightened to say anything in case we leave and stop paying our fees.” Again, no sympathy. Every elephant his graveyard, every dinosaur his tar pit.

What to do if someone tells to you stop tweeting, or typing, or messaging. There’s a few approaches that don’t involve violence or the threat of same:

michael

Or tell them you aren’t stopping and they are in the wrong. It’s important that you stand your ground as you are not in the wrong. Or, stay sitting on your slightly wobbly conference seat. Inform them that they can move to somewhere where they won’t encounter people tweeting, if it upsets them so much. Perhaps suggest North Korea, if you want to get flippant.

And then ignore them and tweet about them (which is even funnier if they are looking at your screen). Any decent conference or session organiser will pick up on this, and possibly intervene with dealing with the tweetophobe.

Alternately, if it is someone on a power-trip or being passive aggressive, take a picture of them and twitpic it. Let’s see the bunhead.

Concluding how this started; I’m still finding it hard to believe that this goes on in mid-2012. Not in huge amounts. But it does.

June 20th, 2012 by John

The solstice walk

The summer solstice is but a few hours away. To be precise, it happens at 00:09 BST, on Thursday June 21st, 2012.

Five years ago, I was living on a small island, some three miles by two, in the Outer Hebrides. With a population that hovered around 130 residents, it was a relaxed place. And also very pretty, with one of the best beaches you’ll find in Britain.

On the summer solstice, and around that time of the year, it remains surprisingly bright at night. The first year there, we discovered it was possible to read a newspaper or a book in the garden. At midnight. Without a torch.

We also discovered that it was a really good idea to invest in some serious wartime blackout curtains, as opposed to the translucent thin stuff that’s prevalent nowadays. When it’s bright, it’s seriously bright. And at 4am, that’s a bit strange. And annoying when you need to sleep.

Back in 2007, it had been a hot and sunny June. Rainfall had been minimal, and the ground was drying and cracking. The island had been, even at the height of this good weather summer, quiet, with the occasional tourist, celebrity and broadsheet newspaper journalist popping up and hanging around for a while. The rumour that Prince Charles was returning for another summers retreat on Berneray proved unfounded.

The good weather also invited long walks on the west and east beaches, and the occasional dip in the sea. Though, even after several weeks of sunshine, the water was still damned cold. (Also, the sphere in this next picture was solid and hurt when you kicked it)

Ball

I spent that summer taking every opportunity to do beach walks, when I wasn’t fiddling around with doing virtual world work for Andy Powell et al in Eduserv, finding and cooking mussels, and sailing on the open sea in a serious boat.

As the summer edged towards the solstice, the idea of a little walk between sunset and sunrise during the shortest night came about. With this time being only a few hours, it wouldn’t make for a long walk. But, the perimeter of Berneray, taking in several beaches, the slopes of various hills, and the single track road for the last part, would do just fine at the right pace.

I mentioned it to Ruth, who was up for it. We mentioned it to a few other people who we thought would be into it and good to come along. Unfortunately, they mentioned it to others, and within a few days, half the island wanted to do it. Doubly unfortunately – this involved the most talkative people; every community seems to have a few people who try and fill every quiet second with their own voices, and the appeal of a walk round the island faded. And people started talking, and phoning me up, about schedules, and supplies, and driving bits of it, and perhaps bringing a radio along(!), and whether it was right to bring alcohol or not, and all manner of other pointless complications.

Rather than having just a quiet walk. Looking at things. Listening to other things. Having the occasional word, and sharing the occasional drink.

I lost interest. Word got around that the walk had been postponed. No bad thing. It was tempting go out in the boat again instead, as we’d been doing that month.

Youth hostel and the north end of Berneray

Then come the day before the solstice, the weather forecast looked good and we thought “Heck, why not.” Leaving it as close to the time as possible, we roped back in a few of the quieter people, and the five of us were set.Ruth, Andrew, Chris, Shonnie and myself.

Chris came to the gate of our house for sunset and we set off, picking up Andrew at his house, and Shonnie at the bottom of the road to his house. Mary, his kind wife, had loaded his pockets with sweets and a flask of something illicit smelling, and gave us a friendly but firm “make sure he comes back” parting.

Up to full strength, we walked past various ruins, up the east beach, and round the north headland.

The magnificent five

As you can see from that, and the next picture, it’s not easy to photograph at night on a cheap camera. The light is strange, and you can watch the bright area western sky slowly move clockwise, north then east, as dawn approaches.

Like hobbits, we stopped (increasingly) for meal breaks. It was a nice group to be in. Small. No-one spoke much, and no-one spoke loudly. All of us had some local and natural knowledge, so between us birds and animal sounds were identified through the night.

We carried on, anti-clockwise, and hit the west beach; three miles of unbroken white sand. Never monotonous, and never crowded; the most people I ever counted on it at the same time was eleven, a day that was acknowledged to be “freakishly crowded” and people talked of moving on as the “place is being over-run”.

The beach offers an uninterrupted view of the island of Pabbay, which I spent a heck of a lot of time over half a decade looking at, with its volcanic-like shape, green slope and beaches. We went there by fishing boat on my birthday two years before, wandering over the now-deserted island, posing for photos and watching herds of tame deer run uncomfortably close to us.

But tonight, on the summer solstice, Pabby brooded, darkly, watchfully, sentient, over us from across the few miles of placid north Atlantic.

Pabbay from the west beach

Despite being three miles of sand, we spent two hours on the beach. The sounds of the waves, bird noises, some kind of distant, deep, thudding far out to see, and the occasional startled otter, were pretty much it during that stretch of the walk. I’d gone ahead of the others who’d stopped to look at some unidentifiable dead … thing … washed up on the beach, and had an hour to myself. Recent adventures exploring Finland had given me a lot to think about and a deeper itch, troubling thoughts, to figure out various things (though at the time I wasn’t sure what) were pressing heavily in conscious and unconscious thoughts. That hour of solitude, 2 till 3 in the morning, on the west beach of Berneray, is still really vivid in the mind, staring at the unmovable, silent Pabbay.

The group reassembled and carried on. Rounding the south west corner of Berneray, we were starting to head for home. Or my home where I’d promised breakfast for any of us who completed the circuit. Crossing the cockle bay, at low tide, revealed many otter prints as they slept, hung out and ate their catch here in significant numbers at the time.

Despite some fatigue, the pace picked up. Mary would be waiting for Shonnie (he wasn’t allowed to linger for breakfast). We got back to the house before dawn, realising that we hadn’t passed or seen a single vehicle for the whole walk. I walked Shonnie back to his place, then doubled back to mine. Before tucking into what was left of breakfast (Chris having eaten most of the contents of our fridge), I took a pre-dawn snap of the view from my office:

Dawn

Deeply satisfying, the whole walk, the whole night, every part of it. And possibly the best thing I’ve organised, specifically because it was kept simple in the end. Let’s go for a walk; start after sunset, breakfast before sunrise. And that’s it.

People regularly ask me if I miss the place. Or how could I possibly move away from such a beautiful place to live in. And they’re right about how it looks; there are few places (and I’ve travelled a lot) that compare to the scenery of the Outer Hebrides, all the year round.

But there’s more – a heck of a lot more – to living in a place than just the scenery. And there’s more than a few grains of truth in Local Hero on this, and if you watch the whole film, on living in a rural place on the periphery of northern Europe (not just Scotland). Things to write and publish about, in much greater detail, another day.

Despite having “broadband” there that is unbelievably bad to sign up to, and unbelievably bad to actually try and use, I’m still in touch over the Interwebz with a fair few people on Berneray and the other islands that make up the Outer Hebrides. It’s interesting, the conflict some of them have, the yearn to get away for many and varied reasons, but the pull of the place they feel is home. Some stay. Some leave and eventually come back, need to come back to feel content again. Some leave and never come back. The way it’s always been on the periphery of Europe; the way it’ll probably always be.

But no, I don’t miss living on Berneray; there have been many adventures since (not all of them good, or desired), and I’ve a much better, possibly brutally simple and personal, concept of what ‘home’ is now than five very long years ago. Though, there is one thing I really do miss from those years; being on a boat with a sail in the open sea.

Shooting along

Yeah; my own boat (think I’d name her the Liberty Rose) on the open sea. Something to dream about, and sail, in future years.

Oh, and the solstice walk. It never got repeated. Well, that’s not strictly true. It was never publicly repeated, though I gather some Berneray residents have quietly, with few words and no announcements, done it on their own since {smiles}. Hoping more do it tonight, and in future years.

May 28th, 2012 by John

Storms over Lake Michigan

It was a few years ago, now. More recent than many of the other adventures I’d had in America, but still disappearing into the cognitively dusty corner of things done in the past. Some memories, most memories, fade, but some memories are sharp enough to endure.

I’d been dating H. It wasn’t good. The hot summer in the rust belt, and the previous baggage we’d both brought to the relationship, had stifled it pretty quickly. She was coming back to England with me. We both knew this was a mistake, but neither of us wanted to say. Eventually, we were both proved right.*

Her mom and her partner had a trailer. No, they weren’t the stereotypical rednecks – they also had a house – but this was a trailer in some kind of middle class holiday park, in northern Indiana. It was ridiculously big; and comfortable, with “all mod cons” and places to sleep, and a large TV on which reruns of Top Gear could be watched by Americans easily amused at the comedic value of British men. Back in my own country, I’ve lived in smaller apartments.

As I said, it wasn’t good between me and H. That’s in the past – the receeding past, thankfully – and it’s unlikely we’ll ever speak again, especially when I’ve published all of the memories that are emerging, some years in the future when it’s more appropriate. And speaking was something we weren’t good at doing anyway, even when we were together.

Aurora Over Lake Michigan

In the trailer park, I’d increasingly go off on my own to avoid talking. One evening I took the golf cart out, something I enjoyed doing on my own, less so with other people. It had cup holders, meant I didn’t have to exercise in any way, and therefore made me feel a little bit American.

The air was oppressive; hot and still that evening. The heat had been nudging 100 in the daytime, and the insects were feasting on my slowly cooking skin that week. Driving the golf cart gave a little relief; a slight and silent breeze.

I drove it to the entrance to the trailer park, on a few yards more, to the top of a rise. Not a big rise, but in Indiana, a rise is a rise. Feeling … something … I turned around.

To the northwest, the view swept over the border into Michigan. In the distance, far far into the distance, huge storm clouds, impossibly large thunder clouds, moved imperceptibly across the sky, like silent buffalo in great numbers, on the move. Lighting lit up random clouds, but no thunder rolled across Michigan and Indiana to where I sat in the golf cart, the storm was so distant.

I tried to work out where the clouds were, and realised that, with the distance, the storms were likely to be over Lake Michigan, moving out of Chicago, trundling towards Canada. But here I was, in Indiana, close to the border with Ohio, watching storms sweep across a lake so vast that you sail on it and soon lose sight of the shore from where you came. A lake larger than countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium or the Netherlands. A lake which I’d swam in several times, watched fireworks fall into, and pottered around on, in boats. To an Englishman, used to tiny lakes not much bigger than ponds, and a gap from his birth country to continental Europe much narrower than Lake Michigan, the scale of this unobstructed panorama woke me from my evening heat slumber. And woke me from the place I’d retreated to, inside myself, that summer.

Solitude

I watched the silent lightning and wondered; were there boats on the lake? Under the storm? Being battered by large waves, and worked desperately like Truman Burbank trying to keep the Santa Maria afloat? Ships heading for safe harbour, in Grand Haven, Muskegon, Benton or Evanston?

That was the America I was looking for. The big sky; the big country; liberty defined in a thousand ways, but an important one being that with wheels and cheap gasoline, you can drive in the same direction for hours, days, and still be in the same country. Where a quick trip to your favorite restaurant for dinner can be a hundred miles or more. And train journeys between major cities are sometimes measured, not in minutes or hours, but in days and nights. A landmass so big, many people go a lifetime and never see the edges.

Only a third of Americans have passports, I’d read in the paper. True or not, it suddenly seemed plausible; the place was so big, endless, rolling, why go elsewhere when there’s much still to see here? I’d only experienced this feeling of scale before in Scandinavia, the overwhelming size of the fjords of Norway, the coastline that seems unimaginably long, the hundreds of thousands of islands, and the endless roads through the snowy northern European landscape. Nowhere else, apart from here in America, had a landscape this epic.

I drove back to the trailer before the golf cart battery drained completely. No-one had noticed that I’d gone; symbolic, obviously, of the dying relationship that would unfortunately stagger on for another half year.

And that is my most vivid, persistent and positive memory of that relationship (for even out of the worst ones, some good things usually come). Ironically, an event in which I’d found a near-perfect moment, but in solitude. Watching lightning and storms, from an American state away, move slowly across an inland sea. And understanding a mixture of emotions of calmness, liberty and freedom that come with watching a natural display of this scale, this distance and this grandeur.

* Update: August 28th 2012

Having said that, things did work out well – eventually – several years down the line, though in odd ways involving social media, patience, mistakes and regret, cheese and other things. If I hadn’t been tweeting, blogging and whatever else that summer from Ohio and Indiana, they may not have. Guess social media has its upsides, after all.

February 25th, 2012 by John

Rick Santorum is fascinating

At which point, British liberal friends say “Who?” and my American liberal friends say “OMG why John, why, we thought you were one of us?”

Because he’s a Conservative American politician and he’s doing between okay and well in the quest to become the Republican presidential candidate this year, despite having hardly any infrastructure or team or funding compared to Mitt Romney. And I’ve met and chatted with him. And, think I get why he’s doing well.

Also. I like going to meetings where people of a different political persuasion speak. “Know thy enemy to defeat him”, perhaps. Or perhaps it’s because an event where everyone agrees with everyone else gets plain boring. Challenge is good, brings debate. Agreement in a like-minded echo chamber brings … sleep?

I’m a European socialist and liberal in the Scandinavian sense – though with some libertarian leanings, especially on defense – who believes in equality. I agree with Rick on not tying a currency to the gold standard; but on just about every other political issue he’s spoken about, it’s disagreement time. Often extreme disagreement. His views are about as opposite to mine as it is possible to get. On contraception, the separation of church and state, taxation, federal medical care, on … just about everything, I can’t agree with him and probably never will, even if he softened his position.

But here’s the odd thing. There’s a part of me that perhaps oddly admires his political journey this last half year, and there’s also a situation where I’d vote for him. Before my liberal friends stop reading and collectively delete me from all social media “friend” or “follow” lists, hear me out.

I met Rick last August in Grinnell, Iowa. It was months before the state GOP caucus, and before the Ames Straw Poll, a somewhat poisoned chalice where the winner gets a brief moment of fame in the media, and then quickly burns out. Michelle Bachmann won that, then plummeted in the GOP polls and quit the race not that long afterwards.

At the time, Rick was on less than 1% in the polling. In the TV debates, he’d be the one right on the side, not getting any questions as the interviewer focused on whoever was the Republican flavor of the month / week / day. His campaign had pretty much no money. However, his style of campaigning involved going from small town to small town, speaking at every small hall and library around. He spent many days “on the ground”, and eventually went to every one of Iowa’s counties. And, unlike Bachmann who also visited every county, but in just a few days and with extremely brief stops in each, Rick took several hours out at each stop to give his speech and answer – in surprising detail and length – questions put to him.

Rick Santorum

He turned up at Grinnell (the only other Republican candidate who went there was Tim Pawlenty) and I wandered along to the event, expecting there to be a crowd of dozens, maybe a hundred or more people crammed into the room at the public library. Um, there wasn’t – I got there a little early and was the first one. I chatted to his organiser, an enthusiastic and pleasant Iowa student of politics. And a few other people, and Rick turned up. Shook his hand, chatted briefly and awkwardly, I think mostly about Iowa cuisine on which he’d become an expert of late. He picked up on my European-ess, and commented on it.

The room sort of filled a bit, but the attendees peaked at less than twenty, to be outnumbered by the media and Rick’s family at one point. Rick’s style of speaking was to give a long monologue, with no notes, on his campaign, his beliefs, on Obama, on the state of America, on how Europe had gone very wrong (he glanced over at me a few times while saying that; I smiled back) and how America should not go that way.

And his policies, which are now widely known, not just nationally across America, but internationally. I started, then stopped live-tweeting the event, as DMs from British followers were sceptical about whether these were honest tweets (yes) or made up. I’ve never heard rhetoric at an event like it. (Thinks) actually … not true. When living in the Outer Hebrides for half a decade, at funerals and other obligatory community services, the minister would sometimes veer off into fire and brimstone rhetoric. There’s not much as surreal as being at a funeral and the minister informing everyone that they will burn in hell.

And that’s not far off Rick’s message. Which is also that the best status for a woman is barefoot and pregnant, contraception is wrong, anything apart from a heterosexual relationship is wrong, Europeans are lazy which is why their economies are wrecked, Iran should be attacked, and that wealth inequality is a good and necessary thing.

But it was the reaction of the audience that was the most interesting. The older the member of the audience, the more vocal they spoke in favor of, and to, Rick. One lady who must have been 80, if not a lot older, had a mini-rant about the evils of “socialistic Obama policies”. Seniors nodded and muttered agreement when Rick argued for “Obamacare” to be repealed, as I sat there and thought “Hang on; aren’t you some of the main beneficiaries of medicare and medicaid? Especially you there, in the front row, in your federal funded electric wheelchair?”

Press

Rick spoke for over an hour. Then he took questions; any questions, and didn’t duck any. His minder / driver pointedly looked at his watch. Then it finished. One lady who’d been sitting at the back said to him:

“I don’t agree with what you said, but I appreciate you coming to our town and putting your case and beliefs forward.”

Her companion agreed with her. And that’s part of why Rick is popular, and picking up votes, with many people.

  1. He puts the effort in, and goes to the places which other candidates think are “not worth it”. Locals appreciate this.
  2. When he’s there, he doesn’t do a five minute script then gets back onto a plane, but talks and answers questions at length. The other candidates don’t, apart from Ron Paul sometimes.
  3. He’s vocally honest about what he believes in. To the extent that his campaign is unusual. Pick an issue; any issue. Do you honestly know how Mitt Romney will act on this issue if/when he becomes president? No. Mitt tailors his response to the audience and situation. Whereas Rick has probably come out with an unambiguous policy on the issue, even if it is one which most Americans will not agree with.

Those three things add up to the “Protestant Work Ethic” and basic honesty of opinion that appeals to a lot of Americans. Especially in places such as rural Iowa. That’s from Republican voters I’ve chatted to there, and it’s obviously getting him a lot of votes.

It’s also his honesty of opinion – combined with that opinion being extreme on issues such as sexuality – that has made Rick such a controversial person. If you don’t know why, Google Santorum. When you’ve recoiled from this, find out why it came about. This is also why many in the US media are enjoying this, seeing how frequently they can use the phrase “Santorum surge” to summarise his current polling popularity, as well as fronting other innuendo such as this article title. And we thought the Brits were best at smut?

But seriously, it is a bizarre situation, when a candidate says things hostile to a woman’s ability to choose contraception, or even what to do in the most extreme of situations…

…but many women still want to vote for him to be president. This clip from the Daily Show is a good analysis of his frank approach.

So I admire him for his (bizarrely politically suicidal) honesty and his work rate. But at the same time, I am appalled by his policies. After his event, I took a cookie offered by his daughter and went back into the library proper to borrow his book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. I managed to get a quarter of the way through it before realising … I just could not read any more. Too much, in a bad way; if Rick became president, it would be bad for America, especially for anyone who wasn’t a rich white male, and bad the world. I wouldn’t like to be a woman, relying on health care and in a low paid job, in Rick’s America.

So there’s a situation where I’d vote for Rick?! I do not believe he will be the Republican candidate for several reasons. The main one being that he is unelectable in the presidential election proper, as independents and lots of other demographics will vote to keep him out. The GOP hierarchy know that Mitt Romney is far more electable against Obama, and will ensure that Mitt is the candidate, no matter what. I’m expecting Mitt to take Michigan and Arizona – the latter by a wide margin – this tuesday, and most of the primaries on Super Tuesday. It’s inconceivable that the wider Republican Party and Conservative coalition will let any other situation occur.

Also, because of his strategy Rick has done well in the caucuses but badly in the primaries. Unfortunately, the contorted nature of the process means that those caucus wins will not translate to many conference delegates (most may go to Ron Paul) and it’s quite possible that come the Republican Party convention in August, Santorum will have “won” many more states than Paul but have fewer delegates (think of them as bargaining chips). There are other reasons, but I’m sticking with my prediction that Mitt Romney will be the Republican Party candidate, and will win the presidency in November 2012. Even though I don’t want that to happen.

So if I was an eligible voter, and if I was in a state with a caucus or an open primary (where you don’t have to be a registered Republican to vote), I would vote for Rick. Not because I want him to win. But because every vote against Romney, and especially every state he loses, destabilizes him a little bit. And Romney, and the supporting SuperPACs, have to pour more of their finite money into the Republican race, leaving them with less to fight Obama in the autumn. Unfair tactics? No. It’s legal, and both parties push the legality of what they can do as far as they can.

But to reassure my liberal chums, if any have not given up in disgust and are still reading this, come the presidential election proper, no matter what there would only be one vote for me (if I could vote):

Obama 2012 Rally—New York City, June 23rd, 2011

I still believe in hope. And a Barack Obama, used to the mechanisms of presidency and free from compromising to get re-elected, could have a much more progressive second term than his first.

If he wins in November…

November 6th, 2011 by John

One year to the 2012 US presidential election

It’s exactly a year to the day till the next election for POTUS (President Of The United States). On November 6th 2012, millions of people will vote for who they want to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, as well as a load of other politicians at national and local levels.

The presidential race, in particular, is exciting and interesting – in some ways because of the whole ridiculousness of the thing. Campaigns last for a significant part of the four years. Millions (no, billions) of dollars are thrown into slagging off the other side. Debates turn into high drama (or low farce). The media gorge on the whole thing like an obese man at a Vegas hotel all-you-can-eat buffet, hyping it up out of self-interest.

And the TV adverts, when a politician wants to get elected in the USA, are … welljustbeyond belief. And easy to parody.

It’s bizarre watching the whole thing from afar – and from close up. Real close up, like attending town hall meetings and little gatherings to hear Republican candidates such as Santorum speak (interesting and alarming in possibly equal measure). Or traveling round the USA during and after a US presidential election (pictures on this post from that trip) and talking to people, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Socialists and the like. It’s interesting, exciting, worrying, scary – but never dull.

As for who will win the presidency in 2012; who knows. Everyone is a pundit, and the betting markets currently have Obama as a 50/50 chance to be reelected. The political junkies at the New York Times have recently undertaken a detailed analysis which also leans towards GOP.

I’m not a journalist, or a politician, or even an America. Instead, an obsessive follower of all things American political. My selection for some time has been a Republican ticket of Romney and Rubio. That’s not the same as who I want to win; that would be Obama against any of the GOP candidates. My own personal politics are a little more complex, being roughly two parts democrat, one part socialist (in the Scandinavian sense) and one part libertarian (in the “let’s stop occupying other countries and spending $1.5 trillion dollars a year doing so” military sense).

Obama '08

First, why Romney? It’s become apparent for months now that the Republican candidate race is a sham, with a lot of heavy media manipulation of varying degrees of subtlety. Various GOP presidential wannabees had their day in the sunshine of high figures in the polls, then been found wanting either in debates, on the road, in commitment, or ethic. Bachmann, Perry and Cain being the latest three. Gingrich is too divisive a figure, Santorum too conservative, and Huntsman too liberal, for many Republican tastes.

While all this has been happening, Romney has stayed above the fray with his amused, sometimes a bit smug, smile. He’s not so much running for the candidacy as coasting towards it, while the other candidates briefly flourish, then flounder. He’s not too liberal, not too conservative, speaks and debates well (or not as badly as many of the other Republican candidates), and has no problem in changing or reversing his position to suit whichever group of votes he needs. He also “looks” like a president, in the Reaganesque mould, and has so obviously modelled his demeanor on the 80 to 88 president. Many Americans revere Reagan, a phenomena that often baffles non-Americans.

And why Rubio? He brings the Florida political machine more into the Republican court, and Romney needs the large block of electoral college votes from that state; if Florida stays Democrat, it become significantly more difficult for Romney to become president. Rubio is also young, photogenic, a Tea Party favorite, with one eye on being president in the future. And he arguably brings the Latino demographic slightly more into the equation, which helps keep states such as Arizona in the red column.

Though I’m a little less sure of Rubio as VP pick than Romney to win the presidential candidacy. Susana Martinez could well get the nod, especially if Romney is confident of taking Florida anyway. Her state political machinery may help deliver New Mexico to Romney, as well as (like Rubio) a higher percentage of the Latino demograph, and possibly some votes for people who want to see a female president. Though this approach didn’t greatly help McCain in 2008, or Mondale in 1984. But, she appears to have weathered the scrutiny about recent ancestors moving to the US better than Rubio has.

Obama wins

Why am I leaning towards a Romney/Rubio win? In their favor, they have:

  • The ability of three years of Obama’s performance as president to attack; which also means that, unlike in 2008, Obama cannot blame economic issues solely on the past eight years of a Republican presidency.
  • A giant political and media machine behind them, which is more finely-tuned after the last three years.
  • The sometimes-support of the Tea Party movement.
  • An experienced candidate in Romney, who’s run for the GOP presidential position before. He’s undergone the scrutiny, and knows the ropes of running a campaign to be the Republican candidate. And it’s not uncommon to become the candidate after multiple attempts.
  • The electoral college system moves towards the Republicans by a net gain of six votes for the 2012 election. In addition, the crucial state of Florida gets an increase in voting power.
  • Unemployment and economy figures that are not getting better – though with a year to go, this may change for the better (but this needs to start soon).
  • Petrol – okay, gasoline – prices. Once they get above $4 a gallon, it starts to look bad for the incumbent president. If they manage to get above $5, or anywhere close, that’s probably game over for Obama. Americans love their freedom to drive, and see it as a base liberty. Make it too expensive, and someone’s gonna pay.
  • Those voters who got carried away in 2008 and voted (some for the first time) for Obama, with unrealistic expectations of what he would or could do. This time, they aren’t voting, or voting for the Republican candidate.
  • This time around, the Republicans are unlikely to pick someone as the vice-presidential candidate who manages to divide the electorate to such an extent that many floating voters, independents and even Republicans vote for Obama.
  • The age-old liberal problem of liberals living in liberal places, speaking to other liberals and watching liberal TV programmes aimed solely at liberals.

This last one is especially annoying. Book after book on US politics discusses this, how most liberals will not leave their liberal comfort zone to talk, debate, lobby. Which right-wingers and conservatives often have no problem in doing. Liberals gonna vote liberal; conservatives gonna vote conservative; he or she who grabs the rest, wins. If you’re a liberal and you don’t want 4 or 8 years under President Romney, don’t spend all your time listening to NPR, watching the Daily Show and chatting to liberal friends; go out of the echo chamber comfort zone and talk to a few undecided voters. And that’s actually talk, not lecture to them from afar; that just winds them up and doesn’t work.

In Obama’s favor, he has:

  • The natural advantage of incumbency, with the machinery of the White House, presidential press conferences et al at his disposal.
  • A record of taking out specific enemies, such as Osama Bin Laden, which the Bush administration failed to do in two terms.
  • Been a better president than many cynics, or people who thought that the world would cave in, thought he would be.
  • Not flip-flopped on as many issues as Romney has. Come to think of it, hardly any modern US politician has flip-flopped as much as Romney.

Then there’s a few things that could throw the race:

  • A black swan event. It could be an act of terrorism (possibly home-grown; in the cycle of Ruby Ridge, Oklahoma et al, this is arguably overdue). Or something economic, such as a sudden collapse of the Euro (though that’s slightly predictable), or military, such as China invading and taking control of Taiwan. Or something darker, perhaps. Something that will overshadow everything else, and make the response of the president crucial. Why do I have a gut feeling that, with a year to go, a black swan event is likely, even inevitable?

More t-shirts

  • A marked economic recovery. The unemployment rate starts to fall. And keeps falling, showing a trend downwards. If that happens, unlikely though it feels, Obama can run on a “We’re going in the right direction: why risk it?” platform.
  • A key endorsement. In 2008, the moment I realised that Obama would probably win happened in a hotel in Monterey. Breakfast, and the dining room is full of people who you’d think would be prime Republican voters. The news on the TV cuts to Colin Powell speaking, endorsing Obama. Many people stop eating, listen to him, nod. That was the big turning point, when the possibility of Obama winning suddenly looked real. And he could well do with that kind of endorsement, from a nationally respected figure, again. And you can bet anything that both the Democrats and the Republicans are frantically trying to court Colin, behind the scenes, for next October.

But the biggest factor is possibly the one that’s happening, state by state, now – the eligibility to vote becoming gradually harder, disproportionately affecting Democrat voters. It’s been going on for a while now; the Guardian have an okay piece on this, as does the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post; Politico has an excellent piece on this too.

The fact is, not thousands but millions of people who were eligible to vote in 2008, cannot vote without some kind of ID enhancement (not always easy to get) in 2012. And, surprise surprise, a disproportionate number of those people are naturally Democrat leaning. Expect this to be a major story over the next year, and especially on and after election day.

At first glance, Obama won by a landslide in 2008, with 365 electoral college votes to 173. But that’s the way the system works, with the margins in some of the states that have lots of EC votes being small. And this is Obama’s big problem; the five states that he won with the smallest percentage margins – Virginia (6.3%), Ohio (4.58%), Florida (2.81%), Indiana (1.03%), North Carolina (0.33%) – all have sizeable electoral college votes. Move just those five into the Republican column and that huge EC vote majority is wiped out. Blocking likely Democrat supporters from voting, in any significant number, would help with this.

USA

The Democrat strategy? Heck, if they were insane enough to hire me to run their campaign, it would be:

  • Go negative on Romney. He’s going to go negative on Obama, and nice guys in a tough battle lose. I give you Carter vs Reagan, George H. Bush vs Clinton. Romney has also flip-flopped on just about every issue possible. Tell the electorate this, over and over. And even though Romney is relatively clean compared to the other Republican candidates, he has still provided lots of material that he can be attacked with. Use it.
  • Fight dirty. The Republicans will fight dirty. It will win them votes. This “be dignified in defeat” ethos is bull. You’re defeated, and the other guy/gal is running the show.
  • Focus resources on those key five states that the Republicans want. Yes, keep fighting in other Democrat states, but to be honest if you lose Pennsylvanian (Dem: 10.31%) and Minnesota (Dem: 10.24%) then the White House is lost in a landslide anyway.
  • Also, put significant resources in campaigning in four states in particular which didn’t have large Republican majorities in 2008, namely Missouri (0.13%), Georgia (5.2%), Arizona (8.48%) and North Carolina (8.98%). In 2008, those were worth 44 electoral college votes, and Arizona in particular looks vulnerable to a Democrat win (there’s a whole essay on why this is possible).
  • Find a way to counter the simplistic “Millionaires are job creators, so cut their taxes and they will create jobs” mantra that the right are using. It doesn’t even stand up to the briefest of analysis, but when it’s pummeled into the electorate relentlessly for years before the election, some – possibly many – will take it as fact and believe it.
  • Point out, in ways which the key voting demographics will grasp, that the stimulus did create jobs, and without it the unemployment rates would be worse.
  • Related to that last point, another stimulus. This time, focus on the education system (especially the schools) and the infrastructure, especially the roads and broadband. Ram it home why education and infrastructure are essential, providing the basis of a functioning economy. No infrastructure or education, no economy.
  • A battle that, somehow, the Democrats are already losing. News reports of Republican rallies filled with wheelchair and scooter enabled enthusiastic senior voters have aired regularly. Point out to those who rely on Medicare and Medicaid that if the other guy wins, then their health benefits may be cut.
  • At the state level, throw everything to fight restrictions on voting. At the grass roots level, make sure every potential Democrat voter is aware of what’s going on, and help them attain legal voting status, especially if they have unwittingly lost it. Build a more politically savvy ACORN for 2012. Without it, the election is probably lost for Obama, no matter what else he does. Win the argument but lose the vote.

Anyway, that’s my three part prediction with exactly a year to go:

  1. The Republicans to choose Romney as their candidate.
  2. Romney to probably choose Marco Rubio as his running mate.
  3. Romney to beat Obama narrowly for the presidency. Then again, I was pessimistic about Obama’s victory margin prospects three years ago.

And a fourth prediction:

  1. Civil unrest in some urban places on November 6th 2012 when many people find out they are now unable to vote.

The silver lining on the cloud for Democrats? There’s two. Not all of the states will swing heavily Republican, and many states will go red by small margins, making them key for the 2016 contest. And there may be surprises; Texas, with its huge electoral college vote, should stay red but quite possibly with a smaller margin in 2012 than 2008 (contrary to liberal opinion, not everyone in Texas likes the local ex-president).

But the larger silver lining? Romney will probably be a terrible president. In good economic times, he would be moderately okay. In bad times; as ineffectual as GH Bush. When large demographics of his (eligible) voters – people in trailer parks, in factories, on medicare and medicaid, discover they are worse off during his time, he’ll be a one-termer. If the Democrats can find a good enough candidate over the four years after 2012. And, approaching the end of 2011, it’s starting to look like Hillary will run in 2016, which would be excellent.

So the race for the 2016 US presidency probably starts a year from tomorrow…

October 24th, 2011 by John

Where liberty is, there is my country

You know an image affects you when you keep returning to look at it “one more time”. And wandering around on Flickr, there’s one image I keep returning to. The photographer has given permission for it to be used here; you can find it yourself on Flickr, or click on the image for the larger version:

Chatting to the photographer, and looking around her Flickr pictures, reveals some connections. Maryann is a school librarian in the midwest, currently “teaching my students how to find material in the library and how to use the online catalog”. The picture was taken in Iowa, while she was cycling RAGBRAI. That’s an annual cross-state biking event that stops overnight in Grinnell, which (from my non-cyclist, resident, perspective) results in lots of temporary new food options.

The picture is pure Iowa, a US state to be enjoyed for the wide open prairie outside. It’s filled, as Iowa seems to be, with sky and corn – tall corn. A barn emerges from the corn, the symbol of western European-immigrant rural settlement, work, and living off the land. Outside the barn, the unmistakably potent identity marker of the country, the stars and stripes, an emblem I’ve been obsessed with since touching the earliest surviving incarnation of it in the village church before being old enough to speak. Christened John after JFK, and with a thousand cultural references and influences permeating every aspect of living for the last 43 years, America feels like its run through my veins since birth. A complex picture of why I “feel” more American than British/English is starting to come clear.

Benjamin Franklin was one of the cooler founding fathers. He advocated tolerance for all churches, freed “his” slaves and became an abolitionist. He was interested in, well, just about everything, but specialised in science, diplomacy and nationality. Benjamin formed the first public lending library in America through his book donation, and was the first US postmaster general, helping to form the first national communication infrastructure. Benjamin was pretty much the Tim Berners-Lee of the age, 200 years before the Internet.

The phrase “Where liberty is, there is my country” is interesting, liberty being an ever-debated principle that underpins the USA, from Lincoln’s “Conceived in liberty” Gettysburg address and before, through to the current 2012 presidential race. The concept weaves its way through many of the books I’ve been reading these last three year on American politics, society, history and rural culture, as well as what’s being said when listening to American politicians, Democrat and Republican, speak. It’s a strange country, when the European immigrant history and national formation is so very recent but is still so argued over. A quarter of that time has been spent travelling through, and living, there; three years ago today was spent on an Amtrak train heading up the west coast towards Seattle, as part of a 7,000 loop around the western half of the country.

When Becky and myself buy our first place together (hopefully something like this), this picture, large and framed, will be going on the wall. It’s good to see, a reminder of the personally important things in life. (Looks again) yeah; time to do some more writing and work my way back to the place that feels like home…

September 1st, 2011 by John

Summer of 2011

Trip number 11 to the USA, where I’ve stayed for about 18 months in total over the years. And, the best summer ever … some pictures are on Flickr and a few are on this summary.

Best food. The Lavoch pizza from the Quarter Barrel, in Oxford, Ohio:

Lavoch

Miles travelled by road. 3,000+.

Best pie. Lemon pie from the West Side Grill, Grinnell, Iowa:

Lemon pie

Calories probably eaten. I did estimate this, and the figure is horrifically high. Not really surprising.

Most out-of-place thing seen. This well-used stack of publications, for sale in a garage sale (I didn’t buy, purchasing a small bookcase from the owner instead):

Garage sale WTF?

Most nom “fast” food. The butterburger at Culver’s (I can’t go back to inferior burgers, now):

Butterburger

States visited. Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Iowa, Wisconsin, in addition to passing through Illinois and New Jersey.

Most aesthetically pleasing food. The sushi at Grinnell College, Iowa:

Sushi

Geocaches found. 26.

Most fun. Either major league baseball, or going to the American Gothic house:

American Gothic

Best bargain. A box of 36 books of my choice for one dollar in the Grinnell public library sale.

Best ice cream. Candyshack, Grinnell, Iowa:

Ice cream sodas

Biggest Wow moment. An evening of walking past, and through, groups of fireflies in Indiana.

Most surreal moment. Discussing food with Rick Santorum, a Republican party presidential candidate with whom I disagree on everything.

Most American moment (1/2). Standing next to, and exploring, a previous Air Force One:

Got me a new set of wheels

Most American moment (2/2). Travelling down the Ohio river on a paddle steamer, passing the home of the Reds as they were playing:

Cincinnati Reds

Worst thing about this summer. The relentless, all-bar-two-days, heat.

Best thing about this summer

Coffee days

A few other posts:

August 25th, 2011 by John

Pastries of the night

There’s a bakery and shop here in Grinnell which, as bakeries do, bakes stuff in the night and the early hours. Breads, cookies, cakes, pastries and all manner of things. It’s small, but rather good, and we’ve bought stuff from there several times before.

Sunset

This bakery is a little different in that if you go round the back from 2am onwards, and the owner is in there baking, he’ll sell you stuff that’s hot, or warm, out of the oven. Students (old enough to drink) especially take advantage of this, as the bakery is on the way back to campus from several of the bars. So I gave it a try tonight.

Grinnell isn’t the busiest of places in the middle of the day. In fact there’s only one stretch of one road where you sometimes have to wait to cross, and that during the rush hour. Downtown, which is a thriving four block business area, is quiet in the daytime – and deserted at night:

Downtown, 2am

2am rolled around, and the shop front of the bakery was unlit. Went round the back and bingo; the baker was happily rolling dough. He remembered me from six weeks ago; he was the first Grinnell person I’d met and spoken to, which was cool. And he had various racks of pastries and cakes ready, some of them warm and therefore recently out of the oven.

Purchases were made, and pleasantries exchanged. And if Becky looks inside the kitchen breadbin before she leaves for work in four and a half hours, she’ll find her present of:

Fresh out the bakery

:)