Thursday, January 10, 2013

2012 YearEnder

A tradition for me over the course of the past ten years has been to send out an annual email to friends and colleagues filled with shtick meant to summarize the year in the rear-view mirror. I've held back the personal sections in what follows below. But this is otherwise what spilled out in my 10th Annual YearEnder. I hope you enjoy it.
2012 As A Series Of Snapshots
- Mitt Romney lost. Michael Dukakis gleefully handed over the "Worst Candidate Ever" sash and tiara. Ann Romney regretted ever bothering to learn the names of their gardeners, housekeepers, chauffeurs, stable hands, dog groomers, elevator operators, moat diggers, and son wranglers.
- Lance Armstrong got outed years after taking countless performance enhancing drugs and doing every ugly thing possible to deny it. Finally affirming what so many had known for so long - that guy's got real ball.
- The UK politely hogged the spotlight through much of the year. London's Summer Olympics unfolded famously well, while the tabloid paper "News of the World" folded poorly. Kate & Will went topless, then got pregnant. Andy Murray actually wins something, the real Queen and the new James Bond earn raves, "Downton Abbey" thrilled the equivalent of PBS tote-baggers in 100 countries.
- The prematurely lionized David Petraeus got blown off the road to the White House in 2016 after news of an affair with his crazily fit and creepy biographer came to light. The entire gallery of flawed characters largely faded from memory by year's end. Yet the buried lead still stands out for me - one driven, often shirtless FBI agent pulled off a professional hack of the CIA Director's email. Welcome to the New Normal.
- Big Bird was the most discussed "Sesame Street" character this campaign cycle. Besting the usual top Muppet, Grover Norquist.
- "50 Shades of Gray" by E.L. James became the biggest publishing phenomenon since the "Twilight" series. Millions rejoiced in the practice of openly reading porn in public.
- Facebook's IPO flopped. Mark Zuckerberg quickly got married. The things some people do to come up with ever more clever status updates.
- NASA pulled off a stunning landing of their "Curiosity" rover on Mars in the same year they mothballed their Space Shuttle fleet to star in a series of commercials for Toyota.
- Sandra Fluke's birth controlling zeal offended Rush Limbaugh. Leaving him no choice but to not-so-subtly mention her youth and sexual self-empowerment. It was all just a big misunderstanding. Because inside Rush's head, it started out sounding like a compliment.
- The flaming cartwheel of horrors in Syria finally drove the community of Nations to intervene militarily. Didn't we? Really...not yet? Wow, we suck.
- The U.S. Postal Service threatened to shut down thousands of small town offices while a paralyzing drought this past summer decimated crops across huge swaths of America. Thankfully, the U.S. Congress stepped in and helped people where and when they needed it most.
- Gun control was on everyone's mind after an unthinkable tragedy. Then a metaphorical squirrel ran by, causing the nation to lose focus. But then gun control was on everyone's mind after an unthinkable tragedy. And then a metaphorical squirrel ran by...
- Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's previously unnoticed genius with ad copy was revealed when he coined the phrase "fiscal cliff" and thereafter changed how we all looked at...I'm not sure, floor wax or something. Doesn't matter, really. The important point being that Bernanke is Don Draper. 
- The Mayan calendar's much anticipated date for the end of the world passed without incident. Presenting the worst forecasting job since the collective freakout about Tropical Storm Issac scuttled the opening of the GOP's National Convention in Tampa.
- Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a hot-air balloon 24 miles above the Earth, pulled himself out of a death-spin while accelerating to speeds over 800 miles/hour, landed safely and became an international hero. Amazing. But his 84-year-old "coach" free fell for 17 seconds longer when he jumped from the previous record height of 19 miles. In 1960. Who the heck is that guy? No, not Hugh Hefner.
- The Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts ruled that "Obamacare" should stand. Opponents prepared to target the thing next closest to Obama's heart and legacy. So all you fans of "Bracketology" heard it here first.
- The tragic killing of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya became a means by which some asked hard questions about the loss of life in foreign danger zones. Wouldn't it be nice if some small part of that outrage could be focused upon the 310 Americans killed in Afghanistan just in 2012?
- Much of the northeastern U.S. suffered through the onslaught of Superstorm Sandy. One bright spot appeared for some when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's brash and candid style elevated speculation of his future viability on the national stage. Reaction to his stance on that stage was already tested prior to the 2012 Election. Is this sounding like a series of subtle fat jokes? Sure, Christie's what some might generously call "a little husky." But the YearEnder works best when it doesn't sink to that level. Although once you lean that way, pretty much everything starts sounding like a rip. See what I mean?

Comeback of the Year
The NFL's regular referees returned to work after an inglorious lockout. Prior to them coming back to work, the much maligned replacement refs had a thankless job. Which is why I won't thank them.
Lexicon Addition of the Year
Acronyms really failed us this year. I saw their unattributed ubiquity as a wave that broke in all sorts of directions. A few of the most egregiously overused and under-explained examples were YOLO, LIBOR, and SOPA. It's been a very long time since I went to journalism school, but even I remember that part of the job is to provide the appropriate context every time a new acronym is used. As much as I'm entertained by texting lexicon entering the mainstream, too much is too often left for the reader/listener to find on their own after the fact. KWIM?
Trend of the Year
Kickstarter blossomed as a means of crowd sourcing artists across a wide spectrum of proposed projects. While it certainly shouldn't be expected to fully replace the legitimate role of other private - and, yes, public - funding for the arts, this avenue exist added an option for creatively proposed projects. Abuses and bad ideas occasionally get teed up. The overall trend, however, rose to be accepted as a net positive.

A Few Picks For My Favorites of 2012
TV - "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" might seem like a rather pedestrian pick, given all the inspired shows that kept on rolling along impressively this past year. But Jimmy's uncanny good musical impressions and boundless likeability make him my fave this year. I even let our 7-year-old daughter occasionally watch him play games with guests and some of his crew's instantly classic skits. Of which there were many. This show should only get better as they step forward and beyond the usual formula.
Music - It was a great year for things both Northwest-y and indie - two of my favorite musical flavorings. Which is partly why I've settled upon Seattle's own Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for this year's fave with their independently produced album "The Heist". Unceasingly "posi" - that's "positive" which can be an insult but shouldn't be. Filled with hooks and catchy beats. I met Macklemore (Ben Haggerty) at a lit event two years back after he slayed a cold room full of folks who wouldn't know hip hop from head cheese. No offense. Really liked him then, love him now. Bonus points for the lyrics on "Thrift Shop" and the timely sentiment behind the anthemic "Same Love".
Books - An exceptional year for fiction. Yet no "book" did more to push the physical and conceptual boundaries of how to tell stories than Chris Ware's "Building Stories". Ware packaged 14 separate graphics and text experiments in a box that looks like a board game. The characters can get mopey and his intricate drawings might have you looking for a magnifying glass, but the stories unfold like mysteries with no beginning or end. For those looking beyond the conventional, I can think of no better ground-breaker from the past year's releases.
Film - For all the prestige films left to be seen at year's end, I doubt that I'll find a tastier treat than Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom". Young love never felt so weirdly authentic. Everyone's great and not a detail is out of place in this fully realized alterna-world.
Person o' the Year - Nate Silver. Not only did he completely nail the entire election in terms of predictions, he wrote a best-seller that makes statistics seem entirely cool. For all the time spent discussing polling numbers in politics, it's quite refreshing to take stock of who gets those numbers right. Silver nailed it, with a humbling lack of spin.
Live Performance - I saw my first live story slam put together by the good folks at "The Moth" in NYC this past October. The energy absorbed from this amateur storytelling competition led to a pair of my many New Year's Resolutions: 1) Always throw my name in the hat, no matter what's at stake and 2) Never show up to an open mike without at least something prepared. The larger point being you should love "The Moth" and I hope you soon get the chance to experience one of their shows live.
Audio - A recent but already white-hot podcast love affair of mine is with Julie Klausner - a fellow ginge and the truly hilarious host of "How Was Your Week". This podcast might just hipcheck aside all those allegedly funny shows coming from comics who couldn't hold Klausner's hair while she hurls a steady stream of culturally astute awesomeness. Very New York-y, best when she's just riffing right off the top before her interviews, not for everyone but oh-so-perfect for many. Including me.
Sports - R.A. Dickey is a baseball pitcher who won 2012's National League's Cy Young Award, published a memoir, starred in a documentary about his favorite pitch, and consistently entertained me whenever he did press for those or other endeavors. Because knuckleballers make so many baseball people nervous, the New York Mets traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays. Which gives me one more cool Canadian thing to root for in 2013. The story of Dickey's evolution proved as refreshing and unique as any in sports this past year.
Killer App - "Made in the USA" became more than just words on a label for me in 2012. If Apple can feel the heat and subsequently move some manufacturing back home, that kind of pressure on American corporations must have legs going forward. I believe that appeals to this sort of patriotic pride can cut across the biggest political divides we have. So long as the products rock. I think that app works on whatever platform you might prefer.

2013's Not-entirely Baseless Predictions
- Even if the idea was stolen from a very clever musician, the game "Rate 5 Things" becomes the Nation's new favorite pastime. Here's how you play:  list five unconnected things and rank them in order. Up, down, by weight, height, karmic value - you and your friends are the unimpeachable judges in this competition. "Rate 5 Things" is part clever-off, part Rorschach test, and can be all sorts of fun. Here's a suggested test grouping to limber you up - Earl Grey tea, a monocle, Samuel L. Jackson, a hammock, and Kansas City. Got it? will with practice. Oh, and I plan to ascend the ranks of the newly formed Rank Professional League (RPL or "Ripple") and compete for the RPL's inaugural National Championship.
- Iran's Presidential election in June results in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being forced from office due to term limits. He begins the transition to a new role in Iranian society - morning talk show host and style maven.
- "Maker" culture and the widening practice of using increasingly accessible technology like 3D-printers and laser cutters to, well...make stuff crosses over from the geeky fringe to the mainstream. Soon everyone will be inspired to "print" little epoxy dinosaurs and two-inch-tall Eiffel Towers for their junk drawers and workplace window ledges.
- Silvio Berlusconi returns to the job of Italian Prime Minister. Proving yet again that he truly is political herpes.
- In a rare example of successful group therapy, the simple advance of time vastly thins the ranks of triskaidekaphobiacs (those fearing the number 13). A lobbying effort to properly rename the 13th floors of countless hotels takes hold. However, the burgeoning confidence of triskaidekaphiliacs goes a step too far. Their desire for a National Holiday (on 13/13/13 meant to build upon the informal success of the 11/11/11 and 12/12/12 celebrations in the past few years) manages to only pass the U.S. House of Representatives.
- Clint Eastwood gets so sick of people making empty chair jokes at his expense that he decides to turn into the skid. He opens an unfinished furniture store in Carmel with the game changing idea of incorporating a paint-it-yourself cafe and gallery. "Eastwood's Paint Your Wagon" is a concept store that both softens his increasingly irascible side and lets the public in on his secret love of DIY home decor. By year's end, hugely successful franchises have opened in 14 States and two Canadian Provinces. In a change of faith, Clint chooses to donate all the proceeds to philanthropic causes, steers away from politics, and smiles every time he sits down on one of the new stools he painted to match the color of the marble on his breakfast bar as he looks out at the Pacific.
- Members of the Russian protest band Pussy Riot license their name and trademark balaclavas to the band One Direction for the massive re-branding needed for a rushed second album.
- Paul Ryan's wounded pride from people poking fun at his little lie back on the campaign trail about running a marathon in "two fifty something" pushes him to train and aim for entry in the Boston Marathon. He gets really bad shin splints and a mild case of plantar fasciitis, but still manages a respectable 3:48 and change in a flat, late-summer qualifying marathon. When he learns he's still over 30 minutes slower than Boston's qualifying time for his age group, Ryan eliminates Medicare and Medicaid funding for all of Massachusetts in a hidden line-item tucked into a Commerce Department budget rider. Then he lies about it, claiming he has a wedding the weekend of the Marathon back in Wisconsin so he couldn't run that stupid, liberal race anyways.
- The season finale of "Buckwild" (MTV's latest reality show phenomenon) garners the highest ratings for any program in the history of basic cable television. West Virginia's Tourism Board reports an annual 200% increase in first-time visitors, while the state's hospital emergency rooms bemoan a 350% increase in patient visits for the year.
- The African warlord Kony stages a comeback when he's paid handsomely by Donald Trump to search for Obama's ancestors in Kenya.
- Justin Bieber finally lends his monumental Twitter influence to a political issue away from his Canadian homeland. The Bieb implores his minions to call their "congresspeeps" after stepping up to the mike with the following debate changing Tweet: "det ceiling haters. democrats, republicrats - lets come together and raise tha roof. #momoneylesproblems #BELIEVE" Immaculately, the debt extension passes.
- The future looks bright for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Not only does he get to show off his nation's improved status with a G20 Summit in September, and jauntily prepare to host the Winter Olympics in early 2014. This year Putin also woos back home a trophy wife that all of Mother Russia embraces - Anna Kournikova.
- Kim Jong Un leaves the family business, after being approached to collaborate on an album with South Korean pop personality Psy (whose "Gangham Style" became the biggest viral video of all time in 2012). Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen ("Call Me Maybe" was equally ubiquitous this past year) is brought in to lend her talents on one song, but instead falls in love with what she sees and hears happening in the studio. The resulting album is an international sensation. In turn, their home countries sign a trade agreement that directly leads to the North Korean people being saved from the previously intractable cycle of drought and famine. This new power trio appear to be shoo-ins for the Nobel Peace Prize by year's end.


Which somewhat sadly brings me to the end of this thing. Meaning what you've seen here is not only my 10th YearEnder in the series. This is the last one I plan to write. My YearEnder Ender, if you will. It's certainly been an exercise that I've enjoyed, and the replies have been a joy to read over the years. Who knows - resurrection may be possible. Life's more fun that way. But by these means and in this context, I offer a fond farewell. Look for me in other formats. Maybe even face-to-face. I would very much enjoy that. Be well. Go Pack Go.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Barn raising, barn razing, barn reminiscing.

While 2012 winds down, I'm pulling back my focus to look at the big picture (more details upcoming...). But I'd be remiss if I didn't comment upon a recent event that meant a great deal to me - both as in the lead up to and after the fact.

If you've ever admired the old Swedish barn in the background of this blog's old-timey template, you might appreciate a bit more detail. It was built in 1890, primarily by Simon Danielson who was my father's mother's uncle - Granduncle or maybe Great Granduncle...I might be missing a generation in there and I'm not entirely sure of the term to use. Nonetheless, I spent countless hours working and playing in that barn as a kid. From the house I grew up in from the age of 10, that barn was within view. Whenever anyone looked toward the western horizon, there she stood watch - massive, weathered, grayish-yellow-and-brown. I don't know anything about architectural physics, but the weight of the upper levels seems to have tested the lower structure's integrity greatly. It was obvious to anyone who saw her in the last few years that the sideways lean toward the town road had become precarious. To hold the inevitable in check, she was strung through by five load-bearing cables. For a while, the epic, virgin-timber bones of this grand childhood neighbor had moved to a shifted but stayed position.

Well, that is until last week.

With little advance notice, it came to light that four of the five cables had stripped. It had changed from a lingering hope to a possible danger. Luckily, an often well-timed neighbor was using a fleet of agile, land-moving equipment nearby. So rather than letting it dump out and disintegrate on its own, they eased her down.

Over the years, I'd made a habit of taking at least a few pictures of the barn whenever I return to Wisconsin. The one above is from a clear, brisk afternoon less than two months ago. It holds the distinction of being the last one I will ever take of that beloved homestead icon.

Some days are for barn raising. Others are for barn razing. If you're lucky, some folks gather to assist and maybe even help reflect upon the enormity of such things for a farming family. That's basically how she went for mine.

For a number of days before our barn went down, I'd been having trouble focusing on my work. The natural thought was to blame the Holidaze, and how all the details of what came off as a lovely time for us all at that point had hijacked my focus. I've come to see that just maybe there was a different reason behind my recently skewed equilibrium. This surely sounds like rationalization after the fact - I'm hardly one to fixate upon premonitions or the like. Yet I will always believe that I knew something was out of balance. That is, until our barn went down. Put another way, I feel so much better now. In this I'm serious yet oddly relieved - the barn going down was something I anticipated without even knowing about it until after the fact. Did I feel the pull for a chance to move on, even from nearly 2000 miles away? Maybe I did.

With that off my chest...I'd come to this post wanting to talk about the Farm Bill and the infinitely cool new Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) that I got to preview yesterday before the grand opening this weekend. There will be time for that and so many other areas of deserving focus in 2013. Please check back. I'm leaning forward, after all. If you haven't already noticed.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Follow the Money? Or the McRib and jokey hunting accidents? Hmmm...

For all the lamentations in the coverage of what Congress does - or does not - do, accurate portraits of those elected to govern seldom appear. In one particular, under-reported post-election character study, I'd very much like to see more. Since so many of us missed it, I'll mention it here.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) was just re-elected. Convincingly. She (and her deceased husband, who previously held the seat) saw Missouri's 8th District turn reliably Republican. Emerson should be a person worth mentioning in the current political debate embroiling Washington. A Republican woman - some have even called her a "moderate" - with Committee memberships that cover rural issues, financial services, and other budget-y/wonky areas. So kudos to her, take that you nay-sayers and let's get to work, right? Well, she's had a change of heart and will instead be skipping the work part of that job to instead head up the Rural Electrification Administration's lobbying operation in February. Certain cynical people say she's doing it for the money - an annual salary well over $1M versus $174K for a Congressperson. A different criticism would point out that she's leaving the good people of Missouri with the cost of a Special Election to fill her seat just a few months after the previously scheduled one.

More to the point of my own interests that so often skew toward mentioning a national tendency to ignore rural America - how exactly is that sort of salary justifiable for the boss of lobbying for the REA? Most people will never encounter the REA and many surely will be surprised to know that its progeny are very much still around. It began a New Deal program that electrified much of America using Works Progress Administration (WPA) laborers. A different brand of cynics would call that a "socialist" program. Unless that service meant turning the lights on, and eventually bringing phone and even the internet to the farthest reaches of the Nation. Truth be told, I grew up in an area that's still serviced by a REA cooperative. I hate to take it this far on down the road, but the thought of those farmers and folks in the area paying Emerson's salary out of their monthly bills just saddens me. But try putting that on a bumper sticker.

I fully realize that essentially no one will report on this. Not when there are stories big and small so much more entertainingly worthy of attention. Like the reintroduction of the McRib on December 17th. And how Milwaukee Brewer legend Robin Yount recently shot Cubs manager (and ex-Brewer shortstop) Dale Sveum in the back and face while quail hunting in Arizona. Come to think of it...I would rather read both of those stories. Even though I know what I should be reading.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Dakota War, Lincoln and Sibley

"This American Life" offers up some sharp audio portraits, along with the occasional dud. Seldom do they knock me flat and send me back to a broadcast for repeated digging. That is, however, exactly what I find myself doing after a first listen to this week's show - "Little War On the Prairie" - and with good reason. It not only satisfied my own interest in learning more about trade and cultural interactions with those Nations of inhabitants who predated the expansion of the United States. It does so by providing the most compelling portrait of a previously hidden history I've experienced in a very long time. Do yourself a solid and listen to it all the way through. Maybe you'll even find yourself following my lead, which will mean checking out what other work is to be found at the Minnesota History Center's online and in-person (if you're so lucky - on display through September 2013) exhibit on this conflict which they call the "U.S. - Dakota War of 1862". The little that I've browsed through this compiled work stands as wholly impressivex.

Taking this a bit farther, let me first of all say that I don't think this is a spoiler alert for either this audio documentary (done by John Biewen) or the fresh and fabulous movie "Lincoln" which I saw over the Thanksgiving holiday. But for those most staunch in their seriousness about knowing nothing of any particular narrative going in, you might want to return to this post after you've gotten through both. Wth that's no surprise that the real Abraham Lincoln was a leader who had to weigh immense philosophical costs for benefits that sometimes only he could see coming down the pike. Such is possibly the case with respect to his treatment of the Native Americans and the effected mostly white settlers in hugely complex situations like the Dakota War. It is stunning to imagine how Lincoln dealt with such daunting news while simultaneously trying to soldier on through the bloodiest part of the Civil War (September, 1862 included the Battle of Antietam - the first major battle to be fought on Union soil and the single deadliest day in the history of all U.S. wars). But that is just what ol' Abe did. Which tangentially brings up my admiration for the truly amazing storyline used in the film version of "Lincoln". I have yet to hear of arguments raised with respect to Tony Kushner's script or Daniel Day Lewis's uncanny portrayal. Which makes me think they were spot on. That being said, Lincoln's implied presence also factors into this narrative about the Dakota War. Specifically, he's described from a distance dealing with the difficult decisions of what to do with captured Dakota warriors who certainly sound like were the victims of horrible injustices. Heartbreaking stuff. In this, the Minnesota History Center's bibliographic sourcing offers much more fuel for future mental journeys.

The leap of my specific interest(s) have then taken me to one character in the Dakota War episode - Henry Sibley. This guy's name is all over Minnesota, but the story behind his ascendancy was a blind spot for me. Thanks to this incredible hour of radio drama - and the thoughts that got rolling from seeing "Lincoln" a few days ago - I'm headed in a fascinating direction toward that understanding. I'm sure I'm not alone in that.

The point being? Hidden history provides storytelling gold. Or an honest attempt to accurately read and capture that history once in a while offers a chance to shoot for an artful summation. That is, after all, what some of aspire to do. All the while looking to others who have done it so dang well.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Recycling the immortal tribute "and PFFT! You were gone."

While so much post-election journalistic energy has been spent oogling the orbiting awfulness around ex-CIA Chief David Petraeus, two flown-over stories recently caught my eye.

I. I've been wonking out on an intriguing little Bill currently wending its way through the U.S. Congress. Oddly, this was the first business the Senate took up after the election. Which now seems like eons ago. The title for the Bill must drive copy editors wild - the "Sportmen's Heritage Act of 2012" - and the hodgepodge of issues covered therein never makes it above the fold. Plus it's well on its way to passage even as it was sent back to the Senate's Committee on Energy and Natural Resources after a cloture vote (meaning a voice vote without objection...after which Congress seemingly just greases the skids we've got ourselves a new-car-smell law). A few papers and blogs from places presumed to still care about hunting and fishing ran headlines last week mentioning, well, not much up top. Other than that a few dozen hunters upon passage will be allowed to import polar bear trophies from Canada. But aside from the cutesy focus on what a "baculum" is (that's a polar bear penis bone, folks - extra credit for those who've heard of the Inuit term "oosik"), there's been almost no ink spilled for the range of special interests getting extra dap in the Heritage Act. I'm still trying to tease out who benefits and whether or not that's something to be troubled by. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) had a tough re-election back home, and he's among those most responsible for what's called for in the Bill. Which runs from changes to the rules for hunting, fishing and recreational target shooting, to changing the sizing of what can be called "wilderness", to letting those polar bears who've been dead and skinned since at least 2008 finally cross the border from Canada to the U.S., and a whole musket load of small bore issues in between. Support in the Congress seems to be broad and largely unquestioned. The Obama Administration even weighed in by saying the bill would be good for the "conservation economy" - take just what bowhunting contributes to the U.S. economy and you've got $38 Billion. Yes, with a B. Admittedly, I don't really have any skin in this legislative game or the background to have a reaction to the ones I've read elsewhere. Yet. When the Heritage Act's post-scripts comes around (Senate Bill 3525, mirroring H.R. 4089), I hope to have a bit more to dress out. Or maybe I'll just prep myself to bid on a pimped-out oosik sent down from a taxidermist in Nunuvut. I know, I know - get in line, cowboy.

II. My second shout out comes from a reclaimed childhood memory that I didn't see coming. First of all, Frank Peppiatt died last week. Who? Exactly. However, if you recognize the title quote for this post - a famous bit from Peppiatt's most famous cultural contribution - you just may be...someone who can find some fascinating details in his life story. Whether or not you grew up in cultural circumstances similar to mine. Peppiatt was a co-creator of the TV show "Hee Haw" (with fellow Canadian, John Aylesworth, who died a few years ago). I watched countless episodes when I was a kid, invariably for the skits and bits. I couldn't get through the country music performances fast enough. Yet it's not an overstatement to say that I can't really think of my childhood's Saturday nights without the corn pone jokes and cutaways with sexy farm girls suggesting a playful roll in the hay. "Hee Haw" came on mild and steady with performers like the hosts Roy Clark and Buck Owens showing comedic chops far removed from the stylish New Country crossovers that now seem so ubiquitous. More interestingly, I had no idea until I read Peppiatt's obit that this long-running syndication hit for flyover America came into being as a summer replacement for the Smothers Brothers. Their top-rated comedy show got axed after their satire went all serious and they openly opposed the Vietnam War on-air - probably one of the ballsiest moves in the history of TV. I kid you not when I claim that re-reading signature "Hee Haw" shtick like "I'm a-pickin'...and I'm a grinnin'" conjured up a long buried fondness. To then read that "Hee Haw" got canceled after just two short seasons when CBS did a "rural purge" of shows that didn't fall into the right target demographics sent me Googling for more details. Where and when I saw "Hee Haw" - along with most of the middle of the country - was in the 20+ years of syndication that followed that purge. I rarely recommend obits. Still, where this one led me after getting acquainted with Mr. Peppiatt's life was a sweet, corny treat.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Looking Back and Forward

Election Day. As an unabashed political junkie, today would seem like the perfect time for reflection. In terms of political analysis, however, today snuck up on me this go around. Not because of a lack of attentiveness - I assure you that my bets are well-voiced off-line and my Washington State ballot was tallied weeks ago. We do it all by mail here and in Oregon - this is the future of voting, America. Well, unless/until the Postal Service goes belly up.

Nonetheless, the point of my distraction from the national matter(s) at hand have everything to do with just getting unpacked and dusted off after one last research road trip. I've just unpacked the travel bag for what truly feels like the last time on the primary research for Pelting Out. This final jaunt I'm happy to report allowed me the chance to purposely bring along my curious and amazing daughter, while my wife pursues her own research travel in Africa (Zimbabwe in particular, for those wondering where in the world Sarah is this time). Maya and I went to Wisconsin for a once-in-nearly-a-century special family gathering that provided me with among other related pleasures the true, hands-on narrative ending my book needed. Which begs the question from some - jeez, is it done? That depends on what definitions for "is" and "it" and "done" you're looking to use. I'll just say that the "it" makes much more sense now. I'm happy to report - with a healthy dose of bittersweetness - that without this last trip back to my family's homestead, that "it" couldn't possibly have made as much sense. Or felt as true.

So today is all about "transition" for me. As a storyteller and a citizen. I won't say in which order of importance. However you may reflect upon today - whether you're celebrating or lamenting or trying to tease out why any of this really matters - I hope you've found an equally satisfying reason to move forward with your own work.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Considering NYC's Garment District, and all those on the "Make"

I spent last week in New York City. I'm still processing what I found. Since returning to Seattle, one overarching question has grown in importance for the story I'm telling. Namely - what can be said about the historical arc of that part of Midtown Manhattan generally known as the Garment District. Or Garment Center. Puh-tay-toe, poh-tah-toh. This part of NYC has tried re-branding for a while now, with no apparent luck. But that's merely semantic - calling a duck say, "a mud ballerina" only gets a debate over the future flight of a thing so far. The Garment District in my consideration exists as a place with more history than present or future - no offense meant to anyone with a stake in this debate. I'm just saying that the more time I've spent trying to understand the Garment District, the more I'm intrigued by what I find looking backward.

One group that is very much looking in the opposite direction got some press this week for their efforts. Including an enigmatic little piece in Thursday's NYTimes. If you have any interest in this part of NYC's history, a few clicks through are certainly worth the energy and time. Especially as their efforts to build an economic engine in the Garment District comes up against the high-end condos I saw springing in the midst of that largely bland and low-rise part of Manhattan.

A thumbnail of history might be in order for those who are still with me at this point in the summary. Boundaries for the Garment District creep in all directions depending who's talking and when. I spent chunks of two days at the New York Historical Society pulling references and photos and never found a definitive answer. But I've settled upon between the Avenue of the Americas (6th Ave.) and 9th Avenue for the east and west thoroughfares, and between 26th and 42nd Streets for the north and south. If you go by just the employment records of the unions representing workers there (the International Ladies Garment Workers Union or ILGWU was a biggie), back deep into the 20th Century you had a quarter million people employed making garments there. That's not an aggregate - I'm talking all at the same time. Huge industry. What's left of that? Start ups. Small manufacturers. A shell of an industry, now surrounded by the kind of new media and technology companies who'd never even been dreamed of when the unions of prior dominance were being shut out and those industries were being shipped overseas by the changing dynamics of manufacturing.

For me, finding what had been in the Garment District has grown into a mission. Somewhat in contrast but still on the same point, the Design Trust for Public Space is looking to the future of that part of Manhattan. Their activities were what sprung forth in the limited media coverage this week. They're working on a multi-stage plan - moving from a multi-media history titled "Made in Midtown" to the just released "plan" (in book form) for "Making Midtown" a driver of NYC's future economy. Is this wonky stuff interesting? To a very limited audience, absolutely. But I think it's broader than that. This is economic history that just might evolve into a stage for the new economic Century. I haven't yet seen how they address the manufacturing workforce and how it, too, has evolved. Please remember, America - not long ago NYC's Garment District was basically a Union "town". The hundreds of thousands of people who worked there came from all the Five Boroughs to my deepening understanding, because they could earn wages there to feed generations of Americans. Yet they had to fight for those jobs for over decades. Is that what's proscribed for this newly re-made Midtown? Or is it more on the order of "American Apparel" and what they've done in L.A. It's mildly ironic that one of the historic buildings I've in on in the Garment District now has an American Apparel franchise on the ground level of 7th Avenue - or Fashion Avenue, if you go for that bit of re-branding. Obviously, I've got some reading to do and then I'll get back to you.

Oddly, this connects with one of the coolest places I saw in NYC last week. In Chelsea - which is so posh, undeniably on the make and my favorite neighborhood for meandering - I happened upon this permanent pop-up store/gallery named "Story". They rotate and curate the themes of the place - it's more gallery than retail - and the current incarnation is called "Making Things". This comes after a fashion-themed "Story" most recently in conjunction with Fashion Week in September - they certainly feed off the neighborhood vibe more often than not. Basically for this "Story", they had 3D printers, laser cutters and all sorts of prototype fabricating technology and know-how there to dink around with. I got a few things made for my daughter, printing in epoxy based on plans called up from the searchable archives of "Thingiverse". I predict in five years, every city in America will have some sort of 3D printer in a store that fits the sort of fashion of what "Story" offered up (GE Garages actually supplied the technology and knowledgible folks) Seattle's already got one of this ilk, and the market I think will be limitless. The point still being that if you happen to be anywhere near Chelsea on the lower West Side of Manhattan through mid-November, this "Story" is a blast to check out. Pair it with the Rauschenberg Foundation's "We the People" show just across the street and maybe even a walk down 9th Avenue to Chelsea Market - the pop-up flea market named "Artists & Fleas" just dripped with quirky ideas from hip vendors like wax off a locally sourced beeswax candle - and you'll have as much of a blast as I did.

Come to think of it, a long look at what has gone on and what might come to constitute the Garment District isn't that far removed from a place like "Story" and the sort of maker culture that's currently being shown therein. You just need to find the right seam between the ideas and get to stitching. Then again, I don't really have the time to dress this transition up fully. This comes simply off the rack. I'll do some creative alterations on the connection sometime hereafter.