Monday, September 24, 2018

'Magic' City (?)

What to make of a place that dubs itself in promotional literature a 'magic city'? Is such a boast hiding a worry that ordinary accolades don't measure up?


I read from local promotion material how Billings was named for Vermont native Frederick Billings, who made a fortune as an attorney and real estate developer during the California gold rush. Billings used some of that fortune to invest in the Northern Pacific Railroad, and acted as the company president for a few years. It was during that period that the railroad was stretched across Montana. A new town was created between the Yellowstone River and the rimrocks to the north. The town, which soon overtook nearby Coulson, was named Billings to honor the railroad president. Frederick Billings never lived in the town, though he donated large amounts of money to support it. His eldest son, Parmly Billings, was the only member of the family to live here.

So the man who gave his name to the city (or is it town - with only 110,000 people?) never lived there. The magic was his money. The way was paved with gold, and the good fortune of the historic river along which Lewis and Clark tree on their very meaningful way west.  There's a perverse admiration for the built-in respect for commerce as the boon to life. A major boulevard - to give the street the grandest possible distinctive name - called Grand is lined with casinos, or seems that way so numerous are the signs. The lure of the deal, the mirage of riches. Dark rooms and plenty of neon. 

Downtown: A fledgling independent cinema showing feature films; an outdated theater with touring shows and occasional performances by a local symphony. An excellent secondhand book store. A respectable art museum. A modern looking library.  But mostly  large scale truck and auto and horse or bull riding in a stadium arena east of town as well as the annual fair. In  the western end an extravagant sporting goods store featuring a Ferris wheel, an aquarium and a taxidermy exhibit of animals great and small, not to mention an extensive selection of firearms and ammunition for sale.(The miniature bowling alley especially popular with families on an outing when  snow moves in.) No happy-go-lucky electric scooters on downtown streets and sidewalks - not yet. No rental bikes. Intercity buses exist but have only limited schedules. A Frenchman married to a Billings native has started an authentic (i.e. he does all the work himself using starter dough he brought with him from Singapore, of all places ) bakery that produces  real baguettes on a daily basis.

It's a quirky town, the kind that inspires ambivalent loyalty but seldom outright bragging and statement of magnificence that Missoula and Bozeman produce from  visitors and denizens alike. Why, then, did Outside magazine in 2016 call Billings a  "Best Town" ?  Doubtless two well established rival medical clinics (one with a connection to Mayo) helps in the counting but they weren't mentioned. The focus was on outdoor living and affordability, pointing out comparisons with "already discovered Montana adventure hubs like Missoula and Bozeman" - on the fact the town is, quoting one resident, is 'in a renaissance stage."  Yes, the river is impressive, and so is the town's natural setting nestled beneath a 300-foot high sandstone rim called the High Line (as far from the New York site of the same name as you can get) bordering in uneven formation across nearly the entire northern boundary.  Seen here from a car window...the looming barrier under the fabled big sky. 

 Contrasts are constant, both in views and weather. And conflicts are common in territory built in myth upon man's rights as opposed to those the government sometimes claims. Witness the sign posted this summer by a downtown coffee shop owner objecting to a published report of an altercation that had taken place on the premises.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Namesake

 It's both forbidding and fulfilling when a newborn grandchild is given your own first name- almost as though he/she were a clone without complications. My first name is one that friends never would know  I own, though it is  common enough. A name I had more or less renounced  through the years as cumbersome, having too many syllables,  too long for a byline.  Still, I admit it is attractive and can be  shortened into a simple sometimes-too-cute moniker.

 Katherine aka Katie, Kate, Kathy, Kat, Kay, etc.

Note that however one hopes to  hide or renounce the official name, no easy way exists to write it off a birth certificate, or a marriage license. Thinking back, I might have preferred to keep the first of my given names and renounce or ignore the dull middle 'Ann.'

The gesture made by my son and daughter-in-law, parents of six-week-old Katherine Grace,  is personally fulfilling in the  grandest sense: acknowledgment, one hopes, of filial respect and  affection. A honor of sorts. Daunting. There is the initial rush of flattery, the appreciation of continuity. On  reflection, however,  consider what this does to a  newborn bearing the name of a living relative (me, the grandmother, in this case)?

Grandmotherhood is becoming a science.. Esoteric articles on familial relationships have expanded to include the outliers - those in-and-out second tier parental ties, the varieties of which are immense now that elders are staying around longer. When, indeed, elders more often than not are energetic professionals with lives of their own rather than the stereotypical spry wry oldster pictured in a rocking chair - ideally on a porch. I have several rocking chairs and several porches, as it happens. Even a hammock in the yard. I hope one day to be able to take those little ones on a swing through parts of the world I have come to love.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The roots of urban...etc.

What does it mean to be urbane? To say of someone he or she has that quality, has a personality defined by a single word? On the surface, urbane implies a certain sophistication - a sense of having lived well in urban places, the quality of 'knowing.' But to know what? To be able to cope in the urban environment without succumbing to either a cynicism or hubris when exposed to daily 'slings and arrows' of congestion and confusion?  A cut above the fray?
Decipher the paragraph below. Are these people on their way to, or already a part of, what it means to be urbane?

The Global Village for Future Leaders of Business and Industry® is an applied leadership and cross cultural training program. Designed for young professionals and experienced students, the program attracts those who share the dream of building a leadership career in industry, who strive to make a positive change in life, and who want to form an active and thriving global network. Since its inception in 1997, more than 1400 leaders representing 121 countries and territories in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, North and South America, and Europe have attended. During the five week intensive program, the Global Village intern will learn and live amongst a diverse group of more than 100 peers, coming from more than 45 countries, representing a myriad of cultures, speaking multiple languages, and learning and offering unique perspectives based on varied cultural and educational backgrounds. http://global.lehigh.edu/iacocca/globalvillage

Certainly, what's implied is that diversity itself reaps rewards in improving civilization (however THAT is understood).  The program is ostensibly a university offering but it is backed by the U.S. State Department of cultural and educational services. And note, of course, the word village is a stand-in for any gathering, permanent or temporary, of people from various backgrounds sharing  a common goal of, well, sharing. What better defines the committed resident of any city block where close proximity requires (requests?) a civil outlook.

Civil: as in 'civic' as in civitas - variously defined as citizens constituting a state, especially a city-state, living under the rule of law. I like to keep this in mind whenever I set out walking. Immediately I am drawn into the life of others living around me.  Instantly I register what looks 'right' or 'wrong' about the scene. A piece of trash that needs picking up. The car parked in a 'no parking/handicapped' zone. A tree limb in the way that should be moved to the colorfully named tree box (whether or not a tree exists there). A flaneur - traditionally described as a solitary gentleman of the  boulevards in great cities - is a more romantic character. He/she (please consider  women  in this category) strolls for the sake of it, observing, or, as philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, "goes botanizing on the asphalt." Amazing what might turn up.

Locals please note: I recently 'took a turn' on an offbeat street in Washington's NE Union Market area, and found opposite a beauty products supply office-turned-gym the site of an as yet unopened pub-restaurant curiously named St. Anselm. What's to stop me from opening the heavy door? To know the story behind such a storied name. The owner, or business head of the firm, I am told, was called Anselm but the name already was taken so the saint honorific was added, however odd, it seemed, for an interior decorated by stuffed animals and the like. The real life St. Anselm,in fact, has a connection here. Just as odd, it seemed to me, the firm out of Philadelphia also owns the popular noisy upscale Diplomate bistro-restaurant on the now thoroughly gentrified 14th St. NW.  You never know what you can learn by wandering and wondering. A credit here to the thoughtful book by Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust."


Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Urban Daze

A hazy summer marked by intemperate rain suddenly interrupted by two glorious days: omens of our time.  A person takes refuge however he can. The Lyft driver Augustine operates by strict schedule out of his office/home in Rockville where he 'deals in commodities,'  he tells me while patiently steering me homeward to Capitol Hill through early evening DC traffic. (Tourists clogging the crosswalks, often against the light.) That is, he charts and plays the charts with fossil fuels all over the world. Venezuela has heavy, Nigerian has light. Who wants what and why. A great game that leaves him hungry for company. So he starts his shift looking for some conversation - the human touch beyond the vagaries of a  hyper stock market. He is professorial, explaining its ups and downs.  He has no stated position on climate change and their detractors, saying only "People want their AC."
Just like driver William, owner-operator with his wife of a chain of daycare centers in suburban Maryland. He charts his course on the road between hours he needs to check on the centers, but generally prefers shifts of four hours each beginning at 4 a.m., then a break at noon until 4 p.m. He always is calculating the times and the traffic. "Yeah, I'm an entrepreneur."
Strangers traveling everywhere are hungry for  company. At the MSP airport - American crossroads east/west and north/south - a man approaches a woman sitting alone with her iPhone, obviously engaged while waiting for her flight. He asks if he can  'be of help.' He thinks he sees an oxygen tank in her carryon by her side, he explains, when the woman politely declines his offer. He thinks he has seen something plastic indicating a vulnerable soul. It's possible, too, that it is his gimmick for getting aboard the plane early, as her 'support'.  His next question is an odd one: "You ever been married?" He ignores her answer and launches into the saga of his own misfortune, or maybe his lucky break, that recently his live-in told him she wasn't staying round. He has been traveling for 15 hours, he says (there is some compensatory alcohol on his breath), and has tried getting 'into real conversation with someone' but has not been successful. He  even played the airport piano by way of connecting.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Some Tree Talk

Washington is known as the city of trees, though no official body seems to agree on the actual numbers in what is called our tree canopy and whether the city's urban forest is growing or declining. Coming home from a lecture about Thoreau and trees at the U.S. Botanic Garden (he liked trees more than he did people),  I was especially aware of the varied specimens bordering my walk uphill past the Capitol. I witnessed a veritable memory garden of botanical and political history. Like human fingerprints, none was alike in size or shape. Except that most of them carried unusual identity tags:  little brass plaques. 
These are  commemorative trees planted to honor past Congress folk or a cause such as the
 young linden tree dedicated to "the revolutionary spirit of New England."  Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has her name under an American elm dedicated to 'the Greening of the Capitol Initiative" in 2008 (whatever that was). Farther along, on grounds of the Library of Congress' stately Thomas Jefferson Building, former Librarian James Billington  contributed an acer, a Japanese maple, "in honor of the  Congressional Research Service's Centennial" in 1914. Even a former head of the library's Hebraic division has a tree in his name. 
On and on they went, until some sort of boundary was reached at Second Street SE. By focusing on such an aesthetic abundance around me, I was able for a short time to forget the inanities taking place inside the great building they surround. May the beauty created in this landscape have some calming effect on what transpires there.  One thing for sure: most of these trees will outlast the people inside.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Cheers

Easy enough to write about a  return to the olde homestead and feel good about what you find. But the daily grind of life these days doesn't often give us much to cheer about - at least in the political sphere. For diversion and delight, as well as stimulation and education, fortunately there are  pleasures aplenty to be found in the arts if you know where to look. Art in its many forms, unfortunately, doesn't often come to you.  It takes a certain amount of proactivity (a word?).  Just today (June 7/18) I stumbled upon a charming invention - a museum of sorts dedicated to the history of D.C. Alleys, backed by local government sources. It was a small storefront tucked away in a downtown alley (of course). What a lark, I thought - a tribute to human whimsy and inventiveness.
On a much larger scale consider a current show in Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art celebrating the work of an African-born artist with the intriguing name of Bodys Isek Kingelez. The title is 'City Dreams" - a startling original fantasy creation of some 50  colorful structures  mainly vertical in scale. Urban density of a kind that exists nowhere else on earth. Take time to look him up on the web before the exhibit moves on. "Visual joy...sustaining life force," notes New York Times' reviewer Roberta Smith (June 1/18). Here is just a taste, thanks to her report.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Going Home Again

You can't go home again goes the old saw, courtesy of writer Thomas Wolfe. Well it seems that you can if you can stand to hear the words 'new' and 'hot'.  I went back to Lancaster, Pa., one recent June day, forewarned about  changes - outwardly anyway -  to this traditionally hidebound conservative town now being called  in some quarters 'the new Brooklyn.' A friend had sent along a copy of a rave restaurant review from the New York Times in which the writer  cooed about a new Italian place created from a former warehouse for Amish and Mennonite general stores on a downtown street. The reviewer said he or she would liked to have licked the plate of all the wood fired artichokes and smoked paprika aioli....
If anybody knows Lancaster, and its county, by reputation they know this is home to generations of socially reticent  farmers garbed in 'quaint' costumes who practice the so-called simple life.
They are highly unlikely to be promoting foodie cult destinations.  Shrewd merchants that they are,  they aren't  likely investors in the famously fickle restaurant business that lately seems to have taken over a town I knew as a teenager. Back then I considered spaghetti and pizza to be fine dining and steak at the local stockyards a treat.
The cattle are gone, the acreage grassed over, but the Stockyards restaurant remains in new form. So do the ows.
My visit coincided with  a conservation-minded event called Lancaster Water Week, during which on this First Friday evening civic  hullaballoo, the Turkey Hill diary thought to celebrate by bringing in an outsized model bovine to the town square and handing out free popsicles opposite a flashy wine bar called Shot & Bottle in a location that previously was a bank. Not an ordinary wine bar. This one offers only wine made in Pennsylvania. Nearby, not far from fabled Central Market (yes, some real farmers inside) were at least four or five other 'hot spots' attracting crowds of drinkers and diners carrying on into the night. Among them a 'real' French restaurant named after its owner, with a 'Bakery Ouvert du.' The clerks were wearing protective gloves when handling the pastry. A bit of pretention with prices to match.
 I learned all about  Japanese whiskey available in Carr's, another owner-named restaurant. Admirably, too,  efforts of the  Marriott hotel  chain to preserve in its spotlit foundation depths open to viewers what is purported to be part of the pre-Civil War underground railroad that allowed Southern slaves to escape north. High overhead was a bar atop the sleek modern structure  awash in light and noise. Evening revelers surged through surrounding streets, past facades of immutable classic red brick and white trim..
 I remember when it was daring to stay downtown later than 10 p.m.
You can go home again. Bring money. Be hungry.