Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What’s in a number?

50 means different things to people.

To the AARP, it means numbers, people, and cash.

To hockey fans, it’s mystical. Counted in goals, it’s a symbol of scoring prowess, a marker of exceptional ability.

In baseball, a slugger with a 50 home run season (until Brady Anderson, among others) was considered a real star, with Hall of Fame potential.

Paul Simon rhymed to it in his catchy song ’50 ways to leave your lover,’ not that this is recommended, unless you want to set yourself free.

For many, it’s equated to gold. The golden anniversary, for instance.

To me, 50 has been rather simple. There are 50 states here in America. And with 50 states, there are 50 Capitols. And 50 state capital cities.

As someone with a lust for wandering, an interest in the role government plays in our society, as well as the architecture of democracy, 50 is a trifecta. While I haven’t hit that one, I have managed to get to all 50 states. It has taken time, though it has hardly been an adventurous accomplishment. No tales from the road of great danger or intrigue. Very little zen, and not much motorcycle maintenance. But over time, it’s provided a window onto who we are as Americans, as a country, as a culture, and as a community.

Even with our hundreds of cable channels, and thousands of blogs, and tens of thousands of web sites, and millions of possible friends on social networking sites, it comes down to what we find when we’re in places as seemingly large and cold as New York City, as down home as central Alabama, as tranquil as the painted desert in Arizona, as unusual as Anchorage, Alaska, or as neighborly as Williston, North Dakota.

It’s about people and places, and what they do where they live, and where they play.

It’s how they interact with visitors, with strangers, and with those working through.

And it’s a journey, and a series of lessons, that are very much still in progress.

There are 12 state Capitols to go, though oddly enough, just 10 capital cities.

Hopefully, they will become more than just numbers.

Though it would provide a greater sense of accomplishment to have the entire trifecta met in the next year or so, closing out a real 50x50 campaign.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

leaving North Dakota

This is an unusual state, this North Dakota. I have become so accustomed to hearing people speak in the passive voice, that it has even begun to infect my writing. Oh, yeah. You betcha. It sure golly does.

The upper mid-west is certainly a friendly place, or at least appears to be. People go out of their way to not only be polite, but to help. Not sure if the whole country was once this way, or just the prairie, or whether it’s the euphoria coming out of the oil and land rush that’s going on in the western part of the state, but it is one of many interesting things I picked up during my four days in the rural and rustic Williston.

For starters, Williston is so distant from civilization that one young woman participating in the statewide beauty pageant noted, more than once, that she really likes her hometown, and is excited that it now has a Mexican restaurant. Now has, as in prior to 2011, it did not. Even if we grant that this international cuisine hit these parts in 2010, that’s, well, about a generation or two past the rest of the country.

Sticking with food, there was lots of it, provided by gracious hosts in very nice homes. But last night, at what passes for an after party, the host provided two impressive dips, both homemade. The red salsa was quite good, with flavor and a light heat. That was good at the end of a long day. But what was funny was that the second dip, hummus, was something Ted (the host) said he had first come across earlier in the month during a trip to New England.

Sure, there’s some concern about middle eastern things across the United States, but to think that a cultured middle-aged man had not heard of, let alone sampled hummus until this year, well, that does astound.

Another oddity, that I can’t explain, is that higher octane fuel is less expensive than lower octane. 91 octane with ethanol is a nickel less than standard 89 fuel. Hope the next driver of that rental Chevy HHR appreciates the quality juice I left for them.

Then there’s the beauty pageant itself. It seems to take over this small town, bringing out people from across the landscape, bringing out clothes on the non-competitors that makes you wonder, and yet seems to be a significant source of local pride.

As for the pride, it’s for good reason, as this event is very well run, very well thought of, and really works well in this small corner of the state.

There’s something quintessentially American about a beauty pageant in a small town, complete with tears of joy, quivering jaws gripped tight by those who didn’t win, group hugs for all, barefoot babes dancing across the stage, and the incredible lightness that comes with being free of the responsibilities of serving others for a spell, as those recent and long ago Miss North Dakotas seem to now have.

Glad I had the opportunity to take in more than just an afternoon during this visit to my 50th state. Lots of thoughts and ideas on future trips and such, and perhaps even one to the eastern edge of this state. But with many things these days, it depends on variables beyond one’s control. Ya know that, don’tcha.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Going Native?

Well, this thing seems to be working out.

Six months ago, I accepted an offer to be a judge in the 2011 Miss North Dakota pageant.

I was not sure what I was in for, and had no idea what to expect. I had never before been a pageant judge, nor had I even watched an entire pageant on TV. My views were colored by a series of films I have seen over the years, from the now classic ‘Smile’ from the mid-70’s, up through the indy success ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’

And there is a strong truth to those films, and their message of excess and ego and drive.

But, and it surprises me to say this, but there is another aspect to these events as well, and that is what these programs do for the communities in which they exist, and for the young girls in those communities who seem to enjoy having their shared moment in the lights alongside the ‘big girls.’

Last night I sat right before the stage in Williston High School and watched a two and one half hour program. It was uneven, and a bit ragged at times, but there was a consistent image that was evident from the stage. And what we all saw was a show for the families and friends who dotted the audience, and a wide smile from all who padded across the stage.

This was fun, and it was evident to all. But for the 22 little girls who made periodic appearances alongside their big sisters for the evening, this would have been just another local American spectacle.

These little girls literally were looking up to their older and more scantily clad sisters. And they were looking to them for everything from visual cues, to reminders to say hi or blow a kiss to their moms.

This folksiness came across as quite real, quite earnest, and quite unlike anything I have seen in quite some time. These young girls were able to make some costume changes, perform some very basic moves, and were allowed to appear and act as kids, which they are, not as small adults, which can often be the case in other communities.

Not sure if this small oil boom town will leave a temporary or a lasting impression, but at least for one night, there was great fun in the auditorium. Let’s see if the kids can keep it up, and if the program can avoid clich├ęs.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Five Days. 120 hours.

Five Days. 120 hours.

Over the course of a lifetime, it’s an insignificant amount of time.

Not a full week, though a bit over the 72 hour marker that guides many of us.

Five days. 120 hours. That’s a lot of time to fill, and hardly enough to learn about a new location, to understand people, culture, and the way they live.

In less than 12 hours, I’ll be heading off to distant North Dakota to close out a chapter. The moment I touch the ground in Bismarck, I will have officially set foot in all 50 U.S. states. For me, for what it’s worth, this is an achievement. And it will be accomplished under a self-proclaimed deadline that involved getting there before my 50th birthday. So I will now have 15 months to figure out some new endeavor to reach by then.

Five days on the ground just to see North Dakota? Well, there’s much more to it.

For the past few final states on my list, I’ve been able to spend some quality time, taking in sites, and speaking before audiences of students and media professionals. I enjoyed these visits to Hawaii and Alaska, two of the harder to reach states. The time spent getting to these destinations was well worth it, all things considered.

And until recently, the missing piece on that 50 state puzzle was bewitching. After all, what is there to do in North Dakota that can serve as a lure? Any major league baseball, or great theater, or upcoming music festival? Well, none that I know of. And while I do like winter sports, the prospect of Fargo in January is not a pleasant one.

But with the significant assistance of a good friend, and lifelong North Dakotan, I have been invited to be a judge in this year’s Miss North Dakota pageant. Thanks to 1997 winner Roxana Saberi, I will be spending the next five days, and 120 hours, in the teeming metropolis of Williston, (pop. 12,303) located on a speck of oil soaked land in the far northwestern corner of the state nicknamed the Peace Garden State.

It remains to be seen if this will be an adventure, or just a departure from the norm, from reality, and perhaps even from my senses.

Five days judging a beauty contest? (note to self: beware biting the hand that feeds you, even if you do it often. these people don't know you, yet. [note to note to self: chill]) That sounds like a penalty, not an opportunity. Hell, I haven’t even reached the age of weird ogling. I'm not yet 50. Not yet eligible for an AARP card, and an official discount. Though the contestants are certainly young enough to be my daughters. All of them. But since I’ve never stepped foot in North Dakota, nor probably even flown over this forsaken stretch of our vast continent, I can safely judge each contestant free from any concerns about nepotism, familiarity, or just plain ickiness.

Now I have to return to reviewing each contestant’s application materials, and to preparing questions for the off-stage and important interview round. And I wonder, should I ask them if they have followed Anthony Weiner on Twitter, and if not, why not? Perhaps that’s too leading. I’ll find a way to get to current events, and world history. I just hope none of the contestants are named Monica.

Five days. 120 hours. I don’t think they are going to want to have me around any longer than that. I will know soon enough.