Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Surviving Sandy

Hurricane Sandy happens not to be my first hurricane (or should I say "Superstorm"?).  One of the best breaking news non-events that I have ever covered was Hurricane Earl in 2010.  I was deployed by my bureau chief with waterproofs, head-torch and a pair of amphibious shoes to the North Carolina coast, to expectantly await the full force of nature.  

People in Atlantic Beach NC watch and wait for Hurricane Earl
As a journalist on the job, I was deeply impressed by the way in which the communities we visited coped with the imminent onslaught.  They battened down hatches and held hurricane parties - booze-fueled gatherings where locals would hole up together to have a good time and ride out the storm.  They were used to Mother Nature's regular pummelings, and approached Earl with a calm respect.

Thankfully, the only hurricane I witnessed in North Carolina on that deployment was the Category 4 storm of phone calls to my BlackBerry.  Voracious news networks were clamoring for a slice of hurricane action.  For those that know their hurricanes, Earl dissipated to become a tropical storm that, blessedly, reaped far less damage than predicted.  Many homes along the North Carolina coast were still flooded.  But Earl and his accompanying media entourage quickly died down.

Locals gather in an Atlantic Beach bar for a "hurricane party"
This time around, I've been extremely fortunate once again.  Living in Philadelphia, my family has been relatively sheltered from the worst of Sandy's ravages.  Those on the Jersey Shore and in parts of Manhattan haven't been so lucky.  Manhattan was brought to a complete standstill by a 13-foot surge of seawater - the worst inundation on record.  Atlantic City was literally subsumed by its namesake ocean.  Millions of people, from the Carolinas to Maine, were left in darkened homes.  Sandy is expected to cost the US $20 billion in property damage and potentially as much again in lost business.

But, at times like these, Americans never fail to impress me with their resourcefulness and their steadfastness.  NYU hospital nurses carried sick babies down nine flights of stairs while pumping them with oxygen, to evacuate them from a flooding building.  Firefighters tackling a huge blaze consuming 80 homes took to boats to rescue people from the burning buildings.  And the Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cut through politics, at what is an intensely political time, to praise the President's "outstanding" response to the disaster.

When nature strikes, she shows no regard for class, race or political persuasion.  So, Unity seems to me to be an excellent place to see out a storm.  Americans get that, and take considerable pride in putting aside traditional divisions to help total strangers.  If I am less fortunate the next time a hurricane comes my way, there's honestly no place I'd rather be or people I'd rather be among.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The greatest show on earth

While holidaying in the great American West this summer, I read a fantastic, completely addictive, couldn't-put-it-down book.  For those who haven't yet had the good fortune to delve into The Devil in the White City, you have quite a treat in store.

Before picking up Erik Larson's fine book at Philadelphia International Airport, I had been suffering from something of a reading hiatus.  For over a year, I had been faffing about with the same (admittedly rather well written) George Washington biography.  As a former English Literature student who devoured books quicker than you could down a pint of beer, this was a sorry state of affairs.  Now I'm rather smitten with all pursuits literary.  I have joined a book group and the public library is my new best buddy.

But more about The Devil in the White City...

It is 1893.  The setting is Chicago: the most dynamic and energetic city in the Union.  The World's Fair is about to get underway, and one of America's most notorious serial killers is at large.  This is a tale of two utterly driven men.  One is Daniel Burnham: the architect who masterminded and delivered the fair that transformed his beloved Chicago and captivated the world.  The other is H.H. Holmes: enterprising, unfailingly charming, and intent on murder.  Larson interweaves the two narratives into a thrilling historical account of the momentous and sinister events that played out in Chicago.

Ok, so you had me at "World's Fair".  Since making a radio feature about the 1939 World's Fair in New York, I have been intrigued by these colossal exhibitions.  They began to surface in France in the 1840s, but the first to really take the globe by storm was Britain's Great Exhibition of 1851.  The famous Crystal Palace was a demonstration of Victorian confidence: an immense glass construction that boasted of British architectural and engineering prowess.  Encompassing nearly a million square feet, Joseph Paxton's vast, yet elegant building hosted 14,000 exhibitors beneath its cast iron and glass structure.

London's Crystal Palace

Call to mind any great Victorian who might be on your imaginary dinner party list.  Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Darwin and countless other leading luminaries visited the Crystal Palace to take in the spectacle.  Six million people passed through the doors of what was essentially a gigantic greenhouse.  The profits that it generated not only funded London's Victoria & Albert Museum, but also paid for the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum - quite a gift to the nation.

Charlotte Bronte summed up the scale and impact the great Fairs had on the public:  

It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth – as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it this, with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect.

Over 40 years later, ambitious Chicago set down a marker, vowing to deliver the most impressive global gathering ever unveiled.  And she succeeded.  27 million came to marvel at Chicago's Columbian Exposition.  The Ferris Wheel, Shredded Wheat, and the dishwasher all had their premieres at the Fair.  And it made an international superstar out of Buffalo Bill (more on him another time).  Erik Larson's book transplants you to 1893, recreating the visceral scale of Chicago's Fair.  Our hero Burnham's achievements are rendered so lifelike on the page, that I barely noticed that I had missed by boat by 120 years.

Breakfast cereals aside, the real stars of Chicago's show were its enormous white neoclassical buildings.  Lit up like filmstars, they lent the Fair its grace and other-worldliness, and its pseudonym, The White City.  The Fair's lauded landscape designer Frederick Olmstead may be better famed for creating New York's Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn.   But perhaps the Fair's greatest legacy is in the neoclassical palaces that proudly define America's greatest metropolises today.  Washington DC's Mall and the Lincoln Memorial, Chicago's Golden Mile, Philadelphia's Art Museum and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway all owe an architectural debt to Burnham and his White City.

Memorial Hall, Philadelphia

Sadly, most of the Fairs' proud palaces have long since disappeared.  My new home city of Philadelphia hosted the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, celebrating America's 100th birthday.  Only two buildings survive today.  Lost in faded grandeur in the bucolic Fairmount Park is Memorial Hall - a breathtaking Beaux Arts vision.  And that's really saying something in a city littered with knockout architecture.  This fine edifice calls to mind a time of lofty ambitions and limitless discovery.  Those grand exhibition halls may have faded away, but their ghosts still grace our avenues and parkways.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Change we can't believe in

Is it just me, or is this turning into one of the dullest election campaigns in recent years (cheered up only by Mitt Romney's intermittent blunders)?  Lately, Romney just can't seem to get his act together.  His campaign slogan urges voters to "Believe in America".  But that could prove tricky as neither his party nor his campaign team seem able to believe in their man.

This is a boon for Obamaites, waiting to be led to victory once again by a more sombre version of the man who promised "Change we can believe in" back in 2008.

By rights, it should be President Obama who is under pressure, given the state of the economy.  But for election-watchers out there, as Obama strides ahead in critical swing states, the stakes have been driven down.  Just last week an NBC / Wall Street Journal poll cast Obama as leading by seven points in Ohio, and five points in both Florida and Virginia (although both the American Research Group and Rasmussen think it's much closer than that).  Ohio is vital to a candidate's prospects of winning the White House.  The canny state has cast its vote the wrong way only once since 1944.  Even though the Republican has gained the edge in one national poll, it must make worrying reading for Team Romney.

The Republican candidate's speech on American foreign policy following the death of the US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, felt like another step backwards.  His response to the Ambassdor's death and violent protests in the Middle East appeared reactionary, ill-timed and inauthentic.  And it largely played that way too.  After a brief sugar high from the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the Romney campaign appears to be in real trouble.  Last week's foreign policy speech just seemed to cement Romney's inability to find middle ground between his comfort zone of the economy and keeping the Republican base happy.

But the latest media storm has more of the feel of a tipping point for Romney.  He was recorded at a fundraising event telling Republican donors that nearly half the US population are government dependant victims (the Obama-voting 47 percent, that is).  Ouch.  I'm guessing it was a bid to get the donors digging deeper into their pockets.  What the candidate clearly forgot was that a portion of his own base - namely senior citizens - rely on Medicare (the system whereby the government guarantees health insurance to the over-65s, among others).

The former Massachussetts Governor never promised to be the kind of dynamic candidate that a party could really get behind, which leaves me wondering why Republicans aren't running the campaign of the century.  With unemployment running at 8 percent, Romney's solid business background at Bain should have him easily winning that particular argument.  He's certainly been relentless in pushing his economic message.  But where are the policies?  Where is the personality?  When it comes down to it, it is less about the gaffes.  Romney's camp has so far failed to articulate what a Romney presidency would look like and add sufficient meat to the bones of his core message.  And Romney himself has struggled to connect with voters, contrasting President Obama's natural ease on the campaign trail.

But it's not just about off-the-cuff remarks or even the polls, it's about momentum going into these back seven weeks.  Even having the most motivated volunteers in the tightest state races can make a small but important difference to getting the vote out.  Of course, US presidential elections are unpredictable beasts, and nothing riles voters more than the assumption that one candidate is a shoo-in.  But as we move into the final leg of the race, it's really down to Romney to make his case for President in a convincing and authentic way.  And if he doesn't crack on with it sharpish, he'll surely founder in his second bid for the White House.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

On ice cream

My intense pleasure in the eating of ice cream, and my recent arrival in the US, got me to thinking.  It occurred that the American ice cream parlour is something of a microcosm of this great nation.  The glittering array of colours, flavours, and choices; the intense rush and delight of consumption; and the exit, significantly more encumbered than the arrival and tinged with a delicious guilt.

British journalists seconded to the Washington bureau of one international news organisation used to refer to the posting as "the ten pound attachment".  And little wonder... with so many culinary treats on tap, laden with copious quantities of those taste bud temptresses: salt, sugar and fat.  The problem is magnified when you send those intrepid journalists out on the American road.  Options such as grilled tuna nicoise, low-fat fro-yo, and sashimi specials give way to fried chicken, and biscuits and gravy.  

Now these are fine foods, designed to stick to your ribs and just about everywhere else.  They'll see you through an icy Northern winter and no mistake.  The pleasure of gnawing your way through a gelatinous rack of baby back ribs is one of the marvels of the Midwest.  I will ever have fond memories of Piggy Blue's Bar-B-Que in Austin, Minnesota (http://www.piggybluesbbq.com/after recording a radio package at the Spam Museum (I'm not making this up - http://www.spam.com/spam-101/the-spam-museum).  But chew the fat too often and do so at your peril.  You can have too much of a good thing.  

These conundrums may also serve to illuminate the no less weighty subject of the US relationship with debt.  With national indebtedness currently running at over $16 trillion, it is fertile territory as the nation considers its next leader in a tight election race.  Check out the US National Debt Clock in an idle moment (http://www.usdebtclock.org/); its relentlessly rising total is both mesmerising and rather frightening.  And the degree to which it should be stemmed is a key schism between the Romney and Obama camps in an increasingly partisan battle.

Boil this down to the individual's relationship with debt and another hot electoral topic crops up.  President Obama's promise to cap student loan repayments is intended to ease the financial burden of education and galvanise the youth vote.  A recent conversation with a former law student revealed that she had racked up an eye-watering $150,000 of debt in college, and was still struggling to pay it off years later.   Unable to find the kind of meaningful work that had inspired her to become a lawyer, she had been forced to take a job in college admissions to service her loans. 

The choice of the over-privileged, you might say?  After all, kids who go to law school have options that most ordinary Americans can only dream of.  This individual was not forced on pain of death to take out the extra loans we might imagine she spent on Abercrombie sweaters, Starbucks caramel lattes and spring breaks in Cancun.  But far from being spoilt and entitled, this woman was the first in her family to go to college.  An idealist, she'd assumed that she would be able to use her legal education for the aid of others.  And when the opportunity of going to law school presented itself, nobody stopped to point out that it might not be a good choice.  

I'm not suggesting we should feel sorry for students suffering from a lack of fiscal discipline.  Nor am I complaining about the wonderful dilemmas presented by the American ice cream parlour, or indeed by an education system that offers some of the world finest universities.  But underpinning American ideals of prosperity is a default position that in abundance of choice automatically lies the road to success and happiness.  Banks and credit card companies have been ever eager to trade off the American dream, assuring us that we can have it all if we want it.  They just conveniently fail to mention that you'll pay for it later.

Choice encapsulates the most American of contradictions.  It's the reason I have the pleasure of eating a maple walnut sundae one night and a mint choc chip cone the next, of choosing between Pho or Burmese takeout.  It also sheds light on the US's complex relationships with guns, with God and even freedom.  Free choice is what sets us apart from other creatures and ultimately makes us human, an ideal that was not lost on the Founding Fathers.  Through the "unalienable Rights" they gifted to US citizens, they sought to create a nation defined by liberty.

There's a sense of risk and reward that lies in choice, and it's hard to imagine a nation better equipped to gamble with Lady Luck.  Americans are instilled with unfailing energy and optimism, even when faced with terrible trials and unimaginable tragedy.  On no day does that resonate more than today - the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center.  These qualities make Americans among the most resilient people anywhere, and that's definitely something worth aspiring to.

Amid the perils of navigating the path of free choice lies another glimmer of optimism.  My favourite Philadelphian ice cream vendor offers a sundae called "The Stock Market Crunch" (http://www.franklinfountain.com/menu/sundaes/).  A delight of Rocky Road doused in peanut butter sauce, it was invented in the wake of the 1929 crash to give customers something to smile about.  You might have blown your brains out on your shares, but there's still ice cream to cheer you up.  This might sound a rather flippant way in which to fight an economic depression.  But dig deep into your Rocky Road and you'll find a serious point about courage and tenacity at the bottom of your waffle cone.

As I grapple with my new-found freedoms, I'll be taking on board one piece of advice.  It's particularly pertinent when selecting a sundae.  Be sure that you've mastered the art of saying "No more, thank you", "That's plenty for me", or "I'm full, thank you very much".