The Film

29 Apr

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I finally finished editing the video. (That was a journey in itself!) It’s 45 minutes long and, though it’s a bit rough, I think there are some good moments here.

As I reviewed, re-lived, and re-ordered my drive across America, a few themes emerged:

1. Home: We’re all working to find, improve, or validate one.

2. Friends and Family: What else is more important? I feel strangely close to the strangers I met by having “spent time” with them in the editing process. It seems challenging sometimes to replicate this feeling in real time with real people who matter.

3. Connections: Many Americans are isolated; we’re often a divided society. Authentic links must be reinforced to correct and preserve our nation and state. As many would agree, these connections are often mitigated by mass media and corporate-political transactions.

I’d say Detroit is the muscle, New Orleans is the heart, L.A. is the eyes, NYC is the brain.  (What’s D.C.?)

The Strange Republic is dead. Long live the Strange Republic.

Takeaways

22 Jan

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“After three days in the desert fun
I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed
Made me sad to think it was dead”

A Horse With No Name
America, 1972

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I’ve developed a better understanding of many attitudes prevalent in the U.S. in 2015. 

We’re in a glass-half-full moment.

President Obama’s State of the Union speech this week seemed like a photographic negative, where dark is light and vice versa.

Partisan rancor has rarely been as high, yet the president’s tone seemed to hinge on harmonious — or at least constructive — discussions on how best to implement his proposals.

For every statistic he cited in making the case that the era of crisis is over, there are clear indicators of how challenged we are.

The question remains: Is the fabric of American society fraying at the edges or, worse yet, in the center? The answer is yes; in many ways it is. And yet, there is a clear optimism throughout the country, in spite of the cynical attitudes and rhetoric pervading our society.

The positivity I encountered during my month of exploration is undeniable, as is the desperation and frustration many Americans feel in 2015. While many continue to show good faith by starting families, businesses, and education programs, many have already checked out of formal and informal structures, reeling from the damn half-truths and self-centeredness which, unfortunately, are a big part of America today.

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In my conversations with people of disparate backgrounds, circumstances, and locales, I encountered some areas of agreement. These are certainly not new ideas.

-Mass and social media can have a corrosive effect on community-mindedness and shared understanding by negating context and nuance and making events seem bigger or worse than they are. Mass media is selling soap and social media can easily veer wildly off course.

-Emerging generational perspectives differ profoundly from traditional views. Millennials are a more inclusive and progressive cohort, ironically, in their individualism. Many of them have largely rejected previous conventions and systems and their influence will only grow.

-The vast majority of Americans agree on the vast majority of issues, beliefs, attitudes, and policies. We are largely a centrist and tolerant country, which can neutralize divisive politics and policies even as it offers grist for the fringe mills.

In this light, America remains resilient and exceptional. I think anyone would be hard-pressed to drive across the U.S. with an open mind and not come away feeling deeply how fortunate, talented, and capable we are.

Here’s a wish list of broad proposals I feel would improve our great country.

-Mandatory service for all Americans, whether military or civil, would underscore the value of participating, serving, understanding. One or two years after high school would act as an investment in oneself and the country at large.

-Streamline bureaucratic processes and offer economic development incentives to businesses, especially new and small-medium firms, in order to jump-start a new era of real economic growth.

-Veterans are a largely untapped resource throughout the country in all sectors. They can play a critical role in unpacking and resolving complex challenges. Help them re-connect with civil society and support them in establishing businesses.

-Current campaign finance policies fundamentally threaten democratic values in our republic. Make it all public financing for campaigns.

-Capital flight abroad needs to be stemmed. Business must be a critical partner in local and regional development efforts. Discussions on how to ensure firms remain rooted in American communities need to be offered greater attention.

-Existing tax laws and loopholes are short-sighted, unfair, and diminish our once-great middle class. Engage corporations and the wealthy in frank conversations about what could happen if we stay on the current course.

-Unless they’ve committed serious crimes, register and grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants, who have come to America to better themselves, like many of our ancestors. Integrating them in society will strengthen community bonds and expand our tax base.

A couple of days before returning home, a great friend of mine made sure I remembered one of the most important lessons of my journey: I am very fortunate to have a network of supportive friends and family across the country.

The fundamental point of this entire experience is that we, individually and collectively, need to ensure that all of America has one, too.

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Please stay tuned for “Strange Republic: The Short Film.”

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Home Stretch

21 Jan

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I finished up my trip with a run through New Orleans, Tampa, Wilmington, NC, Delaplane, VA, and DC. 

There’s a building boom underway in the French Quarter, according to a hotel manager I spoke to. Many more rooms are scheduled to come online in the next several years — NOLA continues as the successful convention and vacation site it’s been for years.

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Ten years after Katrina, however, the neighborhoods east of the tourist zone are still very much in recovery. Obviously, there’s substantial resentment about this, but I saw folks from the Lower Ninth Ward making do. It’s a community accustomed to hardship. Their history and culture are essentially about getting by — improvising — and they’ll continue to do so regardless of politics and policies.

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I was invited to an “Indian Practice” by WuWu, a young man I met in front of a convenience store. I didn’t know what he meant but I’m glad I followed him. It turned out to be a jam session by his crew, which participates in Mardi Gras every year. Over the course of a few hours, the group engaged in percussion, call-and-response vocals, and dance.  It was an elaborate social role play in which the chief guides his crew, helped by wildmen, spies, and flagmen. 

In the spring, they’ll maneuver through the city streets in a communal claiming ceremony.  During the rest of the year, these Sunday gatherings are a coping mechanism and reinforcement of the community’s value and values. As I watched and listened to these neighbors interact with each other, nuanced dynamics unfolded in a manner and place they owned exclusively. There is great value in that for these folks, for obvious reasons.

I saw some universal themes: Leadership is confident, improvisational, passionate, earned, and maintained.  Membership and standing in the crew are defined through commitment, confidence, style, and results. Wildmen protect the chief; flagmen signal the crew; spies conduct reconnaissance on friendlies and enemies.

There’s no doubt this is as much a spiritual, emotionally cathartic practice as it is a social and musical one. Its origins lie in Africa, Europe, and Native America. It’s a fundamental aspect of NOLA’s history and culture — a manifestation of its diverse origins and resilience. It’s called Indian Practice in honor of Native Americans who provided assistance to struggling slaves in Louisiana.

For a host of reasons, the people I spoke to here were more critical of local than of federal government.

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I got to Tampa the next day and checked out Ybor City, considered the center of Cuban culture and activity in the U.S. well before the emergence of Miami. This was and remains the major tobacco and cigar hub in America and Teddy Roosevelt and the Roughriders made their way south from here in 1898.

There is still a major Cuban presence in and around the city and I spoke to several people who had been absorbed into that culture through marriage, work, or simple proximity to it.  I heard mixed feelings about the recent normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. Mostly, there was resignation. What will really change?

A wide variety of other Latinos have settled in Tampa, both legal and undocumented immigrants. A pediatrician originally from Puerto Rico I interviewed was frustrated by access to federal medical assistance for some of her immigrant patients who show no signs of financial distress. She seems to have given up on reporting apparent abuse, as it’s been ignored.

From Tampa I stopped in Wilmington, NC to revisit my time on Active Duty in the Marines. Camp Lejeune is located nearby, which is home to the II Marine Expeditionary Force. I stayed with an old friend, James Jarvis, whom I interviewed about veterans issues and parenthood in America and then paid a visit to Marines aboard the base.

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Of course Marine officers will always present a positive view of the Corps and its capabilities, but I honestly did observe good morale and preparation among those I interviewed.

These men and women are on the back side of a decade of significant operational commitments and they  understand this will not change in the foreseeable future, regardless of political rhetoric.  So, they’ve become better at flowing forces and developing effective command and control on the go. This coupled with mastery of individual and small unit tactics, Combined Arms, and IT capabilities guarantee a viable and relevant force-in-readiness for the foreseeable future.

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My final stops were Delaplane, VA and Washington, DC.  Brian and  Sharon Roeder, founders of Barrel Oak Winery, located an hour outside the capital, are a great case study in small business development.

They built BOW from scratch, much of it with their own hands, and their efforts have taken root and been recognized nationally.  As we know, small business is a main pillar of the U.S. economy and BOW demonstrates why.

For starters, the couple is following a deeply-held vision. They’re doing what they love and believe strongly in the social importance of their mission.  Though both were involved in the policy arena before founding BOW, they made a fundamental break from that work after careful research and preparation. This isn’t to say the effort has been easy or a naturally flowing process. There has been significant angst.

America owes much or most of its greatness to this entrepreneurial spirit. Though it’s alive and well as the economy continues recovering, there are significant bureaucratic, economic, and cultural challenges to its health

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I drove across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan on January 15th, a month after I started my Strange Republicizing. I was surprised I hadn’t hit much traffic in the final 200 miles, though that good ol’ Northeast courtesy was very evident on Route 95.

That was five days ago. I’ve since jumped into a bunch of commitments as I finalize my transition. My month on the road offered me some great views, inside and out, and I followed through on honoring the memory of my late, great friend, Bayoan Cortes.

I really couldn’t have asked more of the experience. More detailed interviews and landscapes from across the country will appear in an upcoming short film.

My final post is inbound: Takeaways.

Lone Star

16 Jan

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My experiences in Texas were significantly different than my expectations. 

The first stop was El Paso (with a visit to Juarez).  Of course, this is a place where immigration issues figure prominently  in daily life. Formal and informal economies have developed on both sides of the bridge. It cost me 50 cents to walk into Mexico; 30 cents to come back. A sense of lawlessness, if not danger, pervades the streets on either side of the Rio Grande but the sheer magnitude of the numbers crossing every day make it a blase experience.

To my mind, the great majority of these migrants — and others — are good people doing what they must to get by. The rubber meets the road right here, at this false edge of empire.

Who’s buying and who’s selling?

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From there I visited cousins in Odessa. This is mythical West Texas and it’s in the throes of an oil and gas boom.  From the unused and re-purposed shops and theaters downtown, it’s easy to see this is not the first. The dry air has preserved these buildings well and eras collide awkwardly in some places.

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There are also many sterile housing developments. These programmed structures and systems somehow don’t fit with my image of the fiercely independent Texas mentality. But they effectively house the necessary population of workers for extraction and corollary industries.

Midland has its own Wall Street. This is where George H.W. Bush moved his young family and where his eldest son developed his famous swagger.

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I interviewed a man who runs an independent coffee shop hosting regular open mic nights (unique in town) and a woman who does accounting for one of the petrochemical companies. Though they had different political perspectives, they both embodied the friendliness I was learning about.

I then traveled to Dallas, where I stayed with friends who had relocated from the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Two must-see’s for me were Dealey Plaza and the George W. Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University. 

Dallas is a nice city. Of course it’s predominantly conservative but, again, the Texan charm pervades.  Do some people really call this the “city of hate?”

The comments in the JFK Museum guest book are interesting, as is the macabre, irresistible urge to walk to the X marking the spot where the fatal shot hit on Elm Street. I discussed America’s role internationally with visitors from Poland and California.  “It’s complicated” would be our Facebook relationship status.

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The interactive theater at the Bush Library offers visitors an opportunity to hear about the circumstances leading to the president’s policies on Katrina, Iraq, and the Financial Crisis and compare their decisions with his. (The group I was in would have pursued additional sanctions against Saddam rather than go into Iraq.)

And so controversies fade, replaced by new crises and dischord.

We need a good turn soon.

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In San Antonio I attended the Student Veterans of America Annual Conference and was impressed by the program and attendees. The vice president made an appearance. Good for SVA, which was launched in 2008 and is doing important work that will benefit American society at large.

Then I got to Austin, which stayed true to its reputation. How is this place the capital of such a deeply red state?  City residents have many thoughts on this, which are expressed in “Strange Republic: The Movie.” (Stay tuned!)

I bought a ball cap and, as I began the drive to New Orleans, realized I like Texas very much and would like to return. I have to admit I didn’t anticipate that.

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Go East

13 Jan

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I paid a visit to Jason Johnston, an old Marine friend in San Diego, before getting on the road for Grand Canyon.

Clouds turned to rain. 

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And rain turned to snow. I had to make alternate plans. I’m sure my friend Jeanne Stafford would appreciate the  lesson I learned (yet again) as I redirected south and east.

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I’d wanted to be in the Canyon for New Year’s, but it wasn’t going to happen.  I drove through a mountain pass at night, listening to an AM radio show about alien visits to Earth. I realized the importance of staying open when plans don’t work out and was rewarded by an unexpected New Year’s Eve party at the town square in Prescott, AZ. 

There’s nothing like seeing cowboys dance well to Earth, Wind & Fire.

The next day I made it to the Canyon (I’d never been before) and was blown away by the scale and beauty I saw there. This was a major stop for me. I wanted to have a moment like Tony Soprano’s epiphany when he visited the place. But it wasn’t like that at all.  I went to sleep early under an almost-full moon.

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I stayed for a couple of days and then drove through the Navajo Nation on the way to Four Corners. Words wouldn’t do justice to the beauty of the landscape there.

I interviewed a young Navajo man at a roadside diner/trading post.  He’s in college and working and he’s very aware of his people’s legacy, for better and for worse.  He believes in free will, he explained, after helping an older drunk man make arrangements to get home. I was humbled by his honest effort and his faith in a better future.

I ended up in Santa Fe that evening and had dinner downtown. It’s a beautiful and historic city, as we’ve heard. Many layers of influence are clearly evident. I was surprised to meet a Jordanian man who described a long relationship between his country and the Navajos. (Huh?)

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I think it’s easy to forget the diverse origins of the United States.  A lot of our actual influences are subsumed by Pilgrim stories and other homogenized creation myths that simply don’t capture the reality of our history. We do ourselves a big disservice by not taking the time to understand these issues more deeply. They explain how we got here and can suggest solutions to current problems.

The next morning I watched as the guy I sat next to at Denny’s bought breakfast for a homeless man. When I engaged him in conversation, I learned he was a Vietnam vet. He was a patriot but had plenty of reservations about the current state of affairs (the national debt, the treatment of those who’ve served, the declining quality of education, outsourcing).

I filled up my tank ($1.67 per gallon — cheapest yet on this trip).

Then I made my way to El Paso.

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No place

12 Jan

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You are no place for people.

Who catapult along your sterile spans
in capsules.

Sealed and self-contained.

Flesh and blood alighting to stand among semi’s at night will know quickly, terribly:

No place.  Just intention, direction, and drive.

Still movement past cultivated fields, lone stone ships, and tendrils leading to dirty porches — the familiar.

Go and come back when you find yourself.

Somehow, somewhere.

Some place.

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Top pics

10 Jan

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After California, I headed to the Grand Canyon. The highway was closed during a major snow storm and I had to make an unexpected detour to Prescott, AZ.

I then drove to Four Corners, Santa Fe, El Paso, Juarez, Odessa, Midland, Dallas, and San Antonio.

I’m now in Austin — a week from home.

More posts will follow but here are some of my favorite photos in chronological order.

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Fulcrum

6 Jan

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I got to Newport Beach on Christmas Day and had a great time with my best friend and his family that evening.

Upon seeing the ocean my cross-country drive was complete but this wasn’t my destination. Rather, it was a pivot, Brent pointed out as we camped in Joshua Tree a couple of days later.  Everything thus far had been building to this point and California was the fulcrum of my trip on a few levels. It marked the point at which it was time to turn around and head back home.

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There were all kinds of age-old realizations here, as I sat in the middle of this month-long experience: The journey is the destination, the political is the personal, the social is the individual.

It was appropriate to be reminded of these over a campfire.  Fire both creates and destroys and I remembered that’s what this trip is all about: old and new, past and future…that kind of thing. 

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On the professional front, I was looking forward to new opportunities and responsibilities.  On a personal level, I needed to honor the memory of a life-long friend who had passed away a couple of months before I left New York.

All of this was underway. The perspectives I’d been gathering on the trip westward set the stage; it was time to bring them home and actually do something with them. Of course there would be all kinds of other experiences during the next few thousand miles but this fulcrum was a good way to take stock of things.

I interviewed a small business owner, a fellow traveler, a film director, the manager of a Jiffy-Lube, and a woman who runs a cafe next to a national park. All offered insights on the challenges and promise facing Americans today.

Yes, we do have rather active political fringes here which influence the great middle. But the centrist view in the US isn’t given its due in the current partisan and media-driven climate.  The vast majority of us agree on the vast majority of issues and that’s why this country still works very well. That’s why I’ve seen such great positivity on my drive.

Of course we suffer from insidious and pervasive problems. Who doesn’t?  The point is we’re still very much a nation of problem-solving optimists and innovators.

Some of the rules of the game need to be adjusted to account for the globalized economy.  It should not be considered radical to suggest that new consensus is necessary. America and its role in the world are evolving, inevitably, and the situation is significantly different from even ten years ago. Solutions are not necessarily going to come from the top-down — from our capitals of governance, finance, and culture.

There’s infinite wisdom in this great middle I’ve been driving through.

Isn’t there?

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Three cities

27 Dec

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“Find a city…find myself a city to live in…”  Talking Heads, 1979

I passed through Denver, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas, spending a night in each and noting the similarities and differences among them. As Western cities, they’re not as dense or edgy as what I’m used to back home, notwithstanding the rugged peaks bounding all of them.

Brian, the bartender at the Dada Art Bar, offered some good insights and recommendations on his hometown. Denver’s got a mellow, friendly vibe. Is that a cause or a result of the legalized cannabis? There is a good music and pub scene and downtown was in a pre-Christmas buzz.

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In the morning, I interviewed a manager (middle-aged and white, originally from L.A.) at a well-appointed coffee shop in the 16th Street Mall. He told me Denver is doing well economically because of an educated workforce and the business-friendly attitude by local government.  In recent years tech, energy, and finance have built significantly on the foundations they laid years ago. 

The flip-side of this was offered by the son of a shoe repair shop owner. He was 20-something, black, and preparing to become a teacher.  In his view, the economy is doing so well that people are getting priced out of their apartments. He told me locals need to be earning about $35 an hour to afford the average Denver rent. He wasn’t up in arms about it, though. “I’ve always been poor,” he said.

Of course, I had to check out a cannabis shop, just to see what it was like.  The place was clean and hip and the employees were intelligent, friendly, and articulate.  (I know that sounds patronizing.)

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I was greeted and asked for my ID and whether my visit was medical or recreational. Then I was showed to my budtender, Graham (haha), who knowledgeably described the smokable and edible products and accoutrements. 

I asked him all kinds of questions. He described a brisk business and mostly positive reception in the community. When I asked him about souvenirs, something unexpected happened. He showed me a gadget he’d introduced to the shop, which I was immediately taken by.

It’s the PopSocket, which is a suction cup with a retractable extension you attach to the back of your smartphone, allowing you to hold it more easily while texting or taking photos. You can also use it as a viewing stand or wrap your headphone cord around it.  Pretty ingenious in its simplicity. When I asked if companies could use them as promotional items, he gave me his card and cannily told me, “Everyone can win.”

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American entrepreneurship in a Denver pot store.  It makes total sense. These folks are astute capitalists. I can’t imagine using my phone without a PopSocket now and I bought quite a few as gifts.

I left Denver and drove through Wyoming to get to Salt Lake City, which offered a few surprises as well.

Like many of my peers back East, I had an impression of SLC as being an ultra-conservative and homogeneous town.

Arriving after midnight, I checked into a Motel 6, passing a windowless shop called Mischievous Pleasures on the way. As I parked, I had the distinct impression that some extracurricular activities were taking place (people standing in doorways, cars driving in and out of the lot). 

In Salt Lake City? OK…I now admit that I’m pretty provincial.

The next morning I had breakfast at Denny’s and then did some exploring.  The first place I went to was a convenience store on Main Street. As I walked in, I was surprised to see an Afghan man with a beard and pakol.  It seemed the strangest thing to me and I asked him how long he’d been in the city. 40 years, he replied. I bought a few items and left as the Bee Gees’ “You Should be Dancing” played loudly on his stereo.


A few doors down, I was even more surprised. I went into the Twisted Roots shop and had a very good conversation with Ebu, who is originally from Senegal and now runs what he calls a “Rastafarian/Hippy shop.” Tie-dies, wooden sculptures, jewelry, and instruments. The bongs are upstairs.

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Ebu was smart. He was confident in his ability to succeed on Main Street, though business wasn’t great at the moment. He acknowledged that some locals might and do take a dim view of the products he sells, but he didn’t expect any formal or informal resistance. There was absolutely a sense of tolerance in the city, according to Ebu.

When I asked him about race relations, he told me he had no complaints.  Utah and Salt Lake City treated people with respect. The government and people are disciplined and organized. I pushed a bit, asking if this was an impact of the Latter Day Saints.  He thought about it and said it was.

The next place I stopped into was a high-end custom men’s clothing shop. The fellow running it was extremely articulate, stylish, and aware.  (He runs a men’s fashion blog and studied communications in college.)

He described SLC as in the process of becoming an Austin or Portland, as Gen-X’ers, Y’s, and Millennials take the reins. “Were making it the city we want it to be,” he said.  This means more diverse and sophisticated.

It was an afterthought — and seemed completely irrelevant — to ask him about religion.  (He’s a Mormon born and raised locally.)

Finally, I stopped into a shop selling Scottish goods that had been opened by a man from Edinburgh who came to Utah in the ’70s. The clerk in the shop told me many Britons had come over to join the church and that the original Mormon Tabernacle Choir was composed primarily of Welsh immigrants.

I ended my visit at Temple Square, the headquarters of the Church of Latter Day Saints.  Though I’d planned to interview a Mormon spokesperson, my request the previous day had gone to the wrong person and I was unable to do so. (My fault.)  Regardless, I had very good conversations with several missionaries.

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I got on the road in the early afternoon and made my way to Vegas for Christmas Eve.

This experience seemed the height of surrealism at the time but, in retrospect, was completely predictable and normal.

It took me almost half an hour to check into the Excalibur Hotel and Casino. The place was very busy. Over the course of the evening and the next morning, I spoke to a variety of hospitality and gaming industry employees who made some great points:

-It’s a job. Like Detroit, Vegas has a hometown industry and the locals serve it faithfully and well.

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-Christmas in Vegas is simultaneously busy and slow. This year’s seemed the biggest ever to my cab driver but it pales in comparison to normal visitor levels.

-24-hour liquor sales are a big factor.

-The local and regional economic impact of a small percentage of very high betters is significant. They are mostly from Asia.

-The airport’s new international terminal will solidify Vegas’ place as one of the most-visited cities in the U.S.

I checked out the casinos, had a quiet dinner, and went to sleep. The next morning I woke up to a busy Christmas Day on the Strip. People were cheerful, busily making their travel and entertainment plans while on holiday.

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So, yeah, I guess it wasn’t so strange after all. Things are what they are and I  brought my own sensibilities to Sin City, which influenced my views of what is normal, acceptable. So human.

I finished my drive westward and reached the Pacific Coast on Christmas day.
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Some views

26 Dec

I’ve made it to Newport Beach, CA. Merry Christmas! Here are a few views while I gather some thoughts.  All continues to go well and I’m grateful for this experience and for the great friends back in NYC and on the road.

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