Saturday, December 31, 2016

And like that ... it's 2017

Year-end invariably brings nostalgia, gratitude, melancholy and appreciation as we reflect on what we’ve gained, lost, learned and shared over the past 12 months.

Over the Christmas break, I spent a lazy morning reading back over the 40-something posts on this blog (no editing allowed, just reading). Back in early 2013, I started the blog as just a filing place for my personal writing. In April this year, I decided to tidy up the space a bit and push it out publicly.
The name, Random Connect Points, seemed appropriate since a common theme of much of my writing centers around the connections forged through the randomness of life.
While I was a little nervous about putting my writing out there so deliberately, I'm grateful for the random connect points resulting from sharing some of these pieces here. Until yesterday, I’d not looked at the analytics and am stunned by the number of readers who have stopped by. (If you're so inclined and would like to subscribe to get an email when new posts go up, email me or fill in your email in the top right block on the main blog page.) 
Like many things in life, the blog might be a little messy in places (there are some spacing and font issues I just can't resolve), so just ignore that as you would a pile of clothes on the floor.
I picked out a few of my favorite posts from the 40+ published. All have a theme of shared experiences with others.
  • The richness of a dog’s love – a letter from my Dixie to my friend’s Clarence

  •  The lovely random connect point that allowed me to figure out a friend I didn’t know until  recently had my  grandmother as her second grade teacher in Virginia 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Don't Stop Believing

Everyone has “that dream.” You know the one that lives in your heart rather than your head. For most of us, it’s a dream we logically know in our heads will never come true. But we keep it tucked in a place our hearts that holds on to possibilities - being an astronaut, wining a Pulitzer Prize, touring with the Grateful Dead. They are fun fantasies, but we don’t invest a lot of time pursuing them knowing the slim possibility of their reality.

My dream is performing on the Grand Old Opry. I recognize there are several logistical roadblocks to this, starting with the fact I can’t sing. It’s not the “I sing softly in church” kind of can’t sing. It’s the “I only sing in the convertible with the top down to avoid offending others” kind of can’t sing.

But it’s still fun to envision myself in front of hundreds of people … sassy cowboy boots, tight jeans, glittery top, pouffed up hair, guitar strapped around my neck, belting out with a voice that combines the best of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynne and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Sometimes those dreams do come true - they just might just show up packaged a little differently than planned.
For me…
It wasn’t Nashville's Grand Old Opry. It was Columbia's Music Farm.
It wasn’t a guitar strapped around my neck. It was a yellow ukulele.
It wasn’t the voice of Dolly, Loretta and Mary Chapin. It was my screechy voice smoothly folded into the cacophony of the moment knowing the fact I couldn’t sing didn’t matter a bit.
I’ve recently stumbled into a whole new world of ukulele culture thanks to a friend who got me hooked up with a group of ladies who meet “kind of weekly” for a “Sip and Strum.” Over the past year, we’ve strummed with moms and grandmothers, an artist, lobbyists, a tv producer, a Pilates instructor and even one good-sport man thrown in. We range in age from 30s to 70s. We live all over town. Our musical talent spans from none to lots.
We meet at Row Gallery on Millwood where creativity oozes from the walls. We sit in a circle, sip on wine and learn the basics from a delightful angel of a singer named Jessica. She is a voice teacher at Freeway Music that puts on our Sip and Strum. Plus, she’s half of my favorite local duo, Prettier Than Matt. She patiently teaches us, simple chord by simple chord, to play fun songs ranging from “Sweet Caroline” to “Shake it Off” and “Pretty Little Birds” to “These Boots are Made for Walking.” If only my childhood piano teacher had used this approach.
Over the months, we learned chords, strum patterns and tuning. We made uke straps out of yarn. We played “Shake it Off” in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. We named ourselves the Uke-a-ladies. We have t-shirts and oval stickers. We’ve created a little tribe.

So when the time came for the music school’s anniversary showcase for all its students, several of us were game to give it a try. Our Uke-a-ladies were assigned Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” A couple of us rehearsed together, but there wasn’t a lot of preparation. Six of us arrived at the Music Farm on a recent Sunday afternoon excited but a little nervous.
If there is such thing as musical pixie dust, Freeway Music gave it away at the door that afternoon to scatter generously over the Music Farm. The air was electric. The tight blue hallway leading up to the stage served as the green room for the performers. We laughed that we had no privacy for hair and make-up, no place to change into our sassy costumes or to stow our gig bags. Noise was so loud it was impossible to hear ourselves get tuned. But we were ready!
We hustled on stage stepping over electrical cords careful not to knock over a mic or a light stand. Led by Jessica, whose uke was the only one plugged in, we were playing “back-up” to a teen vocalist and several others on guitar, trumpet, bass and drums.

I was ready - feeling pretty confident that I had our song memorized. I wasn’t even concerned about whether I could see the music stand with our cheat sheet on it (not that I could have seen it without my glasses anyway, and there was no way I was going to blemish my stage debut with specs perched on the end of my nose).
It was the fastest six minutes of my life. Once I heard that first D chord I was in the zone. I knew I wasn’t the center of attention, so I knew it wouldn’t mess anyone up if I missed a chord or two. Who cared if I was a middle-aged uke-playing wanna be?
By about minute two, I was tapping my foot then swaying with the music. I felt my smile grow big. My fingers danced over the strings sliding through the chord changes without any help from my head. How in the world did that happen, I later wondered. Just a few hours earlier, I was plodding through practicing my chords, repetition after repetition.
For six minutes, I was in the band, part of a community just making music. I was living that dream.
We played Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” … a staple of my high school years. But new meaning infused as one of my Uke-a-lady friends observed later: “This shows you don’t stop believing you can learn to play an instrument at any age.”
I’d add to that don’t stop believing in a dream you thought could never come true – it might just show up on a different stage in a different outfit - but it’s living the dream nonetheless.
If you are really brave, watch the performance here on Facebook.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A gratitude reflection from the election

While settling in at home on election night to watch returns, I got a little nostalgic. I thought back on the friends, experiences, long days and life lessons from campaigns I’ve worked on over the many years since I stood at Mays Park as a teenager on election day holding a sign to re-elect Eston Marchant as adjutant general.

I pulled out old photo albums to look at pictures from past campaigns and happily recalled the names and faces of friends I’d worked with on elections early in my career. From a mayor's race to a presidential election and lots in between, I realized how many of the people in those photos are still in my life in one way or another… even if it’s as simple as an annual party invitation, Christmas card or an occasional Facebook post.

Friendships forged from campaign work are unique. These are people you see at their best and their worst, at their most confident and most doubting, with sugar induced highs and sleep deprived lows. Because of the intensity of the work, these are the people who can teach you so much, and they probably never even know it.

In seeking something good out of this ugly campaign season, I realized these photos reminded me of how grateful I am for the life lessons and friendships gained from these campaign experiences. I’m thankful for my early exposure to elected politics before things got so ugly and personal. I learned some of my most important career and life lessons from these experiences, the candidates I worked for and the people who surrounded them.

This gratitude list includes  

·       Getting a chance to prove myself in several campaign jobs when, on paper, I probably didn’t have the experience.

·       Witnessing and participating in the inner workings of campaigns that were based on well-researched policy rather than political opportunism.

·       Observing candidates up close who ran for the public good not personal gain.

·       Learning it’s possible to master the balancing act between running for an office and actually governing.

·       Being part of both winning and losing election night speeches and the subsequent back-room staff meetings where the candidates were equally gracious regardless of whether they won or lost.

·       Witnessing that partisan politics can fall away after an election.

·       Gaining a love for the dance of politics and strange bedfellows, an appreciation for well-executed political strategy, and a respect for honest and accurate reporters.

·       Discovering it’s possible to disagree vehemently over a political or policy decision and still maintain respect for the other person.

·       Participating in the hard decisions made in the back rooms of a campaign office – decisions that were separated by the thin wire of doing what’s right versus doing what might bring down the other guy. In every case I witnessed, doing right won out over political opportunism.
While the memories of the issues and fights from campaigns may have faded some over the years, the value of these friendships, relationships and learning experiences has only grown. I hope I never lose the appreciation for the connections forged by these diverse tribes of people who came together over the belief in one person’s vision to make our country, state or community a better place to live.

I’m grateful to have shared the high of a squeaker win. However, I’m also grateful for sharing the low of a surprise loss or the disappointment in knowing we all gave our very best for this candidate we believed in and lost our jobs anyway because he lost.
But I’ve learned that losses like those can illuminate new possibilities. I hope that lesson will be the case with our country going forward. By loss, I don’t mean which candidate won or lost. I mean the damage caused by the ugliness of the past months – the loss of civility, trust and the diminished focus on the general good of the people. Neither side can claim innocence in this.
Recovery from this will happen one person at a time only if we practice acceptance, seek out strength in our common struggles and just be kind.
Let's do it!
# # #
 Check out a few of the old campaign faces below:



Wednesday, October 5, 2016

What a treat - Danielle Howle house concert on October 28

House concert: (hous KON-sert) - A gathering of friends and neighbors in an intimate home setting to celebrate and support local musicians.

OK … so I kind of made up that definition, but that does describe the concept.

The practice of house concerts goes back generations to Appalachian traditions. Performers en route to another gig may have a free night so they would play at a host’s home along the way in exchange for a good meal and place to lay his head. The host would charge a small ticket price with proceeds going to the performer.
So that’s what’s going on October 28 – a house concert featuring the fabulous Danielle Howle.
And actually Danielle is kind of en route to another performance (she kicks off touring with the Indigo Girls out west starting November 11), and this will be her last hometown date before she takes off … so let’s give her a huge Columbia send-off.
If you aren’t familiar with Danielle’s work, you need to be! Friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @DanielleHowleMusic. Or just go right to her website and buy your ticket today ($20/ticket). You can certainly pay at the door, but it sure would help if you purchase a ticket in advance so we know how many to prepare for at the house. All the ticket sales go to the performers.
I’ve loved Danielle’s music for many years going back to when she got started in the early 90s as “Danielle Howle and the Tantrums.” Over the years, she has shared the stage with the likes of the Indigo Girls, Mark Bryan and Bob Dylan. Danielle has already done two house concerts at Chez 1425, so I’m thrilled she can do this again.
And we really get a two-fer from this. Charleston-based Hans Wenzel will be opening for Danielle. I wasn’t familiar with his music when Danielle first mentioned him, but I took a listen and agree with her – it will be a huge treat to hear him live.
If the weather holds, we’ll be outside with the fire pit and string lights. There will be a good many chairs, or bring your own or a blanket for picnic-style seating if you want. If we’re inside, we’ll just wedge into the living room.

So in the spirit of a true house concert, bring whatever you want to sip and a snack to share...this is potluck at it's best!


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Are word lovers "wordies?" Some thoughts on books about words

The end of summer means cleaning out the beach leftovers from my car…the orphaned flip flop, a broken beach chair, fraying towels, empty sunscreen bottles. Then there's that LL Bean bag stuffed with books I had planned back in June to start, finish or re-read.

A quick inventory tells me I've gotten at least halfway through almost every book. The same is true for a similar bag stuffed with yet more books I keep in the house. Plus, I also always have a book in my computer bag, bike backpack, car, gym bag and travel carry-on for those unanticipated moments where I can read a few pages. Almost every book is about words.

If someone who loves all things about food is a foodie, I guess those of us who love words could be called a "wordie." Not much makes me happier than an hour just browsing in a bookstore - independent, not a chain, of course (this earlier blog post makes the case for an indy bookstore in Columbia).

I’ve developed a travel habit of seeking out locally owned bookstores, buying several books I discover purely by wandering the aisles, and taking home a bookmark to remind me where each book came from (I threw that info in below in parentheses).

A friend recently asked me what I’d read this summer, but I wasn’t sure how to answer. I started a lot of books. I finished only a few – not because they didn’t hold my attention or weren’t interesting – I just had a lot of ground to cover because of recent travels to places that had great bookstores.

So if you like books about words, writing, writers, grammar or creativity, here are a few that have been riding around with me this summer. You and Me, Confessions of a Comma Queen
Mary Norris (Malaprops, Asheville)

The author is a copy editor for The New Yorker. She had me at the chapter titles I read in the table of contents…"Comma Comma Comma Comma Chameleon" or "A Dash, a Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar."

She recounts with serious hilarity stories about the politics of dealing with editors, writers, proofreaders and typesetters. She describes the plague of the "indiscriminate sprinkling of commas." And, best of all, she devotes an entire 20-page chapter to the debate over gender pronouns. She makes grammar and punctuation fun and funny.

"Me/I " confusion grates on me like "2+2=5" would grate on an's simply never right. This is my number one grammar pet peeve, as described in this earlier blog post. In this passage, Norris makes me realize I'm not alone in my dislike of this grammar disgrace:

Just between you and me, I suffer, and the whole body of the English language shutters, when, say a shoe salesman trying to gain my trust leans forward and says, "Between you and I…" Or when the winner of the Academy Award for best actress thanks a friend "for getting Sally and I together." Maybe it's the heat of the moment: maybe people think "me" might be OK at home, where you can afford to be a bit vulgar, but it can't possibly be right in a formal setting.

Bird by Bird
Anne Lamott (Hub City Bookshop, Spartanburg)

Anyone who writes or wants to write must own a copy of this book. It’s not only a great primer on writing, but it’s also brimming with life lessons Lamott so humorously and authentically shares with her readers. I’m on my third copy of this book having given my first two to friends.

Joy just oozes from this book no matter how many times I’ve read it. Lamott’s central theme about writing – and life in general - is always “just get something started.” The title of the book comes from advice from her father to her brother when he was overwhelmed by writing a report on birds. “Just take it bird by bird,” her dad advised.

Lamott’s advice on “shitty first drafts,” or SFDs in polite company, sums up her philosophy:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something -- anything -- down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft -- you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft -- you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Once you've started, then writing is about practice. Get more wisdom from Anne Lamott in this earlier Random Connect Points post about writing and practice as a process.

The Elements of Style
William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (Litchfield Books, Pawleys Island)

My original version of this little nugget has followed me from college to a bookshelf in every office I’ve occupied. While admittedly my AP Stylebook has become my daily “go-to” for grammar, punctuation and style guidance, the cover of this 2007 edition of The Elements of Style caught my eye in an article about the book's illustrator. And, yes, I sought out the book for the cover.

Artist Maira Kalman illustrated this edition including the cover design with a self-satisfied basset hound which appealed to my soft spot for this breed. Dogs aside, however, the amusing illustrations subtly tell the stories of the grammar lessons being taught on the pages.

My favorite is the illustration for this example of a misplaced participial phrase:

Wondering irresolutely what to do, the clock struck twelve.

This whimsical illustration is on page 29 if you pick up the book.

Writing Down the Bones
Natalie Goldberg (Kramer Books and Afterwords Cafe, Washington DC)

Kramer Books was the first independent bookstore I ever experienced back in the ‘80s when I lived in Washington, DC. Several years ago, I came across this book at Kramer when I was visiting  DC. What better place to read a book about writing than in the store's cafĂ© on a cold rainy winter afternoon while I sipped hot tea and nibbled on cheesecake so I wouldn't get kicked out.

The chapters are short - most only two to three pages - and all can stand alone. I have kept this book in my reading sack for several years now because I like to pick it up and randomly open to a chapter. In rereading this book over the summer, I found a passage that stayed with me as I'm increasingly drawn to the creative flow of writing by hand instead of with a keyboard:

First, consider the pen you write with. It should be a fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand. You don’t want to slow up your hand even more with a slow pen.

Much truth there. I've written before about my fear of writing with a pen.

Why We Write About Ourselves
Compilation of essays edited by Meredith Maran (College of William and Mary bookstore)

I’ve become fascinated by how different types of writers think, and how they use their own experiences in their writing. What better way to get inside their heads than to read essays about why they write about themselves. Some of my favorites like Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Pat Conroy and Sue Monk Kidd are among the 20 authors who give a peek into their creative processes and where they get the courage to write about their own experiences.

Each chapter includes an essay by the editor and an essay by the author. With honesty and diverse insights, they share perspective and advice about how they go about remembering experiences from their past to include in their writing. Each chapter ends with two or three bullets of wisdom from each author.

One of my favorite bits of wisdom was from Anne Lamott:

Don’t wait for inspiration. Point your finger at your head and march yourself to your desk. It’s a great dream to do something that connects us with antiquity and with last week’s news. So don’t be a big whiny baby. Woman up and write.

In the process of reading this book, I discovered several authors I’d never read before. What a treat to learn about David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy and Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped.

The Typewriter Revolution
Richard Polt (M Judson Books, Greenville)

I found this jewel propped up next to a vintage Underwood typewriter in the new downtown Greenville bookstore.

Typewriters have always fascinated me. I learned to type on a very rudimentary electric version when I was in the ninth grade (girls took typing, boys took PE) and hauled a lightweight electric Brother to college. A clunky blue Selectric greeted me at my first “real job.” I'll occasionally run my fingers across the keys of our orphan office typewriter just because I can.

Everything about this book visually appealed to me…its merchandising next to the old typewriter, the luxurious feel of the sturdy cover stock, the smooth texture of the heavy page stock, the cloth bookmark that looks like typewriter ribbon, the appealing large courier typeface of the title.

The contents didn't disappoint either. The evolution of this history-changing machine is fascinating. And I had no idea there is a whole movement of people who hold type-ins in city parks, get typewriter tattoos and participate in the "typewriter insurgency." This revolution invites you to take time out from the “data stream”:

The typewriter insurgency doesn’t ask you to chuck all your digital devices, but it does ask you to take time out from the Paradigm. Try digital detox for a day. Dance, cycle, read a novel (on paper), take a walk in the woods – and sit at your typewriter, which doesn’t process words at all, but just puts them on a page, mediating between you and the paper without remembering the information, without meddling with your choices…You may find that language and thought aren’t just information processing, but a matter of waking up to your own situation and the world around you…

This is a fun easy read. Plus, I found it makes a great conversation starter…everyone over 40 has a memory of using a typewriter at some point and those under 40 find them fascinating relics of another time.

Drunk, Naked and Writing
Adair Lara

This San Francisco-based columnist, teacher and writing coach focuses on the structure and craft of writing. The book is written in easy-to-digest bites of advice that sometimes read like a funny textbook. She admonishes the reader to get rid of "mushy adverbs and adjectives" and "flabby verbs." Bottom line, she reiterates writing is about getting starting and keeping going.

The most valuable lesson I took from my most recent pass through this book addresses one of my chronic editing challenges:

You know you are finished when you catch yourself changing stuff and then putting it back the way you had it before.

The appendix includes lots of fun writing prompts and exercises.

I still have a few books on my list to buy next time I find a good local bookstore. Tops on my list include:
  • The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
  • The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSavlo
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • The Artful Edit by Susan Bell
  • Buy the Book, a compilation of essays from the New York Times book review column of the same name
Other suggestions?

Friday, September 2, 2016

Travelogue: A few thoughts on the Grand Canyon and a bit of joy

The really wonderful moments of joy in this world are not the moments of self-satisfaction, but self-forgetfulness. Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and contemplating your own greatness is pathological. At such moments we are made for a magnificent joy that comes from outside ourselves.

I found this quote while doing research for my recent trip to the Grand Canyon. It really resonated with me, so I pasted it into my journal wondering if I’d have this same reaction to seeing the Grand Canyon.
A conference in Phoenix recently gave me the chance to fly out a couple of days early and experience this natural treasure. A Grand Canyon visit had always been a travel bucket list item, so being less than four hours away, it made sense to take an extra day.
Two willing travel companions – my sister, Bootie, and her 18 year-old son, John – gave me good reason to make more than a day trip out of the visit. We had a great two-and-a-half days at the national park experiencing this natural wonder on foot and on bikes.
We got some good insight on what we might want to do from friends and online resources, but had nothing planned beyond a hotel room and dinner reservations one night. The highlights of our trip were the things we discovered when we arrived rather than planned in advance. Over the course of our time at the Grand Canyon, I came up with a list of several things I wish we’d known when planning this trip. Maybe it will help others thinking about this adventure.
Getting there. We flew into Phoenix because that’s where I needed to end up for my conference after the Grand Canyon adventure. Plus, it seemed to be the best bet for visiting the South Rim. We arrived in Phoenix about 9 a.m. on a Saturday. The airport is much larger than I thought, and the shuttle ride to the rental cars is unusually long – about 20 minutes.
Since our flights were late, our lunch was a quick stop at an In and Out burger joint. It’s a chain of about 300 locations in six western states that’s been around since 1948. And in and out it was! The menu choices are burgers, grilled cheese and fries. That’s it. No decisions involved. Pretty cool.
To break up the drive to the Grand Canyon, we made a stop in Sedona to see the Red Rocks and do a little shopping in this town known as an artists’ colony. It’s a bit touristy, but the visitor center on the outskirts of town has some great info on how to get nice views of the Red Rocks.
We made stops at a couple of the lay-bys to take pictures and just absorb the magnitude and beauty of the landscape. The red in the Red Rocks can’t be adequately described in words. After an hour of piddling around the touristy downtown, we hit the road to our destination.
We took the scenic route from Sedona to the Grand Canyon on Route 89. It’s a two-lane road that gave us samples of several very starkly different landscapes. We left behind the cactus-scattered sandy land around Phoenix for the Red Rocks around Sedona then passed lush hilly ground that looked something like the NC mountains before reaching the mesas near the Grand Canyon. We could have covered the same distance on this 40-mile stretch in half the time on the parallel interstate, but the time was worth the delay to experience the beautiful and diverse landscapes.
The Grand Canyon National Park. The Grand Canyon National Park is well-run, clean and environmentally conscious.
A few interesting facts: The Canyon is 277 miles long. It’s a vertical mile from the Rim to the Colorado River which translates into about seven miles on foot accounting for the winding paths and switchbacks. It’s big!
I learned from the front desk guy at the hotel that the average visitor to the park stays only two to three hours. This is compared to when the park first opened in the 1920s – people stayed two to three weeks.
The hotels. There are four hotels in the park. If you are even considering the possibility of a visit in the future, book now (they take reservations starting 13 months in advance of arrival date). The hotels have varying levels of amenities from high end to motor lodge-style. Initially, I wasn’t able to book a room in the park six weeks in advance, but someone told me to “make it your job description” to try two and three times a day, and it worked.
We got a room in the motor lodge-style Yavapai Lodge. It had the basics, was clean and well-situated. Kind of reminded me of the old Howard Johnson days of my childhood with all three of us in wedged into one room with two beds and a rollaway (we discovered the design of a rollaway hasn’t changed since our experiences with them in 1970s). The cafeteria-style restaurant suited us just fine for pizza and a salad our first night after a 20-hour trip, but it’s not cheap.
Biking and hiking. We had two full days to explore but hadn’t made any formal tour arrangements. The first morning, we happened upon the Blue Angel Bike Rental shop purely by the luck of how we entered the Visitor Center parking lot. The shop has hundreds of bikes of all sizes for rent. I was able to rent a yellow bike exactly like my own making the bike adventure even more enjoyable.
A number of trail options fit every type of bike and cyclist. We opted for the 22-mile roundtrip ride to Hermits’ Point. We followed a mile-long paved path with gently rolling hills that threaded from the Visitors Center to the Bright Angel trailhead within the park. This led us to the traffic-restricted road to Hermit’s Point. Cyclists share the road only with the occasional tour bus…no cars allowed.
The 10-mile ride to Hermit's Rest included a couple of somewhat challenging hills but was certainly manageable for our fitness and skill level. We made a half-dozen or so stops along the way for pics and water (believe everything you read about staying hydrated!)
Words certainly can’t describe and photos can't adequately capture the beauty of this place or how the colors and shadows change so quickly yet so subtlety. At Hermit’s Rest, we cobbled together lunch from the snack bar and took a breather before heading back.
While the altitude did seem to have some effect on our stamina during the ride, it was nothing like what many people had described. Again, believe everything you hear about staying hydrated though. I drank more than twice my usual daily intake of water every day we were there.

The second day, we opted for a hike. We sought out advice at the Visitors Center for the best trail to try, and were strongly discouraged from any hiking between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the heat of the summer. Knowing this was our only day to hike, we decided to give it a try, and we would just turn around if it got too hot. We took the bus to the closest of several trailheads in the park, the South KaibibTrail described as a “maintained dirt trail.”
Before we set a foot on the trail, it was clear that we weren’t the only tourists who hadn’t heeded the park ranger’s advice about not hiking in the hottest part of the day. Fortunately, we were well-prepared compared to many of the hikers we passed. We had ample water, light backpacks, sturdy shoes (or at least Bootie and John did), and we were all in fairly good physical condition. Along the way, we saw sweaty babies in backpacks, people wearing flip flops and jeans, and families with flushed faces hiking back up having clearly run out of water.

The views again defied description, but what struck me the most was the hazards on the trail. It was loosely packed dry dirt with lots of roots, rocks and uneven surfaces… no rails or handles anywhere. I witnessed several near misses with kids horsing around or people just losing their footing.
The highlight of the hike was the turn-around point of “Ooh Aah’ point.” Large boulders (best word I can come up with to put perspective on these ginormous rocks) jutted out from the path giving breathtaking views.

We took lots of photos here but scrambled to head back up when we saw a posse of mules trudging up the hill toward us. They stopped for a bathroom break, and did their business in unison right there on the trail. We certainly didn’t want to be behind them should that happen again going back up!!
Interestingly the hike back up didn’t take as long as going down, plus none of us felt it was any more intensive.  Bottom line: water, water, water, good shoes, light backpack.
Food. You don’t visit a national park for fine dining, but the El Tovar Hotel’s dining room was elegant and inviting. Reservations are hard to come by at the last minute but, again calling over and over, we got a table for our last night at the Canyon. Food and wine choices were diverse and rivaled a high end urban restaurant. Patrons’ dress ranged from “right off the trail” hiking gear to elegant evening out attire.
The Blue Angel Lodge dining room also had a diverse menu. I can’t say if the food was unusually good or we were just ravenously hungry from our bike ride that day, but we all agreed this was the best meal of the trip.
The park’s General Store near the Yavapai Lodge had a good variety of groceries, tourist trinkets and a sandwich/breakfast buffet that served us well for breakfasts. I was a little put off by the $9 bag of trail mix and the $3 granola bars but what can you expect in a contained tourist destination?
Sunsets. Of course dazzling sunsets didn’t disappoint. We arrived the first evening just in time to get to the Yavapia Center to experience the sunset the first night. Even with clouds and a brisk breeze, the sunset gave a kaleidoscope of changing colors every night.
We learned there are several overlooks in the park where sunsets are supposed to be at their most spectacular, but I’m not sure they could be much better than what we saw from the Avapai Center and the porch of the El Tovar Hotel.
Weather. It was hot. Of course it was hot. We welcomed the escape from the humidity, but the 100+ degree temperatures didn’t seem any worse than what we are used to in SC. I wasn’t expecting the temperature at the Grand Canyon to be a good 20 degrees lower than Phoenix, and the evenings were downright cool. My trusty jean jacket was just what I needed to calm the slight chill.

So bottom line advice if you are planning a trip: Start planning early to get the best hotel (definitely stay in the park). Bring your own water bottle and refill it often at the many water stations around the park. Pack snacks and any other food you may want while you are there. Don’t forget a jacket because nights can be chilly even in the dead heat of summer. Plan on at least two days – that was exactly the right amount of time to experience the Canyon the way we wanted to – by bike and on foot.
Now….back to the quote I’d found about the Grand Canyon. The second morning, I woke up just after sunrise about 6. I packed up my camera and long lens and ventured out to the Rim. I’d recently taken a photography class and was enjoying the challenge of light and texture in the Canyon shots.
Sitting alone on a ridge with the first light of day reflecting off the Canyon around me, I was struck by the same sense of joy described in the quote. It was a joy springing from the beauty, the quiet, the miracle, the sheer magnitude of the space around me. I so wanted to capture that with my camera.
After experimenting for a bit, I realized my attempts at recreating that enormity in a photograph would never yield the results I wanted.
So I just sat … and absorbed … my smallness, the Canyon’s grandness, and the perfect connection between them.



Sunday, August 14, 2016

Economic Growth Driven by Arts and Culture

Note: I always enjoy writing when my professional interests can overlap with personal passions. This article appeared in the August issue of Midlands Anchor.

What are the building blocks of a great community? The quick answer might be money, political will or progressive leadership. Certainly these elements are important. But in most cases, real community boils down to trust, connections and relationships.

The arts and culture environment in a community can be a driving force in establishing and cultivating these connections. Communities that invest in a flourishing arts and culture scene are the communities that thrive across demographic and geographic lines in good times and in challenging times. These connections build the social capital necessary to create the community engagement that drives economic growth.

Just as a business needs an ongoing investment of financial capital to be successful and grow, a community needs an ongoing investment of social capital to be successful and grow. This social capital results from the connections, relationships and trust built across all sectors of the community.

Community development expert Peter Kageyama, author of “For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places,” recently spoke about the power of social capital and connections at a statewide Municipal Association of South Carolina conference. He expanded this idea of investing in social capital as a way to build community and spur economic growth. Kageyama pointed to investing in things like beauty, art and great design as a way to build social capital.

There is a “strong correlation between peoples’ emotional attachment to the communities they live in, and higher levels of local GDP,” Kageyama writes. His book focuses on how places flourish when they are loved by the people who live there. However, he notes this key idea is often missing in planning and budgeting processes. A community’s “emotional infrastructure” like cultural events, beautification programs and interactive public art are just as important as sidewalks, sewer pipes and traffic lights.

Kageyama adds that people often point to “a comfortable place to people watch, a favorite street corner, a local dog park, a street festival or outdoor movies in the park” as things they love about where they live. This investment in emotional infrastructure can’t be overlooked because it creates attachment, satisfaction and belonging among people. These characteristics lead to social capital that encourages economic growth.

We see this idea in action all over the Midlands – the idea of consciously making the investment of social capital through arts and culture to make our community a unique and welcoming place where people want to live and businesses want to locate.

A 2011 American Planning Association report entitled “Economic Vitality: How the Arts and Culture Sector Catalyzes Economic Vitality” outlines key points that help build social capital and encourage economic and community development through the arts and culture. The Midlands area is clearly on the right track based on these findings.

Keypoint #1
Economic development is enhanced by concentrating creativity through both physical density and human capital. By locating firms, artists and cultural facilities together, a multiplier effect can result.

Columbia’s downtown is increasingly becoming a mecca for creativity. First Thursday, the Soda City Market, the Nickelodeon, the Columbia Museum of Art and Tapp’s Art Center are just a few examples of how the arts and culture in many forms can bring diverse people together to share common interests. Columbia’s Main Street also houses the headquarters of the SC Chapter of the American Institute of Architect.

Add to these cultural spaces increased housing and commercial activity in Columbia’s downtown, and you’ve got a formula for success. These encourage a cause and effect cycle where a strong arts presence draws businesses and people while a concentration of businesses and people will support an arts presence.

Keypoint #2
The recognition of a community’s arts and culture assets (and the marketing of them) is an important element of economic development. Creatively acknowledging and marketing community assets can attract a strong workforce and successful firms, as well as help sustain a positive quality of life.

The Midlands area is full of creative and collaborative examples of marketing community arts and cultural assets. While the Vista has long been considered an arts district, the area was recently declared an official “cultural district” by the South Carolina Arts Commission. This title gives the area increased visibility as a center of cultural, artistic and economic activity. The West Columbia and Cayce joint efforts to market the Riverwalk has been part of the catalyst for residential and business growth in nearby areas.

West Columbia’s Meeting Street corridor is transforming itself into a cluster of diverse retail, commercial, arts and food venues. One Columbia is promoting the city’s arts, culture and historic treasures.

A new cultural asset taking hold in the Midlands is the beer industry fostered by the craft beer movement. The Midlands isn’t being left behind in following this trend to market local breweries and brew pubs as a destination and cultural attraction.

Keypoint #3
Arts and cultural activities can draw crowds from within and around the community. Increasing the number of visitors as well as enhancing resident participation helps build economic and social capital.

It’s a given these days that Midlands arts and cultural events and venues are attracting an increasing number of residents and visitors alike.

Events as diverse as Artista Vista, Cayce Festival of the Arts, Girls Rock Music Camp, Blowfish and Firefly baseball, lake activities, local theater productions and Colonial Center concerts are only a small sample of diverse arts events drawing locals and tourists each year.

The Midlands social capital bank account is growing…thanks in large part to a strong belief in arts and culture as a path to economic growth for the entire community.