Saturday, October 13, 2012

There's No Place Like Home...coming

Since I’m a native State College-ian, homecoming at Penn State has been a part of my life forever. The event is right out of a MickeyRooney/Judy Garland movie, with an ice cream social, parade, homecoming queen, football game, and other expressions of good clean fun. Since the State High band marches in the parade, my clarinet and I made three appearances when I was in high school.  It was always a fun parade, with big crowds of cheering spectators.  Most of the units in the parade are local, but interestingly enough, in the 1980s, when I was no longer in the State High Band, the Budweiser Clydesdales made a couple of appearances, adding some star power to the parade.  Of course, those were the days when we could admit that college kids (and alumni) drank beer.

When I was an actual Young Professional, well before Al Gore invented the internet, I got to be a homecoming parade judge. The committee had asked an acquaintance and she’d demurred, thinking it was low rent, anti-intellectual, and would take precious time away from her eating disorder. When she mentioned that she’d been asked, I said, in my best U.S. State Department language, “Holy Crap! Are you fucking nuts? How could you say no to that? I’d do that in a minute.”  So she called up the committee, impressed them with my bona fides (the big three: breathing, willing, and available) and the next thing you know, I was in parking lot 80 with fellow judges Sue Paterno and other Penn State VPs, not to mention a large posse of camp followers. 

We were given some basic instructions and score sheets and were sent out to judge both the floats made by the various fraternities and sororities in addition to the “mad hatters” which were sort of a one man float that preceded the big float as sort of an out and proud homecoming Japanese mini sub.  When we were done, we were taken to the reviewing stand at College Avenue and Allen Street and our reserved seats to watch the parade go by.  It’s a great gig, and if they ever call you up and ask if you’re breathing, willing, and available, say yes. 

In 2009 I was asked to be the Honorary Grand Marshall of the Parade….my status being Honorary since I wasn’t a Penn Stater. My duties would include riding in a convertible and waving and smiling.  I’m just a boy who can’t say no, so I went to Jack Harper and bought a Penn State necktie so I would at the very least look like a Wahoo impersonating a Penn Stater. Man does not live by blue and orange neckties alone.  So I hear, anyway. 

A few days before my star turn, there was a freak October snowstorm. Since the leaves hadn’t yet fallen, trees were magnets for wet snow, and limbs fell on power lines all over town. Some people were without power for several days. This definitely put a damper on the parade and especially on attendance by my close friends, co-workers, and family. I remind those who didn’t come of this from time to time. In addition to the gift of the grace and athleticism of a natural athlete, I’m fortunate to be blessed with the gift of forgiveness, too. 

I think that serving as the Penn State’s Homecoming Parade Honorary Grand Marshall is the one thing I’ve done in my life that impressed my college chums. At my last college reunion, I was at some function involving not very much to eat but lots of free booze: in other words, southern hospitality. During the “What are you doing now” phase of the cocktails, which takes place somewhat before the “Did you see so and so? He looks terrible!” portion of the event, a friend asked me what I was doing now. I said that I was the director of an art and music festival and explained what it was all about. I could see the wheels turning as he thought to himself, “Rick’s a carnie. Day-um. I wonder how many tattoos he has.” But when I told him that I’d been the Honorary Grand Marshall of the Penn State Homecoming Parade, you’d have thought I’d told him that I’d just won the Ironman Triathalon, a Nobel Prize , and been named Miss Congeniality at the Nun’s Beach Surfing Tournament.

This year’s theme was The Glory Echoes On which I understand beat out Loose Lips Sink Ships, Aim High In Steering, and Things In Mirror Are Closer Than They Seem. The Glory Echoes On Apparently Yoda was in charge of the theme committee. I didn’t know glory could echo, let alone echo on. Perhaps I am no longer college material.

I had a chance to check out some floats in the staging area before the parade. As my co-worker Carol and I absorbed the local color, I said to her, "If anyone asks, tell them we're journalists." (I find myself so amusing.) The floats are elaborate constructions of two by fours, chicken wire, and tissue paper, all mounted on a hay wagons. Some of the floats were very nicely done, and others, well, they seemed as if the Greeks who built them ran out of time and creativity before they'd something put together. I had no idea what lots of the floats were supposed to represent. Where was the giant birthday cake decorated with the words "Eat Me", as in Animal House?  I did, however, notice that a couple of the entries came equipped with a sleeping college kid and thought that was a nice touch.

Many chose to wait for the the parade with an adult beverage.

We didn't have long to wait before the Penn State ROTC units marched down the street at the head of the parade. They were followed by the State High band, convertibles filled with the homecoming court, academic units (Penn State Thermodynamics Majors) and nationality groups from all over the globe. I had no idea that there was even a Most Serene Republic of San Marino Student Association.

There were clubs in the parade, too, like the Shorts Formerly Known as Jams Alliance. One of the convertibles was toting Pennsylvania's Alternate Dairy Princess. Seriously. My guess is that there was a scandal involving the actual Dairy Princess and racy photos in Hunk & Heifer Magazine.  Hence the Alternate Princess sitting in and doing the waving and smiling thing in place of the real deal.

The Penn State Jihad Club was there,

as well as the West Halls Samba-ettes.

Which came first, the chicken....

 ..or the egg?

This entry reminds me of Holly Goodhead, the CIA agent in the James Bond movie Moonraker.

I understand that this entry is being recycled by Key West Bearfest.

Since the NCAA's sanctions don't apply to homecoming parades, the parade went on, and on, and on some more. Eventually the Penn State Blue Band came down the street, signalling the end of the parade. They were dancing rather than playing, and wearing grey t-shirts and workout trousers instead of real uniforms. It's apparently how they do the Homecoming Parade these days. Who knew?! I'm sure that several former Blue Band directors were rolling over in their respective graves.  It was a good reminder that one man's heresy is another man's tradition, or as they say in Penn State homecoming-speak, The Glory Echoes On.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Judging a Bookworm By His Cover

The other day I went to the Library of Congress Book Festival.  I was going to D.C. for an overnight to see college chums and it just happened to start the next day.  I’m a complete geek and love book festivals (yes, I have actually been to more than one) so it was as if I’d just stumbled into going to San Francisco during an Indians-Giants World Series. In other words, big fun. I looked at the list of authors—wow, authors I’d heard of—and even read!  Usually these things are heavy on writers of bodice rippers and mysteries, and I pretty much stopped reading mysteries after The Hardy Boys and the Case of the Missing Protractor even if I still have an open mind when it comes to bodice rippers…

So there I was on Saturday morning, only slightly hung over (a visit with my college chums will do that) in a remarkably crowded Metro car on my way to the Smithsonian stop on the Orange Line.  

Perhaps it’s just because I live in Hooterville, but I love the DC Metro. The stations have that James Bond meets The Time Tunnel feel, and for public transportation it’s quick and clean.  And for someone who lives in Hooterville, well, the patrons put on a real live fashion show.  Out in the burbs (as in Shady Grove) people are sometimes chic but still suburban looking, and when you’re near Dupont Circle, the European or gay quotient goes through the roof, and then when you get closer to the monuments and museums, the frumpy tourists are as thick as the over mayoed potato salad Aunt Marge brings to covered dish suppers at the Methodist church. 

In my slightly hung over state, I didn’t think they could all be going to the Book Festival—surely some of them had to be going to see the Zimmerman Telegram at The National Archives, Michelle Obama's Inaugural Ball Gown over at the American History Museum, or even John Dillinger's, well, you know, in that shoe box at the FBI headquarters. 

But no, they were all going to the Book Festival.

The Festival was huge, and it was packed. And really, it’s good to know that Americans still read books. However, the thing I learned about going to an event with a bunch of people who have spent their entire lives reading under a blanket with a flashlight is that they don’t know that you don’t stop in a crowded Metro stairway and open a map. If they’d ever gone to a stadium, or been in a crowd anywhere, they’d have figured it out. But no such luck.  So getting around in the midst of all those inadequately socialized people was a bit of a challenge.  Actually, not all of the people were inadequately socialized. There were some perfectly socialized kooks in costumes who didn’t seem to be part of the festivities. Had I not been partially hung over, I might have even snapped a decent photo of one of them.

I loved that one of the tents was called the Command Center. I could just see something that looked like Winston Churchill’s War Rooms under London during The Blitz. No doubt there was an enormous map of the festival surrounded by tiers of seats filled by women in uniform receiving updates on headphones and then relaying the info to other women who would mark the locations of Lisa Scottoline and Jeffrey Toobin et al by moving little wooden figures around the map.

I went to hear Walter Isaacson first. He was fine, but he sounded a bit as if he’d given the same speech at one too many Rotary Clubs. I also heard Robert A. Caro, who was amazing.  I’m pretty sure he’s 1,000 years old, and is writing his multi-volume LBJ book on a typewriter. Crazy. 

I should have asked one of the mystery writers present to explain to me why Robert A. Caro was being escorted by a hot 30 something woman in a tight black cocktail dress….at 10:00 a.m. Perhaps she was his niece.  Yeah, that makes sense. She was his niece.

Every now and then I wandered by someone surrounded by a gushing throng of members of the public with cameras.  Maybe I should have known who those folks were. Or maybe not. 

I could only stay for the jiffy tour of the book festival (and digital bookmobile) since I was due in Charlottesville for a function, but it was a fun time and I’m definitely going back next year. 

I was back in Charlottesville for an annual architecture school dinner. When they have it in an interesting place I go, and when it’s someplace boring, I skip it. This year it was at a “farm” near the little town of Crozet. As farms go, this was one even Lisa Douglas would have loved. The Big House was designed by William Lawrence Bottomley and the gardens were designed by Charles Gillette.  I hate to drop an F bomb in front of a family audience, but the word Fabulous really does not do the place justice.  

The invitation called for “Festive Dress”.  That wasn’t covered in my 1941 edition of Entertaining is Fun by Dorothy Draper, so I asked one of my friends what he was going to wear. He told me he was going to wear a dark suit along with a bright necktie.  Yes, that’s festive….if you’re Amish. 

In lieu of a dark suit and bright tie, I opted for my $9.95 bright green Ralph Lauren martini trousers and an equally $9.95 sand colored J. Crew linen coat, locally sourced from the State College Goodwill store. With a pink oxford, Liberty of London tie, skull and crossbones belt,  and some black loafers (e bay) I thought I looked pretty snazzy.  But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

As I was dressing for the party, I was also trying to get the internet turned on in my hotel room and it just wasn’t working. So I finally called the front desk for assistance.  The chipper woman on the other end of the line said “I’ll be raht there with your code.” I thought to myself, "Wow, most places they just tell you, here you get a personal delivery!"

In a flash there was a knock at my door and I answered it only partially put together in my green trousers and pink shirt.  The chipper woman, now fully realized as attractive 30-ish who would look great in a tight black cocktail dress at 10:00 a.m. greeted me with “Don’t yew look festive!”  In my mostly gay but slightly bisexual mind I paraphrased Dustin Hoffman, “Miss Chipper Internet, are you trying to seduce me?” (Martini trousers have that effect on women, you know.)  I held my invitation up and said “I’m going to an event that required 'Festive Dress' (yes, I even deployed air quotes). Do you think that this is ok?” She said “Oh are ya going to a faahmm pahty? I think that’s purrrfect.“  This was the most festive thing that happened to my partially dressed self since a I answered the door clad only in a towel for a State College police officer who had come to my house for no apparent reason while I was in the shower.  

Of course at the party, most people were establishing their artistic/intellectual cred in festive shades of black. Anthracite.  Midnight.  Sable.  Ink.  Onyx.  And of course, obsidian. Obsidian was very big.

I was at table 13 in the barn turned party space where we chowed down on a gourmet meal of locally sourced stuff. I had a recent UVa arts and sciences grad on my left. She was there with her husband, a recent A-school grad and PhD candidate at MIT. They were both quite the lookers, and so I assume that MIT adopted UVa’s strategy of requiring a photo with the application in order to insure an attractive student body.  Dinner partner left told me that she did consulting, which in baby boomer euphemism means unemployed.  Later I found out that she was with a large national consulting firm familiar to any reader of The Wall Street Journal (even if you get it a day late as I often do). So she was an actual business consultant who earned zillions of dollars an hour to tell you not to do whatever bonehead move caused everyone to tell you to hire a business consultant in the first place.

Dinner partner right was an older woman, meaning my age or younger.  Her dates, i.e. husband and age twenty-ish son, chose to remain in another building on the estate watching a football game featuring two teams I always root against. I secretly wished that this would be the night that a blimp loaded with a dirty bomb or at least tons of dirty sweat socks crashed into the stadium.  A guy can dream, can’t he? Since she was, like me, desperate and dateless, we had plenty of time to chat. 

It turns out that in a former life she was in the court of the Mardi Gras queen in Mobile, Alabama. “It’s just Mobile, not Mobile, Alabama,” Who knew that Mobile was like Beyonce, Madonna, and Cher and had only one name?  At some point I asked her about her official debutante dress and in an instant she lit up like one of the marquees on the Las Vegas Strip. She confessed that in all the years since her turn in the Mardi Gras court no one had ever asked her about her frock. So I got lots of details, not just the Readers’ Digest version. It would have been nice to have had Tim Gunn there to help with the semiotics of haute couture not to mention technical jargon (e.g. “bustline”) but I followed along to the best of my ability. I’m sure that the next person who asks will get photos, construction drawings, computer modeling, and fabric swatches. That is, if she hasn’t yet developed the phone app with scratch and sniff capabilities. It was, in two words, quite something.

Oh right, and how can I forget that she said I was a snob?

There were the usual after dinner speeches and then some laughs with some festively turned out young alums who, interestingly enough, lifted the lid on bathroom humor before I did. It’s nice to see young folks turn into contributing members of society who still appreciate fart jokes, no? I left for the bright lights of Charlottesville before they begged me to go to the after party which I'm so sure was about to happen.

The locavore-erific food was tasty, but I was still stopped at a convenience store for a six pack of beer and a bag of pretzels on the way back to the hotel.  As you probably guessed, I needed something to slake my thirst and nosh on while I stayed up late with my head under the covers, reading by flashlight.