Sunday, May 22, 2016

The New South: Tom Tom Founders Festival

After a detour at the Route 11 Potato Chip plant, it was time to head south to Charlottesville, where the Old South meets Berkeley, California. As such, it’s the perfect spot for a festival about innovation and named for, not just a signer, but the author of the Declaration of Independence.

I didn’t think seriously about going to the Tom Tom Founders Festival until someone in Penn State’s upper management intimated to me that the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts was lacking in a hip vibe.

Though at first I was a tad indignant—the words “hip vibe” do not appear in our mission statement anywhere. I learned, after griping incessantly to my friends, to close the gate on that. Sort of. And then I decided that checking out the Tom Tom Founders Festival was as good an excuse as any to go to Charlottesville. And if I played my cards right, I might even manage to get someone else to pay for some of the trip, since I would be doing research in how to acquire a “hip vibe”.

Alas, no OPM (other people’s money) was expended in my trip, but I managed to console myself with a bag of Route 11 Potato Chips and the thought of drinking bourbon in its natural habitat, i.e. below the Mason-Dixon Line.

According its program, the Fifth Annual Tom Tom Founders Festival takes place over Mr. Jefferson’s birthday week with “nonstop talks, workshops, panels, installations, and concerts”. Actually they do stop, but who am I to call someone out for a little hyperbole?

Tom Tom’s mission is to celebrate founding and inspire the next generation of artists and entrepreneurs. Like the founding polymath and namesake of the Festival, Thomas Jefferson, Tom Tom explores and melds diverse disciplines: scientific discovery, technology, the field to fork movement, education, and art that builds on the city’s rich history of founding and to chart a creative future. 

I wonder how many polymaths it took to write that?

Since my traveling companion Pam and I we were trying to embrace hipness on this trip, we looked for place to stay on Air BnB. What could be more hip than the gig economy? Actually, AirBnB wasn't our first choice: all of the outposts of corporate America with comfy beds, coffee makers, cable TV, free Wi-Fi, affinity points, and location location location were filled, even including UVa’s very own motel-for-executives, The Inn at Darden. Oh right…. there was a convention of polymaths in town.

In the end we didn’t do Air BnB, but rented an apartment through something called Stay Charlottesville. The apartment photos on its website included fewer bad tchotchkes and cats than those on AirBnB, and the places looked staged enough to appeal to my neat-nik sensibilities. And most importantly, we could be in a good neighborhood, not the sort of thing that the folks on Air BnB call “transitional” or “up and coming”. The apartment lived up to its billing, it was great!

The hot neighbor with the IMA NERD vanity plate was an added bonus not listed on the Stay Charlottesville website. He insisted that he had plenty of “nerd cred” though you wouldn’t know it by me, since in the few minutes of chatting he failed to mention high school band, particle physics, bagpipe lessons, or his Siamese cat named Steve Jobs.

We arrived in the late afternoon on Thursday, and after a dinner of “Asian tapas” at a place called Bang--which featured a drink reminiscent of my father's famous "Drop Your Panties Punch",  Pam and I went to the Paramount Theatre to hear that night’s speakers.

I went to see Craig Dubitsky. He’s the guy behind Hello Toothpaste (never heard of it), Eos Lip Gloss (never heard of that, either) and partly behind Method soaps and cleaning products (Bingo!) Somehow he met the guys who invented that stuff when they were less than nobodies and...actually, I’m not really sure what he did for them. The guy was totally entertaining --for two solid hours!--and at the end we got samples of toothpaste, that, although it has cute packaging, it is otherwise a solid “meh”.  Then again Crest and Colgate are a solid "meh" too. It's hard for me to get excited about toothpaste.

He put his phone number on the screen and his email and asked us to call him. Like many men, I never called.

Pam went to hear a talk on sports, and it sounded pretty neat but she didn’t get any toothpaste.

The next day, the Paramount Theatre was packed as the festival presented its "Founders Summit". There was a high concentration of blue blazers and man buns though not typically on the same person. I suppose Mr. Jefferson could have had a man bun if he’d wanted one.  What am I thinking?! He probably invented the man bun!

I had a feeling that all these folks would be on their way to Silicon Valley or Goldman just as soon as they could pull themselves away from the most hip coffee shop ever and their current project of monetizing something, anything—their social media following, unorganized sock drawers, or that cupboard filled with non-recyclable takeout Chinese food containers.

It was a day of TED-like talks. All were great with the exception of one that was too jargon-y, even down to the use of the phrases “bro drama” and “entrepreneurial ecosystem” within eye rolling distance of each other. No hyperbole here; I wrote it down.

First was Bill Crutchfied who told the story of his rise from selling car stereos from his mother’s basement shortly after he finished at UVa 50 odd years ago to heading a firm with $250 million in annual sales today. Amazon's Jeff Bezos even comes to him for advice. He was very impressive and told his story with a refreshing lack of self-aggrandizement.
Then toothpaste guy was back, with the Reader’s Digest version of the story I’d heard the night before. He was paired with a woman in killer high heels and what looked like a neoprene dress. She’d been something big at Google before founding something else and no doubt has Larry and Sergey and Mark and Sheryl in her phone.

During the breaks there was semi-tasty starfruit juice (emphasis on the "semi") and there was a man bun dense sea of earnest young people to chat up.

If you wanted coffee it wasn’t Maxwell House, or even Starbucks, but some ethically gown non-GMO fair trade heirloom low acid brew with notes of dark chocolate, cinnamon, and linty Hall’s Mentho-lyptus found in the bottom of a computer bag. There were sponsor tables too, but it was too crowded to get to any of those, so my guess that there were handing out some pretty decent stuff or else there was some bro drama going on in the entrepreneurial ecosystem and everyone was trying to get a good look.

The hit of the afternoon was Jason Flom, the founder of Lava Records. He was hellaciously entertaining telling the story of his career that included discovering many huge acts that are household names to those younger and hipper than me. According  to the Tom Tom website, he dropped the F bomb 24 times in his talk. I didn't notice the F bombs, I just noticed what an enthralling storyteller he was.

Things calmed down a bit when we got to Becca McCharen--a fellow grad of the UVa Architecture School--who's making a splash in New York designing clothes that look like exoskeletons and have biometric features, whatever those are. She was joined onstage by Doug Stoup, who takes rich people to the North and South Poles but is scared when his wife drives him to the supermarket. Then came Rodney Mullen, who won the Skateboarding World Championship 35 times. I didn't even know that skateboarding had a World Championship.

There were kids—as in under thirty—with great ideas that had attracted investors who were helping make those great ideas into viable businesses.  One of them went to UVa and he seems to have maxed out his credit card in the men’s department at the Urban Gay Store, which, even today, makes a guy stand out in Charlottesville.

We stayed there until the end of the day and then we met a friend (and reader…yay!) from S.C. and her husband who’d moved to C-ville not too long ago. They had friends in tow and so we had a beer off the beaten path before heading down the beaten path to the festival for a drink and dinner.

In the evening TomTom shed its TED Talk-ish demeanor and became a hipster city event. Lee Park (as in Robert E. Lee, who keeps watch over the park from the vantage point of a large equestrian statue in the middle of the joint) was a happening scene. There was a stage, with a band, with 32 video monitors as a backdrop. There were several beer trucks, so waiting in line was no problem. That's my idea of Southern Hospitality.

And there were food trucks where you could get Asian dumplings, Australian meat pies, Mexican stuff, and German things, too. We listened to the music, had dinner, and some beers, and had lots of laughs. Pam danced with someone in a Gumby costume: I embraced the hipster vibe as colored lights washed over Robert E. Lee and his horse Traveler.  It was a delightful evening. Did I mention that there were cinnamon sugar donuts, still warm from the fryer?

Saturday we were up early and walked a mile or so across town to pick up baseball tickets for the afternoon’s game against UNC--we were not only embracing innovation, we were embracing Virginia baseball, too. Pam couldn’t believe that West Main Street, now hip and upscale, used to be the kind of place University students of my day were told not to venture.

Even I have a hard time believing it. It’s all so…. hip and upscale.

We had a tasty breakfast bagel at a C-ville institution, Bodo’s Bagels. One of our fellow diners was a rather disheveled looking young man, still in last night’s suit, dress shirt, and untied bow tie. His gf was in gym shorts, tee shirt, and hair hidden under a baseball cap. Pam and I agreed that it was nice that she was talking him out to breakfast during his Walk of Shame.

Since it was a beautiful day for a walk, we did a jiffy tour of the UVa grounds.  I checked out the new capitals on the Rotunda columns.

After picking up the tickets, we stopped at the City Market, which I’ve written about before. It seems to have grown since my last visit and was filled with organic, free-range, heritage, and non-GMO fill in the blank, plus chiropractors, DIYers, ROLFers, and a model UN worth of ethnic food.  Mongolian lunch? Philippine snacks? Something Ecuadorian? It’s readily available. I’m sure if I’d paid more attention, I would have found specialties of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

We had a great chat with Bo from Bo’s Bodacious Brownies. She had an amusing life story and a big personality. If her brownies were half as bodacious as the fudge sauce we sampled, then they are brobdingnagianly bodacious. I’m not sure why we didn’t buy any brownies since we both like them. Perhaps we were still stuff with another multiple B food, Bodo’s Bagels.

The woman selling scratch and dent orchids was there as were oodles of cute farmers from farms with cute names selling grass-fed hormone-free beef/pork/lamb/and so on. The cute guys with the sausage stand are now selling shirts that say “Bacon gives me a lardon”, which, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, I found quite amusing. The shirts are a better deal than the meat, which seemed to be priced according to J P Morgan’s dictum about the cost of a yacht— “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

We arrived at the end of the Festival’s Iron Chef competition, where local chefs had a limited time and budget to cook up some tasty fare with food bought at the market. After the too hip MC announced the winner, he invited the audience to come to the stage to taste the entries. The crowd of frothing-at-the-mouth foodies rushed the stage in something that made a Black Friday doorbuster crush at Walmart look like a Mennonite church bazaar. I didn’t stick around for the EMT calls, but I had visions of grievous bodily harm inflicted by compostable forks.

I had a brief chat w one exhibitor who thought I might be an FBI agent. Seriously.  And this was after I asked if I could photograph her booth. She didn’t look as if she used lot of expensive beauty products; or inexpensive ones for that matter. She was an herbalist, acupuncturist, health educator, and then some, with what I think was the Visible Man of the acupuncture world in her booth. She wanted you to know where she’d stick a needle to jump start your chi or wangdoodle, or both, if you had good insurance or ready cash, as the case may be.

But if you rented one of her four tiny houses, yurt, or apartment on her farm and enjoyed a full farm breakfast of non-GMO pastured pork or non-GMO pastured goose and duck eggs, you would probably understand, unlike me, that true free-range non-GMO grass-fed probiotic heirloom beauty comes from within.

After the city market, we ducked in to the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, something that might be seen as a strange choice since we were at a Festival that was all about innovation.  At the very least I wanted to have a brief, as they say in L.A. real estate circles, lookie loo.  The building is a handsome Beaux Arts thing with neo-Jeffersonian touches, and I wanted to see if the interior lived up to the exterior.

Though the society is right next to Lee Park it’s not part of the Tom Tom tomfoolery. Presumably the society’s managers didn’t want to disturb the hushed aura of the place with an invasion of hipsters looking for the john and complaining—once they found it—that it wasn’t stocked with locally sourced lightly exfoliating toilet paper and Dyson Air-Blade hand dryers.

Except for the gracious and welcoming staffer, we were the only people there.

I know you’re shocked.

Fortunately, the building’s interior is as handsome as the exterior and was quite well preserved, right down to the oil portrait of Charlottesville’s early 20th century big kahuna, Paul Goodloe McIntire, over the fireplace in the library.

The building was designed as the public library, but it’s been the historical society for some time—the library moved next door to newer, bigger, better quarters.  Some of the exhibits were about what you might expect—on Charlottesville’s namesake, Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, on Charlottesville in the Civil War, and a real barnburner on the County Clerks of Albemarle County.

I didn’t peruse the County Clerks exhibit (though I do love the movie Clerks), but I did learn more than I thought possible about the former Princess Sophie Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. It’s a good thing that Princesses of low-end German principalities didn’t have to take the SAT in the 18th Century since her name would never have fit in the blocks the College Board allotted to that purpose. That wouldn’t have mattered to George III since he didn’t even have time to evaluate which high school clique she was in (cheerleaders/brainiacs/hippies/goths/Jesus freaks) since he married her the day he met her, something they don’t even do on American reality shows. The King, who really knew how to turn a phrase, said she was “eminently distinguished by every amiable endowment”. They had fifteen children together, so I would say that she apparently found the king’s endowment amiable as well.

Another exhibit was on the now mostly forgotten writer, Julia Magruder. Magruder (1854-1907) was a Charlottesville native who authored sixteen books, some of which had illustrations by artists people actually remember including Howard Chandler Christy and Charles Dana Gibson.  The exhibit rather breathlessly informed us that "Magruder's life and writings offer a view of the complex world of the post-Civil War South from the vantage point of a New Woman of the New South."

I have to admit; I’d forgotten that in the post bellum period Random capitalization became More Common.

Magruder’s sixteen books included such soft porn worthy titles as Across the Chasm and The Magnificent Plebian.

Heaving bosoms aside, the exhibit left unanswered my obvious question. “Was she related to Jeb Stuart Magruder, the Watergate conspirator?

For my money (ok, the admission was free) the best exhibit, by was one on Kathleen Clifford, another Charlottesville local whose work has been lost in the mists of time. (I’m sounding a bit like Julia Magruder, no?)  At age 15 she met a theatrical producer at a dinner party, and even though she had trouble even recognizing a script—she threw the first one that arrived in the mail away, thinking it was a catalog—and memorizing lines, but in no time flat she was getting top billing in a revue called Top O’ the World.

After her success in that production, her career took off as a “male impersonator”, which, I suppose we would call a drag king. She wrote her own material (sadly, none of it was in the exhibit) and performed on stage in the “smartest” clothes: top hat, tails, and even a monocle.  (Note to self: perhaps I would do better on Grindr if my profile picture included a monocle?)

She was “America’s answer to Vesta Tilley”, a famous English male impersonator, and sometimes performed on stage with a female impersonator, Bothwell Brown. (Who?) Ms. Clifford moved on to silent films, performing as a woman, and even did one talkie.  The last text panel noted that we really don’t much about her, and essentially said don’t believe anything you read.

A drag performer with the "smartest" clothes and a monocle. Who says that local history is boring?

I asked the staffer—a charming woman of the age you’d expect to find in the historical society—about Kathleen Clifford and she said that it has been the intern’s project. We agreed that the exhibit was “quite something”, one of those expressions that means whatever you want it to mean.  After a little bit of small talk (she had a sweet Virginia accent) I learned that she used to go to church with my old neighbor from University Circle, the putative Grand Duchess Anastasia.

In the 1970s before DNA testing was possible, a number of thoughtful people thought this crazy woman had somehow escaped being murdered by Soviet secret police with the rest of her family in 1918 only to turn up in a canal in Berlin the 1920s. Anastasia ended up in Charlottesville, married to a kooky retired professor whom my friends and I called Mr. Anastasia. They lived in the Charlottesville version of “Grey Gardens”, with a light up plastic crèche (Santa included!) in the front yard instead of a cameo appearance by Jackie Kennedy as at the Hamptons Grey Gardens. They were Charlottesville's dyed-in-the-wool local color.

With our fill of hipsters and history (at least for the time being), that afternoon we went to a UVa baseball game. We did a bit of tailgating with acquaintances from State College whose son--no, not Connor Jones--plays for UVa. It was a welcome change from the hipster-dense atmosphere of the festival.

It was a beautiful day for baseball, but unfortunately the Tar Heels spanked the Wahoos, 8-1.

After the game, we had Festival food for dinner, and listened to some of the bands at the Festival and watched that night’s closing act, a documentary film on CLAW, the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers.

My words won’t do it justice, but if it’s on Netflix, or whatever, watch it. The gist of the story was this vaguely Jennifer Garner looking woman who sounded like my former pastor’s wife was mourning the death of her husband and started to arm wrestle as a way to work through her grief.

Happens all the time, right?

And taking a leaf out of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland’s book (“We can put a show on in the barn!”) soon enough she’d founded an entire arm wrestling league.

Women who wrestle in the league have comic personas and wear costumes, like in professional wrestling. Except these Lady Arm Wrestlers perform as characters with a definite feminist slant: Pain Fonda, Darth Mater, Laura Ingalls go-Wilder, Homewrecker, C-ville Knievel. They all seemed like they could live next door to you, but once they were in character, look out!  They really arm wrestle, too—the film shows two of the women breaking their arms wrestling—one break was so severe that the woman was hospitalized. The film covered the league expanding into several other cities as it gave women an outlet to perform and raise money for charity. It was hilarious.

It was hard to top the Lady Arm Wrestlers, but we gave it a go with a nightcap or two. There was a lot of the festival we missed, the craft cocktail competition, some public art projects, networking out the ying yang, but in the end, our minds were broadened as the Founding Polymath would have wanted. I’m not entirely sure that saw anything that would translate directly to our non-hip, north of the Mason-Dixon festival, but we agreed that we’d come back…just as soon as I finished growing my man bun.