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GP 18 April 2007: North Country Fair

Well, if you’re travelin’ in the north country fair,
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline,
Remember me to one who lives there.
She once was a true love of mine.

Well, if you go when the snowflakes storm,
When the rivers freeze and summer ends,
Please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm,
To keep her from the howlin' winds.

               -Bob Dylan, “Girl of the North Country”

Upper Appalachia.  Our band of business advisors lately has had occasion to pour through the upper reaches of New York State, poking through the cities that once made shoes and many of the other wares of America, then taking in the family farms out in the countryside where silos in days gone by were our best assurance that there was real farming going on, and not some half- baked facsimile by week end milkmaids.

We were surprised.  The rolling hills and bricked cities do not look beaten, as is the case in so many of the other parts of America that have been deserted by the politicians and global businessmen.  Everything looks okay, but just is suspended, waiting to get started again.

Curious Décor.  One inn we visited came equipped with a spa to which you did not rush.  One imagines that locals can come to it in the dead of winter (sometimes it snows every day for six weeks with temperatures that dip below zero) to pretend that they are down in Florida losing weight.  It’s all about equivalent to a hotel in downtown Milwaukee where we had to spend a month one weekend twenty years ago.  Couples from the countryside sat about in the sauna, nobody daring to use the ice shivering pool whose heating elements had broken down.

The rooms sported dark paneling, heaps of burgundy drapery about the windows, and deep colored patterned rugs—all of which could not appeal to the eye but provided, we think, a cocoon for those who needed to be protected from the seasons and cabin fever.

This cocoon feeling carried over into the offices of businesses, colleges, and government offices our study team visited throughout the region.  Rooms tended to be smallish, even though real estate usually was not at much of a premium.  Curved shells just below the ceiling provided a resting place for Home Depot chandeliers, a comfort perhaps to people hugging the earth, avoiding the skies, wanting protection from the wide open spaces. Everybody was hunkered down for a long siege.

At one college way north and east, we paid a visit on the president.  His hangout was on the top floor, shared by a few other officers.  But also there was the Risk Management Department, a juxtaposition we found quite curious.  This odd placement was, we suppose, symbolic of 2007, when we pay more attention to risks than opportunity and homeland insecurity has infected our lives.  Our colleagues were delighted that we are not advising this institution, because we would have felt compelled to tell its trustees to move risk management into the basement.

Just Darn Nice.  As we wandered about, we found plenty of 300-pound fellas lumbering off to somewhere.  The women often had checkered woolen clothing or other durable coverings.  We were reminded more than once of Northern Exposure, an amusingly surreal TV series where the minds of the Alaskans took on the mental twists of outlanders from New York and other unlikely places.  Upstate New York could easily harbor Northern Exposure: we seem to remember the Army once had to move its Artic troops for training to northern New York (Camp Drum, we think) because Alaska was not cold enough.  Garrison  Keillor would not be able to stand the place: compared to Minnesota, it’s too otherworldly.

In Syracuse, several of the worthwhile food guides recommended Dinosaur Bar-B-Que and Coleman’s Irish Pub—but  the list got sparse after that.  We flipped a coin and the Dinosaur won.  It was started by some bikers who got into the catering business and then into restaurants.  Their empire has now spread to Rochester and Harlem.

The band for the evening did not come in until most of the customers had disappeared.  Late meals aren’t a bad idea since the crowds disappear by then and the music is surprisingly good.  We don’t understand why one plucks one’s fiddle for an empty house, but we’re sure there’s a Northern logic.  Most of the players were men of girth, one with a Hawaiian shirt to complete his act.  The lead seemed to be a fellow named Barnaby or Burford who wore dairy overalls, a farmyard cap, and steel rimmed glasses: he played the guitar and wrote the songs.  We told this assemblage that it is much too merry to sing the blues, but a blues band they’re determined to be.  In the North Country Fair, people are downright cheerful about being blue.  Men of girth and mirth.

The check and the food were decent, the wait staff and the customers all pleasant. Afterward one chap working for the house asked us how the food was.  We said the pork ribs were good, but that the cooks did not even have a clue about how to make Texas brisket.  It did not cut the mustard.  He said, “I agree with you.”  And he was not at all offended by our undiplomatic remarks.  He had been looking for an honest answer.

Straight, honest talk (the kind John McCain plumped for when he was taking his campaign bus through New Hampshire in his contest with Bush) abounds in the North Country.  Every day people go out of their way to do and say the right thing.  The luggage cart missing in one hotel, a handyman goes from floor to floor til he finds something a guest can use to lug away his suitcases.  At a Denny’s (we had never been inside one of these places before, but there is a first for everything), a waitress rushed to the door and held it open for a customer airport bound with his breakfast.  Philosophic customers opined that the weather is hellish and that the situation in Iran is near hopeless. This helpfulness and down-to-earthness just don’t happen in most places.

People in the North Country have taken a beating but are not beaten.  They are just waiting for some leadership—that ever rare commodity.  In “Courtly Congressman,” we found that Amory Houghton had provided some energy to both business and politics for his part of New York.  Northern New York needs a few more like him.

Hypocrisy.  This week Don Imus, the king of morning radio, got booted by MSNBC (part of GE’s NBC empire) and CBS.  Those who attacked him and even those who defended him did not acquit themselves well.  To a man and woman, they sounded pretty phony.  Imus, who had uttered bad words about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, was taken to account by Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer.  In short order, he apologized, but his media bosses heaved him, caving in to outside advertisers who really call the shots.  Imus, incidentally, has subsequently learned that most of his friends in the media, particularly his sort-of-colleagues at NBC, were fair weather friends, claiming to be his buddies while stabbing him in the back.  As Imus would say, they have all proven to be “weasels.”

We ourselves have previously given Imus and his show mixed reviews in “Imus: Almost Walking Wounded.”  At the same time we confessed that he was the only thing to watch early in the morning because all the networks and all the cable channels offered us such drivel.  We can only laugh at those who talk of him as a “shock jock” who needs to be slain.  The media, with the sole exception of C-Span, trots out such worthless stuff—from reality shows to Howard Stern—that we have to ask all his attackers to take a look in the mirror and stop casting the first stones.  The media—print and broadcast—is losing its audience fairly rapidly, in part, because it is offering dreck that usually does not measure up to Imus.

Ironically enough, out of the whole crowd, only Imus and Coach Stringer comported themselves well.  The rest showed calculation, stealth, and two sidedness—all the traits that eat away at our commonwealth.

Years ago we thought that hypocrites knew that they were attacking behavior and attitudes of which they themselves were guilty, even if they pretended to be virtuous.  A witty literary critic told us the error of our ways: hypocrites don’t know they are being hypocritical.  The only cure for hypocrisy we think is to offer the pols and the soundbiters a bus trip out of Washington and New York City to the North Country Fair, where you meet people who mean what they say and say what they mean.

Packaging It.  A few decades back, a Minnesota advertising agency said, “Truth is going over big these days.  Now if we can only learn to package it.”  Well, you can’t package it, and the environmentalists have taught us that packaging is very expensive, indeed.  With thick packaging, things become all outside and no inside.

P.S.  We are now taking bets on how soon Imus will be back on the air.  He probably could do without the ride out to MSNBC in Secaucus, New Jersey.  Maybe Mel Karmazin at Sirius Radio will hire Imus in order to spite Summer Redstone, who kicked him out of CBS.  Imus has now achieved deeper branding than he had ever achieved through his previous outrages.  Secaucus used to be the home of awful smells—powered, we hear, by waste dumped into the swamps from meat processing plants.  Apparently it smells much better now, save for the effusions from MSNBC.

P.P.S.  John Stage, a founder of the Dinosaur, lives over in Liverpool, today the home of the Salt Museum and one-time center of the willow weaving trade, the history of which is chronicled at the Liverpool Willow Museum.  It’s a small village with a history where a biker can sink some roots.

P.P.P.S.  Leaders throughout New York are dour about the state’s economic prospects.  They particularly focus on its job creation costs and high taxes.  It is the leaders, and not necessarily the citizenry, who are without direction and who have no clue about the state’s future.  As in many regions, our team finds that there’s no clear notion of what kind of industry should be fostered.  And what should be put out of its misery.  Back in the 19th century, DeWitt Clinton knew we should build a canal, and the Erie made New York the Empire State. In this regard, it’s worth reading Peter Bernstein’s Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation.  The key strategy for New York State historically has been infrastructure building.

New York City today, which drives the state’s affairs, is dominated by financiers who don’t understand their responsibilities, surrounded by a media industry that is hastening its own funeral.  New York is only one illustration of the weakness of regional planning around America: most plans are fuzzy and try to do knockoffs of success stories from other regions.

P.P.P.P.S.  Citibank illustrates our decline into risk management, homeland security, CYA (Cover Your Aft), and lawyering.  Of the big banks, it used to be the experimenter.  Now it is headed by Charles Prince, a lawyer buddy of Sanford Weill, the dealmaker former CEO.  He was supposed to unwind its woes.  The organization is in a tailspin, and Bank of America has become the new king of the mountain.  Lawyers, incidentally, generally talk out of two sides of their mouths—or don’t talk at all—a lethal tendency in leaders.

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