Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

I'll simply leave you with a quote from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as he visited Omaha Beach on the 20th anniversary of D-Day. I came across it reading the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Memorial Day editorial:

"These men came here -- British and our allies, and Americans -- to storm these beaches for one purpose only, not to gain anything for ourselves, not to fulfill any ambitions that America had for conquest, but just to preserve freedom ... Many thousands of men have died for such ideals as these ... but these young boys ... were cut off in their prime ... I devoutly hope that we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope, and pray, that humanity will have learned ... we must find some way ... to gain an eternal peace in this world."

Friday, May 28, 2010

Ah, to be an FOB

Everyone in Arkansas is a Friend of Bill. An FOB. (I mean, you knew what that stood for, right?) Arkansans tend to think of "FOB" as a generic team even those not in the inner circle (and by that I mean anyone not from Arkansas) should know. Not really the case, and I'll be the first to admit it, but I'll also admit that by now, I'm fully in the I-like-to-think-I'm-an-FOB-and-you-better-believe-it club.

So, I can't really pass up a chance to get a photo with or of Bill Clinton any time we're in the same room -- or across a football field from each other, same difference. As of today, I now count my meetings (I'm going to use that word loosely) with the President at four. The first was during Obama's inauguration, in January 2009, at the Arkansas Gala in Washington. One of the perks of writing for High Profile was the chance to cover the Arkansas State Society's ball at the National Press Club, along with other Arkansas-related inauguration festivities.

Everyone had an inkling that Bill would drop by and steal the show. Good thing he pulled through because my press pass was less than effective at getting me past all the checkpoints I was supposed to that week.

Often, the President attends and speaks at multiple events on a single trip home. In June of 2009, he joined Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, both former Arkansas governors and senators, to share stories of their lives in politics at the Clinton Presidential Center's annual Kumpuris Lecture. Former White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty was the moderator, and Governor Beebe introduced everyone. It was quite the Arkansas political timeline personified that night. The following evening, President Clinton and four fellow Arkansas governors formally opened the doors of the Arkansas Studies Institute, a beautiful facility in the River Market that is a joint project of the Central Arkansas Library System and the University of Arkansas System. The now united trio of buildings, each built in a different century (1882, 1914 and 2009), also houses the papers of seven Arkansas governors. This was my first photo with the President. People had many comments on this one, though the best came from my boyfriend at the time: "42's holding you kind of close."

Over a year went by before I would get another chance to see the President in person. I often heard he was in town, jetting in for a night or two to attend a private event, pay his respects at a funeral, or headline a fundraiser that cost more than my paycheck to attend. When he is here, he stays at an apartment above the Clinton Library. From what I am told, it is the only residence he still has in Arkansas. People with connections have seen the inside; I'm still waiting for my invitation.

So, back to the motivation for this post. My most recent Bill sighting was today, at the groundbreaking of the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge. The structure dates to 1899, when it was a railroad crossing over the Arkansas River between Little Rock and North Little Rock. Though it is old and in need of serious restoration, which -- $13 million later -- is now going to become a reality, it is elegant and charming in its history. There's a picture of it on my first post on the blog. Converting the bridge into a pedestrian/bicycle crossing was part of Clinton's plan when he first decided to build his Presidential library on a site adjacent to it in Little Rock. But it's taken years for the funds to be raised, a combination of monies from the City of Little Rock, City of North Little Rock, Clinton Foundation, and federal funds. Today, the work officially begins, and the Clinton Foundation anticipates it opening for use within the next several months.

At one point, the bridge was named the Rock Island Bridge, after a railroad line that owned it. But in recent weeks, the City of Little Rock Board of Directors voted to change the name to honor President Clinton and to more strongly connect it to the Clinton Presidential Center, on whose grounds today's event was held.

This morning, it was about 90 degrees as the crowd awaited the President's arrival. Appropriately, "Rolling on the River" played on the stereo. When it came time for Governor Beebe to introduce Clinton, he didn't waste any time (let's just say he didn't need my talking points today), and his brief time at the podium did not go unnoticed by the President.

"This is why Governor Beebe's approval rating hovers at around 70 percent," Clinton said, to thunderous applause and a chuckle from the Governor.

Obviously proud to return to the Library on the occasion of the bridge progress, Clinton had strong things to say about the power of this bridge to continue to revitalize downtown Little Rock and to further connect the communities of Little Rock and North Little Rock.

"If we do this bridge right, there will be no city in America that will have a more defining landmark," he said. I think he has a thing for bridges; his library was intended to reflect the concept of "the bridge to the 21st century." Viewed from the correct vantage point, it's truly a stunning site against the Arkansas River.

The turning of the dirt followed (yes, this is an actual term I have now heard used many times at such events featuring shining shovels for men in suits to hold):

Though the President and Governor had to rush to a second event, Clinton took time to greet guests, many of whom I'm certain he knew personally and genuinely wanted to catch up with. I got my chance to shake his hand and get a quick photo, courtesy of Denver Peacock of CJRW. I wish there was ever enough time to tell him we're both Hoyas and that my stepfather worked for the State when he was Governor.

The event was wonderful, and I was glad for one more chance to hear him address a crowd. As I count the instances I've seen him in person, though, I shouldn't fail to mention the time my family spotted the Clintons at Cirque du Soleil in Washington while they were still in the White House. My brother swears Hillary waved to him. I'll let him decide which is better -- that or when she kissed my cheek and called me "dear" at the Democratic Party of Arkansas' Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in 2008.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

General Denial

General denial:
n. A statement in an answer to a lawsuit or claim by a defendant in a lawsuit, in which the defendant denies everything alleged in the complaint without specifically denying any allegation. It reads: "Defendant denies each and every allegation contained in the complaint on file herein," or similar inclusive language.

In other words, an appropriate moniker for a weekly cocktail hour attended by a few Little Rock lawyers, politicians and other select bigwigs. The group gathers at -- where else? -- the 18th floor balcony of the Tower Building downtown, which affords sweeping views to the city's north and west. The balcony is accessed through lawyer Graham Catlett's firm. He also owns the building and has a penthouse-style apartment one floor below that features such things as a library, suite for poodle Savannah, and kitchen wall tiles commissioned to display the Catletts' favorite international sites (i.e. Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Thailand, the Coliseum, etc.). I wish I had photos to share, but I don't. That would have been tacky.

To even attempt to describe the view from the balcony won't do it justice. It was without question the best view of the city I have ever seen. Little Rock never looked so pretty. It is the only place I've stood from where one can see all the city's bridges, as well as across the Arkansas River to Dickey-Stephens Park, the home of our minor league baseball team, the Arkansas Travelers, since it opened in 2007.

P.S. The conversation was good too, as was the wine aflowin' and the fresh dips hand-delivered by Mary Beth Ringgold, owner and chef of the Cajun's / Copper Grill / Caper's restaurant trio.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Greek Food Festival

Every year, I eagerly anticipate the Greek Food Fest. Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock has been putting it on for 26 years, and they have it down to a science. Beyond the delicious gyros, pastitsio and baklava, the event raises so much money each year that not only can it keep its own church programs running, it donates a portion of its proceeds to charities. Over the years, it has donated more than $1 million among more than 20 charities. This year's beneficiaries were the Arkansas Foodbank Network, Centers for Youth and Families, Community Connections, Easter Seals Arkansas, Harmony Health Clinic, Love Truth Care Ministries, and Youth Home (a very special children's residential treatment center and school, set in a peaceful, wooded place on the outskirts of Little Rock).

The Greek Festival is truly an amazing event - so professional, so much variety in food, wares and live entertainment, and it goes on for three days. It's a community festival that any group seeking to present something similar should look to for an example to emulate.

For its size, Little Rock has a fair amount of ethnic cuisine, but I still miss the seemingly unlimited culinary variety one can find in a city like Washington. I particularly missed going to the Greek festival at St. Sophia's with my family every year, so I was pretty thrilled to find out that the Greeks put on a pretty good show here too.

GYROS - the reason I go to the Greek fest:
A volunteer prepares chicken souvlaki on the grill:
Greek dancing:
Cutest kid ever:
For sale: Gifts, jewelry, Greek Orthodox religious art, etc.:

I wonder what it would take to convince them to put this shindig on twice a year?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

City Year Red Jacket Ball

So I went to a ball, no big deal. Pretty much standard fare down here.

The Red Jacket Ball raises money for City Year Little Rock/North Little Rock. The nonprofit unites young people ages 17-24 who give a year of their lives in service, predominantly through tutoring elementary-aged children in low-income, inner-city public schools. These young people make up the City Year "corps." Their dedication to the organization and the students with whom they work was palpable Friday night at the Statehouse Convention Center.

Each year, the Red Jacket Ball honors a Little Rock philanthropist with City Year's Lifetime of Service Award. This year, Judy Tenenbaum was named the prestigious honoree, and this only a year after she received a similar award from the Jewish Federation of Arkansas at its annual dinner.

But back to the whole gala-hopping phenomenon. Growing up in D.C., charity benefits were far out of my reach. I grew up believing that such events were something only the most elite of Washington and ridiculously wealthy ever saw an invite to. But in Little Rock, not only are tickets to some of these things actually affordable because there is a definite intent to bring in younger members of the community in order to get them excited about all the causes that can use their help, but there are a multitude of causes for such a relatively small city.

With dear friend Jessica Dean

The calendar of charity events seems endless here. And what's so impressive about that is that this is Arkansas. This is one of the poorest states. But that means that every need -- every chance to teach someone to read, to mentor a young child through school, to donate food, to fight domestic violence -- is that much more important.

So, Arkansas is also one of the most generous states. Since moving here, I have found again and again that while yes, Southern hospitality is alive and well, it's more than that. The people of this state care about each other, they want the best for their fellow Arkansans, and they will do anything and everything they can to achieve that. So, there are countless ways to become involved, even at a young age. One can join a board -- I did, for adult literacy -- or volunteer at an event, or mentor one of the young corps members, in the case of City Year. Opportunities to become involved in nonprofits are within anyone's reach here, and young people are encourages to become involved in order to build the next generation of givers. This appreciation and embracing of young people in this community is one of the most amazing things about living here. I know that all I have learned about the many critical causes here will stay with me and forever help me to keep my priorities straight, no matter where I might go from here.

Best moment of the evening? When a City Year corps member fainted on-stage, and U.S. Rep. (also attorney, doctor...) Vic Snyder quickly came to her rescue. The girl was fine in the end. Probably more thrilled about being saved by a Congressman than anything else.

U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder with General (Ret.) Wesley Clark

Sort of reminded me of a Monday in November 2007 when I had to catch a flight home suddenly to attend my grandfather's funeral. I rushed through security, late, overwhelmed and in tears by the time I made it to the gate. Who was there also boarding the plane to D.C.? Vic Snyder and fellow Congressman Mark Ross (go figure. Tangent - one shouldn't be surprised; this kind of thing seems to happen all the time here.) I was immediately embarrassed at my disheveled appearance, and I tried to avoid making eye contact. But Snyder was there, as he always seem to be, with the kindest words. He said, "See? We haven't left yet. You haven't missed the flight." He had no idea of the reason for my rush or the sadness I was feeling that day. But I will never forget that moment, and in fact, it was good fodder for some much needed laughter later that week.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Primary Election Night

A few photos below from Joyce Elliott's Primary Election Night watch party at Cajun's (May 18, 2010):

Against four opponents, the Arkansas State Senator won the popular vote with 40 % of the vote in the Democratic primary for the U.S. House seat in Arkansas' 2nd District. In Arkansas, a candidate must win just over 50 % of the popular vote to win the nomination, so she'll face Speaker of the Arkansas House Robbie Wills in a June 8 run-off.

Shelly Baron, my good friend, and member of Joyce's campaign staff as an employee of CDP Strategies, watches election results come in:

Joyce watches results on TV as KATV Channel 7 report Roger Susanin interviews her for a live shot.
Joyce delivers a televised victory speech once it's clear she's made it to the run-off.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Election Day

It's Primary Election Day in Arkansas, one of the most talked about national political news events of the primary season (thanks to the much scrutinized and potentially close Democratic primary between incumbent Senator Blanche Lincoln and opponent Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, among other races).

You know it's a good sign when you arrive at your polling spot, and posted outside are supporters for one of your candidates, with a dog identical to your own in tow.

Hall High was pretty quiet. Not the normal buzz I like to see at my polling place on Election Day, but after all, it was before 8 in the morning, and I was only voter #25. I left with that high on democracy I always get after casting my vote. I love America.

And now....we wait.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Culture Shock

Ever since I moved to Arkansas, I've been keeping a list I like to call, "Culture Shock." It's basically words and phrases I'd never heard before living here. I love language, and the variations in language across the United States never cease to fascinate me. I'll throw these in every now and then, because they're really most entertaining when explored individually.

The first of these phrases was "trial by fire." This one is sort of obvious in context, but regardless, it's nothing I'd heard before. The context this time was that my first week as a reporter at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was also Arkansas Governor Beebe's first week on the job (January 2007). My very first day of work, my editor, Phyllis Brandon of High Profile fame, took me to a party at Cajun's Wharf called Painting Arkansas Blue, to celebrate his inauguration. I'm slightly embarrassed to admit it now that he's my boss, but I remember leaning over to her in the midst of the crowd that night as his car drove up, motioning in a way I hoped was inconspicuous, toward whatever man I quickly determined seemed the most gubernatorial. I really had no idea whom I was looking for, as I'd been in Arkansas about a weekend by that point. I was making a complete guess, and it was the wrong one. When I asked her if the man I had decided on was in fact the new Governor, I received an immediate, no, of course not, and a not-so-subtle hint that I better do my homework next time.

Ah, trial by fire.

Below, a photo from the 2009 Governor's staff Christmas party at the Governor's Mansion, just to prove I know who he is now.

A little piece of heaven

My absolute favorite place in Little Rock is at the top of Pinnacle Mountain. The peak rises a little over 1,000 feet, and it's about a 1.5-mile round-trip hike. I can be up and back in less than an hour if rushing to beat sundown, but I prefer to bring a book and my ipod and take a moment at the top instead.

(I love Arkansas' state parks network, so I'll take this opportunity to direct you to their site:
There are 52; we're not called the Natural State for nothing.)

The summit of Pinnacle has become my "me" place. I hike it alone, and when I'm there, I'm in my own, intentionally isolated world. Once up there, the placid water of Lake Maumelle glitters below, while the Arkansas River is visible nearby. (This, in fact, is the image on the front page of the blog.) The rest of the view is green pastures that look as soft as freshly mown grass. This place is a mere 10 or so miles west of Little Rock, but for me, it's my place outside the city and everything work-related, stress-related and just daily-life-related.

Hiking Pinnacle is always strenuous, which provides a sense of accomplishment that can last the whole day. It's the way I'd start every weekend if I could. It's rejuvenation for the week ahead. It's peace. It's quiet. Next to lying on a beach at the Kinneret, it's what I picture in mind's eye when I seek perfect calm. And though I typically savor my time there by myself, it's also the first place I take anyone who comes to visit. And it's one of the reasons that when they leave, Arkansas' beauty isn't such a hidden treasure anymore.

The one time I brought Clyde, my 11-year-old bichon frise. He was one tired pup.

Jewish Food Festival

In Arkansas, there are no delis (not in the Zabar's sense), you can't buy bagels that aren't just circles of bread with a hole in the middle, and you need your own meat processor if you want chopped liver. So, the Jewish Federation of Arkansas's Jewish Food Festival is pretty much Christmas for us.

The huge, daylong event is intended to serve three purposes: Bring Jews from around Arkansas together, provide Jewish delicacies and live music not normally available in the state, and share Jewish culture with non-Jews. It's held in an open-air pavilion in Little Rock's River Market District on the Arkansas River. Historically, the event has drawn 8,000-10,000 people. Given that the Jewish population in the entire state is estimated at around 1,800, it's a huge success to bring in so much interest from the general community.

The options included blintzes, kugel, potato knish, stuffed cabbage, filafel, hummus, kebabs, corned beef and pastrami sandwiches on rye, and pastries such as hamantashen, apricot strudel, cinnamon schnecken and mandel brot.

Aside from the food, temples and synagogues from around the state sold beautiful Jewish gifts, seder plates, menorahs, mezuzahs and jewelry, and we had live entertainment from temple music groups and a klezmer band.

Some of the wares:

Here's a link to a local news story that prefaced the event:

We're two days from Arkansas' primary, so we had visits from a few of the candidates - David Boling, Shane Broadway, Joyce Elliott, Bill Halter and Dustin McDaniel.

That's all for now, so......

First Post - Life in Little Rock

I have lived in Little Rock, Ark., since January 2007, and given that I like to consider myself a writer, I figured it was finally time to start a blog. In all honesty, the final incentive came from my brother, who suggested it after I told him one of my many oh-so-Arkansas stories today. Being a Yankee in this town and state has meant that every experience has the chance to be novel. Fortunately, the jobs I've had at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the statewide newspaper, and the Arkansas Governor's Office, have provided me with frequent opportunities to explore the many unique and beautiful corners of the Natural State and meet its people.

Below, one of my favorite Little Rock sites, the Rock Island Bridge downtown, spanning the Arkansas River between Little Rock and North Little Rock. The former railroad bridge dates to 1899 and is on its way to being restored as a pedestrian bridge. This is just to give you a taste of the city I live in.

Over time, I hope to pull together some of my other memorable stories I've experienced since living here, and add them, even if they won't appear as they chronologically occurred.

Some friends and I took a little road trip to the town of De Valls Bluff, population 700 or so. We went on a mission to find fried pies, which I can't say I could picture ahead of time. We didn't exactly do our research -- that was part of the allure -- so upon arrival in the "sportsmen's paradise," we really didn't know what we were looking for. The first thing we saw was the old school, clearly now closed for business as inevitably the kids have been consolidated into a larger school elsewhere. The mascot? The Scrappers.

But I digress. Back to the pies. We knew Lena's was supposed to be on Highway 33, so we took it, for a loonnnngg while. We passed a few houses and pondered asking where the pies were, figuring anyone in this town knew their most famous tourist attraction, but we wanted to seek it out for ourselves.

Finally, we gave in and called, only to hear this:
"Hello. Sorry to inform you but Ms. Lena's is closed for good. We will no longer be making pies. Of any kind. Thanks for being a wonderful fan and customer. Again, we are sorry, but life happens, and sometimes we can't do anything about that. We appreciated your business."

A tad overdramatic, I thought.

Fortunately for us, there's a second pie shop in this town with so few commercial establishments, I could count them on one hand. We ended up at Family Pie Shop, owned by Mary Thomas since 1977:
Hard to miss the spray-painted sign. We walked inside to what is basically a shed converted into a one-woman bakery. There Mary Thomas was, filling pie crusts.

The menu:
We bought coconut pie, which was pretty much one of the best pies I've ever tasted. I think Arkansas must be known for its coconut pies, because the first one I ever had was also from Ambrosia Bakery in Hot Springs, and it too was divine.

It turns out that fried pies are like fruit turnovers, but fried. I tasted an apricot one, but would skip it next time and stick with the traditional pie. Next time, I'll try the buttermilk pie.