Category Archives: Denver

TEDxMileHigh: Point of Departure

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It’s a mid-summer weekend in sunny Colorado and thousands of people are standing in line, actually various lines that snake all around the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in downtown Denver. They are all waiting to get into the theater to hear a series of talks. These talks will cover a wide variety of subjects. One will be about a big idea, something that may change the world in the coming years. Another may be a personal narrative, and another may even be a musical or poetic performance. The only thing these talks have in common is the main draw. The main reason anyone chose to spend a Friday evening and Saturday afternoon in the middle of the summer inside a building as opposed to in the mountains where most Coloradans chose to spend their summer weekends, the association with a brand known as TED.

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Most people have some form of exposure to TED talks, even if they did not purposely seek them out. TED talks are shown at all sorts of conferences and workshops, are shared with friends and colleagues regularly, and are commonly found in web searches. This was the first time I chose to attend a TED event, but I have watched quite a few TED talks in my life. When you are really ill, watching TED talks on YouTube can be the most productive thing to do with your time.

What I notice most about TED talks, both at this conference and online, is the fact that I never get bored during them, despite the fact that I find it quite easy to get bored and antsy during presentations, especially of the standard power point variety. It is quite clear that the people who organize TED events (and TEDx events, which means they are independently organized) follow a formula that takes into account how the human mind works and responds to information as presented. Talks are generally 15-20 minutes, consistent with most scientific understanding of the human attention span. Short videos are presented between talks of wildly differing topics to ease the transition from one topic to another.

Speakers undergo a rigorous three-month long process of preparation to ensure all TED talks meet their standards. As a result, speakers always seem to emphasize the right words, stay poised, and avoiding using filler words. Auditions for speakers for this conference took place in February, and auditions for their next conference, in November, take place at the end of July!

When I think of the brand TED, the first thing I think of is people who think like me. By this, I do not mean people who have the same opinions on certain specific issues or policies. It is more of a general sense of what “TED people” are like. If there is one thing that binds all the people who speak at and participate in this brand known as TED, it is the desire to think beyond the day-to-day routine, the next task or the next purchase. People come here because they want to be inspired. They imagine possibilities beyond what is seen directly in front of them day-to-day. They want to engage their intellectual curiosity. They believe their life will be changed, or even that the world will be changed, by something they hear about and talk about here.

The conference provided a few other perks as well…

Each ticket, regardless of whether it was General Admission, VIP, or All Access, provided a free lunch, to be redeemed at one of many food trucks located in sculpture park behind the Denver Performing Arts Center (which houses the Ellie Caulkins Opera House). There were vendors for many other other organizations too, including ones that focus on environmental activism, sell new flavors of tea, or focus on career development. At the end of the conference, I even got a free pair of eclipse glasses, which I intend to use to view next month’s total solar eclipse.

 

After 22 speakers spread over three sessions, meeting countless interesting people, and a really awesome after-party (there was an after party both nights, but I only attended the Saturday night one due to poor meal planning on my part), I felt something absolutely crazy. I came out of this conference with more energy than when I had arrived. I wasn’t expecting this, as most conferences leave me drained. This one covers even more intellectually and emotionally draining topics than most.

The success of the TED brand seems to run contrary to every piece of business advice I have ever received. I am always told to have a specific product in mind, a narrower purpose, and a specific target audience, like all those blogs that focus on one activity.

Yet, this idea seemed to start with a broader purpose; to inspire and change the world. Then, they thought about humanity and found the most effective way in which to present the information. If TEDxMileHigh Point of Departure taught me anything (other than specifics like how fast a supersonic jet can go) it is to stop worrying about how others achieved, or what status anyone has. It is all about having something to offer that people see as worth-wile, and bringing it to them effectively, regardless of titles or perceived status.

The Cherry Creek Farmer’s Market

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What does it mean to have a “healthy community”?  I am encouraged to see more and more people actively consider their life choices, their environment, associations and just put more thought in general to how they spend their time, energy, and money.  This feels like a dramatic shift from, say, ten years ago.  However, embedded in some of the most high profile public improvement related pursuits in the modern era is an unfortunate residual strand of laziness.  After all, we do want something for nothing.

This often manifests itself in buzz phrases that people use to not-so subtly indicate some form of association with a popular present-day initiative.  Perhaps the one that bugs me the most is the term “sustainability”.  In many of its common present-day uses, the definition of this term “sustainability” has been narrowed to only mean sustainability in the environmental sense, short-changing the term of its full definition, and shortchanging discussions of “sustainability” of their full impact.

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Whenever I ride a bicycle to a Farmer’s Market, I feel as if I suddenly become the personification of the term “healthy community”.  It’s the standard image, embedded in every montage that any health or parks department has put together to promote some kind of health/ community initiative in the past six years.  People riding their bikes to buy pesticide-free produce and meat products from local farmers and ranchers.

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And there are a few booths that sell those products, including one with that cow diagram that just always confuses me.  Why are there like 50 types of beef?.  However, most of the booths at this Farmer’s Market are not vendors selling food.  In fact, I saw a somewhat random assortment of products that made me curious as to how one goes about determining what is appropriate for a Farmer’s Market.

And, as is the case with any other Farmer’s Market I have been to, there were plenty of booths where one can get food that is, well, not healthy.

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In Wisconsin, any Farmer’s Market I would attend would have a good number of booths selling cheese curds.  If the country ever breaks up into its 50 states, and Wisconsin becomes its own country, it would probably stock pile cheese as a strategic reserve, much the same way Canada stock piles maple syrup.

I would say a majority of the food vendors at this Farmer’s Market offer food that is not typically considered healthy; including many different varieties of baked goods, food trucks, and a bunch of stands that sell items like tamales and burritos.

Interestingly, several booths at this Farmer’s Market are operated by Local civic organizations advising residents on how to effectively garden and compost.  This gives this Farmer’s Market somewhat of a unique touch, that contributes to the health and sustainability of the community in a different way.

But, the same way being a successful person is about more than simply becoming “goal oriented”, eating well is about more than just buying things that are “organic”, and having a productive work team is about more than just “synergy”, having a healthy community is not just about initiatives like this.  There are a lot of other factors, culturally, near and far, that make this place what it is.

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Regardless of what we are trying to achieve, it takes time, effort and active participation.  We all want something for nothing.  We want to be able to claim some sort of accomplishment, moral validation, status or belonging by claiming association with some positively viewed buzzword, and maybe taking part in a token activity like going to a Farmer’s Market.  But, to really live healthy takes a much bigger commitment.  And there is more to having a “healthy community” than a video montage showing people like me bicycling to Farmer’s Markets.

What we do every day can be healthy, or it can be not.  For most of us, it is both, depending on the situation.  The intellectual rigor we need to truly evaluate our lives, the journey we are on and the communities we live in, involves respecting the complexity that is ourselves, our surroundings, and even places with divergent outcomes like the Cherry Creek Farmer’s Market.  It is at that point, with the understanding of places, activities and concepts beyond buzzwords and vague terms, we complete this transition, elevating our level of intellectual discourse and giving ourselves the tools we need to make the best of our lives and communities.

 

The Denver Travel and Adventure Show

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It says something about our culture, in its current state, that we now have a series of exhibitions like this, throughout the country, dedicated to travel.  After all, it was only about a century ago that the idea of going on vacation, let alone regular travel as a way of life, became an option for those that would be considered “middle class”.  Now, we have a Travelers Century Club, with multiple chapters around the world, for people who have visited over 100 countries, and wanderlusters encouraging others to make travel a way of life.

Due to a variety of factors, I am in the midst of what I am referring to as a “low energy month”.  I am guessing this is more common than I realize.  I really cannot remember the last time I had one.  It’s likely that I needed a calmer, quieter period, although, I cannot say I welcomed it.  What I ended up with was a feeling eerily similar to how I would feel toward the later part of most winters when I lived in the Midwest.  I got kind of stir crazy (still am at the time of writing this).

The Travel and Adventure Show represents a whole new way for people to feed their stir-craziness.  This year, the Travel and Adventure Show came to Denver for the first time ever, at the Colorado Convention Center downtown .  The Colorado Convention Center features the Big Blue Bear sculpture, one of Denver’s architectural attractions.  I love it!  So creative.  So unique.  Whoever designed this was not thinking along conventional lines!

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At first glance, the idea of attending this show could seem absurd.  Pay $12 (or $20 to go both days) to have people advertise to me?  It reminded me of those catalogs people would get in the mail.  They would be thick, at least 150 pages, of nothing but ads.  And people would actually pay to have them delivered?  I never wrapped my mind around that (and now I don’t have to).  I’m used to getting something like free entertainment (TV), or free information (web content) in exchange for being subjected to advertisements.

But, the Travel and Adventure Show is actually about more than just the exhibits.  The show had a series of presentations, from various people in the travel industry, with topics ranging from advice about journeys to specific destinations, travel tips, food, and so much more.

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Maybe this is more about who I am and what I care about, but the talk I got the most out of was definitely The Travel Channel’s Samantha Brown.  Her presentation focused on why we travel, how to get the most out of travel, and why experiencing other places and cultures is beneficial to us.

What I really liked about her presentation is that she presented clear and positive cases for what she believes are the best practices while traveling.  From personal experiences, she described why she does certain things on trips, including visiting some of the less publicized destinations, interacting with the locals, going on walks without maps, and being open to life-changing experiences.  However, she avoided doing so in a manner that demeans those who do things differently.

People often make the distinction between travelers and tourists.  I find it to be you classic “my way is better than their way, and now I feel better about myself” type of distinction.  People who describe themselves as “travelers” depict tourists as those who visit common destinations, play it safe, overpack, over-plan, and do nearly everything else that annoys locals.  Samantha flat out dismissed this distinction, encouraging people, well, just to travel.

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I also did not feel pressured by any of the exhibitors, which was the very thing I was afraid of.  I largely haven’t figured out what places I will visit in 2017, which makes me both nervous and excited at the same time.  I went around from booth to booth, talking to a good number of the exhibitors.  Whenever I did not think of anything specific to say to anyone, I would simply tell the exhibitors “I’m wanderlusting”.  At the time I thought it was an easy way to say that I was just browsing, but later realized that this sentence could have given people more reason to be pushy.  But, it did not happen.  I felt less like I was being advertised to, and more like I was just meeting people and hearing about places.

This distribution of exhibits were about a third from places within a day’s drive of Denver.  This included Colorado hot-spots such as Breckenridge, as well as some places a bit farther, including Utah and Montana.  The Great Plains actually had a significant presence.  Another third came from more distant international destinations.  Every region of the world was represented.  I particularly noticed a signifiant presence from Nepal, Australia, and Denver International Airport’s newest direct flight: Belize.  The remaining exhibits were a combination of people representing other parts of North America, such as Louisiana, and California, some travel related products, and even some interesting types of companies.

One was a company that offered active travel, which is the only place in the entire show I saw bike travel represented.  This exhibit, along with the 1000 Places to See Before You Die presentation reignited my desire to one day cycle the Pacific Coast Highway.  Unfortunately, this will not be possible in 2017 due to the California Floods.

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The main surprise, I would say, are the number of exhibits that were actually staffed by some sort of combination of a county or regional tourism board and one or several private tourism company.  I did not expect this.  I actually wondered if there were some tourism companies, not part of the exhibit, that would be upset by seeing their county’s tourism office team up with a rival company at an exhibition.

In the end, I would say my only disappointments were not seeing a big presence from some places I find interesting (Norway, etc.), and not seeing too much about bike travel (just the one exhibit).  I was lucky in that this show ended up feeling nothing like those gigantic catalog books I never understood, and that nobody pushed me to sign up for anything.  It ended up being just a place to explore, and, well, feed my “wanderlust”.  I thought back to those winters in the Midwest, when I would go online and start looking at trail maps, start talking to people about Springtime adventures, and thought to myself: Did I just help myself get through this stir-crazy period, or did I just make it worse?

 

The New Place in Town

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When we think of “travel”, we usually think of the process of someone physically transporting themselves to another location, and, through that travel, experiencing something different from what they typically experience in their home towns.  And, it is that experience that I typically write about on this blog.  But, travel is actually a two way street.  Sometimes, the experiences of another place comes to us in our hometowns.  If it weren’t for this second form of travel, us Americans would not know about many cultural institutions near and dear to us, like burritos, yoga, sushi, or reggae music.

With the level of mobility in and out of, as well as within the United States of America, our culture ends up being in a constant state of flux.  Case in point, I remember when I was 12 years old going out for Thai food for this first time in my life, and thinking it was strange and exotic.  Nowadays, one can find Thai restaurants everywhere.  It’s become just as standard as pizza, another result of experiences of other lands coming to us, in our diet.

I must admit that last year, I had no idea what Detroit Style Pizza was.  In fact, I had no idea that Detroit even had a style of pizza.  To be fair though, having grown up partially in New York and partially in Chicago, two large cities known for their pizza, it had never really occurred to me that any place other than those two had a style of pizza.  By the time I had reached college, I had pretty much, in my head, categorized all pizza into three different categories; New York style thin crust pizza, Chicago’s deep dish pizza, and everything else, with Papa Johns typically taking the title for the least offensive member of this category (in my head).

But, since then, I had learned that Saint Louis, Colorado, and New Haven, Connecticut, all also have their own style of pizza.  So, when my friend told me about his upcoming business venture, opening up a restaurant serving Detroit style pizza, the concept did not sound completely foreign to me.  And, it helped that he did a really good job of describing it to me.  Through some research on my own, I later learned that Detroit style pizza has been around since the 1940s.  Yet, Denver, like everywhere else, appears to have suddenly become aware of this pizza style within the last couple of years.

Blue Pan Pizza opened 10 days ago in the West Highland neighborhood of Denver, one of Denver’s trendier neighborhoods.  It is a growing neighborhood in a growing city, with a lot going on.  It also appears to be a popular place for young families.  Both at Blue Pan, and at other nearby bars, I noticed a lot of babies and small children in the area.  So, I guess it is a good thing that the pizza turned out to be good, thus giving me no reason to swear in front of the children in the restaurant.

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As a general rule, I try the best I can to go “all in” when trying something new, and get the authentic experience.  So, while Blue Pan also offers standard Italian, and thin crust pizzas, I ordered the authentic Detroit style, as recommended by my friend, and restaurant co-owner Giles Flanagin.  One of the pizza styles is actually called “the 313” which appeals to my love of area codes (I celebrate “Area Code Day” every year).  The other pizza I ordered was called the “Brooklyn Bridge”.

I ended up really enjoying the pizza, as did the rest of my party.  Two other places in Denver offer Detroit style pizza.  I have yet to try the other two, so I have no means of direct comparison.  However, Giles had mentioned to me the importance they place on the quality of their ingredients, which I believe is why I ended up enjoying the pizza.

More than having a good meal, and being exposed to a completely new kind of food, I found myself just genuinely feeling happy that evening.  I was happy for my friend.  I was happy for my city.  I was happy for the neighborhood.  Ultimately, I was happy to have seen someone take an idea, something that starts out as just a bunch of words and images inside their head, and turn it into a reality.  It was right there in front of me, and completely real and completely successful.  Wow!

And, amazingly, although I desire more than anything in the world to be able to create an enterprise of my own, I did not even feel any envy.  Everyone is better off, and one person successfully executing an idea does not preclude another from doing so with a different idea.  In fact, seeing that it can be done should provide hope to all Americans who one day hope to have an impact on the world beyond just doing work and keeping a job.

Who knows what the future holds for Blue Pan, and the entire Detroit Style pizza industry.  American culture is in constant flux.  Some new entries to our mainstream culture stick permanently, while others die off.  In the 1990s, the cultural experience of Seattle’s coffee drinking scene traveled to the rest of the country.  It stayed.  A few years later, the southern cultural experience of Krisy Kreme donuts also came to us.  It left.  Will Detroit style pizza stay with us?  Only time will tell.  But, it appears to be off to a good start.