12 August 2014

Hit me with your best shot ... er, story

Credit: Jimmy Brown, via Flickr Creative Commons.

This is a call for all the writers out there: What’s your favorite of your own stories?

Self-assessment is always a tricky, maddening thing, I get that. It's why I asked. You can never be objective about your own work, of course. It's a curious fact of life that sometimes you will do things that you think are brilliant and no one else will notice, and sometimes you will produce what you know to be a tremendous load of crap but which others, bafflingly, adore. 

I want to know about the thing that you love--whether or not anyone else agrees is irrelevant. 

I'm not after your best-written story (per se) or the one that won all those awards or the one that got retweeted a hundred times or the one you send to new editors as proof of your technical prowess as a writer. I’m not saying your favorite story based on anyone else’s judgment, or what you think the masses will like.

I’m saying YOUR favorite. The one that makes you feel proud for one reason or another, despite its lumps and imperfections. The one where you back and look at it and you recall the effort that went into the story, you know how all the parts fit together, you have the commentary track in your head, and it ends with, "Yeah, I WROTE that."

* * *

Personally, I never go back and read my stories after they're published. Lordy, no. Are you kidding? The very thought fills me with dread. It's too late to fix anything, and I know I'll only see the flaws--This structure's a DISASTER, that joke's a dud, and what's up with this dangling modifier?! Who wrote this crap?! I could never be a spy, because making me betray country and cause would be too easy. I picture a James Bond villain grinning maniacally and waving a ream of print-outs. "Now, Meeester Mack, you can either or give me the nuclear codes ... or read these stories you wrote years ago." Sorry, world. 

Most writers I know are equally self-loathing, their own harshest critics. 

But. There are a couple of pieces that I not only reread but return to pretty often. And what's interesting to me is that my favorite pieces are not my most high-profile stories, or the longest ones, or the ones that have big ideas. If you were skimming through my list of clips, they're not the ones that would instantly stand out.

I'm guessing it's the same for other writers, and I want to test this theory. I'm curious to see how we all curate our own "best of" list, and to see if there's a common thread between them.

* * *

So here's my call to all the scribes who read this, whether I know you or not. What's your favorite story you've written? (If you have a few, just pick one.)

Why do you like it? Go on, boast. Don't be humble this time, don't apologize for the flaws, just tell me why you're proud of it. What are the behind-the-scenes details--the reporting, the sheer effort--that makes you fond of this particular piece?

Here, I’ll go first.

* * *

SEVEN TRAVEL RULES FROM A BROODING TEENAGER, for World Hum (2007), was one of my first published pieces. It's a short essay and it doesn't show anything about, say, reporting skills or big ideas. It's not a resume-builder of a story. But it still makes me smile.

I reread it when I need a reminder that I’m capable of painting a scene and establishing a voice in just a few sentences—I don’t need pages or paragraphs. It’s a tight piece, by my typically digressive standards. And it has a clear beginning, middle, and end, with a bit of an emotional punch and universal insight at the end, while staying entirely in scene. I struggle mightily with that, and it doesn't always work; this time, I think it does.

More than anything, I think the humor works really well. The jokes keep coming and coming, and they’re not superfluous—they build on each other and move the story along and fit cleanly with the voice. I find it very hard to be efficient and funny, but in this case, again, it works. 

I’m also proud of this because I took some risks with the structure and voice. I initially wrote this as a standard first-person, past-tense essay, but it sucked. It was just another first-person, past-tense essay set on the road. There are a million of those, and they can be great (and, hey, that's type of story I write most often even now) ... but I wanted to try something different. I'd never written in second person before, or done a story built around a list. I'm not sure it works completely, but I'm glad I experimented; it's helped me get a little bit weird, in a good way, in other stories.

* * *

... Right, who's next?

25 July 2014


This just in: I have a new book coming out! It’ll be published by W.W. Norton … sometime in the future. It's a travelogue about a topic that I really should know more about--and you should, too. But most of us don't have a clue.

The working title is The Forgotten States of America: In Search of the Territories, Islands, and Far-Flung Specks of American Soil. From the book proposal:

When you get right down to it, the United States of America is not merely a nation of states. We are also comprised of those scattered shards of earth and populace that make up our territories. They’re filled with US National Parks and US post offices and people as proudly red-white-and-blue as any Daughter of the American Revolution.

And yet for most Americans, the territories are a mere curiosity. They’re extant but inconsequential, like poppy seeds or the Lifetime Network. Pop quiz: Name the US territories and tell me just one thing about each. Heck, just tell me how many territories there are. No, really. Try it. I’ll wait.

… Exactly.

The Forgotten States of America is a long-overdue introduction to the United States beyond the states, by way of a decidedly different sort of all-American road trip, to the five inhabited territories (there’s your answer: the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa) and other quasi-American points beyond.*

It’s a globe-hopping travelogue—with no visas or currency-exchanging necessary—examining the complicated histories of how the USA acquired each place (spoiler: military action, manifest destiny) and their ongoing role in the American Experiment (spoiler: military preparedness, manifest destiny). Most of all, the book showcases the here-and-now of modern life in the territories, with their diverse mix of millennia-old indigenous groups, opportunity-seeking immigrants, military personnel, and an eclectic array of dropouts, schemers, and dreamers.

Through the lens of my own experiences, I’ll show why the territories matter: How they made the USA what it is today and what they can show us—from their quasi-outsider position—about what it means to be American.

From bustling cities to quiet back roads to Lost World jungles of the we’re-definitely-not-in-the-states-anymore variety, I’ll be your guide as we seek answers and attempt to connect the dots between the territories and our nation of united … places.

Pictured above, clockwise from top left:
  • The Liberation Carnival on Guam, celebrating the decisive July 1944 battle when the USA defeated the Japanese Army, which had captured the island (then a USA territory) in 1941; 
  • the sign outside Hollywood Shooting on Guam, where Chinese, Japanese, and Russian tourists go to shoot guns and dress up like cowboys and feel Oh So American; 
  • a crew of National Park of American Samoa summer interns taking a break from clearing paths on the Mount Alava trail; 
  • probably the world’s most idyllic tropical-wonderland hotel, not telling you where because the owner doesn’t want publicity.

* Hello, people in Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands. I know. I hear ya. “We’re commonwealths, dammit, not territories!” Check. I’ll explain the differences in the book. But that’ll require a bit of explaining, as you know. So for purposes of this post, I'm using “territories” as a catch-all term for “The parts of the United States that are not the states or DC.” Okay? We’re cool?

10 June 2014

Postcard Gallery: Stone Elephant, Magical Moose, and Top-Hatted Snail Edition

I get mail. Awesome, awesome mail. A selection of my recent favorites:

Some additional notes: 

This one might be my favorite, if only because of the comedic imagery of picturing a snail put on that bowtie. Think of the logistics that entails. (Top hats are easy, don't try that argument with me.)

This retro foursome, though, is also marvelous. Three of 'em come from excellent travel-writer pals; the fourth's from an excellent reader. There's Elephant Rock in the upper left, courtesy of Jessica Spiegel. To the right, the oh-so-modern Tijuana border, via Pam Mandel. The photo of the moose postcard, from Jenna Schnuerdoesn't do it justice, because it's one of those postcards printed on textured plastic, where the photo looks 3D, moving slightly as you tilt your head. And the oranges. LOOK AT THOSE THINGS. I've been to California. It's a pretty lush sort of place. Stuff grows. And grows. That's enough OJ for, like, a year's worth of breakfasts. Many thanks, Reader Melissa.

Also, by the way, the much-discussed Pantone Conspiracy is still going. After something like three years and well over a hundred of these things. I'm starting to think it's all part of some elaborate prank by the NSA: We know where you live. But for now, all we want to do is send you postcards. Enjoy! (But really, watch your back.)

Finally, this. A sly callback from a reader with a long memory, a reference to my very first published story, "Confessions of a Chicken Man."

04 June 2014

The Cabinet of Wonders Just Outside the Door: Notes on Exploring Your Own Neighborhood

The other day, Maren and I discovered a new species.

We were walking through a wooded section of a park in our neighborhood, listening for birds and trying to identify the swatches of feathers we could make out in the trees. Since we know nothing about birds, the conversation went something like this:

“There’s a robin!”

“There’s an oriole!”

“There’s a … um … Black and I Can’t Tell, Maybe Yellow-Winged—Yes, Yellow—Kinda Pudgybird.”

And then, in the undergrowth, a different sort of animal. Not a bird, but that’s all I can say with certainty.

It was the greyish brown of our local rabbits, and shared their round, fat bodies and huge back feet. It definitely hopped like a rabbit. But its tail was tiny, a stump rather than a fuzzball. And its head was like a squirrel: small, pointy, with stubby ears. We spent several minutes tracking it, intrigued, and decided it was the result of a squirrel mating with a bunny. A squnny.

I’m sure the naturalists will tell me it was some well-known species. But I prefer to think of it as a curiosity hiding in plain sight, our own personal discovery.

There’s always new stuff to find, even when we don’t venture very far. I love wandering around Minneapolis and exploring new neighborhoods. But lately I’ve realized that there's Cool New Stuff even closer to home, just across the street. Proximity is no guarantee of noticing. You have to be paying attention.

We live near Lake Harriet. In this City of Lakes, this one's ours. It’s a three-mile walk around the whole thing, three miles of well-kept paths and sights and delights, both lasting and ephemeral, personal and universal.

A cabinet of wonders just outside our door.

Some of them, actually, would fit in quite well with the believe-it-or-not curios of the actual Cabinets of Wonders that old-time aristocrats used to have.*

  • Here is an elf house. Real thing. It’s in the hollow at the base of a tree. There’s a little ornately-carved wooden door with a little brass handle, and kids open the door and leave notes inside, and Mr. Little Guy writes back.
  • Here is an elusive sea monster, which moves from lake to lake. Also a real thing, a Brontosaurus-poking-its-head-above-the-water thing. (Yes, there’s a logical explanation; no, I’m not going to provide it.)
  • Here is the old trolley, the last remnant of a streetcar line that once crisscrossed the Twin Cities, one of the nation’s finest transit systems. Now, it’s a $2-a-head time machine that goes back and forth on a mile of track and across the generations.
  • Here is what I’m pretty sure must be The World's Smallest Sailboat You Can Sit Inside, But Only After Mastering Elaborate Cirque de Soleil-Level Contortions. It looks like a sleek coffee table—very Urban Loft—into which someone has stuck a mast.
  • Even more confounding are The Sailboats Large Enough to Sail Around the World, plying the waters of this mile-across lake.

Keep walking.
  • Over here, on the south end, are what I always think of as The Woods, where the path is tunneled with trees. And if you look through the gap—that gap, right there—you’ll get a view of the downtown skyline across the water, compact and modern, glass skyscrapers that glow (I mean really glow) at sunset, and you’ve gotta come here, to this gap, for the best view.
  • Over there, asserting their presence, are the Sketchy Dudebro Ducks. Nature, man. Nature can be awful, especially during mating season. These guys are so terrifying in their pursuit of the Ladyducks—chasing them across the skies, attacking in the water—that just watching them for thirty seconds would surely make even the most hardened human misogynist shudder and join the National Organization for Women.
  • On a happier note, here are the teeny-tiny ducklings following their mother in the water, little balls of fluff with beaks, paddling for all they’re worth while the runners and Rollerbladers and Sketchy Dudebro Humans in their Hummers stop on the paths and roads encircling the lake and stare and smile and let out a collective aww.

The humans. Cruising in their cars, whizzing past on Tour-worthy bikes, walking with their families … to say nothing of the runners.

  • Oh, the runners. So many varieties of runners that to begin to categorize them in any manageable way, you'd have to start up at Class before branching out into Family, Genus, Species. The fleet-footed, tattooed hipster moms and dads pushing their kids in their $1,000 strollers. The gangly high-schoolers who plod past with an air of youthful exuberance matched by stoic commitment to beefing up the ol' college-app resume. The bespectacled and manifestly Not Fit creative types whose pallor and physique betrays their many hours indoors, in front of a computer, and a general lack of familiarity with the sun or exercise.
  • Over here are the sedentary lake-goers at the beach. Satisfying the innate human urge to go lie on a towel on some sand, even if the body of water isn’t exactly the ocean, the waves decidedly un-surfable, the stretch of sand just a few yards wide. No matter. Just look at the sign: South Beach.

The curiosities aren’t all visual.

  • There are also the sounds. The community orchestras playing at the bandshell, the walkers gossiping, the cars slowly cruising (yesterday, “Call Me Maybe” was on heavy rotation).
  • My favorite, though, is what you hear when you walk past the sailboats parked at their buoys: their halyards, all clinking that just-right metal-on-metal note, bright and resonant and deeply satisfying. A cricket-like embodiment of All That Is Right About Summer.
  • And the tastes. Next to the bandshell, there’s a refectory—snack bar, if you prefer—called Bread & Pickle. I recommend the cheese curds (house made) and a hibiscus iced tea (ditto). An odd pairing, I realize. But it works.

Or at least it works for me. And that may be because part of the attraction here at Lake Harriet comes from that most potent of all wonder-makers, nostalgia. The broader kind—the street car and bandshell do their golly-gee darndest to conjure a Rockwellian Simpler Time—but also the personal kind.

  • Out there, in the middle of the lake, that’s where we walked last winter, when it was frozen solid. Where we made snow angels and waved at the jets landing at MSP, which is just a couple of miles over that way.
  • Here is the Peace Garden, where my friends Andrew and Becky got married.
  • Here is the field where, watching a movie-in-the-park with Maren on one of our first dates, I first fell head-over-heels in love with her. The table where we sat, drinking hibiscus tea and eating cheese curds and chatting until long after Bread & Pickle had closed for the night.
  • Here is the bench where, one unseasonably warm evening in March, I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me.
  • Here is the kiosk where you can rent a canoe or a kayak. We keep meaning to do that. A memory yet to be formed. 

I’m curious to see what fresh wonders await out there on the water.

* By the by, this is a fascinating book about actual old-school cabinets of wonder and the cabinet-of-wonder-evoking Museum of Jurassic Technology, whose exhibits may or may not be real. 

28 May 2014

Throwback Thursday, Lazy Writer Edition

It’s been way too long since I posted, but I’m working on some new stuff. Big stuff. You’ll see. Also, I’m way overdue on the Postcard Gallery updates. I got your mail, I promise. Yes, you with the endearing fake telegram; you with the oversized-produce postcard; you with the old-school aerograms. All coming soon to this spot.

In the meantime, hey, it’s Throwback Thursday, also known as The Internet’s Way of Generating Content When All You Really Have Is Old Stuff. So here are some old stories of mine that I happen to like and think you will, too. And some old photos, too.

Throwback #1: A sketchy hotel in Scotland
For starters, here's a photo from 1999, during one of my first trips abroad. That's me in the middle, with my sister and my dad, outside the Nigg Hotel, (sort of) near Inverness. This is the morning after the memorably odd day I discuss in "Seven Travel Rules From a Brooding Teenager." The story was my attempt to capture the angst of a teenager on a family-bonding trip just before he heads off to college. The hotel played along, offering plenty of fuel for my gloomy mood. Seriously: just try to tell me that place doesn't look like a Scottish stand-in for the Bates Motel.

Throwback #2: That other place in Scotland, the one where they play a game with a ball that (probably) symbolizes a severed head
My parents have a mild obsession with Scotland. Hence that trip in 1999, as well as a few other journeys throughout my childhood. My parents live frugally, largely so that they can save up for the next trip. About ten years ago, they moved to Scotland for a year, to a charming town with a certain offbeat tradition, a rugby-like game that involves hundreds of burly men. It was an interesting reporting challenge to try not to get run over, but I lived to tell the tale, "The Old Ba' Game."

Throwback #3: The park in Ecuador with 300 iguanas, all of them out to get me
I can be a bit, shall we say, jumpy. It's a theme that comes up in a lot of my stories (including the two above) because, while the world is a pretty cool and interesting place, it also sorta wants me dead, and is forever contriving new ways to make me think that my demise may well be imminent. At one point, I considered calling this blog A Neurotic Abroad. Mind you, I do have my own adventurous streak. I put myself out there. But then, pretty quickly, I reach the OH HELL NO threshold, like that time in Ecuador when an iguana mistook my ass for a chew toy.

And now, a Throwback to Look Forward.
Here's another photo from that 1999 trip to Scotland. (Based on photographic evidence, I wore that white hoodie the whole trip. I AM FASHION.)

That's me on the left and my friend Doug on the right. He's Scottish, I'm American, and we're posing with our respective national soft drinks. (His being Irn-Bru, which is the most cloyingly sweet substance yet discovered by science, bright orange in color, quite possibly radioactive, and kinda delicious for, like, the first two sips. Mine being Coca-Cola, which, aside from the color, could be described in largely the same terms.)

There's nothing more to that story, except that it's one small bit of evidence of my long obsession with Americana and the question of what things and ideas and archetypes make up our national identity. Which is one of the themes of my next book. More details soon.

07 April 2014

Tourist Trap Tournament: Final Fjord (Plus Three More)

After 63 game recaps and more than 300 puns (and perhaps five good puns), the Tourist Trap Tournament comes to a close with the Final Fjord Plus Three More. 

Click for larger size.

Fjords v Las Vegas
Mascots: Haddock v Sinners

After a long run of flash and swagger, the Sinners made all kinds of questionable decisions, basically rolling right over and submitting to their Norwegian foes; there’s no doubt they were out partying a bit too hard these last few days, because they sure looked washed-out, as the Haddock darted around with ease. Some commentators have voiced suspicions that the Sinners were betting against themselves, but the reality is that the Haddock were simply the better team, with a positively oceanic gap between the teams in terms of endurance and general clean living.

Running of the Bulls v Easter Island
Mascots: Stampeding Hemingways v Furious Foreheads

The Stampeding Hemingways often have their ups and downs--they may get knocked down, but make no mistake, the Run also rises. The Furious Foreheads never found the upper hand, and seemed weighed down by a mental block. The Stampeding Hemingways move on, as war-proven veterans, making for an intriguing final match-up against the Fjords: The Old Men and the North Sea. 

* * * 

Thanks so much to all the fans on the blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook. These two teams wouldn’t have gotten this far without you--the Fjords had a particularly strong base of supporters who most certainly nudged them forward.

Let’s look at the match-up:

Running of the Bulls:
Strengths:  Brute force, killer instincts, famous fans, and man can they run.
Weaknesses: Easily distracted by the color red, frequently called for charging, not a ton of finesse.

Strengths: Long reach, incredible history, rock-solid foundation, stoic endurance beyond compare, utter charm, ability to get out of tight spots.
Weaknesses: Slow-moving, stuck in their ways.

Final result: Running of the Bulls!

(After--by my count--more than 300 puns, I’m fresh out right now, so no extended recap. Maybe later!)