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.

Fjords:
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!) 

03 April 2014

Tourist Trap Tournament: The Most Excellent Eight

Once again, some fierce competition in the Tourist Trap Tournament, as the Most Excellent Eight battled it out: 

Art & Architecture final: Pyramids at Giza v Easter Island
Mascots: Pharaohs v Furious Foreheads

With their dueling long-standing traditions and chiseled physiques, these two teams were closely matched. The Furious Foreheads finally found their legs at the end, while the Pharaohs lived up to their reputation of slowing down, looking petrified out there and, at best, merely walking like Egyptians, and leaving the crowd tut-tutting .


Culture (or Something) final: Running of the Bulls v Forbidden City
Mascots: Stampeding Hemingways v Dynasties

The Forbidden City was strong, no question, ruling the court and showing off the philosophies of their famous playbook, Classic of Rites. But in an amazing race-to-the-end finish, the Stampeding Hemingways narrowly beat the horn, ending the Dynasties’ long run.


The Natural World final: Norway’s Fjords v Maasai Mara National Park
Mascots: Haddock v Big Cats

This was a wild one, with raw natural talent on full display, with breathtaking shots all over the place, shutters clicking everywhere. The Scandinavians’ chilly, stoic might won the day, getting out of many a tight spot.  


Cities & Squares & Markets final: Las Vegas v Dubai
Mascots: Sinners v Shiny New Stuff

These two teams entered the competition with outsized reputations for swagger and excess and more than a bit of trouble in their backgrounds—and a hope for redemption. The Sinners’ strong suits: sprawling reach, a willingness to take chances, and a reputation for conjuring big-time magic. The Shiny New Stuff’s key strengths: boldness and ambition like no other, style somewhat less profane than the Sinners’ ways, and an array of innovative ways of doing things. Ultimately, the numbers simply favored the Sinners and their decades of experience in the game.

* * * 

And then there were four:

Easter Island v Running of the Bulls

Norway's Fjords v Las Vegas

Make your picks in the comments! 
click for full size



31 March 2014

Tourist Trap Tournament: The Supreme Sixteen

Round 3 begins with sixteen competitors--that's the Supreme Sixteen to you (because, trademarks)--and ends with a Most Excellent Eight. All the recaps below! And if you're just joining us, you can relive all the excitement, game by game, round by round, over at Tourist Trap Tourney Central

The current bracket! Click for full size.

Pyramids at Giza v Sydney Opera House
Mascots: Pharaohs v Avenging Arias

The crowd-pleasing Avenging Arias soared early once again, but came out flat after the intermission, their long run ending on a bad note. The Pharaohs, meanwhile, had their day in the sun, with an epic Ra-Ra-Ra spirit—they’re gods now.


Manneken-Pis v Easter Island
Mascots: Wee Whizzers v Furious Foreheads

Purists may cry foul over the Wee Whizzers’ style, but there’s no question that the little lads of Brussels have their eyes on the prize, Number 1 in their sights. Problem is, they’re atrocious at long range. And though some teams get distracted by the Wee Whizzers’ antics, no one keeps a stiff upper lip like the Furious Foreheads, the enigmas of the islands, the face of Pacific exceptionalism, long a regional secret but quickly becoming world-famous, and rightly so.


Running of the Bulls v Oktoberfest
Mascots: Stampeding Hemingways v Drunks

You have never seen such a chaotic bloodbath. The Drunks finally stumbled—and how. They could barely keep upright, their communication was off, and everything they threw up was awful, a case study in what not to do. The Stampeding Hemingways ran right through their opponents, showing no hint of mercy. They’ve taken a circuitous path to get this far, but they’re in the home stretch now—the question is, Can anyone stop them?


Hagia Sophia v Forbidden City
Mascots: Mosaics v Dynasties

It was a classic showing by the Mosaics: unquestionably stylish, but mighty complicated. If there’s one knock against them, it’s that they’re the very definition of Byzantine. They sure looked it against the Forbidden City and their renowned guards and penchant for order—in the Dynasties’ hands, the venue became a Hall of Supreme Harmony,  


Lake Atitlan v Fjords
Mascots: Holistics v Haddock

The magic finally wore off for the Holistics of Lake Atitlan, its famous towering threesome all but dormant while the Haddock made waves with their outlet passes and world-class spread.


Maasai Mara v Petra
Mascots: Big Cats v Obodas

The pride of Kenya pounced again, with the Big Cats working their Mara Triangle offense to great effect, thanks to their Big Five. The Obodas showed off with some Siq moves, but it wasn’t enough.


Great Wall of China v Las Vegas
Mascots: Earth Dragons v Sinners

Nobody puts on a show like the Sinners, proof that with cash comes flash—and a reputation for offensive powers. So it was an incredibly close contest with the Earth Dragons and their famed defense, until the Great Wall showed some gaps and lapses, and the luck ran out, as always seems to happen against the Sinners.


Times Square v Dubai
Mascots: Bright Lights v Shiny New Stuff

With famous cheerleaders like Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z, the Bright Lights are big-city ballers with pedigree, and were their usual impressively frenetic selves, with ceaseless action in the lane. But in this showdown of two decidedly unsubtle competitors, the Bright Lights hit a roadblock in the form of the Shiny New Stuff and its dizzying excess—all height and go-for-broke style—led by its famed “seven-star” all-star. 


* * *

That leaves us with eight teams, with the regional finals coming up next. Make your picks in the comments!

Art & Architecture final:
Pyramids at Giza v Easter Island

Culture (or Something) final:
Running of the Bulls v Forbidden City

The Natural World final:
Norway’s Fjords v Maasai Mara National Park

Cities & Squares & Markets final:
Las Vegas v Dubai