Something Good Did Happen

For concerned parties, there will be minimal to no discussion of the news in this.

2016 sucked for a hundred reasons. You know what didn’t? TV. After years of personally dwindling TV consumption, some sort of creative supernova happened this year and there were amazing new shows dropping every week. There were too many; they’re coming from all angles at this point (Broadcast! Cable! Ten streaming services people have heard of! Something called a Seeso!). I consume pop culture at what can only be described as a disturbing clip, yet my Dad recommended I watch People of Earth, and I’d never heard of it. A coworker recommended High Maintenance; again, never heard of it. THAT’S AWESOME! Keep it up television! So, let’s do what we do so well, and rank some TV shows that were so great (and needed) this year and discuss and argue about them! This will only be NEW shows, which regrettably makes no mention of existing glorious work being done by Better Call Saul, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Silicon Valley and fifty others. If you want those ranked, read every best of the year list on the internet. TV is so great right now.

Honorable Mention:

The Night Of, HBO – The first four episodes of this would have landed it at number three or higher. The last four were blah enough to remove it completely. I loved the slow pacing and how little the show cared about revealing if Naz was guilty or not. It was, if briefly, a wonderful antidote to the “DID THEY DO IT?” discussions that shaped people’s consumption and discussions of The Jinx/Making a Murderer/The Killing/Serial.

This Is Us, NBC – I have not seen a single second of this show. People love it, and it’s made by the crew who gave us Friday Night Lights. I’m adding it to avoid being yelled at.

O.J.: Made in America, ESPN – I have also seen none of this documentary, as it came out just after (somehow) another show about O.J. Simpson I had just watched. It wins the award for “Most number of friends have yelled at me that I have to watch this.” Will do.

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THE BEST OF THE YEAR IN AN ORDER THAT COULD CHANGE BASED ON THE MINUTE YOU ASKED ME

 

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7. Westworld, HBO

What a difficult show to talk about. Some people are just goo goo bananas for this thing, but I am not one of them (probably sounds familiar to the friends who have had to listen to me argue that that other expensive fantasy HBO show is overrated). I was one of the cynics that thought the writers felt it was a lot more clever and geniusly plotted than it actually is. The scenery is catnip with sweeping vistas of Monument Valley and the rest of Utah. If huge plot twists are your thing, sure, come on over and try to figure out who is and who isn’t a robot. If you’re a character person (me) who will watch a lesser show because the characters are fascinating, this show is oftentimes absolutely terrible. It is fun to have something so weird and unique on tv, though, something that demands such careful attention in the age of no one actually watching what they’re watching. And the highest compliment I can pay it is that it has a lot of interesting things to say about complex social issues, something that sets it apart from . . . that other HBO show.

Why You Missed It: Too much sci-fi, don’t have HBO, realized you couldn’t take a McPoyle sibling as a serious actor
Show MVP: No one, part of my frustration with it
Come For: Anthony Hopkins chewing every piece of scenery into oblivion
Stay For: The hope that season two tightens up this mess

 

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6. The Good Place, NBC

Are you still missing Parks and Rec? Me too. Are you just discovering Parks and Rec on Netflix? Then watch this too! It’s a happy show! With optimism and silliness and one time, huge flying shrimp in the sky. Season one is only half over, you can catch up easily on NBC.com. Kristen Bell is doing us all a favor slumming it on TV for a bit, the show’s imagination is completely insane, and every episode ends with a cliffhanger! I hate that, but people like that? I think? When Ted Danson’s character explained the human behavior points system that decides if people can get in to the Good Place, we had the freeze frame of the year. If you can read those and think none of them are funny, congratulations, you never need to watch this show.

Why You Missed It: You didn’t like Parks? Saw too many ads during the Olympics and decided you were annoyed?
Show MVP: Bell’s Eleanor, no brainer
Come For:
 Color! Mirth! Laughing!
Stay For: 
The inevitable reveal of the crew from the Bad Place

 

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5. Stranger Things, Netflix

This has to be the most fun anyone had watching TV this year, right? The creators somehow did something I hate (take cues and inspiration from things they know people love and smash them into some soulless amalgamation of those things) and made something suuuuuuuuper entertaining. I avoided this for a while because 80s nostalgia and Winona Ryder (above, with frequent co-star, string of Christmas lights) both do nothing for me. I was stupid and wrong (actually, Winona was still blah and sometimes too much). Those four kids are cool as hell and your blood pressure will spike rooting for them. The teenagers are cool as hell, too. Hopper is the greatest movie or TV cop in a decade, if not ever. I am bitter there will be a season two with the same characters; their story should have ended in that chemistry classroom, after that devastating look back.

Why You Missed It: Too much sci-fi, thought it looked scary, heard ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ in opening scene and ran for the hills
Show MVP: David Harbour’s Jim Hopper, the MAN
Come For: 
The times you get The Goonies and Stand By Me tingles. Those are tough to make happen!
Stay For: N/A. You won’t need to be told to stay around.

 

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4. Search Party, TBS

We are truly down the rabbit hole, folks: there is an amazing show on TBS. Maeby from Arrested Development plays an aimless millennial who tries to solve a missing persons case (her college classmate) to give herself some purpose in life. She’s great, but the real stars are her three friends along for the ride. They are all self-absorbed, sometimes infuriating narcissists . . . until they aren’t anymore. The show walks a fine line between making fun of millennial myopia and showing how much respect it has for these people, too (disclaimer: in the pilot, all of their quirks are dialed up to 11. This, mercifully, does not continue). It’s like how Shaun of the Dead made fun of zombie movies while also paying homage to how much the makers love zombie movies. The show is an incredible dark comedy with plot twists.

Why You Missed It: This blog post is the first time you’ve heard of it
Show MVP: John Early’s Elliott (second from left), one of the funniest characters this year
Come For: 
A mystery! What happened to Chantal?
Stay For: 
Peter from Office Space as a shady private investigator, the moment you realize you wish these people were your friends

 

Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer, Joseph Gilgun as Cassidy, Ruth Negga as Tulip O'Hare - Preacher _ Season 1, Episode 9 - Photo Credit: Lewis Jacobs/Sony Pictures Television/AMC

3. Preacher, AMC

If Game of Thrones fans are apoplectic at the thought of their sprawling, oft-violent, sci-fi/fantasy magnum opus based on hugely popular books ending soon, I’ve got another one for ’em. Except, you’ll also get laughter, characters you actually care about and a vampire (try to guess which of the above three is the undead bloodsucker!). It’s a testament to how fun and crazy this show is that it had plenty of kinks to work out in its first season and it still lands this high in my happy TV cortex brain zone. I am told the events of season one are a prequel to the events in the comic books, which are an extended road trip. It’s completely batshit nuts a lot of the time, so if you’re a Fuller House type cat, this may be terrible.  There is mind control, angels wearing cowboy hats, the most insane fight scene ever televised and flashbacks only explained at the last minute. I don’t know. I just want everyone to watch it with me. So fun.

Why You Missed It: Looked too weird, snuck under your radar since no one watches AMC since Breaking Bad and Mad Men ended
Show MVP: Ruth Negga’s Tulip (above, right); how is she not the biggest movie star alive?
Come For: 
Jesse Custer’s perpetually flawless coif, a ‘do unrivaled since John Dorian left our televisions 
Stay For:
The big reveal of what those 1800s flashbacks actually meant. SEASON TWO NOW, PLEASE

 

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2. The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

This show won every conceivable Emmy for good reason. Every scene is an acting masterclass. Cuba Gooding, Jr. won an Academy Award and he is the worst actor on the screen. Every twist and turn of a story we all think we know by heart is revealed to have ramifications and aftershocks for more and more characters. The story is placed within the framework of the racial unrest of Los Angeles after Rodney King. I was extra fortunate to start watching this show with the bare minimum knowledge of the case; basically, the Bronco chase, the glove, and the acquittal. Every episode had six moments I thought “oh, no, they made that up for the show,” but Vanity Fair’s morning after “fact vs. fiction” articles proved it was all true. In the wake of the election, the show seems, in hindsight, like it was the perfect piece of storytelling to be released this year. In both situations, the right answer is evident to both warring parties. One side desperately and tactfully subverts the obvious, damning truths to achieve their own varying, personal goals. They also tap into a latent anger and weaponize it to affect the outcome. They bend and break the rules to win. The other side is fatally arrogant, resolute in the fact that they will be victorious because they know, objectively, that they are right. They drown in their own rising tide of complaints the other side didn’t play fair. In both scenarios, the loser is forced to wonder if the wrong decision was the inevitable one. The analogy isn’t as laughable as you may think.

Why You Missed It: The pretty fair assumption an O.J. Simpson TV show would be stupid, you assumed you already know everything there is to know about the case
Show MVP: Three-way tie: Sterling Brown’s Chris Darden (above), Courtney Vance’s Johnnie Cochrane, Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark (also above). All astonishing
Come For: 
The acting
Stay For:
The episode ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia’

 

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1. Atlanta, FX

I have changed the order of every show above this one twelve times. I have never even considered moving this one. Instantly one of my favorite TV shows ever made, it is hilarious, it is emotionally affecting, it sometimes exists in a magical realism dream state where a character says another one owns an invisible car (the payoff to which is the loudest I’ve laughed at a TV, possibly ever). Sometimes it follows a plot, sometimes it doesn’t even remember what the plot is. There’s a variety show episode with an animation sequence. There’s an episode where none of the main cast appears whatsoever. Justin Bieber is the focus of one episode you have to see to believe (trust me). It wins the blue ribbon for the quality of a show that I prize above all else, that you never want it to end because you always want to know what the characters are up to this week, even if it’s absolutely nothing, because they’re your friends? Because they’re so relatable? Because they’re funny and honest? I truly don’t know. I do not care. I raced home every Tuesday to hang out with them. I will re-watch it soon to catch fast-flying, great dialogue I missed . . . and just to hang out with them.

Why You Missed It: you don’t have cable, FX marketing had trouble selling what it was about, black people upset you in some fashion
Show MVP: my deepest apologies to Brian Tyree Henry (above, right), whose Paper Boi is the best character on TV this year, better than all of the incredible ones mentioned above . . . except for his co-star Keith Stansfield’s Darius (above, left). Darius is a force of nature
Come For:
brilliant and weird commentary on race issues via incredibly funny and rich characters
Stay For:
the Bieber episode, the ‘Montague’ episode, the Van episode, the club epi-

 

That was fun! What did I get wrong? What weird shows did you find this year? Fun!

On why today sucked, and the most dangerous word in the English language

Two bad things happened today. Most people probably heard about one, maybe saw a confusing Facebook status about the other, but, ultimately, and with fair certitude, cared very little about either. Both things on the surface seem fairly innocuous but, if you dig in a bit, are terrible, and dispiriting, and dangerous. They left a number of my coworkers, including my boss, helpless to a number of exercise-in-vanity type freak outs and rants on my part trying to make sense of them, clinging desperately for any other reasonable perspective I hadn’t considered. They couldn’t provide one. The first started on Wednesday night, when the third Republican presidential debate turned into a circus. The other was this afternoon when ESPN shuttered Grantland, its sister site covering both sports and pop culture. They seem unrelated, but I think that’s also inaccurate.

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I didn’t know the full history of the phrase “gotcha question” until this evening when I Googled it; I honestly thought Sarah Palin invented it eight years ago when Katie Couric asked her about what newspapers and magazines she preferred. I found a Washington Post article on the subject, and we will declare that an exhaustive and thorough investigation for the purposes of brevity. Turns out, as best as anyone can find, the term cropped up in 1992 when reporters asked both Bill Clinton and Bush the elder if they’d ever had affairs. Neither wished to dignify such an insulting question or one that had nothing to do with the office they were seeking for journalists looking to catch them in a slip up just to create a story (in hindsight, Slick Willie may have had simpler motives). They labeled them “gotcha” questions, tricks of the sinister media twisting things to their own advantages. In 1999 it happened again when the media asked Dubya about potential cocaine use in his youth, another personal and pointless inquiry, but perhaps one some people may feasibly care about. He ignored it and complained about the “gotcha” questions he was facing. Then that Palin interview happened. Katie Couric asked her what she reads to get her news and she struggled to spit out “a vast variety of sources.” Earlier in that interview she had told Couric, more or less, that only rich people can travel the world or go to college without working their way through, so she had learned about other countries and societies and the geopolitical issues of the day by reading a lot. Couric’s question was another personal question, and certainly a seasoned journalist knowing when she was about to land a decisive blow, but when Palin decried that question as a “gotcha” question over the next few days, we hit a strange place in journalism. Someone had asked a natural follow up question of the prospective second most powerful human in America about where she gets her news and she had not only failed to answer it, but she vilified the asker: just another example of the media and their damn “gotcha questions.” Earlier this year we made it to the “gotcha” promised land. Donald Trump was asked about various leaders in the Middle East that pose an international policy threat to the United States. Many names were thrown at him, perhaps intentionally in quick succession. He didn’t know who any of the people were, and the next day slandered the show as out to get him, saying it was a “gotcha” question. So, to recap, we went from fishing for affairs, to looking for details about someone’s drug use from decades ago, to asking follow-up questions about someone’s personal news preferences, to asking questions about *gasp* politics. Which brings us to Wednesday night.

Wednesday night, the third Republican debate shifted from an examination of political aptitude to an outright sideshow with the candidates ganging up on the panel of moderators. Candidates embarrassed the moderators to the applause of the crowd. The moderators asked negative, inflammatory, inciting questions. Candidates began out right lying, and not in the normal hidden in the details politician way, but brazenly and proudly lying knowing there were no repercussions because they’d convinced the crowd and viewers at home the moderators were imbeciles out to get them with, you guessed it, “gotcha” questions (it was proctored by liberal outlet CNBC). The Republican party is happy to let you know it was such an embarrassment that they are justified in today’s (actual) decision to withdraw from all further debates on networks owned by NBC News. Let’s briefly ignore how insane it is for a political party to only want to hold debates if the questions asked are ones that make them sound good, and instead look at what actually happened.

A moderator asked Donald Trump if his campaign was akin to a cartoon villain. Trump called the question rude. He was right. It was phrased rudely, and idiotically. He had laid the foundation.

A moderator asked Ben Carson about his tax plan that is mathematically illogical (something Bill O’Reilly promptly did the very next night on the ‘Factor,’ for you liberal media conspiracy theorists). It was a good question. Carson didn’t like being pressed about it, and the crowd got antsy sensing his irritation.

John Kasich was egged on to attack the other candidates.

Marco Rubio was asked why he doesn’t quit his job because he keeps missing Senate votes.

Then Ted Cruz happened. Given his chance to speak, he slammed the debate as proof of the liberal media’s biases, recapping four-word summaries of the negativity in each of the questions. He demanded to talk about the actual issues. His rant was in response to a question about the debt ceiling problem, an actual issue. He did not speak about the debt ceiling. He instead claimed they were under attack from the liberal media, giving proof that the recent Democratic debate involved the candidates being asked “Which of you is more handsome and why?” If Ted watched that debate, he might have seen that Anderson Cooper dry-roasted the five Democratic candidates. His opening question to Hillary recapped her laundry list of flip-flopping on important issues, and finished with “Will you say anything to get elected?”

It got worse and worse after Cruz’s mea culpa. Candidates openly ignored the moderators, called questions “propaganda” and Chris Christie turned an (absolutely moronic) question about daily fantasy sports gambling into an evisceration of CNBC, yelling that they should be talking about things that matter, like ISIS. Please remember this debate was supposed to be entirely about the candidates economic policies. It culminated in one of the most disturbing moments I have ever been party to: a moderator asked Trump a question, quoting him. He called her a liar and said he’d never said those things. She cited the report again, and he cut her off, again called her a liar. When she asked where the report would have come from if she was lying, he responded, natch, you’re the liberal media, you probably wrote it. HUGE applause from the audience. I looked into this later. She pulled the quotes from Donald Trump’s website.

Here we are today. The RNC says the debate was nothing but “gotcha questions” and CNBC has spent two days being buried alive in reports and that ‘liberal media’ (they deserve a fair amount of it for allowing such a debacle to take place, for asking hostile questions trying to incite infighting between the candidates). They are refusing to hold further NBC debates. They will apparently only comply with networks where they can, I don’t know, pre-approve the questions? The moderators are under fire, and, as The New Yorker wrote “they weren’t prepared for candidates who called them liars, and who, by the end, were simply ignoring both questions and time limits.”

More fun? The term “gotcha” question has crossed the rubicon to now mean “things I don’t want to answer because the answer exposes me as full of shit” or “as a piece of garbage human being.” Now, the game is much simpler: if you don’t like a question, attack the asker. If you hear a quote you said that makes you look bad, scream that you never said it, and it’s all a conspiracy against you. People will believe it all. We live in a world where after debates, we have to have things called “fact-checkers” because candidates are on the stage throwing shit at the wall because they know 95% of people watching will never care about its validity (the irony is that none of that 95% reads the “fact-checking” articles). The Republicans bolster the belief in the existence of the sinister “liberal media,” while never showing any contrition, honesty or really divulging honest information, forcing said media to ask more ludicrous and inflammatory questions, all the while praying for anything of substance out of these Picassos of mistruths and smear campaigns. If you say something is a thing loud enough these days, then that’s the way it is. People willingly only hear what they want to hear, and opt to learn absolutely nothing. Journalism has essentially died, because learning something takes too long. Looking up something takes too long. Reading things longer than the average Facebook post take. Too. Long. This blog post is too long (on this we agree). Snapchat is faster. Just believing whatever Facebook post you saw, without checking to see if it’s even remotely true, is so much faster. Every bit of political information we intake today is coated in a thick paint of ignorance, and journalism is dead. Which brings me to thing two.

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Today, ESPN shut down Grantland. This was not surprising. Bill Simmons, master overlord of the site, was fired by ESPN months ago for criticizing the burning tire fire of human decency that is the NFL and also a bunch of other stuff. After a few months bleeding out, they killed it today. Gone is a place to learn about music and rare whiskeys and the human experience through sumo wrestling (link at the end). Gone is a place to tell stories. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of inane garbage on there, too. But nothing is perfect. It was original, and it cared to keep writing, to deliver content that mattered in a world where everyone has decided that content that matters doesn’t matter anymore. It was important to journalism, to reporting news, to writing about news, to contributing to intelligent discourse in this hive-minded country of internet trolls who would rather throw molotov cocktails (wtf!) at a (total asshole) dentist’s office six months after he killed an awesome lion (WHAT GOOD ARE YOU ACCOMPLISHING THROWING BURNING GAS AT A BUILDING?). The Washington Post (again! twice in one blog post, nice work guys!) wrote a terrific article about why the death of Grantland is bad for everyone, namely that it let smart people write about any number of topics while focusing more on “why was the score” instead of “what was the score.” It introduced me to one of my two favorite writers on the planet. Now its gone.

Its disappearance sets a scary precedent that an outlet tried to write longform journalism on the internet was shut down after only five years by a company that employs ranting lunatics like Skip Bayless. It sets the precedent that Americans contentedly will keep watching that damn NFL, and the Vegas Strip lunatic carnival that is Sportscenter, and whatever other programming that consists of people reading sports tweets on television and arguing about them. While they’re doing so, they’ll take in 30 more FanDuel and DraftKings commercials, and round and around we go. No one will be asked to use their brains. People will desire less and less to do so. Goodbye, Grantland. Thank you for trying.

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It’s late and I don’t even want people to read this at this point. In the American political arena, the average person has given up critically thinking about what they hear or see. As long as its provided to them through the filter they prefer (Matt Drudge, Rachel Maddow), well, then, that’s good enough. In sports writing, they’ve done the same. The world gets dumber, more homogenized, with worsened attention spans. The next time you see someone share or like something on Facebook, take the two seconds to check if it’s even remotely true (most aren’t). Whether its politicians or sports writing, people deserve quality of content, honesty, or, hell, at least respect in not being spoon-fed outright garbage. Unless doing so makes you look bad. Then just blame me.

Here is my favorite thing from Grantland. Read it and go on a journey.

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2014 Year in Review: The 11 (More or Less) Best Things I Consumed This Year

That’s right everyone, it’s your (on a good year) biannual reminder that I do in fact maintain a blog, despite readership soaring into the single dozens and almost three of those people not being blood relatives of mine. And would you look at this! I’m actually continuing an attempted tradition I started last year! To recap, upon moving to Minnesota I discovered the locals’ penchant for making year-end best-of lists, mostly involving bands they’ve proudly discovered the rest of us won’t hear of for another four years ever. Combine this with popular periodicals and media outlets throwing their hats in the ‘best of’ ring and you’ve got a year-end recapstravaganza. I took this as a chance to make some jokes at my own expense (always fun) and blow some creative juices on some nonsense. So here we are! A new year! Food and places and sights and one thing I actually kind of hated! I hope you enjoy it, all twelve of you.

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11. Serial (Podcast)

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This one comes with a few disclaimers. 1. This will be one of the longer sections. If you’re strapped for time or not sure why you clicked this link at all, just skip ahead. 2. This is the elitist NPR radio show section, high potential for boringness, skip if needed. 3. The show received a lot of criticism for having issues with racism; I find them mostly unfounded but, coincidentally, I am also a white person, and may very well be guilty of the same ignorance, and am not terribly qualified to comment on their validity. Ok, disclaimers over.

Serial is a podcast about a murder, with the investigative purpose being that the man who was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life for it may in fact be wrongly imprisoned and innocent. It is the most popular podcast in the history of the word ‘podcast’ with millions of people downloading it weekly (it is so popular there are numerous other podcasts that exist just to discuss this podcast). It is also all true; the murder in question did happen in 1999 in Baltimore. Serial consists of 12 episodes of NPR’s Sarah Koenig, a journalist who used to work for the Baltimore Sun, re-investigating that murder, that of a Baltimore teenager named Hae Min Lee. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Sayed was found guilty of the crime; he vehemently maintains his innocence to this day from his prison cell. Imagine if True Detective was real, and we listened to it on the radio, 45 minutes at time, for 12 weeks (eat that, stupid binge-watching!). It became a phenomenon with the internet (specifically Reddit) collectively taking it upon itself to become an armchair police investigator, digging through thousands of case exhibits and police records thinking someone could confirm Adnan’s guilt or prove his innocence. We unexpectedly crowd-sourced a homicide investigation, fifteen years after the fact. It took me a long time to warm up to it for a lot of reasons and issues, ethical and otherwise, like Aren’t we opening some heavy wounds for Hae’s family just for our entertainment? Aren’t we putting the man convicted of the crime, guilty or innocent, through the same hell (again)? Aren’t we jeopardizing the livelihood of some of the principals involved in the case if Reddit is discovering their identities and addresses and publishing them on the internet? Perhaps silliest, What does it say about us that we cry foul about “spoilers” when this is a real case that happened fifteen years ago? Isn’t that willful ignorance? I kept listening and gave them the benefit of the doubt, as the possibility they were going to exonerate an innocent man certainly deserves as much. And I won’t discuss what they found, in case anyone still wants to dive in, but I really don’t know if the work they did here was worth it. I don’t.

What was amazing, and why it sits on this list, is not what they found; it was listening to how they found it (or failed to find it). We got to listen to what Slate called “show your work” investigative reporting, something the journalism nerd in me finds to be catnip. There’s never been anything quite like it. We got to listen to Koenig talk to Adnan from prison over and over; imagine if we got to listen to Truman Capote work through investigating and writing about the ‘In Cold Blood’ murders. The show evolved as it gained notoriety, with people who weren’t willing to speak to Koenig for the past year of her investigation suddenly calling with information and testimony (including Hae’s current boyfriend when she went missing). For the worse, the show also became self-influential, with its findings bleeding into people’s memories and “realities” of the days surrounding the murder, in a way its popularity inadvertently corrupting its own integrity. It got bigger and bigger, maybe too big for what Koenig and crew intended. Major media outlets began reporting things like the fact that Adnan has an appeal coming up in January. It got so big the same was demanded of it as is every other piece of popular media these days; a perfect and completely satisfying finale where everyone loves everything or the entire thing was a huge waste of time and we hate it forever. The public demanded that Koenig prove Adnan guilty. Prove Adnan innocent. Either one, just make your choice, Serial. In the final episode, with Koenig still poring over the case and uncertain of her own thoughts on that question, Adnan himself, from behind the permanent bars of a life sentence, almost teasingly and certainly ironically asks Koenig, “So, you don’t really have no ending?” It was fascinating to listen to and discuss it, warts and all.

10. Yellowcard at the Varsity Theater (Performance)

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There was the slight issue that I badly underestimated how many disillusioned teenagers would be at this show moshing violently. The band was popular a decade ago, I thought I fairly assumed the crowd would all be my age (wrong). So Jake and I spent a decent portion of our night fending off psychotic morons while trying to enjoy the show. That aside, I watched one of my favorite bands of all time from twenty feet away. They rocked enough to impress JJ, who tagged along despite never hearing their music until the week of the show. I ended up with Ryan Key’s (lead singer, front and center) guitar pick after some impressive floor scrambling by Brady. It was a fantastic two hour time machine of songs of sun and surf that brought me back to high school. Good times.

9. Tie – Christian Ramirez’s bicycle kick goal, Giancarlo Stanton’s Home Run Derby performance (Sporting Event)

I’ll just let you watch both of them. Some quick background; Minnesota has a soccer team that plays in the NASL (that’s like AAA for baseball fans). It’s a blast to watch their games, as quite an assortment of my friends will now attest after I dragged them to a game. This year, fans of the NASL voted one goal to be the goal of the year. I was in the house to enjoy it, and freak out about it accordingly. Enjoy.

As for background on that Home Run Derby, I already blew a couple thousand words on that. If you missed it, enjoy. If you just want video of the home run (and that .gif! Ahhhh!!!) that almost left Target field, enjoy that too.

8. Tie – The Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff VanderMeer, The Martian, by Andy Weir, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin (Books)


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That first one is basically LOST meets Stephen King’s The Thing, a story about a mysterious quarantine zone that no one can explain, and the shady entity that keeps sending team of scientists to investigate it (with horrid results, unsurprisingly). It wasn’t always great (and I have my suspicions I got played into reading them by some tying deal Entertainment Weekly had with the publishers). They were difficult to read and left much to the imagination (like LOST), with one perfect review saying reading those books is like trying to read someone’s dream, not always so easy to tell what’s actually happening. But they were so, so weird, so unique, which is wonderful. I’ve never read anything like them, and had a blast watching the author unravel his own mysteries. If you dig some funky sci-fi with a surprising amount of horror, I’m happy to lend them to you.

The second one is the opposite, about astronaut (and Macguyver-wannabe) Mark Watney being stranded on Mars after a terrible accident sends his crew fleeing, Watney presumed dead. It’s Castaway on the red planet. It’s ingenious and incredibly funny and suspenseful as all hell considering you logically “know” Watney will survive until at least the end of the book; Weir doles out his catastrophic setbacks terrifyingly believably. Ridley Scott is bringing this to life with Matt Damon this year; you might be better served by a couple fantastically stressed out nights with this version instead.

The final one I read in one night, and is the only one I’ll ever reread, the highest respect I can give to a book. A bookstore owner who’s kind of an elitist douche finds a baby on his store’s steps and his most prized rare book stolen. What ensues is a celebration of the power books can have on the world. Have some tissues on hand.

7. True Detective (Television)

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Apparently people hate this show for a dozen reasons: mainly, that it was less about the case Rust and Marty investigated and more about what said case did to them (uh, that’s awesome?).  That the mythology of Carcosa and the Yellow King ultimately amounted to nothing (yeah, and? Wasn’t chasing that info down the rabbit hole kind of fun?). That the finale was underwhelming (see: every show in history these days, people are the worst). That it might have been plagiarized (if that’s true, crap). And, most famously, that it was male wish-fulfillment and horrid to women, both in plot and theme and empty female characters (you be the judge). That last one does ring true, but the writer also cautioned the show is told from Rust and Marty’s perspectives, so it is what it is. What it definitely was was the best acted TV show I have ever seen. It’s dark Louisiana grime and horrors were gorgeous to behold as Cary Fukunaga shot them. Its credits were haunting (that shot of of Louisiana interstates played across Woody’s face like bondage and bandages over wounds!). The finale was terrifying and then completely unexpected. How they ultimately solved the case waaaaaaas kind of idiotic, but none of it mattered. Watching the two leads throw acting punches was riveting. The eight episode format and promise of complete cast turnover each season was new and weird. Excited to see what season two has in store.

6. The Guardians of the Galaxy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman (Film)

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I always have a tough time of picking movies because they’re all so unique in tone and mission. Plus, I feel like I’ve failed to see about 30 films this year I badly wanted to watch (Whiplash, Nightcrawler, Wild, Big Hero 6, etc etc). For Guardians, I defy anyone to watch that movie and not laugh or have fun. It’s the most entertaining and re-watchable superhero movie ever, and that comes from someone who bows at the altar of Nolan’s Batmans. It pleases me to no end that some weirdo story no one had heard of about the Bad News Bears in space made more money than any other movie this year. Please put Chris Pratt in every movie currently in production.

For Grand Budapest, I’ll be brief. Are you among Wes Anderson’s legions of nerds/obsessors? This might have been his most fun movie ever. Do you hate his movies? Don’t bother, skip ahead. Actually, no. Try watching this one and don’t be such a jerk. Never seen one of his movies? This might also be his most accessible, and a great place to start.

Birdman is weird and magnificent, and I don’t even remember half the movie because my boss sent me into a furious rage six minutes before I walked over to the mall to watch it. The story is great, the acting is great, the fact that they trick you into thinking the entire movie is one continuous shot/take is unsettling and involving and great. The ending has instigated debate as to what actually happens in that final scene, and I looooooooove debatably open-ended movies. I look forward to seeing it again, soon. Go enjoy some weird.

5. Lake Street Dive (Music)

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I am unhealthily in love with this band and its lead singer Rachael Price’s voice (Amy Winehouse and Adele and Motown and Americana). I have cruelly subjected my coworkers to their new album Bad Self Portraits a hundred times but fortunately they just asked if they could go to their show the next time they’re in the Twin Cities. I’ve watched this performance twenty times, this one a dozen more. It’s been a good time clicking their “related artists” on Spotify this year and finding other Americana acts like Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, ten others. It all started with them, and for my fellow MN PIP adjusters, they do a heck of a lot to rewrite the stimulus attached to the phrase ‘Lake Street.’ Enjoy!

4. The root beer served at the South Gate Brewing Company, Oakhurst, CA (Food and Drink)

For this paragraph, if everyone could pretend I’m discussing craft beer and not root beer, it will go a long way towards you finding me a bit less nuts. Phil and I stopped here as it was a stone’s throw away from our hotel during our two days in Yosemite National Park (more on this shortly). The staff was fun and enjoyed needling us about our trip, the food was great, highly recommended. But the root beer, my goodness. Their menu advises the draft root beer is made with “sarsaparilla and Tahitian vanilla.” Describing what something tastes like is about as futile an exercise as exists in the world. All I can say is it tasted very different. For the most part, root beers taste the same with variances in levels of carbonation, or maybe honey or something like that. This one was out there. It was good enough I demanded we eat there again Friday night, which Phil obliged, even taking home a growler of it to his fiancée. Ugh, I can still taste it.

3. The food, drinks, architecture and funky voodoo spirit vibe of New Orleans, LA (Adventures)

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I made it to both New Orleans and Las Vegas for the first time this year. I have spent many years assuming that of all the cities in this great nation, those two would be the women I would have absolutely nothing in common with. That I’d need to throw on some body armor before wading out into their open, wretched, disease-riddled arms. For all six people who will understand this reference, what Homer Simpson feels about the great city of New York kind-of disdain. And while my maybe six waking hours in Sin City did nothing to dissuade me of this opinion, the Crescent City fared the complete opposite. I. Can’t. Wait. To go back. The people are magnificent and weird. The culture is weird. The drinks are weird (that hurricane kicked my ass). Their architecture is like drugs for your retinas, from the cemeteries to the Garden District. It is spooky, but in a fantastic way because I can’t stand scary crap? The FOOD. The CHURCHES. The STREETCARS. I think I’m mostly still stuck on the architecture; there were no directions to gaze in that didn’t demand a second look. Dave Grohl spent a song/episode of the Foo Fighters’ new Sonic Highways on the jazz influences of New Orleans, and an opening lyric sings you can find Dave “dancing with the spirits in the Square.” A strange city, indeed, to have been overrun by ghosts, but only in New Orleans can you party with them.

2. The Apostle Islands frozen sea caves, Bayfield, WI (Adventures)

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This past Winter, Lake Superior froze. It hasn’t happened in a long time, and it’s sadly plausible that it may not happen again. Since it froze, the Bayfield, Wisconsin sea caves flipped from glorious kayak swiss cheese holes to frozen caves for walking and staring and, in some extreme cases, crawling and shimmying under the earth itself (Luke is in a tunnel in that photo about the circumference of his torso, reaching out to the open air lake surface where I was sitting; be grateful Wisconsin Winter’s aren’t typified by earthquakes). I have never seen such sights, such impossible things. Walls of icicles. Caverns fifty yards under the state of Wisconsin. Ceilings made of smoothed frost that looked like wind-blown desert sand dunes. A line of people, single-file, walking across? Over? To? nothingness, on nothingness, post-apocalyptic nomads in search of refuge from the all-encompassing white. The ground was ice, and we walked where no person has any business standing. It was all so impossible, if not for what I did in September…

1. The treads on my shoes, hiking across the trails of the United States of America

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I got to start in on some wish-fulfillment this year, living out some dreams, doing things I will never forget and couldn’t if I wanted to. Franconia Notch State Park and the White Mountains of New Hampshire in April, walking up and down and up and down the crests of mountains like the Fellowship of the Ring (thanks Wayne). The Superior Hiking Trail up Minnesota’s flawless North Shore, looking down upon the lake that vanishes like an ocean (thanks Brian). Most amazingly, in September, the impossible vistas, slot canyons, desert highways and extraterrestrial landscapes of the national parks of the American West, chasing the ghost of John Muir, Lewis and Clark (thanks Ash, Phil, and God). Every hour of every day for various weeks at a time, more impossible, and I mean it when I say extraterrestrial, sights and scenes that have no business of this planet because they are so, so far removed from my typical routine, from my office desk, from my couch cushions. Things you would never believe exist a few hours from Phoenix, San Francisco or, hell, your house.

I asked to go back to working four-day weeks for the Winter, and aside from teaching myself to suck less at hockey, I intend to find a way to write something that matters, something memorable about some of the things that happened on that adventure, because some of those things that happened were the definition of memorable. It’ll be probably be very long, and no one will read it. Or them. Whatever it is. I hope it/they doesn’t/don’t take me forever to finish, but it/they sadly probably will. I hope the sometimes strangers who encouraged me to do it will read them. And some others too. I hope so much as one of them, or one sentence, one anything, will inspire anyone to go enjoy them as I did. So to be continued…

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North Stars: Dispatches from All-Star Week, Part Three: The Soggy Bombin’ Boys

The optimal conditions for an object set in flight to remain in flight are dependent on the following simple four items; air pressure, wind, humidity, temperature. At higher elevations, air pressure is lower, meaning the air is less dense, creating less friction on the flying object, and it remains in flight longer. Warm temperatures have the same effect of reducing air density. Humidity is the same again; the higher the dew point, the less dense the air is. Wind direction and speed are, well, wind direction and speed. The preferred conditions for an object set in flight to remain in flight are as follows: high elevation, a strong tailwind, humid air, hot temperatures.

The city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in July, aside from being barely over 500 feet above sea level in places along the Mississippi River, is perfectly suited to keep flying things in flight soaring.  Temperatures can easily exceed 100 degrees and the humidity can suffocate all who haven’t lived in the Florida or Louisiana swamps. More specifically, at the downtown address of 353 North 5th Street, home of Target Field, the Minnesota Twins, and site of the 2014 Major League Baseball Home Run Derby, weather patterns have lent themselves to a curiously dependable wind behavior: one that blows from home plate towards the METRO Blue Line Light Rail station, which sits just beyond the left field bleachers. Low air pressure. Good tailwind. Humid. Hot.

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Did you know Minneapolis is the birthplace of the Home Run Derby? I didn’t, but everyone around the Twin Cities does. Turns out, the 1985 All-Star festivities at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome held a new event called “The All-Star Home Run Contest.” It pitted the National League vs. the American league instead of the individual event we know today; admission was two dollars, it did not air on television, and for as eternally expansive as Major League Baseball’s video archive is, they do not possess a single frame of footage from the event. It is remembered for a few quirky reasons: the first is that one of the kids shagging balls in the outfield, a graduated senior from Saint Cloud Apollo high school named Sean Moe, mistakenly (and instinctively) robbed the NL’s final batter, Ryne Sandberg, of a home run, keeping the NL’s lead at two. The second is that Twins player and fan favorite Tom Brunansky, who hit last, capitalized on that slim margin and belted four home runs, winning the competition for the home town American League. The event was small scale, and Derbys since have more prominently etched themselves into our memories. The very first All-Star week Home Run Derby has since been forgotten, but it is remembered by the state of Minnesota, its home.

In 2014, the All-Star game returned to Minnesota after a nearly 30 year absence, which was wonderful news to Twins fans suffering through an extended playoff drought and an excellent chance to show off the jewel that is Target Field to the greater baseball audience, with its yellowed limestone walls, downtown skyline just beyond right field and the shaking neon hands of Minnie and Paul. While Target isn’t known as a home run bandbox like, say, Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark or Coors, there was still incredible news flooding in in the form of the names signing up to launch baseballs into the night: the Blue Jays’ “Joey Bats,” Jose Bautista. Twins hero whose career had resurrected in Colorado, Justin Morneau. Cuban defectors and human highlight reels Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes (the defending champion). And the best news? After years of futile pleas for his participation, the real life Paul Bunyan and a man who broke a Major League scoreboard with a laser beam homer, Miami’s Mike Giancarlo Stanton was in the field. Nine of the 10 participants were righties, and wouldn’t be subjected to Target’s cavernous right field and raised walls. Fireworks were guaranteed.

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What I’m trying to say is the stars seemed aligned for something indelibly wonderful to happen. A field full of absolute mashers in a Derby returning to its prodigal home in a stadium that would cater to right-handed lumberjacks spending their evening mercilessly expelling baseballs from Target Field towards Saint Paul, Stillwater, Wisconsin. And I would be there, fulfilling a lifelong dream of seeing the Derby in person.

It was those aligned stars that made reality’s horrible sucker punch land that much harder. The temperature at the time of the contest’s first home run was 54 degrees. Fifty four. It would prove to be, quite literally, the coldest day in the history of this state in July, and baseballs do not fly in the cold. The wind was doing its part by blowing at a stiff 19 miles per hour, however, slight problem; it was blowing straight in towards home plate, and baseballs do not fly into the wind. And the humidity? Oh, it was pretty humid. Humid enough to rain for five hours, and baseballs do not fly, nor do they do much of anything, in the rain.

It was that same sucker punch that made what transpired even more astonishing.

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Minnesotans remember and treasure everything about their jewel of a state, like that Bob Dylan hails from here despite him barely acknowledging that fact whatsoever; perhaps when the rest of the country writes you off as the inhospitable hellhole Antarctica of the lower 48, a certain “me versus the world” group mentality takes hold. And Minnesotans, and I’m talking real Minnesotans (so not me, not yet anyway), are used to making the best of the worst, of curveballs or bad poker beats; when it stays under the freezing point for three consecutive months, uninterrupted, you develop a knack for that. Like I said, I am not yet one of those people, and I had been passionately angry about the weather for 48 hours before I walked through the Target Field gates for what is now known as Gatorade All-Star Workout Day. It’s a fancy-ish sounding way to say the All Stars are on the field, taking some hacks in the cages, the pitchers are long tossing, everyone is screwing around and having a good time (it’s very strange to see these mythic figures, lionized by Sportscenter or the Topps Company into immortality, out stealing each others hats or cracking jokes or chasing their kids around the field while the youngsters spill melted Icee syrup onto their fathers’ baseball pants). I was trying very hard to have a similar good time, but was full of impotent and pointless bitterness at the weather and a petulant “why today, how could this happen” attitude. I was fortunate enough to be close to the first base line for warm-ups, maybe four rows away from the American League in red, which was helping tremendously. The sun was out and the grass was emerald and former Tampa Bay Ray hero Scott Kazmir was warming up with newly former Tampa Bay Ray hero David Price. Yu Darvish and Koji Uehara were doing the same. Some unlucky soul was tasked with catching Max Scherzer as he unloaded .50 caliber rifle shots from his right arm. The Captain himself, Derek Jeter, in his last All-Star game as he retires, trotted out to great applause and handshakes in every direction. My camera worked overtime (photos down at the bottom, if you’re interested), but then the rain came and chased everyone off the field. It was brief, but enough to curtail most of the AL players’ warm ups. The NL then took their turn, and I fished through a sea of navy for the players representing my Atlanta Braves, Craig Kimbrel and Julio Teheran. Freddie Freeman made it easy on me by shagging balls at first. When Freddie headed in to take some hacks, he got in one swing before the rain came again, a downpour this time, and Workout Day was over before it even started. At 7:16 pm, while the P.A. was bellowing “We hope to start momentarily,” the grounds crew slowly and soggily tarped home plate, again.  As fans fled to dry safe havens, Luke Bryan’s ‘Rain is a Good Thing’ played out from the speakers, and the Jumbotron pacified the increasingly distraught crowd with highlights of the Twins 1991 World Series victory (the Twins beat my Braves that year, so between the pained anguish on Tom Glavine’s face and the Luke Bryan music, the evening was not going well). It was very cold and it was wet and I was angry and frustrated and lamenting what had become of an opportunity I’d dreamed of for decades. Hiding from the downpour, I was lonely enough (regrettably, couldn’t find any one else to go with me) to text a buddy in the left field stands asking if he thought God hated baseball, or Minnesota, or maybe both. He said he wondered the same thing.

The rain did not stop, but once ESPN finally saw it fit to get the sodden show on the road, Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier and hometown Twins hero Brian Dozier were the first offered up to the elements, both mustering a paltry two homers in the rain and swirling winds. I got angrier that they’d been robbed but the Minnesota faithful were enjoying themselves, cheering for Dozier happily. They were making the best of it, like they always do, even though the two hitters’  fly ball outs landed in pools in the infield and a vendor actually passed by me yelling “HOT CHOCOLATE, HEYAH!” Then something funny happened during Frazier’s turn at the plate, which a friend pointed out the timing to me the next day: after hours of rain delays and cold misery, right when Frazier finally launched the night’s first home into the left-center field bullpens, an enormous and vivid rainbow erupted over the city skyline. The fans happily acknowledged it as the P.A. announced its presence to the stands and for the first time that night, something fun had happened. It was as if the game itself and the tradition of the Derby were just as fed up with the soggy conditions as we were, and now they were going to fight back, Frazier’s home run a defiant paintbrush rebelliously recoloring the pressing gloom. It would seem that whether or not God was interested in the night’s proceedings, those mysterious baseball gods were indeed in Minneapolis, and so was newly adopted son Todd Frazier, just making the best of things.

Adam Jones and Troy Tulowitzki got the event going in earnest, sending balls flying across the stadium. Morneau conquered that long right field wall a few times, one of which managed to get wrapped up in the seal of Hennepin County atop the stadium flagpoles. Joey Bats put on the night’s first great show, launching ten home runs in his first round that landed almost entirely in the second deck. Defending champ Yoenis Cespedes could not get in a groove, and narrowly avoided early elimination before heating up in the second round and absolutely catching fire in the third. Watching him in person was the biggest surprise of the night, because Yoenis Cespedes is a freaky robot. He is not unlike one of those golf ball testing robots; his swing happens in the blink of an eye like a rubber band snapping and the torque generated on his bat by how fast he spins around is terrifying. It’s amazingly powerful and, more impressively, consistent, regardless of where the pitches were thrown. He is built for this competition (and it wasn’t surprising he went on to win it again; he may not lose for many years). No one had defended their Derby crown since Junior Griffey in the ’90s, but that won’t be what those in attendance that night will remember.

What they will remember is that Giancarlo Stanton is a massive human being. He is 6′ 6″ and it shows. When sportswriters use the cliché that some hitter is so big that the baseball bat looks like a toothpick in his hands, this guy makes it true. It does look like that. It’s silly to behold him waggle it over his shoulder as he waits for a pitch. He is country strong and his bat speed is otherworldly. He is likely the main attraction that 90% of the fans in attendance that night had come to see, and my god, he did not disappoint. His first swing was a home run that barely cleared the left field fence, but it was lofted so high into the atmosphere the crowd reacted as if it was going to scrape one of the hundreds of jets descending overhead towards MSP. He made a couple outs before launching another one, the first of the night (and the first I had ever seen) land in the third and topmost deck at the stadium. The crowd cheered and the NL All-Stars looking on danced and laughed at the show being put on. He somehow seemed to improve on each shot, with another bomb that was absolutely belted flying to straightaway center on a flat trajectory. No one hits home runs to straightaway center at Target, and if they do, the balls land on the grass berm just over the wall. This ball cleared the berm and cleared the towering batters eye before landing in a thin strip of seats just below the neon Minnie and Paul fixture. Absolutely no one has ever hit a ball there, and yet it was somehow upstaged a minute later.

With one out remaining, Giancarlo Stanton almost left Target Field. Click that link. Watch that video. It’s un. believable. Watching the Derby in person, you quickly develop a decent register of what is and what is not going to be a home run without Chris Berman’s call to alert you to greatness. It’s something like optical benchmarks, and you see what angle the ball leaves the bat and how quickly it passes little checkpoints on that trajectory, so the second the ball came off his bat, everyone knew something really batshit crazy had happened. The crowd, employing those same trained eyes, gasped really loudly. Normally, it’s pretty easy to track a baseball in flight as long as you see it leave the bat, but the gray murk overhead made that difficult and the ball disappeared (the first .gif in that link illustrates this perfectly). So we all looked up and ahead to see what patch of fans was going to stand up to catch the ball, betraying where it was going to land, if it ever did. The people who ultimately stood up were fans in that impossible third deck, and they were four rows shy of the Minneapolis night sky. A man in a blue rain jacket caught the ball once it returned to Earth (ESPN projected the distance of the shot at 510 feet, a Mickey Mantle-esque type blast), and on a normal July night in the City of Lakes, I cannot imagine where it would have landed. Stanton had to step out of the batters box while the crowd cheered and tried to make sense of what they just saw, while his NL teammates laughed with wide eyes and held their heads in disbelief (see the hilarious NL MVP Andrew McCutchen’s reaction in the second .gif in that link). Watching the replay, which I must have done forty times by now, you can see the ball erupt into the night sky faster than a launched missile, then disappear, and then, almost knowingly and defiantly, land just shy of a dozen flags lining the stadium lip, all blowing straight in towards home plate to irrefutably guarantee that, tonight, such a home run would be impossible. In the cold. And through the rain. I suppose you can learn a lot from a baseball about flying in spite of the elements.

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The evening did have a lot of lows for its wonderful highs; the cold and rainy weather never eased up and the hyper-talented Puig didn’t hit a single home run, even managing a check swing out at one point. After Stanton put on his fireworks display, he got a bye to the third round, which sadly backfired when he had to wait almost two hours to hit again and he got cold and out of his rhythm. He hit no home runs in that third round, losing to rainbow-maker Todd Frazier, who hit one measly home run. Joey Bats suffered the same fate of waiting too long between at bats and was easily defeated by Cespedes. The final round was an anticlimactic second coronation for Cespedes as he only heated up further, trouncing the overmatched Frazier. I am quite sure most of America discussed how boring it was the next day at the water cooler. They’re not wrong, I’m sure it sucked to watch at home. And I woke up the next morning still furious about the weather, about my lost opportunity for what could have been, but time heals all wounds, including petty ones like this. The experience was amazing, and Minnesotans are used to making the best of the worst, even newly minted ones. Besides, now I can say I was there for the coldest Home Run Derby ever staged, even if it wasn’t the most memorable ever staged. Time will tell where Cespedes and Stanton’s performances will be remembered among the all-time standout Derby moments, but I doubt they will be very high. People will remember watching Sammy Sosa hit baseballs out the open windows of Miller Park in 2002 much more vividly. They’ll have fonder memories of Mark McGwire nearly hitting the Massachusetts Turnpike in ’99, and absolutely nothing that happened this week will rank within a mile of the redemption of Josh Hamilton at Yankee Stadium in 2008, but that’s ok. It may have been lackluster but I went. I was there to see it all. And this year’s Derby may be quickly forgotten, but it will be remembered fondly by the state of Minnesota, its home.

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[PART ONE]
[PART TWO]

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North Stars: Dispatches from All-Star Week, Part Two “The Running of Fat Joe”

Before we’re off and running, if you somehow ended up here and you’re unsure of how that happened or what I’m talking about, go on back to PART ONE. It’ has lots of pictures!

After the highs (BASE STEALING RACE) and terrifying lows (sad Rollie Fingers sitting at a sad table by himself with a big sad scowl on his face) of Fan Fest, the second stretch of the All Star festivities had begun: the Futures Game, a display of the best prospects and up and comers, and the Celebrity Softball Game, a mind blowing mixture of hall of fame baseball players, local sports heroes and humanoids MTV has mass produced. Before we arrived at Target Field, however, we did come perilously close to losing Mark, who got distracted by an upcoming attraction at the Orpheum, and it wasn’t the Book of Mormon or Australian musical theater.

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Close call, but we moved on to Hubert’s to watch the World Cup final (boo hiss, Germany), and then ultimately on to our seats, right over home plate surveying the perfect Summer weather and the decorated Target Field.

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The field! Magnificent! Two very important features to note here: the MN state outline cut in center field and the fact that starting games three hours early at 4 pm makes the sun shine through the top deck, giving the field the terrifying appearance that the Cheshire Cat is here to cause mayhem (pitching mound is the nose). As the remainder of the night was high intensity baseball action, photos didn’t prove so interesting. So, curveball (zing!): running diary for part two! Let’s get to it: the FUTURES GAME.

4:43 pm, Sunday, July 13, 2014 – The Futures game has proven critically boring, as it is a baseball game with no one we’ve heard of being dominated by pitchers who are only asked to get three outs in their brief appearance. Solution: gambling. A fantasy draft is held with the two team’s rosters (USA versus international players), and whoever “owns” the inevitable game MVP wins, apparently a beer or something. My team: Kris Bryant (Cubs AAA uber-prospect), Francisco Lindor (once took photos of him playing in high school at Montverde Academy, cool!), Joey Gallo (a AA Texas Ranger, aka Frisco RoughRider, and I played on that field once, cool!), and Noah Syndergaard (who will terrorize my Braves for decades with Matt Harvey in New York, crap, not cool).

5:16 pm – Louie the Loon claims victory in the mascot race, and there was much rejoicing. God bless him.

5:25 pm – Boredom leads to the question being posed that if the four of us could select any individual to participate in the night’s celebrity softball game, who would we choose? I will let you all guess who chose who, but the four given answers ranged from the expected to the delusional, and from ridiculous to somehow even more ridiculous.

5:42 pm – The jumbotron is showing famous baseball moments called the “T-Mobile GameChangers.” This one is Kurt Gibson’s home run, and all four of us simultaneously and silently pantomime the famous fist pump as he crosses second base, proving to easily be the highlight of the Futures game.

6:01 pm – Jokes have been flying all night every time the center fielder makes a catch (see field photo above) as to whether it was caught in Fargo, Grand Rapids, in Pequot Lakes, etc; one if lofted into the air that is caught roughly in the Apostle Islands of Wisconsin. We also now realize the shortstop is clearly wearing yellowed/beige pants unlike everyone else wearing white. This is stimulating stuff.

6: 41 pm – The game mercifully ends with a fly ball caught somewhere near Grand Portage State Park and, thanks to a two-run bomb from the future Ranger, Joey Gallo is named game MVP . Not only did Team USA win, but I did too! I feel accomplished. Bring on the celebrities being ridiculous!

7:00 pm – The celebs have begun warming up and stretching. Adrian Peterson quickly reveals himself to be abysmal and unable to catch a ball, leading Ben’s sister-in-law to remark “Oh, look. He can’t hold on to that ball either.” Some quick highlights of the participants: National League is fielding Ozzie Smith, Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Piazza, Jennie Finch, John Smoltz, country singer David Nail, Andre Dawson, Doc Gooden and Bravo TV host Andy Cohen amongst a small stable of MTV personalities no one’s heard of. The American League counters with Ricky Henderson, AP, Fat Joe (who still looks skinnier in his Yankees hat than C.C. Sabathia), Zach Parise, January Jones, Rob Riggle, Jim Thome, Rollie Fingers, Celeb softball legend/Desperate Housewives alum James Denton and more MTV personalities. Both teams are also fielding one vet who lost a limb in Afghanistan, and both receive deservedly lengthy standing ovations (the AL player’s ovation turning into exuberant cheering when he began doing one-armed push ups). A brief fear that the AL is stacked is assuaged when, SURPRISE LATE ADDITION FOR THE NL, Nelly is here! When the on-field host asks Nelly if he plans to “go deep” tonight, Ben intervenes with “Nelly always goes deep.

The 1st inning – Nelly indeed does go deep (turns out he’s as good at softball as the film editor for ‘The Longest Yard’ convinces you he is at football). So does Mike Piazza, and Fat Joe goes first to third on a Parise double, I think sending every fan in the stadium through time and space. Did I say double? I mean Adrian Peterson almost Jose Canseco’d the ball over the wall by sucking.

The 2nd inning – David Nail hits a bomb. Someone makes a terrible “nailed it” pun. Andy Cohen manages to not only NOT run back to first on a caught ball, he doubles down on his idiocy and opts to run to third. Also, the MTV hatchling that hit it attempts to run to second apparently unaware you are out if someone catches the ball when you hit it.

The 3rd inning – Two realizations are hitting me as the NL is dominating. The first is that this game has to be the highest annual “phrases you’d never imagine you’d speak” per capita situation imaginable after we discuss how something called a “Melanie Iglesias” didn’t cover second base on a potential double play ball from OZZIE SMITH. The second is I can’t believe that this is how I’m going to watch John Smoltz pitch for the last time in my life. He proceeds to remove himself from the game for Jennie Finch, who promptly strikes out MTV’s Sway (another ridiculous sentence).

The 4th inning – While we, or at least I, have managed to spend the entire game stupidly gawking at January Jones (I think she had a personal wind machine to blow her hair around), we now notice no one is talking to her on the AL bench. Based on the collection of macho moron men on this team, this does not bode well for how compelling a conversation with January is.

The 5th and 6th innings – Unknown. We lost track as a friend from work invited us to his seats to buy us a drink. At some point Adrian Peterson demanded Finch throw him her normal softball pitches, causing his swings to almost screw him into the dirt like an ice auger. Both Nelly and David Nail hit second home runs, leading them to be declared co-MVPs. The game ended when Nelly booted a ball at third causing Sway to round it for home. Nelly threw a dart to Piazza who got Sway in the ensuing rundown, prompting Jake to observe, “Perhaps Sway shouldn’t have gotten into a rundown between John Smoltz and Mike Piazza.”

Post-game – An impromptu home run derby touches off, and the fans are now expectant of the softball fireworks show from future hall of famer and brief Twins hero Jim Thome that never manifested during the game. Instead, David Nail (seriously, wtf?) hits the most home runs, and proves to be absolutely awesome, other than his abysmal choice in hats. The game concluded with fireworks set to various songs, one of which was ‘Let It Go’ from ‘Frozen,’ promptly a really weird stadium-wide sing along.  The entire day and evening also came to a magnificent end when upon exiting the stadium, we were privileged to follow this situation back to our car. And yes, that is the Declaration of Independence written through the shirt.

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God bless baseball. God bless America. Hope you enjoyed a laugh! If you’re not exhausted yet, the third and final installment is right this way.

North Stars: Dispatches from All-Star Week, Part One “13 Going On 30”

A few weeks ago, something I’ve wanted to do my entire life happened: the MLB All-Star festivities rolled through my city. I was fortunate enough to attend every event but the actual game (don’t have that kind of green lying around just yet), and afterwards it seemed like an excellent experience to regale at least three or four people with stories from! Part 2 will be a running diary of All-Star Sunday night and Part 3 is a more standard piece of Dane blog writing (for the uninitiated, that means comically too long and weirdly serious while at no point achieving coherence), but this is Part 1, a photo blog of our trip through Fan Fest! Prepare yourself for the tales of four men over, on or rapidly approaching 30 years of age acting like children, and really dumb children at that. You’ve been warned. Let’s get to it!

***

IMG_0482 IMG_0484IMG_0490 Welcome to Fan Fest, which is basically just a giant baseball lovers nerd-out-athon; you can play some baseball, see some famous baseball stuff, meet famous baseball people and, naturally, buy overpriced baseball stuff (and LOVE IT). It was massive, taking up an entire wing of the downtown Minneapolis Convention Center, and making it that much harder on us to find Jennie Finch, who was somewhere on the premises. Spoiler alert: we did not find Jennie Finch. IMG_0491 But that’s ok, because we did meet this fabulous lady, Vera Clemente! Vera is the widow of Pittsburgh, baseball, sports and general life hero Roberto Clemente, a baseball hall of famer who died in the peak of his talents because he chose to fly relief supplies to earthquake-affected Nicaragua and his plane crashed en route. Walking up and shaking her hand, I did successfully manage to stammer, “MyfamilyisfromPittsburghandweloveyouandweloveyourhusband!” She responded, “Oh! Pittsburgh! My second home!” That was the extent of it (I did regrettably overestimate Vera’s English) before a stranger took about nine pictures of us. I’m going to ballpark this shot at ‘Picture #7’ based on Vera’s priceless expression/declining interest in feigning excitement to hang out with us any longer. After we gathered our bearings, signed some safety waivers (if you know some of the members of the above photo, this was a crucial step) and successfully dodged the baseball card tables (almost passed out), it was on to the silent auction. IMG_0498IMG_0499 IMG_0500 IMG_0501 IMG_0502 IMG_0503 As best as we could tell, our four combined salaries may have been able to briefly hold the highest bid on, like, a press pin, or a rosin bag or one of Lenny Dykstra’s used spitters. The auction was predictably pricey and full of the most awesome of things. The above is a signed shot of Maz’s 1960 World Series walk-off homer (for my family) and that blue Brooklyn Dodgers cap was Jackie Robinson’s (for everyone else), prompting Jake to remark “I would pay a lot of money for them just to let me put that on my head and give it back.” IMG_0508 Next up were the trophy displays of every major award given to baseball players, which we patiently waited in line for 20 minutes so we could be warned “HANDS AT YOUR SIDES!” repeatedly while standing next to a replica of the World Series Trophy. Indeed it was beautiful, and secret benefit: this put both the Twins fans and the Braves fan in this photo far closer to that trophy than the Twins or Braves have been in 20 years. IMG_0510 We had the Rookie of the Year award, which is regrettably not an acting commendation bestowed annually by Daniel Stern… IMG_0512

The MVP trophy. Whether it goes to the old school’s MVP (eye test) or the new school’s (sabermetrics), this thing is decidedly old school looking…

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The Home Run Derby trophy (more to come on that front)…

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The Silver Slugger, which I’ve always wanted to see hit a baseball (what if it exploded!?!?!) …

IMG_0520 The Clemente Award, given to players for off-field charitable actions and giving back to their communities (did I mention we love Roberto Clemente?)… IMG_0516

Dennis Farina admiring the World Series MVP trophy…

IMG_0521 aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand lastly, my favorite, a Gold Glove, which was inexplicably kept apart from the other trophies on a pedestal by itself in the middle of the show floor. Confusing. Also awesome. IMG_0522 IMG_0524 IMG_0526 Next up was the Hall of Fame display, on loan to us all the way from Cooperstown, prompting an immediate discussion of what goes into transporting these items, as well as a logical follow-up discussion of how our four combined intellects could execute a heist of one of any of the pieces on display. Spoiler alert: we chuckled and then walked around in an orderly line without touching anything. It was a good year for a Braves fan on the scene! Congrats to Bobby, Mad Dog and Glav! I hope you were all successfully enshrined this weekend without Maddux peeing on anything. My apologies to the Big Hurt for being cropped out of that photo. IMG_0529 They did let us into a mock locker (mocker?) room (which led you up a simulated stadium tunnel to the fake field) where this majestic carpet stretched out under folding chairs. Vera was here again, answering questions and looking more than ever like her appearance fee was too paltry to substantiate her continuing hand-waving. Want to give big props to our group here as only one adult in this photo is actually wearing shoes with tied shoelaces; it’s actually a decent surprise they even let Ben in here wearing plaid cloth slip-ons. Speaking of shoelaces… IMG_0531 After that we reached the skills challenges on the back wall, more or less what we’d been most excited for all morning. First on the docket was the speed pitch, prompting Mark to actually tie his shoes in preparation. This is a bigger deal than any of you realize. IMG_0533 IMG_0534 IMG_0536 As you can see, iPhones are amazing at capturing motion (OH MY GOD MARK’S HAAAAAND), but we all took four pitches at the Oxi Clean advertisement baseball dryer pictured above. The speed guns were quite wonky, and too dependent on your pitch going directly in the dryer, but it’s always a good time reminding yourself reality is quite different than your childhood delusions. Not pictured: yours truly, who after hitting the shadow batter directly in the face three times in a row, took the speed pitch title with a 69 mile per hour absolute MISSILE (oh my god we’re so old and worthless now) though, again, these radar guns were highly suspect. Rotator cuff injuries for everyone! Next stop: throwing accuracy. IMG_0537 Here is a riveting photo of the Firestone advertisement baseball tires that were the throwing accuracy station. I remain unclear of what we were attempting to accomplish here, but we threw a bunch of balls at tires, and some went through those tires and also one Mark threw flew back into the speed pitch area, endangering hundreds if not thousands. Jake and I also managed to throw a ball before the staff told us to start, leading to jokes at our expense from said staff as well as the parents of the six-year-olds who had successfully listened to the instructions. Next up: BUNTING. IMG_0538

Objective: bunt balls into tires, be that on the fly or if they bounce in. The kid in the blue was so intimidated by this whole situation, he put his helmet back and left, crying.

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OK, so he stuck it out. COME ON, BEN. The bat head’s below the handle. Terrible.

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Better. Still terrible.

IMG_0548 Decent odds the Morneau shirsey kid bunted more balls successfully into the tires than the four of us combined. IMG_0551 As best as I remember, we finished with a three-way tie for first place wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiith one bunt in a tire per person. I don’t remember who got zero, but either way, call the scouts. Next up? Base stealing, and the day’s most epic showdown. IMG_0553 Here is the base stealing area, complete with sample video screens so you can pretend to steal off your favorite pitcher. We waited in line again, this time chuckling at the fact that the only human beings participating in this were ages 10 and lower, and most of them were about five. Not only were we undeterred, Mark proceeded up to the first volunteer and asked if we could reserve three lines simultaneously so he, Jake and I could race each other. You know, because we’re adults. He laughed and said sure and we took our spots. As I am a complete moron, I was not sure when to take off and got a horrid jump which I unsuccessfully tried to make up for with a ridiculous dive upon reaching the mats. Mark’s and Jake’s jump were the opposite, crisp and speedy, and three grown men barreled down felt carpeting and slammed themselves into rubber padded mats, sending them flying. Staff ultimately determined Mark slid in narrowly ahead of Jake, and as I cannot embed video in this blog, here is the glorious footage of what transpired. I remain furious about everything that happened in this video. Pathetic showing. IMG_0605 IMG_0604 IMG_0603 IMG_0606 Final skills challenge was the classic batting cages. I remember literally none of this other than being annoyed we only got five pitches and the helmet squeezing my head so hard I thought I was going to fall asleep. It’s possible all adrenaline and machismo had been exhausted at the speed pitch and epic base stealing race; we can’t know. Fortunately for our pathetic old asses, there remained no more physical activity and only two more stops before sitting down and eating food for four hours. WIN. On to the Make Your Own Topps card station! IMG_0561 And here it is in all its glory! Here’s the deal: card is free, 45 minute line, any team’s jersey to dress up in from this wonderful rack of options. Photographer snaps picture, computer jockeys crop it, printer churns out cheap Topps cards. It was literally everything I wanted it to be times a thousand. Having had the benefit of a buddy doing this the day before, this nerd in particular knew the template was the ’65 Topps design, of which Mickey Mantle’s card is near perfection. While everyone had a plan going into the photos, mine was to mimic the Mick. IMG_0562IMG_0563                         Untitled   As you can see, results here are all over the map. We’ve got Jake going serious. We’ve got happy fun times smirkMark. We’ve got Ben attempting humor, which is tough for him you guys, so throw him a bone and chuckle at this when you read it; he could use it. Lastly, I did ok. Bat angle was strong, looking off camera accurate, laptop lady could have zoomed in one more notch. Sadly, I failed at two things: the first was the cool squint/smirk the Mick has on his face (I look like I’m laser-beaming something to death), and the second was having a neck and arms the size of culvert pipes. Oops. IMG_0572 Last stop was the seemingly endless cattle pen of merch. I could have blown four thousand dollars in there, and the guys got some awesome Twin Cities shirts, but I entered on a mission and I exited successful in that mission. Charlie pitching to Schroeder! No more Minneapolis baseball-ey thing has ever existed. IMG_0577

And that was that for Fan Fest! Afterwards, we meandered on over towards Target Field for the Futures Game and the Celebrity Softball contest. Those, and I, will see you in PART TWO! Head on over there! Hope you enjoyed the stupidity!

2013 Year in Review: The 12 (More or Less) Best Things I Consumed This Year

I’d say the responses when I ask someone if they read my blog range anywhere from “I would have but it was waaaaay too long” or “I didn’t know you had a blog” to “No” and  “Sir, if you’re not going to buy anything, please leave.” So I’m gonna keep writing ’em and I tried to shorten this one; don’t be fooled by scrolling, the pictures take up most of the space. Since it’s the end of the year and everyone gets in the mood to dichotomize something about the last 365 days (and argue about the resulting lists), I thought I’d jump in the fray for once. This started because some good friends of mine have a habit of making a ’50 Favorite Songs of the Year’ list around this time; they’re ridiculously impressive, and since I can name about five albums total per year, I joked I was going to make a ‘Ten Best Things I Ate This Year’ list (with the cinnamon pop tart I found in the middle drawer of my desk at work a couple months ago looking like a VERY strong contender) but it ended up turning into something a little more fun. I cheated and changed it to things I “consumed” so I could widen the scope and then threw in some ties, some sketchy rankings and probably forgot like six crazy things that should all be included. Most things were released or happened this year, some weren’t, who cares!. Without further adieu, the twelve best things I consumed in 2013. Feel free to argue!

***

12. The Unfinished Swan (Video Game)

The other button throws black paint. It's surreal.

It’s surreal. And awesome.

So, this is a video game. Well, no, it isn’t really a video game; there are no villains or puzzles or points, so, maybe it’s more like an interactive piece of artwork (I think)? And I don’t know what’s weirder: that there are only two buttons that function and one of them is ‘jump’ which accomplishes you absolutely nothing at any point in the “game,” or that the plot follows a young boy chasing a swan that escaped a painting which is all in fact a grief-induced delusion brought on by his mother dying. Wow. How has this game’s marketing team not hired me by now? This would be worth your time and the five bucks it probably costs by now even if you gave up after the first “level.”

11. Cheese Curds, The Old Fashioned, Madison, WI (Food)
If you don’t know what cheese curds are, I didn’t either until this year. Midwesterners are mad scientists of delicious things, so just Wikipedia them; they’re like rubbery pre-cheese. A friend and Madison native insisted I eat these when in town in August, proclaiming them the finest curds in America, and they were ridiculous. They were barely battered, barely fried, served with a funky horseradish-y sauce and one of them was the size of a Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuit (Red Lobster, have your people call my people). I consumed them with the house’s namesake, an Old Fashioned, which I highly recommend, but drink not required. Curds very required. Required curds.

10. Every Possible Piece of Information or Media of the San Francisco Bat Kid (News)

Boys Batman Wish
Alright, everyone already knows this one (if you don’t, here. And here’s video. The 2:04 mark will destroy every ounce of negativity in your body.), but seriously, let’s count it off: adult’s enabling childish BS and imagination to come to life for something genuine? Check. Little kid made impossibly happy? Check. Big middle finger to terminal illnesses and crushed dreams? Check. Mass selflessness? Like twenty thousand checks. Every human who contributed to this happening is now tied for my life hero.

9. A Portland Timbers Soccer Game from the Timbers Army Section (Event)
I already dropped four thousand words on this one a couple months ago; here’s the link. It has pictures and some jokes! Be my guest if you missed it, are extra bored or insanely hung over from New Years right now and aren’t making decision with a sound mind. If all three, you win!

8. The Lone Bellow at Mill City Nights (Performance)

Hey! I even took this one!

Hey! I even took this one!

This show was already off to a hot start for the fact it was free and my buddy and I somehow lucked into being “those people” right up against the stage railing. We were close enough to be nearly spit on by Zach Williams (he’s on the left) multiple times in what I can only describe as one of the most intense and passionate and crowd-friendly musical performances I’ve ever seen. They played hard and loud and when they did, Zach almost put a hole in the stage because he apparently super enjoys stomping his vintage distressed boot into the ground. They played soft and slow too, and when they did that, the three band members would intersperse total silence between harmonizing to let the melodies hit home, as shown above. See? No one’s singing! And the best part? Not a soul made a freaking peep when they would do it. Absolute silence. You don’t ever hear silence at a concert, even if the band is gunning for it, and regardless whether the show is great or garbage. It was silent. They earned it.

7. Tie – Seasons One of Orange is the New Black, Orphan Black (Television)
Crazy Eyes loses it on Alex
Yeah, the final season of Breaking Bad was awesome, no question, but I got a little bogged down with all the Nazis and Jesse having like twelve words of dialogue for the whole year. What WAS completely, holy crap, where-did-this-come-from type magnetically compelling were the premier seasons of these two shows. I think a lot of people have caught ‘Orange’ by now, which I hope is the case, as it’s hilarious and twisty and smarter than anything else I watched this year. I’m a sucker for big casts and flashbacks that completely subvert your assumptions (we miss you, Lost) and I changed which inmate I was rooting for the most about forty times. I think a lot less people have caught or heard of ‘Orphan’ but hopefully, all six people who read this will give it a shot! This show receives the ultimate compliment in that I devoured all ten episodes in one day, and I am the most vehement hater of binge-TV-watching on Earth. Good sci-fi (stay spoiler free!) and the bestest, ridiculousest high-wire-acting performance by a person I can think of; Tatiana Maslany plays almost every character on the show (and all three women above. Watch to find out why. This show’s super cool).

6. Jason Isbell’s ‘Southeastern’ (Music)

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Please don’t let this be one of those pretentious and douchey times someone lists a musician no one’s ever heard of to seem cool and cultured; the Atlanta Braves beat writer loves this guy’s music and pimped the Atlanta native’s solo album like crazy so I gave it a shot. It was great, and then it somehow ended up on a bunch of these best of the year lists (how meta!), including #4 on Amazon’s best albums of the year and numero uno if you ask the American Songwriters. It’s kind of like reading a biography set to a melody, and even if I can’t sympathize with some of his drug and alcohol recovery confessions, I dare you to find another place where someone manages to successfully (and still melodiously) rhyme “benzodiazepine” or outdoes my favorite lyrics of the year, written to his wife in southern ink:

“Go leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leavin’ this room;
‘til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom.”

5. Tie – The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell, The Fault In Our Stars by John Green (Books)
books
I know. Very indecisive. It’s only going to get worse if this annoyed you that badly. The first is a tale of exploration after a flu kills 99% of the country (no zombies here, just solitude) and an amazing love letter written to nature (Heller writes for Outdoors Magazine), man’s best friend and Andy Dufresne’s advice to “get busy living or get busy dying.” Stay for the wonderful ending. The second is a 180 page historical puzzle of Americana orchestrated around a 1920’s dance hall explosion that killed hundreds in a small town in the Ozarks. The author manipulates words that create entirely unexpected reactions in your brain, not unlike a chemist mixing chemicals. He can and does write single sentences with 20 words that shift your emotions three times, actually pull the wool over your eyes twice, fully characterize someone, stick with you enough to remember them vividly even 100 pages later and make grubby amateur blog writers feel like just throwing in the towel forever. Another amazing ending. The last one’s a, stick with me here, young adult romance novel about two high-school age kids with terminal cancer . . . and might be the funniest book I’ve ever read. It’s so honest and clever. Definitely no happy endings here, but like the book points out, that’s the fault in our stars. Movie adaptation is this summer, but don’t wait for that.

4.  Tie – The Views Behind Frozen Minnehaha Falls, Minneapolis, MN and Atop the Astoria Column, Astoria, OR (View)

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Hey fun! I took this one too! Otherworldly.

For everyone that complains these blogs are too long, this will be the lengthy one, so hang in there if you haven’t bailed out yet. Behind Minnehaha Falls in southeast Minneapolis between January and April, you can slip behind the completely frozen waterfall into a cavern closed in by a temporary wall of ice. Seriously. A wall. Of ice. You can touch it, or lean against it, because it’s a freaking WALL OF ICE. Getting up there is something of a trick (apologies to my sister, as all we managed to do was injure ourselves) but once you do, holy crap. Wall of ice. The winning visit was a day in May with friends from back home when just a bit of the water had started to rush again over the outer-facing side of the ice wall, and the sunshine painted a kaleidoscopic rainbow on the interior. It was a highlight of my year to share this place with a few sets of wayward Florida friends. And where this view is an astonishing enclosed space, the view atop the Astoria Column is, well, less restrictive. You can see for fifty miles in every direction.

12:00 - 1:30 or so.

12:00 – 1:30 or so.

Picture a clock face. When you step out of the dizzying spiral staircase into the misty coastal air and look ahead, noon is the tiny home of the Goonies, picturesque Astoria, built onto a hill and falling down towards the Columbia river. Start walking clockwise and one o’clock is the massive Astoria-Megler Bridge, crossing into Washington state over the emptying mouth of the confluence of the Columbia and a few other rivers. Two o’clock is the busy Port of Astoria. Three o’clock on down through just after six runs the fat, blue ribbon of the mighty Columbia, cutting a deep gorge between the state lines and heading for Portland and beyond. Seven o’clock finds you mountains. Real snow-capped mountain peaks, just in case the river bed was misleading. Eight o’clock through nine are miles of interminable fields of Oregon timbers, undulating over unseen hills and ranges, a churning sea of pine. And the clock saves the best for the last: ten o’clock on back through the low-lying south side of Astoria are wetlands. Not like Florida swamps, but happy little towns and rolling greens buttressed up to the shores of and dotted in between three rivers that race to the Pacific alongside the Columbia with Astoria as the finish line, and even on a misty and dreary Oregon fall day, those rivers glowed orange. They glowed and they shone in the low autumn sun like they ran from unseen forges that emptied somewhere over the horizon, filling them with molten gold. I stared and stared and then I walked ten feet to see the mountain peaks again. Then a few more for the ships headed to the port. And then the Columbia. Then Astoria. The pines. Golden rivers. I got very dizzy, but it didn’t have much to do with my equilibrium.

3. Tie – Gravity and Frozen (Film)
movies

It’s ironic how contradictory these movies are. One I may never watch again and one I may never stop watching again. One will make you feel like the happiest little kid ever and one will fray your nerves like a cut bungee tether, give you about thirty heart attacks. I loved Gravity because of the absolutely inimitable experience of watching in the theater, that two hours of hating every time I had to blink: superficially astonishing with a message and plot that don’t really matter, like the most colorful and massive firework to ever light up the very night sky it’s set in. I still say I would have paid $100 for that IMAX showing and not felt cheated in the slightest. I hope my eyes ever witness something like it again, as it’s always nice in the land of sequels, remakes and comic book franchising when something expands the scope of what we thought a medium was capable of. As for Frozen, there are certainly impressive visuals but the characters and the message are the real joys, and for the first time in forever I paid twice to see a movie in the theater, did so happily. I almost went a third time a couple days after viewing number two, and I can only assume this is how my four-year-old self felt about The Little Mermaid, how my eight-year-old self felt about The Sandlot. In now 2014, when political quagmire hell and weekly mass shootings are coming to be the norm, what’s it worth, what is it really worth to feel childlike giddy happiness again as a cynical adult? I realize a man in his late twenties waxing poetic about a Disney cartoon and your ‘inner child’ is pretty weird so for everyone reading this and thinking I’m nuts, I don’t blame you. I get it, I really do, but I’m sorry someone froze your heart somewhere along the line. I want to watch this movie right now.

2. Fish Sauce Wings and SOM Drinking Vinegars, Pok Pok, Portland, OR (Food)

Don't lick your screen. Fly to Portland.

Don’t lick your screen. Fly to Portland.

Holy. Crap. I’m not a food writer (or much of a regular one to be honest). Telling people how something tastes seems like an adventure in vanity to me, it’s entirely subjective. This was another impossibly successful recommendation from a buddy, as these wings had the most unique flavor I’ve ever tasted and are covered in caramelized sugar. Go eat them some time. Seriously. They’ll make them for you, I promise. The drinks I mentioned were a bit stranger; as some of my friends know, I’m a weird guy who likes balsamic vinegar so much I’m a little snooty about it and will drink it straight on occasion. Well guess what, JERKS: this place makes DRINKS OUT OF FLAVORED VINEGARS. VALIDATION TASTES SO SWEET. No, like, super sweet and equally delicious, or at least the two flavors I ordered were (grapefruit and Thai basil). And they sell the vinegars (just add soda water!). Does anyone remember that scene in the movie Zodiac where Downey Jr. pokes fun at Gyllenhaal’s neon blue Aqua Velva drink order and then it smash cuts to about a dozen empty blue glasses in front of Downey right after he tries the drink? That’s what happened. Our table was full of empty glasses because they were delicious.

Well, thanks for reading all these, whether you already knew them all, knew none of them or could give a crap either way. I hope 2014 brings your eyes, ears, mouth, fingertips and brain memorable things to consume greedily, and in spades. An original Christopher Nolan movie. The World Cup. It should be great. Number one will be the shortest entry by far but the one I most greedily hope I can consume again this year: the vacation days and frequent flyer miles of my family and friends. My god, I love you guys.

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War in the Rose City: A Day Spent At Ground Zero of Soccer’s American Takeover

On the northeast corner of 18th Avenue and Morrison Street, Flounder, Ariel’s impossibly loveable and supportive roly-poly fish of a best friend from The Little Mermaid, is drenched in his own blood. There is a lot of blood, so much so that the spatters reach back to his tail fin, leaving him simply looking like a slightly more exotic species of fish, striped now in all three primary colors. His eyes are literally exploding forward from his head in horror, betraying the fact that he spent his final seconds terrified and confused before an unknown assailant drove a double-bit axe deep between his eyes. The axe remains buried in his head.

The sight is gruesome, unsettling and intentional; Flounder’s killer has not only remained at the scene but is proudly resting the hilt of the sickening axe/fish/trophy on his shoulder like a grotesque knapsack, parading the chilling image of Flounder’s cloven body through the streets, proof of his ritualistic killing. The murderer is using Flounder’s body to send a message in papier mâché to intimidate his enemies and compromise their will before they wage war in earnest later tonight.

Tonight, in Portland, Oregon, at the corner of 18th Avenue and Morrison Street, there is a soccer game.

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***

I love soccer. I love it despite the fact that almost no one else even likes it. My dad was a high school soccer coach and it was the one sport when I was a kid that all of my best friends also played, so I spent a lot of hours dodging bees on the fields at Pine Street Park. I obsess over the World Cup and I was frequently one of the scant few fans in the stands at the fledgling third-tier Orlando City FC’s home games in the mass of stone and tetanus that is the Citrus Bowl. This dog stuck prominently to my mirror as a kid (and wherever that mirror is it may still be stuck to it . . . sorry, Mom). I love it for being the purest display of community and passion in all of sports, the very reasons I love sports, the fan section at the Swamp for a big Saturday night game only cranked up to 11. Sadly, liking soccer after the age of twelve is not only a minority opinion in this country but one that will usually catch you some abuse, some mockery. The game is a frequent punchline for jokes, especially if their subject is boredom, even from the mouths of comedy sources I respect the highest like The Colbert Report and Saturday Night Live. So when the opportunity presented itself to attend the real deal (as far as America goes, anyway), an MLS game in the Pacific Northwest, the inexplicable cradle of America’s soccer rebirth, I was so thrilled I decided I would document my experience by keeping a running diary through the day. I did it so I could remember my experience and in hopes others might see what a real match day environment is like in a place where soccer not only matters but is absolutely beloved (maybe it could somehow magically change a few minds?). Plus, it wouldn’t be just any old MLS game, but a home game for one of the MLS’ greatest success stories, the Portland Timbers and the Timbers Army, their group of fanatical supporters. Oh, and I’d be sitting amongst those impassioned lunatics, including team mascot Timber Joey, a man prone to sawing plates of wood from a massive log for every Timber goal. And the Timbers would be playing their hated rival the Seattle Sounders (who they derisively call the ‘Flounders,’ get it?). And the Sounders would be bringing along their equally zealous fans, the Emerald City Supporters. And it would be U.S. national team star Clint Dempsey’s first game in a Sounders kit at hostile Jeld-Wen Field since being paid a fortune to come fall down on U.S. soil instead of Her Majesty’s. And one point separated the two teams in the standings with the playoffs on the line. And the winner would find itself in first place in the Western Conference.

Barring playoff games, it would essentially be the best game an American soccer fan could possibly attend.

Portland has embraced soccer fandom to an extent I previously assumed would only ever be a pipe dream. I was excited to see what gameday looked like in a place where thousands of people are obsessed with futbol instead of foo– well, the other one. Above all else I really, truly wanted to see something that would validate my optimism that what’s happened in Portland, Seattle, Kansas City and Philadelphia could happen in other cities across the country; that this whole American soccer thing might finally catch on. There has been hope in the past, but America’s soccer history is bloodier than a Game of Thrones novel. To summarize that as briefly as possible, we’ve had a number of leagues field dozens of teams that last a couple years and then fold due to financial ruin and fan apathy; no one in this country ever gives a crap, plain and simple. The popularity of those leagues was directly tied to the fortunes of the U.S. national team’s World Cup performances, so in 1994 domestic soccer love for our shiny new professional Major League Soccer was off the charts after we hosted the Cup that summer (and wore the single finest sports uniforms in competitive athletic history). Six years later, the MLS was nearly bankrupt and contracting teams (bye bye, Tampa and Miami). It is doing much better these days, even planning new expansion teams (COME ON, ORLANDO), but it is still an also-ran in the American sports consciousness, let alone compared to the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga or Italy’s Serie A. Teams like Chivas USA bring bad memories and anxiety due to mismanagement and lack of fan interest, just like the good old days; one step forward, two steps back. The rest of America has never given me reason to believe soccer will ever succeed here or the U.S.A would compete for a World Cup in my lifetime, even though I want it to flourish to the point that it leads the evening news like it does abroad. I want people to experience the passion of singing for 90+ minutes in a supporter’s section of doctors and attorneys by day, mild degenerates by night. I greedily want my friends to find it exultantly fun. I so badly want to look back laughingly on the day when everyone thought soccer was boring, but I know better. I do not get my hopes up.

So I enlisted in the Timbers Army for a day.

timber joey

***

all times noted are Pacific Standard Time, October 14, 2013

7:04 am – Alarm is going off, and it’s doing that before 9 am while on vacation because the Timbers Army section of seats is general admission; thousands of seats sold and no one has a specified seat number. So, you must get a wristband with a number printed on it, and that is the order Army personnel will be let into the stadium 90 minutes prior to kickoff (and before anyone else is let in). Earlier you get in line, the better choice of seats available come match time. I choke down two Tylenol to stifle a headache and throw on a green flannel shirt (go Timbers) and even greener underwear (go Timbers). Steeling my nerves for a day of tough-talking bravado and faux macho idiot hooliganism.

7:51 am – Starbucks, grande chai tea latte. Well, I gave it my best shot.

8:17 am – An uphill hike brings us to Jeld-Wen Field and the line, which stretches an unknown distance north into the foggy Portland morning. Chairs set up, meet fellow Timber militia who are part of our group, settle in. The entire line is decked in green and gold and I am the only jerk without a scarf which is annoying (if this makes no sense, soccer supporters wear team scarves . . . just go with it!), as I love soccer scarves only slightly less than I love soccer. Line rumor places the folks at the front of the line in their spots since Thursday evening. It is Sunday.

9:01 am – The cold is settling in better than we are (it’s in the 40s) but a Minnesota winter has prepared me well, as I am fairly warm and teaching people cribbage (and nothing says rowdy fandom like math-based card games!). A group waiting behind us has begun juggling a ball, quite well actually. The day’s first alcohol is consumed when one member of our party walks across the street and buys a shot of tequila solely so she can use the bathroom. Upon returning and reporting feeling much warmer, two others immediately leave to also buy tequila shots.

9:54 am – Boredom leads one of our party to walk to the front of the line for some investigating; she confirms they arrived at 7 am Saturday and have been camping out since. Not as insane as was thought but still pretty insane awesome. As there are legal issues with camping in downtown Portland overnight, police have apparently set up barricades to allow the fans to stay as some form of legal temporary housing. Good job, Portland’s finest!

10:02 am – Yelling breaks out ahead of us but, alas, it is not hooliganism, it’s celebratory; the line is moving. The team’s policy is to distribute the wristbands anywhere from three to eight hours prior to game time, strategically maintaining this window of uncertainty to weed out the fair-weather fans who can’t be bothered with such hassles. Mercifully, today’s decision is the maximum eight hours prior to game time as I am now cold and all that “Minnesota winter” was a bunch of bullcrap. Papier mâché Flounder and his murderer are first glimpsed.

10:29 am – Wristband secured. Upon receiving them, fans are free to leave but asked to return to the line in their designated section before 4 pm for kick-off at 6 pm. I am a member of the Timbers Army, number 0569.

***

3:40 pm – The walk from pre-game drinking at a local soccer bar to the stadium is on, with my current anticipation/giddiness level not dissimilar to the slow clanking of a roller coaster as it crawls up the chain to the first drop. As we walk, Kasey Keller, the greatest goalkeeper in American soccer history and the man single-handedly responsible for the only time the United States has ever beaten Brazil in 17 attempts, hurriedly passes us heading the other direction. I panic with excitement; not only does no one else in the group pay attention but one actually turns around to loudly mock him about finishing his career playing for hated Seattle. Awesome.

3:48 pm – I detour from the group to satisfy my quest to purchase a scarf from the Timbers Army tent instead of the Adidas store, as it’s way better when it’s handmade by real fans, sold at cost and not available anywhere else because it’s custom designed for Army members (you heard me right; specific soccer scarves made by fans specifically for other fans sitting in a specific section) but my plan derails; they’re sold out. I sulk back to the group, all of whom are now in line again, extremely bummed out and resolve to just overpay for an Adidas scarf at the team store. One of the longest-tenured and most passionate Timbers supporters of our group hears the story and hands me his scarf, the same scarf he has worn to years of Timbers games, with untold numbers of memories now woven in the threads. I immediately refused, knowing exactly how much it is killing him to offer this to me but he ignores it, says he’ll buy another one, is just happy to have another soccer lover in the Army tonight. I am impossibly grateful. In the meantime, joyous songs have broken out, chants are increasing in volume and a parade of pro-Seattle signs and fans that is passing by is met with screams of “GO HOME, SHITTLE.”

4:00 pm – The mad dash for the choice Timbers Army seats begins as the line is now being let in. Confusion breaks out as we lose track of the line entirely before smashing through the dense crowd and jumping in again; who knows if we lost or gained spots. Two members of our group are gone, now twenty people back. The people we have fallen in with are angrily singing ‘I’d Rather Bomb Seattle Than Iraq’ to the tune of ‘She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain.’ I forcibly pinball off of strangers and end up reaching the gate with only one other friend, a veteran Army member. Right before her ticket is scanned and knowing I am underestimating what is about to happen, she turns to me and says “Are you ready?”

UNKNOWN TIME – Chaos. Shoving. Grown men and women in dead sprints past the closed concession stands. Vision and memory of events fuzzy. People screaming at strangers, frantically trying to secure seats. Others are literally jumping over rows of chairs like hurdlers, which is made extra challenging as the team has placed massive flags in every third seat for the fans to wave. We briefly secure one chunk of seats before leaping down three more rows to better ones. We finally settle here.

4:54 pm – Cheers have been continuous since reaching our seats. There is not a fan in sight without one or more beers on their person. Someone is running through the aisles blowing bubbles. The Seattle supporters, sequestered in a single section of chairs on the total opposite side of the stadium, begin to wave massive banners and sing; Timber war drums respond, reverberating thunder from every direction, boom boom boom boom.

5: 05 pm – Handfuls of Monopoly money with Clint Dempsey’s face printed on them are distributed (teams that don’t spend as much money always like to point out success is hollow if bought; I can’t tell if Seattle cares in the least). The Army unites to sing a song about their two Cascadia rivals, Seattle and the Vancouver Whitecaps, set to the tune of ‘Oh My Darlin’:

“Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put Seattle on the top!
Put Vancouver in the middle and we’ll burn the fucking lot!”

5:24 pm – Seattle first hits the field. 3,000 adults jingle their car keys with one hand and flip them off with the other.

gutthefish

6:03 pm – Timbers coach (and handsome sonofabitch) Caleb Porter enters the field to euphoric cheers as the PA announcer whips the entire stadium into a frenzy. Music is played, the army is dancing in the aisles. The jumbotron shows footage of one row of Army members who brought letters to spell out “GUT THE FISH” which causes further joyous pandemonium. The aforementioned flags are being waved furiously, one of which is being manned by a drunken idiot over my right shoulder who crushes me across the head with the PVC pipe flagpole. I wasn’t mad until I turned and saw he was oblivious to what had happened, was wearing no Timber’s gear, no green at all, and a Boston Red Sox hat. Then I was mad.

6:05 pm – The national anthem. The entire Army proudly sings along and drowns out whoever is singing on the field. The second it ends, as instructed, the fans toss the provided Monopoly money into the air in a technicolor cloud of Dempsey-trolling mockery. As the bills float to the ground, the Army unveils its tifo (here’s the video if you want to see for yourself or hear how loud it was). If you’re not familiar with tifo, it’s the term for essentially any large-scale choreography performed by a team’s fans, usually in soccer, usually orchestrated/paid for/hand-made entirely by said fans, always personalized to each game and almost always reserved for momentous anniversaries or local derbies rivalry games. Tonight’s did not disappoint.

tifo

Pretty clever, with some Beatles-themed abuse targeting Seattle’s pricey Dempsey signing and ingeniously setting their fans up for disappointment regardless of the game’s result; if Seattle wins, they’ll have had to buy their success. If they lose, they will have wasted that money, for today at least, at the hands of the courageous, small-market underdogs. Ingenious (we were behind the word ‘me’ in ‘can’t buy me love’). Fans are grabbing handfuls of the monopoly money that’s now carpeting the aisles and are Lebron-ing them into the air. They are jumping up and down alongside the falling bills, dancing, screaming, every flag is waving.

6:16 pm – Kickoff.

***

I didn’t keep any notes during the game because I just wanted to enjoy the experience and, let’s be honest, what was I going to say? There are plenty of inspiring, phenomenal sports writers who with ease do what I’ve been haphazardly trying to do by writing this, that is vividly detailing what is so beautiful about the beautiful game. What I do remember is that Clint Dempsey did what he always does, which was spend more time on the ground than the ball did, and it’s a lot less defensible when he’s not wearing the red, white and blue. The guy in front of me looked and acted like Andy Kaufman if he had Sideshow Bob’s hair and never put his damn arms down the entire game, as if Malcolm Gladwell and one of these things had a love child. Just before halftime the Timbers scored to go up 1-0 and confetti and streamers and people began raining down everywhere. Gas canisters were burst and green and yellow smoke swallowed the Army while Timber Joey’s chainsaw roared to life. The chants and songs literally never stopped, so many I cannot remember half of them, 4,000 people strong singing for 90 minutes. At some point during the scoreless second half an actual fight happened, that started with the Sounders captain elbowing a Timber in the face, continued when he then tried to fight the referees and ended when security removed him from the field. As the dust settled, the drums got louder, BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM.

8:01 pm – After an INSANE final few minutes in which a Sounders shot hit the goalpost for the second time that night, the ref blows the whistle for full time. Timbers win, 1-0. The gas began billowing again, the flags literally filled the air, strangers emotionally embraced, couples made out in the war zone.

8:10 pm – Timbers players and coach Caleb Porter walk to the North end zone to thank the Army. Porter holds his Timbers Army scarf aloft, the players do the same with Timber Joey’s wooden plates (one is given to the Timber goalkeeper for the shutout). The drums are pounding and pounding.

8:16 pm – While the stadium has emptied, no one in the Army has left their seats. Coincidentally, neither has the Seattle section, which sits across the stadium, stoically watching us revel. Four thousand adults again flip them off, this time with both capable hands, and instead of cheering ‘Let’s Go Tim-Bers!’ with some pace-keeping claps in between, loudly scream “FUCK SE-ATT-LE!!!! FUCK SE-ATT-LE!!!!” long into the night.

***

A couple of years ago, the Timbers Army newly came under fire (previously, management had disseminated pamphlets warning the Army to cut their swearing from cheers, had even posted security in the Army section. Fans responded by abandoning section 107 entirely and singing the same chants while spread around the stadium). This time, a mother sent an email to the team’s owner. She was furious with the amount of cursing her three sons had been subjected to at a recent game, saying “this is not England, and you should not tolerate Portland Timbers Hooligans.” Her email labeled army members “a bunch of angry white guys tanked up on liquor,” stated the team would never succeed financially because “there are simply not enough drunks in Portland to pay the bills,” and warned ownership to do something about the stadium’s “mob mentality.” Timbers owner Merritt Paulson personally responded. While professionally addressing her concerns, he also promptly refuted her accusation of hooliganism and wrote “MLS soccer teams would be ecstatic to have a supporters group like the TA, which provides an authentic soccer ambiance second to none in the U.S.” He ended his email with this: “If you are … offended by the TA, then do not sit near them. – Regards, Merritt.”

My day rooting for the Timbers was a great day, an indelibly memorable day, because I spent it amongst the best kind of company, the selfless kind who gives you a hug after the game even though you only met them that morning, that asks to read the blog post you’ve been weirdly keeping notes to help write even though you might be a piss poor, rambling writer who abuses run-on sentences, that sincerely tells me “You earned that scarf.” It was a great day to be amongst so many who, win or lose, were having an absolute blast. It seems less significant that the Timbers won the game. Or that they beat their rival. Or that come midnight they were in first place and I got to watch it all. Because what I want to happen in this country, what I came here greedily hoping to also see, other than simply a good soccer game, might actually be happening this time. It certainly has already happened in Portland because they’ve all lost their minds. They somehow love soccer! An owner defending his supporters section’s insane behavior! Law enforcement going out of their way to help passionate fans bend the law instead of, well, enforcing it! Fans not only showing up to soccer games but showing up days early! With tifo! The list goes on and on. So we can only hope (or maybe just I can only hope) this same insanity reaches the fanbases, ownership and players of the other MLS clubs. That new cities for potential expansion clubs in Orlando, Miami and elsewhere can embrace it where in the past it has failed. That the average American sports fan stops thinking of soccer derisively as that insufferably boring game for foreigners where everyone just fakes injuries all the time, something unfit for American television sets, the punchline of the joke. At least in Portland, soccer is no one’s joke.

Ask Flounder.

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Winter is Coming or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Snow

“Renewing one’s spirit through reading new books, taking up new hobbies, adopting new viewpoints, making new friends, traveling to new places; that is the art of adventure.”

-Wilferd Peterson

“Minnesota? Why?”

-Everyone else

So, last September, I up and moved from sunny Florida North of the Wall. (To be clear before anyone asks, this post’s title is a Dr. Strangelove ripoff and this ‘Wall’ is a fictional defensive stronghold from the fantasy/HBO/Tolkien-wannabe series Game of Thrones. It separates civilized land-developed Westeros from the snow-blanketed death, horror and ice-zombie-riddled barren wasteland North of it. No sane person ventures north of the Wall. I like to front-load these posts with nerdy references like these because, well, if you’re not on board with them you are going to hate everything that comes next and probably everything else on this blog. I’m really saving you time and energy. Onward!

A couple weeks ago when trying to brainstorm an interesting way to write about my first Winter in Minnesota ever, I thought it might be fun to detail all of the wintry things I did and compare them to something a Floridian would understand. I know plenty of people in Florida DO understand what a real Winter is like but I certainly didn’t, so I’m going to try to summarize the last seven plus months for myself, circa three years ago. Maybe then he/I could actually appreciate the Winter X-Games or Olympics or the first twenty minutes of Empire Strikes Back for once. Besides, some Winter activities are very obviously frozen versions of something familiar, like swapping Jet Skis for snowmobiles or building snowmen instead of sand castles. It seemed as good of an idea as any.

On a related note, I’ve been holding off on writing anything about my Winter exploits (let’s all just ignore and move past that I haven’t written on this blog for over a year) because the damn thing isn’t over yet. It snowed yesterday. It’s going to be in the ’30s for Cinco de Mayo.*** Depending on which hyperbolic local news telecast’s statistics you believe, this is the longest/soul-numbingest Minnesota Winter in 30 or 130 years. That wasn’t a joke; there was more snow in April this year where I just moved to than in any year dating nearly to the American Civil War. Everyone jokes it’s my fault, that I caused this, and that Minneapolis is either trying to tell me to go home or is thoroughly hazing me as some sort of Minnesota fraternity induction. Anyways, I was going to wait until Spring arrived but right now, this place is pulling some sort of Day After Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day voodoo and I’m not sure when that’s going to happen. So I’ll just write something now and hope it’s somehow so stupid it manages to drive the cold away (for a solid four months when it’s going to stroll right on back over).
***Editor’s Note: I wrote this paragraph two weeks ago (I get distracted and it takes me forever to write). It has since gotten much warmer and now the weather problems are flash floods and tornado watches complete with sirens going off. So let’s say it worked, I did it!

Some VERY loose rules: I tried to use activities exclusive to non-Snowbirds, the ones that take advantage of extreme weather. Nine degrees Minnesota Winter, 99 degrees Gulf Coast Summer. Also, I tried my best to toss out things you can do in both of those environments like kayaking (SNOWKAYAKINGAMAZING!!). That’s cheating. Lastly, an apology: some of these comparisons will be used in lieu of much more obvious choices and most if not all will be complete nonsense. Some will probably ignore/violate all of the rules I just laid out. That said, ladies and gentlemen, start your engines (and hope it actually started on the first try because it might somehow be -21 degrees outside and your steering wheel is like, whoa, ow!, totally stinging your hands and holy crap why isn’t the heat working faster and oh fun! I’m fishtailing through an intersecti . . . sorry).

***

SNOW TUBING

Front row, thumbs up.

Front row, thumbs up.

Snow tubing consisted of exactly what it sounds like it would consist of: renting a tough rubber inner tube and riding it down a hill. An important distinction between this and sledding: this costs money, the hill usually undulates on the way down to avoid gathering up too much speed and your route is usually divided into lanes to keep you from bowling-pin-obliterating slower tubers, seven-year-olds or yourself on a pine tree. Bummer, right? Tubing was a blast and was a hundred times more fun going down in a linked-up pack of people/tubes, which never held the straight-line formation you start with but more so resembled a flying downhill chemical compound. Going by yourself was soooooo slow and infinitely less hilarious, although if in a group, the couple people at the back of the chain did get covered in a shower of ice shavings leaving you looking a little bit like diamond-form Emma Frost. It’s simple, you ride down the hill, you walk up ride a long, thirty-degree-incline people mover to the top, you wait in a line a bit, rinse, repeat.
Florida Comparison: No-brainer: Water Slides. There are even shorter, flatter, safer lanes and taller, more daredevilish ones, complete with matching long lines.

***

SNOWBALL FIGHTS

Just as fun as they look in movies, you pack snow and you throw it at stuff. What I did not know is that only certain kinds of snow work for snowbalWAIT THERE’S DIFFERENT KINDS OF SNOW? Apparently there are different kinds of snow. It wasn’t in the brochure. The kind you don’t want for snowballs comes down when the weather’s the coldest and the snow is devoid of any melty moisture. It resembles powdered sugar falling from the sky and if you try to pick it up, the mere action of reaching for it will send it flying. The GOOD stuff comes down when it warms up a bit, maybe when the air temps are in the 30s or so, and this stuff comes down like wet beach sand is heavy to shovel and magnificent for the pummeling of faces. It packs into a ball like cookie dough and holds its lethal shape flawlessly. It is extremely unwise to throw a single snowball unless you wish to be immediately revenge attacked tenfold; a better decision is to quietly build up an arsenal of snowballs and then absolutely demolish an unsuspecting person so they are unable to retaliate. This is also secretly extremely exhausting and an awesome workout and reloading freaking sucks because you’re totally exposed. Beware the occasional hybrid snow/dirt/mud snowball, a weapon favored by ex-convicts, Yankees fans and general classless reprobates.
Florida Comparison: Since wartime rules for both activities are either nonexistent or immediately ignored by the participants, and just like the light v. heavy snow issue, using salt water in your gun will corrode it immediately, Super Soaker battles.

***

SNOWBOARDING

Turning left, good. Turning right, separated shoulder.

Turning left, good. Turning right, separated shoulder.

Easily the most insane and insanely difficult thing I did this Winter, I took a stab three stabs at snowboarding. Keep in mind, I have never gone water-skiing, surfing or even skateboarding, which was made embarrassing public knowledge immediately when the Buck Hill board rental guy asked if I ride”normal” or “goofy” and I stared blankly at him for a full six seconds (Fun Fact! ‘Board rental guy’? Venice High School, Venice, Florida, Class of 1996. Second Fun Fact!! He could not have cared less I went to Lemon Bay. He really couldn’t have).  Turns out it was “normal” and Kyler and I went out to our beginner snowboard class, progressing pathetically by our standards but Shaun White-ishly by judging our classmates attempts. Somehow, this came to me just a little bit intuitively? I wish I was joking but I’m not when I say I think playing snowboarding video games like 1080 and SSX actually kinda helped, as I started leaning into turns or dipping and rising for momentum. Speaking of momentum, it is so so so weird to be moving extremely fast when NONE of your muscles are moving at all. Eventually, our instructors cleared us to go up to the top of the smallest run at Buck Hill and do our damnedest to not die on the way down, which we failed at beautifully. Speaking for myself, I can lean back on my heels and turn left or stop with ease. Transitioning from that lean-back left-turn to then being on your toes to turn right or managing your speed at ALL while on your toes? A complete impossibility. You either get going insanely fast with no hope of slowing other than strategically sitting down or you get stuck on a flat part of the hill with no momentum and have to stupidly wiggle yourself to the closest sloped portion. At one point while going what felt like 100 miles an hour (reality: maybe 15), I fell so hard and the impact was so fast I was absolutely certain that everything connecting my right shoulder to every other part of my body had just snapped clean through like rubber bands you didn’t realize were old and dried up, just pain-free, POOF, everything cleanly disconnected, like that *snaps fingers*. Luckily that wasn’t the case, shoulder was just a little sore, moving on. Kyler, who was much better at this, was also cruising down with ease when he caught the back lip of his board instead of the toe edge and just . . . vanished. Picture following someone down the hill and then in a tenth of a second, all you see is the design on the bottom of their board flash like a dolphin fin and then both it and the rest of them are just absolutely nowhere. Now, picture boarding right past them down the hill unable to help since you can’t stop! Fun! He seemed fine at the time so we went out on that all-day lift ticket and went down the hill for like six hours (later, we’re both fairly certain he had a mild concussion). I got to try the same thing with my sister a few weeks later and gave it a shot at a bigger ski resort in Wisconsin with some coworkers a couple weeks after that. The highlights from that one, other than me finally giving up and just watching the professionals come flying down the hill, included me going 0 for 5 in dismounting off the chairlift (not a joke), with one instance resulting in me wiping out not just myself but both of my passengers as well. The 40 or 50 bros standing around at the summit cheered and laughed at my incompetence.
Florida Comparison: People want to say wakeboarding but wakeboarding is too flat and my sister adamantly denies that comparison (and she’s quite good at wakeboarding). Instead, let’s say Surfing. Both are gravity-operated and only last as long as the hill or wave lets it last. Both require patience to swim out to catch a wave/ride the chairlift to the top of the run. Both make you look insanely cool even if you suck at them.

***

SNOWSHOEING

Gratefully, snowshoeing was one of the things I enjoyed the most this Winter because I didn’t instantly suck at it while everyone else got a good laugh in at the adorably incompetent Floridian. Zero learning curve and instant exploration of parts unknown? Perfect. We actually snowshoed around Giant’s Ridge ski resort while the rest of our cabinmates happily carved up the slopes, something I’d about had my fill of for the year since the only things I had carved up were my checking account and both of my shins when I fell off the chairlift onto Brady’s snowboard. Snowshoes were not at all like I imagined: I stupidly thought snowshoes ingenious design kept you perched perfectly atop the snow without sinking in so much as in inch. That was very wrong, as they sink like crazy, most of the time just as helplessly into the powdery abyss as regular shoes, but the important thing being at least in these you can lift your foot and keep walking with some effort. We trudged across some very fresh snow, sinking hilariously, up some hills, through some wooded areas, followed some deer tracks at one point. If given the choice, I don’t recommend the poles they offer you. They just become a nuisance and you won’t need them. This takes the cake for peaceful, outdoor excellence. It was essentially prolonged sightseeing with incredible views and was awesome exercise without crossing the line into exhaustion. I’m going to have to buy a pair for next Winter.
Florida Comparison: You’re out there for an eye-opening, fun adventure exploring remote landscapes and you’re using technology and equipment to be in an environment humans really have no place being. This must be Scuba diving.

***

CROSS COUNTRY SKIING

Made sure to at least dress the part.

Made sure to at least dress the part.

This one I have regrets about and they’re mainly orchestrated around only having gotten to do it once. Similarly, this exact thing is what I’m clinging to whenever the prospect of this year’s Winter not being that many months off comes up; I look forward to doing this often and, don’t hold your breath, enough that I’m not abysmal at it. You’re outdoors. Stress is low. Nature high. It can be horribly taxing and then SUDDENLY EXHILARATING! I mostly sucked at it but could tell this is one of those things that’s worth sucking at for a while (things that are not worth sucking at for even a small while? First-person shooter video game, tolerating the two hottest wing flavors at Buffalo Wild Wings and the Insanity workout). As I’ve become someone who enjoys running quite a bit over the last couple years, this was both a dream and a nightmare and here’s why. It was a dream because it preserves all the extraneous benefits of running: minimal stress exercise that’s really just a disguised excuse to go watch animals do stuff and see plants that are awesome and sometimes find weird places you didn’t know existed. It was a complete and utter nightmare because I strapped my skis on and I wanted to run on them. And I kept stubbornly subconsciously trying to do exactly that, making life miserable for myself and hilarious for Steph and Marie, my comrades/instructors. This might be intuitive to people who skateboarded or ice skated with any regularity as kids but I never did. I just do not trust any kinetic movement unless my brain and my feet coordinated and approved it, one at a time, nice and slow and completely predictable. Snowboarding was terrifying, I barely rode a bike as a kid and people who get a running start on sidewalks and go sliding across ice make me think they’re insane. So that smooth, natural and necessary peaceful gliding motion is nowhere in my psyche; I was running on five foot long blades and falling on every available square foot of snow and that was just in the practice area. For like a half an hour. Eventually we mounted up and just hit the trails (it’s possible my guides lost patience watching me flounder around like a caught bass in the practice area and said screw it, it can’t get any worse. I wouldn’t blame them) and luckily, once your skis are set in the grooves that run the trails, it came to me much easier. I was still trying to run which was stupid and dysfunctional but now the walls of the trails kept your motion completely linear, forward and back only, like an elliptical. And then you zone out. Enjoy the sights of everyone out defying the cold or an awesome sunset like we lucked in to or you can try to push yourself to race around the course. Talk to fellow skiers if you want. The uphill portions you have to stagger your skis and kind of walk on the insides of your feet, using the blades to dig into the wall, which took me a while (it probably didn’t help I was clutching to trees as way points and slipping backwards in between), but the downhill portions were incredible. Some were fairly steep downhills where I pinched the front of my skis together in terror to slow down (aka “pizza-ing”) and some were long, easy slopes that let you coast down with your poles tucked and enjoy the ride. It had every mix of the good and the bad things I love of being outside, so here’s hoping I’m less terrible at it this Winter. Also, eNORmous thank you to Steph and Marie for putting up with my learning curve that day.
Florida Comparison: Golfing.  Subtly stressful while also peaceful. You cover long, tree-lined distances with repetitive strokes. One, you watch out for alligators and other players hitting in to you. The other, you watch out for deer and other people literally hitting in to you; when we were passing the Como Chalet, I awkwardly panic stopped as a small sledder went careening just in front of my skis. More proof the two are kindred spirits? The cross-country trails are laid out right on top of and along the snow-flooded and hibernating local courses.

***

SLEDDING

This would be the one on the list that everyone just read and thought, wait, what? Seriously? Yes, seriously. I know nothing of sledding. However, I have since learned many quirks, like, even small hills are super fun. Like that sleds don’t have to look like Rosebud; they can look like Clark Griswold’s metal saucer (duh, I’m an idiot) or plastic surfboards with edging. Like that you can go down the hill sitting, standing or laying face down like Superman. Lastly, like I mentioned before, if you want to and are kind of a jerk, you can totally try your hand at skeet shooting cross-country skiing passersby. I look forward to finding some bigger hills next Winter.
Florida Comparison: Sledding is something everyone does or has done a million times here and the fact that it might be foreign to someone else is completely baffling. It is repetitive and requires little to no effort; I will say this must be Looking for Shark’s Teeth. Another common trait? If you’re doing either one of these things there are very good odds you can see tons of people in your immediate vicinity doing way more exciting stuff.

***

ICE FISHING

Ice-fishing Jedi Master and Padawan.

Ice-fishing Jedi Master and Padawan.

This would assumedly be the activity requiring the least description. This time, Steph’s wonderful friends (thank you Sara and Tyler!) provided every conceivable piece of equipment as well as their hangout time to go spend some peaceful hours on Pebble Lake in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. I think my perception of ice fishing, right up to the point we rolled down the SUV’s windows down before driving out onto the lake (P.S, there are like sixteen wtfs in that sentence alone. This thing’s going ON the water!? And we’re rolling the windows down WHY!?!?) was something like this: sitting on something next to a hole in the ice with a line and only avoiding hypothermia by virtue of the just, gallons of alcohol coursing through your blood. And I’m sure some would prefer that but in reality, what actually happened was a scaled down version of this: organized ice houses and little portable tents each choosing a shiny spot and panning for slippery gold. I also can’t describe the seeming violation of nature and everything that makes sense to a coastal Floridian that is driving out on a lake. There are entire acreages of just, new land that doesn’t exist half of the year, like some parallel universe! And right now, as I type this? Gone. Once again a lake, impassable save for human ingenuity. And if you skip ahead a bit to once we’d folded up shop, I grabbed one of our lanterns and tore out across the untrodden expanse of snow with my best labrador impersonation, jumping and kicking and faceplanting and laughing. That is so exhilarating, but I digress. Anyways, when we pulled up to our spot, I shoveled a 6 x 12 plot of flat ice and we hand-drilled our fishing holes as Tyler’s gas auger had broken. Even though it took me ten minutes of cartoonish pushing, pulling and weird-noise-making, drilling that hole by hand was totally worth the completely exhausted arm muscles. You have to earn your first one, right? We unfolded our tent, dropped some stakes, set some lines, had electronic depth finders, warming coils and even a boiling pot of water for hot dogs to accompany the truckload of cookies Sara made (delicious). We didn’t get too many bites but Tyler’s mongoose reactions did pull us one walleye (which he fileted and cooked for us that Sunday. Delicious again). I really suppose it’s just an excuse for most to go be outside with good company in the months that normally relegate to your couch, grumpy and claustrophobic. I was extremely grateful for exactly that.
Florida Comparison: Ok, stick with me on this one: Playing sports video games, especially EA’s Tiger Woods series. Keeping in mind I’m sticking with January Minnesota and July Florida activities, both are something most people would prefer to be doing in very different circumstances (fishing off a boat, playing ACTUAL golf) but the extreme temperatures forced us to get creative in order to get our fix. Both are literally 100% sitting and I’m sure many would vote they’d prefer to do these versions than their more common counterparts. Also, just as video games have lovingly incorporated fishing for decades, those electronic depth finders I mentioned are called ice flashers and they would light up like a SONAR when fish were nearby so we could adjust the length of our lines. If this doesn’t look like a piece of rejected concept art for a video game console, I don’t know what is.

***

DOWNHILL ICECROSS, aka ‘CRASHED ICE’

An aerial view of the Saint Paul Cathedral with the course glowing blue.

An aerial view of the Saint Paul Cathedral with the course glowing blue.

OK, so, this is technically cheating since I didn’t participate but we did go watch the insanity. It is a massive international Olympics-style competition where heats of four lunatics take off down a huge ice cliff and then skate as fast as humanly possible through the ice obstacle course. They slip, they slide, they wipe out most heinously around hairpin turns. They go insanely fast, they beat the crap out of each other jockeying for position and then they all choose creative ways like baseball sliding to go careening across the finish line as fast as possible. It is completely insane. Also, for some reason Lil Jon was there, they played good music the whole night and a continuous light show played out on the cathedral facade which was awesome. It pleases me to no end that this exists, that it came to Saint Paul and that I got to watch it. If you want more, YouTube it. You won’t be disappointed.
Florida Comparison: Ummmmm, yeah. Absolutely none. This was complete lunacy, everyone should watch it in person sometime and when you are watching it, you can’t believe some wonderful psychopath even thought of such a thing . Hey, wait a minute . . . there is a comparison here! It must be THIS!

***

Well, I hope you got at least some enjoyment out of that; I certainly did. Thank you so so so much to all of the magnificent people who helped me do all these things or did them with me. I hope you’ll help me tolerate next Winter too when it arrives in like six weeks. And like I always do when finishing one of these, I will say I’ll write more but yeah . . . I can’t promise that. I get dumb ideas when I get dumb ideas . . . which is daily, so I have no idea what takes me so long. See you soon!

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The Last Ride of Larry Wayne, Part One

I can’t say I know where this is headed, so for those of you that saw your last visit end 15,000 words and two hours later, I won’t blame you for finding the nearest lifeboat.

***

Part One: Hope Springs Eternal in the Happiest Place on Earth
Chipper Jones’ Line: DNP (Did Not Play)

This started with my intent to write about my annual spiritual solo pilgrimage to Champion Stadium, spring home of my beloved Atlanta Braves in the heart of Walt Disney World, and what I saw there, what that trip means to me every March. I planned to write it the day I started this site because I now had a blog and therefore, an inherent obligation to contribute to it, and what better subject than a unique trip to a unique place? Two years ago I shook hands with Phil Niekro. Last year I not only got wonder-prospect Julio Teheran’s autograph but Braves All-Star Martin Prado’s as well. Plus, I got to steal a work SLR and an 80-200 lens and photograph Tommy Hanson pitching on one of the back fields; super cool. So I figured something cool would happen and I could write about it. But then it became something else (and all that happened this year was I got politely yelled at by former Orioles coach Dave Trembley, who I then shot the shit with for a minute. Take what you can get I guess. I did sneak onto the Jumbotron, though. Don’t hate).

The camera can't help but find me.

It became something else when I considered to myself that my childhood hero Chipper Jones may never skip across the third base line chalk again after this season; he’s pretty old by baseball standards and barely keeps coming back each year, so I should do everything in my power to watch him play the game as often as I could while that was still an option. Surely I could chronicle those adventures and discover something profound about Chipper, baseball, childhood idols or myself in the process. I even had a clever name thought up, a tribute to one of the game’s last throwbacks, a Southern cowboy if ever there was one and a legend deserving of a grandiose tale of his trip into the sunset: The Last Ride of Larry Wayne. And if he played in 2013 well, no one reads this blog anyway so I had a feeling not much would come of it.

And then, unexpectedly, I found myself sitting in a large, empty, echoing apartment alone, watching baseball highlights of the miracles of last October late into the morning (thank you, Evan Longoria, Jonathan Papelbon, David Freese. Actually, from Braves everywhere, you’re welcome David Freese). When a very big change takes place in life, if people are anything like me, they doubt the things they do or say or think. And I have to assume people turn to what they know or what has meant a great deal to them in the past, because I certainly did. I watched baseball. I watched baseball when there wasn’t even any baseball to be watching (thanks MLB Network!). And I goofily and existentially thought, why? Kids love baseball because their dads love baseball. My dad cannot stand baseball. Kids love baseball because they live near a ballpark and have that indelible memory of walking up the tunnel and seeing the stadium erupt in front of them. There are no ballparks in southwest Florida (when I was a teenager, an hour and a half journey North suddenly found you at Tropicana Field, home of the Devil Rays! It has various shades of grayish green mismatched carpet, catwalks that interfere with the game and a sting ray petting tank. This is where you will find every fan). And yet I have always loved baseball. I gave up playing tennis as a kid (I was damn good at that!) because it conflicted with baseball season. I have always needed baseball. I have self-medicated by watching The Sandlot an appalling number of times. So, when I really started to think about why this boring, three-hour standing contest is so great, the answer was complicated to think about, but at least it had a ready-made answer; my hero, Chipper Jones, plays baseball. And I could not wait to get to Spring Training this year more than most; I needed the smell of the clay, number 10 standing at third and I needed baseball.

Two weeks ago tomorrow I was standing above the third-base dugout in Champions Stadium feebly holding a baseball I bought at Wal-Mart and a Sharpie marker, surrounded by wide-eyed eight-year-olds and a couple overzealous autograph junkies holding bound catalogs full of what they hoped were a few hurried swirls of ink from being eBay merchandise by the end of the day. I watched my childhood hero surface from the first-base dugout and trot to his usual territory about eight steps away diagonally from the third-base bag. I watched him field grounders and recycle them into Freddie Freeman’s first baseman’s glove like clockwork. I watched him laughingly joke with third base prospect Joe Terdoslavich and our twin baby shortstop options, Tyler Pastornicky and Andrelton Simmons (none of those three men were born when Chipper Jones first came to Walt Disney World for spring training). I watched his customary enormous dip strain the capacity of his lower lip. I watched him casually deposit baseballs 400 feet away onto front office personnel car rooftops from the left side of the plate and I watched him just as casually place them 400 feet away onto the left field berm from the right side. I watched him accomplish all these feats laughing, making them look easier than I ever could by miles. This is how it has always been since I was a kid and how it should always be, damn it. It was wonderful and it was reassuring and I was grateful. I probably smiled a big, idiotic smile that made those eight-year-olds assume something was wrong with me.

And then batting practice ended and I watched my hero Chipper Jones descend into the tunnel, waving to the pleading fans. A while later I watched him appear on the center-field Jumbotron and I watched the tears issue down his face. In a time of sudden change and an uncertain future I could not have foreseen any number of springs before this one, I watched my hero retire from the game of baseball and take my entire childhood along with him.

Crap. Well, at least that clever blog title sounds a lot smarter now.

***

If there is some deep lesson to be learned about starting a new life somehow, somewhere, while the symbol of my old one slowly fades away over the course of the next 162 games, I don’t know it yet. It seems too close and Chipper didn’t even play that day (he brought out the lineup card to a wild ovation). So I’m going to go North to Braves country in April and see what I find then, cheer as loud as I can. And I’ll follow him over to that historic baseball cathedral the Trop in May and see what I find then too, and he might actually hear me in there. And after that, who knows? A game in the new Miami spaceship sometime this Summer? His actual swan song in my native PNC Park in Pittsburgh? Some unforeseen trip elsewhere across this great country? All would be welcome. Hopefully whatever I have to say after those journeys will be more cohesive than this bloated foolishness.

For now, it is the 2012 Major League Baseball season’s second opening day, and it isn’t even opening day yet; the first games that counted happened days ago in Japan and tonight marks the opening of the lime-green fish tank that is the new Marlins park. But tomorrow is the traditional opening day, when the sun will shine on abused turnstiles and beer vendors alike as it has always been meant to. I sit in that same over-sized, quiet living room which has been made much less depressing by a visit from my parents, moving furniture, opening boxes of books and hanging old and new pieces of art (before we were going on Dane’s definition of art. Now we’re going on the real one!). It is the seventh inning of the first stateside baseball game of the season and Kyle Lohse just lost an opening-day no hit bid to a Jose Reyes single. I could care less about either of these teams, other than a marginal Cardinals rooting interest as the Fish are in the Braves division, and you know what? This is bliss. I need baseball. And when I tried to think on why baseball is so great, it became clearer comparing it to my local nemesis: the NBA.

I live in Orlando. This city is incredibly devoid of character or culture of its own; we steal from the cultures that visit here and outsiders identify us with the Mouse down South, though that is miles outside of Orlando (and reality to be honest). But what we do have is the Orlando Magic, and this is a “basketball town.” When I say that this is a basketball town, what I’m saying is that the only professional athletic team that calls this city home plays basketball, not that the citizens here love it like Cardinals fans make St. Louis a baseball town, like Packers fans make Green Bay a football town, like Red Wing fans make Detroit Hockeytown USA. But living in a “basketball town” is what truly illuminated the things I love the most about the game I love the most.

In basketball, scoring is easy. It’s not only easy, but it’s expected. It is common. At times, it’s completely unexciting. This is ridiculous. Scoring in sports should be momentous, celebratory, a cause for exultant and unbridled joy (see: international soccer). Scoring should be rare and difficult. It is that on the diamond.

In basketball, the final two minutes of the game are a mockery of everything that has come before it. When the game should be tightening like a vice grip, it is instead decided by free-throw shooting and play-acting fouls. A sporting event should not develop into some idiotic circus, it should always be high drama, raising your blood pressure the longer it goes on. This happens out on the diamond.

Perhaps most importantly is that basketball lacks what I believe makes baseball truly great; history, superheros even, mysticism, gravitas. Go to an NBA game. There are court-side dancers. There are arrogant egos swollen larger than any stadium can contain. Usher music plays during the game. It has all the emotional tension of mowing your lawn. But even in the insufferable Summer doldrums you will find the 7,000 Rays fans in St. Petersburg, on their feet, screaming wildly into the late innings for what would seem like a meaningless game amongst 161 others. Even in terrible blowouts or non-marquee matchups, no hitters may surface, perfect games, batters hitting for the cycle. There is always drama, even if it comes in the quickest, easily missable bursts. There just seems to be more at work during any given baseball game; there are stadiums across the country where patrons will swear the ghosts of the game walk the bases, pace the dugouts or simply watch the game they loved.

Baseball defenders are quick to say the game has decades of statistics and history that foster its mysticism, the ability to compare to Honus Wagner to Troy Tulowitzki far easier than Jim Brown to Arian Foster or Oscar Robertson to Tim Duncan. Yet it’s more than that. Baseball has heirlooms that live through generations, magic talismans on display every night for 80 years, like change-up grips taught by Josh Gibson to Tug McGraw, shown again to Orel Hershiser, thrown now by Clayton Kershaw. Randy Johnson’s slider. Jonny Venters’ sinker, each something more magical than the next. There are superstitious lunacies and rituals that seem larger than the game and also synonymous with it; Wade Boggs’ fried chicken, batting helmets slathered in pine tar so thoroughly you’re no longer sure what team is batting. Where else can you get the fun, the anguish, the fan community engendered by the curses of the Bambino, the Black Sox or the Billy Goat (I will always maintain my theory that Red Sox fans were happier before 2004)? Where else will you find a construction worker rumored to have buried a David Ortiz jersey in the foundations of new Yankee Stadium and a team owner that would spend millions to dig it up? Where else can you find little kids in their backyards imitating their heroes, be it Jeff Bagwell’s stance or Tom Glavine’s mechanics?

Baseball even has everything that makes the other professional sports beloved; hits (ask Pete Rose), speed and athleticism (ask Ricky Henderson), over-sized personalities (ask Nyjer Morgan, aka T-Plush), collisions (ask Ray Fosse), fights (ask Don Zimmer) and acrobatics (well, just watch this. And he’s almost 40). Even the stadiums are characters unto themselves. Some are new-age spaceships (Miami), some are ancient monoliths taking slow, rattling breaths (Oakland). Some have city icons cooking famous barbecue in right field (Baltimore), some have mascots flying down slides into vats of beer (Milwaukee). Some are new-school retro (Pittsburgh, Washington, New York) and some are just plain old-school, essentially a religious experience just to descend their steps towards the grass (Wrigley, Fenway, Dodger Stadium). Football fields, basketball stadiums and hockey arenas have all the fun character of my cable bill.

I think I just make baseball out to be more than it actually is, see its profundity when maybe I’m just horribly bias. The white leather and its 108 red stitches itself is like a precious gem, the sports version of the Pink Panther. The defense sends its finest dark wizard to spin his magic, make the ball dance to his dominion against the laws of common sense and gravity, protect it from ever contacting the offense’s marauding maple weapons or possibly shatter them entirely. Behind him stand his eight bodyguards, charged with keeping that precious diamond inside of their immaculately manicured green an orange one. Meanwhile, up, striding to the plate are mythic gods, the hands of Evan Longoria, the stature of Mike Giancarlo Stanton, the preternatural gift given to Albert Pujols to send baseballs flying into the ether. And is there a greater feeling than to see exactly that? To watch Josh Hamilton do what god put him on this planet to do, send twenty-eight baseballs careening into parts of Yankee Stadium previously thought untouchable by mortal man, places surely only the Babe could have reached? Towering home runs, some of which simply never come down as far as the fans can see, are the ultimate testament to baseball’s most wonderful feature: it is limitless. Nolan Ryan once shocked the world by throwing a registered pitch 100 miles per hour. And then Justin Verlander started throwing ’em that fast into the ninth inning. And then Aroldis Chapman threw one 105. Home runs leave the very playing field itself. Think about that. When else does a game routinely exceed its own boundaries to the delight of the very fans the game has shifted into the hands of? While they were and are reprehensible cheaters, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa once saved the game as we know it, sending baseballs into apartment complexes across Waveland Avenue and onto the Massachusetts Turnpike in the summer of 1998. Every pitch and every at bat is a war of unknown attrition. Games can last for days until they are resolved on the field, and they have.

I’d wager I could ramble on for another 2500 words constituted entirely of easily refutable and completely contradictory things I love about the game, but perhaps one of its greater qualities is its fickle nature. The Cardinals just spoiled the Marlins’ first game in their new ballpark, but they’ll both play 161 more games because on any given night, the Royals can beat the Yankees. The Pirates can beat the Phillies. The Rays can come back from 11 games behind in September and 7 runs down in game 162 and end up in the playoffs. Anything can happen and always does, and always will. Records are set and are broken every day to our amazement. Our heroes for years bring us to our feet with screams in our lungs and later, respectful tears in our eyes as they leave us behind. But life goes on just the same. Baseball always arrives, just as Winter has come and gone, and baseball will always be the same. Come what may in life there will always be the game, just when you need it the most. Every spring the litany of baseball writers love to announce that for every team or player, no matter what has happened or what uncertainties their future may hold, hope springs eternal.

I couldn’t be happier to agree with them.

And if Chipper should hit a few home runs that disappear into the night skies over these next few months, I won’t complain.

"Tomorrow, the sun will rise..."