Category Archives: Miscellany

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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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!

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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)

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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)

isbell
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)

falls

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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A First Sip

I have to preface all of this with the fact that I am a slow person. There is a section of my favorite book, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, in which a tale is told that there was once a beautiful city. It was made of glass and colors and unimaginable inspirational wonders. Its citizens knew it to be the most beautiful place there was. One day one of the citizens looked down at his feet while he walked to work, and upon arriving, he realized he had gotten there seemingly much faster than normal. He became very excited and began to spread the word. Slowly, other men and women in the city decided to stare at their shoes while going about their affairs, and they felt that this saved them much time. As more and more citizens began looking at their shoes, the city started to fade away, like a film slowly closing to black before the credits roll. Eventually every person in the city hurried to work in this fashion, and the city, the most glorious place imaginable, faded from existence, without anyone ever realizing it. They still went about their affairs. I hate hurrying.

This was a long disclaimer covering my ass for being lazy.

I started this blog two weeks ago knowing a piece about my experience running the Tough Mudder would be an ideal thing to write about, and yet it’s still empty. Sorry, especially to a few people who have actually told me they’ve been checking here to no avail. I am slowly getting to write that Mudder piece but I’m grateful I’ve dwelled on it; I think the content will be better for it. What I thought would be best instead was something of a kick-off post, an introduction, and I’ve had the content for six months. Let me explain. Hopefully it’s coherent.

It is easy to tell someone what you like to read. My dad loves war history; this is the store section I immediately seek out to locate him once I’ve realized what I’m shopping for at Barnes & Noble is cheaper on Amazon. It is less simple to explain what you like to write because most people have no godforsaken idea; they don’t do it, so how could they? And I don’t either though I suppose I’ll find out. However, over the years I’ve gravitated to particular writers covering various genres and tenets of American culture that got ever more specific in their content. I found particular adoration for stories of sport, redemption and nature, especially when the latter has a hand to play in the tales of the formers. If I was really lucky, the story may slip ever so slightly into the mystical or mysterious qualities of all above the above. I truly love pieces on the arcane, that unluckily slip through the cracks of people’s collective consciousness. Those might be the most fun to read learn.

And so something interesting happened. I found an ESPN writer named Wright Thompson. He writes long-form, sometimes for the magazine but oftentimes published only online due to the length of his features. He just recently wrote a tremendous take on the state of a post-Jerry Sandusky Happy Valley, Pennsylvania. He has written about an incredibly rare whiskey for Grantland and covered a Carolina coast golf resort island that seems to have been fighting back against its owners for hundreds of years. They were cool. They were really engrossing and made you feel like you’d experienced what he or the subjects had, though he was there asking questions and telling tales. And then he was assigned a topic I had found very interesting, that of Alabama fan Harvey Updyke. Auburn beat Alabama in the 2010 edition of the annual Iron Bowl in dramatic comeback fashion, and Updyke had exacted his revenge on the University by channeling his vitriol into the soil surrounding the campus landmark Toomer’s Corner oak trees with government-grade herbicides. It now seems almost assured the trees will die; you can track their progress on the University’s website. Thompson decided to write a feature on the subject. Unexpectedly, however, he decided to marginalize Harvey Updyke and the football aspect in general and instead focused on why losing two trees actually meant so much to so many. He intertwined his story with an appraisal of the dying culture of the American South, a way of life I love despite not being raised a part of (coastal Florida and Florida itself is not the South). It was wonderful. It was a different take on a story being beaten to death. It was very moving. So much so that when a friend of mine visited the trees in late November after a game, presumably on the final time they will have been “rolled,” and sent me a photograph, it felt emotional.

I saved the link to that article in my Twitter favorites (more on Twitter some other time) that day and I’ve left it there ever since. I’ve read it a few additional times but I really left it there as a middle finger to myself, a reminder and a personal challenge to even try to write something half a tenth as good as that piece, or any of his pieces. I’ve always wanted to write, and he made me feel guilty for having not. So (950 introductory words later), here is the link to that article. People may read it, some may already have, many won’t. That’s fine. But I want it to be the reason for my first post, as a thank you to Wright, and I can’t think of a stronger foundation for what I hope will be an interesting adventure on this site.

More will come, I promise it will, and I’ll find a way to notify the interested few when I do. I’m just a slow guy. I like it that way. I prefer to take it all in. Hopefully with this site you all can share it with me.

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