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.
11. Serial (Podcast)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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
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…