Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Don't You Hate That?

You know what people hate? Someone talking about how sick he is. Everybody has that person at work who answers the question, “How you doing?”—an obvious attempt at small talk and not an actual inquiry—with “I’m sick. That’s how I’m doing.” Then they go on to list all of their symptoms in detail, making your own head ache in the process.

I mean, don’t you hate that?

Well, guess what? I’m sick. That’s how I’m doing.

I think it’s probably sinuses—stuffy nose, stuffy ears, killer headache, and the teetering balance of a one-legged wino—but I wouldn’t know if it was anything worse than this, as I refuse to take my temperature because I’m a male, and therefore too stubborn to properly take care of myself while ill. My gender also technically classifies me as a legal moron.

Obviously, I can’t be doing too horribly, as I’m sitting here at school typing this while my freshmen students watch “To Kill a Mockingbird” in good ol’ black-and-white, but I assure you had the students been doing anything more strenuous for me than movie-watching today, I would’ve spent the day in my bed, sucking down orange juice like a starving baby bird sucks down pre-chewed baby worms.

I’ve got this uncanny ability to get sick during the holidays. A few years ago I ended up with bronchitis on Christmas Eve, and I choked away the evening on the couch waiting for Santy Claus to deliver the presents. I spent the three prime days of my Christmas break shacked up on the couch. My throat felt like someone had grated it like Parmesan cheese, and my poor diaphragm got more of a workout from coughing those few days than any other muscle in my body has gotten since basketball practice in high school. On the bright side, though, I got through “Angels & Demons” in about two days.

This year, I’m just hoping that the Sick Fairy moves out of my immune system in time for this weekend, when my two weeks of freedom finally kicks in. I’ve got a Bulls game this Friday against the Bobcats (keep your fingers crossed I run into Michael Jordan, who now GM’s the team—I bumped into Scottie Pippen a couple of weeks ago, so MJ would round things out nicely for me), a gathering with some of Amy’s family on Christmas Eve, and of course a couple of delicious holiday meals on the 25th with the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandmothers. I’m very much looking forward to this weekend, and I’d prefer to not be blowing my nose every eight to twelve seconds the entire time.

(By the way, please nobody tell Amy that her Christmas gift is a large burlap sack with five of the highest quality potatoes I could buy from the homeless person selling them right off Market Street a few weekends ago. A few of these have sprouted vines and what I think is mold, but that’s just a little Christmas seasoning. I can’t wait to see the ecstatic look on her face when she opens her gift!)

For the rest of you, enjoy your Christmas (or your “holidays,” if you’d prefer to take the politically correct route of Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and every other goofy company that’s decided to go with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” for their holiday ad campaigns this year), and stay away from illness. If faced with some, simply make a cross with your fingers and throw holy water on the ill person invading your healthy personal aura.

Because you don’t want to get sick and suffer through work, like I’m doing right now. Then, when someone asks you “How are you doing?” you’ll have to answer them honestly. And then you’ll become That Guy, like I’ve already become. Then everybody at work starts wearing surgical masks and staring at you like you’re a leper.

I mean, don’t you hate that?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Nashville by Van

It was a dark and stormy night, and I was one of eight people in a van only slightly larger than a covered Radio Flyer wagon, headed for Nashville, Tennessee. A few colleagues and myself were headed to the Music City to attend a National Writing Project convention, designed to help us all become better educators.

Someone should’ve educated us on how many people can fit comfortably in a van because at some point this information was miscalculated. The one advantage of being ass-to-knuckles is that had we have gotten into any kind of collision, everybody in our little sardine can wouldn’t have budged an inch. A Mack truck couldn’t have budged the compactness of our vessel.

It rained for almost the entire drive down, making for an extremely long journey, so by the time arrived at our Embassy Suites hotel, it was so late that even the local prostitutes were packing up shop and heading home after the long workday.

The hotel was lovely, though the hot tub was under construction and the “workout room” was actually a regular, converted hotel suite with a slew of treadmills strewn about the area. Still, the little courtyard was a lovely mixture of lush vegetation and trendy upholstery. There were glass elevators that loomed over this little square, making for a quite a view, yet the most memorable aspect of the hotel would have to be the King’s Breakfast, which wasn’t actually called that but certainly warranted such a moniker. Eggs, Bacon, French Toast, Biscuits and Gravy, and an assortment of juices and pastries. I ate like a French dictator during the Revolution. I was merry, and full.

The conference itself was helpful in some ways, wildly entertaining in others. For example, my sessions taught me loads about using more technology in my classroom and how to combat intolerance and narrow-mindedness (mostly in terms of homophobia and racialism) in my classroom. Honestly, there are things that I can’t wait to apply when I get back into the swing on Monday morning.

The entertaining portion of the gathering came in the form of observing how nerdy we teachers are, and how it’s a universal truth country-wide. Everyone reading this knows that in the court of the Land of the Nerds, I’m court jester (I also head a few subcommittees and organize company picnics), but some of the other teachers at this place were a scream.

It’s a given that authentic female “teacher-types” wear holiday themed vests adorned with sequins, flashing lights, and moving parts, but I had always assumed that was in the privacy of their own classroom. In Nashville, an assemblage of educators from Texas to Alaska to New York to Alabama wore these vests. That, or shirts that look like something stolen from Liza Minelli’s closet.

As I said, wildly entertaining.

The evening of our first night there, we indulged in some tasteful local Nashvillian cuisine. One of my travel-mates suggested a Cracker Barrel, to the chagrin of basically everybody else in our group (and even a few people standing nearby who only overheard the conversation). That simply wouldn’t do, so I suggested some local flavor in the form of a high-class area barbeque restaurant called Jack’s. It sounded delicious and classy. I was half-right.

Jack’s is your friendly neighborhood backwoods barbecue joint, complete with wood-paneled interior walls adorned with bodiless products of taxidermy and an overwhelmingly delicious aroma of hickory smoke. Certainly not a five-star place; no one was playing jazz on a grand piano for example, but I’ve never had beef brisket that delicious in my entire my life. So despite the cheeseball flashing neon sign out front, the place was worthwhile and oh-so-delectable.

We spent the majority of our second day in Nashville at the National Conference of Teachers of English free give-away festival, which was being hosted at the Opryland Hotel. Any testosterone I woke up with in the morning was sucked from me by the time I left this effeminate Graceland for hammed up old ladies eager to see the Rockettes on Ice. It’s sparkly things and trinkets and crafts and girly coffee shops all over the place. Even the “sports bar” was well-decorated, clean, smokeless and filled to the brim with women.

This place is one of the hugest hotel complexes in the country, teeming with hundreds and hundreds of people, and when I went into the men’s restroom, it was completely empty and spotless. I had a private laugh about this and went on about my business.

Still, my sufferings in a place full of women (and a party that included me and four other ladies) were entirely worth it. This NCTE convention was a huge showroom filled with booths from basically any book publisher you can imagine, and they were handing out all kinds of free stuff. I’m not talking about the usual free crap menagerie that includes magnets and pens (though that stuff was offered); I’m talking about books, novels, and serious teaching resources—all completely FREE!

I went through my gigantic bag of books and counted up the collective prices. Almost $250 people, for free. I even got a hardcover copy of “Freakonomics” free of charge, when the jacket price clearly read $27.95. How sweet is that?

So now I’m back in the van (less crowded now since two of our group stopped back a few hours to meet up with some family) writing this blog. There’s still over two hours before we get home, and honestly I can’t wait to just hit the hay and see The Girl.

Still, next year’s convention is in New York, and if we’re looking at great workshops and free books again, I’ll be there or be square.

But only if we travel without the van.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What's Happening to Halloween?

Something bothersome came to my attention today. Amy, who teaches fourth grade, informed me that her students no longer can celebrate Halloween at school because some parents take religious issue with the holiday. Instead, the children can opt to come to school dressed as farmers (I’m not making this up) to celebrate “Harvest Day.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t “Harvest Day” sound only marginally more exciting than “Snail Conference” or “Parsley Fest”? When I was a kid (I no longer feel any shame using the phrase “When I was a kid…”), the most fun part of the school holiday was the afternoon Halloween party, where we colored pictures of witches, werewolves, and black cats in jack-o-lanterns while devouring spooky-themed treats and comparing the relative awesomeness of our costumes.

What exactly do students do on “Harvest Day,” shuck corn and chew on dried out straws of hay? How invigorating.

What’s so bad about Halloween, anyway? As most everybody knows, Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallow’s Eve,” or the night before All Saints Day, which is a Roman Catholic holy day in which the church gives blanket praise to, naturally, all the saints.

All Saint’s Eve is supposedly a time when souls and spirits are most free, since they’re being called upon for the holy day, anyway. Think of it as ghosts getting to the Goblin Hotel a day early for their annual Apparition Convention. To relax, swim and stuff. Maybe hit up the hot tub.

But there’s no scientific evidence to support that your likeliness of coming across a ghost on October 31 is any more likely than the rest of the year. Mostly due to the fact that ghosts don’t technically exist. You know, that old chestnut.

In America, people of Irish and Scottish descent once used the day to celebrate their culture (much in the same way that Columbus Day used to be a commemorative day for Italian-Americans), with the Scottish performing something called “dookin,” which means “bobbing for apples.”

So what this means is somewhere out there exists a religion that is expressly opposed to apples and Irish people. Got it.

It’s hard to imagine what these uber-religious parents are so concerned about? If little Johnny sees Sarah dressed as a ghoul, does that mean Johnny will immediately become possessed with evil, rob several convenient marts, terrorize a national monument, then die and come back as a haint to spook neighborhood children for centuries to come?

If little Thomas comes to school dressed as Dracula, does that mean he is due for a life of impaling people mercilessly like the actual Transylvanian tyrant?

Students can’t even dress as something as harmless as Harry Potter, since J.K Rowling’s books are banned in almost as many schools as Halloween. Something about sorcery and witchcraft, because all 9 year-olds are witches picking up satanic tips from the novels.

In case you’ve forgotten, you zealot parents, little kids like dressing up. It’s fun for them. And part of the spirit of Halloween is getting involved in the holiday’s spookiness—making the insane witch laugh, stringing faux spider webs from cotton, getting your friend to eat cold spaghetti noodles and peeled grapes in the dark so they’ll believe it’s hair and eyeballs. When my siblings and I were kids, we had this Halloween tape that played the “Ghostbusters” theme, “Monster Mash,” “Purple People Eater,” and a whole slew of creepy Halloween sound effects. Dammit, THAT was what All Hallow’s Eve was all about!

Now, kids can’t even trick or treat at night because of lurching pedophiles. They’re out there at four in the afternoon instead of at night, like a real Halloween should be experienced. See, in the daytime, houses know that “trick” is no real threat, since they’d see you from miles away. Not that “treat” is bad, but it’s good to have the option.

I suggest we write letters to our federal and state senators demanding the immediate reinstatement of Halloween into our public schools. Amy swears Barack Obama is the devil, so I’m sure he’d help us out in getting “His” day back on the school’s list of holidays.

It’s just harmless fun, no different than dressing as a cowboy, or a princess, or Mike Tyson (actually, that last one is probably more dangerous and disconcerting than any mummy or Frankenstein). Let the kids have their Halloween party, and let the elementary teachers watch them enjoy themselves.

Now I’ve got to go change into my costume. This year, I’m going as a farmer.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

I Love This Game

When the heavy steel doors swung open to give way to the Chicago Bulls Hallway o’ Legendary Locker Rooms, all I could see was the glistening hardwood of the United Center floor in my peripheral vision.

I almost missed it, actually. It’s easy to suffer from tunnel vision when you’re actually IN a tunnel. But I stepped through the threshold and out into the stadium lights—out from the building's underbelly and into the fresh air, and there it was. The Court.

I’d been there an overabundance of times for varied games, but never that close to the floor unobstructed. My seats are usually so far above sea level that, had I been baking, I would have had to make temperature adjustments on my conventional oven.

Guys, Michael Jordan won championships on this floor. Nearly ever waking minute of my pubescent experience was spent considering what it would be like to be on that floor. (For the record, the rest of my waking minutes were spent agonizing over rampant facial acne, as well as the literally thousands of girls I’d fall in love with but never actually come into close enough contact with to determine important things like eye color and gender.)

Enough basking, though. I had work to do. So I headed towards the locker rooms and waited for the requisite 6:00 pm media “Release the Hounds” time. This was it; I was going to be inside an NBA locker room for the first time in my life. I for some reason had visions of something out a Jay-Z video—half naked black women, top-shelf liquor, a swimming pool—all to the backdrop of a delightfully angry hip-hop music track.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

The rooms themselves really aren’t much bigger than my own bedroom, except for the flat-screen, high definition television with the approximate dimensions of a standard-size door. And nobody was there save one or two guys. So, I talked to them, got a little audio, then wondered if anybody else would roll out the red carpet for me.

I waited about six or seven minutes, and nothing.

So I trounced over to the locker room of the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves, hoping to score an interview with superstar Kevin Garnett. Sure enough, I breeze through the doors, and there he was, as tall as Andre the Giant and slightly heavier than Lindsay Lohan.

I shook his hand, introduced myself, and asked for an interview, but apparently the man they call The Big Ticket doesn’t provide pre-game chitter chatter. Oh well. Worth a try, right?

I did score a pretty decent conversation with P.J. Brown, but that information’s classified. If you want to know more about it, you’ll have to order the newest copy of “Swish,” where I will have my first professional magazine article published later in November.

Once the locker rooms closed, the media buffet opened. For six measly bucks I ingested a savory Caesar salad, beef stew with rice, the beverage of my choice, and the freshest fruit I’ve ever eaten. You know how on TLC they have those shows about chefs at five-star hotels, and how they pick out only the most delectable fruits from the garden? I think one of these guys picked out my cantaloupe this morning.

The game itself was lovely; I didn’t get to sit courtside, but the view from the press box is more than reasonable. Plus, I got free soda and popcorn. So, bonus.

After the game was over (The Bulls lost by two), I high-tailed it back to the locker room area to try and hit up Kevin Garnett. He said he’d be happy to answer questions after the game, so I was going to see if he was a big, stinky liar, or a man of his word.

Turns out, he’s a man of his word. He talked to me and a couple other reporters, but not until after most of the other guys had gotten dressed and left the room. While I waited uncomfortably amidst a slew of gigantic, half-nude athletes, I did manage a quick interview with Troy Hudson, who’s a starting guard for Minnesota. He was actually very cordial and pleasant.

Garnett… not so much. That poor man is so bored by reporters that he could barely speak after the game. He talked to us with a pizza box in his lap, and I know all he really wanted to do was munch. So he breezed through a few questions impatiently, and took off for the bus.

Kevin Garnett, ladies and gentlemen.

Honestly, there’s no better way to experience an NBA game than the manner in which I came upon it this evening. Access to the players, free seats and parking, and great food that doesn’t cost more than a two-to-three karat diamond.

I love this game.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Beer & Now: On the Road Again, Day 4

The Future Birthplace of Captain Kirk, Riverside, Iowa, & The Field of Dreams, Dyersville, Iowa


It figures that I’d only find out about the really good stuff in Riverside, Iowa after the trip was over. For us, the final frontier was the USS Riverside, a cheap Enterprise look-alike made from old carnival rides and rusty kitchen utensils (the thrusters, or whatever you’d call them, were literally made from red plastic mixing bowls). However, the self-proclaimed Future Birthplace of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk had more to offer than we were able to see bright and early on a drizzly (and surprisingly chilly) June morn.

Apparently a barber shop houses a huge rock that marks the spot of the future birth, as well as a signed proclamation from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry giving the town permission to pronounce itself an integral part of Trekkie Nation. Also, and looking back I would’ve given anything to have seen this, some random bar in the tiny town boasts a pool table adorned with a plaque that reads, "Future Conception Place of Captain Kirk."

But, as I said, it was extremely frigid and damp at 7:00am on the coldest day of the summer, so we didn’t stay in Riverside long. There was much more long living and prospering for us to do elsewhere in the state.

The entire morning looked as it if it might be hampered by rain. The skies dumped water on my little Honda Civic for over two hours while driving to Dyersville, Iowa to see the Field of Dreams. However, the age-old question, "Is this heaven?" was answered with a resounding "yes" for us, as the bad weather took a twenty minute lunch break just as we pulled into the corn-lined baseball diamond.

My dad took the twins and me here the summer after my mom died, and it was one of the coolest vacations of my life. We played a game on the field with a bunch of other families in perfect weather, and we even got to walk right out of the cornfield, just like Shoeless Joe Liotta in the movie. My memories of the place have always been magical.

And despite that fact that it was overcast, and that we were the only ones there, and that the corn was only about ankle-high, and that some idiot found out he owned the land in left and center field and so opened up a second gift shop with a second entrance (our allegiances will always lie with the original gift shop owners)… despite all of that, it was good to be back. I just sat on the wooden bleachers and soaked up the history, the baseball, and a few drops of rain, which were starting to fall again.

The whole thing was still pretty damn magical, which is why he built it, and why we came.

Spook Cave, McGregor, Iowa

Sure, something called "Spook Cave" sounds like it would be a completely frightening location, like some Scooby-Doo villain’s lair amidst dank fog and impending stalactites. But when the attraction’s sign features the long-lost twin brother of Casper the Friendly Ghost, it’s hard to get too worked up about the place. But, as it turns out, we were probably better off going with our initial instincts—if the tiny little tram elevators at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis yield claustrophobia, Spook Cave entices Claustrophobia with a capital "C."

The caverns burrow into a huge wall of rock, the mouth of which opens up into a small body of water known as Bloody Run Creek, most likely named after all the scrapes and minor incisions caused by the low-flying ceilings of jutted stone inside the cavern. As legend has it, townsfolk in the area heard a mysterious howling emanating from the base of the giant stone wall and assumed that the caves within were haunted. Local cave pioneer Gerald Mielke strapped on one of those little miner hats and burrowed his way into the wall, only to find that the delicious creamy center was in fact a long tunnel with mineral deposits and dripping, muddy water and all the other fun things we’ve all come to love about caves. Mr. Mielke then dug enough rock out of the cave’s floor to make them viewable by tourists in tiny boats, and that’s where things stand today.

Of course, cavern heritage is about all that’s able to stand inside Spook Cave, as the entire tour is like rock limbo, sending patrons’ heads lower and lower as the boat continues on. When you first enter the mouth of the grotto, the tour guide warns you in a monotonic voice to "Watch your heads," but her lack of enthusiasm keeps you from taking her seriously, which is a huge mistake. Immediately the interior grows black with darkness and you’ve got to squeeze your noggin between your legs immediately if you wish to avoid a painful decapitation. Kyle, Kevin, had tears in our eyes from laughter. Or maybe those were from sheer disbelief and fear?

Our constant jokes and gripes over the course of the tour irked our guide greatly, but amused our fellow boat-mates to no end. We experienced a number of different rock formations, stone chimneys, and even a poorly choreographed scare tactic, as our guide shrieked penetratingly at the climax of a "scary" cave story she told us. None of us jumped. Except Kyle, who peed a little.

We did make it out soundly, even though about 30% of our shoulders had been skimmed away by low granite ceilings. Still, it was extremely entertaining, even if only for its intense Spook Value.

The SPAM Museum, Austin, Minnesota

Austin, Minnesota smells like rotting animal flesh fertilized with bovine dung. The second you step out of the car, the stench smacks you about the face like an abusive spouse. But through the amber haze of stink enhanced sevenfold by the most intense of heats, there is an oasis of roadside novelty. A building standing strong and proud, adorned decoratively by way of blue and yellow. A bronze statue of noble farmers and their trusty swine guard the gates to this haven. This museum of SPAM.

Inside, the foyer opens up to the heavens, the way paved by hundreds and hundreds of cans of Hormel’s most famous product. Spammy greats you at the door, and a Spambassador orientates you on the building and its many marvels: a SPAM movie theater, interactive games, educational displays, and even where to get free Spamples. She handed us a Spamphlet full of all kinds of tasty information, and we were blissfully on our way.

Our first stop was the movie theater, but we were stopped and provided with a small portion of cooked SPAM to eat. We each took a niblet, and since none of us had ever previously tried the delicacy, we toasted our samples, popped them into our mouths, and nearly vomited aggressively all over the SPAM theater floor. Kyle especially disliked the treat, as it was so vile to his taste buds that it actually stopped his heart for seventeen seconds. None of us could believe that anyone would pay legal American tender for so disgusting an entrée, let alone introduce to it to a human digestive system.

But we weren’t there to eat; we were there to play. And play we did. There was a little mock SPAM factory game where you dress up in Hormel digs and race to see who can assemble the cans of SPAM the fastest. Kevin applied an assembly line strategy while Kyle haphazardly slopped the cans together with no pride in his work. It’s no wonder Kevin won by nearly half a minute.

By the end of our stay, we learned that SPAM got its name by smushing together the phrase "Spiced Ham," which was Hormel’s original name for the food. We also discovered that the meat used for this product comes from the pig’s shoulder, and soldiers ate a ton of it during World War II because it was easy to transport and didn’t spoil as easily as fresher meats with (and I’m guessing here) 7,000% less salt.

Yes, SPAM is truly a part of American history, and a real success story for the Southern Minnesota town. However, had we stayed for another hour or two, the scent of butchered hogs would’ve permanently seeped into our pores, and then our girlfriends would break up with us. So, we were forced to leave Austin. Forever.

Mall of America, Bloomington, Minnesota, & The Metrodome, Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Twin City skylines are pretty incredible. It’s like God took a mirror and stuck it in front of a major American metropolis, just so it could see its own reflection. Even more impending than the double dose of Minnesota high rises is the Mall of America, which is the most spacious retail center in U.S. and A.

The Mall includes over 500 stores, including an aquarium, a college, and even a wedding chapel. At the center of the 2.5 million square-foot structure is The Park, an indoor amusement park, complete with Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and carnival food. There’s also Lego Land, tons of restaurants, and multiple Victoria’s Secrets. No wonder people drive to Bloomington, Minnesota to rent hotel rooms for three or four days at a time. It would be impossible to get through this place in just one day!

But we tried, with our townie buddy John Haugen as a guide. The MOA is his local mall, so he knew the ropes and was able to take us through the place pretty quickly. Dinner happened at the greatest restaurant in the History of Life: Famous Dave’s. I indulged in BBQ ribs, some beef brisket, cornbread, and a big ol’ 22 ounce glass of Blue Moon. Food couldn’t be more delicious if it tried.

Home plate from the old Met Stadium is somewhere amidst the rides in The Park, and there’s also a seat from the stadium positioned 520 feet away to commemorate a towering Harmon Killebrew blast. I mention this only to segue into to the ball game we watched at the Metrodome in Minneapolis after dinner. Smooth, eh?

It was Orioles versus Twins, and since we had Haugen (a huge Twins fan) with us, we rooted loudly for the O’s. The Dome is a junky ball park, due mostly to the fact that it was tailor made for football. It’s an indoor facility, which makes baseball viewing about as enjoyable as proctological examinations, but on this particular night the shelter was a godsend—it was pouring outside. Nasty park, but an even nastier night, so the dome was okay. But just that one time.

It was the only game of the three we viewed on this trip to give us a home run in person. We were starving for one, so thank you, Minnesota Twins!

Our hotel for the evening was over two hours away, so we left in the 7th inning (which was smart because the game lasted 12). Our early departure was moot anyway because we ended up driving around Minny for over 30 minutes, entirely lost. We eventually got directions from a nice business fellow, who for a short time we believed would shoot and rape us, but we got back on track, thereby ending the fourth full day of our journey.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Beer & Now: Day 3, Part 2

Authentic Dutch Windmill, Elk Horn, Iowa

There is a Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa right across the Nebraska border and only about 20 minutes from Omaha. Intentionally skipping a roadside attraction with a name like "Squirrel Cage Jail" would have been ludicrous, which is why we, unfortunately, were forced to skip it on accident.

Maybe we dilly-dallied too much on Day 3 (personally, I blame our over-exposure to the Black Hole of Stamps), but for whatever reason, we ended up in Council Bluffs about twenty minutes after the jail had closed. Had we have arrived thirty minutes sooner, we could’ve witnessed the beauty of our country’s only Lazy Susan prison, which locks its cells by spinning around the whole interior of the building. The City was forced to close it down due to fire hazardry (it’d be impossible to escape the cells should the building burn), but apparently it isn’t quite flammable enough to keep tours from occurring.

So we stood and pouted expressively for about three to four minutes before hitting the road again. We refused to take any pictures out of defiance, so there is no record of us ever having been in The Bluffs of Council in Iowa.

To make up for this, and believe me we were more bummed out than Chicago Cubs fans, we made an impromptu detour to Elk Horn, Iowa, home of the Authentic Danish Windmill. The structure itself was originally built in 1848 in Norre Snede, Denmark, but was moved to an apparently very Danish part of Iowa in the ‘70s to help bolster tourism to the town and celebrate the nation’s bicentennial. Sound like a real live party, eh?

The project, led by a man named Harvey Sornson, took several months and over $100,000, but it was finished in time for 1976’s July 4th celebration, and the structure still stands in Elk Horn today. And luckily for us, we were able to dabble in such things to help us get over the loss of our beloved Squirrel Cage Jail.

The tour was supposed to include a video, but we had already seen about forty-three economically produced movies on the trip and so begged our hostess to let us skip it. Instead we just headed straight up into the windmill, amidst its many wheels and gyros, which formerly participated in a process for grinding wheat. We climbed to the top of the 60-foot mill, took in the view, and then decided that Dutch Windmills probably aren’t anywhere near as exciting as Squirrel Cage Jails. But, in all honesty, the windmill was a great rebound attraction and really helped us get over our loss.

Thanks a million, Elk Horn, Iowa. We’ll never forget you.

Albert the Bull, Audubon, Iowa & The Birthplace of John Wayne, Winterset, Iowa

The days are as long as they’ll be all year in early June, which is extremely lucky for us considering how many places we’d hoped to see in Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa before the sun went down. Before it was all said and done, we’d gone from Kansas City to our buddy Phil’s place in Iowa City in just one day, stopping about 327 times along the way to visit stuff. But, we still had two more places to see before we could hit the hay.

The first of these was Albert the Bull in Audubon, Iowa. Albert is basically a giant bull that stands watch over a little playground and little league field in the small Iowa town. He’s made from 45 tons of cement and recycled steel from several retired area windmills. Surprisingly, even though he towers at a little over 30 feet tall, Albert’s most impressive feature isn’t actually his height; it’s his gonads, which are the approximate size and weight of my Honda Civic. Kevin mistakenly thought that they were giving him The Eye, so he picked a fight. But that was stupid, because the gonads won. The gonads always win.

The sun was starting to set a little over this serene little park, so we took seats on the playground equipment to soak in the beauty of the evening (even though there was a creepy unshaven pedophile-type in the canopied picnic area nearby). We couldn’t stay forever, however, because our daylight was quickly fading, and John Wayne was waiting for us in his hometown of Winterset.

Where Audubon was quaint, Winterset was rustic (and old, but I’m referring here to the townsfolk, not the architecture. The architecture was rustic). John Wayne’s birthplace is just a modest little four-room white house in the middle of town. You’d never know just looking that it was the childhood home of one of cinema’s most beloved actors.

We got there pretty late in the day, so the house wasn’t open for tours. But, unlike the Squirrel Cage Jail, we actually expected this. Inside is the eye patch Wayne worn in "True Grit," as well as some other artifacts, rare photos, and letters from celebrity friends like Lucille Ball, but we would’ve been too exhausted to take in that much more tourism novelty, anyway.

We did have the capacity for one more thing, though. Parked in the house’s driveway was an airbrushed 1980s van, complete with $50,000 worth of John Wayne murals painted on it. It was like "Pimp My Ride" for Gen-X’ers. An exemplary display of why we take these types of trips in the first place.

But that was it, and we were tired, so it was off to Phil’s place to get the most uncomfortable sleep of the entire journey.

Next Installment, Coming Soon: Day 4, The Great North (Minnesota, not Canada)...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Beer & Now: On the Road Again, Day 3

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri

Independence, Missouri is just a short drive out of Kansas City. But aside from just having a cool name, it’s also the birthplace of former president Harry S. Truman. Day 3 was supposed to start off with a quick visit to Truman’s grave, and then we’d head up the street to the Hair Museum. However, we didn’t realize that Truman’s tomb was smack-dab in the middle of a pretty interesting museum. So we scrapped our date with the hair sculptures and just spent the first part of the morning at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

Truman, our 33rd president, presided over many of our country’s most infamous historical events: the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the beginning of the Cold War, and the Korean War. He did actually do some good things, too, like helping found the United Nations and NATO. He kind of lucked into the presidential office, as the order of power shoved him out of his vice-presidential seat and into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s very big shoes in 1945. So it goes, right?

The museum itself was set up much like the Abraham Lincoln museum in Springfield, Illinois—flashy informational exhibits and famous artifacts all over the place, with little movie clips and interactive displays sprinkled about. Some of the more notable artifacts included: Truman’s "The Buck Stops Here" paperweight, a copy of the newspaper headlined "Dewey Defeats Truman" from the 1948 election in which Dewey did not actually defeat Truman, and a couple of the automobiles used by the president during the ‘40s and ‘50s.

The tombs of Truman and his wife were in the central courtyard, and believe me, it took every ounce of respect we could muster to keep ourselves from making jokes about a woman named "Bess," but we got through it okay. Several statues, pictures, and an eternal flame later, we found ourselves in the Presidential Basement for what would be the most interesting part of this particular stop: The White Doll House.

Basically, it’s just a great big doll house replica of the White House. Millions of dollars and thousands ofman hours went into creating this (it takes months just to move the traveling exhibit), and every precaution is taken to insure the house’s authenticity. Even the tiny books have writing in them. I tried not to imagine the nerd with the time and money to arrange something so awe-inspiring, but the possibilities had too much potential for humor to ignore.

At that point, we wrapped things up there (even though we probably could’ve stayed for several more hours), and got back on the road to find St. Joseph, Missouri, which would prove to be one of the strangest towns on our trip.

The Jesse James Home & Patee Museum, St. Joseph, Missouri

It’s where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended. So what would a road trip be without stopping through to see what kinds of crazy attractions the city of St. Joseph, Missouri might have constructed to commemorate these two events?

For us, the adventure started at the home of famous outlaw Jesse James, where he was shot in the back of the noggin by his buddy, Bob Ford. What makes this story even more interesting is that Ford was found guilty for the murder of Jesse James and sentenced to hang, but he was promptly pardoned by the governor, leading many to believe that the ol’ governor had commissioned Ford to pop a cap in Jesse’s dome. I could be entirely wrong about this, but that seems to be at least mildly illegal. Them was tougher times, though. Manlier. Our justice system has lost some of its zip since then. First they invent that confounded telephone, and then they take away our right to shoot someone in the name of justice. It’s inhumanity, I tells ya!

Anyway, James’s unfair death still angers the little turtle-shaped curator, who walks several miles to and from the house museum every day to work several hours on end for literally no wages. Seriously, he makes zero dollars an hour. But the poor guy loves his history—he wouldn’t shut up from the time we got there until the time we told him to "Quick, look over there!" so we could sneak out. Sucker.

Keeping that in mind, we were given plenty of time to peruse the tiny house, which included the type of gun used to shoot James, the real skull of the famous outlaw (complete with gaping cranial loss in the back), and the uncovered bullet hole still in the wall after all these years. A little disturbing, but well worth the four dollars.

Right next door is the Patee House Museum, which was the home of the very first Pony Express headquarters. This building has gone through an abundance of incarnations over the years, starting with a hotel and ending with the museum it is today. But somewhere in there it also acted as a women’s college, a garment factory, and an epileptic sanitarium.

Today, however, it’s a hodgepodge collection of turn-of-the-century trinkets, carousel horses, railroad memorabilia, and authentic St. Joseph town artifacts. We visited the recreation of the Pony Express station, but the really cool part of this particular stop was the saloon, equipped with player piano, hella cool cowboy doors, and sweet, sweet sasparilla. There was even a wonderful bartender fellow there to complete the cowboy ambiance. It made me want to fire my six-shooter in the air, but these things are frowned upon indoors. Yipee Ky-Yi-Yay, boys and girls!

The Glore Psychiatric Museum, St. Joseph, Missouri, & The World's Biggest Ball of Stamps, Omaha, Nebraska

If Jesse James and the Pony Express aren’t enough to make St. Joseph interesting, it’s pretty easy to drive just a couple miles up the road to visit the Glore Psychiatric Museum, which houses a whole lot of strange, creepy stuff.

The museum was started in 1967 by a former state mental health employee named George Glore, and the exhibits used to be kept in the old mental ward of the St. Joseph State Hosptial (known as "State Lunatic Asylum" in the 19th Century). Now, since most of the hospital’s patients have benefited from more effective, modern medicine, the building’s been turned into a prison, and the museum sits right next door.

Inside lie some exceptionally interesting case studies, like the obsessive swallower who died during stomach surgery because she had swallowed hundreds of miscellaneous objects (buttons, nails, salt and pepper lids, thimbles, etc.). Or, the guy who got a metal fence rail accidentally shoved through his brain and survived, but with an entirely different personality. Or the guy that saved up thousands of cigarette cartons to get a free wheelchair for the ward (an offer that never actually existed), or the guy that put over 500 pieces of paper into the back of a television. I’m telling you—the place was eerie.

Of course, we couldn’t stay in St. Joseph all day long, mostly because despite its novelty charm, it was kind of a gross, congested little town. So we drove to Omaha, Nebraska to see the World’s Biggest Ball of Stamps.
The Ball is the prized piece of a collection started by one Father Flanagan, but now it’s just tucked away in the back of a little gift shop. Last year, we were able to add a layer to the World’s Biggest Ball of Paint, but the rules surrounding the Stamp Ball are not so liberal. The only interactive activity we could do here was pay pennies for old stamps in a small display off the side of The Ball. This seemed just freakishly lame to me, but Kyle and Kevin really got into it, arguing over stamps featuring the likes of Hitler and Crime Dog McGruff (among others). They were peddling stamps between the two of them like it was the New York freaking Stock Exchange. Nerds.

Back to The Ball: It weighs over 600 pounds, is 32 inches in diameter, and includes exactly 4,655,000 stamps. Ripley’s Believe it or Not even featured it in one of their publications. This, of course, means that The World’s Biggest Ball of Stamps is an entirely reputable tourist stop. But so is the Glore Museum, if you’re crazy enough.

Next Installment, Coming Soon: Day 3, Part 2, Now Entering Iowa...

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Beer & Now: On the Road Again, Day 2

The Daniel Boone Home, Defiance, Missouri & Living Elvis Museum, Wright City, Missouri

In the planning stages of "Beer and Now," Missouri didn’t seem like it was going to offer much by way of exciting novelty roadside attractions, but as it turns out, the very first two attractions of the day provided us with some extremely memorable entertainment.

The Boone Home in Defiance, Missouri (which Kevin mistakenly thought was where they made Boone’s Farm Wine) was our first stop of the morning. After paying $7 and watching the required pre-tour video (the first of many pre-tour videos we’d endure over the course of our journey), we were transferred from our video holding pen to the 200 year-old house Boone built with his own hands.

Along the way to the home, as our guides (dressed in authentic 19th Century garb) were giving us even more introductory information, a very loud security alarm erupted from the Boone home. We were impressed that Boone, not only a pioneer of the frontier but apparently of technology as well, would have the means to build such an alarm. And that it still worked after 200 years!

Anyway, the pinnacle of this particular incident was when a 70+ year-old woman, also dressed in authentic costume, darted across the meadow to get the alarm turned off. We called it our "Boone-mergency," and it was definitely one of the trip’s highlights.

However, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of our trek was the journey to the center of the Elvis is Alive Museum. The EAM was established in Wright City, Missouri by a man named Bill Beeny (who owns the only existing sample of Elvis DNA and has written a book claiming Elvis to be alive, based mostly on the fact that the DNA of the man in Elvis’s casket is different from his sample. Of course, this could be because his DNA is bogus, but who wants to be the one to tell Bill?). Outside, there is an old limo wrapped in ratty Christmas tinsel, and inside, once you get past the cheap Elvis mannequin-in-casket and replica gravesite, you can delve into the alleged FBI files that link Presley to Richard Nixon.

Beeny, a former minister, also uses this space to passively preach his political messages, offering free motivational cassette tapes featuring his own voice (one was memorably titled, "All Great Men Were Christians") and very graphic anti-abortion images throughout the museum. Yes, Beeny has provided a haven for people who love both Elvis and nightmares about still-borns.

We kept waiting for this Bill Beeny character to jump out from behind a display wearing a plastic Elvis mask and wielding a chainsaw, but it never happened. Still, wholly unsettled, it was time for us to leave the Land of the King and continue our journey across Missou.

Stubby Stonehenge & Memoryville USA, Rolla, Missouri

The real Stonehenge was assembled around 2500 BC, but the problem with seeing it is that it’s technically located somewhere in England, which was several thousand miles outside of our travel route.

So to compensate, we checked out Stubby Stonehenge (a half-scale partial reproduction of the original) in Rolla, Missouri. The structure is located on the campus of the University of Missouri and was constructed in the 1980s. It’s made from about 160 tons of granite and actually does act as a pretty accurate calendar, displaying everything from solstices to the time of day.

Of course by modern standards, the structure isn’t particularly flashy. There were no explosions, curse words, or partial nudity involved with our viewing of the rocks, but it provided us with a mild sense of awe. At the very least it was a great place to eat our turkey sandwiches for lunch.

Up the road an ancient antique shop stands proudly, equipped with one of the most famous automobile restoration shops in the world. I couldn’t tell you what the actual store was called, but the restoration shop and its attached museum goes by the name "Memoryville, U.S.A." Fitting, because it’s not a place that any of us will soon forget (Okay, I’m sorry that was so cheesy, but I set myself up. Gimme a break).

If Kyle and Kevin had their way, we would’ve spent most of the afternoon perusing the store portion of the building, sifting through old comic books, dusty knick-knacks, and rusty thingermajigs. Once I informed them that they were technically "antiquing," we got started with our self-guided tour of the Memoryville museum.

Probably the sweetest hoopty of all the cars on display was the car they used for the opening credits of "The Beverly Hillbillies." The storefront area downstairs was like a whole little moldy basement village, complete with a barber shop, a bank, a convenient store, etc. The lights were browned, creepy old-timey music played the entire time, and it seemed like there were cobwebs in just about every available crevice. Which made it neat.

Eventually, we were spit out into the automobile restoration shop, where there were guys down there actually working on old cars. They’re contracted to pimp rides for rich people in all sorts of countries. The guy we talked to was working on some oldschool Porsche. He was nice and chatted with us for a few.

But, we couldn’t spend too much time there, because the sun was already setting and we had quite a ways to go to reach Kansas City by game time. So we packed up and left Memoryville with nothing but fond memories (Okay, that’s the last cheese. I promise).

World's Largest Shuttlecocks & Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri

On the way to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland last year, we walked right past a gigantic rubber stamp. It was three times as big as some houses I’ve seen, a rather impending structure.

This summer, we purposefully visited another gigantic sculpture designed by the same artist: The World’s Largest Shuttlecocks. These bad boys, standing in at over 17 feet apiece, rest serenely on the front lawn of Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. We of course took the opportunity to pose ridiculously with the Shuttlecocks (which we affectionately and immaturely nicknamed "the Cocks"), but we didn’t understand the art behind these guys at the time.

Claes Oldenburg is the sculptor’s name, and he’s made a whole slue of gigantic reproductions of typically small household items. Aside from the stamp in Cleveland and the Cocks in KC, he’s also responsible for a huge broken button and an immense clothespin in Philadelphia, giant bowling pins in the Netherlands, and a mammoth toothbrush in Germany. God Bless this man and his novelty art. He’s the kind of guy that makes these types of road trips worth doing.

But, since we were already very far behind, we split fairly quickly and finally headed over to Kauffman Stadium to enjoy a game played by the dismal Kansas City Royals. Kauffman lies side-by-side with Arrowhead Stadium (home of the football Chiefs), and both are about fifteen minutes outside of downtown. It’s actually pretty strange how out-of- the-way these places are. In St. Louis, for example, one can see the entire city skyline over the right field scoreboard. Kauffman’s just sort of in the middle of nowhere.

That aside, the park was beautiful. Waterfalls trickle peacefully in the outfield, occasionally erupting into lit-up fountains. The scoreboard is a huge Royals logo, complete with crown, and it lights up in between innings. Plus, we paid for the cheap high upper deck seats, but because no one comes to these games (because the Royals suck), we plopped down about eight rows back of the field in between first base and the right field foul pole. Tons of foul balls bounced our way, but the gaggle of hormonal fraternity bros in front of us kept ricocheting them off their stupid paddle hands so small toddlers could scoop up the prize of all their hard work. Morons.

But the game was fun, and with our hotel only across the street, it was cake getting out of there. So after dealing with a hotel room that smelled like body odor, a hot tub that was about thirty degrees too hot, and a 12-pack of the cheapest beer we could find, it was bed time, and thereby the end of Day 2.

Next Installment, Coming Soon: Day 3, Part 1, Northern Missouri & Omaha

Monday, July 17, 2006

Beer & Now: Day 1, Part 2

Anheuser-Busch Brewery Tour, St. Louis, Missouri

A road trip with a handle like "Beer and Now" obviously must include ice-cold alcoholic beverages in some integral facet. For us, the real fun started in St. Louis when we toured the Anheuser-Busch brewery.

A-B is the world’s third largest distributor of beer, pumping out about 117 million barrels of frosty, malty goodness a year. Aside from brewing all Budweiser products and the obvious Busch brand, A-B also puts together the Michelob family and the inexpensive college fave, Natural "Natty" Ice. We learned quickly that most of the brews with any sort of delectable taste actually came from St. Louis (more on that when we get to the Miller plant and are able to make some comparisons).

Walking into the red-bricked home base building, we stepped into a virtual Land of Oz for beer drinkers. The foyer opens up to a delicious Hall o’Booze, sporting everything from a replica of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s #8 Bud car, to a display that shows every beverage A-B makes. Basically, it was Disneyworld for grownups.

The tour itself was extremely lovely. We started our trek outside in the June sun, heading towards the Clydesdales, which are some sort of uber-horses with fuzzy feet that closely resemble snow-bunny boots. Kyle took a plethora of pictures outside of the stable and in, where we headed next, because his lady friend is a fan of all things equestrian.

We saw mash tanks and packing facilities (A-B can fill something like 2,000 cans of beer per minute), but the highlight of this tour was the end, where they give out free samples. See, through the entire course of the tour, nobody’s actually paying attention to anything the guides are saying because at the beginning, they inform everyone that "there will be free beer at the end of the tour." At one point, Kevin and I saw a drinking fountain and wondered if it dispensed liquor like some sort of freaky Willy Wonka brewery. It didn’t, but that’s just how delusional we were for beer at that point of the go round.

So we finally ended up in the Hospitality Area and were provided with free samples of basically any Busch brand beer we desired. One of the highlights was a combination of Amber Bock and a chocolate "Spyke," which gave the bevy an appetizing cold cocoa flavor.

Two drinks later we were feeling mighty flippant, finally woozy enough to convince ourselves that going up into the Gateway Arch would be a good idea, despite the fact that the elevators are the approximate size of a cereal box. So, after a brief dip into the gift shop (in which I bought a glass for four bucks, which I’m positive I never would’ve done if completely sober), we headed back towards the river.

The Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri

I went up the Arch in second grade as part of an overnight field trip, but I have hardly any recollection of this experience at all, other than being able to look down into the middle of old Busch Stadium while a game was going on.

Kyle and I tried again the day after Thanksgiving in 2005, but that is apparently a pretty hectic travel day in The Lou, and lines stretched all the way outside in the biting November cold, and after waiting for about a half hour and moving only a few feet, my family decided to disband the mission.

So, we tried it again as part of our road trip this summer. Kyle and Kevin had never been up the Gateway Arch, which was built as a multiple memorial in the 1960s for: 1.) The Louisiana Purchase, 2.) The establishment of the first civic colony west of the Mississippi River, and 3.) The debate over slavery raised by the Dred Scott case. I guess the good people of St. Louis’s Memorial Building Committee wanted to commemorate several birds with one stone?

In any event, our timing at the Arch was impeccable. We just strutted right up to the ticket booth, purchased three admissions onto the tram, and walked straight back to the boarding docks, where we first met the impossibly small mouse-holes they wanted us to crawl through to head up the architectural masterpiece.

These miniscule elevators resemble something from "The Jetsons," but only if the Jetsons were about 60% adult human height. We had to duck our heads just to squeeze into the futuristic pods (something I didn’t remember because as a child, I was of proper height for this tram). It’s built for five, which would have made things extremely claustrophobic considering we were smushed with only the three of us. Of course that’s probably due mostly to the fact that we are all so ridiculously strong and verile.

But, after approximately four minutes of intense freaking out, we made it to the top and took our first ganders out of the observation windows. From that height, we spotted the Old Courthouse, the new Busch Stadium, and a wonderful view of the Muddy Mississippi and I-55. There’s not much else to say about being up there (other than if it’s windy, the Arch sways up to ten inches in either direction), but the view was extraordinary, and with sun streams pouring through fluffy white cumulus clouds in the early summer evening anyway, we bagged ourselves a pretty memorable experience.

Of course, also memorable was the four-minute journey back down in the same little futuristic pea pods. The sad thing is, that wasn’t even as claustrophobic as we’d feel on this trip. Something would be even worse…

BB's Blues, Jazz, & Soup and New Busch Stadium, St. Louis, Missouri

With an hour to go before the game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds, we decided that it would be in our best interest to eat something for market value outside of the ball park, instead of taking out a 15-year variable interest mortgage for a hot dog and a beer.

As it turns out, the best place to do this is only about a block south of the ball park at BB’s Blues, Jazz, and Soup. This restaurant came a la suggestion by Uncle Marty, and it turned out to be an excellent choice. We all indulged in a sandwich affectionately named "The Muffalatta," which consists of smoked ham, thick salami, melted provolone, and a spicy olive spread to add a little zip. It was one of the Top-3 Most Delicious Sandwiches I’ve Ever Eaten, and the beer was cheap—only $3.75 for a pint of Fat Tire.

With beer that cheap, Kyle and Kevin grabbed two a piece and left BB’s feeling like small children on a beeline for playground equipment. Unfortunately, we were too early for any blues music, the eating experience there was an A++.

Inside New Busch Stadium, which is still in its inaugural season, Kyle power-walked the concourse like a sixty-year old woman in a running suit at any local mall at 6am. Before the whole evening was done, however, that would be the most fun we’d have at the Cardinals game.

We quickly discovered that baseball games are entirely tedious if the viewer of said game has absolutely no vested interest in who wins the contest. Games become even more lackluster when the home team is getting whomped and there’s absolutely no music or crowd-warming gimmicks to keep the crowd entertained.

That said, New Busch Stadium is a gorgeous ball park. The old version was extremely hot and sticky because no air ever swirled into its giant bowl structure. New Busch is entirely open-air, with the St. Louis skyline fully visible beyond the outfield. Had the Cardinals been winning, and had the crowd been more into it, I’m sure it would’ve been more fun. But we were tired after a very long day, and nothing was really happening. Plus, we were stuffed to the brim with Muffalatta and Fat Tire, so we left in the fifth inning.

The very little left of our evening was spent at our Uncle Marty’s in Chesterfield (about thirty minutes west of St. Louis). He actually offered us more beer, but at that point in the day we had no choice but to decline. Kyle did drink a protein shake, though, and I had about seven liters of ice water. We slept like dogs that night.

And we were only getting started.

Next Installment, Coming Soon: Day 2 in Central & Western Missouri

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Beer & Now: On the Road Again, Day 1

(click the links for pictures!)

In the ‘50s, you’d write about road trips taking place in a red convertible whizzing forty miles per hour faster than what’s legal. There’s always some kind of doo-wop music playing on the stereo, while free-thinking wind traipses through the locks of the passengers’ young, golden hair. Young gentlemen have cigarette packages rolled into their sleeves, and there are highly-attractive, well-endowed Betties nestled underneath their strong, masculine arms. Yes, it’s the open road—a place of spontaneous possibility and adventure.

A road trip 2006, however, is a little different than the description above, especially when it involves my brother and me, who have the combined muscular prowess of the Olsen Twins. For us, a road trip is more like this:

"There we were in our official road trip t-shirts, driving the speed limit in my four-door Honda Civic, air-conditioning sort of blowing back my hair a little bit maybe. Perhaps we shall be impulsive later when we stop at a Sonic between 4:00 and 4:20 in the afternoon, depending on whether or not we have sufficient time. Adventure is abound this afternoon; I can’t wait to see the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps."

Okay, so we might be significantly nerdier than our audacious predecessors, but our journey this summer was a riot. Just as we expected.

See, last year’s Midwest Road Fest was my first real road trip of any kind, and Kyle, Ed Harter, and I all will agree that it was one of the more entertaining weeks of our lives. This summer, Ed gets only one week off from medical school in the summer, so he couldn’t go. Kyle and I knew that the new road trip, affectionately named "Beer and Now: On the Road Again," would not be the same without Dr. Harter, but we found an excellent replacement in our mutual buddy (and former boss), Kevin Clark, who understood the point and purpose of this trip, and as a result fit right in.

The mission statement of "Beer and Now" was very similar to that of the Midwest Road Fest in that we hoped to see a lot of really cool stuff. There were, however, a few addendums: 1. The trip itself would be structured around major league baseball parks that none of us had previously visited, 2. The inclusion of alcoholic beverages would need to be consciously vamped, and 3. Instead of Ohio and Indiana, we headed to the west and the north, checking out Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

And that’s it. Our trip lasted six days in June of 2006, and these are the memoirs of that magnificent road excursion. Let’s hit the road, shall we?

Funks Grove Sirup Camp, Shirley, Illinois & Route 66 Hall of Fame, McLean, Illinois

Illinois is old hat. At least, that’s what we thought when the planning for the road trip went underway earlier this year. The idea was to drive straight down to St. Louis and start our day there. But, after doing a little bit of research on the stretch of highway between Bloomington and The Lou, we found that there were actually a few interesting things between here and there.

The Funks Grove Sirup Refinery (or factory, or hatchery, or whatever) in Shirley was one of those interesting things. The Route 66 Hall of Fame in McLean was not.

The Funk family has been making sirup (no, that’s not a typo—they’ve replaced the "y" with an "i" for seemingly artistic purposes) for 150 years in exactly the same location. Shirley is just south of Bloomington on Route 66 and is actually only a few miles outside of the Olympia school district.

The Sirup orchard was tucked away off the main road, and we were greeted in the gravel parking area by a very sweet old Funk woman who showed us around the machinery area while rattling off the sirup-making process like an auctioneer. None of us had any idea what the hell she was talking about, but we let her do her thing. One recurring theme on these types of expeditions is that the people running the roadside attractions are pretty obsessed with their trades, and usually it’s impossible to shut them up once they’ve gotten started.

But because she talked so fast, the lecture was over rather quickly, and upon our return to the main shop we received shots of maple sirup, which went down as smooth as Jaeger. It must be interesting for a palette tainted by processed foods and preservatives to sample something totally fresh and untainted. Yummy.

After some inappropriate tinkering with the Funks Grove sign, we hit the road once again, making an impromptu stop in McLean’s Dixie truck stop to visit what was advertised as "The Route 66 Hall of Fame," but which in reality was "The Route 66 Hall of Pamphlets and One Neon Sign." And yes, for those of you keeping score, this was the Shirley-McLean leg of our journey.

My students love the Dixie for its cheap, greasy breakfast dishes, but I’m guessing they don’t come for the Hall of Fame. The whole experience here lasted a grand total of 3 minutes and 18 seconds, which is twice as long as is humanly possible to enjoy one’s self in such a place.

But these first two stops were close to home. The real journey started a few hours south, as we took to the road to get things kicking in St. Louis and its surrounding areas.

World's Largest Bottle of Ketchup & Cahokia Mounds, Collinsville, Illinois

There’s actually a Ketchup Bottle Preservation Group in Collinsville that apparently works tirelessly to preserve the town’s gigantic water tower fashioned in the shape of the bottled condiment. I imagine that a typical meeting of the KBPG would go something like this:

Ketchup Fellow #1: "I think we should strive to keep the Ketchup Bottle."
Ketchup Fellow #2: "Agreed. All in favor of implementing a small militia of Ketchup Protectors, say ‘ay’."
KBPG, together: "Ay!"
Ketchup Fellow #2: "And all in favor of the Ketchup Protectors Militia wearing red uniforms with little hats that look like ketchup bottles, say ‘ay’."
(Crickets chirping)

Our journey into Collinsville, a small town in southern Illinois, was a bit misdirected at first. We got lost looking for the town’s bread-winning attraction, and had to ask a frightening man in a rusty El Camino for directions. He did get us there though, and as we pulled around that last hilly, tree-laden stretch of road, we saw it, in all its glory…

It was a water tower. That looked like a ketchup bottle.

But it was exciting to finally see some authentic roadside novelty. So, we took a few pictures and headed back the other way to check out the Cahokia Mounds, which are also in Collinsville.

I visited the mounds when I was in grade school at Montessori, but the memories from the field trip are fuzzy. Archaeologists don’t really know much about the origins of the mounds, other than they were some sort of religious Mecca for Mississippian Indians several hundred years ago. Monk’s Mound is the largest of all the site’s mounds, measuring over 100 feet tall, 1000 feet long, and 800 feet wide.

But to us, it was basically a butt-load of steps. Once we got to the top, however, the view was pretty nice. We could even see the St. Louis skyline from where we stood. There were a lot of other people up there with us—couples young and a old, a creepy bearded poet man, and small children on a field trip not unlike the one I took as a kid.

Also on "campus" (or whatever you’d call the collection of mounds) was Woodhenge, which is a shadow-based Native American calendar contraption that works in much the same manner as Stonehenge. I can’t imagine it was more awe-inspiring than its English granite counterpart; we didn’t even have to leave the car to snap a picture of it on the way out of town.

The whole place wasn’t a Disneyworld with flashing lights and beer fountains and naked women, but it did provide some old-fashioned appreciation for ancient American history.

Hometown of the World's Tallest Man, Alton, Illinois

Somewhere along the drive to Alton, Illinois, we realized that about an hour in the car could have been saved had we come here first instead of Collinsville. Oh well. Our fault.

But sometimes the outcomes of bigger mistakes can’t be controlled, like in the case of Alton’s "Gentle Giant," Robert Wadlow, whose major mistake was being entirely too tall. In case you’re wondering who in the name of Krishna this guy is, you’d need only turn to the "World’s Tallest" section of your nearest Guinness Book of World Records (which, by the way, was started by a couple of gentlemen at the Guinness brewery in the 1950s who couldn’t settle an argument over which species of European gamebird was the speediest. Hence, the book was started to answer that question and many others of equal ridiculousity. I swear I’m not making this up. Aside from the word "ridiculousity," which I did, in fact, make up).

Luckily for us road trippers, Alton is very close to St. Louis anyway, so we made the stop (even though there really wasn’t much to see there) and enjoyed our surroundings, which actually pitted us smack dab in the middle of the Southern Illinois University School of Dentistry. I’m not sure what the connection is between clean teeth and a very tall man, but I see no point in arguing the logic.

What the small town does have to commemorate Wadlow is a life-size bronze statue of the man, which stands 8 feet, 11 ½ inches tall. According to the Alton Museum’s website, Mr. Wadlow was 5’4" at age 5, 6’11" at age 12, and 7’10" by age 16. When he joined the Boy Scouts as a teenager, he became the tallest person to ever be part of the organization!

His condition was a result of growth hormone in his brain releasing too liberally into his body. Today there is better treatment to keep these kinds of issues under wraps, but back in the 1930s there was no cure, so our man just grew and grew and grew until he reached almost nine friggin’ feet!

Anyway, we snapped our photos at the little park where the statue was, and we also messed around with a life-size bronze statue of the chair Wadlow used to sit in (which was also ginormous—I felt like a toddler slumped down into the Blues Clues lazy boy). But, that was the extent of what Alton had to offer, so we left.

Bonus: Only a few miles out of town stood a Sonic (the first of three stops to the delicious drive-in over the next few days). So we pulled in and got Dream Shakes and Lime-Ades. They were scrumptious.

Next Installment, Coming Soon: The Rest of Day 1 in St. Louis...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Interesting White Sox Facts

I've been doing a lot of reading out of sheer boredom lately, and I've put together some REALLY interesting stuff about the history of the White Sox here. The South Siders have got a LOT to do with the history and heritage of baseball, and you'd never even know it. Well, that is, until you read THIS:

The White Sox franchise started off as a minor league team, the Sioux City Cornhuskers, in the league that would eventually become the American League (which used to be a minor league system for the National League).

The White Sox won 5 American League pennants between 1900 and 1919, including the very first American League pennant in 1900.

The team was originally called the White Stockings, which was actually the disbanded moniker of the Chicago Cubs, who had changed a few years earlier since they’d be sharing Soldier Field with the Bears (Bears, Cubs, get it?). The Chicago newspapers were always shortening the team name as “Sox” to make the word easier to read by spelling it phonetically for the city’s diverse international population (and yes, we did this before the Boston Red Stockings). In 1903, then-owner Charles Comiskey just adopted “White Sox” as the new official team name.

In 1906 the White Sox won the World Series. They beat the Cubs in six games.

Of course, there’s the big Black Sox scandal of 1919, where seven White Sox players were accused of throwing the World Series to win money gambling against themselves. Not only did this cost the Sox a World Series, but it sent the team into decades of mediocrity. The team’s best seven players were banned from the game in the prime of their careers. The Sox didn’t win another World Series until 2005.

In 1959, the Sox scored 11 runs in one inning—on only one hit! However, this was due mostly to Kansas City providing 10 walks, 3 errors, and one hit batter.

The White Sox almost completed a trade for Babe Ruth. The offer was Shoeless Joe Jackson and $60,000, which the Red Sox almost accepted. Shoeless Joe was one of the guys sent packing in the Black Sox scandal. So instead, Boston sent The Sultan of Swat to the Yankees for $100,000 in cash.

When the White Sox won their first pennant in 40 years in 1959, Mayor Richard J Daley ordered the air-raid sirens to be set off. This scared and confused the hell out of much of Chicago, since 1959 was right smack dab in the middle of the Cold War.

The most fans to ever attend a World Series game was at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1959 when the White Sox played the Dodgers. There were over 92,700 fans in attendance. To put that into perspective, U.S. Cellular Field seats around 40,000 fans when filled to capacity. Soldier Field, even with all its recent additions, seats only 61,500.

When the Milwaukee Braves were moved to Atlanta, former minority owner (and current MLB commish) Bud Selig wanted to lobby for an expansion team in Milwaukee, so he signed a contract with Sox ownership to have the Pale Hose play 9 games in the Land ‘o Beer. Those nine games drew about 265,000 fans (the other 58 games played at Comiskey Park in Chicago drew about 540,000. That’s not a typo).

When MLB wouldn’t grant Selig an expansion team, he tried to move the Sox to Milwaukee. The AL blocked the sale, however, because they didn’t want to lose a team in such a huge market. So in 1968 Selig moved the Seattle Pilots instead and renamed them the Milwaukee Brewers. Of course, this sent the Seattle into a tremendous tizzy, and in 1975 the Sox almost got sent to the Emerald City to fill the void left by the Pilots’ departure (of course, Seattle was eventually granted an expansion team, the Mariners, in 1976). Had the Sox actually have gone to Seattle, the Oakland Athletics would have then moved into Comiskey and become the new Chicago AL team. Even after all of that hullabaloo, the team was almost sold to a group hoping to move the team to New Orleans, but that deal fell through as well. Confusing, eh? The bottom line is that we almost lost the Sox three times in only a few years!

The tradition of singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was started at Comiskey Park by Harry Carey, who was a screaming idiot. But, the tradition continues today! The song is the third most-played song in America, behind only “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Happy Birthday to You.”

Current White Sox announcer Ken “Hawk” Harrelson was the team’s general manager in 1986. That stint apparently didn’t work out to well, as owner Jerry Reinsdorf called that hiring “the worst mistake I’ve ever made.”

To commemorate the last game played at the old Comiskey Park in 1990, the White Sox wore replica 1917 uniforms, marking the first ever “Turn Back the Clock” day in the MLB. Many teams now do this, as the tradition continues league-wide.

The White Sox became World Series champions in 2005 for the first time since the Black Sox scandal, and they are looking like they’ll be strong contenders this year as well. I figured this would be interesting for you all to read at the All-Star break this year. Enjoy, and Go, Go White Sox!!!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Defining Moments: Part 3 of 5, Surprise

Surprise

It happened in the van—we were driving along some random wooded country road en route to our home on Cobb Blvd while the sun shone proudly, streaming rays through the leafy branches. A contradictory symbol considering the disappointing news I was about to receive.

Actually, it didn’t come out as official news, per se; it was more a comment on the possibility of moving to a different house. Still, the prospect of such a thing rattled me to the marrow, as I had never considered a nomadic lifestyle for the typically static Brigham Clan. There weren’t exactly visions of us in loincloths, scavenging for berries and edible roots while taking turns hauling the supports and canvases for a portable yurt on some wooden trail wagon, but I still felt a burgeoning sense of dread, as I had only lived in one home up to that point in my life. Home was Home, so considering living somewhere else was a little frightening.

I must have been around 10 or 11. Maybe 12. Regardless of which age it was, I was in a state of complete and utter shock. Weird, unstable families moved. Not us.

But, my dad had re-married a couple years earlier, and with four children approaching adolescence simultaneously (Jackie, the youngest, is now 20. I’m the oldest at age 23. There are four of us. Do the math and you’ll understand that we’re talking about a significant number of teenagers all at once. My poor parents), one full bathroom wasn’t going to come anywhere near affable for six grown people. Plus, my parents had doubts about the public school system in Kankakee (think “Dangerous Minds” but instead of thugs carrying guns, they carry nuclear missiles and portable PA systems that play Celine Dion loudly and repetitively).

Plus, there was the bike-jacking incident in the summer of ‘93. About 37 thug children rolled up on me balanced on about seven bikes like circus monkeys (though these were slightly less cute and entertaining), and they put me in a headlock until I rescinded my own bicycle. It was a beautifully neon yellow Trek Jazz with a drink holder and gearshift, and it was my baby. I loved that bike. It has since probably been melted down and sold to trophy makers. Sigh.

As an adult, I can see that the reasons for moving were legit, but back then I was not happy about moving to Podunk-a-dunk, Illinois. That was, of course, until I saw the new house, which was much bigger, had more bathrooms, and supplied me with my own sleeping area. Privacy was a new thing to me, and my first tastes of it were extremely enjoyable. I could write, draw, listen to music, or run my minimum-wage slave sewing plant in peace (I’m just kidding! I never listened to music!).

I spent much of that first summer alone—all my best friends lived 15 miles north of me, and I was without a car. But in time, I made a lot of good friends, went to a high school that was the perfect fit for me, and I ended up loving the house and my room. After ten years, it’s even starting to feel a little like home.

That is, until my folks decide to downsize and get rid of this house, too. Then it’s back to fantasies of berry picking and buffalo hunting, which I am absolutely not looking forward to. That yurt is heavier than hell.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Defining Moments: Part 2 of 5, Anger

Anger

By nature, I am a very calm person, so it seldom happens when anyone will see me blind with anger. The only times in my life where I can honestly say I was white-hot mad were the times when I felt I was being treated unfairly or being forced to do something against my will.

Some of these instances are stupid in retrospect: being told “no” to going to a friend’s party that my parents were absolutely positive would include alcohol (even if I had absolutely NO intention of partaking in the activities), being forced to take out the trash in the middle of my favorite show, getting in trouble for a reason that I felt was unnecessary (like the time I took my brother’s pudding from him and ate it—yes, it was a mean thing to do, but did it warrant a multi-day grounding? Hardly).

However, on some occasions during my youth (which I’m assuming is much like most your youths—where any and everything parents do is wildly insane and ultimately unfair), I’ve grown so angry that my responses to the unfair situations were probably a tish extreme.

When I was about 11, I was enslaved in an evening ritual of having to practice the piano. My ma would stand over me with an eight-foot bullwhip as I labored away on the ivories with nothing but malicious fervor. It’s hard to play a beautiful sonata when you’re dizzy from rage about having to play it.

Believe me, I complained. I begged my parents to let me stop playing piano. But they told me I had “long fingers” and was destined for great things. My grandmother told my mother that she had to quit piano as a child because they couldn’t afford it, and by God, she put her allowance money towards paying for those damned lessons anyway. My father, a huge music-lover (as in, someone who loves music a lot—not an obese man who listens to a lot of “The Who” records), said he always wished his parents had pushed him play.

None of this affected me. I wanted out. I felt like an Alcatraz prisoner at my own piano. One night, my childish pride wouldn’t allow me to take any more. I sat at the piano, as I had always been forced to do, but I refused to tink out a single note. Arms crossed, I basked in my newfound alpha positioning in this situation.

Then, I was given an ultimatum: “Practice that piano, or go to bed.”

It was about 5:30pm on an absolutely beautiful summer evening.About three minutes later, with outside light bursting through the closed blinds, I pouted in silent protest, arms crossed over the hem of my covers.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Defining Moments: Part 1 of 5, Embarassment

We all have defining moments in our lives—times when we experience our emotions at their absolute strongest. We cry because we’re so sad. Or so happy. Or so angry. And all of it is good, not because it’s fun to be pissed off or embarrassed, but because we as humans need to experience our feelings. Letting emotions pass through or systems like a burrito with a little too much hot salsa is a good thing. We let them in, digest them, then relieve ourselves of them. These are the processes that define our lives.

Emotions like happiness and despair are easy to recollect; we feel these every day, and most of us can remember a great kiss or horrible death. But it’s more difficult to recall obscure moments in our lives that changed the way we lived, ones that pulled us out of a funk. Or into one. Moments that made our faces red, but didn’t set off massive rumors at school. Moments that surprisingly made us feel lucky, or unlucky.

Like I said, we all have moments that define our lives. These are mine:

Embarrassment

One such moment for me happened at the tender age of three. At such a young age, my parents were already sending me to a half-day preschool, and I don’t believe I was too far removed from the potty training process. See, at age 2, my mother gave birth to twins, and when they were brought home from the hospital, I immediately expressed my defiant disinterest in Kyle and Jenna by forgetting absolutely everything I had just been taught about “going” in the “proper commodes.” In the months that followed, my parents did everything they could to convince me that I had already graduated from Toilet School.

I, however, experienced intentional amnesia, which confused me enough to where I couldn't recall whether or not I had the facility to use the bathroom properly. At age 3, in preschool, I should’ve been pretty familiar with the commodities available in the lieu, but my defiance had been going on for so long that I may have actually forgotten how to do My Business.

All of this came to a culmination one day in preschool when I had an accident, but actually not on purpose. I shuffled off to the coat closet before anyone could have an inkling as to what was going on, and I pulled the door shut behind me. The small closet felt huge then, my tiny body a mere speck in the enveloping giganticism of the darkened closet. I focused my sense of smell on the musk of polyester coats and the dusty plastic backpacks that surrounded me on all sides—anything to avoid the smell of my own self.

I don’t remember whether I cried or not, but I stood there in that closet for several minutes with absolutely no course of action in my brain. I guess I figured I’d just set up camp right there in the coat closet, producing a makeshift bed from piled jackets and windbreakers. My stomach churned with anxiety and shame, and I would’ve sold my soul at that point for a clean pair of jeans.

Finally, mercifully, the teacher cracked open the door, presumably looking for me. It is very likely I cried, blubbering out the details of what had happened, and she let me stay right there in that closet until somebody could bring me fresh garments. I was extremely grateful.

And that officially ended my bathroom strike. If it weren’t for that incident, I’d probably still hate the twins and “relieve my emotions” in any dark corner I could find.

That exact instance changed me. Hence: "Defining Moment."

Friday, May 05, 2006

Great Student Quotes

Well, the school year is drawing to a close, and I can honestly say that my second full year of teaching has been as enjoyable as the first one was. All year long, I keep track of funny or stupid things student say, and at the end of the year I post a compilation of the best ones. I hope you guys laugh as hard at these as I did. Some of them still generate some vocal chortles from yours truly. Enjoy!

Billy (a sophomore): “Washington Irving? Isn’t that the guy that invented peanut butter?”

Me, to the class: “Let’s review: adverbs describe…”
Students: “Verbs!”
Me: “Right, and what type of word describes nouns?”
Zach (a senior): “Adnouns?”

Me: “Do you guys know the name of the woman who supposedly constructed the first American flag?”
Billy, without raising his hand: “Ooh! Rosa Parks!”

Me: “I’m going to a BB King concert tonight.”
Jessica (a freshman): “Who’s that?”
Me: “Well, he’s arguably the greatest blues musician of all time.”
Jessica: “Ew. Isn’t that like, old man music?”

Zach: “Hey Brigs, can I leave early for lunch today? I was being really quiet the whole period.”
Jarad: “That’s ‘cause you were sleeping, you moron.”

One freshman’s definition of labyrinth: “An inflammation of the inner ear.”

Me: “Now, why might Edgar Allan Poe have found the death of a beautiful woman so tragic?”
Billy: “Because didn’t all of his girlfriends die of the same disease? They all had laryngitis or something.”

Ryan (a sophomore), giving a presentation: “So here the soldiers are joining together because they have morale.”
A spectator: “What’s morale?”
Ryan: “It’s um… okay… It’s when a bunch of people get together and say, ‘We’re not happy.’”

“C is for cats. I have two cats. One is named Tigger and one is named Roxy. They are both male cats, and they are gay together.”
-Abbie (a freshman) in her autobiographical alphabet assignment.

“He has a low self of steam.”
-One student’s answer to a character-based question.

Dan (a senior): “Man, you’re as gay as a two-dollar bill.”

Ryan: “My hands are so cold… I should be a doctor.”

And my personal favorite:

Carli (a sophomore): “If I write for more than 15 minutes straight, my hand starts to hurt. It’d be nice if I could just switch and write with my left hand, but I’m not bilingual.”

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Touch the Sky

I touched the sky.

Sort of.

Kanye West’s latest hit single is titled, “Touch the Sky,” and as a security guard standing watch over Bloomington-Normal’s adolescence like a stone sentinel, I was given the opportunity to enjoy the song right along with the other 3,000 people in attendance. As a result, one could say I figuratively “touched the sky.”

Working security for big shows like that is, for lack of a more stunning adjective, interesting. For example, there was the time I had to withhold the throbbing minions of underage Alien Ant Farm fans (all seven of them) from entering the one-hit tour bus (did you catch the double-entendre there?). More recently, I admitted about ¼ of the 65,000 unreservedly inebriated and unapologetically body-painted Chicago Bears fanatics into the team’s first home playoff game since the Coolidge administration. Both memories I’ll cherish right up there with the wedding day, babies born, blah blah etc…

The Kanye show probably won’t rank quite as high since Kyle and I had virtually no contact with the uber hip-hop producer-slash-artist. Still, as always, there were plenty of fun people to observe, many of which should be made fun of.

Okay, I talked me into it.

Many would assume that a Kanye West concert, being of the “rap” genre, would draw a myriad of large, frightening black men to participate in Mr. West’s poetic angst. Didn’t happen. About 60% of the crowd was white females, many of whom were under the age of 16, and all of whom were dressed as if planning to collectively man-rape the rapper in mid-song in front of a few thousand people.

One girl, who must have been 11 or 12 years old, was sporting a skin-tight tube top, and I felt myself wondering, who dressed this kid? Britney Spears had more class at age 12, for God’s sake, and she wore thong bikinis and belly shirts emblazoned with one-syllable anti-fem zingers like “slut” well into her third trimester of pregnancy.

There were girls in fleece jogging suits. Most of these were pastel pink or blue, and nearly all of them had a Britney Zinger screened across the ass (i.e.—“Booty,” “Baby Doll,” “Burgeoning Whore,” etc.). I have no idea how dressing like the protagonist from “Mike Tyson’s Punch Out” is supposed to create sex appeal, but a large number of these ladies exuded celebrities-at-the-Oscars confidence. Remember, joggers: Sporty Spice was the ugly one, and Hillary Swank died in “Million Dollar Baby” before she could ever feel the embrace of a man. The closest she got was a Jurassic Clint Eastwood, who boasts more wrinkles than a bag of Craisins.

And, like all rap concerts, there were the Caucasian gentlemen with the airbrushed 2Pac t-shirts, Lugz boots, and two-sizes-too-big ball caps aslant. One fellow, apparently stuck in the year 1990, wore his LaDanian Tomlinson Chargers jersey backwards. Apparently, Kris Kross will still make ya jump, jump.

Even Kanye had his struggles. For some reason, he asked his barber to emblazon some star-patterned art into the side of his melon. From more than two feet away it looked like a third degree burn on the whole left side his head. That said, the guy did have a pretty reasonable sense of fashion. Once I was able to look past my anger (West could be credited with starting the “popped collar” phenomenon—the coolest thing to hit the scene since prostate cancer), I was able to admit that some of the ensembles he put together were rather svelte.

The man was short—only about 5’3”. I just wanted to hug the little guy. Pet his starry noggin. Lucky bastard makes a billion dollars a minute and still saves money by shopping in the juniors section at Armani. The rich get richer, ya know?

The show itself was reasonably entertaining. Kyle’s and my job was to guard the sound booth to make sure nobody stepped on any wires. The official job description was “Just Stand There and Watch the Show for Free.” Actually, at one point, I had to carry some chairs inside the sound booth area, and right as I stepped on a wire, the sound and the lights went completely dead. I was about 90% positive at the time that I had ruined the concert for about 3,000 people, and that shortly thereafter large black men would bludgeon me to death with 12 year old white girls in tube tops.

But as it turns out, it wasn’t me after all. Kanye just wasn’t ready for that song to start yet, so he called off the lights and the music. I changed my underthings and returned to work.

Kanye is the only rapper I’ve ever seen come on stage with a seven-piece orchestra, including a freaking harp. The show was very disjointed and unorganized, but the orchestral sound really added a layer to the concert overall. Musically, it was impressive and pleasing.

Afterwards, Kyle and I got called from our Bus-Guarding posts to escort the lucky backstage pass holders out of the building, which was the closest we actually got to Kanye all night. Without our insistence, these leeching fans would stick around and bask in the ambience of Kanye West for days on end, like some sort of Buddhist meditation rite. One particularly flamboyant and vulgar young lady was none too happy with me for pushing her out of the building (on strict orders to do so, given to me by the large, scary P.R. guy—I guess Kanye was ready to leave). She cussed me out. The phrase “punk-ass” was tossed about carelessly. It was like she didn’t even care if she hurt my feelings. It was all I could not to laugh. I love stupid people. They please me.

But all jokes aside, I love seeing how happy people are at concerts. There were kids of all ages and races dancing (including two Asian guys right in front of me doing all that crazy pop-and-lock stuff), and at one point, Kanye had the DJ play Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” for absolutely no good reason at all, and there were couples dancing and singing the words to each other. People pay good bread to see shows like this (Kanye was about $50 a pop), so when they come, they really get into the atmosphere and the booming bass vibrating the floor beneath their dancing feet. It’s a beautiful thing to observe.

At Summerfest in Milwaukee a couple years ago, I felt just about as content as I’ve ever been. The weather was perfect, the lake was in plain, glorious view, and people surrounded me on all sides, absolutely having the times of their lives.

It had me feelin’ extra fly.

Come on baby, touch the sky.