Thursday, September 10, 2009

Vintage Student Quotes, 2004

I had a former student ask what happened to the quotes from his freshmen year of high school, which was something like five years ago, so I dug them up and here they are. These are my first ever students, who will always hold a special place in my heart. But man, did they say some stupid stuff.

In fact, looking back at this I can say with relative confidence that these classes were some of my favorites. These kids rocked in just about every way possible. So, so funny.

So, without further ado, student quotes from Fall 2004 through Spring 2005...

The following quotes are from a discussion regarding surveys my students filled out on the very first day of school:

Me: “So you had an imaginary friend named Theodore the 3rd? What did he look like?”
Eric: “He was a bike.”

Me: “Your imaginary friend’s name was Mr. Harrison. Was he an older man or something?”
Zach: “He was a P.E. teacher that ate all the people I didn’t like.”

Me: “You said that your dream date would be Pamela Anderson.”
Robert: “Yeah. Well, that was before the kids and diseases and stuff.”

In our discussion about EA Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” I asked my freshman students whether they thought Montressor’s killing of Fortunado was justified. One girl said no because it was illegal, and this is how Katie responded to that: “Yeah, but this was olden times. People couldn’t get arrested for killing and stuff back then.”

Amy later added, “I think Montressor earned it. He worked so hard to do it all perfectly. So, killing someone is alright as long as you’re really careful and you do it the right way.”

In my American Literature class, the students and I were discussing what things make us uniquely American, and some of the kids started mentioning different foods. These included things like hot dogs and apple pie, which were obviously very reasonable, but while I was writing these on the board, one student (I’m not sure who because my back was temporarily to the class) added an interesting one: “What about French Fries?”

Mitchell: “Hey Brigs, have you had the Tenderloin here?”
Me: “No.”
Mitchell: “Oh my God, they’re awesome. They’re the tenderest of loins.”
(I have since had many a tenderloin. They are, in fact, delicious)

Nate, researching his ancestry: “Where’s Wales?”
Me: “Somewhere far, far away. I’m sorry, geography was never my strong suit.”
Nate: “So should I just say that I’m half-Whale?”

Cory, recently moved from Florida, sneezing like a maniac: “I hate allergies.”
Me: “What are you allergic to?”
Cory: “I think it’s the corn.”
Me: “Man, you’re screwed.”

“Wait… the Bulls are from here???”
-Becca, after finding out that the full moniker of the team is the Chicago Bulls.

In our discussion of the short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” one character named Zaroff hunts people instead of animals. I asked the kids if they thought he was civilized:

Mason: “He’s civilized because he has a house and good food and stuff.”
Me: “Yeah, plus he wears clothes I guess, so he has to be at least a little civilized, right?”
Katie: “No, he just does that to make the people feel comfortable so he can kill ‘em!”
Me: “So he’s just pretending to be civilized while people are there, but when they’re gone he runs around naked, wearing tribal face paint?”
Eric: “That sounds like me on weekends.”

“Bats are for the United States only.”
-Katie. Even out of context, it’s ridiculous.

From class discussions surrounding “The Scarlet Ibis:”

“I didn’t think we had pigeons in Illinois.”

Abbi: “Wasn’t Doodle paralyzed?”
Me: “No, he wasn’t. He could walk, remember?”
Abbi: “Oh. That makes sense, because the whole time I was reading that story, I was trying to figure out how he could walk if he was paralyzed.”

-a word invented by Becca, used in lieu of “suffocate.”

“It’s like… get a job, you bum.”
-Amy, expressing her sentiments towards Madame Loisel, main character in the story “The Necklace.”

“I’ve got a headache in my eye.”
-classic Katie

We were reading a story about an old Native American man who died, and once they did, the people in his tribe painted his face with tribal makeup.

Me: “So why the face paint?”
Katie: “ I thought they were like, joking around with a dead person.”

Stephanie: “Can we use that little thing with the dot?”
Matt: “What? An exclamation point?”
Steph: “Yeah!”

Me: “I’m now going to drink water and talk at the same time.”
Stephanie: “Don’t do it, you’ll choke! I’ve tried it.”

Me: “If you sink, you’re floating.”

Me: “Whoa, one of the Texas Rangers got in a fight with the fans!”
Jenny: “What, you mean like Walker Texas Ranger?”

Alicia: “If something tastes more like a banana, would you say, ‘this tastes bananier?’”

Kandace: “Hurricanes start in the water, but they don’t come up onto land, do they?”
Katie: “No, you’re thinking of earthquakes.”
Me: “What are you talking about?”
Katie: “Earthquakes start in the water, don’t they?”

Abbi: “Is Romeo and Juliet where the guy pulls on her hair and climbs up a wall?”

Katie: “Aren’t time capsules like, time machines where you get to go to other parts of the world? I always wanted to see Abraham Lincoln.”
Kelsie: “What about your grandma?”
Katie: “And my grandma.”

Katie: “Aren’t Spartans like, Indians or something?”

Stephanie: “Whenever you say ‘Caucasian’ it reminds me of Japan.”

Stephanie: “You’ve got to be 18 to get into Chuck E. Cheese.”

Me: “I’m an awful cook. I don’t make Macaroni & Cheese; I make Macaroni & Powder.”
Grace: “Just add more liquid.”
Me: “You can do that?”

Me: “At age 18, Shakespeare married a woman named Anne Hathaway.”
Katie: “Isn’t that the same name as the girl from the Princess Diaries?”
(a few students nod in agreement)
Kandace: “Really? Shakespeare’s wife was the girl in that movie?”

Katie, upon seeing a picture of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London: “Isn’t that where they had the first Olympics?”

Kandace: “What’s ‘his stories?’ Oh, histories.”

The class and I were discussing the section of the Declaration of Independence in which Jefferson makes his complaints and justifications towards King George III of England, and this is the interesting turn taken by the conversation:

Stephanie: “If the King did all this bad stuff, why didn’t they just leave?”
Me: “Well that’s why it’s the Declaration of Independence, Stephanie.”
Steph: blank stare.
Me: “Okay, we’ll try this. What’s the root verb in the word ‘Declaration?’”
Steph: “I don’t know… ‘deck?’”
Me: “I can’t believe you just said that.”
Steph: “Well how am I supposed to know? How do you declarate something, anyway?

Matt, commenting on my tiger-print Dress-Up Day garb: “Where do you get something like that, Kids ‘R Us?”

Me: “So, when you’re reading, keep in mind that Juliet is 12 and probably doesn’t have a very concrete idea about what love actually is. For example, when my little sister was 12, she was in love with Justin Timberlake.”
Eric: “I still am.”

Me: “Since Juliet is so young, she’s extra-impressionable. It’s like this: girls, what happens in your heads when a guy tells you he likes you?”
Erin: “You start liking them back.”
Me: “Exactly, the wheels start turning and…”
Mitchell: “That’s not the way it ever works out for me and my crushes.”
Me: “Really? These girls know how you feel and still nothing?”
Mitchell, kicking Katie’s chair in front of him: “Yeah… Damn you, Katie!”
(It was hilarious, but he did get in trouble for cursing).

“I can say English in Spanish!”

“The Rock is the wrestler who always said he cooks.”

“I went and saw The Forgotten this weekend at… um… I forget.”
-Adam, and yes, it was inadvertently ironic.

Corey, trying to guess what “frail tenant” lives inside the snail-like shell of a chambered nautilus: “I don’t know. A turtle maybe?”

Stephanie, commenting on the VERY old television used in class: “That TV looks like the ones they give away on the Newlywed Game as prizes.”

Katie: “I forgot what you said it means when he says he wanders lonely like a cloud. Does that mean he’s on top of the world, except there’s dandelions up there? I mean daffodils. Like, he’s the God of Daffodils?”
-Discussing Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”

Ashley: “Mr. Brigham, can I use the word heck in my poem?”

Me, discussing Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem”: When Hughes asks his reader if a dream “explodes,” what dream might he be talking about as a black person in the 1920’s? What does Hughes want?
TJ: “To be free?”

Me, discussing EA Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado: “Montressor has faced some sort of insult at the hands of Fortunado. Now, we don’t know what he actually said to Montressor, but it must’ve been bad. I mean, it could’ve been something like, ‘your mama’s so stupid, she thought MCI was a rapper.”
Kandace: “He is a rapper, isn’t he?”

Mitch, making his point that “black” doesn’t necessarily mean evil in the poem “Eating Blackberries”: “Black doesn’t always mean death. If we were talking about Deathberries, but they were actually pink fluffy clouds of delicious candy, that wouldn’t be evil.”

Me: “What should I be for Halloween?”
Zach: “You should dress up as Waldo and have somebody be policemen who are looking for you. They’d have the Where’s Waldo book for identification, and they could be like, ‘Have you seen this man? Hang on, he’s in here somewhere.’”

Billy: “Mr. Brigs, have you seen Harry Potter 3 and the Prisoner of Azkaban? Hermoine is HOT in that movie. She’s so stuh-fisticated. I’m not sure what I just said, but I know it’s supposed to start with an “S” and end with a “cated.”

Zach literally brought in toast with his haikus written on them. We were all quite confused by this:
Justin: “Why would you do something like that?”
Zach: “Because I’m artistic.”
Jarrid: “More like autistic.”

Zach Williams’s haikus:

"Go Mario"
Mario is small.
Hurry! Run for the mushroom!
Mario is big.

"Where’s Waldo"
So where is Waldo?
Why do we want to find him?
Does he have money?

Me: “Do you guys know what spot research is?”
Eric: “Research about Dalmatians?”

Me, reading a Laffy Taffy wrapper: “Hey Billy, what does a cow use for math?”
Billy: “A pencil… no hang on… a moo-alculator?”
Me: “A COW uses a ‘moo-alculator?’”
Billy: “Oh! A cow-culator!”

Zach: “One time, I tried to make my butt look big by putting two wallets in my back pockets. It kinda worked.”

Stephanie: “When I get really mad, I just get real quiet and don’t say anything.
Dan: “Well then you’re never mad.”

Kandace: “Do bald people still wash their hair?

Katie, noticing the English II notes on the chalkboard: “What’s that word?”
Me: “Transcendentalism.”
Katie: “Does that have to do with going to the dentist?”

Me, explaining religion to the children: “A sin is like getting your name on the chalkboard in grade school, and God’s just waiting to keep you inside for recess.”

Stephanie: “Don’t the Ukranians speak like, Canada language?”

Steph, again: “What does the FBI stand for? Federal Bartering Agency?”

Grace: “Sometimes in class you use words that are too big for us to understand.”
Me: “Yeah, but you get the gist, don’t you?”
Grace: “What’s gist?”

We were watching “The Birds,” and we couldn’t help but make a few off-color comments:

A child in the movie: “Are the birds going to eat us, Mom?”
Me: “Yes, son.”
Zach: “Now eat your taters.”

TJ, after the birds leave and dead people are lying all over the streets: “You just got Punk’d!”

Me: “Have any of you noticed that despite the fact that thousands of birds have attacked this town at one time, there hasn’t been an ounce of bird poop anywhere on the ground?”
At that moment, the little girl in the film asks: “Why do the birds want to kill us, Daddy?”
Me, dramatically frightened: “Because they... can’t... poop!”

Katie: “Is that blood on her hands?”
Adam: “No, that’s finger nail polish.”

Katie: “Mr. Brigs, I don’t have my homework done because I didn’t understand it, and I forgot to dress up for my speech today, and my first block teacher thinks I might have mono .”

Nate: “Hey Brigs, tell me if this is sweet or stupid: [my girlfriend] and I were at a huge Christian convention and were watching this pretty big Christian band playing. Well, I got the lead singer to devote one of the songs to Devon in front of like 3,000 people. So is that sweet or stupid?”
Devon, while I ponder my answer: “He’s forgetting to tell you that song that got devoted to me was about breaking up!”
Me, after a brief pause and a blank stare: “Yeah, that was stupid.”

Dan: “We convinced Katie she had mono first block.”
Stephanie: “Couldn’t she just poop it out? I mean like ringworm. Can’t you poop out ringworm?”

Corey: “Hey Brigs, poverty isn’t in the dictionary. I can’t find it.”
Me: “It’s in there, I promise.”
Corey: “Wait, which comes first, W or V?”
Me: “Are you serious?”
Corey: “Well I was thinking V came between W and X.”

Matt: “I want to move to Kentucky someday.”
Jess: “Why Kentucky?”
Nate: “So he can marry his sister.”

Stephanie: “Oh my gosh, I was scared! I thought I was dying because I was looking at you and then you just weren’t there!”
-This said immediately following a short blackout.

Jesse, trying to tell a story after a long day of short jokes made at her expense: “When I was little…”
Austin Meyers: “How about ‘When I was younger…’”
-Collective laughter ensued.

Jesse: “My dream is to build one of those houses… you know, the ones in trees?”
Lydia: “You mean ‘tree-houses?’”
Jesse: “No, I mean the ones made out of wood.”
Stephanie: “Aren’t all trees technically made out of wood?”

Me: "How does Scout describe her Aunt Alexandria?"
Mitchell: "He says she's like Mt. Everest: cold and just sorta there."
Kandace: "Where is Mt. Everest?"
Katie: "Isn't that the one with the president's faces in it?"
Darci: "No, it's in Canada; it's the one with the waterfalls."
Me: "NO! It's in TIBET! Katie, you're thinking of Mt. Rushmore and Darci, the waterfall in Canada is Niagra Falls! What is going on here???"

Me: "Captain Ahab really believed that it was his fate, his destiny, to kill Moby Dick."
Jesse: "Isn't that kind of silly?"
Me: "I don't think so. We all have causes that we fight for every day, you know? We all have our own 'whale,' so to speak."
Nate, referring to his girlfriend Devon, who sits right next to him: "Devon's MY whale. Wait, I mean... I'm not saying you're fat! It's just... oh crap."

Me: “So what did I say was the word that embodies the whole point of this book?”
Amy: “Empathy!”
Me: “Right, so what is Mr. Cunningham doing?”
Kandace: “Empath-eye-ing?”

Me: “The Klu Klux Klan doesn’t like a lot of groups of people. Irish Catholics? Nope. Jews? Nope…”
Zach: “Crunchy Cheetos? Nope.”

Kandace, noticing a hole in the back of Jarrid’s pants: “Hey Jarrid, you’ve got a hole in your butt.”
Zach: “Don’t we all have holes in our butts?”

Me: “Okay, here’s the game plan for today…”
Stephanie, excited: “Ooooh, we’re playing a game today?!?!”

Zach appeared to be disheveled this morning in class, so I asked him what was wrong. I should never have done that. He replied, “Last night at speech team practice, I kept getting nervous when I was up in front of everyone, so someone told me to picture the audience in their underwear. I think I concentrated too hard because I went straight to naked, and now it won’t go away. Stop the naked!”

Justin, upon finding out he had a test in my class the day before Christmas break: “Man, now I have three tests on Friday!”
Me: “Well, do you guys know why teachers assign tests on the Fridays before breaks?”
Amy: “I just always assumed that it was because if the kids did poorly on them, they wouldn’t be able to just walk into school the next day and shoot everybody up.”
Me: “Okay, yeah… I guess that would be a good reason, too.”

A group of ridiculously-dressed Spanish students stopped in my room towards the end of second block, requesting a picture of their wild garments. Apparently, they had to do a presentation in which they identified each of their articles of clothing in Spanish. Playing along, I got out the camera, held it up, and said, “Okay, now say ‘queso!’” The three Spanish students looked at each other confusedly, when finally one replied, “what’s that?”

Jenny: “When I was little, my dad would make me watch Chucky movies as punishment because he knew how scared I was.”
Me: “That’s horrible!”
Jenny: “Yeah… and then that night, after I was done watching the movie, he made me sleep with my brother’s My Buddy doll.”

Jesse: “When I was a kid, I’d set up a bunch of chairs and pretend I was an airplane pilot, and I’d set up the plane into three sections: the cool people, the losers, and the children. But I’d crash the plane on purpose, and I’d run all over the place and knock chairs over. First I’d kill the kids, then all the losers, and then finally the cool people, too.”
Me: “You did this when you were all by yourself, didn’t you?”
Jesse, smiling shyly: “I was the only survivor.”

Me: “So you guys remember my friend Gates? He’s the really good black tennis player.”
Stephanie: “Bill Gates is black?!?!”

Megan: “My cat’s gay.”
Jesse: “Actually, one of my neighbor’s dogs is gay. Both of them.”

Katie, watching the movie version of “To Kill a Mockingbird”: Atticus looks like a computer nerd.”

Friday, September 04, 2009

Top 5 '90s One-Hit Wonders I'd Still Go See in Concert

Writing about the Blessid Union concert got me thinking about some of the other great one-hit wonder bands of the ‘90s, and today’s Top 5 List is about which of those groups I’d actually still take the time and money to go see in concert. Of all those bands, these are the ones I think have the best potential to still put on a fun show:

#5 – Tonic – “If You Could Only See” – Back in 1997 this song just sort of spoke to me in ways other alternative ballads did not, and even now the lead singer’s smoky baritone paints a lovely musical picture. As far as a concert is concerned, I’ve actually seen them, and it was apparently right before the group went on a five-year hiatus. It was back in 2004 (I think) at DePaul, and they were actually really good. Of course I bought their first two albums and enjoyed them immensely. The song they did for the “American Pie” soundtrack was what kept me interested. That wasn’t a huge hit by any means—not like “If You Could Only See”—but still a good track. And a pretty good show, too.

#4 – Sister Hazel – “All For You” – As far as harmonies go, these guys are awesome. And yes, I’ve seen them live, too, at Milwaukee’s Summerfest probably six or seven years ago. It was a beautiful night and everyone in attendance was absolutely into the music, dancing and having a great time, so it was hard not to get swept up in that mood. There from Florida and I think my buddy Kevin said they one of them went to his high school or something. I don’t know. In any event, they rock (still), and put on a really fun show. A lot of their other songs sound familiar, and I’m not sure why…

#3 – Fastball – “Out of My Head” – Technically I’m not sure we can call these guys one-hit wonders since “The Way” earned two Grammy nominations in 1998, but “Out of My Head” was their huge hit, and it still holds up. Considering I heard the new song from these guys recently and enjoyed it very much, I can only assume that they’d still be a pretty relevant and fun group to see live.

#2 – Cake – “The Distance” – One of the weirdest styles I’ve ever heard in a band, but Cake does some really cool electronic-sounding stuff. Remember “Short Skirt Long Jacket”? There’s a newer song of theirs called “No Phone” that I love, too. I guess these guys aren’t quite as obscure as other folks on this list, but other than that one hit they really haven’t been topping charts since the mid-90s. I still love them, though, and would be completely content at a Cake concert. Also, goats go to hell.

#1 – Silverchair – “Tomorrow” – They were like 16 when this song came out and rocked the world, but the combination of fame and anorexia for the lead singer sort of put a hamper on how well things went from there. Their “Neon Ballroom” album saw some moderate success with “Ana’s Song,” but the next album, “Diorama,” barely got out of the gate and went pretty much unknown despite it being, in my humble opinion, their best work. They’re sort of fallen by the wayside the last decade, but they rock. No amount of time can change that. Just ask BB King (the blues musician, not my cat).

Honorable Mention:

Fiona Apple – “Criminal” – One of the only rocker chicks I could ever really get into. Did some cool experimenting with rhythms and stuff, which I always dug. Plus, deep down, I always thought she was kinda hot.

Duncan Sheik – “Barely Breating” – I think the only other Duncan Sheik song I’ve ever even heard is “Half-Life,” but that’s okay because I liked that one, too. Clearly I’ve got a penchant for singer-songwriters, and Sheik fits that mold.

Blessid Union of Souls – “Hey Leonardo” – Obviously I just saw these guys and had a great time. They inspired this whole list, so how could I not include them?

Eagle Eye Cherry – “Save Tonight” – The son of jazz artist Don Cherry has a voice born for folk music. This song made him hot in the U.S. for a short time, but none of his newer stuff caught on here. Over in Sweden (the motherland for him) and other parts of Europe he’s huge. Most recent album came out in 2006 but didn’t even sniff at any charts, domestic or international. I hope he doesn’t suck, having put him on my list of honorable mention candidates. I have the feeling his shows would be relatively worthwhile.

Cypress Hill – “Insane in the Membrane” – Something about the way B Real raps just gets me excited. And boy was he great on the “Space Jam” soundtrack, right?

Did I miss anybody? Keep in mind that I’m basing this off which groups would put on the best overall show, not which groups had the best overall songs. Add in your two cents, gang. It’s always welcome…

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Nice to Meet You #20 - Blessid Union of Souls

My students asked me on Friday if I was planning on going to the first football game of the season, and I told them no. It had nothing to do with the fact that my high school’s football team has not been particularly successful the last two or six years (honestly, it didn’t), but that I already had plans to attend a free Blessid Union of Souls concert that evening.

“Who?” my students asked.

“Blessid Union of Souls,” I said, and then sang a little sample of “I Believe” and “Hey Leonardo” thinking that would be enough to snap them into understanding. The melodies were entirely unfamiliar to the lot of them. Blank stares across the room, maybe one or two admitting that the second song sounded kinda familiar. I started to get upset, but then remembered that most of my high school sophomores were born in 1994, which was after “I Believe”became a humongous hit.


My buddy Kevin, who was responsible for bringing the band to his venue, had similar issues with his workers, most of whom had never heard the songs, either. They were all born between 1988 and 1991, making it slightly less excusable but infinitely more depressing that they’d be completely ignorant of two mega-hits like those. The one-and-two-hit wonders of my era are falling by the wayside, ladies and gentlemen, and this means that I am officially old. Do you realize how huge “Hey Leonardo” was back in high school? It literally was that song you couldn’t go 30 minutes tuned into a top-40 radio station without hearing it seven times, and there I was in the second row of a free concert by these guys.

I remember working at Dairy Queen and hearing that song all the time, either while I was assembling burgers in the heat of a busy lunch or later on in the evening, when all us employees would be wiping things down and putting foodstuffs back in the cooler. At that age—at any age, really—we envision the bands making hit records for the radio as some untouchable gang of golden gods sitting atop throans of fresh fruit, golden goblets, and nude women somewhere in Hollywood. And if you’re Aerosmith or Green Day that’s probably true. But for all those other groups—not just Blessid Union but Lit, Stroke 9, Papa Roach, and scores upon scores of others—life is probably only like that for a year or two. Three if you’re lucky. Then the hype dies, their new songs get lamer, and the mass public stops caring. When that comes to fruition they’re just guys like you and me.

And that, I think, is part of why I enjoyed the free concert so much. I worked in that venue as a sound guy for two-and-a-half years, so it also sort of felt like home to me. The warm and fuzzy ambiance of that room always appeals to performers, which means that music shows always are excellent. “I Believe” was flawless, folks. Eliot Sloan (the lead singer) hasn’t lost it one bit. He’s lost the dreadlocks to late-30s male-pattern balding, but the voice is still there. Just him and a keyboard and 400 people listening. Very moving.

I learned on this night that he wrote that song at 3 in the morning, still awake and upset because his old gal-pal Lisa had recently dumped him because her father sort of made her. The last verse he sang live—which I hadn’t heard before—implied that it had something to because he was a black guy from the streets. The song itself is so positive, and that’s why it’s easy to get behind these guys as a band. It’s all good stuff. She likes me for me, and so on…

They’ve got a song called “The Light in Your Eyes” that has always been my favorite tune of theirs, which they slowed down a little in a live setting (it was an acoustic set, after all), but I didn’t care. It was a gorgeous version. They closed with “Hey Leonardo,” which Sloan said was written to be a ballad. At first it was intended to be this slow, lovely love song, but the producers had the idea to speed it up and make the beat a little more cathcy. The band—Sloan specifically—fought that idea to the “bitter end,” as he put it, apparently still upset that the song wasn’t what he intended and now he has to close every damn concert he ever does with it, but admitted he had a hard time being too made because the end result was a top ten record that probably accounted for about 40% of the money those guys have ever earned as musicians.

I had previously heard three of the 20 or so songs that Blessid Union performed that night, but it was a really nice and intimate show. Definitely worth my time (especially considering the football time got crushed by four touchdowns), even if only for the music alone. But what would a “Nice to Meet You” piece be without an actual meeting?

After the show Kevin hooked me up with a poster and a silver Sharpie, and all four guys in the band signed autographs for me. I definitely felt like I was twelve hounding some annoyed celebrity for the signature, but whatever. When am I ever going to see those guys again? Took a picture with the gang, too, and the guys were all very nice. Especially the bassist, who if I’m being honest had this creepy raper face all during the show, but he ended up being the most amiable of the bunch.

My little brother, who worked for Kevin too once upon a time, met Blessid Union at a showcase conference once, and he and Craig mentioned to these guys that they were going to do “Hey Leonardo” for a cover band contest. They were really pumped out it and actually checked their tour schedule to see if they’d be in the area around the time of the show. They apparently were considering stopping by to help Kyle and Craig with their performance. I’m pretty sure they won anyway, but I have to think that certainly would’ve solidified it.

And Kevin, who’s worked with Blessid Union on a couple of occasions, relayed to me one cool story from when he accompanied the guys to a bar after one year’s showcase. Sloan, the lead singer, asked the karoake DJ to pop in the instrumental version of “I Believe” and then tore the place up. Because most people have no idea that the lead singer of Blessid Union is a black guy, nobody made the connection that it was actually him. There more than a few comments, though, that went something like, “Boy, that guy sounds just like the real dude!”

So yeah, my students have no idea who these guys are, but does that change the awesomeness that they represent in my own life? I mean, I’ve got absolutely zero appreciation for Prince and The Police from a pop culture standpoint because I was either too young and not alive to have experienced it. I think I know “When Doves Cry,” but I wouldn’t recognize any other Prince song, especially if my English teacher tried singing it for me. You know, if I had an English teacher.

I’m old now. So what? It was going to happen someday. Now I get to look forward to having children of my own that grow up and listen to crap I’ll never understand. Meanwhile I’ll still be bumping Blessid Union and all the other delicious music from the ‘90s that the next generation won’t care two squirts of pee about.

They’ll be like, “Dad, have you heard the new song by the Silver Monkey Weasels?”

And I’ll look back at them blankly and ask, “Who?”

Friday, August 07, 2009

Joel & Amy Across America, The End

Day 5:

Walden Pond – To be a transcendentalist was to be, in a lot of ways, pretty friggin’ awesome. If my general readership is anything like my American Literature students, the term “transcendentalist” might as well be in a foreign language for how much meaning it holds. But for guys like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the original transcendentalists, it was a way of life more than a philosophy. In Thoreau’s case, it took him out into the woods for two years.

One of the cornerstones of the transcendentalist philosophy is a love for nature, so in 1845 Thoreau built a little cabin on a patch of woodsy land owned by Emerson so that he could spend some legitimate time with nature. It had, he thought, lessons to teach him about simplicity and beauty. After two years out there he got what he wanted to get out of the experience, and returned to real life in Concord, Massachusetts, just a short distance from the Pond where he’d been living.

That pond was our first stop on the way home, and immediately Amy and I could tell how Thoreau could learn about beauty here. Walden is just a small kettle hole surrounded by trees, but the water itself some of the clearest I’ve ever seen. There’s a trail along the outskirts of the pond, and about a half-mile back is the location of Thoreau’s cabin. Considering it was built from questionable wood a century and a half ago, the actual structure is long-gone. In its place now are small concrete markers that show the general dimensions of the one-room structure, as well as where the woodshed would’ve been out back.

About ten yards to the left of the cabin site is the area believed to have been the cabin site for years before a professional came in and found the real thing. I’ve got to admit that for a wild guess they did a pretty good job. At the incorrect cabin site are stacks and stacks of stones that people bring from all over the world to place there, some of which were marked with people’s names and birth/death dates. I’m guessing the families of big-time Thoreau fans would bring those stones and place them there as a final sendoff to a loved one. Considering it just so happened to be Amy’s dad’s birthday, she added a small stone to the pile as well.

On the walk back we had an issue with a broken walkway that resulted in relatively wet feet for us travelers, and we bumped into an overweight skinny-dipping soprano loudly humming some medieval melody. We were sort of in the area furthest from the entrance, but yeesh! Those were breasts I could’ve died perfectly happy having never seen.

Like Thoreau, we had seen what we’d come to see, and it was time for us to head to Concord. Having only been on the road for a little over an hour, we’d already seen way more than our fair share of beauty for one day.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery – No, not that Sleepy Hollow. The cemetery used as a backdrop for Washington Irving’s famous story about the Headless Horseman is actually in New York. But that doesn’t mean this particular Sleepy Hollow doesn’t boast its own little claim to fame. Up on Author’s Ridge are buried four legendary American authors: Thoreau, Emerson, Nathanial Hawthorne (author of “The Scarlet Letter”), and Louisa May Alcott (author of “Little Women”).

Click HERE for More Concord Pictures!

The difference between Thoreau’s and Emerson’s headstones was almost laughable. Thoreau has a tiny traditional marker about the size of a school textbook, with only the word “Henry” etched in the middle. Emerson, on the other hand, lies beneath a five-foot-tall slab of what appeared to be (I’m no geologist) quartz, with an impressive metal plaque at eye level. These two guys were like best buds, but clearly Emerson had a little more cash to deal with his postmortem living quarters.

Alcott and Hawthorne have stones similarly modest to Thoreau, with Alcott’s being nothing more than a small brick with her name on it laying even with the surface of the grass. What was cool to see was all the trinkets left at these graves. Thoreau had a little wooden fife, Hawthorne a silver cross necklace, and Alcott a number of different flowers and pens.

It may not have been THE Sleepy Hollow, but it brought up the rear very nicely on our weeklong tour of famous graves. At the end of it all, the list looks like this:

Ben Franklin
Betsy Ross
John Hancock
Samuel Adams
Paul Revere
The Five Victims of the Boston Massacre
John Hawthorne (Witch Trials Judge)
William Bradford (Plymouth Governor) and other Pilgrims
John Adams
Abigail Adams
John Quincy Adams
Henry David Thoreau
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Louisa May Alcott
Nathaniel Hawthorne

I wouldn’t say we’re obsessed with dead people, just interested in sharing the same space as some American legends. Damn, that’s a list, isn’t it?

Homes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott – The night before Amy and I had discussed the possibility of making a stop on the way home. It was going to be an awesome stop, but in order to have time for it we’d have to cut some things out of our original plans in Concord. The Awesome Stop happened later that day, but it came at the expense of the Emerson and Alcott homes.

Emerson’s place is, quite simply, an old white house kept in immaculate condition. We peeked in the windows a little bit but really didn’t spend too much time worrying about it. Inside, Emerson wrote “Self-Reliance,” “The American Scholar” and a host of other essays that made him the 19th Century’s most famous thinker.

Down the road is Alcott’s Orchard House, where she both wrote and pressed “Little Women.” Personally, I never liked the book, being a man and all, so we just took a quick little walk around the grounds and scooted. Would these tours have been historically worthwhile? Probably. Was spending time there more important than the Awesome Stop we’d hoped to visit later in the day? Nope. Not a chance. So while we would’ve loved to get more out of these places, we didn’t, and I refuse to regret that.

Old North Bridge, Site of “The Shot Heard Round the World” – Unofficially, the last stop of our vacation in Massachusetts, the Old North Bridge wasn’t as easy to find as I thought it would be. For some reason I was under the impression that we’d drive over it, but that wasn’t the case. After doing some walking we found our way to the place where the first shots were fired in the American Revolution.

As a result of those shots a battle ensued, which the American Minutemen won. We know how the rest of the war panned out. USA! USA! USA!

North Bridge spans the Concord River, and on one side is the famous Minuteman statue meant to commemorate the “Shot Heard Round the World” that happened at the spot where it now stands. On the other bank is a memorial to the British soldiers who died, as well as an obelisk commemorating where the bridge stood before it was rebuilt in 1875. It’s been rebuilt three other times since then, the most recent in the 1940s. So the bridge that’s there isn’t the real bridge, but you can’t fudge the history. In some ways, it was in that spot where the United States of American got started. It was also in that spot that our vacation ended.

Well, sort of…

Baseball Hall of Fame – There was no way Amy and I were driving 18 straight hours back home, so we’d made plans to stay the night about halfway there, in Erie, Pennsylvania. I made the reservations on Priceline for some ridiculously low price, so whatever we did the rest of this day we just needed to make sure we’d make it to Erie by bedtime. After breezing through Concord all morning, Amy and I decided to take a very small detour to Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

While only about a half hour out of our way, the drive was long and winding through the rain, and as we got further and further away from the tollway I found myself wondering where the hell we were going. Sure, there were signs for Cooperstown the whole way, but the drive is like 50 miles of two-lane highway through Nowheresville, New York. At one point Amy asked me why the Hall of Fame was even located in Cooperstown. I had to admit that, at the time, I didn’t know.

Click HERE for More Cooperstown Pictures!

Turns out that a committee in the early 20th Century was put together for the sole purpose of nailing down where the modern game of baseball was invented. The final consensus led the committee to Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown. So there you have it.

In any event, finally driving into Cooperstown was like entering an entirely new dimension. All of a sudden everything was beautiful and green and quaint, with the Hall right smack dab in the middle of Main Street. We quickly parked (for free, by the way), and headed inside to the place where baseball legend goes to live on.

Amy was most enamored with the Babe Ruth section, but not because it housed his uniform or the bat from his 60th home run or the bat from his called shot homer, but because it had a book he signed the night he died, certified by a letter from the nurse on duty that night. Just like a woman to find the sentimentality in a building filled with manly baseball stuff, right?

Some of my favorites included Hank Aaron’s record-breaking home run balls, the mitts of Ty Cobb and Shoeless Joe Jackson, and the No-Hitter wall, which spans an entire end of one room with the baseballs and photographs of every no-hitter in baseball history. For Nolan Ryan, who threw seven of them, they have an extra display with his game hats.

For Barry Bonds, who broke Aaron’s all-time home run record in 2006, they’ve got a case with memorabilia from that memorable season. The fan that caught the ball, however, sent it to the Hall only after having an asterisk emblazoned in the leather. For those unfamiliar with baseball, Bonds is very, very likely a one-time steroid user, meaning his prestigious home run record is questionable. The asterisk thing was awesome. Not only did the guy have the audacity to put that symbol on there, but the Hall of Fame actually put the thing on display.

The place is just littered with baseball history—memorabilia from Stan Musial, Micky Mantle, Ernie Banks, Joe DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente, Ted Williams, Lou Gherig, Cy Young... it just goes on and on and on. It wasn’t the Field of Dreams (which I’ve also been to), but it was just as magical an experience. Any baseball purist needs to make the trek out east because it’s totally worth it. People wear the hats and jerseys of their favorite team and the gift shop alone is worth the trip.

I, of course, wore a Sox shirt and Sox hat and took pictures with the old pinwheel from the original Comiskey Park scoreboard, as well as the hat Freddy Garcia wore the final game of the World Series in 2005. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Chicago stuff, right?

We had a great time, not just at Cooperstown but for the entire trip. We went home absolutely exhausted, but this was a sight-seeing vacation, not a sit-by-the-beach-and-drink-pina-coladas vacation. Besides, as teachers we’d get plenty of time to relax when we finished the rest of our drive home.

The only problem we’ve got now is, since we did so much in our week out east, how much history is there left for us to discover?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Amy & Joel Across America, Part 9

William Bradford’s Grave – Bradford’s “On Plymouth Plantation” is probably the most famous and most detailed primary source we have of the Pilgrims’ early experience in the New World, but we don’t credit this guy just for being an interesting author. He was also the governor that held the new settlement together through some ridiculously tough times.

He’s buried in the town’s oldest cemetery, Burial Hill, which overlooks Cape Cod and the rest of the town of Plymouth. Fittingly, he’s got one of the largest headstones on the grounds, but even that doesn’t come close to showing the sort of appreciation he deserves. For goodness sake, the tallest gravestone we saw all trip was for the parents of Benjamin Franklin. And they didn’t do anything but give birth to the guy!

As for Bradford, it was never the plan for him to become governor of Plymouth, but when the man who was originally appointed died within the first year, Bradford was the logical guy to take over. This was a guy who, despite being devoutly religious, was able to put out some pretty violent orders to maintain the safety and stability of his colony. His wife died before she even got off the boat. Perhaps worst of all, at least to Bradford, what had started as a strictly religious colony became less and less so as more Anglican Englanders made the trip over.

The guy had guts, though, like a lot of these early settlers, and his job was the farthest thing from an easy one. You’ve got to wonder how things might’ve been different were he not there to hold it all together. Would we even have a Plimoth Plantation and Mayflower II to visit today? Maybe, but probably not. But possibly. Most likely. Or not…

The Adams Family Tomb – On the way back to the car, Amy and I plucked a decent-sized stone from the Plymouth shoreline to take home with us. Why would we do such a thing? To display Plymouth Rock prominently on our bookshelf. Okay, so it’s not THE Plymouth Rock, but it’s definitely a rock from Plymouth. We had fun doing it, okay?

On the way back towards Boston we made a stop at a church in Quincy, which is where John Adams, Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Catherine Adams all are buried. We were absolutely wiped out from a long on foot in the sun, but this was right on the way and seemed like something we should do. It ended up being the most solemn experience of the week.

Click HERE for More Pictures!

Walking up to United First Parish Church you’d never guess that it houses a family tomb that includes the bodies of two presidents. Inside it’s a beautiful old church, and there were a couple of older docents there giving tours. We had come towards the end of the day, so while the older woman was talking to a group in the actual church, we chatted up the kindly old gent who waited with us to get things started. After having asked about our reason for coming we told him we were teachers with voracious appetites for history and how almost the entire vacation was devoted to taking in as much of it as we could before going home.

He sort of looked at the other tour group in the church and finally said, “I’ll just take you down to the crypt.” So that’s what we did. The thing about our tour guide was that he took his job very seriously, and I’m positive that had a strong effect on how seriously Amy and I took the whole experience as well. He told us that every morning he’d come down to the tombs and thank to second and sixth president for the opportunity to do what he does. This guy was extremely solemn and patriotic fellow, so we did absolutely everything we could to be as respectful as possible.

The tomb is just a little room with four gigantic granite boxes that hold the caskets of the Adams. We found out that earlier that day some direct descendants of the family had been there to celebrate John Quincy’s birthday. President Obama had personally sent a wreath of flowers that was now sitting atop JQ’s tomb. We were, to say the least, pretty bummed we’d missed out on that, but just being in a room with two dead presidents was in itself emotionally overwhelming.

On the way out, the docent offered Amy a flower from the presidential wreath. He wanted us to share the experience with our students, and for Amy to show the flower to her students. It was an extremely benevolent gesture and we of course accepted. We’ve got no idea where to put this flower, but how do you turn down something like that?

When we stepped back and looked at the long list of graves we’d visited over the course of the week it was difficult not to label these particular ones as the most memorable. Few people had as much to do with shaping early America than John Adams, and his wife Abigail was one of the first real feminists. John Q. was no hack, either, so just being there, in a church no less, was about as solemn as a tourist attraction gets.

Brigham’s Restaurant – My family comes from Massachusetts. There are Brighams spread out all over the country, but probably the strongest concentration of them is out East, where the original Brigham set foot on American soil a long, long time ago. As a result there’s a really famous Brigham hospital in Boston, as well as almost a full page of other Brigham’s listed in the Boston phone book. Perhaps the most famous of all, though, is Brigham’s Ice Cream.

There was absolutely no way I was going home without tasting the stuff, so our last evening meal in Massachusetts took us like 30 minutes from our hotel to find the nearest Brigham’s. It’s sort of like a fancy Culver’s, with burgers and fried goods and, of course, ice cream for dessert. We ordered whatever and did the ice cream thing, which was good, but we definitely had more fun taking pictures of and with everything labeled “Brigham” in the entire building. The poor teenagers working the till must’ve thought we’d escaped from some sort of mental facility. We probably could’ve pulled the name thing and gotten some free stuff, but we didn’t want too many people asking for autographs and all that. The girl didn’t even blink when I busted out the Brigham credit card. So much for celebrity. And, as it would happen, so much for Boston. We’d be leaving in the morning, but not after a few more stops on the way home.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Joel & Amy Across America, Part 8

National Monument to the Forefathers – Our last full day in Massachusetts took us an hour down the coast to Plymouth, which is where the Pilgrims eventually settled after coming over to America on the Mayflower. It’s one of the most fabled stories in our history, and that’s why someone built an 81-foot monument in the middle of a huge grass park hidden towards the back of modern-day Plymouth.

As far as monuments go, this one is friggin’ ornate. The centerpiece is a toga-clad personification of “Faith,” which is flanked by four smaller figures meant to represent Freedom, Morality, Law, and Education. Higher up are two huge lists of those aboard the Mayflower etched in marble, and the many other small details are too tedious and too many to spend more time on.

Built in 1888 it was originally designed to be almost twice as tall, but the whole point was to have it face Plymouth Harbor and be dedicated to those men and women that braved the Atlantic Ocean to start a colony in the New World. For us it was a precursor to the rest of the day in Plymouth, which would prove to be one of the coolest things we did all trip.

Plymouth Rock – What better place to head next than the most famous stone in America? Growing up both Amy and I were taught that this rock was the place where the Pilgrims first disembarked to start their colony. So what if that’s not exactly true? This was Plymouth Rock, people! A rock!

Okay, I’m being a little facetious. It really was pretty cool to stand right at the shore and look out on the water, knowing that almost 400 years ago the Pilgrims stepped off a boat and decided that this was the place they’d live for the rest of their lives. When they landed in 1620 they had almost no idea what was out there, other than the Natives who very likely would make things as difficult as possible for them.

A few times on our trip I would be inspired to stop myself and just imagine the history happening before me, and this was one of those times. Granted, nowhere in Plymouth governor William Bradford’s “On Plymouth Plantation” does he mention a rock, but it’s been generally accepted that the rock has always been there. It might not have been the first place they landed, but it was a landmark for incoming ships looking for Plymouth Harbor.

The Pilgrims didn’t even land at the rock and then immediately set up shop. The first land they saw was the tail of Massachusetts, and then they spent a month on the boat while search parties scouted the area for a desirable settlement location. Bradford’s wife, for example, lasted the boat trip over from Holland, but died before Plymouth was chosen as home base.

So yeah, Plymouth Rock isn’t quite the icon some history books have made it out to be, but it was still a cool moment to stare out at the cape and imagine the Mayflower moored somewhere out there. Then to turn around and see the high sloping hill where the colony was started… well, it was just a cool moment. And it was free.

Plimoth Plantation – The replica Wampanoag village and Plimoth settlement a couple miles down the road was not free, however, but despite the relatively steep price (nothing was more expensive on this trip except the Red Sox tickets), it was absolutely worth the price.

Set up exactly three miles to the south of where the real Plymouth colony was founded, Plimoth Plantation is essentially a living museum meant to resemble that colony as closely as possible as it would’ve been in 1627. We were told that the English village was actually built in 1950s and is about one-third as big as the original would’ve been. Actor/Historians come from all over the country to be part of this project, so not only is every building and tool and food item on site totally authentic to the era, but the “colonists” who reside there (from 9am-5pm) know what the hell they’re talking about.

These people stay in character the whole time, so any question they’re asked they come back with an answer pretty close to what a Pilgrim would have actually said. For example we asked one guy what he was cooking for lunch, and he looked at us as if he’d never heard the word. Because he never would’ve heard the word. Back then it was called dinner, so when I corrected myself he was able to answer me properly.

Then, trying to catch him with a question that would throw him off, I asked about religion. Because I teach this Puritan stuff to my American Lit students, I tossed out a little diddy that went something like, “What’s it like living in a Puritan community considering you didn’t come here as a Puritan?” Then I sort of leaned back and smirked. That will show him.

Except he went off for like seven or eight minutes on how offensive it was to call him a Puritan instead of a Separatist, and then explaining why he feels the way he does and how much the religion has helped him and philosophically how the whole thing works for the people at Plymouth. It was nuts. When it came time for my rebuttal I was like, “Cool. Enjoy your dinner,” and Amy and I just sort of nodded and left. Dude wasn’t rude or anything, but he definitely showed me. I dare him to talk me about basketball, though.

The other cool thing about this place was the Wampanoag home site, where the Native people that wear authentic garb and spent their days doing authentic Nativey things, actually are descendents of the area’s Wampanoag people. They dress the part, but don’t have to stay in character the way the Plymouth actors do. You just ask them what you’re thinking and they answer. The guy we talked to new literally everything about the area and its history, so we spent about thirty straight minutes chatting him up. It would’ve been a great place to take kids for a field trip. It’s only an 18-hour drive. Totally worth it, right?

Those two things combined kept us busy for a solid four hours, and if we hadn’t been starving it’s very likely we would’ve stayed longer. When we found the whole place is a non-profit facility and the only thing keeping it going was the steep admissions price, we didn’t feel so bad. Still, we could’ve spent the day at Six Flags for that kind of bread. But this wasn’t a Six Flags sort of vacation. It was about learning, and dammit, we certainly did plenty of that.

Mayflower II – After lunch at a seafood place back in Plymouth, a lunch in which I demolished my first entire lobster for the low, low price of $18, we walked to a replica of the Mayflower moored at State Pier, available for self-guided tours.

Anybody can build a boat that looks sort of old-ish and boat-ish, but to create a faithful reproduction of the Mayflower, which was a well-used boat even when the Pilgrims got to it in 1620, requires a lot of research and specialized builders. Built all the way back in 1955, this particular replica was done the right way.

Plimoth Plantation had wanted a replica of the famous boat for some time, and actually had commissioned a specialized ship builder to put together blueprints for one and start building it. The guy they hired did meticulous research about ships of the era and combed primary sources for any information about the original Mayflower, then he combined all that information and made what would prove to be the most accurate replica blueprint to date.

What P.P. didn’t know was that an English organization wanted to build a replica Mayflower as well and actually recreate the journey across the Atlantic. They just didn’t quite have the funding to do it, and had no idea where they’d permanently moor the boat when the voyage was over. Naturally, this group, called Project Mayflower, joined up with Plimoth Plantation and made it all happen.

Before sailing across the ocean, as the Pilgrims did, Project Mayflower had to make the blueprints into a tangible boat, and they did so as authentically as possible. The accuracy of this vessel went down to every minute detail—carefully chosen English oak timbers, hand-made nails, hand-sewn linen canvas sails, real hemp cordage, and exactly the sort of Stockholm tar used by ship builders in the 17th Century.

Today, the boat is still seaworthy (it sailed to Rhode Island in 2002), but it’s mostly just used to educate people about the Pilgrims’ journey to America. Just like at Plimoth Plantation there are costumed role-players on board telling all sorts of stories and answering all sorts of questions. Seeing the way the crew and passengers slept and ate was more than a little remarkable. To think of 120+ people shoved into that tiny a space for two months was a little overwhelming, but those original Americans were under no illusions that the trip would be an easy one. It was a heck of a lot easier for Amy and me; we just walked up a ramp, looked around for about a half hour, then walked down a different ramp. Our journey to America was a can of corn compared to what the Pilgrims must’ve gone through, but that’s the advantage of being born in the 1980s, I suppose.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Joel & Amy Across America, Part 7

Harvard University – When I was applying for colleges at the ripe age of seventeen my father made it very clear to me that I should send out my information to whatever school I wanted, even if I didn’t think there was a chance I’d get accepted. He told me the story of when he was coming out of high school he only applied to the University of Illinois (where he eventually went) because he knew that was what his family could afford. His dream was to attend Harvard, but it would’ve been too expensive for my grandmother and grandfather. So he just didn’t out the application, even though he was a bright kid and would’ve liked to know if he could’ve made it in. Whether or not he actually went wasn’t the point—he wanted to know if he was good enough to attend Harvard University.

Even though I never really had much desire to go there myself, the place has always held some sort of mystique for me knowing how closely intertwined Harvard was with my father’s educational dreams as a young man. It’s iconic American college and we’d probably have no reason to ever go there again, so we went, just to take a little snoop around.

My good childhood friend and distant cousin David just wrapped up a three-year stint at the law school there, so Amy and I met up with him to get the five-cent tour. Harvard University, established in 1636, is the oldest school and the oldest corporation in America, and Harvard Yard is probably the most famous quad in the country. It’s where smart people go to college, and if you knew my buddy David he’d serve as living proof of that. The following list of people all went to Harvard. It’s crazy looking at all these names in one place. You ready? Here it is:

John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Rutherford Hayes, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, George W. Bush (Lord knows how the hell that one happened), Al Gore, Barack Obama, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Helen Keller, William Rehnquist, Janet Reno, Ralph Nader, Al Franken, Adlai Stevenson, Bill Gates, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William S. Burroughs, John Updike, David Foster Wallace, Norman Mailer, T.S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, Michael Crichton, Robert Frost, William Randolph Hearst, Bill O’Reilly, Buckminster Fuller, Leonard Bernstein, Yo-Yo Ma, Conan O’Brien, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Portman, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Mira Sorvino, Tommy Lee Jones, Jonathon Taylor Thomas, Darren Aronofsky, Tom Morello, W.E.B. Du Bois, and, of course, The Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

Seventy-five Nobel Prize winners are associated with the university, and in the last 35 years, 19 Nobel Prize winners and 15 Pulitzer Prize winners have served on the faculty. The standards here are pretty high.

Comparing this to my own college, Illinois Wesleyan, is futile, no matter how excellent we are academically. We boast 7-time NBA All-Star Jack Sikma (hell of a guy, by the way), Oscar nominated actor Richard Jenkins (also a hell of a guy), and Andy Dick (who I’ve never had the displeasure of meeting, thankfully). No other school in America is going to come close to Harvard’s list of attendees. It’s just gonna happen.

Our tour of the campus included a breeze by the library, which is the largest private library in the world and the fifth largest collection of books in the world, as well as David’s law building, the famous John Harvard statue, and plenty of other buildings on campus as well.

We took a picture with the John Harvard statue, which is allegedly one of the most photographed statues in the country. It’s called the statue of three lies because the statue is not actually John Harvard (the sculptor used a student model), Harvard is not the founder of the university (he left several books and a hefty inheritance to the school years after it had already been established, so they changed the name then to honor him), and it was founded in 1636, not 1638 as the statue proclaims.

Just off campus is a little park called Cambridge Common, and it’s here that George Washington first took control of his Continental Army, and across the street from there are some bronze horseshoe prints in the sidewalk meant to commemorate the route of William Dawes, who like Paul Revere made a ride across the countryside to warn of the British coming to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock.

After walking around Harvard Square a little bit, buying t-shirts at the Coop, and getting a delicious red velvet cupcake at Sweet, a little bakery we’d heard a lot about, it was pretty much time to call it a day. There was baseball to watch later that evening, and we had to get a little bit rest and nourishment before the Fenway experience.

Fenway Park – Many baseball purists claim that some of the more modern ballparks are bastardizations of what a baseball experience should be. Having now been to the two oldest ballparks in American, Fenway and Wrigley, I can fully understand why some people prefer an old building for a baseball experience, even if modern-day stadiums have more comfortable seats, better food, and more navigable concourses. It all depends what you want out a ball game.

One thing is for sure, though—you can’t see your first game at Fenway without being at least a little wowed by it. Built in 1912 it’s the oldest professional baseball park still in use, and once you get inside you can see the charming presence of old age in the green rafters, the wooden grandstand seats, the dungeon-like underground concessions area, and the absence of a state-of-the-art souvenir shop. Walking into the building reminded me a lot of going to Cubs and White Sox games as a kid at Wrigley and Comiskey, and that was the part I really, really liked. It’s the kind of place where you almost have to buy a bag of peanuts en route to your seat (unless, of course, your wife is allergic to peanuts, in which case you skip that part).

Probably the most recognizable part of Fenway is the Green Monster, a 37-foot wall in left field meant to compensate for the short distance to that side of the field. Back when Manny Ramirez was playing for the Red Sox during the World Series years of 2004 and 2007, the Monster relayed a ton of doubles as it blocked line-drive homers from sailing out. Rising above that huge wall is the famous Citgo sign, which shines in all its neon glory above the park as soon as night falls.

The game itself was kind of blah since the Kansas City Royals ended up whooping up on the Sox, but for what it was worth we both really enjoyed the experience. For the better part of a couple innings I moved up to an empty seat a couple rows back from the field to shoot some pictures, and I got into a great conversation with a couple of locals. The Boston accent you hear so much about—with the r’s dropped off the ends of words—is legit. By the time I headed back to my actual seat I felt pretty confident that I could’ve passed as a Bostonian if I wanted. My White Sox hat probably would’ve given me away, though. One thing I’ve learned in visiting other teams’ ball parks is that it’s hard to stay interested the whole time, so we left in the 7th inning and took the subway back to our hotel. It was an excellent experience marking my 10th professional ballpark. I have now officially been to one-third of the baseball stadiums in Major League Baseball. I’m glad I didn’t have to save Fenway for last.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Joel & Amy Across America, Part 6

Day 3:

Salem Witch Trials Monument & The Burying Point – Salem, Massachusetts is only about a thirty-minute drive north of Boston, so Amy and I made arrangements to spend some time out there to engrain ourselves in the local witch fare. Today, Salem has become something of a haven for Wiccans, but our interest in visiting was, like everything else on our trip, purely historical.

The American religious landscape in 1692 was extremely Puritan, meaning most people were very strict when it came to the Bible. Salem was no exception, and beyond their stringent adherence to the Bible’s bylines, they also believed in predestination—the idea that God has one’s entire life all planned out and everything happens for a very specific reason. If someone were to find buried treasure in their backyard, it was because God felt the need to reward them. If someone’s child got very sick and died, it was God’s punishment for some wrong that person had committed. No matter what happened in a person’s life, it was all for a reason.

A combination of these things, added to the boredom of Salem’s young girls and some complicated political dishevelment, led to some men and women being accused of witchcraft in Salem and the surrounding areas in 1692. The girls doing the accusing would fake seizures in court and point fingers at their “tormentors.” Eventually these girls’ parents would use the whole ordeal as an excuse to accuse people they didn’t like of witchcraft, and from there the whole thing dominoed completely out of control. By the time it was all said and done, twenty completely innocent people had been executed as witches.

Our first stop in Salem was the memorial constructed for those twenty men and women that had been wrongly killed. None of these people are actually buried there, but the names run around the little stone garden to remember the people that died. Anybody who had to read “The Crucible” in high school will recognize names like John Proctor, Sarah Good, Giles Corey, and Rebecca Nurse. Many of the others I hadn’t heard of previously, but it was cool to be there after having taught the book to my students.

The trials came to an abrupt close when the wife of a higher-up in the province was accused. Knowing it was all ridiculous, this man called an end to the trials and released the 100+ people who were being detained at the time as potential witches. The girls weren’t punished, nor was anyone else, because to admit the whole thing was a sham was to admit that their religion was a sham, and nothing was more important to early Americans than religion.

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Something was accomplished in the wake of all this, however. Because of these trials, spectral evidence (having to do with spirits and ghosts and all that) was outlawed in future hearings. No longer could someone say, “I’m being possessed by spirits unleashed onto me by so-and-so” and have that count as credible evidence towards convicting someone. It’s just a shame that 20 people had to die for so obvious a conclusion.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial is right next to the city’s oldest cemetery, where Colonel John Hathorne, the head judge from the trials, is buried. Also interred there is Richard More, one of the original Pilgrims that came over on the Mayflower. So many of the stones in this small graveyard are dated in the 1600s, which, like the other cemeteries we’d already visited on this trip, didn’t fail to impress us. The oldest I think I’ve ever seen here in Illinois was 18-hundred-something-or-other. We’ve got a lot of great history in this state what with Abraham Lincoln and Chicago and all that, but sometimes it just can’t hold a candle to the East Coast, where almost everything is older than the dirt it stands on.

Witch Dungeon Museum – Salem is, in a lot of ways, just a giant tourist trap trying to capitalize on its fascinating history by appealing to those in search of anything tied to the witch trials. As a result there are quite a few different attractions in town with the words “Salem,” “Witch,” and “Museum” tied into their storefronts in some order or another. Most of these are some combination of wax sculptures and educational videos, and few, if any, of them have much by way of original artifacts from that era.

As tourists, however, Amy and I wanted to visit at least one of these kitschy little traps and so we chose the Witch Dungeon for the primary reason that they do an award-winning reenactment of Ann Putnam’s trial. You have a seat in a giant auditorium, watch the fifteen minute show, then get a brief tour of “The Dungeon.”

Amy and I must have looked like campers because we ended up on the front stoop of this place about five minutes before it actually opened. We were the only ones in attendance for the first show, and we sort of got the impression that the actresses weren’t accustomed to starting right at 10:00. My guess is that most tourists didn’t wander in until the 10:30 or 11:00 show. We literally saw one actress walk in after us in street clothes, then show up on stage in full 1692 regalia about 120 seconds later to play her part in the performance.

In all honesty, it was pretty good. All three actresses were more than solid, and considering it was just Amy and I in this huge auditorium they put on the show as if they were doing a Broadway opener or something. Plenty of bang for our buck in that regard, but it was the dungeon that we found to be particularly fetching.

Just like today, when someone was accused of a crime back in the seventeenth century, they’d be arrested and put into holding until a trial could be arranged. The jail in which these people were held was like a dank, moldy basement meant to accommodate no more than fifty people, but by the end of the trials up twice that many were living in that one room. There were no restrooms here, obviously, so people used the bathroom right where they were, and after a hard rain the entire room could flood up their knees. Such conditions were horrible, made all the worse considering those jailed there were actually innocent.

The cell in the basement of the Witch Dungeon Museum is not the original, but was built to the exact specifications of the original, which was discovered in the mid-1900s during preparation for a new building site. There was no real historical society back then so the dungeon was torn down completely, though a few relics were salvaged, including an original beam which was on display in the room we currently were viewing.

In terms of what was available to us there to get a sense of Salem’s history, this was very easily the best option. The Salem Witch Museum, a beautiful old converted church a short walk away, would have been our next stop were we not being asked to pay $8 a piece to watch a half-hour video on the history of trials. This place looked so cool from the outside and ended up being ever-so-lame that we ended up heading back for Boston around lunchtime. It’s a fun place to spend the morning for anyone looking to try a day away from the city, but to spend more than a few hours there would’ve been overkill. Very cool experience, but just a little too far removed from history to be as meaningful as some of the other things we’d seen thus far, and would see in the days to come.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Joel & Amy Across America, Part 5

Old North Church – The tallest and oldest church in Boston is Christ Church, known by just about everybody in Boston as Old North, and it’s because of its towering steeple that it was chosen to hang the lanterns for Paul Revere and William Dawes so they could alert the arrival of British troops.

The Patriots learned of General Gage’s plan to ride to Lexington and Concord to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock, so they set things up for Revere and Dawes to ride through the countryside warning all the important Tories when, as the saying goes, the Redcoats were coming. One lantern would be hung in the Old North steeple if they were coming via land, and two if by sea. Just as Longfellow mentioned in his poem.

We know Revere, thanks to Longfellow, but a lot of Americans will have never heard of William Dawes, even though he completed his ride an hour quicker than Revere. The reason for this is that Longfellow, who wasn’t even born until decades after Revere died, wrote the poem as a romantic gesture to the new lady in his life, who just so happened to be a direct descendent of Revere. Henry wanted to butter up her and the family, so he wrote the poem, and took a few artistic liberties in doing so. He didn’t write it to be history; he wrote to impress potential in-laws.

That’s not to say Revere wasn’t an important guy, because he was. He just didn’t do it all by himself. He and Dawes and several other riders all helped in trumping the Brits’ plan that night. There’s no need to marginalize the guy, but he just wasn’t quite the huge hero American mythology has made him out to be over the years. He can thank Longfellow for the publicity, because for a long time history books used his poem as the foundation for what they included about Revere.

Whatever happened, it started at Old North. We weren’t allowed to go up into the steeple, but the church itself is still used for Episcopal services and is set up in a curious manner. Set up in box pews—tiny cubicles that families purchased the same way we’d purchase season tickets to the Red Sox today—Old North comes off pretty strange at first. Knowing it was built in the early 1700s, though, makes the odd seating arrangement a little more reasonable.

There was no way anyone was going to light a fire in a church back then for fear of burning down a neighborhood’s most beautiful and expensive building, so the box pews were installed to keep out drafts in the winter, while also boxing in the body heat of families sharing a cubicle. They’d put a hot stone or brick in a little metal box and that would help keep things warm in the winter as well.

It was a really neat old church, and the second-to-last Revolution-era attraction of the day. But that didn’t mean we were done with The Freedom Trail. There were still a couple of stops to make—on the other side of the Charles River.

Bunker Hill Monument – After stopping by the U.S.S. Constitution, a warship from the War of 1812 that earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” because British cannonballs bounced off its sides as if they were made of iron, we humped it uphill a few more blocks to the Bunker Hill monument—a gigantic obelisk that marks the end of the trail.

The thing we remember most about 1775’s Battle of Bunker Hill, the first major battle of the Revolutionary War, is the famous line, “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes,” a saying which nobody really knows the origin of. America lost that battle, forced to retreat because of a shortage of ammunition (hence the famous saying), but took out a lot of British before calling it quits.

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Today there’s a giant tower standing a top a hill in Charleston where all this fighting went down, the cornerstone of which was laid down in 1825, fifty years after the battle. I almost had to drag my wife up the steps to see this thing because she was so tired, but she was a pretty good sport about following me to the end of our day’s voyage. She took a picture of me at the last Freedom Trail marker, and then we were done.

That is, until I found out you could go up the monument.

It’s only a 294-stair haul, which is absolutely as bad as it sounds, and Amy gave me that womanly look of doom as we schlepped up each and every one of those steps. It was hot and exhausting and we had walked almost four miles over the course of the day, so I can’t blame her for regretting my decision to go up this thing. It’s not like the Arch in St. Louis, where you just take an elevator to see the view. You earn the view in Boston, but it was cool to see everything so high up. Plus, we felt a certain sense of accomplishment when it was all said and done.

A short hop and a skip to the nearest Subway stop, and we were finally on our way to our hotel in Cambridge—exhausted, educated, and absolutely starving.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Joel & Amy Across America, Part 4

Old South Meeting House – On December 16, 1773 Sam Adams and thousands of other Bostonians met here to discuss what to do with the 30 tons of taxable British tea on boats moored in a Boston harbor. Nobody came to any real conclusion, so Adams said “Screw it” and led what would later become known as the Boston Tea Party. He and up to 130 other man dressed up as Natives and dumped all 342 chests of tea into the harbor as a protest to the Tea Act, which played into the whole Taxation without Representation mantra that helped kick off the Revolution.

By 1775, the British had raided and taken over the meeting house, ruining the interior by using it to practice horse-riding, and they also stole an original 1620 manuscript of William Bradford’s “On Plymouth Plantation,” a memoir about the Pilgrims journey to American written by the colony’s original governor. It’s no longer a church today (the congregation built a new one after a 19th century fire almost burned this one to the ground), but stands as an interesting footnote to one of Boston’s most famous historical happenings.

Old State House – Built in 1713, the Old State House is the oldest public building in Boston, and like a lot of places in this city it’s been used for more than a couple different purposes over the years. It started as a sort of British headquarters, but once they were driven out it became the seat of the first elected legislature in the New World. In the years between declaring independence and electing George Washington the first president of the United States, John Hancock was elected the commonwealth’s first governor. That, of course, happened in this building.

Boston was the third place the Declaration was read (the first obviously being Philadelphia behind Independence Hall, the second being New York), and that was done from the balcony of this beautiful red brick building on July 18th, 1776.

Today it’s available for tours and actually is a popular place for wedding receptions. The subway runs through part of the basement. We wanted to go inside and check out the little museum, but our tour guide didn’t allow much time for breaks, and even though we said we’d come back the day never really provided us with the time or energy to make it back. We’d get more than our fair share of history before bedtime, though. Way, way more than our fair share.

Site of the Boston Massacre – Right across the street from the Old State House is the intersection where the Boston Massacre took place in 1770. The site is supposed to be marked by a ring in the sidewalk of a small traffic island, but our tour guide said that was made the “official” location to keep tourists from running out into traffic to take pictures with the “actual” location, which is right in the middle of a crosswalk a few yards away.

Other than Crispus Attucks, four other people were killed in the massacre, which is, in my opinion, a bit dramatic a word to use for the killing of five people. I’d call it more an “incident,” but this downplays history, and I would rather not be called unpatriotic for changing the name to the Boston Incident. Doesn’t quite resonate the same way, does it?

No matter what you call it, the whole thing must’ve been pretty intense and frightening. Obviously tensions were high in 1770, what with the whole British soldiers babysitting Americans and the tea taxes and what have you, so when a Redcoat hit a kid with the butt of his gun for insulting a commanding officer, the colonists went nuts. It started off with us throwing snowballs at them amidst a barrage of insults, but ended up with the Brit soldier calling for reinforcements as the rowdy American crowd grew to the hundreds.

When a club got thrown instead of a snowball, the soldier who was hit fired his gun. Anarchy ensued, colonists stormed, more gunshots went off, and when the whole thing was done five American men were dead.

So what ever happened to the soldiers who did the killing? All but two were actually acquitted of all charges and sent on to live their lives, thanks to the efforts of John Adams, who defended the British soldiers. It was a tough call for him but seemed like the right thing to do, even though it pissed off his cousin Sam to end. Again, the cajones these early Americans showed never fail to amaze me. How John Adams can defend the friggin’ Brittish in the early 1770s and then sign the Declaration of Independence a few years later is amazing to me. You can see why some people get so into history with guys like this to read about.

Faneuil Hall – Before doing my planning for the Boston trip I’d never even heard of this place, but it’s one of the top five most-visited tourist destinations in the country. Yeah. After seeing it all for myself I can understand why—there were just rows and rows of restaurants and shops and trolley tour booths and street performers. Think Navy Pier on land, without all the rides and stuff.

Actually, Faneuil Hall itself really isn’t all that big. It was built by Peter Faneuil in 1742 as a sort of combination marketplace/meeting house, and Sam Adams did some of his best work here, firing people up about the Stamp Act and other such British nonsense, and that’s why his statue stands in front of the building. On the lower level there are still a number of shops and a post office.

Faneuil’s extremely rich uncle Andrew died a childless widower and left his fortune to his two nephews, with the odd condition that neither one of them ever get married. Money or Chicks, boys? Faneuil’s brother chose chicks, but Peter, who was portly and disabled, didn’t have much luck with the ladies anyway so he took the dough and built the hall. Ladies most likely came a-knockin’ later, but Pete kept his bread and did a lot of good things for Boston with it.

Behind the Hall is Quincy Market, which is where all the crazy shops and restaurants are. Pretty much any sort of toursity shirt or restaurant or saltwater taffy you can imagine is behind there. In the midst of a tour laden with history, this was sort of the opposite of what we wanted. We were also hungry, it being lunchtime after a morning of walking and learning, so it was time to find some grub. There was only one place we would even consider…

Cheers – We knew we wanted to eat lunch at Cheers, probably Boston’s most famous bar/restaurant, but as far as we knew the original location was somewhere on Beacon Street—which was back the way we came. Little did we know there was a second location right there in Quincy Market, but we found that out after having eaten a mile’s walk away. Sounds like a hassle, but the version at Quincy looks and feels like a TGI Friday’s. The original, on the other hand, was the Cheers we’ve all grown to love over the years.

Originally called the Bull and Finch Pub, the Cheers on Beacon Hill is the one used for the exterior of the TV show, though the interior was never filmed. The commercial branch at Quincy Market is supposed to be a replica of the bar from television but only somewhat resembles what I’ve seen on Nick at Nite about a thousand times.

The ambiance in this original bar is much more Cheers-ish, and the food is actually really good. Amy and I each bought a shirt at the little gift shop and did our best not to wear them while actually in Boston. That would’ve been a little too nerdy, even for us. Sadly, nobody knew our names, as was advertised, but it was still worth the haul. To work off those lunch calories, we now had to hoof it back to Faneuil Hall to pick up The Freedom Trail where we left off.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Joel & Amy Across America, Part 3

Day 2:

Boston Common – In Boston there is what’s known as The Freedom Trail, a 2.5 mile path of history through the streets of Beantown that leads to all kinds of early American wonder. To follow the trail is easy; all one must do is walk the red line—sometimes painted, sometimes made of red brick—throughout the city, and it’s impossible to miss the main attractions.

The path begins at Boston Common, which is one of the country’s oldest public parks. It’s been around since the 1630s, when it was purchased by the Massachusetts Bay Company to be used a central grazing area for Puritan cows (also known as Pilgrim cows, or cows that came to America to avoid religious persecution), but later played home to the British in the time leading up to the Revolutionary War. It was also there that many public hangings took place, at least until 1817 when that whole business was shut down for more humane ways to kill criminals.

It became a park in 1830, and a fence was put around it and trees planted all throughout the grounds. Today it’s a pretty expansive area, lush with trees and statues and all the things you’d expect from a public park in a big city. This is also the location of the city’s visitor’s center, where we went to try and set up a tour of The Freedom Trail. Having bumped into a kindly gent dressed in colonial-era garb, we found that a tour of the first two-thirds of the cites would be starting soon, so we paid the cost of admission and began one of the longest walking days of our lives.

The Granary Burial Ground – A couple years ago I started getting into visiting famous people’s graves. In fact, my fellow road trippers would tease me for including so much death into what was supposed to be a fun trip, but when you’re in the neighborhood of a famous dead and buried person, why not stop by?

The Granary was, overall, probably the coolest cemetery I’ve ever seen in my life. Amy and I were pretty much in awe the entire time we were there, and this was definitely where the tour guide took the most time to tell us stories about the famous early Americans who are buried there.

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We started with John Hancock, who’s got one of the tallest headstones in the place. Most of us remember him as the guy who signed his signature to the Declaration of Independence before anyone else, and did so in such huge letters that even today we use the expression “I need your John Hancock” when asking for someone’s signature. What most of us don’t know is that when Hancock was the first to sign the document, most of the others didn’t sign until much later, meaning for a while he was the only guy with the balls to sign a genuinely treasonous document and publicly put himself out there as anti-British. Dude could’ve gotten arrested and killed for that. As if that isn’t enough to make him one of the biggest B.A.’s of his era, he also helped plan the Boston Tea Party. The Brits must’ve seriously hated that guy.

As for his grave, the original marker doesn’t exist anymore, but in its place is a huge memorial placed above the spot where historians are pretty sure he’s actually buried. Other prestigious burials in the grounds have the original headstones, but Hancock’s is just a little less certain. When he was buried, grave robbers dug him up and cut off his famous right hand, which did the signing, to sell on the black market. Some other idiot cut off his left hand for the same reason, just in case Hancock was a lefty, without giving much consideration to the fact that almost nobody in that era would’ve been left handed. Left-handedness was thought to be sinister, so parents and teachers beat kids’ hands with rulers until they got it “right.” So wherever Hancock is, he ain’t got no hands, and some collector out there has himself a nice, priceless little relic. I smell another “National Treasure” sequel!

Today all the stones in the Granary are arranged neatly in rows, making it convenient to mow, but before FDR paid struggling American workers to move the stones in that manner back in the 1930s (stupid New Deal), the place was a smattering of stones. People got buried wherever there was room.

Our tour guide told us not to worry about where we stood because no matter where our feet lay inside the burial grounds’ walls we’d be stepping at least one of the 8000 bodies interred below.

Included among those bodies is Paul Revere, known for his Midnight Ride thanks to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem. There’s a memorial there now which most people mistake for his headstone, but the real thing is just to the right and is extremely small. It says only “Revere’s Tomb” and calling it a modest marker would be an understatement.

Samuel Adams, probably most famous today for the beer named after him, actually had nothing to do brewing ale. His father dabbled, but really the brand is just the results of the Boston Beer Company issuing their first beer, the Sam Adams Boston Lager, in 1985. To make the whole booze connection even more ridiculous, the guy pictured on the bottles isn’t even Sam Adams. It’s of a younger Bostonian chap so that it can appeal to younger audiences.

So other than being a beer brand and John Adams’s cousin, what did he do? Basically, Sam was the biggest hero possibly to the Patriots and the biggest prick possible to the Loyalists in the time leading up to the Revolution. He too played a huge part in the Boston Tea Party and did pretty much anything he possibly could to push the colonies towards independence. He was also one of the signers of the Declaration.

Ben Franklin’s parents also are buried at the Granary and have the biggest memorial in the whole place dedicated to them. Right next to the Sam Adams grave is a headstone marking the group burial of the five victims of the Boston Massacre, the only name of which I recognized was Crispus Attucks, who was black and allegedly the first martyr of the American Revolution. Anybody who’s seen Revere’s engraving of the Massacre knows Attucks is front and center, and that’s probably why he’s the only guy we remember from that particular moment in history.

Of the two hours we spent with the tour guide, easily 45-50 minutes was spent here, and not a one of us complained. There was so much to learn here that it’s a miracle I’m even able to remember this much two weeks later. Very easily one of the coolest things Amy and I did the whole week.