Tuesday, June 30, 2009

DYK - Invisible Light

Here’s something to blow your mind—light is invisible.

I’m telling you, I heard this and it took me like fifteen minutes to wrap my mind around it. See, when we’re “seeing” light, we’re not seeing the light itself. What we’re seeing is the matter that light bounces off of.

Think of the moon, for example. The moon emits no light, but looks luminescent because light bounces off its surface. But can we actually see the sun’s rays on their way to the moon’s surface?

If light wasn’t invisible, we couldn’t see anything anywhere, because the light would just be this crazy shiny mist between our eyeballs and everything else in the world.

And if that weren’t enough, here’s another one—darkness doesn’t exist. There’s only the absence of light. Some of you are thinking, “But that’s what darkness is! It’s the absence of light!” Right, but forget about the names we give things that don’t exist. I mean, Santa Claus has a name and a definition for goodness sake. But darkness itself isn’t real. Mind-blowing, right?

That’s what I thought.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Now 27 Times In My Life

I turned 27 a couple weeks ago, and you know what that means?

Nothing, actually. It means absolutely nothing.

Since turning 21 I’ve found that birthdays are increasingly blasé events. A few friends and family asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I just shrugged my shoulders. They do, of course, realize that I got married last year, and the result of that wedding was just about every knick-knack and paddywhack a man and his wife could ever need, so I’ve got nothing left on the wish list.

Oh sure, there’s always books and fun t-shirts. I can’t get enough of those things. But I’ve got like three rotations of t-shirts right now and an entire bookshelf full of tomes I have yet to crack open. What’s the point of asking for more?

What I really want is a gigantic flatscreen HD television set, but who do I ask to get that?

Aside from the perennial conundrum of wanting and needing nothing special for my post-21 birthdays, there’s just the issue of these years not being particularly exciting. When you’re 16 there’s the driver’s license. At 18 it’s cigarettes and lotto tickets and Playboy. At 21 it’s booze and bars. Even 25 is something to celebrate because you can legally rent a car and your auto insurance rates drop. But 27? Who are we kidding here? Birthdays are going to be boring from now until I’m 30, at which point I’m secretly hoping for a huge surprise party with all two of my friends. That’s three years away. In the meantime, I’m in birthday purgatory.

To help pass the time, I’m giving a short summary from some of the birthdays I can actually remember. Many of them are a blur, but there are some that I’ll never forget for one reason or another.

Happy Birthday to me…

Age 1 – Obviously I can’t remember this birthday but we’ve got it on tape. When my mom brought the birthday cake to my high chair, all alit with a single burning candle, I of course smashed my pudgy little craw into the frosting and delivered the sweet paste to about 90% of the lower half of my face. I looked like a baby mime. This was the year I was given a tiny little multi-colored xylophone with a yellow plastic mallet. It appeared to be my favorite new toy. By a 27-year-old’s standards, it looked pretty boring, but I’m sure the cake was good. My mom and dad seemed really happy. I can’t imagine what that’s like—watching your firstborn kid hit a year, then ruin the cake and deliver frosting into his own hair. Must’ve been like a dream.

Age 8 – I begged and begged and begged parents for years to allow me to host a birthday party at every child’s Mecca—Showbiz Pizza. The name of the company has since been changed to Chuck E. Cheese, of course, but the shtick was essentially the same—indoor jungle gym, ball pit, video games, skee-ball, and tickets, which bought you crappy prizes like giant pencils and stickers. I don’t remember much, but I was allowed to bring four of my closest friends. I’m pretty sure my friends Marty and Neal were there (one of them got me a Ninja Turtles/Bart Simpson t-shirt that I’m not even sure how to explain—the 90s were awesome), but I don’t remember the other two. Bro and Sis came too, obviously, and I’m sure it was lots of fun. It was the only birthday party I ever had there, but that’s more than I can say for my wife. She’s never stepped foot into a Showbiz Pizza in her entire life. Fate just never guided her there. This is the place where a kid can be a kid, and she was robbed of that. Had I known here when I was eight, I certainly would’ve invited her.

Age 16 – My folks took me and a few of my sophomoric high school buddies to Chicago for the evening, allowing us to dine at the delicious yet kitschy Cheesecake Factory at the base of the John Hancock building. After chowing down we took a trip to the top of the city’s second-tallest skyscraper and got a nice view of the city. We were allowed to wander around Michigan Avenue for a while, which ended up serving as a mistake, because my buddy Andy got stopped by a homeless guy who shined his shoes and made him pay $30. We were all a little too stunned to stop the whole thing. My parents felt really bad and reimbursed him, and I was so scarred that I never went to Chicago ever again. Except for all those times I’ve gone since then for Bulls game, Sox games, visits to friends and family, school field trips, and one time for the Taste of Chicago. Other than that, though, I’ve never been back, no matter how good the cheesecake was.

Age 21 – Most people do something crazy on their 21st birthday, like get tanked on near-nuclear quantities of alcohol and then throw up on their dorm room floors. As a summer baby, I was not given the usual college student bar tour and celebrated my 21st back home with the two of my friends who were actually in town at the time. We went to a couple bars, had a couple of beers, then drove home. I want to say I was in bed by 11:00. Personally, I have no problem with this because bars always have been among my least favorite places—all that smoke and noise and expensive booze. I could have more fun buying the beer for cheaper and hanging out with people I’ve hand-chosen at someplace quiet and breathable. So don’t feel bad for me; I really didn’t mind. My parents, on the other hand, seemed a little upset. They waited for me to get home that night, their 35mm cameras in hand, expecting me to wobble in like Andy Capp after a hard night at the pub. Instead I was like, “Hey guys. It was fun! Going to bed!” And that was that. Lame? Absolutely, but have I ever claimed to be anything but?

To celebrate 27, my wife and I recently hosted a little joint birthday party (hers is July 3rd–she’ll be 25) and had a very nice time. We got the cheesy decorations, tied the balloons to the mailbox, and even talked most of our guests into doing relay races. It was like being a kid again (well, except for the inclusion of Bud Light), and everybody really seemed to have a good time. That’s the way a birthday should go. It doesn’t have to be exciting or even particularly eventful. Just get the friends together, have a few drinks, and play few games. That’s all I need.

At least that’s all I need until I turn 30. Then somebody better bring the noise and turn this mother out. I’ll bring the cheesecake, you bring the flatscreen.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Runnin' Wild, Day 5

Cave of the Mounds – Let me tell you a little story about a man named Ebenezer Brigham, the man who discovered Wisconsin’s famous Cave of the Mounds. Mr. Brigham and his cohorts were blasting up a limestone bed in the 1930s when they stumbled upon this gigantic underground cave, some parts of which were twenty feet high. It opened up into two different directions, and after wooden walkways and handrails were installed the geological oddity was opened up to the public, and millions of visitors later, the rest is history.

My brother and I—both Brighams—had no idea that the gentleman responsible for this road trip attraction was himself a Brigham. Brighams still own property in the area and there’s even a Brigham Park nearby. It would be nice if I could shrug this all off as a coincidence, but there are things at play here bigger than myself. You see, when Ebenezer Brigham became the first permanent white settler in Wisconsin’s Dane County in 1828, he did so by traveling from Massachusetts. Why is this important? Because my very own grandfather, Mr. Charles Brigham, also came from Massachusetts.

What this means, obviously, is that Kyle and I, in a way, discovered the Cave of the Mounds. You’re welcome.

Being likely descendants of the same Brigham clan as Eb (that’s what we Brighams call him), the workers there treated us with the expected fanfare. We were given a private tour of the caves, sharing our guide with only one small group of fifteen first-graders on a school field trip, and were charged the low, low price of $14 for our excursion. We only had to wait one hour for the tour get started, and—here’s the kicker—in honor of presence, every worker in the place wore matching green polos. Truly, it was nice to see the gang all dressed up. I don’t want to say it was like we were royalty or anything, but it was like we were royalty.

The caves themselves were pretty awesome. Compared to our only other spelunking experience (Doesn’t “spelunking” mean exploring caves? We’re going to say “yes” for now) at Iowa’s ridiculous Spook Cave, this was a pretty roomy tour. I for some reason worked under the assumption that we’d discover the stalactites, etc. via boat, just as we did at Spook, but there were a series of walkways to traverse instead, making the whole ordeal much less calming.

Geological formations within the cave sprawl from every single possible angle. Long, icicle-shaped rocks drip form the ceilings, while other sections of rock curl and twist into themselves. Sometimes the ceilings were so high you couldn’t even imagine touching them, but in other places the squeeze was so fit that you sort of had to touch the walls, even though there was a strict “no touching” policy in place there.

Our tour guide treated us exactly like one of the first graders duck-walking alongside us. She kept making sure the group was all together and actually kept a closer eye on us than she did the children. I’m not sure if she thought were going to touch something or drink beer or deal drugs, but whatever the case she eyeballed us the way an old man eyeballs teenage hooligans walking down the avenue.

Pretty amazing experience for the most part, and especially amazing considering it’s now such a rich part of my family heritage. Assuming that we’re related to the great Ebenezer Brigham (which I, of course, and going to go ahead and do), it’s kind of like finding out you’re a distant relative of George Washington or George Washington Carver or Chelsea Clinton. It was a real honor, and I’m proud to consider myself part of the Cave of the Mounds Family.

Jake’s Deli – Corn beef has always quietly been one of my favorite foods, dating back to my time as a childhood parishioner of St. Patrick’s church, which held a corn beef and cabbage dinner every March to celebrate St. Patty’s Day. For being an unnaturally pink slice of meat it just speaks mouthfuls to me, and on a sandwich with a little bit of sauerkraut and mustard/thousand island dressing, there’s little more one could do culinarily to make me smile.

So, when looking for a good Milwaukee restaurant for the ride home, Jake’s Deli and their world famous Rueben sandwiches stood out to me. See, Kyle lived in Milwaukee for a summer and when I would visit the two of us enjoyed a pretty fair sampling of the city’s cuisine, which of course consists mostly of beer and cheese and bratwurst. For some reason, though, neither one of us had ever previously heard of or visited Jake’s. As we would discover upon locating the restaurant, that reason had everything to do with the shabby neighborhood in which the storefront is located.

It should be noted, however, that a good corn beef sandwich is worth potentially getting shot over, so we braved the questionable hood and made our way into the deli to get ourselves a sammich.

The results, predictably, were delicious. Never in my life have I enjoyed corn beef so delicious. It helped, of course, that we were all starving, but I don’t think it would’ve mattered. This was straight-up good food—so good that Craig called it the greatest food of the trip. Yes, even better than the Fly Trap. None of the rest of us agreed, but there was no doubting that at the very least it came in second place.

Sure, the neighborhood sucked, but sometimes the shiniest diamonds can be found in the rough. Just ask Aladdin about that. He got judged by his cover, too, and see how it turned out for him? A genie and a hot princess. Exactly like Jake’s Deli.

Jelly Belly Warehouse Tour – When Amy and I visited the great state of California last year we were able to tour the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, where the famous jelly beans are actually manufactured. That was a legitimately cool tour.

In Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, where the beans are centrally located in a warehouse, to be shipped to the rest of the country, the tour is significantly less cool. In California you traverse the entire factory, watching all the processes of jelly bean making, but in Wisconsin you hope into a little train and drive in a circle around the circumference of the warehouse, watching videos about the California tour along the way. In other words, it was lamey lamertons.

But we didn’t go to the Jelly Belly warehouse for the tour. We went for the Belly Flops, which are the little screw up beans that aren’t regulation size or shape, so they get sold for pennies on the dollar. For example, you can get a two-pound bag of assorted flavors for $17 at any participating location, but six pounds of Belly Flops go for the comparatively low price of $18. I bought three two-pound bags while were there and pretty much filled up the gumball machine in our basement. That alone was worth the trip.

Conclusion – I can say this: Day 3 of this trip, the one through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, was easily the worst day in road trip history. There was like ten hours of driving through rain to see some of the lamest things we’ve ever seen on the road. I’ve worked very, very hard over the years to make these trips as fun as possible, but Day 3 was an utter failure. It pains me to say this, but I failed in that regard. I just did.

Of course, the U.P. sucks, so I can’t take all the blame.

As far as the food is concerned, it was by far the best road trip we’ve ever had. Last year’s barbecue massacre in Tennessee offered quite a few num-nums, but it is absolutely true that too much of a good thing can result in nausea and long hours on the toilet. This time around the food was varied, delicious, and well spread-out. Delicious. Absolutely delicious. Cozy Corner BBQ is still the best restaurant I’ve ever eaten at, but the Fly Trap is definitely in my top five now, too. Food was definitely good.

Who knows what future years will bring, but the four trips I’ve taken in the last five years have been legendary. The videos have been awesome, the food has been awesome, and the company has been awesome. I love these trips. I just do. No matter where we all go in our lives from here on out, I hope the other guys I’ve been running around with the last half-decade feel the same way.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Runnin' Wild, Day 4 (Part 2)

Birthplace of the Ice Cream Sundae – In researching places to go for this year’s trip, I had read that a museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin had the original storefront of Berner’s Ice Cream, the place where the sundae was invented. The story goes that one day a gentleman asked Mr. Berner if he would take some of the chocolate syrup used for sodas and just drizzle it over the ice cream instead of mixing it in. Of course this became very popular, but Berner would only sell the treats on Sundays.

What changed that routine was an adorable little girl asking for a sundae on a non-Sunday day, pleading for Mr. Berner to “pretend it was Sunday.” Apparently her cuteness won out, and the treats sold every day, obviously extending from just chocolate to strawberries and caramel and butterscotch and, for pregnant women, pickles.

A quaint little story indeed, but here’s the problem—the Washington House Museum in Two Rivers does NOT have the original Berner’s storefront. It’s just a creepy old house full of weird antiques (nee “junk”) and a special room set aside for making ice cream sundaes. The young ladies who served us had to have both been in their 70s, and though they were very nice only managed to assemble ice cream treats at the speed of soil creep. Honestly, it was a quaint little room, with old-fashioned signs and seating areas, white walls and a framed chunk of the Berner’s store façade. They even served our sundaes in legitimate glass sundae bowls.

So we sat together enjoying our sundaes in the town where they were invented, each of us spooning the ice cold goodness into our mouths as a tribute to the good Mr. Seymour, who indirectly employed me all through high school at the local Dairy Queen. Without him and his invention, I may never have had the money to purchase that teal 1997 four-door Chevy Cavalier back in college.

Cole, naturally, almost ruined the homage at the counter by declining a maraschino cherry. He was last to order, and even after having seen all of us answer “yes” to “whipped cream?” and “cherry?” he approached the second question with—I kid you not—“You can keep your cherry.”

Kyle, Craig, and I couldn’t believe his un-American audacity. What sort of domestic terrorist turns down a maraschino cherry to top off his sundae? He was, it should be noted, forced by us to take the damn cherry and enjoy every grenadiney moment of it. He’d later apologize, but let’s face it—the damage had already been done. Ol’ Mr. Berner must have been rolling around in his grave.

Crash Site of Sputnik Satellite – Other than that godforsaken hotel in Eau Claire, this was the most difficult attraction for us to locate, mostly because there was almost nothing to see in the first place.

Having driven back and forth over the spot where Russian satellite Sputnik IV—a relative of the first human-made object to orbit the earth—crashed in the early 1960s, we still couldn’t locate any giant crater in the road or any sort of historical landmark sign on the side of the road. So, we stopped by a gas station and asked the attendant if she knew anything about. Being approximately 17 years old, she hadn’t even heard of Sputnik (a real testament to the American system of education—don’t blame me, I’m an English teacher), so she asked the older bakery lady and she knew exactly what we were talking about.

“Just go back up this street and you’ll see it in the middle of the road. You can’t miss it.”

She pointed, naturally, to the area from which we had just come. So we parked along the road back in that area and walked back and forth for five or ten minutes before asking a passerby if they knew where it was.

“Yeah,” they said, pointing to a tiny metal ring in the middle of the road right next to us. “It’s right there.”

See here’s the thing—we had been confusing the renowned crash site of Sputnik with some sort of tiny manhole or water valve cover. No label, no sign, no nothing. Just a tiny ring in the middle of the road and that was it.

We left, assuming that was the end, but I’d later read that the art museum right across the road from the landing spot actually houses the little piece of space detritus in its galleries. There’s apparently a whole little story that goes along with it. But we didn’t get that story. We just got the stupid metal ring in the middle of a busy street.

The Truebloods & Great Dane Microbrewery – Our last full day ended in Madison, at the home of our good friends Kevin and Jess Trueblood. They at one time lived in the same town as my wife and I but headed for greener pastures when the money was right. Pretty much everybody considers them sellouts, including their dog. We call this “jumping the shark,” though I’m not sure why.

Despite it all, they’re still really good people and offered up their home for our last evening of slumber on the 2009 trip. We would eventually sleep there (and Cole and I—the infamous snorers of the group—were finally quarantined off so Craig and Kyle could get a decent night’s sleep), but not until we’d eaten something.

Going with the theme of the trip we wanted to make sure the evening’s cuisine didn’t come at the hands of a TGI Friday or Applebee’s. We wanted something local, yet delicious. The Great Dane Microbrewery was right up our alley.

And as Kevin pointed out it was, in fact, right up the alley. “It’s just a mile or so away,” he tells us. Liar. Fifteen minutes later and in an entirely different town, we dined on hearty foodstuffs and refreshing ales.

The place was pretty packed, but as one of those relatively unlit eateries with dark woods and brushed nickel accents all over the place, it would’ve felt needlessly hip without all the patrons. Some of us ordered macaroni & cheese, others fancy-pantsy burgers, but all of it was extremely good. Kevin chose well, so we pretended like he never jumped the shark for the evening. Just to make him feel better.

But between you and me and his dog—he totally sold out.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Runnin' Wild, Day 4 (Part 1)

Leinenkugel Brewery – If there was ever something I looked forward to on a road trip, this was it. I’ve been to a number of breweries and distilleries, several of which were in the state of Wisconsin, but Chippewa Falls has always been just a tad too far away to make a day trip out of. It’s no secret that as a brand, Leine is my favorite brew (Summer Shandy? Sunset Wheat? Berry Weiss? Are you kidding me? Delicious…), so coming down from Michigan we finally were given the excuse to visit the place where the finest of ales is concocted. Finally, guys. Finally.

The brewery and the Leine Lodge are rustic combinations of wood and old stone, giving the entire facility exactly the sort of comfy northwoods ambiance one would expect. While waiting for our tour to begin we were allowed to browse the gift shop which, as Cole so eloquently put it, “Is where other gift shops should go on field trips to find out how to properly be a gift shop.” The stuff on sale was awesome—cool t-shirts, colorful cozies, steins and pint glasses, even beer-flavored soaps and candles—but the giant fireplace and taxidermed animal faces above it helped paint the picture, too. Sampling facilities were tucked back into one corner of the giant room, and we knew that once our tour was over, we’d be given the opportunity to put our faces underneath those tappers and let the amber rivers of Chippewa Falls flow freely down our gullets.

Oh yeah, the tour.

To be perfectly honest, Kyle and I have toured more than our fair share of breweries at this point in our lives—Miller, Busch, Sprecher, New Glarus, to name a few—so viewing the tanks and diagrams about the brewing process didn’t exactly blow our collective mind. The warm, homey smell of brewing beer never gets old, though, and every brewery has its fair share of photogenic antiquity, which we obviously took advantage of. In general, though, we’ve discovered that brewery tours are usually just 45 minutes of anxiety before the free beer happens. Leine, being an especially tasty beer, produced just as much anxiety as any of the other tours, even though our guide—a cool older dude named “Coach”—was especially cool and interesting.

At our post-tour tasting we learned that Leinenkugel beers can be mixed together to create new and amazing other Leinenkugel beers! It’s like, a mouthful of red Skittles is delicious, but there’s no denying that mixing a bunch of reds and purples can be equally delicious as well. By far the best blend was what the locals call a “Pink Lemonade,” which is equal parts Berry Weiss and Summer Shandy. No crap, it actually tastes like pink lemonade. There were other combos—mixing the Berry with Sunset Wheat, a dab of Honey Weiss with the Leine Red, and so on—all of which completely expanded the possibilities of what one can enjoy with a bottle of delicious beer.

We just continue to learn. Beer is truly a building block of civilizaztion.

Wausau Mine Company – To be perfectly honest, there was absolutely no indication that the food at the Wausau Mine Company was particularly delectable, but the interior of this place was designed to look like the inside of a coal mine. And truth be told, it succeeded on that level. The food wasn’t bad, but this place definitely looked like a coal mine.

Based on the exterior you’d swear that this place was another screwed up Mystery Spot, but inside there were rocky walls, blocked off shaft entrances, and even stalactites dripping water for effect. It truly was like eating lunch in a cave.

As for lunch itself… meh. Kyle got some sort of pasta sampler and Cole got a pizza burger, and both dishes shared the same “marinara” sauce, which essentially tasted like ketchup with a sprinkle of oregano and a few small chunks of tomato. I too was served this sauce as a dipper for the house specialty, the Italian Fries, which were essentially very greasy cheese breadsticks. They sat like a brick in my stomach for the entire afternoon. I felt like I was pregnant with mozzarella. Not the most light-hearted dining experience of the excursion, but certainly one of the richest in atmosphere.

After having eaten so many good foods, we found ourselves emulating Iron Chef judges, saying things like, “It’s a little pungent, but the texture is ferocious. What an effervescent combination of starches and dairy.” I’ll admit that it was mostly Craig and I taking such a hoity-toity road to doing something as simple as eating lunch, and it clearly started to work Kyle’s nerves towards the end. By Day 4 at the Mine Company, Kyle was rolling his eyes and shaking his head. “It’s food. Eat it!” Then we’d compare him to his old high school boss—a farmer with taste buds about as picky as a drunk frat kid looking for an easy lay—who used to say things like, “Are you full? Did it fill you up? Then shut up about the taste.”

It’s already becoming clear that Kyle’s going to be a cranky old man. Also, Craig and I are developing a rather superfluous vocabulary in terms of describing the credits and shortcomings of food. So, everybody wins.

Birthplace of the Hamburger – There’s no questioning that the hamburger is an American creation, but it seems nobody knows for sure where exactly in America the burger came from. There are people in Texas and Connecticut staking claims on the iconic invention, but only one man—in this case Charles “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin—can be the winner.

To be fair, there’s no end-all proof that Nagreen was The Guy, but circumstantial evidence points to his having been the first guy to roll ground beef into patties and serve it between two buns. Amazingly, he’s reported to have done this in 1885. When he was fifteen years old.

There’s a monument in Seymour to Nagreen, something a burger mascot for the little town just outside of Green Bay, but no information whatsoever about who he was or what he did. All that stuff I just talked about I had to look up on the internet, which as well all know is just about as credible as a source can get.

But at least there was something by way of explanation for the gigantic grill across the street—the one with a huge fiberglass burger sitting on top. At one point the town grilled the largest hamburger in history with the good people at Guinness handy to mark it as a record. The enormous grill is still there, but alas, no free hamburgers.

Actually, there’s no special restaurant in town to grab a burger or anything, so when you go it’s just to see the statue and the grill, which takes all of four minutes. At least last year when we went to the birthplace of the cheeseburger (calm down—this Kentucky diner just thought to add cheese, and it’s closed down now anyway) there were cheeseburgers to be eaten. It was probably for the better considering I still had about six pounds of “Italian Fries” digesting in my gut at the time.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Runnin' Wild, Day 3 (Part 3)

The Bear and the Eau Claire Hotel Fiasco of ’09 – There were, just driving south through Wisconsin on the way to our hotel for the evening, when it happened. We had come very close to smacking into deer on two or three separate occasions over the course of the day, so our eyes were pretty peeled for more of the same as we finished our daily driving. Ultimately, however, it was not a deer responsible for the closest call of the evening, but a full-grown black bear.

Of course I was the one driving, when Cole pointed to the median and exclaimed uncertainly, “Uhhhh, bear?” As the driver of course I’d seen the bear, too, but somehow didn’t quite believe it was happening. After spending almost ten hours in the car that day, driving through rain and the upper peninsula of Michigan, I wondered if maybe I was just seeing things. A big, black, hairy mirage.

But it was no mirage, and our good friend Yogi decided to bolt across the highway just about twenty yards in front of Kyle’s poor little Elantra, which certainly would have died a cruel and horrible death had it run into the giant bear. As Cole would tell it, the bear was at least 400 pounds. Can you believe we saw a bear that was 500 pounds? I know! A 600 pound bear!

Luckily, we and the bear and Kyle’s car all survived, but when the big guy arrived at the edge of the woods safely, I could’ve sworn he looked back at me with vengeance in his big brown eyes. “You almost HIT me!” he said silently with that look on his face. We slowed down a bit hoping to get a picture, but as soon as he flashed those crazy eyes I pressed on the gas. It was cool and everything, but not worth dying over just to get a picture. Seriously. A friggin’ BEAR.

We had hoped to end the night in Eau Claire (pronounced “Oh Claire”), and had a hotel room booked through Priceline at the Sleep Inn, which ended up being more difficult to locate than Amelia Earhart’s remains in the damn Bermuda Triangle. We spent 45 minutes driving around looking for the place, going 5-7 miles in just about every direction before finally locating it. “Oh,” the hotel clerk told us, “GPS always sends people to the wrong location. Weird, huh?”

Oh, chuckle chuckle. How hilarious. We just laughed and laughed about that. Exhausted after a full day in the car, 9:30 at night, that’s just hilarious. Hardy har. In any event, we’re here now, so give us our room please. We’d like to swim in the pool and relax.

“Um…” the clerk said, “It appears that your request for a hotel room has been cancelled.”

I’m a man with a reasonable temper. I think you have to be in order to educate high school children for a living. But right here I lost it. Went crazy. Biggest ball of twine JFK crazy. Priceline naturally had it on record that the reservation was accepted, but the Sleep Inn did not. I spent an hour on the phone trying to figure it out, but eventually, since the Sleep Inn had literally zero vacancy to resolve the issue peacefully, we had to leave and find ourselves a new hotel. After all that—and I’m not doing any justice to the level of frustration I felt that night—we left.

As it turns out, the AmericInn was our savior. We didn’t walk into the lobby until five minutes ‘til 11:00, which was five minutes before the pool was set to close, but the awesome clerk there kept it open for us, which ended up ruling because they had a basketball hoop set up in their pool. Two-on-two in the water is an exhausting game, but having sat down in a car so much that day it was exactly what we needed. Most comfortable hotel beds of the entire trip, too.

And so ended the worst day in road trip history. We were bound for a bummer eventually. Luckily for us, Day 4 was an extremely redemptive 24 hours, and before we knew it everything was right back on track.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Runnin' Wild, Day 3 (Part 2)

Da Yoopers Tourist Trap – Ugh. That’s all there really is to say about this place. Originally our intention was to go and snap a few pictures with the World’s Largest Chainsaw and the World’s Largest Shotgun, but there was supposed to be other things to do there, too. Because there’s literally nothing to do in the U.P. we would drive like three hours between stops and hope to have at least fifteen minutes to do something fun before hopping back into the car again.

Hence, we spent way more time at Da Yoopers than we probably should have.

After the chainsaw and shotgun, we explored the backyard of the gift shop, which was supposed to be decorated with fun and tasteless photo opportunities. Instead, it was mostly us walking in the rain to take pictures with stuffed dear in people clothes and creepy scarecrows with rubber masks. To this day I have no idea what the overlying theme of that place was supposed to be, but it creeped the crap out of us all.

Definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, this place was funless. We couldn’t even get a kick out of the ridiculousness of it all. It just felt like we’d walk into some creepy old man’s backyard and we could be murdered at any time. So we left, not yet realizing that the whole “creepy old man/potential murder” feeling was just a precursor to what we’d experience later in the day. Da Yoopers only gave off that impression, when in reality it was just a silly gift shop. There would come a time before the sun set when we would actually fear for our lives.

Giant Hiawatha Statue – Ironwood, Michigan is sort of the last stop in the upper peninsula before hitting Wisconsin, and to be honest we sort of couldn’t wait to escape that wretched stretch of state. But before we could leave, there was the issue of photographing ourselves with the gigantic statue of Hiawatha on the edge of town.

Nowhere could we determine why this statue was built, but nearby there was a little sign claiming it had something to do with the mining of iron ore. Again with the iron ore. Personally, I see no connection between Hiawatha and mining for minerals, but I also have zero knowledge of Michigan’s history, outside of Melonheads and the guy who bludgeoned his wife to death with his false leg.
It was, at least, the largest attraction of the trip—on par with the giant bull we visited with Kevin in Iowa back in ’06, but beyond it being huge there really wasn’t much to see. And, of course, it was still raining.

At the gas station in town we filled up at a pump that didn’t take a credit card outside. It was one of those oldschool pumps that looks strikingly similar to Johnny 5 from “Short Circuit.” Talk about backwoods. Inside we filled up on beef jerky and water, and Kyle accidentally stole a camouflage baseball cap. The woman at the counter forgot to ring it up apparently, and Kyle was off with six dollars worth of stolen merchandise. Sinner.

By the time we hit the “Now Entering Wisconsin” sign just a couple of miles away, our enthusiasm couldn’t be contained. We did that crescendo of yells that children do when heading into a new state. Peace out, U.P. I can safely say that I will never purposefully visit you again.

World’s Largest Ball of Twine – If we have learned anything from past experiences of “World’s Largest” items, the people that assemble these things have to be at least a little nuts. There’s a certain sort of obsession behind these concoctions that fully sane people can’t even begin to understand. Personally, I can’t imagine collecting loose twine for 30 years and forming into a ball that weighs almost 20,000 pounds, but the real JFK apparently can. And thank God for that.

The “real” JFK is not John Fitzgerald Kennedy, as many of us would assume, but instead is a kind, relatively toothless old gent from northern Wisconsin named James Frank Kotera that’s been assembling this monstrosity of twine since 1979.

Located miles away from any major road, amidst rows and rows of tall trees, Kotera’s home and twine ball sit literally in the middle of nowhere. When we pulled into his gravel driveway, the old, beaten up home looked unoccupied, so we emptied ourselves from the car, trekked through the backyard to the little pavilion housing the ball, and began snapping pictures. After a few minutes of this, reading the incomprehensible signs and wandering around the enormous structure, Kyle got a nervous look on his face and said, “Uhh, guys…” as JFK himself emerged from the house.

Forget that we were technically trespassing, and that Kotera looked like one of the bad guys from “Deliverance,” this took us all by surprise. But he just moseyed on out, seemingly as friendly as can be, and began telling us the life story of the world’s largest ball of twine.

It should be noted here that I was not afraid of the guy, even if Kyle, Cole, and Craig were nearly pissing themselves in anxiety. Sure, Kotera was either a little slow or a little nuts, proven when he brought out his 45-pound mini twine ball named “Junior” for picture opportunities, but he seemed to me perfectly harmless. However, after receiving one of his “business cards,” which as it turns out was an eight-page autobiography written in stylistic chicken scratched and plastered to a large piece of cardboard with black electrical tape, the fellas were more than convinced he was certifiably insane and most likely planning to kill each and every one of us. After shaking his hand and re-entering our car to leave, I sat there and began typing in the next destination in the GPS. After only a few seconds JFK reemerged with another “business card” (this one an entirely different story), and Kyle told me to screw the GPS and just get the hell away from there.

So I had drive two miles in what ended up being the wrong direction just so I could figure out how to get to our hotel for the night. The guys expected JFK to end up running 60mph alongside our car at any point, only to jump onto our hood and rip his hairy fist through the roof of the car. I knew he’s just an erratic old man finding an odd passion for his life and going with it. The guy was harmless.

The bear was not.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Runnin' Wild, Day 3 (Part 1)

The Mystery Spot – We had a case of the Mondays. It rained all damn day and, as it turns out, Michigan’s upper peninsula is probably the lamest stretch of land in the continental United States. But does that stop four idiots from making the best of it? Come on, you know us better than that…

Just down the road from our Super 8 lay our first two attractions of the day, but the Mystery Spot came first. Advertisements at the hotel and billboards along the road really didn’t give us much of an indication as to what, exactly, a mystery spot is, but we assumed that this was sort of the point. Secretly, I worried that it would be as lame or lamer than the “Top Secret” attraction my wife and I visited in Wisconsin Dells a few years ago. Outside, it’s the White House upside down, and they don’t tell you anything about what’s inside. Turns out that inside is also the White House upside down. We paid $12 and were in and out in like seven minutes.

Well, the Mystery Spot wasn’t quite so disappointing. An affable young man gave us the tour of what ended up being some sort of freak of physics in the middle of the Michigan woods. Apparently, iron ore in the ground screws with gravity somehow, so the combination of that and a small shanty built at a 45-degree angle creates all sorts of interesting photo opportunities.

Personally, I don’t buy into the whole iron-ore-defies-gravity thing. I think the goofiness of the crooked building is what makes the spot so cool, but whatever the case I was genuinely dizzy and nauseous once inside the little tilted shack. The photos and video we got were, sadly, one of the highlights of the day.

It was a reasonable start to the day, but as the rain continued to pour and the U.P. continued to suck, it was a bit difficult to keep our spirits high. Eventually, things would get so horrible there’d be nothing to do but laugh.

Weird Michigan Wax Museum – Before the storm, though, there was just a drizzle as we entered the Weird Michigan Wax Museum just across the street from the Mystery Spot. Our previous experience with a wax museum was in 2005, when Kyle, Ed, and I made a visit to the Bible Wax Museum in central Ohio, and that easily would’ve been the most boring thing in road trip history were it not for us scaring the urine out of Ed in the dark display room, and the creepy churchy tour guide with the dangly cross earring who hung out in the men’s bathroom afterwards and asked us if we enjoyed the attraction.

Knowing that we turned nothing into something the last time around, we felt this particular wax museum would provide us with similar fun stories for the road.

It did not. At least, not things that happened to us personally. What it did provide was a couple of stories from Michigan’s weird history (as advertised) that we’d take with us. Most notably, there was a display of a one-legged man bludgeoning his wife to death with his false leg. That was rather quaint, we felt.

The last of the room’s wax displays told the story of Melonheads, which were some sort of freak human retards with giant heads that escaped an asylum around the turn of the century and now roam the woods of the area. Despite the fact that the mannequins looked more like a cheap display at a Halloween megastore than something legitimately frightening, the story itself struck a cord. What a fantastic scary movie that would make! Uninspired horror film writers could very easily put together a decent film if they’d just do a little research.

Was it worth $7? Probably not. But one thing we’ve learned about road trips is that it’s not about how fun each individual attraction is, but how they all form together like the Power Rangers’ robot dinosaurs to make a huge robot dinosaur. As a whole, would “Runnin’ Wild” be complete without a really horrible wax museum? Again—probably not.

Muldoon’s Pasties – First things first: the word “pasties” is pronounced “past-ee’s,” not “paste-ee’s” like you’d imagine. Apparently yoopers aren’t particularly fond of phonics. In any event, these little pot-less pot pies were supposed to be very tasty (tass-tee?), so we located what was supposed to be the best pasty place in the U.P. and gave them a try.

Driving the most of the morning along Route 2, which skirts the northern end of Lake Michigan for miles and miles, you’d be lucky to drive 10 minutes without passing some sort of pasties dive. Without exception, every single one of these places looks like a little shack with a hand-painted sign on the side advertising the food within. These are tiny places that seat maybe somewhere between six and twenty people, but the owners make everything from scratch, so it only makes sense that a homemade meal be eaten a home-like atmosphere.

Muldoon’s in Munising was voted the best pasties in the upper peninsula (by whom, we never really did get a straight answer—we assumed by the Muldoon’s Pasties Organization or something similarly ridiculous), so that’s where we ate. The food was, by all measurable standards, both delicious and hearty, though not really the sort of meal you’ll have sex dreams about. That’s reserved for huevos rancheros.

By definition, a pasty is a mixture of either beef or chicken, then potatoes, carrots, onions, and rutabagas folded into a pie crust and baked. Once on the plate they look rather imposing but hit the spot nicely. Gravy is the favorite topping of such delicacies, but ketchup, hot sauce, or ranch dressing are apparently other options as toppings as well.

At the end of lunchtime we left full and happy, and the woman behind the counter serving us was really friendly and had perhaps the strongest north woods Canadien-esque accent we experienced the whole trip. We left to her saying, “Thanks for stopping oot, yah? Come back whenever you want, eh?”

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Runnin' Wild, Day 2 (Part 2)

Mirrormaze and the Laser Challenge – Towns like Frankenmuth seem to pop up every 100 miles or so all throughout Michigan and Wisconsin. Designed as touristy, kitschy-European-themed towns, most of these places have main streets lined with fudge and cheese stores, maybe a small winery or a smattering of antique/craft places for garnish. The facades of these storefronts are usually extremely colorful caricatures of what a real Austrian/German/Bavarian/Swiss building would look like, but that’s the way American tourists like it. Who needs actual Germany when it’s cheesy bastard cousin is just right upstate?

Tucked away in one little pseudo-Austrian complex, between a Wisconsin-themed gift shop and a place that sold variously tanned and branded leather, lay a small attraction clearly designed for children—an oasis of fun in the midst of what must be a hell-like desert for anybody under the age of 12. The Mirrormaze and Laser Challenge seemed to hold a lot of potential, which is why we invested in both activities the little game center had to offer. Only one of them would eventually pay off.

The Mirrormaze is essentially a labyrinth of archways, some of which are openings to the maze itself and others that are merely crystal-clear mirrors meant to confound and confuse you. The website made it seem like this maze would take hours and hours to escape, and the photograph it offered made the place seem huge. Of course, as we learned at the Museum of Magic, few things trick the eye more effectively than a high quality mirror.

In truth, the whole thing took us about three minutes to navigate. It was a solid 180 seconds of fun, and for a while we were legitimately weirded out in the dark, prismatic passages. But once the path was discovered we realized we were doing a maze intended for kindergartners. Severe disappointment.

But then there was the laser challenge, which is essentially a room of lasers not unlike what you’d see James Bond maneuver acrobatically en route to the jewel safe secured in a villain’s headquarters. One would have to contort his body very carefully to avoid setting off the hypothetical alarm, and since we are all grown men (at least according to our numerical ages) we had entirely more with this than was probably necessary.

Helping us stay motivated in our quest to overcome the Laser Challenge was a timer and a leaderboard, at the top of which was a small child who ripped through the whole thing in just over ten seconds. The legend goes that she spent six hours in that room one day figuring it out. It should be noted that none of us did better than about two minutes. Not helping our huge, awkward man bodies was the fact that every laser you touched tacked on 30 seconds to your final score. I, let me just tell you, sucked at it.

But Cole did not. Somehow he crawled under the lowest lasers and leapt over the highest ones to post the best score of all of us. At one point I just said, “Screw it” and did some sort of front flip/summersault through the room, hoping I’d get lucky. I finished in about three seconds but triggered damn near every laser in the place. Needless to say, it was my best score of the day.

The Cheese Haus – Seeing as how we were surrounded by stores selling cheese and fudge, we wandered into the biggest and reportedly most famous one in town, right up the street from our previous location. The lure for us was the giant mouse just outside (because what’s a road trip without pictures of us standing next to giant stuff?), but there were also rumors that within this Haus of Cheese lie free samples. As growing boys, the temptation of a free snack was just too much.

There was bacon cheese, garlic cheese, jalapeño cheese, strawberry cream cheese, and even chocolate cheese (which tasted more like chocolate cheesecake than chocolate cheddar, for the record), all of which earned the full attention of our taste buds. There were processed meats shaped like all sorts of things, and various microbrewed beers that were all entirely too expensive.

We didn’t buy a thing.

Next door, however, everyone except me rang their charge cards through the register of the saltwater taffy place. I’ll admit freely that what drew me into the store was the undulating pull of pink taffy in the window. Few things are more mesmerizing than one of those taffy pullers, as the fluffy pink candy folds over itself over and over into saltwatery goodness. Besides, little candy places like that make good stuff, even if the prices are a little steep. Come to think of it, it’s probably the quality of the stuff that makes the prices so steep in the first place. In any event, candy trumps cheese every time, and that’s exactly what happened as we wrapped up our stay in the delightfully tacky Frankenmuth, Michigan.

Skalawags – At the very tip-top of the Michigan mainland is the small port town of Mackinaw City. I call it a port town without having any real knowledge as to whether or not it is, in fact, a port town—or even what a port town technically is—but it just felt very clean and fresh and watery. Mackinac Island, a short ferry ride away, is allegedly one of the more beautiful areas in the state, but back on land things weren’t so shabby either.

A city surrounded by water on three sides is bound to capture some delicious fish, which is the specialty of a little restaurant called Skalawags. Anybody who dislikes fried fish and chips can’t be wholly American, and the goods at this particular eatery were, well… good. Not great necessarily, especially by the culinary standards set earlier on in this trip, but good. It’s hard to go wrong with hushpuppies.

We ended the evening at a Super 8 Motel in St. Ignace, which is right across the Mackinac Bridge from the restaurant. The bridge itself is the third longest in the United States and the twelfth longest in the world, and actually offers an extremely gorgeous view of Lake Michigan on the left and Lake Huron on the right. It’s nowhere near as imposing and iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge, but it’s just about as long and probably just a little bit more useful. Connecting the two sections of Michigan state is an important job. Also, isn’t Michigan weird? A double state? Shouldn’t it be two states, like North Dakota and South Dakota? I’m just sayin’…

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Runnin' Wild, Day 2 (Part 1)

Motown’s Hitsville USA – Detroit, sometimes called the Motor City, which can be shortened to Motown, is where Berry Gordy redefined pop music in the 1960s. When you look at the list of classic black musicians that sprung forth from Gordy’s Motown Record label over the years, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of historical spookiness standing on the front stoop of the building where all these legends recorded their music.

The steps we walked up so casually where the same steps used by the following groups and artists to put hits onto records in Hitsville USA’s Studio A: Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers, and the Jackson 5, among others.

Sounds epic, right? Too bad the damn place was closed on Sundays and we didn’t get a chance to tour the studio. Last year’s go-round at Sun Studio in Memphis was a highlight, and one has to think this would’ve been cool, too. But what can you do? Closed is closed. At least we got to do the whole walking-up-the-same-steps-as-legends thing.

The Henry Ford Museum – Aside from the fact that Henry Ford revolutionized both the automobile and the assembly line (notice I didn’t say “invent,” because he invented neither), but he also was a pretty passionate anti-Semite. Yup, the hero of Detroit hated Jews, and knowing that I supported the Ford estate by ponying up $12 for a ticket to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Despite my clear aversion to Ford as a human being, this very well could have been the most memorable aspect of this year’s trip, if only for a handful of eerily historical exhibits. If the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile was the centerpiece of the day, then other, more macabre artifacts like the limo John F. Kennedy was assassinated in and the Fords Theater chair Abe Lincoln was sitting in when John Wilkes Booth popped him in the back of the head were both close seconds.

Perhaps the deepest emotions I felt all morning were on the bus Rosa Parks made her famous stand for black rights. The museum actually lets you board the bus (THE bus—not a replica) while a narrator tells the story through speakers. At one point, when the rest of the guys had moved on to other parts of the building, I stayed behind and sat on the bus, listening to Parks share her account of what happened that day. Some call me a history nerd for loving this sort of thing so deeply, but as I sat there replaying the whole scene over with the bus’s interior spread out in front of me, I couldn’t fight back the goosebumps. No joke here. It was awesome, as in absolutely awe-inspiring.

But if you think for one moment that all the four of us did for two hours was walk observantly through old cars with our hands behind our backs, you’re wrong. We’re not refined enough to experience museums in such a way. As part of the “Cars of Rock Stars” exhibit there was a Guitar Hero station set up, and Kyle—something of a Guitar Hero impresario—hopped aboard and rocked the whole west wing of the building. No one was really paying attention, but he pretended like he did, which was what made it so hilarious.

The whole ordeal was enough to work our appetites into a tizzy, so we drove to a nearby suburb to eat what would eventually be the most delicious food of the entire adventure…

The Fly Trap – I’ve had huevos rancheros maybe once in my life previous to visiting the Fly Trap in Ferndale, Michigan, but I can tell you that I’ll probably never have it again. Not because I didn’t enjoy it—believe me, I really, REALLY enjoyed it—but because no huevos rancheros will over hold a candle to what I ate on the morning of Sunday, June 7th, 2009. It was a day I shall never forget.

The building itself is barely bigger than an oversized walk-in closet, and there was a little bit of a wait for us once we got there (it was no surprise for us to see a diner be packed on a Sunday after church services let out), but once we got in it was hard not to be impressed. The special of the day, which Kyle ended up ordering, was biscuits and gravy, except the biscuits were of the cheddar persuasion, and the gravy tasted more like butter sauce than anything. Out of control. Absolutely out of control.
My own dish, which I think I’ve already mentioned, was scrambled eggs served on a bed of black beans, pico de gallo, loads of sticky cheese, and a healthy dollop of sour cream. A few drips of the restaurants signature hot sauce made the dish one of the holiest culinary combinations I’ve ever had the witness to savor.

As if the food weren’t good enough, the owner was so impressed with out awesome road trip shirts (guess who designed those?) and the Fly Trap’s spot on what we were wearing, that they gave us free hot sauce and t-shirts. Never in the history of road trips has our road trippedness earned us free stuff. Talk about a highlight—this was probably the second-best restaurant I’ve ever eaten at, behind only Memphis’s deliciously delectable Cozy Corner BBQ. The Detroit ‘burbs have a real gem in the Fly Trap. I’m salivating just thinking about the food again. Mmm… huevos rancheros…

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Runnin' Wild, Day 1 (Part 2)

Hell, Michigan – Oh, the fun we had with all the ironic wordplay here. Quips like, “Hell is a lot nicer than I would’ve though,” or “The road to Hell is a windy one,” or “I’ll see you in Hell!” And so on. The drive there was just about as fun as actually being there. Interestingly enough, our GPS had no record of Hell, Michigan even being an actual town, so we had to sort of float around that part of the state for a while looking for it. Finally, tucked away somewhere in between Jackson and Ann Arbor, we found the little town with a population of about 300 and had our way with it.

The main attraction was an ice cream parolor named, fittingly, “Screams.” Inside were all sorts of witty t-shirts and keychains and other gift-shoppy keepsakes tattooed with “Hell” all over them. So we did what we do at a place like this—take lots of pictures to prove we had been to Hell and back.

Get it?

Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger – Food is such an important part of these trips, and restaurants are hand-picked to ensure that we got the most out of each and every meal. We had to visit the University of Michigan campus to get it for our first dinner of the trip.

The Blimpy Burger was featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives”—a show we trust blindly, as if Guy Fieri were the only person on the face of the planet capable of making intelligent restaurant decisions. The catch here is that you can order your burger in any of a number of ways, with all sorts of special toppings and ingredients. Craig, for example, got a fried egg on his burger. Cole got mushrooms and feta cheese. Me, I got my burger and lower bun placed gently into a paper boat and drowned in chili before being crowned with the head of the bun.

You know it’s a great spot when there’s Sprecher root beer in the cooler. We all washed the delicious goods down with some of that, picked the remnants of burger and feta and egg from our collective craws, and headed to Detroit Rock City, our final destination of the evening.

Tiger’s Game – Comerica was MLB ballpark number nine for hermano and I, headlined by the two Chicago stadiums, Busch in St. Louis, Miller in Milwuakee, Kauffman in Kansas City, the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Jacobs Field in Cleveland, and the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. Of all of them, Comerica ranked pretty high on the list.

Granted, the Tigers as an organization are nowhere near my favorite team, but Comerica as a ballpark was more than affable. It is, for example, the only stadium I’ve ever been to with a full-sized, working carousel within its walls. Not that a carousel should say anything about the quality of a park, but I’m just sayin’. Other highlights of the actual building included gigantic plaster tiger sculptures and some seriously bitchin’ bronze statues lining the concourse beyond center field.

Our bleacher seats were second row in left center, which offered us a pretty tight view of the game. To keep ourselves interested throughout the contest, we devised a game where each of us put $5 into The Pot before the game, then passed a half-dollar around all night from one of us to the next as batters stepped up to the plate. The first person to be holding the coin when a homerun was hit would receive the entire pot—until the next homerun was hit. Then the pot money would be transferred to the new winner. The last guy to have the dough when the game ends, keeps it.

The only problem with this was that nobody hit any homeruns all game long. We still had fun hoping and wishing, though, and the fireworks display after the Detroit win made the $19 we spent on tickets more than worth the cost.

Downtown Detroit isn’t a bad-looking place, despite all the horrible things we’d been told about how cruddy the city is. Even at night the area surrounding the ballpark felt like a little mini Chicago in some ways, right down to the People Mover, which is their version of the El. It’s like two cars long, and considering the Red Wings were playing in the Stanley Cups Finals just down the road things were pretty smooshed, but overall there were no problems. No one robbed us at gunpoint, no one kidnapped us and forced us to get the Tigers’ Old English “D” tattooed onto our arms, and Eminem didn’t challenge us to any embarrassing freestyle rap battles down by 8 Mile Road. We just did our thing and headed back to the hotel for one of the worst nights’ sleeps in the history of road tripping.

We stayed at the Renaissance Center downtown, which is part of the complex that houses the GM building. It was a lovely building in its own right, but entirely circular and extremely confusing. For being so “nice” the beds were like sleeping on plywood, and worst of all there was some sort of commotion not unlike an argument from the show “Flava of Love” happening in a nearby room. Just loud, spirited shouting and cursing well into the night. We never did figure out the origin of the noise, but it was like falling asleep with the TV on and having the anger slip into your dreams. None of us slept, but after a lovely Day 1 it hardly mattered. There would be time for sleep later. For now, it was sweet(ish) dreams and preparation for the rest of the Michigan mainland.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Runnin' Wild, Day 1 (Part 1)

American Museum of Magic – The first stop of any road trip is usually a relatively surreal experience because it’s so hard to believe the whole thing has already begun. We clumsily nab the camera from its bag, mosey up to the storefront, and try to start enjoying ourselves, as if it’s ever that easy to just summon fun.

This “museum” was really just one store in a long line of other similar stores running along the main street of downtown Marshall, Michigan. Every wall inside the building was plastered with antique magic show advertisements, and the floor was decked with all sorts of magical paraphernalia which most notably included one of the three water tanks Harry Houdini used in one of his most famous escape acts. We weren’t allowed to get inside (we were barely allowed to touch it with our pointer finger), but it was still cool all the same.

Our tour guide was a nervous, intelligent red-headed woman dressed respectably for her relatively young age, but classlessly offset her outfit with the ever-popular calculator watch. But she was cool enough to let us explore a little more than most guests probably did, usually at our own ridiculous suggestion, and those explorations led to playing dress-up with intricate magicians’ jackets and performing tricks—I mean, illusions—with beautiful assistant mannequins.

Our biggest criticism was that although the room was filled to the brim with old tricks and props, the redhead wouldn’t tell us how any of them worked. She legitimately thought that if she spilled any secrets the Magicians’ Alliance would track her down and take her legs. When she told the story of that masked magician who reveals the secrets of magic on TV she seemed genuinely concerned, telling us about how he as to live in some sort of witness protection program and where a mask all the time like Michael Jackson’s kids.

She was, it’s probably safe to say, a bit of a nervous woman. But she allowed us to shake out of the road trip cobwebs and get the familiar rumblings of fun rolling. Before we knew it good times were spilling forth from us like things that spill forth from other things. It was, as they say, magic.

Dark Horse Brewery – With the loss of an hour heading into Michigan’s goofy Eastern time zone, lunch crept upon us more quickly than we’d expected, but our first planned stop for the culinary aspect of our adventures was a little wooden shanty tucked behind a sort of green warehouse where they brew Dark Horse beer.

The restaurant itself, with hand-kindled Dark Horse steins dangling from every low ceiling beam, served only pizzas and sandwiches, but we had been told the sandwiches was where it’s at. So we each ordered a different microbrew from the menu—all of which ended in a maelstrom of deliciousness—and sampled varied sandwiches.

Our waitress there was exceptionally cool, if not exceptionally speedy, for giving me loads of crap for ordering the Raspberry beer. Kyle and Craig ordered these heavy stouts that must have been like chewing alcoholic motor oil. Downing that sort of brew is apparently a true test of manhood. A test, by the way, I lost by adding fruit to my beer.

Kyle added to his collection of pint glasses by buying one in the gift shop from a gigantic man in a cutoff shirt, and then we hit the road, leaving Marshall for the next leg of our trip.

Armory Arts Village/Jackson Prison – My experiences with old prisons have been overwhelmingly positive, which was why we chose the former Jackson Prison as a stop on this year’s itinerary. Alcatraz in San Francisco is, of course, a fantastic historic prison, and the Ohio State Reformatory a.k.a. Shawshank is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen on any road trip, period.

The Jackson Prison, however, didn’t even come close to holding a candle to either of those. Not that there wasn’t potential for this to be cool, but because the jail has been converted into an artists’ community in the last 18 months, there’s no longer any of that old, dusty, brick-laden creepiness that the other old prisons just emanate.

Granted, the apartments built from the old cell blocks are undeniably badass lofts, the history left unscathed is extremely minimal. Our tour was given by a spiky, short-haired woman who spent the first 30 minutes of the hour “tour” lecturing to us about the history of the building without actually showing us anything. We literally sat in chairs for a half-hour.

The other half of the tour actually was relatively interesting, the most interesting of which was the basement, where solitary confinement used to be located. Michigan was the first state to abolish the death penalty, but prisoners who had previously been condemned to death didn’t just get dumped into gen-pop with the petty thieves; instead of dying they were stuck into solitary for the rest of their lives. It was twenty years before they realized that complete silence and darkness for two decades would drive people loony, and two-thirds of the prisoners who were finally removed from those cells were declared certifiably and irretrievably insane.

It had its cool moments, but for the most part the Jackson Prison was a bit of a disappointment. On the bright side, we later found out from another Jackson resident that just a couple weeks ago Ed Norton and Robert DeNiro just finished some filming at the jail for a big movie coming out next year. So there’s that, at least.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Top 5 Man Crushes

It’s hard to define the term “Man-Crush” without making it sound like something homosexual, but it’s really not. To me, a “Man-Crush” is something born of admiration. The following five guys are men I would, on some level, like to be. In some cases, I would totally be these people, and very much want to be these people. But in other cases I really don’t want to be them, but admire who they are and how they do what they do.

It should be noted that I don’t sit out these guys’ windows and watch them get into bed at night (anymore); I just wish I could turn myself into some hybrid of all of them so I could be fully awesome. Argue with this list. I dare you.

#5 – The Rock – Is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson somewhat irrelevant now? Absolutely he is. But back when he was doing his shtick with the WWF he was like the coolest guy I’d ever seen. The guy’s built like… well, like a professional wrestler… but he also played pro football, can sing, and is hilarious as well. Many, when he used to say he was going to turn things sideways and stick them straight up someone’s candy ass I used to just laugh and laugh. The eyebrow thing was awesome, too. Sure, his movies sucked, but does that mean I should love him less?

#4 – Dr. Gregory House – I get that he’s not technically a real person, and that Hugh Laurie (the actor that plays House) actually is a British comedian and not a devil-may-care gimpy doc with a penchant for insulting people whilst brilliantly solving cases across the board. I could live without the limp and addiction to pain killers, but I love watching someone be that good at a profession that specialized. I wish that I was instantly brilliant like that. I also wish I didn’t care what anyone thought of me. And most of all, I wish I had more really funny ways to insult those closest to me.

#3 – Brandon Boyd – With the recent release of “Black Heart Inertia” I’ve been rediscovering my love for Incubus. Not that it ever really retreated, but new songs just tend to reenergize me. You always like steak, for example, but when you don’t eat steak for a while and then get a juice 16-oz t-bone, it reminds you how much love you steak. For those of you who are a little slow when it comes to metaphors, Brandon Boyd is my steak.

I can’t say I have much desire for the gross dreadlock/molestache period of Boyd’s career, and he does more drugs than I’d care for, but his intelligence, artistic nature, and musical talent make him one of the best at what he does. If you’re still sleeping on Incubus, it’s time to wake the hell up. At the very least, buy “Make Yourself.” You won’t regret it.

#2 – Justin Timberlake – My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world, but Timberlake has “been” with some of the hottest broads in the business, from Cameron Diaz and Brittney Spears in their respective primes, to Scarlett Johanson and Jessica Biel. He even spent a couple months doinking Alyssa Milano, and none of this says anything for the multitudes of hot groupies he’s surely spent intimate time with over the years. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a resume.

But the fact that he can sing and dance so well helps too. I mean, it’s one thing to be pretty and get the ladies, but to have an actual talent bumps him up the list considerably. The dude’s just a stud. “Dick in a Box” and “Mother Lover” with Andy Samberg were the cherries on the proverbial sundaes for me.

#1 – Michael Jordan – My wife and I occasionally have discussions about what we would name future children (No, she’s not pregnant. Relax, gang), and the name Jordan came up the other night. In her mind it’s just a nice name for a boy; she suggested it and didn’t even make the connection. But if there’s a chance for me to name my little boy Jordan Brigham, you can best believe I’m jumping all over that. It’s His Airness, for goodness sake. I hear he’s a prick in real life (one of the only NBA players I have yet to add to my “Nice to Meet You” corral), but who cares. It’s Mike. I want to be like Mike.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Nice to Meet You #18 - Kobe Bryant

When it comes to all the NBA’s superstars, Kobe Bryant is probably the guy I know least well. If we’re being honest about it, Kobe couldn’t pick me out of a crowd of three people. Upon being asked, “Which of these three somewhat overweight, yet curiously attractive white twentysomethings is Joel Brigham?” he wouldn’t even know where to begin. If he did actually get it right, it would be due to the “curiously attractive” hint. But name alone? Not a prayer.

So what gives me the gumption to write a “Nice to Meet You” blog about a guy that I’ve only technically “met” twice—both as one of about 25 media members shoving microphones in his face? I don’t know. He’s Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are in the Finals again. I’m trying to be topical for cripe’s sake. Give me a break.

I can say this about Kobe—he walks, talks, and acts like he’s spent his entire life trying to emulate Michael Jordan. You don’t believe me, watch this YouTube video. Beyond the game, though, he has the same sort of cocky smirk and smooth, charismatic baritone. The swagger is similar, the facial expressions are similar, there’s just one thing…

This man ain’t no Michael Jordan.

Here’s the thing about Bryant that’s always bothered me: he’s actually seems like a really cool dude to be around, but when you talk to him you get the impression that he only seems that way. Does that make sense? He’s so great in front of a camera—very patient and friendly—but I have no idea what he’s like behind the proverbial curtain. Somehow you get the feeling that it’s all a show.

But it’s mean of me to say such things considering he’s never been anything but nice to me and the people I work for. I’ve got a number of Kobe-bashing friends who would have me skinned for apologizing, but I’m just not the kind of dude who wants to see Kobe suffer. Truth be told, I’d love to see him win a Shaq-Free ring this month. I really would.

He’s arguably the greatest player of his generation, so who cares if he’s actually nice or only pretending. It’s still Kobe, and if he asked me to party with him, I totally would. So what if that invitation will never come? At least I’ll always be curiously attractive.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Redemption of the Afro Ninja

Daniel Tosh is my favorite. The best parts are when he calls a certain celebrity "Horse Face," and at the end when the afro ninja attempts to redeem himself. Laughed out loud at least three different times during this spot.

Tosh.0Thurs June 4th, 10pm / 9c
Preview - Afro Ninja: Redemption
Joke of the DayStand-Up ComedyFree Online Games

It's Jemaine! I mean, Dr. Ronald Chevalier...

And, of course, a video about funny cats:

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

DYK - In God We Spend

So here’s a question for you—if there’s supposed to be a separation of Church and State, why does our money say “In God We Trust,” and why is the phrase “One Nation Under God” included in the Pledge of Allegiance?

In the first place, it should be noted that the phrase “Separation of Church and State” is not located anywhere in the Constitution. At all. Jefferson wrote about it in a letter about how the idea relates to the first amendment freedom of religion. And how does it relate to our freedom of religion? Well, the idea is that the government and education system should not push or advertise any one religion to the masses. Keep the Church out of State matters. And you’ve got to admit, that’s not the worst idea in the world. Read “The Crucible” to see what happens when the Bible is used for evidence in court.

But even still, if we’re supposed to be about freedom of religion in this country, then we should be tolerant of those who don’t believe in any sort of god at all, right? With these people in mind, is it constitutional to have that phrase on our money, or that phrase in our pledge?

In regards to the pledge, the rules have already changed for some schools in America. Just like “sitting Indian-Style” has become “sitting criss-cross applesauce,” a lot of kids in younger generations just leave “one nation under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. That’s probably the most appropriate measure. Parents who want to teach their kids otherwise can do so at home. At school, with a mixture of all different religions and whatnot, things stay sober so nobody feels left out.

As for “In God We Trust” and its relation to our currency, it first appeared on bills during the Lincoln presidency, but Teddy Roosevelt—a devout Christian—tried getting it lifted during his own term because he felt like having God’s name on money was sacrilegious. Nowadays die-hard conservatives would call taking the name OFF the money was sacrilegious. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

The bottom line is that all of the original permanent settlements in America were Christian in some denomination or another. So were several of the founding fathers. The men that put together our Constitution believed in Christian values, and certainly there are echoes of that in the system of government that they set up. But that freedom of religion means it’s okay not to believe the way the founding fathers did. Do what you want to do, but I guarantee that no atheist is throwing away dollar bills just because it has God’s name on it. It spends the same as anything else, and it’s all green, baby.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Day I Retired

When the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Orlando Magic the other night, putting them out of contention for this year’s NBA championship, LeBron James just walked off the court and didn’t come back. Didn’t talk to media, teammates, anybody. Showered, got dressed, and hustled out of the arena like he was being chased to the team bus by bears.

And you know what? I understand. The man was embarrassed on the highest stage in professional basketball in front of millions of viewers. When that sort of embarrassment happened to me in front of only eight of my closest friends, I almost gave up the game for good.

Truth be told, I didn’t touch a basketball for almost an entire year. That’s how scarring it was. Perhaps I should explain what “it” was. A man who loves hoops as much as I do doesn’t just give the sport up for no reason. It takes something extremely scarring to suffocate that sort of love. Truthfully, I’d just gotten to the end of my rope.

It should first be noted that playing basketball was the first thing I’d ever had any success with in my life as a result of serious practice. Singing came easily, acting came easily, comedy came easily, so I participated in those things. Piano was difficult, archery was difficult, tetherball was difficult, so I did not participate in those things. Tried, but gave up very quickly.

Basketball was something else, though. Maybe it had something to with growing up in Chicago’s backyard during an era when Michael Jordan was the most transcendent athlete the world had seen since Mohammed Ali, but the game was just something I loved. So, even though as a sixth-grader I was only slightly taller than that creepy midget dad on crutches from “Little People Big World,” I still worked my butt of because I wanted to play.

I’d lay on the floor practicing the proper wrist-flick for shooting. Over and over again, ball goes up, ball comes down. I’d spend hours in my neighbors oversized driveway doing dribble drills—through the legs, behind the back, “The Spider,” and I’d be out there until my lower back was sore from leaning over all day. My buddy Jimmy and I would lower his adjustable rim to where we could dunk it, and that’s where I’d practice jumping. We even played with older black kids who were way stronger and way better than us, just to get the hang of things.

Always overmatched, often scared, and usually inept, I went through all the motions summer and after summer. It helped, of course, that I grew several inches by eighth grade, and by then I was experiencing some success in school ball, even though stylistically I was more a Harlem Globetrotter than a Chicago Bull. The coaches didn’t like that, and eventually it put me on the bench.

I was sore about it, but deep down I knew I was pretty good. I could dribble with the best of them and shoot the ball from pretty much anywhere on the court. I’m known for my showy passing, which more often than not bounces of someone’s face or misses the target completely en route to “out of bounds.” What I can’t do is play defense or “be strong.” Which is what got me into trouble the night I decided to retire from the game basketball.

So how, after devoting years of my life to honing my skills as a baller could I just quit. Well, quite simply, I was dunked on.

That doesn’t sound too bad, but trust me, it was. I was involved at an intramural league in college with black roommates, and we were a pretty solid group of guys. Definitely won more than we lost—that much I can say with confidence. But we also wore the baggiest shorts in the league and were known to play the least orthodox brand of basketball of any team. My black friends are great people, and absolutely hilarious, so it was almost always a fun time.

Except for the night we played against some fraternity with a light-skinned kid towering over just about all of us. He could shoot, play D, and dunk the damn ball, so we stuck our best defender on him. I can’t remember which of us that was, but I’m positive it wasn’t me. I usually guarded the chunky white kid who hovered around the three-point line in his little cut-off t-shirt and never made any attempt to hustle or make cuts.

But on fast breaks defensive assignments mean nothing. Mr. Light Skin got a steal, and I was the only one with a chance of stopping him. So I took off after him and caught up five or six steps from the rim.

Then, everything went into slow motion, and I knew what was about to happen even before it actually happened. L.S. picked up the ball and took his two steps of momentum before rocketing towards the rim. Me—pale and unathletic—did the same, but the difference in height and hops resulted in him stuffing the ball in a pretty nice dunk, and me slamming my body into his, arms extended, while the ball came crashing down on my head.

There aren’t a lot of dunks in IM games, so his team was going bat-crap over the stupid play. My teammates were laughing their asses off. I can’t remember what happened the rest of the game, but that may have been the game-winning point. I don’t remember.

What I do remember is dressing much faster than everyone else and returning to the suite alone. The rest of the guys must’ve stayed back to play another game or something because I was there on my own for a while. After showering in frustration and wondering what it was about basketball I loved so much, I came to realize that I wasn’t really all that good at it. The dunk hadn’t been my only downfall that game; I’d missed a ton of shots, defensive assignments, and easy passes. Some nights you just play horrible, and this had been one of them. Except while most horrible nights are tolerable, this night ended with getting my head dunked on.

Also at the time the Bulls—my lifelong favorite sports team, period—were friggin’ awful, somehow adding to my overall frustration.

So, I got out of the shower, and retired from the game of basketball.

I left a note on the door for the guys expounding upon my decision, and I forget exactly what it said but I remember it being really formal and ridiculous. The guys loved it and told me I’d be back for more, thinking it was all some sort of ruse. But it wasn’t. They kept asking me to play and I kept declining. It wasn’t until the next school year (I’d be a junior) that I’d play again. I don’t know what got me back out there, but it wouldn’t be the end.

What does a guy do when he’s retired? I could’ve chosen to beef up on my piano or tetherball skills, but like I said, I’ve always hated practicing. My recent exploits in the game of basketball had proven this to me. Instead I devoted the majority of my time to my girlfriend at the time, something that proved to be a much worse choice than trying to block the dunk of an athletically pristine frat kid several inches taller than me.

But what is life but a collection of bad choices? The important thing is that we learn from them. In a way, it’s just like practicing a sport or an instrument. You make mistakes early on but learn from them and get better.

Me, I don’t have the patience for that. I’d rather just be good at it from the beginning. Of course, LeBron James was put on earth as the quintessence of athleticism and even he can’t seem to win a title. I guess the moral of the story is, whenever you fail at something, it’s best to just storm out and quit for a little while.

Hey, it worked for me.