Monday, December 12, 2011


On my way to work the other morning, my bus driver stopped and waited through a couple traffic lights. Normally I find it quite annoying to just sit stalled while the rest of the metro passes us by, but I understand the reason for it. Unfortunately, the lady in front of me did not.

"What's the holdup?" she snapped.

"I'm ahead of schedule," the driver replied.

"Well, I'M not!"

"Sorry, we just have to wait."


She then proceeded to whip out her phone and loudly declare to the person who answered (and all of us) that she was GOING TO BE LATE THIS MORNING because her bus was RUNNING BEHIND.

Now, I've been riding metro transit daily for 7 years, and 98% of the time I'm in my desk chair at 8:55 on the dot. However, riding the bus does not guarantee you arrive at your destination on time, any more than taking a taxi or driving your own car. And I include the train in this, because no mass transit system is immune from obstacles that can crop up to complicate your commute.

I don't understand why some bus riders have such unreasonable expectations. You just paid $2 to essentially have a personal chauffeur drive your ass to work while you sleep, chat, or text rather than fighting through rush hour, paying for gas and parking, and putting excess miles on your vehicle. Granted, that chauffeur cares nothing about your personal comfort and will leave you behind if you're 10 seconds late, but still, it's a bit magical, on par with being able to mail a letter to literally anyone in America for around 40 cents.

I especially don't understand it when people suddenly stand up mid-ride and are shocked to learn that the bus they boarded isn't going exactly where they want it to. They're typically real bastards about it, too, as if the driver just changed his mind and chose a destination that wasn't clearly indicated in lights above his windshield. I'm utterly baffled by this. You can't just leap on a random mode of transport and assume it's headed in your general direction. It would be the equivalent of me running to the airport, boarding the first plane I saw, and then being irate that it wasn't, in fact, going to France.

Because then I'd have to whip out my phone and loudly declare that I COULDN'T TAKE TWO SECONDS TO READ A SCHEDULE and the pilot could not READ MY MIND OR CHANGE COURSE, which I find highly UNREASONABLE.

I bet complaints like that sound even better in French.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cluck You

This story comes to me by way of a friend of a friend, so I can't take credit for much more than just repeating it ... but I think it's worth repeating.

So this person goes into a certain fast food establishment and is waiting in line. The rather large woman ahead of her orders two buckets of chicken. Without thinking, the cashier asks, "For here or to go?"

The woman, shocked, berates the employee, asking whether the cashier actually thinks she's going to sit down in the restaurant and eat two whole buckets of fried chicken by herself.

In response, the cashier simply yells, "Bitch, I don't know your life!"

Monday, November 28, 2011

Not Sponge-worthy

I just read the following one-star review for a memory foam bath pillow on I officially love this reviewer:

Want to know what the secret to the "memory foam" this project boasts? Some of the "wicking" technology so prevalent in sports gear, perhaps? Or the stuff that makes the liquid disappear in diapers? Or the magic of those special "wings" in maxipads, for crap sake? Nope. It's a big ole sponge. It's a big ole sponge in a terry cloth cover. Terry cloth - which is commonly understood to be the sponge of the fabric world - wrapped around a big ole sponge. This thing soaks up about 5 pounds of bath water immediately and then drags those two desperate little suction cups that were supposed to hold it perched in place down to their watery grave. The poor little suckers didn't have a chance. And even if one of them does manage to hang on, the big ole sponge-wrapped-in-pseudosponge just slips off of it like a family-sized loaf of so much wet bread.

That was Sunday. Now it's Tuesday night and the loaf of bread slumped in my empty bathtub is just as wet, but really, really cold. Cold and wet and slumpy in the bottom of the tub. A real "Calgon, take me away" kind of allure... Want to know the secret to the "dry" in the "Microdry" this project boasts? Yeah. Me, too. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Holy Lola

Dining Date:  November 2011

On My Plate:  Fantastic house-made meatball starter, then "The Boise" pizza: thinly sliced potato, gruyere, caramelized onion, olive oil, and rosemary. Delish! Dessert was vanilla soft serve ice cream drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. Sounds crazy, tastes great.

Servers Rate:  Very friendly. The manager stepped out from behind the bar to chat with several patrons throughout the evening.

Fun Fact:  They have a photo booth in the back and an entire wall covered with strips to keep you entertained if you have to wait for a table . . . which you might, because this place is hopping. Plus, the mismatched, kitschy dinnerware is hand-picked from second-hand stores and estate sales.

The Damage:  Beware. You will probably want to try everything on the menu, not to mention the great selection of tap beer and wine. But at $10-$15 for a 1-2 person pizza and $8-$12 for apps, it could add up fast. Pace yourself.

The Verdict:  Pizzeria Lola is just too fun, warm, inviting, and inventive not to visit again. A lot of care has gone into crafting this tasty menu and laid-back ambiance. What a treat.

Earning My Interest

Dining Date:  November 2011

On My Plate:  This was a happy hour excursion, so I can't speak to the main dinner menu, but the pulled pork sliders (three of them for $4) were scrumptious. I also gave the Jamaican jerk chicken wings a try, though they were too spicy for my liking. Also on tap, a $4 Summit.

Servers Rate:  I've read some bad reviews slamming the service here, but our waitress was attentive. Granted, it was a Monday night and not exactly busy, but she was friendly and checked in with us repeatedly.

Fun Fact:  This place is built in the old Farmers and Merchants Bank (hence the name) in downtown Minneapolis on 6th and Marquette. And honestly, aside from being gorgeous, it's straight-up cool. The old bank offices are now private dining areas, the teller area is now the kitchen, and the vault is now stocked with wine. Somehow, they managed to incorporate the historical elements with beautiful modern design quite seamlessly.

The Damage:  Minimal, largely due to a good happy hour menu. The dinner prices more clearly reflect the swank atmosphere.

The Verdict:  Though its posh vibe was a bit intimidating at first, I would definitely pop in for after-work drinks with friends again. The couches in the lounge area are comfy, and it's quiet enough to have a conversation. Plus, since it's in the Westin Hotel lobby, the people-watching opportunities are endless.

Gimme Five

Dining Date:  October 2011 (Edina location)

On My Plate:  The most glorious cheeseburger known to man. Plus some fries and a Coke. Oh, and some complimentary unshelled peanuts.

Servers Rate:  Everyone is too busy crafting deliciousness on the grill to serve you. Humbly wait your turn at the end of the counter like everyone else. It's worth it.

Fun Fact:  Unless you absolutely love onion, beware ordering it at this establishment. It's not diced or chopped as usual, but rather a huge, thick slice. Otherwise, go crazy on the toppings and condiments! Also, seating is minimal and it's usually busy, so maybe grab it to go.

The Damage:  Average. My burger, small fry, and soda cost me about $11. My advice would be to skip the fries, since they always throw a handful in the burger bag anyway.

The Verdict:  This wasn't my first time here, and it won't be my last. Not that I think this place needs any more good press, because they're going like gangbusters, but they do one thing and do it well: making a burger that melts in your mouth. I think my sister put it best when she said, simply, "I don't want it to end."


Dining Date:  September 2011

On My Plate:  The grilled cheese sandwich and creamy tomato soup. 

Servers Rate:  Excellent.

Fun Fact:  This restaurant is located on Level Five of the Guthrie Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. It's the sit-down alternative to Level Five Express, which is essentially a sandwich and drink counter. You can relax and enjoy your meal at the Cafe until the seating call for your show. For this reason, they stop taking reservations after 6:00 p.m.

The Damage:  Fairly minimal, depending on what you order. Entrees range between $10 and $20. It's primarily high-end comfort food, and they periodically offer three-course packages that correspond with current productions. 

The Verdict:  Although there are plenty of dining options near the Guthrie, having your meal at the Cafe is the perfect one-stop shop. It's a great start to (and really completes) the whole theater experience, without breaking the bank. However, if you want to have a fancy post-show drink in what feels like a spa, I would recommend Sea Change on the lower level.


Dining Date:  August 2011

On My Plate:  Hornado con papas, which is actually the picture shown above. Two big pieces of roast pork served with llapingachos (little potato pancakes with cheese). I thought mine came with fried plantains, but I could have just stolen one off someone else's plate.

Servers Rate:  I may be biased, because our waiter was very cute. He patiently explained that the mysterious white, relatively flavorless starch on my plate was hominy.

Fun Fact:  This cute little place is in a boxy building right on the corner of Central and 28th. Keep your eyes peeled or you'll blow right by it.

The Damage:  Under $20, if you don't go crazy on drinks or apps.

The Verdict:  Everybody I ate with ordered something different, and they all came away with a "decent, and definitely an experience" rating. Perhaps Ecuadorian just isn't for me. My meal was a tad salty, and I probably wouldn't order it again. I would like to try their empanadas, though.

Monday, November 7, 2011


This is one of my all-time favorite instances of bizarre English use from Japan. It was printed on a merchandise bag at a department store, and it made me laugh so hard I cut it out and pasted it in my journal. As it turns out, it's just as funny ten years later.

I don't know why the speech bubble is directed at the character who doesn't appear to be speaking. I also don't know if that smiling cloudlike figure at the top is supposed to be the charater's "lost" soul, or why it appears to be trying to catch an airplane. Simply the fact that this is a topic of normal conversation (and that everyone involved seems super happy about it) is confusing enough.

But there were a lot of confusing things about Japan. Wonderful, hilarious, ultimately baffling things. Like the hooded sweatshirt I bought that reads "It's a You Make" on the front, and then on the side says "Don't tell anyone about this." Oh, don't worry. I couldn't explain it if I tried.

Fill in the Blanks

In the spirit of being back to regular, non-vacationey, everyday amusements, I heard a lady on my bus tonight say the following:

"It's the one with Mariska Hargitay. You know. Something, something, SUV."

So ... it's a vague show about sport utility vehicles?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Tales from the Rails: Final FAQs

So, after chugging around the country for two weeks, what did I learn (besides the fact that you can't pump your own gas in Oregon)? Here are a few Frequent Amtrak Questions:

Would I do it again?
Yes. But I'd like to experience the relative luxury of a sleeper on trips that span more than one night.

Knowing what I know now, what would I have done differently?
1.  Brought along a full-size blanket. My coat didn't quite cut it some nights.
2.  Brought along something to knock me out.
3.  Brought along something to knock that crying kid out.
4.  Not brought along a book about trains because I thought it'd be interesting. Turns out, once you're actually on one ... not so much.
5.  Loaded up an electronic device with movies. Once that sun goes down, and you can't see anything but your own reflection in the window, and they kill all the cabin lights so people can sleep, there are still several long hours to fill until daylight. Although this could have been avoided by #2.
6.  Spent more time at the beginning hanging out in the lounge car. It's the best way to break up a long stretch of track and meet new people.
7.  Taken more video at the beginning of the trip. This bright idea didn't dawn on me until after CA.
8.  Brought some cans of soda with me, since the cafe attendant will give you a glass with ice.
9.  Opted for more breakfasts in the dining car and never eaten anything from the cafe.
10.  Not said that hot dogs were "okay."

What were the best things you took with you?
A slim notebook, my iPod, my camera, a book light, granola bars, a travel pillow, PURELL, and a "roll with it" attitude.

Were things mostly the same on every train?
Nothing about Amtrak is standard, except for the super wet bathrooms and the semi-crappy food. Procedures vary widely, depending on where you are (and on the quality of the crew). Sometimes they check your ticket at the station, sometimes on the platform, sometimes on the train. Sometimes you get assigned a seat, sometimes not. Sometimes the car attendant comes by to place your destination ticket above your seat, sometimes you do it yourself. Sometimes the conductor tells you where you are or whether you're running on time ... most of the time not. Bottom line: you're pretty much on your own as far as information. Nobody's going to give it to you, you just have to go in search of it.

What surprised you the most?
The train was quieter than I expected, but bumpier. I can't tell you the number of people who made jokes about being drunk as they pitched to one side and staggered from car to car. Of course, some of these people were actually drunk.

Traveling on Amtrak is a bit old school. There's nothing high-tech about it. You're not riding on a bullet train, you're riding on a motel with wheels. But, if you have the time, it's usually cheaper than flying, you can check a ton of luggage for free, there's room to move around, and you certainly see a lot of America and meet (ahem) interesting people.

The most accurate comparison I can offer is that train travel is a bipolar experience. When it's bad (especially if you're tired or cranky or ... trapped) you feel like you're in hell. When it's good, you feel like you're the smartest person in the world for re-discovering this fantastic mode of transportation. At its best, it feels like a real adventure. But medication probably wouldn't hurt.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Day 13: The Empire Builder Strikes Back

Trip Leg #5: Chicago to St. Paul.  418 miles.  8 hours.

My very forgiving friend Deidra picked me up at close to 11:00 p.m. at the station, after numerous (and nebulous, since I had no accurate arrival info) text messages. We were supposed to have an entire day together to catch up, but since I got cheated out of eight hours while trapped on the Zephyr, we ended up with about an hour to chat before hitting the hay. However, we did drive past Millennium Park and Navy Pier and the Art Institute on our way to her condo. It was the quickie tour.

The next morning, I rode back into downtown with her. During this trip, she got pulled over and ticketed for having expired license tags. Thanks again, Chicago. I hardly knew ye. Since she works only four blocks from the station but had meetings all morning, I was turned loose in the city. However, I had nowhere to stash my bags, which limited me to staring up at big buildings, eating a leisurely lunch, and wandering around enormous Union Station to kill the few hours before my train.

2:00 p.m.  After being disappointed on every leg of the trip, I finally had Amish on board! I kept my ears tuned for Low German to see what I could pick up, courtesy of my grandparents.

2:15 p.m.  I realized this would be my first and only trip without an overnight. By this time, I felt like I could do eight hours standing on my head. Before pulling out of the station, I saw a monk in orange robes pause to take digital pictures of the train as he boarded. Who knew? They're tourists, too.

3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.  The guy across the aisle from me introduced himself as "Kay," a college student from Nigeria, and popped over for a conversation. When he learned I was an editor, he wanted opinions on his English skills. He also mentioned that he was considering moving to Minnesota because Michigan was too cold, which is like moving to the Sahara because Arizona is too hot. I issued the appropriate warning about local winters and considered my work done.

5:00 p.m.  I escaped to the lounge car to journal. During that time, the guy behind me said the following about train travel: "I used to fly airplanes. I've seen everything you can see from 30,000 feet, and let me tell you, it ain't this!" The fields were golden, the trees were red, I had a Mountain Dew and some honey roasted peanuts and only a few hours till home. It was heaven.

6:00 p.m.  Kay joined me at my table with the hot dog he'd just purchased. He asked me if I was going to eat, and I said no, I didn't have far to go, and I wasn't hungry. He then asked if I liked hot dogs, and I said, "They're okay." He disappeared briefly and returned with a hot dog and apple juice (what a combo) intended for me. A super nice gesture, but I really wasn't hungry and wasn't about to choke it down to be polite, so I told him I'd eat it later.

7:00 p.m.  In the course of our second conversation, Kay told me several interesting things. First, that I "look very serious" and like I "don't have many friends." Second, that I would look better without my glasses. Third, that I "look Chinese" in the picture he took of us. Okay. His intentions were good, but the execution could have used some work. Nevertheless, we spent a pleasant hour working a word find book together until he got sleepy and I suggested we both return to our separate seats for some shuteye. Of course, I had to take the hot dog with me.

8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.  I pretended to be sound asleep to get some time to myself, since Kay had begun checking in with me for everything. At one point, as I headed downstairs to the bathroom, I heard a voice behind me: "Courtney, are you all right?" I turned to find him on the stairs looking concerned. Again, well intentioned and probably just a cultural difference, but clingy.

10:15 p.m.  That damn hot dog was still sitting on my tray table, and I kicked myself for not ditching it while Kay was napping, because he made a point to remind me not to waste it. So, when I got off the train in St. Paul, I had to zip the stupid thing into my bag to avoid looking ungrateful.

11:00 p.m.  Kay and I bid farewell, and I left with Christian, my late-night chauffeur. When he asked for the details of why I'd been hugging an African dude near the luggage return, I could only reply that it had been an interesting end to the trip. And I had a wiener in my backpack to prove it.

Stay tuned for the epilogue.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Day 12: More Revenge of the Zephyr

When last we left our intrepid traveler, the car attendant had eloquently estimated our arrival time as "ain't gonna be no 2:50." Shortly after that, the conductor announced that he couldn't even begin to make an accurate guess, so we were left to our own devices.

2:00 p.m.  I sat reading a book, while the guy behind me kept making threats on his cell phone. I gathered that he wanted his girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend?) to send him money in Chicago, because he knew he would now be stuck there. Evidently she was being difficult, because he said this: "You better send me my money, or I'm gonna send my mama, my sister, and my baby mama over to your house!" He followed it with: "Bitch, I been on a train for two days! What the fuck you mean, 'What's wrong?'" But my favorite nugget of wisdom came from a conversation he had with a friend: "You know why I'm always gonna be alright? Cuz I'm a good nigga, man. Yeah. I may not be where I wanna be, but I'm always gonna be alright."

3:00 p.m.  The conductor announced our arrival time as "7:00 at the earliest." I saw Jennifer and Tom's authentic American vacation adventure fall apart at the seams.

3:45 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.  We sat at a standstill in the middle of a cornfield ("like dummies," according to one lady) waiting for freight traffic, since we no longer had the right of way. I went to the lounge car because the kid was still screaming. You wouldn't think a kid could yell for 24 hours, but you'd be wrong. The noisy one was about 18 months, but his 3-year-old sister was also on board. The mom wedged them in next to the window and slept while they wailed. Periodically, a frazzled passenger would offer to walk them up the aisles or play with them, and she would apathetically nod while she continued to text on her phone.

6:00 p.m.  The mood in the lounge car took a dangerous turn when the cafe attendant announced that we'd run out of most food ... and booze. Add this to the fact that none of the smokers had had a break since 5 a.m., and you've got a semi-scary pit of frustration brewing on board. Everyone was angrily calling Amtrak to figure out what to do after missing their connecting trains, flights, hotel reservations, White House tours, etc. The skinny blonde makeout guy turned out to be a real smartass who basically tried to incite a riot. At one point, a random lady in the car yelled, "Oh, Lord, we gon' DIE on this train!"

6:30 p.m.  I chatted with a super awkward Asian dude who kept asking me weird ice-breaker questions. "So what would you say your most memorable college experience was?" I wondered if he was reading them off a prepared list.

7:00 p.m.  They announced they were feeding us all a complimentary meal in the dining car, so we all piled in for "chicken fricassee," which is short for cubed chicken ladled over rice. Plus apple juice. It was underwhelming but went a long way to quell some ugly attitudes.

8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.  We continued to crawl and stop, crawl and stop. The conductor gave up talking to us ages ago, apparently, and nobody would give us any clue about where we were or how much longer it would be. The car attendant's standard response became, "I got no idea, man. I on't know," which was helpful.

10:00 p.m.  I thought to myself, "I just want to get off this train before I hit menopause."

10:15 p.m.  We finally pulled into Union Station. Miraculously, the conductor managed to get on the intercom to announce this very obvious fact. The lack of communication was appalling. You know who had been communicating, though? The high-maintenance woman across the aisle and the cafe car attendant. They appeared to have made a love connection during our ordeal and exchanged numbers and plans to fricassee each other later that night.

10:30 p.m.  We all disembarked and walked down the length of the train while the driver of a luggage/passenger vehicle honked and yelled at us. It was quite the welcome to the Windy City.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Day 12: Revenge of the Zephyr

Trip Leg #4:  Denver to Chicago.  1,038 miles.  26 hours (give or take 8).

I should have known it was going to be a weird trip when there was a guy in the station wearing an old-fashioned top hat and a girl who loudly declared to anyone who would listen that she was "leaving a bad relationship" and had an arm in a sling to prove it.

This was again the California Zephyr, just the second half of the route. And, as it turns out, the awesome Zephyr's evil twin.

7:45 p.m.  Finally boarded after a brief delay and ended up sitting next to a not-unattractive guy who was unfortunately wearing strange, lederhosen-esque shorts. Surprisingly, he was not traveling with the two German guys who sat in the lounge car and talked at the top of their lungs, secure in the anonymity of a foreign language.

8:00 p.m.  There was already a little kid crying.

8:01 p.m. to midnight.  More crying.

12:01 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. Yep, still crying.

5:00 a.m.  We pulled into Omaha where, due to bridge construction ahead, everyone except the Chicago-bound people had to get off and board buses to their destinations in between. The conductor promised the rest of us "non-stop service" to Chicago, with the caveat that we were being rerouted to a Union Pacific line. This meant, of course, that we would need a Union Pacific locomotive and a Union Pacific engineer, so we sat stalled while these changes took place for a good two hours. I stared out my window with sleepy eyes at a skinny blonde dude and his girlfriend, who engaged in an hour-long, intermittent makeout session during their farewells.

7:00 a.m.  It was about this time that the high-maintenance chick sitting across the aisle from me snapped, having been forced to listen to yet another terrible snorer behind us. She stood up and yelled, "Who's DOING that? Shut UP!" Uh, newsflash, genius: when people are snoring, that usually means they're asleep, and therefore unable to hear you.

8:00 a.m.  I headed to the dining car for breakfast and got seated with Jennifer and Tom from Manchester. (I know what you're thinking. Was Amtrak just an international cavalcade of fun? Yes. Yes, it was.) Oh, plus Nancy from Madison, Wisconsin. We had a very pleasant conversation, during which Tom actually used the word "gobsmacked" and Jennifer instructed me on how to travel cheaply in London, Italy, and Venice. They'd started their trip in San Francisco and were off to New York before heading home on the Queen Mary.

9:00 a.m. to noon.  I napped a bit but still managed to overhear the man behind me state that "Ain't no white person in their right mind," and that he wanted to "slap erry one of 'em." Another woman behind me was hacking so loudly that I was convinced she had black lung and needed immediate medical attention. During this period, we were stopping about every 10 minutes waiting for maintenance crews to get off the track.

12:15 p.m.  Did I mention that the kid was still crying?

12:30 p.m.  When someone asked the car attendant how far behind schedule we were, he simply replied, "I on't know. But it ain't gonna be no 2:50." You, sir, are a prophet.

To be continued.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Days 10-11: Denver

When my train pulled in to Denver at about 6:30, I was disappointed to find that the regular Union Station (a glorious, cavernous, picturesque piece of history) was under construction. Thus, we were re-routed to a small cinderblock "station" nearby that was as small as it was sad.

As I stepped onto the street, my cow-eyed lounge car companion, my burly seatmate, and two other (more outgoing) Australians had formed a posse that was determined to find a liquor store and stock up, even though it's illegal to bring your own booze onto a train and/or drink it in your seat. I wished them luck in their quest, doubting they would make it back in time but hopeful for the fortunes of the nearest long-range taxi driver.

My friend Katie picked me up and we drove about an hour to Colorado Springs, where she lives and works as a photo archivist at a library. I mention her profession only because it has endowed her with a wealth of knowledge about the area, meaning that I essentially had my own personal historical guide. Here are some highlights from my visit.

Garden of the Gods.  We strolled through this beautiful park at the foot of Pikes Peak, getting some sun and watching several novice rock climbers panic in their attempts to scale the huge red boulders scattered about.

Manitou Springs.  We spent the majority of our time in this cute, touristy town at the Penny Arcade, where I put a penny in a machine reading "Advice for Single Women," and it told me to "Try Necking." Point taken. We then got hooked on an old horse-racing game with a skee ball theme, and I hit a hot streak that resulted in 70 points, which got converted into a hot pink shot glass with a tikki theme. Item of note: as we walked past some squat buildings on the main street, Katie pointed out that they used to be TB huts back in the day. I remarked that if I had a business in one of them, I'd make it a train store and call it Consumption Junction. Without missing a beat, Katie replied that she'd have a restaurant called Conspicuous Consumption. Advantage: Katie.

The Olympic Training Center.  We arrived just before the free tour started, which began with a very patriotic 15-minute video montage of Americans kicking ass. It ended with a personal tour of the facility by an aspiring Olympic athlete, in this case a 90-lb. female weightlifter who admitted in Tonya Harding-like fashion that there was "one girl ahead of her" that she "had to get rid of" before she'd make it to London in 2012. Do tell!

The DAM.  We spent most of Sunday at the Denver Art Museum, which was fantastic. Downtown Denver is quite inviting. After stopping for a lovely lunch at a pub, getting yet another ice cream (Josh and John, meet Little Man!), and taking a walk along the river in the gorgeous late afternoon light, it was time to ride the rails once again.

Little did I know that my trip from Denver to Chicago would go horribly, hilariously wrong.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Day 9: More California Zephyr

So, let's start with Marla. An ex-military, very experienced train traveler who had personal stories about every conceivable scenario involving Amtrak, including the time she stepped off at a smoke stop and the train left without her. The solution? Hiring a taxi driver to race the train to its next destination. She also doodled like crazy on any scrap of paper she could find. After learning that she was taking classes in both welding and tai chi, I dubbed her a real renaissance woman.

Rhonda was a lesson in not prejudging people. With her quiet, sweet demeanor and denim dress/turtleneck combination, I pegged her for a bit of a homebody. Wrong. Turns out she's a nurse who used to do mission work and has traveled pretty much everywhere in the world. I knew I was in a whole new league when her sentences began starting with, "When we were at Machu Picchu  . . . when we were in Nairobi . . . when we were in Moscow . . . Denmark, China,"etc. Fascinating.

The three of us sat the entire day trading stories and laughs, listening to the guys behind us reminisce about Nam and the competitive, beer-fueled cribbage game unfolding across the way, all while winding slowly through mountains and over rocky streams. As the sun set over Nevada, our background music was a guy in the lounge car leisurely plucking around on a ukelele. Perfect.

8:00 a.m.  Went to the dining car to sample an Amtrak breakfast, which is really the best deal. A word about train food: it's not bad, but it's not great. The dining car offerings are better than the pre-packaged, probably-would-survive-a-nuclear-blast cafe car options, so I felt okay paying $10 for pancakes, OJ, and coffee. At this particular repast, I was seated with Charles and Nina, retirees from CA who were in love with Utah rock formations and headed to Denver for a wedding. We were joined by John, an older, self-proclaimed "jack of all trades" who "spent a sabbatical as a cowboy" and had strong opinions about everything. He started his monologue with, "There's two things you need to know about hearing aids," and you can take it from there. The background music at breakfast was a huge group of rowdy French people jabbering loudly over their meal.

9:00 a.m.  Marla and Rhonda found me in the lounge car for a grand reunion, and we spent another pleasant few hours chatting until their stop at Glenwood Springs, CO. Before departing, they each went down to take a picture of the cafe car attendant, who amused us the entire trip by ending her announcements with a whisper. As in, "Attention passengers, the cafe car will be closing in five minutes." It was creepy and hilarious. When asked why she did it, she replied that she just likes to see who's listening, and when the ladies snapped her photo, she put one finger to her lips.

1:00 p.m.  After a brief stop back at my seat (I'd barely been there the whole trip, and I'm pretty sure the burly dude next to me was happy to have the room), I returned to the observation car, where I continued to hone my photography skills. Here are some common enemies of good train pictures: dirty windows, tunnels, sudden walls of rock, passing trains, sudden curves in the track, speed blur, rogue trees, blinding sunlight, and old-fashioned window glare. For the most part, I gave up and just started taking video, but I snapped a few good ones here and there.

3:00 p.m.  A girl in her 20s sat down across from me and struck up a conversation. She was on her way from Berkeley to Chicago to start a journalism job and wanted some tips for visiting Minneapolis this winter. She also went gaga over a field of cows and wanted her picture taken with them in the background. What I said: "Sure!" What I was thinking: "You need to get out more." As we chugged higher into the hills surrounded by nothing but rugged crags of rock, she asked excitedly whether we might see more cows soon. What I said: "I think we'd probably need pasture land for that." What I was thinking: "You know cows aren't mountain goats, right?"

Somewhere during that afternoon, we passed through the Moffat Tunnel, which is 6.2 miles long. By this time, we'd been through so many tunnels that they didn't bother me too much, but the combination of exhaust seeping into the cars (because it has nowhere else to go) and knowing that we were hurtling directly through a mountain made the 15 minutes of total darkness slightly unnerving. However, at the other end of that tunnel lay Denver, the third city on my journey.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Day 8: The California Zephyr

Trip Leg #3:  Emeryville, CA to Denver, CO.  1,400 miles.  33 hours.

Elaine graciously drove me to Emeryville at the ass crack of dawn so I didn't have to spend a night at a hotel (and leave Monterey a day early). So, after getting stuck in Oakland traffic, taking a wrong turn, and desperately hailing random passersby to locate the station, I miraculously made my 9 a.m. train. Yes, the California Zephyr, easily the most scenic, entertaining, and all-around fun portion of the entire trip, due largely to the fact that everyone on the crew was a complete character.

10:00 a.m.  The conductor, a gregarious (and slightly mischievous) man in his 50s, stops by my seat. He's holding the ticket that the car attendant ripped out of my booklet, and he says, "You're going the wrong way." I briefly have a mini heart attack, and then look more closely. The attendant accidentally ripped out my ticket from Denver to Chicago. The conductor laughs and apologizes and I give him the correct ticket. A few minutes later, I realize that I'm also missing my ticket from Chicago to Minneapolis, so I flag him down again. He promises to find it and then find me.

12:00 p.m.  I head to the dining car for lunch and get seated with two Australians who whisper mysteriously to each other rather than making small talk. Seated next to me is Steve, who used to be an architect and then worked for American Airlines, and who now travels to Sydney several times a year to visit his best friend, a woman he met on a boat to Santorini, Greece. The Aussies warmed right up to Steve, even though I should have had dibs, since he and I soon discovered that we were actually related. I shit you not.

I should mention that, for the first segment of this trip, there was a guy on board giving a running commentary about local landmarks and historical information over the PA system. When he remarked that a certain river had been important during the gold rush, the Australian woman leaned over to her husband and asked, "Are we in Deadwood?" He replied, "No, that's in South Dakota." Seeing my opportunity, I said, "I'm from South Dakota, and I've been to Deadwood." Shocked, the woman gasped, "You HAVE? What's it like?" I'm not sure if she was expecting me to tell her I knew Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen personally, but she seemed a bit disappointed when I replied that it was mostly gambling and tourists.

1:00 p.m.  I grab a seat in the lounge car and journal a bit, until I'm interrupted by the conductor, who has tracked me down again. He slides in next to me and says, "We really should get to know each other if we're going to keep meeting like this. I'm Paul." He hands me my ticket from Chicago to Minneapolis, laughs, grabs my hand, and kisses it gallantly.

2:00 p.m.  I'm joined at my table by Marla and Rhonda, two older ladies who (unbeknownst to me) are going to make the next six or seven hours one of the most enjoyable days I could ask for.

To be continued.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Days 5-7: Monterey

When my cousin picked me up at the tiny but adorable train station in Salinas, I issued the standard apology for my appearance: rumpled, greasy, and red-eyed from yet another sleepless night. Somehow, my friends and relatives always managed to hug me upon arrival, bless their hearts.

About 25 minutes from Salinas, Elaine lives right on the beach in Monterey Bay. In addition to the pure joy of falling asleep each night to the sound of gentle waves, here are some highlights of my time in California.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium.  I spent a fascinating afternoon wandering around this amazing complex, during which time I touched a manta ray, sea cucumber, starfish, and crab; saw a great white shark; got mesmerized by tank after tank of jellyfish; and toured an exhibit called "The Secret Lives of Seahorses." Turns out an aquarium is a fantastic place to visit all by yourself, since you can linger as you choose.

Fisherman's Wharf.  As quickly became our habit, Elaine and I took her dog for a long walk down the beach before dinner. One night we ended up strolling around the wharf, which was touristy but very charming. The sun set on our walk back, leading to some great pictures.

Big Sur.  We took an afternoon to drive down Highway 1, during which time I saw breathtaking views but also thought I was going to die repeatedly. If you're not familiar with this particular stretch of road, it's narrow and winding and hugs the cliffs next to sheer drop-offs (with no guardrails) into the pounding surf below. Don't get me wrong, it's gorgeous, and we had absolutely perfect weather, but I was just as happy when we turned around.

Ventana.  On our drive back to Monterey, we stopped at this beautiful place perched high on a hillside and had one of the tastiest, most relaxing lunches ever.

Carmel.  We also took a leisurely drive through this lovely area. I decided that, in addition to my vacation home in Cannon Beach, I wouldn't mind having a little place here as well.

Sidenote: Elaine told me that, when her brother visited her, they happened to run into Clint Eastwood. When her sister visited her, they ran into him again. However, during my stay, there were no celebrity encounters. Evidently the Eastwood Rule applies only to immediate family.

Again, I was blessed with quite possibly the nicest few days of weather this particular city had to offer. And, as I roamed the beach watching people leisurely toss sticks to their dogs and frolick with their children in the water, it occurred to me that I might be similarly chill if I, too, never had to worry about staying warm.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Day 4: The Coast Starlight

Trip Leg #2: Portland to Salinas, CA.  834 miles.  21 hours.

First, it should be said that Portland has a proper, old-fashioned train depot, unlike the remodeled warehouse in St. Paul. Second, it should be said that you really need to check the inebriation level of the stranger you choose to chat up while waiting in line at said station.

When I got there, they had already called my train for ticket check-in, or at least that's what I assumed. To verify this guess, I asked the guy in front of me, who quickly revealed himself to be sipping grain alcohol from a 20-oz. bottle of Sprite. I won't bore you with all the details of this conversation, but here's a highlight. At one point, he turned and bumped my bag with his. When he apologized, I replied, "Oh, you're fine." He smiled goofily and slurred, "I am? Wow! You sure know how to compliment a guy." Ba-dum ching!

After boarding, I managed to snag a window seat, but I was soon joined by a seatmate. He seemed like a nice enough guy but, as I wrote in my journal, "I think he thinks I'm a dude." He called me "sir" twice, even after we spoke and I told him my name. Not the best way to start off, buddy.

7:30 p.m.  Miracle of miracles, the dining car steward on this train was not a myth, and I got a dinner reservation. I trekked down there at the appointed time and was seated with Phyllis, an older woman who took the train eight times a year to see her grandkids in Eugene. Also seated with us were Charlotte and Stefan, who thought they'd been best friends forever since they met when they were 16 and were now the ripe old age of 22. Stefan was an ambiguous bearded dude with a ponytail and the smallest hands I've ever seen on a man. Charlotte was his polar opposite, a very cheerful, very big girl who tucked into her BBQ ribs with an enthusiasm rarely seen outside the wild. In the course of our meal, Stefan told us that he throws a dinner party every month at the full moon and stated that he refuses to learn American Sign Language because it's "fundamentally flawed."

Note to self:  When you first head to the dining/lounge cars, make sure to count the cars in between. Otherwise, you might get confused when you try to return to your seat, especially in the dark. Ahem.

9:00 p.m.  Found my seat, thankful to be alone. My seatmate happened to sit behind me at dinner and proved to be quite loud and obnoxious. He ranted to his fellow college-age dining companions that "Facebook is changing societal interactions! That's my theory, I just don't have all the evidence to prove it yet." Uh ... newsflash ... that's not a newsflash. But I have one for you ... I'm a chick.

10:00 p.m.  I think those bastards in the sleepers got to watch a movie in their exclusive parlor car. Well, la dee frickin' da!

2:00 a.m.  Dozed fitfully until I was forced to wake Mr. Facebook so I could slip out to the bathroom. Upon returning, I forgot to duck and cracked my head on the luggage rack. I guess if you don't have Ambien, an actual knockout might do the trick.

Another note to self, regarding bathroom awareness: If you make sure the toilet lid is up before you sit down, you won't have to gasp in horror and then cover your ass in Purell.

11:40 a.m. I arrive in Salinas!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Days 2 and 3: Portland

Ahh, Portland. The current home of my friend Tara, whom I'd first met while we were teaching in Japan and then roomed with for two years in St. Paul. Originally, the plan was for another friend from Japan to come down from Vancouver and have a 10-year reunion (our "Japanniversary," if you will). However, travel bookings didn't quite work out, so it was just the two of us.

Since I was staying with Tara, part of our weekend involved yet another mini-reunion. Namely, I was reunited with her cat, who used to delight in hiding beneath my bed, waiting until I dropped off to sleep, and then exploding in a ball of deranged fur. Although she'd slowed down a bit in the last seven years, she now had a feline friend as a partner in crime. Long story short, one morning I woke at 6 a.m. to see two cats leaping at my face. I mean literally mid-air, flying toward my head. I screamed, they screeched, and I knew I was home.

Portland was probably the most surprising city on my trip, mainly because I'd never associated it with beaches and surfers. I was prepared for the laid-back hippie vibe, even for the fact that everyone who's anyone has a dog. I wasn't prepared for the rugged natural beauty. We checked out Bridal Veil Falls and Multnomah Falls at the Columbia River Gorge on Friday afternoon, then hit the coast all day Saturday, including Oswald West State Park and Ecola State Park. And we topped off our time in the sun and sand with possibly the best chicken tikka masala I've ever had.

Just when I was starting to think I could go granola pretty fast, it started raining. Yes, while gallivanting around the Northwest, I'd been blessed with some of the nicest weather you could ask for. That's when reality set in. It didn't completely dampen our spirits as we stopped by the Saturday Market (on a Sunday), and met a guy selling beautiful photos who was originally from Apple Valley, MN. It also didn't ruin a brief trip to Powell's Books, the largest independent used and new bookstore in the world. When we stepped in the front door, Tara said, "Okay, the first thing we'll need to do is get you a map." And I knew I was home.

But, unfortunately, the sweet siren song of "All aboard!" was calling me onward. (By the way, nobody actually yells that at train stations, although it would be fantastic if they did). So I bid adieu to Oregon, having gained a secret desire to one day buy a vacation home in Cannon Beach, a picturesque little ocean-side town that sells saltwater taffy and has a store devoted entirely to kites. Because, really, what more do you need?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Still Day 1: It's Neverending, Remember?

Following my homicide-related discussion with mustachioed (and nervous) Steve in the lounge car, I returned to my seat. This is what followed:

7:45 p.m.  The mountains of Glacier Park are visible in the distance. Finally, spectacular scenery!

8:00 p.m.  Total darkness. Mountains, you're such a tease.

9:00 p.m.  I reluctantly settle in for another attempt at sleep. No such luck. Thus, I am awake for ...

2:00 a.m.  We switch locomotives in Spokane. The front part of the train continues to Seattle, including the dining car (and, I'm guessing, the apparition that is Megan) while the rear cars get hitched anew and go south to Portland. Of course, nobody actually tells us this is what's happening, since no general announcements are made after 10 p.m. Suddenly the lights and ventilation system shut down, but the heat stays on, and we sit there for an hour. My car is sweltering and filled with several professional-grade snorers. Sally Chainsaw is across from me. I consider smothering her but don't want to give up my pillow.

3:00 a.m.  Moving again. Have discovered that passing other trains in the night is terrifying.

5:00 a.m.  As we prepare to make a stop, I hear this rather personal query come over the PA system, "Jeff, do you have three for Bingen and any disabilities?"

5:15 a.m.  The lady in front of me says, "It sure feels like we've been on this train longer than 24 hours." Amen.

6:00 a.m.  Have I mentioned that snoring champ Sally Chainsaw has her 3-year-old son with her? His name is Tripp (I know this because she scolds him about 500 times). He's cute as a button and has red hair, but I grow to believe this is because he's the devil. 

7:30 a.m.  We begin winding along a beautiful river at sunrise, featuring high bluffs studded with pines, a huge snow-capped mountain, logging operations, fishermen, and orchards. It's almost enough to distract me from the moment when Tripp whacks his mother really hard in the back, and in response, she smacks him and says, "Hurts, doesn't it." Awesome.

8:00 a.m.  I make a final visit to what are now fully disgusting bathrooms. This particular crew does not particularly pride itself on maintenance. (Some trains and staff are better than others). The one I choose actually puts the "pubic" in public restroom. Nothing like damp toilet paper to start your day.

9:00 a.m.  I finally start to believe that I may someday get off the 27 Empire Builder. I'd almost forgotten about the rest of my vacation.

10:20 a.m.  I arrive in Portland!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Day 1: Neverending North Dakota

Trip Leg #1: Minneapolis to Portland, OR.  1,837 miles.  37 hours.

I left Minneapolis at about 11 p.m. on Wednesday, September 21st. Because I was leaving at night, and evidently because I had no accurate concept of how fast a train actually travels (note: about 50 mph), I hoped I'd wake the next morning to find that I'd missed most of North Dakota.

I was wrong on two counts, the first being that I'd need to "wake up," since I quickly found myself unable to manage more than 40 winks at a crack in my coach class seat. I read a book before leaving that compared sleeping in coach to "falling asleep in your favorite recliner." That, to be perfectly honest, is outright bullshit. Although you do have quite a bit more legroom than in an airplane, it's not enough to stretch out completely (at least if you're 5'10"). You also have the added complications of the train's sometimes jostled movement, and occasionally a large, fidgety, snoring person pressed right against your elbow.

So let's just frame it in a positive light and say that, due to circumstances beyond my bank account's ability to buy me a sleeper, I unintentionally saw more sunrises than I've seen in years.

But back to North Dakota, which was still there, in all its glory, when the sun finally began to filter through the windows the next morning. In fact, it was almost impossible to tell when we crossed from ND to Montana, because it was like driving through one big, endless farm. While I'm sure the scenery was delightful to some, this South Dakota girl was unimpressed. So I tried to amuse myself by keeping a running log of things I saw and heard in the first stretch of this very long haul.

8:30 a.m.  Saw a donkey in a field with cows. That's new.

8:45 a.m.  Woman up front declares that "Susie takes four ibuprofen at once. At once!" and "That's not right."

11:00 a.m.  Lady behind me announces, "If we'd have flown, we'd have been there hours ago."

11:30 a.m.  I finally figure out that my seat has a flip-up footrest. That would have been helpful.

12:30 p.m.  See both an oil rig and an actual cowboy on a horse. We are definitely West River.

1:30 p.m.  The guy up front has a cell phone ring that's a whinnying horse. He gets approximately 50 calls, during which he always drops the bomb that he's "not at work," he's on his way to Oregon. Has he really not told anyone he's going on vacation?

2:00 p.m.  Passed through Frazer, MT, whose mascot is the "Bearcubs." Such a cuddly team. Just kick our asses, why don't you.

2:10 p.m.  Just had to set my watch back an hour. Make that 1:10. Shit.

2:30 p.m.  Everyone got warned that opening outside doors is a federal offense. Found out from the dude behind me that some drunken passengers decided they needed a cigarette and almost got thrown off the train. Then his wife admitted she used ice in her drink that had fallen on the floor. Huh.

2:45 p.m.  Saw a junkyard with a sign reading "Beware of Snakes." Used to be dogs were enough to keep people out. They aren't effing around out here.

3:00 p.m.  Just learned that the "event" they've been announcing for sleeping car passengers in the dining car is a wine and cheese tasting. Not too jealous. If their "wine" and "cheese" is anything like their "muffins" and "donut holes," I don't think I'm missing much.

3:30 p.m.  Passed through Chinook, MT, whose mascot is the "Sugar Beeters." Not a lot of fight in these Western sports teams.

4:00 p.m.  We stop in Havre, MT. I stay in my seat, waiting for Megan from the dining car to come through and take reservations for dinner. When she never materializes, a couple other ladies go to investigate. Megan claims she walked through and nobody wanted dinner (a lie), but it doesn't matter because the dining car is now completely booked. I hate Megan.

5:45 p.m.  I go to the lower level "cafe" in the lounge car to get a terrible nuked BBQ chicken sandwich, chips, and a pop for dinner, which I eat while listening to Megan's disembodied voice call people with reservations to the dining car. I'm starting to suspect she doesn't actually exist.

6:00 p.m.  I'm reading the paper when I'm joined at my table by Joyce and Steve and semi-drunken Chris. Steve thinks Joyce is going to kill him if they miss their connection in Chicago. I laugh, but then he leans in a little too seriously and tells me to watch the papers for the murder.

To be continued.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tales from the Rails: An Introduction

Sometime during the spring of this year, I decided to take a cross-country train trip. Why, you ask?

1.  I work too much and had vacation to burn.
2.  I hate to fly.
3.  I hadn't seen much of America (I'd never been west of the Black Hills, actually).
4.  A friend of mine took a successful 30-day trip a few years ago and recommended it.
5.  It was only $389 for a 15-day rail pass (coach class).

But mainly, it had been ten years since I taught in Japan, and it was simply time for another adventure. So I checked the Amtrak routes and then reached out to people in cities along the way: a former roommate in Portland, a cousin in Monterey, a former coworker in Denver, and a college buddy in Chicago. One big loop.

I also decided to take the trip solo, primarily because it was a large chunk of time to take off work, but also because there was the remote possibility that my chosen mode of transportation would completely suck, and I didn't want to spend my vacation worrying whether my traveling companion was comfortable or having a good time. Plus, I knew being alone would force me to be more social.

I'd never been to any of the places I was going, and I hadn't seen any of the people I was visiting in several years. I had absolutely no agenda for anything beyond experiencing the train, seeing some country, and spending some quality down-time with cool people.

There were a great many unknowns going into the trip, but one thing was for sure: I was going to cover 5,527 miles in 14 days. Little did I know that, along the way, I would get kissed by a conductor, survive a passenger revolt, Purell my own ass, and nearly be force-fed a hot dog by a Nigerian.

For these stories and many more, please keep tuning in!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Two Conversations

Understatement of the Year

Woman #1:  You know how you're listening to something in French, and you don't know what they're saying, but it still sounds good?

Woman #2:  There's some countries that you can't even sell their music here in America.  And there's some countries where they've banned American music, too.

Woman #1:  You know who's really nit-picky about that stuff? China.

Two and a Half Men's Ultimate Demographic

Woman #1:  I saw that Jon Cryer on TV.  You know, why don't they ever interview the kid?

Woman #2:  Jake.

Woman #1:  Yeah.  He's supposed to be the half man, but he's bigger than both of 'em.

Woman #2:  You see that ad where they're holding the sign that says "All Will Be Revealed" and they're naked?  That's funny.

Woman #1:  But they have little shorts on underneath. They're not really naked.

Woman #2:  I don't know  . . .

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Speak Into My Good Ear

Sometimes, an eavesdropping opportunity comes along that you couldn't have designed better if you'd tried. When I went to catch my bus today, it was drizzling, so I ducked into the bus stop shelter. Just outside, on a bench, was an arguing couple. Not so shockingly, they had some serious issues. But miracle of miracles, they weren't shy about expressing their opinions. What I overheard was this . . .

Woman:  "I'm in school, I got my own shit. I'm doin' just fine. I take care of myself, I pay my own motherfucking bills!"

Man:  "But I still want you."

Woman:  "Why?!"

Man:  "Cuz I LOVE you!"

Woman:  "At least you ain't gotta deal with my mama no more. All that fussin'."

Man:  "Can't you just listen to me?  Just listen.  I seen you out on Nicollet with a nigga who looked like he wanted to find another nigga to pay you!  You puttin' it all out there, and you 53 years old!"

Woman:  "An you LOUD!  You ain't think everybody just heard that?!"

Cut to me, trying so hard to look disinterested and itching for a notebook so badly that my hands were shaking. Because yes, you ARE loud, and everybody DID hear that, and now even more people can enjoy it.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dear Diary: Love Hurts

What a day! Not sure if the grounding was related to the piano. Also not sure why I was allowed to see a movie when I was grounded. Pretty sure Evan getting maimed had nothing to do with me.

Again, don't think the two are related. Evidently my relationship with Evan changed drastically the day after the head injury. And now a tooth! This boy seems to be falling apart.

We're together now, just in case you forgot. Perhaps I needed to remind myself that I was taken ...

... because five days later I'm cheating on him like crazy. What a slut!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


This spring, I had the great misfortune to see a mother duck lead her ten chicks across a parking lot and into a picturesque little pond not far from my apartment.

I say misfortune because, as I watched their tiny, fuzzy bodies plunk one by one into the water, I knew I would have to closely monitor this family all summer long. They had adopted me, and they didn't even realize it.

So every week I would pause briefly on a bench after work and watch them paddle around, cheep-cheeping and sticking their little butts in the air as they dove and splashed. And I would conduct a head count, just to make sure there were still ten, none of them having been nabbed by a predator or squashed by a passing car.

When I mentioned this compulsion to keep tabs on the ducks to one of my coworkers, he demanded to know why these animals were so irresistible. But you can't really explain that level of cuteness. So he posed a Sophie's choice question purely out of deviousness.  "Okay then, would you rather lose one of the ducklings, or have a baby fox starve to death?"

After some horrified thought, I finally had to admit, "Well, I guess ten is kind of an embarrassment of riches."

I felt a bit guilty about that answer. Until a few nights later when, driving home from this same coworker's house, I almost hit a fox that darted across the road. But I didn't. I spared him. So I believe I earned the right to keep my fine-feathered family intact.

They're so grown up now that I can't tell which are my original ducklings and which are just your run-of-the-mill Mallards. But sometimes I wonder if they recognize me, ever watchful. #11.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dear Diary: Checkers

Item one: I referred to markers as "neat" and went ga-ga over high-tops. Nerd alert!
Item two: Where the hell did we find a Chinese restaurant in 1985 South Dakota?

Item three: I referred to movies as "movie films" for no discernible reason.
Item four: Jesus, Dad! Give me a break. I've only been playing checkers for two days!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

My Monster II

So I guess I'll keep him around . . . but away from the lentils.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Unintentionally Bootylicious

So this random dude walked by and complimented my ass while I waited at the bus stop yesterday.

"How you doin', you fine, booty (untelligible) thang?"

I'm not quite sure what the specifics were, but it was definitely something booty-related. As I've mentioned before, I'll never understand why my attractiveness demographic is:
A. Middle-aged
B. African-American
C. Typically crazy passersby/panhandlers

But that's the trend. And I'll take it where I can get it, I guess.

When I finally turned around and realized he was talking to me, I immediately started laughing.

"I'm fine," replied.

"Yeah, that's right, you sexy young woman."

And then, as I stepped on the bus, he shouted, "You just made my day!"

Ditto, sir.  Ditto.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Two-Bit Problem

I feel the need to share this, because I'm pretty sure very few people have actually seen what I saw last week on the bus. Toward the end of my ride, a 47-year-old man got on. How do I know his age? Why, because he announced it, of course.

He stood in the aisle, not taking a seat (something that drives me absolutely crazy, when seats are readily available) and instead simply brushing his close-cropped head of hair over and over and over and over. I tend to be unconcerned with people attending to their personal hygiene in transit. Typically, I'm just glad they're attending to it at all. Except for the lady who applied her deodorant en route and then sprayed her perfume, which then drifted directly into my face.

But I digress.

What amazed me about this man was that, when he turned his head, I noticed that he had a quarter in his ear.

Let me just repeat that, to make sure it's clear. In the dude's ear, where you would normally see a hearing aid, let's say, was instead a 25 cent piece, jammed flat across his ear-hole and wedged between the outer edges of said ear.

I didn't know what to make of this, and I still don't. Was it an ingenious way to store his change for the bus? Is it an anti-American statement if you cover George Washington with wax? Or does it simply keep the voices at bay? I was mystified. But kind of intrigued. Because I wasn't sure that just anyone could even pull off such a feat.

For the record, I can. In case you're wondering. Naturally, I had to give it a shot in honor of my new spare change hero. But again, I'm not sure how special this makes me, because I haven't yet inspired anyone else to try it.

Perhaps you'll experiment and let me know?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

My Monster

As some of you may know, about 10 years ago I spent some time teaching English in Japan. It was without a doubt the weirdest, most hilarious year of my life.

Naturally, I tried to be as creative as possible with my lessons in order to engage the kids. Below is an example that I just unearthed. As I recall, I had each kid draw a monster and then pass the paper to the student behind them, who wrote details about the picture. This is one of my favorites:

Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday Horoscope

You will attempt to read a book tonight, but the words will refuse to come into focus. Then you will reach up and remove the blindfold you forgot to untie after your latest game of Erotic Marco Polo.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Jacque Jose Pepkeer

The assignment may have been to write a tall tale, and it may have been around third grade. Whatever my age, I think it's pretty clear that I was on crack at the time.

I'm not sure what I like more: that a spiteful international terrorist murdered a sweet little librarian, or that her ex-NFL player son vengefully hunted down the killer on the back of a white tiger. Take your pick. It's all comedy gold.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Horoscope

Go out and take on the world!  There is nothing holding you back!  Except for the restraining straps, which are still attached from the last time you went out, mistakenly trying to take OVER the world.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Open to Suggestions

Any ideas about what's going on in this picture? Anyone? All interpretations welcome.

I've stared at it now for about ten minutes, and I still don't know what's in that dude's hand. Or why his neck is yellow. Or exactly what kind of exchange is taking place. 

Whatever it is, they both seem happy about it.

Seriously. Your thoughts?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Dear Diary: A Way With Word


Pretty much says it all. Well put, 7-year-old me, well put.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Horoscope

You will have a very good night or a very bad night. 
Either way, it will involve handcuffs.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Small Humiliations: Part XIV

Several years ago, when I worked at Marshall Field's HQ (before it began its sad, deranged, Hulk-like morph into Macy's), my coworkers and I often traveled the 12 floors down to the lower-level food court to partake in the frosted delight that is Fruigurt. What's Fruigurt, you ask? Why, only frozen yogurt that comes with multiple fruit and nut toppings of your choosing and is the perfect afternoon snack, especially with an employee discount.

One day, we all piled into line and placed our various orders. I got what I always do, a chocolate and vanilla twist cone, while another coworker finally emerged holding a tall smoothie cup with a straw.

"What did you get?" I asked him.

"A Triple Berry Threat," he said.

I scanned the menu board.  "A what?"

"Triple Berry Threat."

I checked the menu again. Finally I found the item description and began giggling so hard I could barely get the next sentence out.

"Treat . . . not threat. . . it's Triple Berry Treat."

By that time he was laughing, too. But I liked the new name so much that I decided to pay tribute to his hasty (or slightly myopic) reading of the Fruigurt choices by using my extremely limited photo-shopping skills to create the following poster, which I sent to him via email later that day:

It still makes me laugh.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Dear Diary: Modest AND Good at Math

I'd only like to point out that Ortonville is a whole 12 miles from my hometown. Oh, and I just happened across my old sticker books the other day. I noted that, in addition to the standard sticker fare, I had also slapped in some thin sheets featuring the days of the week in a line: Sat Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri. In my current adult state, these were instantly recognizable as belonging to birth control pills. So that's how much of a sticker freak I was. I lifted the daily reminder strip off my mom's oral contraceptives. No wonder I have a sister.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Nice Ride II

Last weekend, I went to Perkins for lunch with my parents. It's one of my very favorite places, largely because it produces the "chicken crisp melt," formerly the "chicken tender melt," otherwise known as the CTM. If you haven't tried it, you must. But I digress.

My dad parked his car (in the shade of course) right next to a bright yellow Mazda Miata convertible. He immediately leaned over to check it out and starting waxing poetic about how nice it would be to have such a sporty vehicle to zip around in during the summer months. Just as we were heading into the restaurant, a couple in their mid-80s emerged and happened to overhear his comments.

"It's not for sale," the man said, adjusting his Navy veteran cap and smiling broadly.

"That's yours?" asked my dad.

"Yep. Bought it last year. Only 19,000 miles on it."

"Well, good for you for getting a snappy little car like that!" said my mom.

I looked back at the Miata, a vehicular manifestation of well-earned discretionary income. These oldsters had the moxie to pump as many RPMs as would fit into their remaining years, and I had to admire that. I hope when I'm 80 I'm moving under my own power, much less driving, much less driving something awesome.

Maybe I better back off those CTMs.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Nice Ride

When I was in Atlanta recently, I was sitting in traffic in the backseat of a friend's car. I happened to look over and see an older guy patiently idling a super sweet, well-maintained, tricked-out motorcycle. I recognized the make on the shiny beast simply because another friend's husband drooled over that particular kind for years before he finally bought one.

So I said, "Hey! That's a Harley Davidson Heritage Softtail!"

I said this aloud for the benefit of my carmates, but I didn't turn my head away from the window, not realizing that I was blatantly staring directly at the guy on the bike, and he was staring back.

Evidently he could read lips, because he flashed me a huge smile and a thumbs up.

And evidently I could read lips, too, because I saw him mouth, "That's right!"

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Drumsticks Be Damned

This morning I saw two wild turkeys standing on the front step of a local beauty salon, as if waiting patiently for it to open.

It wasn't quite as worrisome as when I saw them standing in the parking lot of "Ready Meats."

Perhaps they realized their narrow escape from death and are now seeking self-improvement. They want to live, dammit! LIVE!!

And that starts with some highlights.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Courtney and the Bandit

I don't really have an explanation for this one. I guess in second grade I already had a thing for swarthy men? Although, since the story is about Jack, I suppose it's a bit homoerotic. I'd also like to note that, in the intervening years, I have learned how to spell "surprised" and how to use a semicolon properly. Thank you.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dear Diary: Tales from the First Grade

I recently discovered the diary that I kept when I was seven years old. It sounds like I'm making that up, because what first grader keeps a daily journal? This one, that's who. It's been an interesting peek into the psyche (and varying stages of penmanship) of my young self. For example:

January 14, 1985 was a pretty jam-packed day, and not a great one for Mindy. I'm glad I felt the need to specify that the wall involved in the tooth-cracking incident was "hard." I'm also glad I confessed to my greatest fear in elementary school (other than E.T.), which was somersaults. And apparently I still don't know how to spell that correctly, because I had to defer to spell check about three seconds ago. Live and learn. Well, sometimes.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Move Over, California Raisins

Text from my sister the other day:  If you had a band of Mr. Potato Heads, what would you call it?

My text back:  It would either be a religious revival group called the Idaholy Rollers whose hit single is "Out of the Dirt," or a reggae band called Baked and Fried.

I then asked my mom the same question. Evidently her secret love of hip-hop also applies to imaginary food-based music, because she went with Spuds N' Thugs.

Either way, I think we'd sell out the garden.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Quotes of the Week

#1.  Wailed by a gangsta on his cell phone in City Center:  "I ain't gonna get all gooey an' fuckin' sentimental . . . nah . . . nah . . . Mom! . . . She just talks too much shit!"

(He's got 99 problems but his moms ain't one.)

#2.  Wailed by a crusty old man on Hennepin who was ogling young girls:  "Where were all you beautiful ladies when I had hair?!" 

(Sir, I'm no mathematician, but I'm going to go with:  in utero.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Passage from India

A few years ago, my friend Linnea traveled in India and treated us all to a hilarious blog. What follows is one of her posts that I specifically saved for future enjoyment. And now, because she is brilliant and because I think this account deserves the widest audience possible, I pass it along to you.

I went to a movie in McLoud Ganj Friday night. I saw the DaVinci Code. Perhaps you are imagining your own experience at your local cinema? Perhaps you also saw the DaVinci Code? Though we may have seen the same movie, it is unlikely that there are any additional similarities in our experience. First, the theater had the look and feel of the inside of a bus - most likely because the theater’s seats came from a bus. I believe there were still seat belts attached to some. There were only about 30 seats in the theater and no screen. The movie was shown on a large television. Barb – not exaggerating – it was half the size of yours. If you could haul that thing to India, you could set up shop. It might not be the most lucrative endeavor however as I only paid 30 rupees for my ticket (less than a dollar). You may be shocked to learn that the version of the film I saw was a bootleg – it was grainy, a bit off center and the opening credits were in Russian. Though the film is in English it was shown with English subtitles displayed. It was clear that the subtitles were written by someone for whom English was a second or possibly fifth language. I don’t think a single line of dialog was correctly represented in the subtitles. When Tom Hanks exclaims “it can’t be, a fleur de lis” the subtitles read, “it can’t be, flute is bleeding!” I found myself wishing I couldn’t hear the dialog because it would have been fascinating trying to decode the plot from the subtitles. Knowing the magical “holding grill” people kept talking about was actually the holy grail would have been key. At least, perhaps sensing its importance, they actually attempted to translate that. Unusual words and those with more than two syllables were frequently spelled “….”

I have heard the movie is not good. I can’t really say whether it was good or bad but I can say the version I saw was the funniest movie I have seen in a while.

Saturday evening ended with an encounter with the largest spider I have ever seen. The spider was perched on Sherry’s ceiling. The spider had fangs. The spider had biceps. The spider was flashing gang signs and waving a stick at us. We had encountered the spider earlier that morning and had attempted to capture it but, when poked with a broom, it spewed a bunch of tiny spiders and ran for cover. Oh, the humanity.

There was a fair amount of high pitched squealing and some scurrying in and out of the room (people scurrying, not the spider – the spider was frozen in place on the ceiling) as we discussed a plan to rid our flat of the menace. A vote was taken as to whether this would be a catch and release operation or if the solution to our spider problem would be final. It’s a do-gooder lot, the volunteers, and we’re surrounded by Buddhists monks everywhere we go. Given this it was surprising how narrow the victory was for catch and release. The plan involved a bucket, Elliot, a fellow flatmate, on a chair with aforementioned bucket pressed against the ceiling over the spider and me sliding the cardboard from a board game along the ceiling. Thankfully the plan worked. The spider plopped into the bucket and was rushed outside. It was deposited a safe distance from the house and order was restored.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Small Humiliations: Part XIII

One morning, a friend of mine took her two boys (let's call them Frick and Frack ... names have been changed to protect the innocent) to the coffee shop with her. It so happened that Frick was potty training at the time.

Shortly after arriving, he approached his mom and told her that he had had an accident. More specifically, that he had dropped a deuce. He didn't exactly put it that way, but it works well for the purpose of this story. She quickly hustled the kids to the bathroom, pulled off her son's pants, and was immediately puzzled. There was nothing there.

It should also be mentioned that, because of the heavy toll on underwear taken by the potty training, my friend had thrown pants on the kid that morning without anything underneath. Was this a bit cavalier, desperate, or just outrageously hopeful? These are the kinds of decisions you make more effectively after coffee.

Anyway, circumstances had combined to beg the question that she then whispered in horror:

"Frick, where's the poop?"

Did she dare to dream that, from this point onward, it would simply evaporate? His reply snapped her back to reality.

"It fell out in the coffee shop."

So she did what any good mother would do, and went looking for it. Midway into her surreptitious investigation, she spied a lonely turd on the floor. And to make matters worse, it already had a footprint in it.

Now, at this point, you're probably thinking, how can this situation take yet another embarrassing turn? I'll leave you with one last sentence:  The footprint belonged to Frack.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Case of the Missing Prisoner

I present to you another gem from my elementary school archives. I think I made this "book" in 2nd grade. How do I know? Because it's not about dinosaurs. Everything in 3rd grade had a decidedly extinct reptile theme. But evidently I decided to take my first crack at a crime caper at age 8.

 Okay, we're starting off strong. We have a main character, and he seems pretty likable.

Not bad. Alex can hoist a handcuffed man by his belt loop, and he does it with a smile. However, he seems to be driving some sort of spaceship. And the criminal appears to be shackled to an anti-gravity ball and chain. Also, I don't know why he doesn't just walk out between the bars.

Only minor problems here. I seem to have forgotten how to draw elbows, even though two pages earlier I was doing just fine. I've made the criminal a bit cocky and placed a handy dandy map of his entire plan on the back wall. It starts with a shovel and ends with a hole, and these are really the kinds of schematics you're bound to forget if they're not prominently displayed. Also, that's the brightest moonlit night I've ever seen.

Interesting. We find out that Alex is a redhead (and a bit of a drama queen). But things really start to fall apart on the right-hand page. It looks like all my artistic energy went into drawing that rolling fortress, and I had to make do with a red felt-tipped pen in a pinch. That's okay. I'm sure no one will notice. They probably won't notice that the ticket counter is located on top of the train, either.

Three things I love about this spread: 1) I didn't know what to call the passenger car, so I went with "people carry," which I think cuts right to the chase. 2) I knew that there was a double letter in "caboose," dammit, but I chose the wrong one. 3) The most exotic destination I could conjure for the train was New Mexico.

On the previous page, we established that "Alex is the boss," and boy, is he authoritative. And now bald, apparently. But look how he commands attention. I'd obey anyone who knew how to say "hurry up" in two different ways. Especially if he had six fingers.

On your left, you'll note that not only is Alex a crack shot with his "pop" gun, but he manages to look downright jaunty while doing it and even throws in a sassy comment to boot. Although it appears he's now a midget. I think that, while Alex was aiming at the criminal, I was aiming for perspective. 

On your right, in a bizarre twist, Alex and his "helper" Jon (who has not been introduced until just now) disguise themselves as clowns before arresting the criminal (whom I now refer to as "the stupid guy"), and a previously unknown plot point involving peanut shells turns out to be the key to the entire case. When pressed for an explanation of this tidy wrap-up, and asked why I chose not to draw any of these colorful shenanigans, I can only speculate that I simply ran out of room.

But sometimes our visions just have to be crammed into 12 pages, no matter how grand they are. You work with what you got, man. You work with what you got.