Sunday, August 30, 2009

A bit of Borges

I mentioned in an earlier post that I'm rereading some selected Borges short fiction. Today I reread "The Approach to al-Mu'tasim," which is one of my favorites, and, I think, the quintessential Borges story. Borges once wrote that he saw no reason in writing a five-hundred page novel to express an idea that he could relate orally in five minutes. "The Approach to al-Mu'tasim" is an academic book review of a novel that doesn't exist, complete with footnotes, references to other works, and white-tower snootiness. The fictional novel, The Conversation with the Man Called Al-Mu'tasim: A Game of Shifting Mirrors, tells the story of a law student in Bombay who has rejected the old-school Islamic faith of his family. During a protest, the student murders (or thinks he has murdered) a Hindu. I'll let Borges take it from here:
The underlying plot is this: a man, the fugitive student freethinker we already know, falls among the lowest class of people and, in a kind of contest of evil-doing, takes up their ways. All at once, with the wonder and terror of Robinson Crusoe upon discovering the footprint of a man in the sand, he becomes aware of a sudden brief change in that world of ruthlessness - a certain tenderness, a moment of happiness, a forgiving silence in one of his loathsome companions. 'It was as though a stranger, a third and more subtle person, had entered into the conversation.' The hero knows that the scoundrel he is talking to is quite incapable of this unexpected turn; he therefore deduces that the man is echoing someone else, a friend, or the friend of a friend. Rethinking the problem, he arrives at the mysterious conclusion that 'somewhere on earth is a man from whom this light emanates; somewhere on earth a man exists who is equal to this light.' The student decides to spend his life in search of him.
The law student goes on an epic journey, looking for this man by observing reflections of his soul in others. More mindfuckery follows: al-Mu'tasim, the man the law student searches for, is in turn searching for someone else in the same fashion, and that someone searches for someone else. To complicate matters, there are two versions of the manuscript, and Borges has read only the inferior one, which strips it of its more literary qualities and paints on a thick layer of allegory. Then there's the comparison to The Conference of the Birds, a real book of poems by Farid ud-Din Attar, which takes on a similiar theme. All of this, by the way, is compressed into about five pages. Whoa.

Borges best work is all about his weird mysticism--antiquities, ancient labyrinths, smoke and mirrors, sorcerors and kings seeking answers to the mysteries of the universe--and metafiction. "The Approach to al-Mu'tasim" supplies both. Here's a link to the story.

This story was translated by Norman di Giovanni, a friend of Borges who has received flak for his occasionally questionable translations (although a friend who's read Borges in Spanish thinks his translations are fantastic) and his strained relationship with Maria Kodama, Borges's widow and executor of his literary estate. Due to some crazy fluke in the contract for the English language rights, Giovanni wound up with 50% of the royalties of the collected and selected works of Borges (most translators get either a tiny percentage or merely an advance with no royalties). According to Kodama, Giovanni, once a bosom buddy of Borges, has wound up stealing millions of dollars from her husband's estate. She also prevented reprints of almost a dozen books written by or about Borges, until recently, just because Giovanni had a hand in translating material for them. Oh literary drama. (You'll notice the link to "The Approach to al-Mu'tasim" leads to Giovanni's website.)

If you haven't read Borges, I highly recommend you check him out. Very good stuff.

Ian's Long Lost Rant

Lost spoilers ahead.

I recently read an interview with Patton Oswalt where he said, “Television is the way Hollywood was in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The dream era I would have loved to have been part of in Hollywood then is happening right now, but it’s happening on television, with these big complicated story arcs and real character-driven shows and sheer ambiguity left and right.” Shows like The Wire and Battlestar Galactica are pushing their respective genres into new, artistic territory, 30 Rock is doing a weird meta-take on television comedy, and Mad Men is bringing an obsessive eye for detail and craftsmanship to TV. All of these shows are wonderfully written, I might add.

With all this great TV out there, I cannot explain the popularity of Lost. Yes, it's got a deep and enigmatic mythology, and it often borrows its narrative structure from old adventure serials (plus flashbacks), but on a fictional level, it commits a cardinal sin. Everything in Lost, down to the musical score, is in service to either the plot or the structure. The first season establishes a pattern that follows through most of the series. Something is happening on the island, and it typically focuses around one or two characters. The island scenes are intercut with flashbacks that illuminate that episode's lead character's motives and history, or serve as an (often heavy-handed) metaphor for what's happening in the present, back on the island. In the first season, this worked pretty well; Lost sets itself up as a character driven mystery show. Subsequent seasons, however, keep the flashback structure around after it's already accomplished what it needs to do, which leads to endlessly complicating back stories, motives that seem contradictory, and a general watering down of the characters.

The cast of Lost, scowling.

For example, at the end of the first season, I found Sun and Jin to be the most interesting characters—their uneasy marriage was fascinating, and having the others on the island not understand their language and the dynamics of their relationship was a great decision on the writers' parts. She lives in fear of her shady, controlling husband. He feels bound by duty and family to provide for his wife, and he probably holds this against her. I may be a nerd, but Jin's apology for his behavior in the season finale was heart-wrenching. Over the next two or three seasons we get more Jin and Sun flashbacks, and that interesting character dynamic dissolves into melodrama. She can't get pregnant! But the doctor lied, it's Jin who's infertile! She had an affair and Jin was sent to kill the guy, but he let him go! Sun sold Jin into working for her father to pay Jin's mother, who was blackmailing them! Okay Lost, I don't give a shit anymore. Halfway through season two, I just stopped caring about all the characters. There were a few exceptions, episodes or arcs where plot and character somehow magically aligned and produced something great, but I'll talk about those in a bit.

Perhaps the most infuriating thing about Lost was its reliance on what Roger Ebert calls “The Idiot Plot.” The idiot plot is “A plot that requires all the characters to be idiots. If they weren't, they'd immediately figure out everything and the movie [or television show] would be over.” Specifically, I'm referring to the inability of Lost's characters to communicate in any logical or realistic way. When a character has an important piece of information or knows something that can help or harm the group, instead of telling somebody they either a) keep it to themselves, or b) march off into the jungle (sometimes with a few other characters who have no idea what they've actually been recruited to do) to “solve” the problem. Why do they do this? Why don't they sit down and talk it out? In season one, why doesn't Locke tell anybody about the mysterious hatch that may lead to their rescue?

Because the plot demands it.

Because if the characters did act in a logical or realistic way, there would be no show, there would be no drama, and there would be a hell of a lot fewer unanswered questions. In seasons three and four, many characters repeatedly ask Ben and Juliet about the Others—who are they, why are they treating their captives like animals, why did they kidnap children? They invariably respond either “We're the good guys” (usually followed by a dramatic music cue) or “You wouldn't understand even if I did explain it to you.” Amazingly, even when the power dynamic shifts, the survivors don't press for details. Juliet's defection from the Others would seem like a great time to sit her down and finally get some answers out of her. Why don't they? Because the plot demands it. The writers have decided that the answer to that mystery needs to be withheld, and they''ll suspend logic to do it.

And this is neither here nor there, but the Sawyer-Jack-Kate (and later Juliet) love traingle is grating. Just grating. Shoot me in the face.

The cast of Battlestar Galactica, also sitting/standing dramatically, although not scowling.

So the characters make no sense, the plot walks over anything in its path, including logic (and sometimes itself—plot holes!), and usually watching the show feels like an exercise in frustration. Why is it so successful? Why did I put myself through all five seasons of it? I have a few ideas. The mythology is interesting, and even when I no longer cared about the characters, I still wanted to know what the deal was with the smoke monster, and why there was a giant, four-toed statue foot on an abandoned shore of the island. The cliffhangers are often absurd, but they work—we all want to know what happens next—and I think the forced ambiguity brings a lot of people back. I haven't delved much into Lost fandom, but I know a little bit about all the forums, blogs, theories, etc. on the internet. And of course, people love finding all the little cultural and philosophical references (“Sawyer was reading Watership Down! What does it mean!?”)

Who gives a shit?

And then there are those brief moments of genius, where everything comes together. Locke's crisis of faith and its resolution as the hatch disintegrated around him in season two was awesome, as was switching the flashbacks to flashforwards at the end of season three. My favorite moment in Lost was “The Constant,” where Desmond is unstuck in time. Sure, it's half borrowed from Slaughterhouse-Five (which the show nods to in a reference a few episodes later), but it was also genius, and an interesting variation on its flashback/flashforward structure. But do these flashes of genius really make it worth slogging through hours and hours of bad dialogue and ridiculous plots? Not for me.

Yes, if I could go back in time I would tell myself not to bother with Lost (although now it's too late for me, and I'll watch the sixth and final season as it airs). For a good example of what Lost could have been like, I recommend the first season of Heroes—a show that draws many comparisons to Lost, and in later seasons descended into even more ridiculous plot excess and character nonsense. If you've seen Lost but not Battlestar Galactica, watch it now. Like Lost, sometimes the writers get confused and need to retcon something or hastily bung up a plothole, and the second half of the last season was a disappointment, but this is how good sci-fi television should be. Also, watch The Wire. Everybody needs to watch The Wire. End rant, soon I'll get back to things you may actually care about, I promise.

The only TV show I'll ever need.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Fleet Foxes

Tropical storm Danny is passing by New Hampshire, and bringing with it quite a bit of rain. It started yesterday evening and it's still going--feels like home. I'm sitting in my newly cleaned apartment, looking at the rain fill up the parking lot and soak the deck, listening to Fleet Foxes.

For those who don't know, Fleet Foxes is from Seattle, and I can think of no better soundtrack to a cold, dark, rainy Northwest day. It almost feels like Bellingham here, but I know the rain will quit and we'll be back to our regular humid hell. Oh well, here's another Fleet Foxes song.

Nerd bonus: The Fleet Foxes sound is partly inspired by Robin Pecknold's memories of old Final Fantasy music. A man after my own heart.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Grad schooled

Policies, information packets, orientations, professors who don't know which day they teach... Yep, I'm back in grad school.

Ashley and I had the introductory orientation yesterday (though Ash is in TA prep all week as well), and we met a roomful of colleagues, a few profs, and a bunch of administrators and office-type people. There are WAY more people here than at WWU, and it's going to be hard to get used to. I probably won't know everybody in the grad school, which is weird, but makes sense considering there's an MFA, an MA in English, an MA in linguistics, and PhDs in literature and composition. Geez!

But I met the other incoming fiction students, as well as a few second years in my program, and I met Tom and Ann, who are the two fiction profs (there's maybe ten or eleven fiction MFA students total, so two profs is all they really need. I'm going to a meeting about Barnstorm, which is UNH's online literary journal--very excited. Classes start on Monday. Things are finally starting to pick up after a very, very long two and a half weeks.

I wish things were picking up on the job search. I interviewed and was turned down for a work study position in the HR department. I'm still waiting to hear from Inquiry, but my fingers are crossed. I have an interview tomorrow for a judicial clerk work study job (office crap), but as far as getting a real job that will earn me more than sixty bucks a week, I'm not having a lot of luck. Craigslist and postings on the employment sites I hit are thinning out, and today I walked and drove through Dover for two hours and didn't find a thing. Friday I'm signing up at a temp agency, which will be unsteady hours at best, but it will be something. End complaint. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Crisis Averted

Thirteen and a half pounds of Adam's crunchy.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

I survived Hurricane Bill

Early this morning, Hurricane Bill, a category 1 hurricane, passed by the Massachusetts and New Hampshire coastline. New Hampshire was lashed by threatening clouds and a devastating drizzle. This is the parking lot of my apartment complex, now rendered nearly unrecognizable:

There are at least three puddles in our parking lot. Tragic.

But the damage wasn't limited to only the parking lot. Our apartment is in shambles.

Ashley is checking the national weather service and sending SOS e-mails to everybody she knows.

Our cat was stuck outside in the deluge, and barely escaped with her life.

Actually, we gave her a bath.

We've been deeply affected by this disaster. Please send food, money, and beer we can trade to the National Guard for medical supplies. Thank you.

Friday, August 21, 2009


Man, it's amazing what putting some furniture and posters up can do to a place. This is starting to feel less like an apartment where I sleep, eat, use the internet, and watch Lost, and more like a home.

The office, coming together.

Let me tell you the story of this desk. I contacted "Gabriel" on craigslist, who told us to come by and pick up the desk at 8:30. We arrived to find not Gabriel, but his two very confused (most probably stoned) roommates. They lived in a crappy, mostly empty college house that reminded me quite a bit of the one on Ellis Street. Their living room contained one falling-apart couch, a giant HDTV on a wooden stand, an XBox, and literally nothing else. The stoned roommates showed us into the basement, where Gabriel had disassembled and stored the desk, along with fifty or so years of cobwebs, mold, and mildew. We left our number on a sticky note, drove home, got a call from Gabriel, and drove back twenty minutes later to pick up the desk. Stupidly, we paid $45 for this. The picture probably makes it look better than it is. We had to wash the mold and mildew and crap off each piece before we assembled it (using only the pictures from craigslist and Gabriel's sometimes cryptic labels as a guide). The boards were slightly warped, the cabinet shakes, it's missing some screws, it reeks of basement, there's a rather large piece we couldn't find a place for and thus left out... it's a POS. But it's our desk, and I, if not Ashley, love it anyway.

I'm getting back into the writing mode. Unpacking all of my books and putting them up on shelves has something to do with it, I think. It's amazing how two months of summer can leave you so dumb and out of practice. I'm reading Creating the Story: Guides for Writers by Rebecca Rule and Susan Wheeler, who used to (and may still, I'm not sure) teach fiction at UNH. Donna gave me the book as a graduation present, and her name is on the inside cover. I'm also supplementing it with some old Borges short stories I haven't read since freshman year of college and the odd story from a Crab Creek Review or a MAR--unpacking everything I realized I've accumulated quite the library of old literary magazines.

Other than that, not much is happening. Still looking for a job, although it looks like I've got my work study taken care of--I'll be working in the HR department at UNH, doing office assistant stuff. Ashley's comp camp starts on Monday, and hopefully financial aid will drop soon, so I can pay off my credit cards, make a budget, and maybe even buy some more furniture (I'm pretty worried about money). I'll keep y'all posted.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Some random bits

These are some things that have been on my mind lately.

  • The tallest mountain in New Hampshire is Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet. Occasionally I see cars with bumper stickers that say “This car climbed Mt. Washington!” I'm not sure if New Hampshirites intend these bumper stickers to be ironic, but to a Washingtonian, they're pretty funny. The very fact that you can drive your car to the top of the “mountain” pretty much negates your bragging rights. I need to make friends with some locals and see if they really think Mount Washington is all that.
  • We finally have a bed! Hooray!
  • The heat and humidity here are horrendous. Today I watched a local weather report on mute. The weatherman was pointing to his humidity scale, which ranged from “Negligible,” up through “Some humidity” and “High humidity,” to “Oppressive” (70% and above). He was pointing at oppressive. Walking outside or onto my balcony is like walking into a sauna.
  • The other day, on the way down to Boston, I saw a new Volkswagen Beetle that was the exact shade of cheesy orange as the Gold Chocobos from Final Fantasy VII. The color brought memories of that video game, which I haven't played all the way through since I was in high school, flooding back. Other Final Fantasy fans? I'll bet you remember this? Eh? Eh? Matt? Eh?
Yep, that's the color right there.

Things are slowing down a bit. Ashley and I are watching a lot of Lost, and when we're all caught up I'll share my thoughts. I've been skirting my exercise routine, doing job interviews, and surfing craigslist for furniture and employment. I'll keep you posted if anything exciting happens.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Two days ago Ashley and I found out Emily, a friend from Washington was in Boston for a few days, and yesterday we went down to visit her. The original plan was to go to Walden Pond and live simply, or maybe build some foundations under castles in the sky, but that fell through (and thus I was deprived of the excuse for stupid Thoreau jokes). Instead, we tooled around Boston, had lunch at a delicious Indian buffet, met a bunch of cool people, and took a ferry out to Spectacle Island in the harbor.

Boston is a very cool city. It was actually hard for me to come back to New Hampshire after spending an afternoon in Boston. Imagine spending the day in Seattle and then returning to, I don't know, Cle Elum. I kind of feel deprived of the big city comforts that I'm used to from Seattle—street entertainers, amazing food everywhere, shopping, posters for art and music and opera and indie films, sigh... Of course, I don't have to pay twenty-seven freaking dollars (!!!) to park in New Hampshire, so that's score one for my state.

Boston is kind of like Dover in one way, though. They just haven't figured out how traffic works. As Armando, our host for the day, said, “They can found the greatest country on earth, but they can't invent the grid system.” Also, much of the interstate traffic runs underground through these massive tunnels. Ashley was kind of freaked out by driving on an eight-lane, underground freeway, but hey, it's better than demolishing all those two-hundred year-old buildings up above and putting the interstate up there.

And oh man, the buildings. The architecture is amazing, and it seems like half the buildings have these amazing stories behind them. We left a subway station and found we'd just exited the Old State House, a building constructed in the early 1700s. We were standing beneath the balcony where Colonel Thomas Crafts, one of the Sons of Liberty, read the newly-penned Declaration of Independence to the city of Boston. It happened twelve feet above our heads. Freaking WOW!

The Old State House. There's the balcony. Also, there's a unicorn on the roof.

More old buildings. And some new ones.

We took a boat from the harbor (I wanted to throw a teabag into the water) to Spectacle Island, which was a landfill for a hundred years and is now a state park. It turns out when you hollow out the ground beneath a city and fill it with subway tunnels and the two interstate highways, you get a lot of dirt and nowhere to put it. So the city of Boston dumped all of it on the landfill on Spectacle Island (enlarging the island a great deal in the process), planted some trees, and called it a park. We hung out on a lovely beach and played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Spectacle Island, ex-landfill.

I'M ON A BOAT. (Grimacing)

A tour boat in the harbor.

The Boston skyline and ominous cloud from Spectacle Island's beach.

Tell me if you think of any excuses to return to Boston. We're strongly considering going down for Guster's Lost and Gone Forever ten-year anniversary show at the Orpheum, but we're a little iffy about the money situation. Historic walking tour? Lunch at Durgin Park? Red Sox game?

Ashley is America.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Things that I like (so far)

Last night on the phone, my mom mentioned she's been reading my blog (hi mom). “It's good. Remember to keep it positive,” she said. And I laughed. It has been a little whiny and gripy around thisisnolongertheroadtrip, so I'm going to try and pick things up a little bit. Here are some of the things that I've found and absolutely loved.

  • The bridge from Kittery to Portsmouth. You cross from Maine to New Hampshire over the Piscataqua on a cool bridge built as a memorial to New Hampshire's fallen World War I soldiers and sailors. Entering Portsmouth, you can look to your right and see an old line of riverfront brick buildings, their sides right up against the river. Every time I see them I feel for a second that I'm not looking at buildings on the Piscataqua, but on the Thames. There's another awesome bridge from Portsmouth to Newington that crosses a small bay always crowded with white sailboats. It's gorgeous, and looks so New England.
  • The UNH campus. It's old and made of bricks. It's got bell towers and halls named after local scholars, and somewhere in it, Charles Simic is probably hanging out writing something genius.
  • Deb, the helpful hairstylist. I got a haircut today in a tiny walk-in place on Central street in Dover. Deb, the barber, asked if I came here often to get my hair cut by Al. I said no, and that I was new in town. “Welcome to Dover,” she said, and launched into a long list of the best places to eat, to buy groceries and home furnishings, to pick local fruit, and to buy cheap gas. Ashley and I got tons of ideas of places to eat and things to do. Cheers, Deb!
  • The cemeteries. Turns out when the area has been inhabited for four hundred years, there are lots of cemeteries. Ashley and I walked around a big one today just outside of Portsmouth. It's weird to see names of families I recognize from buildings on UNH's campus, or the handful of state parks we drove past yesterday. I thought about last summer when we walked around Bayview cemetery in Bellingham and marveled at the grave stones from the 1890s and early 1900s. Today I saw the grave of a preacher who was buried in 1731. Many of the graves from the 1800s had fresh flowers on them—family members still come to honor their lineage. “Nobody stays in one place for one hundred years in the west,” Ashley said. It's a very different sense of history.
  • Tuttle Farm. On our way back from the cemetery we stopped at Tuttle farm, the oldest continually running family farm in the country (est. 1632). I've complained before on here about the weirdness of the grocery stores—no good cheese or peanut butter, unfamiliar brands, etc. Tuttle farm fixed all this. It carries mostly locally grown organics (most of them grown at Tuttle farm itself), along with tons of plants and herbs, candles, locally made soaps, and all that crazy hippie crap I'm used to in Bellingham. The place even smelled like the Bellingham Co-op. We're definitely going back.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The New Hampshire Coast

Today Ashley and I took a trip down highway 1A, the coastal road that runs from Portsmouth down into Massachusetts. We thought we would drive for a bit and find a nice beach to sit on and read, maybe dip our toes in the Atlantic. The 1A follows the coast through Rye and Hampton, both of which have a lot of beaches, so I thought this would be an easy jaunt.

Turns out the New England coast isn't like the Washington coast. It's very developed. Ashley and I found ourselves driving through tourist town after tourist town, little Atlantic replicas of Seaside, Oregon, with businesses like the Aegean Inn and the Lobster Lock-up. Here's Little Jack's.

Lobsters are everywhere. They're on the Maine license plate, on many restaurants (almost every restaurant, cafe, or crappy food stand serves lobster), even on lots of signs, billboards, and hotel vacancy signs. Here's a carved wooden one at the place we stopped for lunch.

These little coastal tourist towns seem to be 75% parking lot. It turns out most of New Hampshire's coastline is rocky and not too great for sunbathing or volleyball, so the tiny portions of beach that are sandy and flat are packed. I wish we'd gotten a picture of the thousands of tourists on the sand, but it looked a lot like this.

I guess hanging out under a sun umbrella is a really New Englandy thing to do. Between Rye and Hampton we drove past a line of seaside houses. In Washington, you have to be pretty loaded to pay for a house right on the water, but these houses surprised me. They were huge, gated, built of imported stone, with croquet lawns, manicured gardens (we even saw a couple of gardeners tending to one), and spacious rooftop decks. Ridiculous!

After a stop for lunch and a bit of backtracking, Ashley and I did find a stretch of uncrowded beach, where the parking was free. I think it was mostly empty because it was covered in rocks and there was no easy access from the road (we had to scramble down a hill of boulders to get to it). It was nice to lie in the sun and get my feet wet in the Atlantic. Next time we head out to the coast I know what to expect.

In other news, Ashley and I tried the lobster rolls, which she loved but were a bit on the mayo-y side for me. We're supposed to get a bed any day now, which is good news because the air mattress doesn't hold air so well any more (sorry Mom and Dad, who we borrowed it from), and we had to sleep on the floor last night. Our backs are killing us. Also I've started getting deeper into the job hunt. Fingers crossed for a nice job teaching composition online!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Notes on beer

The day we arrived we hit the grocery store to stock up on essentials. I investigated the beer aisle. Beer is cheap here, and our local supermarket (Hannaford) carries beer from quite a few microbreweries I recognize--Kona, Dogfish Head, Blue Moon, and Red Hook to name a few. I've also heard it's easy to find Alaskan over here. What isn't easy to find is Pyramid, and this is going to be a big problem when winter rolls around and Snow Cap hits the shelves in the Pacific Northwest. Ashley assures me that there will be good winter brews here too, but my stomach still yearns for Snow Cap.

Also, Sam Adams is everywhere. Everywhere. I'm trying to think of a beer that's as prevalent in Washington as Sam Adams is here, but I can't. There are Sam Adams displays, letterboards with sales chalked on them, giveaways, flyers, delivery vans--everywhere I look I see the smug grinning bastard face of Samuel Adams.

Drink my beer, Ian. You're in my land now. Mwahaha.

I had a glass of the Sam Adams summer ale at Fat Belly's, a grill Ashley and I stopped at in Portsmouth, and it was very disappointing. I know their lager is good, though, so maybe not all is lost.

That first day at the grocery I picked up a six-pack from an excellent brewery in Maine called Shipyard. Like almost everything else in Maine, this beer has a lobster on it:

This beer was excellent. Yesterday at the store I tried to pick up their Export Ale, but they only had twelve packs and I was feeling poor (also, I have nobody to share the beer with), so instead I picked up a six-pack of Smuttynose IPA. Smuttynose is based out of Portsmouth, just a few miles from my apartment, and this is one of the better bottled IPAs I've had. It's as hoppy as some of Boundary Bay's brews. It reminded me of Bellingham. Pretty tasty stuff.

In other beer news, Ashley and I made beercan chicken a few nights ago (this was a disaster--don't ask) and the only can of beer we had in the apartment was the Sturgis memorial lager.

For those of your unfamiliar with beercan chicken, you have to drink the can about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way down before you can use it, so it was up to me to choke down six horrible ounces of biker brew. Unsurprisingly, it tasted like crap. Friends and family, you better get ready to fill me with delicious Northwest beer when I return. And now, here are a bunch of random pictures from the last week. Click for less blurry versions.

Our new apartment, still in its early stages.

Bedroom mess.

This is the single most difficult piece of furniture I've ever put together. Gah!

Ashley and I took a walk through Portsmouth, and it was good.

More Portsmouth.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Five questions for New Hampshirites (and New Englanders in general)

1. What's up with all the bunting? It's everywhere, along with tons of American flags. I've never been to a place that has so much red, white and blue. We drove past a house that had an American flag in every window (and the old houses here have lots of windows)! There are Obama-Biden stickers everywhere, and a surprising number of still-hanging-on Kerry-Edwards stickers. Some sort of New English pride thing, maybe? All of this I can understand, except for the bunting. I don't think I've ever seen bunting outside of period films, and now it's everywhere. What's up with all the bunting?

2. How are west coasters supposed to eat here? Food here is generally cheaper than back home (no sales tax, sweet), but we're finding it difficult to find some of our staples: no Tilamook cheese, yogurt, or sour cream; no Adam's peanut butter or gourmet peanut butter of any kind; no Hershey's syrup (that one's weird); and on a weird note, it's not called Dreyer's ice cream over here, it's called Edy's, even though it's the exact same product.

3. Why so serious? A mean way to put it would be that everybody is just a little uptight, but that's not quite accurate. Ash characterized it as a lack of west coast earnestness, which is a good way to put it, but I think there's also a lack of self-deprecation. Everything is important. And with good reason: Dover was established in 1623, a donation from Andrew Carnegie helped establish the University of New Hampshire, and many local restaurants, no matter how skeezy, proudly trace their history (Asia Fantasia! Fine Chinese and Korean takeout since 1958!). This all isn't to say New Hampshirites don't joke or have fun—we bought our bed from a jocular, elbow-nudging old guy named Frank—but there's kind of a current of seriousness running beneath everything.

4. Why does your traffic suck so bad? Everybody gets backed up at the tolls as people frantically lane change between the cash, EZ Pass, and exact change lanes—that's to be expected. But why does Dover, with barely 26,000 people, get swamped by bumper-to-bumper traffic during rush hours? I have two theories about this. Firstly, the town is so old there's no grid system—streets intersect at weird angles, there are no stoplights where there should be, occasionally stoplights where I'm used to seeing stop signs, pedestrian-only roads, giant six-way intersections where two or more of the roads are one-way.... it's a giant mess. I'm getting used to it, though. Secondly, nobody here takes the bus. Everybody drives. I'm hoping this changes when school starts and the students return.

5. Why is wine so expensive? When we find bottles we recognize from Bellingham and Seattle, they're four to seven dollars more expensive. The local stuff is expensive too, although oddly the French imports aren't too much more than they are at home. What makes this even weirder is that beer is much cheaper than in Washington (haven't compared liquor yet). As we are too poor to afford a $13 bottle of wine that tastes like a $6 bottle, this makes Ashley very sad.

This came out a little gripier than I intended. Sorry New Hampshirites, I really do like your state! It's just the little things that hang me up and make me remember I'm not at home. Last night my friend in New York posted a Facebook status update about a meteor shower from midnight to five a.m. Man, I thought, wouldn't it be cool to be on the east coast so I could see that? I didn't realize until this morning that I am on the east coast, and, had it been clear last night, I would have seen the meteor shower. This is going to take some getting used to.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Road Trip Day 6: End of the road

We made it up to Dover on the sixth day. I was surprised by how much it resembled Washington—lots of water, some hills, and trees (mostly deciduous, but hey). On our way to the apartment we crossed a bridge and saw dozens of sailboats out in the bay. Very lovely, in a very New Englandy way.

The apartment was nice, but waaaay too hot. Thankfully we have AC, so we cranked it while we lugged everything in from the trailer, hit the grocery store, and began to settle in. I don't want to bore you with all the details of food and furniture and moving in stuff, so I'll keep it short. Suffice it to say, we're here.

Updates on this blog will probably slow down now as I'm updating in real time, not catching up (sorry Chelsea, I can no longer be your ideal blogger), but I'll continue posting my thoughts, observations and ramblings. Keep reading, keep commenting (it's nice to know y'all are out there reading), and I'll be seeing you before you know it.

My new town, as seen in 1877.

Road Trip Day 5: Out east

People told me that New England was different, and I knew it would be, but I didn't think it would be this different.

We drove through upstate New York, and I did not feel like I was in America. Something about it tickled the back of my mind—the way the farms were so small, how little fences butted up against little fields and little thickets of trees. It was farmland, but compared to the country we'd been driving through for days, the unending fields of corn and wheat extending to the horizon, it was dramatically reduced in scale.

Then it hit me. This looks exactly like the French countryside Ashley and I drove through in December. But for the cars, the freeway signs and the trees, it could be France. It's a weird feeling, knowing that you're still in your own country but feeling out of place, gawking at the landscape.

The weirdness increased when we stopped at a travel oasis (I-90 is a toll road through New York as well). The people looked and acted different. They wore different clothes and different hairstyles from their west coast cousins, cashiers acted differently, everybody talked in unfamiliar accents (“Harold, wait in the caah”), and they knew we were different too. We got stares whenever we stopped. It's a weird place, this New England.

Road Trip Day 5: Double meat

In Ohio and Pennsylvania, Ashley and I were confronted by a horrifying realization. Americans are fat. Of course it's a stereotype, but on the west coast, it's a stereotype that's easy to laugh off. Sure some Americans are fat, but many of us are skinny and beautiful, right? Right? In Pennsylvania, the words “obesity epidemic” take on new meaning. It's as widespread here as the common cold.

We stopped at a Subway to get lunch and plan out the last leg of our trip. I bought a ham sub.

Would you like double meat?” the sandwich-maker asked.


Double cheese?”


Would you like to add bacon to your sandwich?”

Uh, no.”

Make it a combo and pay thirty-three more cents for a large soda?”

No thank you.”

She nodded and finished my non-double-meat-double-cheese-added-bacon (yet still huge) sandwich. On the way into the bathroom I noticed a Subway advertisement. “Double your meat and get a free cookie!” And to think I could have had a free cookie.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Road Trip Day 4: Never go to Maumee, Ohio

We stayed at a Motel 6 in Maumee, Ohio. The only reason we stopped at the motel, hidden behind a strip mall of mini golf courses and low-rent beauty salons, was because we were both starving. On our way in, a fat man in sweatpants threw a styrofoam cup into the bushes (everybody litters in Ohio, it's weird). The hostess ignored us while we checked in. There was bulletproof glass in the hallway. In our room—accessed via a narrow, stained hallway—peeling stickers reminding us to use the deadbolt and warning us that Motel 6 was not accountable for stolen property coated the door.

Ashley had a monster of a headache, and we were dying of hunger, but Maumee had little to offer. There was a Chicago-style pizza place next to us, but we'd ordered pizza into the hotel room the night before, so we skipped it and drove across the freeway looking for something, anything. Hunger eventually forced us into a Frisch's Big Boy.

The food was sad and greasy, the waitstaff was composed of Maumeeians in their 40s and 50s, and Ashley's headache was so bad she was nauseous. I stared at my cheese steak sandwich. The people in the booth behind us were massively fat and having a loud conversation full of Star Wars puns and references. (The woman related a story about how she accidentally cut somebody off in traffic and responded to the shouted “Nice driving, Princess!” by yelling “We all drive like that... on Alderaan!”)

Needless to say we crashed early and left Maumee ASAP.

Apparently there is one cool thing in Maumee. We didn't see it.

Road Trip Day 4: I Hate Indiana

Chicago was beautiful, but the traffic sucked. Driving the trailer through rush hour traffic in a huge city after three days of country was really nerve-wracking, plus it was easy to get distracted by all the awesome old brick buildings and cool skyscrapers. Chicago is gorgeous.

And then we crossed into Indiana. Gary, Indiana, right across the state border. It's like the city of Chicago squatted over the border and took a giant, industrial crap. It's nothing but train tracks, water treatment plants, piles of dirt, and sadness. For miles. The less time I spend on Gary, Indiana, the happier everybody will be.

Lovely Gary, IN

Interstate 90 is a toll highway through the state, which basically means it's a giant express lane to get out of Indiana as quickly as possible. There were few exits, and no major cities along the road. We stopped once, for gas, in a tiny mom and pop gas station that also sold fireworks, where we were the only customer. I walked in the door, looked up, and was faced with a huge confederate flag. In Indiana? I thought, and I hit the bathroom and filled my water as quickly as possible. The bathroom was full of pretty nasty graffiti, and a sign from the management that begged the vandals to stop because children used the restrooms as well (+5 for the courteous sign, -250 for the confederate flag). I looked up and saw scrawled across the ceiling in big black letters, “CRIPS.”

Soon we left Indiana, and its haze and industrial scuzz behind, and we entered Ohio. Ohio! Round on the sides and high in the middle, Oh-hi-oh! Things were looking up. Until we stopped for the night in Maumee.

Road Trip Day 4: I <3 Wisconsin

Dear Wisconsin,

I knew I would love you from the moment we stopped at the visitor's center and you had recycling bins. Yours were the first we'd seen since Washington, and they made me happy. Then there were the trees, the hills, the (small) mountains, the lakes and rivers--it all felt like home. I even found a public radio station and listened to the moderator interview a professor about Iranian politics. Wisconsin, you were a welcome reprieve from the never-ending corn fields of Minnesota, lined with their Bible verses and "Life begins at the moment of conception" billboards.

You've got good cheese, and mustard, and tasty cranberries. You've got a great college town (Madison) and friendly people. Your electoral votes went for Obama. I wish I could stay. But I'm just passing through, following I-90 down to the Illinois border, where Ashley and I turn on Sufjan Stevens' album "Illinois" and fork our money over to the toll booth lady. Goodbye Wisconsin.

Until we meet again,


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Road Trip Day 3: Where the heck is Wall Drug?

There it is.

Wall Drug is difficult to describe. Signs appear for fifty miles beforehand—and a few scattered ones in the empty parts of Wyoming and Montana—advertising free ice water! Fudge! Five cent coffee! Tyrannosaurus Rex! Free coffee for Vietnam vets! Homemade pie! Yes, Wall Drug has every good thing in the entire world.

When you get there, Wall Drug turns out to be a kind of weird tourist trap. But not just any tourist trap! It's a tourist trap so large, so weird and entertaining, that an entire town of other, smaller tourist traps has sprung up around it. It's like a drug store, a museum, a gift shop and a playground all rolled into one place. Ashley and I wandered its halls, sampling the five cent coffee (surprisingly drinkable), eating the fresh-baked doughnuts (delicious), looking at the hundreds of 19th century photographs of South Dakota and the American West, examining the huge concrete jackalope and the stuffed buffalo, and feeding money into the mechanical band (those robots do a mean version of “Bad Moon Rising”).

It's one of the few roadside attractions I don't feel gypped spending time at, because there's so much, and it's all interesting. There's even an entire room dedicated to photographs and newspaper clippings of Ted Hustead and his family, who have run Wall Drug since the early 1930s, and are basically the reason anybody stops in the tiny town of Wall, SD.

It's way too much to take in, and we would have loved to spend another few hours there, but we had a cat overheating in the car, so we had to leave. On the way out, however, we stopped at a gas station— overrun with bikers, just like everything else—and purchased a Sturgis 2009 Rally souvenir beer, which I plan to try out in a live video on this blog. Technology allows us to do such useful things, doesn't it? I could go on for so much longer about how amazing Wall Drug is, but instead I'll shut up and leave you with some pictures.

Harleys everywhere


More Jackalope.