Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Eight things I loved about August

More and more I find my monthly Eight Things post is something of a Best Bits of the Vlog summary, which is probably a little tedious but also perhaps just a little bit helpful. During my recent visit to the United States I frequently found myself listening to friends apologise in a roundabout way for never watching the vlog -- which is actually OK. Just because a friend of yours churns something out on a daily basis doesn't mean you have to watch each and every bit of that something. Indeed, I've half thought of trying to think up some sort of a code to identify the vlog "episodes" that are relevant. You know, the ones that will come up in conversation when I see next see people.

"Yeah, you really should have watched the one when Jenn fought a giraffe. That was amazing."

So far, I haven't thought of that code and, as it happens, this post doesn't even totally serve that purpose because I reference a few things not captured for YouTube posterity. Any hoosiers, here's the list (in no particular order) of eight things I loved about the eighth month of 2011: 

~ 8 ~ Visiting Minnesota: I had last visited Minnesota in July 2010, when I swore up and down to anyone and everyone I would not allow another year to pass before my return. I turned out to be wrong, of course. Visa and financial issues kept me sound on the Island of Rain for 13 months. So, getting back spun me into a sort of rapturous love with my adopted home state; absence makes the heart grow fonder. I found myself swooning over minute details of American life -- wide roads, country music, seemingly limitless supplies of junk food, ESPN, etc. -- many of them being things I hadn't been all that keen on when actually living there. But such is the madness of going home. The thousands of pieces of life not present in the Soggy Nations spark memories of greater things in which they played an insignificant role. For example, listening to country music reminds me of driving the width and length of America, through the stretches where often there is no other radio to choose from. Watching ESPN reminds me of running on a treadmill in the workout room of the downtown La Quinta in Austin, Texas, where my brother and I stayed for a few days whilst exploring the city in 2009. I don't so much care for country music or ESPN but the memories these things induce are intoxicating and so I love them by association. There's almost certainly a psychological term for this but I am too lazy to go on a Google expedition for it. In addition to tenuous subconscious links, however, Minnesota holds actual and real things that I love and pine for all the time I am living 5,000 miles away. Specifically, my friends. I got to see my best friend Eric, and his wife Kristin, and their 8-month-old daughter Annalise, several times during my fortnight in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. All the videos from my time in Minnesota can be found here (a), with Eric showing up on: 18 August, 21 August, 26 August and 30 August. On the the 30 August video you also see another old friend, Shawn. Minnesota provides something no other place can (b): friends I have known for more than two decades. On the night Shawn and Eric and I hung out at the Town Hall Tap we reflected on an observation made by another old friend of ours, Paul, who once said: "I find it harder and harder to make new friends, and impossible to make new old friends." But Minnesota provides the latter, as well. OK, newish. I have known Dan and Johanna, and Anthony and Maggie for eight years. That kind of pushes them a certain distance out of the "new" category, I suppose. Like seemingly all of my friends these days, both couples are parents to newborns. Dan and Johanna's son, Liam, is about four months old; Anthony and Maggie's daughter, Olivia, is roughly half that age. I got to visit them all one evening when I took the ridiculously long drive out to Dan and Johanna's house in rural Minnesota. They have a few acres of land that butt against several dozen more acres of farmland, found at the end of a 2-mile stretch of dirt road. We cooked hot dogs and bratwurst on the grill then sat around the fire into the night. Eventually babies drew everyone else away but myself and Dan. We sat until midnight, watching the fire die away and listening to coyotes yip and howl nearby. Coyotes, bitches. Dan has coyotes wandering around near his house. They are rural life's version of the chav, perhaps, but far less annoying because you can get away with shooting them. Minnesota had all these things and made me long to return to them. Additionally there were the streets of my beloved Saint Paul, long runs in the heat, meandering walks in sprawling grassland and wilderness, and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (absence of the latter is why Britain lost the empire, I'd suggest). There were so many things to love that this Eight Things post could easily become Eighty Things, all dedicated to the home state of Prince and Hüsker Dü. But I'll limit myself to just four more experiences from the trip: 

~ 8 ~ Watching the Twins beat the Yankees: I fell out of love with baseball in 2002, when MLB players came terribly close to striking. Baseball, of course, heralds itself as America's pastime and although you are now more likely to find kids playing soccer (and rugby) in neighbourhood parks, the game retains a unique and special place in the American identity. Nothing is so American as going to the ballpark. In light of that, and in light of the 9-11 attacks that had occurred just a few months before, I felt baseball players had a moral obligation to shut their millionaire cry-baby cake holes for at least one season and entertain people by swinging sticks around, spitting, staring at their gloves, adjusting their junk and occasionally displaying a modicum of athletic ability. In the end, the season went forward but my disdain for Major League Baseball would not recede for another seven years. The team that eventually helped me warm again to the game was the same team that had first introduced me to baseball as a kid: the Houston Astros. My grandfather's favourite team. In 2009, my brother and I went to a game at Minute Maid Park with my uncle and had a great time. The Astros lost but I didn't care. A few weeks later, Eric, Paul and I watched the Red Sox beat the Athletics at Fenway Park and I almost cried with joy. Catching a baseball game has now become a required element of summer visits home. This year it was my father, my brother and me at Target Field, watching the Minnesota Twins take on the New York Yankees. In games the nights previous, the Twins had been soundly defeated by the most over-hyped sports club on the planet but, suddenly, on this night the Twins remembered how to play baseball and beat New York 9-4. And it was perfect. The summer evening was perfect. My brother's banter was perfect. The hot dogs and beer were perfect. Baseball is in many ways a metaphor for America: it pays far too much regard to the wealthy, it has an overinflated sense of importance, but when it gets things right it does so in a way that is heartbreakingly wonderful. 

~ 8 ~ Minnesota State Fair: Additionally wonderful is the 157-year-old tradition commonly known as "the great Minnesota get-together," aka, the Minnesota State Fair. An institution older, in fact, than the state itself, the Minnesota State Fair draws shy of 2 million visitors each year over its 12-day run. It is 320 acres of agriculture, education, commerce, music, food and fairground rides. I have never met a Minnesotan, regardless of socio-economic background, who didn't like the Minnesota State Fair at least a little bit. Quite honestly, if you were to go to the fair and tell me you had found nothing enjoyable about the experience I would assume you to be suffering from deep psychological issues. It is awesome covered in awesome, dipped into a tasty batter of awesome and then deep fried in awesome. Eric, Kristin and I went to the fair on a Friday night, which was the first time I had been in the evening. I am one of those city kids who likes to see all the animals that the rural kids moved to the city to avoid, so I've usually preferred to go to the fair in the morning, when animal are more active. But it turns out that going at night is even better. We were able to get in free thanks to a family connection who works at the fair and drove us in on a golf cart -- making me feel as if we were all somehow important, as if we were rock stars being shuttled around at Reading Festival or some such thing. Although, in that scenario we were rock stars required to wear high-visibility vests who were then dropped inconspicuously into the middle of the International Bazaar. On arrival, beer and Pronto Pups and cheese curds were procured and I had one of the best fair experiences of my life. One of the biggest highlights was seeing Eric get invited up onstage to play with the Belfast Cowboys. He had gigged with the band a few times in the past, so he knew the parts, but it was still cool to see my best friend walk up and suddenly start performing. Again, it made me feel as if we were all somehow important. Though, perhaps some of us a little less so. "It's like he's Ferris Bueller," Kristin said. "I guess that makes me Sloane and you're Cameron." I'm not sure how I feel about that. After a few songs, Eric hopped off stage, we got more beers, went on fairground rides and enthusiastically shouted our conversations into the Minnesota summer evening, thousands of others swarming around us in a fit of lights and sound and laughter. And as we left the fairgrounds, that evening's fireworks illuminated the night sky.

~ 8 ~ Minnesota Renaissance Festival: Mention of the Renaissance Festival induces a fair amount of eye rolling in certain circles. It is, admittedly, a gigantic party seemingly put on by all those kids you knew in high school who were in theatre not because they had the ability to tell a story through acting but because they liked being loud and they liked people paying attention to them and they thought they were witty. You know, the guy whose favourite word was "erstwhile" because it sounded clever. In other words: me. But that makes it no less enjoyable. Ren Fest, as it is often referred to, is kind of a state fair of the absurd, based very loosely on the idea of re-creating the renaissance. Very loosely. Cheese curds are involved, the costumes people wear run the gambit from the early Middle Ages to looks sported by pirates of the Barbary Coast. At this year's Renaissance I saw a kid dressed as Obi Wan Kenobi. In many ways, Ren Fest is what you want it to be. It occurs to me that many American events are centred around the opportunity to shout "woo" at the top of your lungs. We are a people who like to shout "woo." It's fun, yo. By the very nature of the activity, it is impossible to be bored whilst shouting "woo." Go on, try it now; take a deep breath and let out a vocal-chord rattling "woo!" Your heart skipped a little, didn't it? Shouting "woo" is fun. Shouting "woo" is why America is better. Ren Fest is an event where this simple truth is understood. If you watch the video of my brother, Jon, his girlfriend, Vanessa, and I at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, you'll notice that most things are communicated via the medium of shout. I enjoyed it immensely. How could I not? Shouting was involved. And jousting. And lots of women in bodices.

~ 8 ~ Visiting Nine Mile Creek: I grew up running around and swimming in Nine Mile Creek -- the little strip of water that runs through Bloomington, MN, before spilling into the Minnesota River -- as well as the wooded area that surrounds it. In the video of the day I went to visit Nine Mile Creek I talk about my first visit to the area and why it means so much to me. Totally by coincidence, on that same day (and therefore, in that same video) Jenn visited the Gower Peninsula, back here in Wales, which holds a lot of importance to her from her childhood.

~ 8 ~ Visiting Jen and Dave: The pro-Minnesota theme of August started even before I set foot on the plane, because the month began with a quick visit to see our friends Jen and Dave, in London. Jen, or as she used to prefer to be called, Jeni, and I have known each other for nigh 20 years, stretching back to when the two of us went to high school together. I generally refer to Jen and Dave as my family on this island of rain, they are so special to me. So, when they asked if Jenn (that's Jenn with two letters "n," i.e., Jenn my girlfriend) and I would like to come for a weekend visit we jumped at the chance. It was a relatively quiet weekend: on Saturday we simply went for a walk and hung out at the pub; on Sunday we ate some more delicious food and spent more time at the pub. It's not exactly action-movie stuff. I suppose if we all had various neuroses it could have been converted into one of those tedious Woody Allen films, but really it was just a weekend of visiting with friends, which is something I seem to do far too infrequently.

~ 8 ~ 5 p.m. Pen y Fan: One of the myriad things I love about Jenn is her tendency to run with whatever silly idea I come up with. In most cases, I have spent my life saying things like, "Know what we should do right now? Road trip to Winnipeg!" and having that idea shot down by a more sensible person. Jenn, however, would simply grab her coat. And that more or less explains how we came up with the impromptu idea of having dinner atop a mountain. Which sounds quite romantic but for the fact that the particular mountain we chose was in Wales, which means it was rainy and cold and we were hammered by gale-force winds. But, still, we had fun.

~ 8 ~ Watsky: George Watsky is one of those anomalous artists who is so eclectic he doesn't fit particularly well into boxes. Your best bet is to refer to him as a hip-hop artist, and a particularly good one based on his ability to rap really, really fast. But his fondness for pun, literary allusions and Jewish white-boy look don't drop him into your typical vision of a hip-hop artist. Because of that, it appears that mainstream music companies have decided to give him a pass. Yes, he's good, but he's hard to market. As we all know, things that are easy to market are better than things that are good. That is the whole philosophy behind One Direction. But for people like Watsky there is the beauty of YouTube, where idiosyncrasy is seemingly encouraged and a number of talented people who will never get major-label contracts find success. People like Watsky are what make YouTube good. That said, Watsky can be enjoyed via that old-school method of mp3 and on his website he has a number of free downloads, all of which I am listening to constantly on my iPod these days.

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(a) On a side note, I was really happy with all the vlogs from my time in Minnesota. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology I was able to access video Jenn was recording on a daily basis in Wales and mesh it together. I think it worked out well.
(b) OK, that's sort of not wholly true.

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