@

 

Cover_NarrowRiverWideSkyThe Minnesota relatives visited. Our grandfather had visited us. He walked among the thistles and goats and chickens while we showed him where the events of our lives happened – the place where I fell off the horse, the place where Brian found a big frog. The goats sniffed his shiny shoes.

Uncle John lived in a cottage behind the house for several months after he returned from Vietnam. He needed some time alone, Mom said. He’d gone to “Dog Lab,” become a medic, and served two tours. He left again to Minnesota, married aunt Barb and adopted the little boy she’d had from her first marriage, and they visited the farm. I remembered he said he wanted to spank his little boy one hundred times. After he spanked the child and joined us outside by the livestock gate, he said he’d counted pretty high, but didn’t get to a hundred. We’d heard a cry per strike. Mom told me not to speak about it as I stood beside her counting heart beats, blocking out the crying. I don’t know how many smacks I heard.

 

BP:  This interview is somewhat unique, since you’re not necessarily out promoting a book or another specific project. You’re not on a junket. You’re a student from Minnesota who is currently living in Norway (more on that later), and I decided to chat you up after I saw UMN’s English Department website bragging about you because you’re the reigning Best Individual Poet according to the 2011 national College Unions Poetry Slam.

You’ve heard the news by now. A group of Minnesotan astrogeeks with impressively large telescopes have called out astrologers everywhere by reporting that the stars have moved since the Babylonian concept of the zodiac was born. Thought you couldn’t help your Leo need to be adored by the masses? Guess what. You are actually supposed to prefer solitary walks by the beach and are just an ass.

Welcome to the MAE*.

 

Ophiuchus: Nov. 29 – Dec. 17
The newly resurrected Ophiuchus sign represents a man wrestling a serpent and shares traits with Imhotep, a 27th century BCE Egyptian doctor – not to be confused with Mummy Imhotep, the still-juicy High Priest of Osiris who terrorized Brendan Fraser to the transitioning squeals of prepubescent male audiences everywhere. Like Dr. Imhotep, Ophiuchus is a healer of men and a doctor of medicine or science. And, like him, you insatiably seek higher education and are perfectly comfortable being the only person in your continuing ed class sporting a set of trifocals and a wad of extra absorbency hanging low in your trunk. You are expected to achieve a high position in life, regardless of how long it takes. As an addendum, you will also spend a lifetime trying to pronounce your new sign, regardless of how long it takes.

Sagittarius: Dec. 17 – Jan. 20
The Sagittarius makes for the classic dot-bomb era entrepreneur. You’re adventurous, optimistic, and you love those trendy little hipster companies that encourage jogging breaks and offer 6 weeks of fully paid paternity leave. You also love the idea of learning. This is not to be confused with actually learning. Your biggest challenge this year is going to be putting down the latest Seth Godin book to actually write that white paper.

Capricorn: Jan. 20 – Feb. 16
If you’re a Capricorn, you don’t need a horoscope to tell you what to do. You’re already driven, motivated, and probably have a highly detailed Excel spreadsheet filled with the necessary steps to get from point A to points B, C, and subsequently, D. Your biggest challenge is refraining from judging everyone else around you for not having such a detailed life roadmap and from repeating the words, “Really? Really?” when confronted by the average non-Capricorn. As a matter of fact, the only star sign you fear is the new and improved Super-Scorpio (see below), who you suspect in Column T, Row 46 could throw a potential kink in your Grand Master Plan to Take Over the World by eating your heart directly out of your still-steaming thoracic cavity with a shrimp fork, should you cross them.

Aquarius: Feb. 16 – March 11
For those of you who come to this sign as former Pisceans, the Age of Aquarius has literally only just dawned. What you need to know in your new star sign: #1 – You are easy going and a fabulous networker; #2 – You are lazy and slothful by nature; and, #3 – Unlike the Broadway show Hair**, life is not a musical and you will need some extra motivation to spur yourself into action.*** The good news is that of all your non-Aquarian friends, you stand to have the highest connection count on LinkedIn if you choose to apply yourself. Good luck with that.

Pisces: March 11 – April 18
Al Gore’s migration from Aries (Active, Demanding, Determined, Effective, Ambitious) to Pisces (Depth, Imagination, Reactive, Indecisive) explains a lot about how he was able to invent the Internet.

Aries: April 18 – May 13
If TNB had a star sign, it would be Aries: adventurous and living for the writer’s dream.****  What you need to know if you are a newcomer to Aries: you are a doer and not just a talker. The flip side of that is that sometimes you dive in too quickly without thinking through the consequences. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Taurus: May 13 – June 21
Well, former Gemini, now you’re a Taurus. Big whoop. You’ve always known you’ve got at least two personalities in there, so you might as well take the bull by the horns. Also, now you’re the same star sign as Mark Zuckerberg. (queue Simpons-esque “ha-ha”)

Gemini: June 21 – July 20
Turns out David Hasselhoff is actually a Gemini. Who knew? What you choose to do with this knowledge is entirely in your hands.

Cancer: July 20 – Aug. 10
Thanks to that hard shell of yours, you-who-are-now-Cancers are well-equipped to deal with the change. Of course, you are now also are equipped with a set pincers, which means you’re going to have a hard time letting go of your former Leo-hood, where you were loved openly and without restraint by panties-throwing masses. You now have a choice: insist on being worshipped, or embrace your new sign and practice a little love and nurture for your inner circle of friends. No, the person in the mirror doesn’t count. It’s going to be tricky. You may want to seek counseling. And, if you were born before July 22 and hung on to your former sign into the MAE*, well, you are one hell of a Cancer. Go. Surround yourself with people you trust and be productive in your venture. *pinch*

Leo: Aug. 10 – Sept. 16
Yes, we adore you. Yes, you mean the world to us. No really, we mean it. Also, as a point of information, Kenny Rogers, who was once a Leo, remains a Leo post-MAE – which is kind of cool, since he genuinely looks like a Leo. Kenny Rogers, we salute you. No really, we mean it.

Virgo: Sept. 16 – Oct. 30
You need to spend less time on FaceBook. No, seriously.

Libra: Oct. 30 – Nov. 23
Hey, former Scorpio! Great news! Now that you’re a Libra…oh, who am I kidding? You don’t give a shit about your new Libra horoscope. Chances are, you’re not even reading this right now because you’re so pissed off that somebody would dare to change your sign. I could type the lyrics in their entirety from “When the Doves Cry” for this star sign because no former Scorpio will ever, ever read it. It will sit here in digital purgatory for generations to come, completely ignored. “Why do we scream at each other? This is what it sounds like…” There, there. Put down the axe.

Scorpio, AKA “Super Scorpio”: Nov. 23-29
Yep, you read that right. Newcomers to this fine planet of ours have exactly one possible week to be born a Scorpio now. This means that everything you know and fear about Scorpios: the passion, the revenge, the murderous intent – shall now be compressed and concentrated exponentially for this highly evolved group. It’s like melding Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil with an açai berry. Founding CEOs who are born under this sign are to be feared, and possibly eventually incarcerated.

 

* Minnesota Astrogeek Era

** You know you want to sing it out. “Aq-uar-iuuus!”

*** Helpful hint: Try Red Bull

**** Otherwise known as the vocational version of the Slip N’ Slide.

 

This horoscope originally appeared in my brand-spanking-new magazine: SCREE Magazine (shameless plug). It’s been adapted for TNB.

 

When I was a little kid, I saw no good reason to go outside.

There are often plenty of reasons to stay indoors in Minnesota, but even during those perfect summer days that once made hordes of naïve and hardy Scandinavians consider the Upper Midwest an ideal place for permanent settlement, I remained in my room. My own mom, the granddaughter of a Swede and a Norwegian, would lean her stout body into my doorway and ask out of amazement, “Why don’t you want to go outside? It’s PERFECT out!”

It wasn’t just that the suffering and hard work of my forebears enabled a world of air-conditioned comfort I was unwilling to leave. Nor was it a growing identification with the Midwestern idea that the ability to withstand misery is ennobling – an ethos that explains how millions of people tolerate entities as consistently heartbreaking and stupid as the Chicago Cubs or a climate that can fluctuate between tornadoes and blizzards in under a month. No, I would have gladly sought fellowship in yet another shared misery, had anyone shared mine.

To me, a scrawny, twerpy little dweeb, outside was an unlucky assemblage of dull woe; a salad bar of reckless and pointless adversaries.

Outside, big kids drove around on bikes with mag wheels, swinging plastic baseball bats at smaller children. Scott Burt, the kid who got kicked out of fourth grade for pulling a knife on the teacher, roamed around looking for things to steal. There was a batshit-crazy fifth-grade girl who still carried the liner notes to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” everywhere she went and always tried to force boys and girls to kiss each other.

Outside there was also as much pathos as there were things to fear. There was a kid named Keith Stash, who was allowed to play in the middle of the street, and he’d be out there well past 9:00 PM, almost getting hit by passing cars as the sun and his parents gave up on him. The sight of his strange, un-abetted freedom was not enticing; it was sad.

There were also that pair of sisters who at a young age were obsessed with male genitalia. All of the male dolls they owned were stripped nude. Every time I saw them they would try to force me to take my pants and underwear off. They had no brothers and their dad wasn’t around, but because I studiously avoided them I can’t glean many insights into the realm of their preoccupation. They were outside too.

Outside is where one neighbor found a stash of male porn (completely unrelated to the aforementioned sisters, as it turned out) and where another neighbor found a stash of beer. Outside is where hit-and-run drivers killed a beautiful hunting dog named Malley and a friendly collie named Winston.

Outside was OK if it was the swingset in the fenced-in backyard or the tight front yard, shielded from the street by rose bushes, a cluster of thorns away from the unregulated freak kingdom that was my neighborhood, as I perceived it.

Of course, compared to a lot of places, where I grew up was downright idyllic. My neighborhood obviously wasn’t tough, it was just ugly sometimes, and like many ugly places, we were expected to respond to unwelcome compromises of social decency with brute force. The older kids, and many adults, expected boys to be eye-for-an-eye. Kid on a bike hit you with a bat? Stick a broom handle in his spokes! Scott Burt stole one of your Matchbox trucks? Kick his ass!

And people did kick Scott Burt’s ass regularly, with no complaint from his parents, who apparently knew the score. Ass-kicking, however, wasn’t my cup of meat either, so I didn’t fit in with the enforcers any more than the bullies. As someone who did not prefer to hit, to get hit, or hit back, I was treated like a vegan at a Sturgis pig roast.

So, I was much happier inside, filling a yellow spiral notebook with fanciful election results from the U.S. Presidential elections between 1789 and 1864. I titled this notebook “Papers From The Executive Branch.”

When I wasn’t doing that, I was probably playing with my Star Wars guys, pretending they were going to restaurants. “Hello,” I’d have Greedo the maitre d’ say to Lando the customer, “You can’t be seated until your entire party has arrived.”

“You need to get out of the house,” my mom said.

She and my dad spoke in the kitchen. They heard and understood my apprehensions about Scott Burt and all of the pervy dog-murdering Michael Jackson fans in the street at 9 pm, but were alarmed at my insular nature and lack of physical activity. For two parents in the ex-urb Middle West, they arrived at the most logical conclusion. They signed me up for soccer.

To that point, my awareness of my hometown’s Youth Athletic Association was that it sent older, more athletic kids to our door a few times year to sell us arcane local concoctions like Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls. To me, the idea of participating in a door-to-door fundraiser was as mortifying as soccer. There was nothing about this entire experience that would be “fun.” My parents, however, were unyielding. I was going outside.

Every team in the Youth Athletic Association had a color and this year, my particular group of third-grade boys were given the black shirts. This was enough to make us “the cool team,” and for no fault of my own, I was envied as a soccer player before I even attended a practice.

That was the last time in my life anyone looked at me on a pitch, field, diamond, course, rink, or sandlot and determined I was enviable. The coach assigned me to play defense, and about thirty seconds into our first “scrimmage” (where the team practiced against itself in a stripped-down mock game) any lingering envies were permanently disabused.

Soccer fields were kind of peaceful. I liked playing defense because I could just stand there and let my mind wander, and if the ball came near me, I would just kick it to someone else or get out of the way. In the meantime, I just stared off into space and thought about things I’d rather be doing.

My mom asked me how I liked soccer, and I said I thought it was okay, except for when the ball came near me. The smell of grass and the fresh air were a tonic for the imagination but the whistles and shouting broke my concentration sometimes.

Next year I was on a much worse team, less desirable for our maroon shirts and general lack of athletic competence. As such, more of was expected of me; I was promoted to wingman, an offensive position, despite showing a marked aversion to ball-handling, passing, scoring, drive or focus during my soccer career.

There were some boys on the team who seemed to be trying much harder than me, and were doing as least as bad. The scrimmages we had did not prepare us for games. We would get walloped by scores of 7-0 and 8-1. “I’m telling my team to play their best,” I remember my coach saying. “The problem is, most of them are.”

I actually made some shots on net, but no goals. For someone who had never crossed midfield in his life, this was awesome and terrifying and surreal, like someone from the Cook Islands seeing his first ice rink one year and playing in the NHL the next. It made me a better player, I suppose, being forced to actually play all the time.

I even got a mild concussion once while attempting a header, which for me was sort of a red badge of chutzpah. I remember being knocked on my ass, staring at shapes that looked like misty neon exploding grapefruit, and the coach, who was typically of the “rub some dirt on it and get back out there” school of sports medicine, let me sit out for the rest of the game.

I found that having a sports injury gained me some measure of respect. I was also told that I’d somehow expended some degree of effort and skill on the play that sidelined me. I was amazed.

Maybe this is where the story is supposed to get treacly, and where I’m supposed to tap into a hidden reservoir of inner competence and lead my scrappy underdog team to the all-city finals. This did not happen. I did realize that enthusiasm is a decent substitute for a total lack of natural talent, and that my positive attributes (speed, quickness) in combination with the negatives (dreamy detachment, total lack of coordination) could at least be a pain in the ass to the opposing team. I could be a spoiler; I could get in the way.

By ninth grade, I was done with the charade. I had fulfilled my parents’ objectives—I had gone outside for a change—and even though I didn’t score one goal in five years of soccer, I had exceeded my own expectations. I gave up sanctioned athletic competition for what I assumed was the rest of my life. A decade later in Italy, I would be proved wrong, with a clean slate and slightly different results.

For that time, however, perhaps I had convinced the souls of my immigrant great-grandparents that they weren’t entirely wrong in trying to make Minnesota a better place for their children, and that their hard work wouldn’t be wasted in an air-conditioned bedroom. Indeed, on one of those few Midwestern days that are actually enjoyable, a nerdy little descendant of theirs who’d never have survived their Oregon Trail-style privations can go outside, past the thieves and perverts and thugs on mag wheels, get awoken from another daydream by a salvo of authorized aggression, and maybe even get a concussion amidst flowering volleys of polite encouragement.

With my face in the dirt, whistles screaming, a breeze washing through the torn grass of someone else’s perfect day, and my head filling with buttery stars, outside, at last, would be OK.

I grew up in Minnesota during the last great wave of earnest and unhealthy casseroles, when 25-year-old mothers traded recipe cards at Welcome Wagon, and “salads” often contained no vegetables.

While not every household in my hometown defined “variety” by how many different dairy products could be worked into one hot dish, or had the audacity to name an admixture of marshmallows, dried coconut, and canned fruit cocktail a word meaning “food of the gods,” mine was, by these standards, the norm. My parents were college-educated, still bought music the day it came out, and even lived for years in Japan, but when it came to mealtime, they picked up where their own parents had left off.

I’m pretty sure that the spiciest thing my mom ever added to a dish was salted butter. When she served chips and salsa, the salsa was the absolute mildest she could find; a glass of milk would score higher on the Scoville scale. A common and acceptable meal was a boiled chicken breast served with plain white rice and green peas.

When my dad cooked, things only got weirder. He only made one of two things, “slumgullion” or “whiplash.” “Slumgullion” involved dumping a variety of the previous day’s leftovers—say, chicken breast, white rice, and peas—into a pot, and stirring in a can of chicken noodle soup, no water added. “Whiplash,” meanwhile, was like goulash, but made in under ten minutes. This was possible because he did not add onions, peppers, bay leaves, potatoes, paprika, or any of the other ingredients that I would one day learn were in commonly recognizable versions of goulash.

People from the Midwest who experience a kitchen like mine often effect an equal and opposite reaction when they come of age. Some spend their twenties putting Tabasco sauce and chili flakes on everything, some learn to make their own damn food, and some become a freegan after a failed attempt to start a permaculture collective. To me, it just seemed like there could be lot more to eat in the world than what I’d been exposed to, and I wanted to try as much of it as I could stand.

My parents’ kitchen did not introduce me to the varied and bounteous repasts awaiting me in the world’s dining rooms and cafes, but it did keep me alive so that I could someday experience them on my own. My parents were fine with this, and encouraged it, so long as they didn’t have to pay for it.

So, as soon as I got a driver’s license, my high school girlfriend Stacy and I set out to eat all of the food we’d only read about in magazines. Together we ate North African shekshouka at the Barbary Fig, Ethiopian injera at the Red Sea in the West Bank, and even found authentic Mexican food being served from a truck parked in the lot of the Busy Bee Café on Robert Street.

For Stacy and myself, all of this was damn near consciousness-expanding. The food itself was gustatory shorthand for a world of possibilities outside of our stultifying hometown, and it abetted a wanderlust that would go on to cost thousands in out-of-state student loans.

Stacy, for her part, eventually attended graduate school at the University of Bologna, later lived in Florence, and now has a job in New York that enables her to travel the world. I made up for my own lost time in comparative stops and starts, but I always waited for an opportunity to follow Stacy’s lead in actually living somewhere overseas, and getting the kind of culinary experience that only comes with cultural immersion.

In fall 2006, my live-in girlfriend and I broke up. After mutually trying and failing at an ill-advised attempt to be friends immediately afterward, an indefinite move to another continent seemed to be the thing to do. I stored what little I kept in the crawl space of a friend’s house in Echo Park, gave my 17-year old car to a Merchant Marine, and flew south to a rent a loft in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires lined up by an old friend from Chicago named Karen.

I’d met Karen a decade before in college, under an umbrella in a rainstorm. My version is that I was walking past Allison Residence Hall in a total downpour and I saw a shrouded figure pelted by rain, so I went over with my umbrella and walked her to her class. Her version is that she was the one with the umbrella, and I was the shrouded figure. Whatever happened, we didn’t even get each other’s names that day and it was only by some accident of fate that we crossed paths much later and became friends. By the time I was in Buenos Aires, she’d been living there for several years, working as a trapeze artist and taking wu shu classes. She carried a large sword on her back everywhere we went.

Karen also introduced me to a Castellano teacher named Natalia who I hired as my private language tutor. After a couple of weeks, when it seemed like I was able to complete a sentence, Karen and Natalia suggested that why don’t we all go out to a parilla for a total immersion dinner, with me responsible for doing all of the ordering. This was exactly what I’d been waiting for my entire life.

By this point, I’d traveled some, and had a few experiences eating local specialties (kangaroo in Darwin, ossobuco in Umbria) and badly ill-advised non-local specialties (bruschetta in Chiang Mai, tacos in Prague) and I figured I could handle anything. Building a hearty appetite for days in advance, I entered the night of my immersion dinner ready to use as many new bovine-related vocabulary terms as possible.

Compared to, say, a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse back up in the EE.UU, the Argentine parilla has a far more liberal notion of the percentage of a beef cow that’s considered edible; my estimates put that percentage in the mid 90s. They also assume that a customer is not disturbed by the idea of seeing their dinner before it hits their plate, or, quite often, before it’s completely butchered. Someone eating dinner extremely early, say around 8:00 pm, will see quartered cuts of cow paraded through the front door, and hung near a grill, usually also near the front door. Remember that skit from SNL’s first season, “Mel’s Char Palace?” The Argentines would not see the humor in it. They would ask where it is, and if they serve Malbec.

What attracts both tourists and locals, besides the quality of its grass-fed, hormone-free beef, is the price. At most parillas, a merely satisfying chunk of recently slaughtered bovine costs, in American prices, about as much as a used copy of Toby Keith’s “Shock’n Y’all” on CD. For the price of that CD new, you can get a steak that wouldn’t fit in your glove compartment.

Also, for whatever reason, you also get a massive amount of free bread with your meal. Not just Bimbo brand white dinner rolls either, but ludicrous quantities of a wide variety of grains and loaves, even those cool flavored sticks in plastic packaging. No idea where it’s baked. Maybe, as Ben Katchor wrote, “on the windswept shore of a vast inland sea.” I hope not anywhere less fascinating or less sanitary; there were nights where I’d cleaned out the breadbasket at least twice, and it was refilled even then. Taciturn young men bring clear plastic garbage bags full of the stuff in through the front door, all day and night, like a virtual Iguazu Falls of leavened bread delivery and consumption, so I knew even if my Castellano failed me during my immersion dinner, I would not starve.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to read and recite from a menu; at the parilla that Karen chose, I never even saw one. The three of us were sat at a table for six in the middle of a windowless restaurant whose walls were lined with mounted yellow wall lamps, making the place feel like an old school no-limit poker room, where everyone was a winner and winners were paid in beef. After two bottles of wine and the chimichurri were on the table, our waiter wasted no time becoming a warm conduit between the grill and my face, and all the bits and pieces that recently assembled a living cow flew at me with steam and alacrity.

Over three hours, the waiter assailed my table with semi-recognizable cuts of shank, rib, and loin. We ate black sausage. We ate kidneys. We ate an appetizer of something red, sliced and raw. We ate something called sweetbreads, which I learned is neither sweet nor bread. I didn’t eat more in quantity than I normally had in Argentina, but that night my alimentary canal made a dashing array of sundry acquaintances.

It was a simpler immersion experience than Natalia had hoped for me, but my basic Castellano still wasn’t up yet up for the job. I said “Yes” and “Delicious” and “I want more” again and again and again, but I hadn’t yet learned the phrases “That looks disgusting” or “Absolutely not under any circumstances” or even “No, I don’t want any” (which was one of the first phrases I learned in Thai, and the most frequently used). No, I just kept telling the server, Mas. Esta Bueno. Mas, Para Todos. Me Gusta. Mas, Por Favor.

Two days later I was still in bed, fully dressed, my bed sheets and multiple comforters wrapped around me like wet eels. By this point, a series of circumstances had forced Karen to move into the loft, and it was good to have her company in a time like this, even if she felt that I’d brought my fate on myself.

She was downstairs, moving her bed from the living room into the kitchen (a completely different story) when, wrapped in a mountain of blankets, I approached her.
“Karen,” I said, “I think I have something living inside of me.”
“Yeah, could be,” she said.
Not the answer I expected.
“I’m serious,” I said.
“So am I,” she said. “You might have a parasite.”
You Might Have A Parasite. “Parasite?” I asked her. “Where am I, Cambodia?” (Ever since seeing this made-for-TV Disney movie in the 80’s called “The Girl Who Spelled Freedom,” I’ve always associated intestinal parasites with Southeast Asia).
“Sure,” Karen said, not reassuringly. “It’s not unheard of. I got some Chinese herbs? Or you wanna see a doctor?”

I was cautious. I had just taken some strong medication from a local pharmacy and I didn’t want to mix meds. But I also didn’t want to rush to conclusions. Karen was busy that day with a cousin in town, and it was a Sunday and the doctor’s offices wouldn’t be open anyway, just the ERs.
“Let’s see how I am tomorrow morning,” I said.

In the meantime I decided to make peace with my intestinal parasite. I figured if there was a living thing inside of me, it was kind of like a pet, so I should give it a name. I decided on Mystery Lou.

At first the relationship between Mystery Lou and I was, like many parasitic relationships, decidedly ambiguous. After a while, I wasn’t sure where I stopped and he began; for my taste, it was a bit too much like that Gollum/Smeagol situation in the second Lord of the Rings film. Luckily, over time our relationship improved into something more nuanced, like the emotional but problematic bond between Truman Capote and Perry Smith, and I wondered if I would need to keep Mystery Lou alive so I could gain more material for a book about him.

All I’d learned to that point is that having a parasite, if that’s indeed what it was, is the most miserable physical experience this side of a kidney stone. Whatever it was I ate that gave birth to Mystery Lou I swore I’d never touch again, but I’d eaten so much weird shit that night I had no idea what part of the cow to blame.

Days passed, and either Mystery Lou died or went into hibernation, because I eventually regained an appetite and fully digested solid food again. After about a week without either, this was completely exciting. For me, it felt like graduating from high school, if high school had meant four years of vomiting and irregularity.

In the years since Mystery Lou, I’ve discovered the hard way that I’m lactose intolerant, that most pork products give me heartburn, and that almost all desserts and fried foods make me sick to my stomach. I still have the same inherent sense of adventure with cuisine, but my digestive tract has seemingly thrown in the serviette. Just like other phases some Midwestern guys experience—being into ska music, drinking Natty Ice, sleeping with girls from Wisconsin—the brazen pursuit of things like black sausage and sweetbreads may be something I’ve outgrown.

After I left Argentina in July of 2007, I immediately flew to Minnesota. My first night back in my hometown, my grandma Doris made me a splendid dinner of an iceberg lettuce salad, chicken breast, white rice, and peas. The meal did exactly what I needed it to do.

For that, I apologize to my mom and dad for my abandonment of their cuisine. I now see the point, and I’ll never doubt it again.






Not too long ago, Simon Smithson submitted a brief blog entry, seeking ideas about the best way to write about place.  I had nothing to say about it.  I was curious.  I wanted to know, too.  I waited.  No one had much to say.

Then I left my place to go to my cousin’s place in Chicago where I met Simon and Zara, who were not in their places, either.

I love Chicago.  Stormy, husky, brawling.  I fit in there well enough.  I’m comfortable there.

Most of the rules in Chicago are the same as here.  It’s a lovable, dirty old dog in a fancy coat–not glamorous, and not really trying to be.  Chicago is at home in its skin.  In that way, it’s similar to the Twin Cities.  Nevertheless, it’s not home, and in conversation with foreigners in a place to which I, too, was foreign, I became acutely aware of it. 

I am proud of Chicago like I’m proud of my sister’s kids.  They’re great.  I love them.  I marvel at them.  But they’re not mine.

Unlike most people from the Upper Midwest, I have never been in any particular hurry to leave.  I see no problem with it.  I can’t imagine what other people have that we don’t–at least in reasonable facsimile.  I like it.  Wherever you go, there you are.

Nevertheless, it’s particularly difficult to write about a place like Minnesota.  No matter how excellent I think it is, to most of the world, I’m talking up an ugly sister to a hapless friend in the hopes that her charming personality will win the day if I can just trick him into being in the same room with her.

It’s practically a con.

A siren song to the happy oblivious.

Never mind the crooked gait, the missing eye, the shoddy public transport, the Iron Range.  She’s a lamb.

So I’m going to try to be honest, here.  No tribal supremacy, no maudlin sentimentality.  I’m going to tell it like it is.

Technically speaking, it’s flyover country.  Home of nothing but lutefisk, mosquitoes, and fat farmers.  But we are a blue state, so as far as most people who live on either coast are concerned, we at least have that going for us.  We’re a strange hue of blue, having our own democratic party of a type found nowhere else in the nation.  I expect Canada to invade any day.  We’re the closest you can get (except maybe the UP) without actually passing through customs.  We’ve been sticking our nipple into Canada for over 150 years.

The running joke about MN politics is that any given person is probably a card-carrying member of both the NRA and the ACLU, and we are happy in our habits.  For nearly as long as I’ve been alive, our habit is to elect democratic presidents, republican governors, one each conservative and liberal national senators…

You get the idea.  We’re not sitting on the fence; we’re straddling it.  We deal with a political climate of extremes the same way we deal with our weather:  Use what’s available to make the situation as tolerable as possible.


For the most part, much of what the coastal supremacists say is true.  Our winter cold is at once hypodermic and searing.  It can, sometimes and if you’re not careful, freezer-burn the skin right off your face.

We do, indeed, have fat farmers.

Our summers are oppressively hot, stormy, and humid, too.  That’s what happens when 10,000 lakes get sucked into the dry Southwestern air that rides in on the jet stream.  Manic depressive weather.  The land of 10,000 natural extremes.

We have a lot of corn.  And livestock.  And water.  Water everywhere.  The water turns to ice, and we drive on it to get from igloo to igloo or state to state. Or just to whip shitties.

Our main defense against all of these accusations is, “Hey.  At least we’re not Wisconsin.”


But also in our defense, I know from experience that many major metropolitan areas smell like piss.  The Twin Cities do not.  We are a proud, clean people.  Little Mogadishu sometimes smells like curry and nag champa, but that’s just how they roll over there.  There is a store there that is the size of most Aldi supermarkets, and it specializes in batik and incense; it has been there for 50 years or something.  The smell is in the sidewalks.

On the West Bank, even the dirt smells like a foreign country.

If I wanted to attribute a sound to Minnesota, I would probably mention how it is possible to hear snow and ice melting (literally true; snow “breathes” and ice “sings”).


I’m not sure what Minnesota tastes like.  Probably like something on a stick.


We are Germans and Scandinavians primarily–traditionally, I should say.  This is changing.  We have some of the largest Hmong, Somali, Sierra Leonian, and Liberian immigrant demographics per capita in the nation.

As I said, we are a clean people.  We like  for things to be nice–not fancy or ostentatious, which would be rude.  Just nice.  Look nice, be nice; don’t make a scene.  That’s the state motto.

Actually, the motto is L’Etoile du Nord.   It is evidence that we once had French people hanging around here.   They were voyageurs and other unsavory, unwashed characters, no doubt.  We shooed them all into Canada and slammed the door.

We shooed them politely, though, I’m sure.  Minnesota Nice.


Minnesota Nice is not actually about BEING nice.  It’s about acting nice.  It’s about showing that you know how to do it.  It’s not unlike French politesse.  It has a lot to do with not imposing on others.  Not shouting, not invading others’ personal space (a Minnesotan’s personal space is half again as large as any other American’s), not invading their auditory or olfactory space, not turning up unannounced, not showing any emotion that may be disturbing to others, not invading ego space with braggadocio, returning calls and correspondence in a snappy fashion, saying “excuse me” when you sneeze…you know…in case you might have grossed someone out, and saying “bless you,” if someone else sneezes, so he or she knows you were not grossed out.

There is a lot of apologizing involved.

Pardon my reach, excuse me, thank you, I don’t want to impose, which floor would you like, I’m sorry, excuse me, my mistake, pardon me, I’m sorry it’s so late, I’m sorry it’s so early…

And if you’re doing nice right, no matter how evil you are in fact, no one will ever, ever know about it.  Some people find this off-putting or problematic or unpalatable.  I don’t see what the difference is between actually being nice and only being nice as far as anyone you ever encounter knows.

I mean, the net effect is the same.

We are adept at getting along.  Feel free to cuss someone out behind his back, but make nice in person.  Do not upset things.  No one wants to deal with that.  Don’t make a scene.

Immigrants from Africa, however, struggle with this aspect of northern culture.  Many come from more outspoken, straightforward speech cultures and are widely regarded as rude or aggressive by Minnesota natives.  Cultural confusion.  Conversely, many Asian immigrants who come from more reserved cultures assimilate fairly easily in this respect.

Our accent–or alleged accent–is legendary.  Most Minnesotans, especially those living in cosmopolitan areas of the state, will erupt in clenched-jaw, terse-lipped, low-voiced, and inappropriately (however reservedly) offended derisions if you tell them that they sound like Fargo.

And rightly so.  The accents represented in that film are caricatures and, even then, caricatures of some of the most extreme accents in the state.  Nevertheless, I discovered that some things just aren’t fit for denial.  “Ya shuur” escaped my lips at least three times in the roughly eight hours we spent with Simon and Zara that weekend in Chicago.  I’d repeat it every time.  To myself, near myself.  To punish myself for having said it.

So, what has already happened, what has already been said, who has already been here?

James Wright, John Berryman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Patricia Hampl, Ray Gonzales, Winona Ryder, Judy Garland, Steve Zahn, That-Guy-Who-Played-Hellboy, Bob Dylan, Soul Asylum, the Replacements, The Suburbs, Husker Du, The Jayhawks, Bob Mould, Semisonic, The Hold Steady, Atmosphere, and The Artist Known, Then Not Known, and Now Known Again, as Prince.

These people all have formidable Minnesota connections.  I’m sure I’m forgetting some.

John Berryman died less than 2,000 feet from my cubicle at work.

No.  He did not die of boredom.  And not of polar bears, either.

F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in my hometown briefly.

A reporter in the 19th century once said St. Paul, our capital city, was “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation.”  So we threw a street party and a parade in the dead of winter–and continue to, annually, without fail.

Fame and respect outside of Minnesota are hard to come by while you’re in Minnesota, but that’s changing somewhat.  The Twin Cities’ arts scene (performing, visual, and literary), which Minnesotans have been shouting about for decades, is formidable–in many ways ridiculous–relative to our population.  It continues to grow, maybe from the realization that, being where we are, talking funny like we do, we have to work twice as hard to  be considered even half as good.

Minnesota has a tradition of sharing its collections of stuff, be it art or animals, free of charge.

The animals.  The wildlife.  We have wildlife.

But in exchange for cursing us with the coldest major metropolitan area in the nation, The Guy has seen fit to grant us a few boons.

A major one is that Minnesota is 99.9% free of poisonous things.  It’s too cold here for poison.

We do have wolves, bear, puma, moose, and an inexplicably robust (suddenly resurgent) wild turkey population.  I don’t know if you know this, but wild turkeys are mean as fuck.

And stupid.  So stupid.  I wouldn’t normally shoot a living thing, but I might shoot a turkey if properly armed and even mildly provoked.

Come to think of it, our birds are pretty mean in general.  Bald Eagles and Red-Tailed Hawks, especially, may abscond with your Pomeranian or preemie if you don’t keep an eye on it.  Death from above.  For real.

A raptor ate your baby.

Okay.  They don’t take babies.  Please don’t go to your urban condo coastal dinner parties and make wide eyes at people over your martini, telling everyone you heard that the hillbilly Minnesotans sacrifice babies to the national bird.

It’s the June Bugs that take babies.

Another boon and, really, the bottom line:  Unlike our turkeys, our people are smart.  We are among the best-educated states in the country.


Suck on that, coasters.  Take that to your dinner party.

Our winter comes and goes, but your stupid is forever.


Er. I mean.  Um.  Sorry.

Pardon my braggadocio.

What I meant to say was:

  • Wi nøt trei a høliday in [Minnesota] this yër?
  • See the løveli lakes
  • The wøndërful telephøne system
  • And mäni interesting furry animals...
  • Including the majestik møøse
  • A Møøse once bit my sister...
  • No realli! She was Karving her initials on the møøse
    with the sharpened end of an interspace tøøthbrush given
    her by Svenge - her brother-in-law - an Oslo dentist and
    star of many Norwegian møvies: "The Høt Hands of an Oslo
    Dentist", "Fillings of Passion", "The Huge Mølars of Horst
    Nordfink"...[credit]


Anyway.







If you’re a nudist, then you probably already know that the state of Oregon doesn’t ban nudity or have a crime of indecent exposure.

If you’re not a nudist, then you’re now either changing your airline tickets so you can spend a few extra days in Oregon, or you’re changing them so you can land in the state of Washington, because in your mind it’s practically the same thing.


But even without this state ban of public nudity, there aren’t herds of naked people grazing along the Oregon highways.

There aren’t basketball games of Shirts vs. Pants happening in the local park.

And there aren’t naked families chilling at the Drive-In, taking in double features in the bed of a reversed pick-up, arguing when it’s still safe to eat dropped popcorn.

Off of Mom, yes.

Off of Dad, judgment call.

Off of Adolescent Ned, not unless you like your popcorn topped with gym sweat and happy trail hair.


It should be noted that many cities and towns in Oregon have local laws banning public nudity in parks and in their downtown areas.

And that’s how it is in the town of Ashland, population of about 20,000. You can’t strut your stuff down Main Street and you can’t sunbathe without tan lines in one of their parks, but if you happen to slip off to a secluded area of Ashland Creek and do a bit of skinny dipping, no one is going to call the cops.

They may call their friends and they may call you names based on your physical haves or have-nots, but they’re not going to call the cops.

(Stick with the interview below for a link to some naked Oregonians.)


It’s been going on like this for a century or so.

But then a guy from the Bay Area, Tony Cooper, vacationed in Ashland this past summer in not much else than some sneakers and fanny pack.

The town’s folk were a little annoyed by the 66-year-old guy walking their streets in the nude, but then attitudes changed substantially when he unknowingly entered a school zone.

You know what they say: “It’s one thing if I catch a glimpse of your bobbing bird, but it’s another thing if my grade-school daughter sees it, comes home and draws its likeness all over her bedroom wallpaper, and then goes on to draw a big old penis on our favorite photograph of Grandma.”

They do say that.

Look it up.

Might be in Deuteronomy.


In response to Cooper’s school-side jaunts, Ashland thought it was time to legally ban nudity within 1,000 feet of a school, but the mayor sided with three of the six members of the City Council, asking that the people vote on the initiative themselves in the future.

See, this was just one instance of a nude dude around a school in however-long, and this nude dude has since gone on record apologizing for being near a school and promised the next time he visited he’d only go outside au naturale after 10 pm.

No reason to overreact, the mayor thought.

It’ll all blow over, many said.


Two years ago, if you remember, the small town of Brattleboro, Vermont, faced an eerily similar situation.

They were lax on their views of public nudity until, according to a Reuters story:

“The weather grew hot and a couple of dozen teens took to holding hula hoop contests, riding bikes and parading past stores wearing only their birthday suits. The disrobing has resumed this summer.

But many locals say it has gone too far. Some cite a case in which a senior citizen from Arizona strolled through the center of town wearing only a waist pack and sandals.

A fanny-pack wearing old man was fucking it up for everyone.

Just like this summer in Ashland, Oregon.

Brattleboro went on to ban public nudity altogether for 30 days, but the national attention of being called an intolerant town seemed to sway them into letting the ban lapse and letting the free-wheelin’ to continue on.


Ashland’s story continues up in the Pacific Northwest.

With yet another fanny pack.

Because the town did not go on to ban public nudity in school areas, a man from Minnesota went to Ashland to be purposefully be naked in front of their schools.

Seriously.

According to the Ashland Police Chief, the man intentionally walked around the high school naked, save for his fanny pack, while students were present, and then was later hanging around the school’s parking lot wearing clothes.

And now, tomorrow, the City Council is voting on banning nudity across the board.

No more skinny dipping in Ashland Creek.

No more sunbathing topless in the backyard.

No more carefree walks from the shower to the bedroom, because if the ban passes, Eric Navickas, City Council member, says that you could be arrested for indecent exposure in your own home.


I interviewed Navickas via email:

GB: Are you naked right now?

EN: Bare naked; ask what you want.

GB: Good. Glad to know you’re taking advantage of the opportunity while it’s still legal in Ashland. Aside from Ashland Creek and in front of their computers, where else have citizens of Ashland been getting naked that hasn’t caused a public outcry?

EN: There have been several events associated with nudity that have been generally popular. The first that comes to mind was the “Buns not Bombs” protest at the outbreak of the war in Iraq. About ten people marched through downtown with body paint on their bare bodies. Another protest around that time entailed about thirty nudes forming a large peace symbol out of their bodies in the front lawn of our downtown park. We’ve also had citizens celebrate the World Naked Bike Ride event; an international event to raise awareness to fossil fuel consumption. I’ve seen other events associated with the First Friday Art Walk that included nudity; usually again with body paint. All of these events seemed well received and resulted in little or no public outcry.

As well, we have many people who just enjoy nude sunbathing in their yards or hot tubs that would be affected by the proposed ban if they are visible from a public place.

GB: So no more nude hot tubbing in your backyard if this thing passes. Ashland would be going from naked peace signs in the park and naked bike parades to having to worry about getting arrested for walking in front of their front window on their way to the shower. Do you blame this guy from Minnesota for this, or do you blame the citizens of Ashland?

EN: I believe the Council is to blame for responding with a knee-jerk reaction to an unusual circumstance. We really don’t have naked people walking around schools every day. I believe it is important for legislators to maintain a level head in these circumstances and not immediately jump to passing another restrictive law that may have broader implications. More than likely we’ll never see another naked person walking around a school.

I’m disappointed this guy from Minnesota provoked the Council into responding in this manner.

GB: Have the discussions been civil or heated in city hall? I’m imagining something dramatic where someone arrives to a meeting in the nude and yells: “Look at me! I said, ‘Look at me!’ Am I a monster, or am I human? And could somebody check out this mole on my lower back? I think it’s gotten bigger but my wife says I’m crazy.”

EN: This round of discussions have been fairly civil and, unfortunately, Council has heard more from those with fearful attitudes toward their bodies who wish to associate nudity with sexual predation or indecency.

I found these old pictures, however, from the previous time the Council discussed this some years ago when they limited the ban to the downtown and parks. This protest was staged on the front lawn of the Council Chambers (NSFW): http://rogueimc.org/en/2004/07/2970.shtml

GB: You voted against the proposed ban around schools and you plan on voting against the city-wide nudity ban that’s coming up on Tuesday. What’s your biggest personal worry here? That the slope is as slippery as they say? Did you have a nude production of “Annie Get Your Gun” coming up and you’ve already sold out, and the thought of having to pay everyone back would be a major headache? Or are you worried that Ashland would look lame in the eyes of other Oregonians? Is Oregonians a word, or did I make that up?

EN: I will be voting against the proposed ban. I believe the healthiest society is one that is very disciplined in protecting civil liberties. Nudity in itself is entirely harmless and I’m proud to live in a community that to this point has been able to tolerate and even celebrate occasional eccentric behavior. Ashland is an artist community that is suffering from rapid gentrification. To myself, this is in many ways a symbolic death of our community as anything unique; we’ll now be another Fox News, Big Mac, fully dressed, all-American, normal town.

There is no damage to anyone, including children, in seeing a nude person. In fact, studies show that societies that have a healthy attitude toward accepting public nudity have many fewer social problems with unhealthy sexual behavior. I believe the establishment clause of the First Amendment that defines us as a secular state and restricts the establishment of religion limits our right to legislate morals. This moral legislation that has no place in a secular state.

In practice this law will simply be another tool to harass the counter-culture of our community. Conservatives and many of the business establishment in this town have a nasty history of finding insidious ways to “clean things up.” A couple of hippies playing guitar, the aging crystal toting neighbor with saggy boobs who likes to sunbathe, a couple of bike punks bumming change, or the single mom with tattoos going for a soothing skinny-dip; these are undesirable victims of this growing intolerant attitude in Ashland.

Also, Oregonian is a word; how about Chicagonian?

GB: It’s Chicagoan. You got a little ‘N’ and ‘I’ happy there, like me when I watch “Wheel of Fortune” by myself. Now the part that interests me the most about this story is this guy from Minnesota who came directly to Ashland to get naked in front of school children. I’ve gone back and forth on who this guy is. He is either 1.) Some dude who saw the opportunity to live out his perverse dream of letting little Sally and Timmy see his wang without getting arrested, or 2.) He’s some rogue conservative who is taking one for the team, showing you what happens when you purposefully don’t ban nudity around schools. I believe it was the latter. A guy was teaching you all a lesson so that you had no choice but to bring the idea of banning nudity back to a vote. What do you think?

EN: I’ve tried not to speculate as to what motive this individual had but the facts of the story are so unusual it leads one to speculate. The most conservative member of the Council brought forward the initial proposal to ban nudity within school zones. Most on the council felt that there was really no need to put this type of law on the books as we really haven’t had a problem with lots of nudes around schools. It seemed to be a means of framing the argument to build support for his personal issues and prudish attitude. We’ve seen similar tactics with some of the anti-homosexual legislation conservatives have brought forward here in Oregon that attempt to frame the discussion around “protecting children;” perverting their intolerance into an interest social good.

Anyway, several days after a majority of Council refused to support this proposal, a nudist claiming to be from Minnesota arrived and began walking around various schools. This lasted about two days and then he was gone. The action was so specific to the Council decision that it was hard not to think it was specifically contrived to provoke the city into banning nudity. There has been a lot of speculation as to whether the individual was paid, but that would be very difficult to prove; we are left discussing this in the context of having a real problem with nudists around schools. Perhaps our own miniature version of the Reichstag fire that we’ll never know the facts on.

GB: I wish you luck with your crusade to keep the town of Ashland liberal, free, and unique. Any final argument for someone who thinks public nudity is a one-way ticket to hell?

EN: I see it as nothing less than degrading to humanity as a whole to legally define the human body as something that is inherently le or indecent. I personally subscribe to the Platonic/Vitruvian view that there is something sacred to our form that we should celebrate not condemn.



The Ashland City Council votes tomorrow.

And from what Navickas has told me, it sounds like it’s going to be 4-2 in favor to ban public nudity.

But we shall see.

Check the comments on this post tomorrow evening, or follow along on their newspaper:  The Ashland Daily Tidings.


While I wait, I’m left with my conspiracy theory. I’m still trying to put the Arizona guy who almost ruined public nudity for Brattleboro, VT, in the same fanny pack as the guy from Minnesota who might have ruined public nudity for Ashland, OR.

If it’s the same person – if it’s one man who flies around the country on a mission to make small liberal towns fearful of the naked human body by getting naked himself, if it’s one conservative man who stares at the mirror and tells himself he’s a star, a big bright shining star, before he snaps that fanny pack on and terrorizes mothers and the Christian Book Store employees with his old penis – then I am in awe.

Then I want to make that documentary.

Then I want to write his book.

Then I want to recruit him to help me fight my causes, those who parade around with infanticide posters and those who use text/instant messaging shorthand.

We’ll fight them at the same time.

We’ll join the maniacs at a popular university intersection and wear white shirts and black ties, and we’ll attach blown up photographs of toddlers eating Big Macs and drinking Pepsi to long sticks, and at the bottom they’ll read: “MERICA 2 FAT 🙁 :P” and “I DID HAZ Cheezburger LOL!1!”

And we can store our fliers in our fanny packs until it’s time to pass them out.


I did something this morning that I swore I would never do:

I picked up a steaming pile of dog shit—with my hand.

Dog owners do it all the time, and I assume it’s no big deal to them. They carry around their extra plastic bags from Target and Stop & Shop, and when their dogs take a crap, they stick their hands in a baggie, lightly grasp the turds, turn the bag inside out, and tie it shut at the top. Done. No shit on the street, no shit in your hands. Everything contained neatly in plastic.

But I’m not a dog owner. And the idea of touching a hot crap while it still holds the body’s heat disgusts me—even if there is a layer (or two) of plastic separating skin from excrement.

Before any pet owners jump on me, let me say: I see the need for this, and I support it wholeheartedly. Out here in Boston, where green space is limited and houses lack the spacious yards that I grew up with in Minnesota, the hand-bag-crap grasping is a necessity. Unless you want shit everywhere on every sidewalk, you’ve gotta do it. (When I went to Paris several years ago, I never saw Parisians chasing their puppies with plastic bags, so turds littered the sidewalks like confetti after Mardi Gras. It was repulsive.)

But I don’t own a dog. So I wasn’t planning on doing it.

Where I grew up, in a farming community 45 miles west of Minneapolis, my dog shit in your yard and your dog shit in my yard, and we called it even. Or, more often, my dog shit in her outdoor enclosure, and I took care of it later: hours later or days later. When I picked up the poo, I did it with a shovel; there was never any risk of physical contact.

This week, I’m dog-sitting for my sister and her partner, who are vacationing in Sanibel Island. It was 70 degrees and sunny there this morning. Here in Dorchester, it was 30 degrees: cold enough for shit to steam when it comes out.

They have four dogs. Four dogs make a lot of steaming hot crap.

Before my sister left, she asked me to pick up dog shit once a day or once every other day. “There are baggies under the kitchen counter, and you just reach inside, grab the poo through the plastic, and jooooooop!” she said, retracting her hand fast to illustrate.

That’s what she thinks.

I eyed the snow shovel on her pack porch. Yes, I will pick up Luca, Lily, Sweetie Pie, and Ginger’s crap. But, no, I will not do it with my hands.

The first day out in her yard on crap duty, I spent 15 minutes chasing turds with a shovel. It was like a frustrating game of hockey. Every time I thought I had a log ready for bagging, it would roll back off of the shovel onto the grass. Chase, roll, repeat. Quickly, I changed my strategy: instead of shoveling willy-nilly at the turds and futilely chasing them across the grass, I would scoop uphill or into a stationary object, like a fence, to keep the hardened logs from rolling away.

Sometimes it worked. Sometimes the turds just smashed all over the shovel, making a second mess for me to clean up.

I gave up and went inside.

This morning, after letting two days pass, I wielded the shovel again. I engaged in chase, roll, repeat with two piles of hardened turds. But then I came square against a mustardy-brown pile of hot, steaming crap, fresh out of Lily’s Chow Chow ass.

This would make a dastardly mess of the snow shovel. Then I would have to clean it off with paper towels—increasing the hand-poop proximity.

I exhaled, defeated.

Stuck my hand inside of two bags.

And gingerly retracted the poop claw.

I swear the dogs were laughing at me.