How to be Minnesotan

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What you’ll need: flannel, hair binders (NOT hair ties)

Songlist: Duluth by Mason Jennings, Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Alive (and It Lives In Minneapolis) by Prince

Further reading: Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor, The St. Paul Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Proud Minnesotan Paul Bunyan and his giant blue ox, Babe

It’s been a long 8 weeks since I last posted. I wanted to write about Paris. I failed. There were too many things to say. And then, like that poor duck Ping who gets off the duck boat and decides it’s better to stay in the scary world than be the last one back on the boat, thereby getting whacked on the bum, I didn’t get back to posting (seriously, that childhood story has had a serious impact on my psyche). But you know what? Ping was wrong, and so was I. It’s better to get on the duck boat where everything makes sense and you’re warm and fed even if it hurts a little to admit that you failed.

There’s only one problem: I’ve pretty much run out of topics. Almost every Monday I think of a job that somehow relates to my current situation and realize I’ve already written about it. Everything except pirates (which, for the record, I did once think would be pretty cool). And so, though I thought I’d coast through to the end of 2012 with careers galore, I’m announcing the premature end of this blog. But don’t despair! I’ve got one topic left, and it’s a doozy.

Okay, so being Minnesotan isn’t exactly a job, but it is pretty awesome. I’ve been exceedingly proud of my home state recently, and over the next week or so I’ll tell you a few reasons why. With the state and the Twin Cities consistently ranking in the top 10 for whatever top-10 poll you could think of (literacy, hipsterism, livability, prettiness), I won’t be able to cover all the ways in which Minnesota totally rocks, but I’ll do my best.

We do things a little differently in Minnesota. We play Duck, Duck, Gray Duck here. We wear hair binders. Some people think we talk funny. Dang it if we don’t make the meanest hot-dishes and jello salads this side of the Mississippi. (Trick statement: since the Mississippi starts in the smack-dab center of Minnesota, we’re every side of the Mississippi! Boom!) And we’ve got the nicest state motto around. No, seriously. It’s “Minnesota Nice.”

So, just because I’m so nice, I’ll end today’s post with a little joke. A yoke, if you will:

Ole died. So Lena went to the local paper to put a notice in the obituaries. The gentleman at the counter, after offering his condolences, asked Lena what she would like to say about Ole.

Lena replied, “You yust put ‘Ole died.'”

The gentleman, somewhat perplexed, said, “That’s it? Just ‘Ole died?’ Surely, there must be something more you’d like to say about Ole. If its money you’re concerned about, the first five words are free. We must say something more.”

So Lena pondered for a few minutes and finally said, “O.K. You put ‘Ole died. Boat for sale.'”

Good ol’ Ole

How to be a Parisian

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What you’ll need: a baguette, a beret

Songlist: April in Paris or any of these

Further reading: A Moveable Feast…or any of these.

Everyone has their own Paris.

My parents will be going to Paris in a few weeks, and everyone has advice for them. You must see this! You must eat here! You must! You must! You must!

Paris is the most-visited city in the world, and thus it’s not surprising that so many of their friends have visited, revisited, and made lists for themselves and acquaintances of what must be done in the City of Lights. But, of course, all this is a testament to the fact that you can’t go wrong in Paris. While those of us who have visited only a few times would recommend the few places we’ve been to, those who have lived in the city know that there is no one view of Paris. Each story written on the city is unique. We may think that the city itself is the story, but that is an illusion; Paris is impervious.

And so too, I think, are its inhabitants. How else could you deal with the influx of tourists, the requisition of so many public spaces for photo-ops and souvenir sellers?

This past April I flew to Paris to meet up with a friend studying in Fontainebleau, a town just 45 minutes to the south. I ended up spending only about 5 hours in the city itself. I’d been to Paris twice previously, spending about a week both times. I’d seen the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, Moulin Rouge, even the Catacombs. So this time I planned visits to the Palais Garnier, the Marais district, and Notre Dame, which I’d only seen from the outside.

When I got back to Fontainebleau I flipped through a book of photographs of Paris from the air. I was amazed then to see so many gorgeous sights–French gardens, museums, palaces–that I’d never seen, never even considered visiting. I understood then that you could spend a lifetime walking the streets of Paris and never see everything.

Do you appreciate it if you’re Parisian? Do you notice that everything you pass by would be the most-visited tourist site in any other city?

One can only hope that the answer is yes. That day I spent in Paris this past April was cold and rainy, and my boots were soaked through immediately after exiting the Metro. But at the end of my few hours, I emerged at Cité, the Metro stop nearest Notre Dame, and found myself surrounded by a flower market. It was unexpected and breath-taking. Instead of going to the Cathedral right away, I strolled through aisles of hydrangeas, pressed my nose into roses, took pictures of lime trees and birds-of-paradise. I don’t think I could ever not love this.

Emerging from the Metro with the flower market behind

 

How to live in a fairy tale

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What you’ll need: fairy godmother, magical animal friends

Songlist: When you wish upon a star

Further reading: Household stories from the collection of the brothers Grimm

Beauty and her Beast

I have a confession: I spent three hours last night watching the finale of The Bachelorette, in which the lovely Emily Maynard got engaged to her Prince Charming. The man she chose as her fiancé had previously said of her, “Emily gives me the feeling that people write fairy tales about.”

The Bachelor franchise has an obsession with fairy tale endings. Contestants often speak in fairy tale terms as they describe their dates of dining in castles or swimming with dolphins in the world’s most gorgeous places (actually, they more often speak in ridiculous metaphors such as “Today we jumped off a helicopter together into the ocean, because, you know, love is a leap of faith”). It’s a natural comparison to make because fairy tale endings are romantic, simplistic, and, oh, they don’t last.

On Saturday night I went to a brilliant performance of Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim musical that follows Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack of Beanstalk fame, and Rapunzel to their happily ever afters…and beyond. For the initiate, intermission is confusing since the characters have each already accomplished all they set out to do–what more do we need to see? In the second half, though, we find out that while Cinderella has stopped running, her prince hasn’t given up chasing. Jack slew a giant, but now the giant’s wife is hungry for vengeance. And characters start dying. After a frivolous first half, the second half is surprisingly sobering.

Which is like that time I watched the non-Disney version of The Little Mermaid and found out the original Ariel committed suicide to spare her beloved prince. Ouch.

Fairy tales are not particularly happy places to live in. Sure, a lot of the Grimm Brothers’ tales end in marriage, but first there are deals with the devil, murders, severing of limbs, and disowning of family members. In one particularly gruesome story, a stepmother feeds her stepson to her husband so that her daughter may be the only heir. And then, of course, a magical bird drops a millstone on the evil stepmother and the son is returned to the father, happy and whole.

Moral of the story: don’t try to live in a fairy tale unless you’re really good at communicating with birds. Emily Maynard, start working on your songs.

How to be an ornithologist

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What you’ll need: binoculars, checklist

Songlist: Freebird, Fly

Further reading: Audubon guides, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Last week, at my aunt’s house in Wyoming, we ate dinner with two avid birders. As they were talking about trips to scout out species, I found myself thinking that I was not particularly interested in birds. My parents, however, were excited to hear about the types of birds found in Wyoming, especially the fact that this couple had seen three distinct variations of blue birds in their own backyard.

At this dinner, my dad told a story about a pilgrimage we made when I was young to see swan migration. Suddenly, the scene came back to me: the air cold, the sky gray, and in front of me an entire Minnesotan lake covered with white trumpeter swans. It was an awe-inspiring sight. But surely this was different. Swans are so incredibly majestic, both in flight and in water. I could love swans without considering myself a birder.

The next day as we drove to a trailhead for our day hike, we passed a barren tree with a huge nest at the very top. Perched above was an osprey, gorgeous and menacing. Tiny osprey beaks peaked up over the nest. We swung over to the side of the road and hopped out to take pictures. Birds of prey, after all, are pretty cool.

You can see where this is going. My aunt was heading to a cruise around the Arctic circle and I eagerly pored over the pictures of animals she might see–including puffins. Super cool.

Western Tanager

A huge raven surprised us in another trailhead parking lot, and I remembered my newfound affinity for those birds after portraying one in a flamenco show last February. As we hiked into the Tetons my dad spotted a gorgeous little bird with a bright yellow body and a peach head. So much for my theory that I wasn’t interested in small birds.

My brother and his girlfriend were the main reason we went out to Wyoming, and they had made the trip out west partly because of my brother’s girlfriend’s sister, who is working an ornithological internship in Montana. This internship involves waking up before sunrise and checking on nesting behavior. Okay, so I might be more interested in birds than I thought, but that still sounds a little too intense for me.

On our last day as we drove away from the Tetons we saw a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road–a sure sign of some large mammal sighting. Having already seen a huge herd of bison on the trip as well as several other large ungulates, we were hoping for a bear. When we saw the large velvety antlers of an elk we sighed and kept driving. But just ahead in the meadow a shot of bright blue burst from the grass. A blue bird. Both my mom and I squealed. And suddenly I realized that I had just mentally checked off bluebird from my life list. I might be hooked.

How to be a cowboy

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What you’ll need: boots, chew

Songlist: Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys by Willie Nelson

Further reading: Cowboys are My Weakness by Pam Houston, Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

It’s strange to live so far inland, surrounded by plains, when my heart lies somewhere divided between the Caribbean Sea and the Tetons Mountains. The reasons are the same for all three of these facts: family and childhood. I spent the majority of my childhood in Minnesota, but visited family in the much more thrilling scenery of the coral reefs off the coast of St. Croix and the jagged peaks of Wyoming. I’m in Minnesota again now, indefinitely, but I can feel that same old restlessness stirring to return to nature.

Happily, I’m heading to the mountains soon.

When I was 17 I spent the summer on a ranch just up the [dirt] road from my aunt’s house. Our days as junior wranglers started at 6 am with a pot of coffee. The head wranglers and cook were always already up, and had already been to see the horses or started the ovens to prepare breakfast. When we were lucky we were chosen to go on the daily trail rides with the guests, in which case we’d eat our breakfasts early and go down to the stables to saddle horses. If we were unlucky we’d be chosen to bale hay with the head wranglers. I was never that unlucky.

On Tuesday nights we’d go into town for the square dance, a weekly occurrence at the Rustic Pine Tavern. The same caller always sang the same three songs with the Salty Dog Rag interlude just before the third square. We danced with cowboys, the kind that started chewing tobacco at age 8 and wear jeans, boots, cowboy hats, and plaid shirts to every event in their lives.

We wore plaid shirts and jeans and cowboy hats, too. Almost every day, even during the wedding that happened on the ranch. The bride wore cowboy boots. They were gorgeous.

I painted a lot of watercolors that summer, of the Absarokas, the Wind Rivers, the Tetons, the sunset over Whiskey Mountain, the glacial Lake Louise, the smoke that rolled in from forest fires in Yellowstone. I knew all the horses, and a few of the rats. I tasted rattlesnake stew, made from a snake that the head wranglers killed just outside the kitchen lodge. I was thrown from a horse I was riding, Rusty, and got back on. I sat on the back of a horse, Jane, as she swam through the stream just up from Ring Lake Ranch. I Tennessee-trotted with Togwotee up the side of a mountain.

It was one of the best summers of my life, and I sometimes miss the rock that I sat on to paint watercolors. And the horses I loved (especially Rusty). And sometimes on Tuesday nights I get this little itch to start square dancing. Those cowboys I once danced with are probably still there.

How to be a dolphin trainer

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What you’ll need: whistle, wetsuit

Songlist: The Dolphin’s Cry by Live

Further reading: Behind the Dolphin Smile by Ric O’Barry

The Minnesota Zoo recently shocked the populace by announcing that the dolphin exhibit will soon close permanently and the remaining two dolphins transferred to other social groups. So great was the outrage that several hundred people signed petitions and joined a Facebook group called “Save the Dolphins at the MN Zoo” (ah, grassroots movements at their finest). The Minneapolis Star Tribune article quoted several disappointed patrons, who were confused about why the zoo would close one of their most popular exhibits and hoped they would reconsider.

I am somewhat conflicted about this decision. When I was a kid, the dolphin show was the highlight of any visit to the zoo. Watching the brightly ponytailed trainers in their wetsuits signaling tricks to the dolphins and patting them on the nose afterwards, I thought there could be no better job. You get to be pals with the coolest mammals out there, and all you have to do is wave your hands around (and feed them fish–I wasn’t as excited about that part).

When I worked at a local school two years ago, I chaperoned a trip to the zoo with a group of third-graders. Some of them were already to the point of not being impressed by anything, and yet they couldn’t help squealing with excitement when they got splashed by a back-flipping dolphin. Dolphins somehow seem totally chill while also being awe-inspiring. You can’t not love them.

Which makes it even more difficult to hear that 6 dolphins have died at the Minnesota Zoo in the past 6 years. It’s not that the Minnesota Zoo has intentionally mistreated their animals, it’s just that dolphins don’t do well in captivity. As many have noted, a dolphin enclosed in a tank is equivalent to a human being trapped in a hall of mirrors–they navigate primarily through sonar, and thus all of their echolocation bounces off tank walls and back to them. Just imagine how crazy you’d go if all you ever saw was your own reflection.

I probably would not have given any thought to the plight of dolphins in captivity if not for the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. The films centers around Ric O’Barry, progenitor of all dolphin trainers-cum-marine activist. O’Barry trained dolphins for the 1960s show Flipper, and was profoundly affected when the primary actress, a dolphin named Kathy, swam into his arms and ceased to breathe. Since dolphins need oxygen to live but are not involuntary breathers like us, O’Barry took this as an act of suicide. From that moment on, he has devoted his life to freeing dolphins in captivity.

So, as much as I would love to have dolphins nearby to go hang out with, I hope that Minnesota’s dolphins find a better home elsewhere.  For all those “Save the Dolphins” protesters: moving them elsewhere might be doing just that.

How to be a oenophile

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What you’ll need: a good nose…both for smelling and lifting above other people

Songlist: Red, Red Wine by Bob Marley

Further Reading: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Drink: A Social History of America by Andrew Barr

First, an ode to a word. Oenophile. Somehow seeming both perverse and esoteric, an oenophile sounds like the kind of person who should be isolated from society for being a weenie. And that might not be so far from the truth.

A oenophile is, of course, a connoisseur of wines. For the cultured American, “knowing” wines is a standard for becoming even more cultured. Ah, to waltz into a French restaurant and order the best vintage of a fine, yet obscure grape with barely a glance at the menu (and certainly not the price). Is there anything classier?

I admit to knowing practically nothing about wines. I know that some are white and some are red. I know the red ones, especially cheap ones it seems, turn my lips an embarrassing purple. I know that if I drink enough of the white ones, I get a buzz that my boyfriend has dubbed my “white wine noise.” I know the rosés are so girly-looking that not even I will touch them. I could not tell you, however, basic information about varietals or flavors. I cannot smell the specific bouquet or taste the complexities of fine wines. I do not remember wines I like enough to order them again.

Sometimes I see this as a benefit. My standard for drinkable wine is whether or not its in front of me. Once while in France my friend and I bought what we thought was wine for 1 Euro, which in hindsight I think was vinegar. We still finished the bottle.

And yet. Last night I was at a French restaurant with my family for my birthday, and they were divided about which bottle we should order for the table. They left it to me to decide, as the birthday girl. I would have dearly liked to have an opinion. Luckily, the waitress stepped in with a recommendation that wasn’t on the menu. I went with her choice. And, for just a moment when she brought the bottle and turned the black and gold label to me, I felt important. She poured a bit into my glass, I swirled, I sipped, I contemplated. I nodded my head. And I thought: I could get used to this.

Now, if I could only remember the name of that wine…

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