Wednesday, November 16, 2005

On the Road With the Patsies

The Patsies are going to Chicago.

And not just for a visit. We're one of 72 sketch comedy groups from around the country to be invited to perform at Chicago Sketchfest, the nation's largest sketch comedy festival.

Out of 250+ groups that applied, we made the cut. This is huge. We're the only Iowa-based group in the two-week-long festival, and we're pumped. We're jazzed. We're geeked. We're pretty happy.

Here's the official information: We perform at 9:30 pm on Thursday, January 12, and at 8:00 pm on Friday the 13th. Could there be a better time to do comedy in Chicago than 8:00 on a Friday night?

I have no idea. But we're going to make some people laugh that night.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Lessons in Headline Writing

Yesterday the media reported on the death of Saddam Hussein's right-hand man, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. Up until his demise, he was the highest-ranking member of Saddam's regime still at large.

Yahoo's headline on this story was Report Says Saddam's Number Two Is Dead.

And I thought "Man, do we really need to know every intimate detail of this guy's life?"

* * * * * * * *
OK, if obscure scatological humor isn't your thing, here's a picture of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? How does a retired Irish cop get to be Saddam Hussein's right-hand man? When the hell did William H. Macy join the Baath Party?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Why Johnny Can't Merge

I'm fascinated by quantum mechanics and quarks and the grand unified theory and all that sort of thing, but I don't have a good grasp on it by a long shot. I'm always getting science books from QPBC and reading along happily until I get to some concept like string theory, and at that point my mind just shuts down. They'll have some picture of a curved universe in there to help folks like me, but it normally just makes me go "Wha?"

It's frustrating. I want to get it, but I'm not there yet.

I know there are probably thousands of people who can't comprehend string theory. But I also know there are that many and more who can't comprehend the proper way to merge onto the freeway in the morning, because these freakin geniuses always end up right in front of me.

Here's the set-up: Every morning I get on eastbound I-235 (the freeway that cuts through the middle of the Des Moines metro area) at 8th Street in West Des Moines. The next eastbound exit is 63rd Street in Des Moines, a good quarter-mile away, maybe more. The lane that brings you on at 8th is the same one that takes you off at 63rd; in other words, there's no point where you have to merge into traffic and then get back off.

Which, in my opinion, is a pretty convenient way of doing things. For one reason, it gives people that full quarter-mile in which to find a place to merge. And just in case anyone needs a refresher course, merging requires a driver to adjust his or her speed in order to ease into traffic smoothly.

"Smoothly" is the operative word there. When traffic doesn't go smoothly, accidents happen. And when the highway department is kind enough to give you a quarter-mile of merging room, there's really no excuse for not merging smoothly into traffic.

But try explaining that to the endless parade of chuckleheads who think they have to jump right into traffic at the very top of the 8th Street on-ramp. Good lord, you'd think Godzilla or the Grim Reaper was standing in their way. Some of these clowns are making right-angle turns into the eastbound traffic (which is usually creeping along when I'm heading to work, so yes, there are people going east who will actually stop and let the idiots in).

Right-angle turns aren't smooth, folks. Neither is coming to a complete stop at the top of the on-ramp and waiting for someone to let you in while 15 cars come to a halt behind you and a quarter-mile of pavement sits empty in front of you.

Pass the word.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

A Brief Traffic Ticket Story

Tomorrow is Halloween, so naturally I thought I'd tell this story about something that happened to me on Memorial Day.

I was driving down Office Park Road in West Des Moines on the Sunday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend when I looked up and saw cop car lights in my rearview. Now, Office Park Road isn't a main artery by any means--it's a length of street maybe 8-10 blocks long, with houses and apartment complexes along the west half and business parks and a hotel along the east half, which is where I was driving on my way to 8th Street, which is a main artery.

More or less. It's hard to tell what's a main artery in West Des Moines, because so many streets that start out looking like main arteries end in a T. But I digress.

The officer who pulled me over said I was doing 35 in a 25 mph zone, which sounded pretty believable so I didn't argue. But as he was handing me my ticket, he said that Gov. Vilsack had released special funds to law enforcement, specifically to deal with speeding on the holiday weekend.

As I was driving slowly away, I thought something seemed kind of odd about that statement. And then it hit me. When they talk about people speeding on a holiday weekend, they're talking about people on the interstate who are actually traveling to a different place, people who are either hurrying to get out of Iowa or hurrying to get into it. So logically, that additional money would be put to best use by funding additional troopers on the interstate, not in the city limits. When they talk about people speeding on a holiday weekend, they're not talking about people who are just bopping down to the convenience store for a newspaper.

Honestly. Did they really think there was going to be a crime wave of people tearing down residential streets because it was Memorial Day? "Ha ha! I'm going 38 in a 25 in honor of my departed loved ones, copper!"

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

An Early Draft of "The Raven"

(This is a bit I wrote for a recent comedy show, and a good cheap way to get a new blog entry in. And by the way, please note that all written material in this blog is © John M Donovan.)

With Halloween right around the corner, I thought it'd be nice to take a moment and pay tribute to a great American writer and a true master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe was a tortured genius, a man haunted by lost love, possessed by drugs and drink, yet talented enough to leave us an abundance of stories and poems with the power to chill the marrow in our bones. He also wrote a mean limerick and liked to go to bars dressed as a woman named Susan, but that's another story.

In any event, during my research into the life of this brilliant writer, I accidentally happened upon a dusty old volume of poetry tucked into a corner in a local antique store. Great Poems of the Year 1826 contained very few great poems, and in fact looked to be something of a vanity effort, where would-be poets could pay a few dollars to see their work and name in print. But on page 65, I made the literary find of the century: an early draft, probably the first draft, of Poe's classic poem, "The Raven"--a full 19 years before the version we know and love today was first published.

The first two lines are the same as in the classic version, but after that the meter is different and the subject matter quite surprising (the diction even more so). But that's enough build-up. I'll let the poem speak for itself. So now, as a Halloween treat, please enjoy what might well be the first draft of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven."

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary
Over a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore
At my front door came a tapping, a rather loud and raucous rapping
And my buddies yelled “Hey, Edgar, open up the freakin door!”

I knew that I was right in thinking
xxx that they’d been out all night drinking
And now were looking for a place to crash upon the floor
But no, my guess was simply wrong--they invited me along
To hit the bars and help me forget my long lost love, Lenore

Oh Lenore, how much I missed her,
xxx missed the last time that I kissed her
As we walked in twilight rays along the ocean’s sandy shore
Oh Lenore, who could resist her? (I also bopped her little sister)
But my parents disapproved and called her nothing but a whore

And soon there came the fateful day

xxx when she caught a cold and passed away
Which happened rather often back in 1824
I found no solace in her sister, who said “You are a weirdo, Mister”
And ran away to join a commune down in Baltimore

But still for my lost love I pined, and so my buddies wined and dined
Me as they tried to help me close the book on my Lenore
We hit each tavern and saloon, and got so drunk we even mooned
The mayor, two policemen, and a startled monsignor

We went to every bar in town and finally shut the last one down
And then they took me home and let me stumble in the door
And there I saw the strangest sight—

xxx a bird with feathers black as night
A raven! Who looked up at me and whispered “Nevermore”

He stood there in my old recliner,

xxx like some thing that rhymes with iner
And gazed at me with eyes as cold as some Antarctic shore
I’d never seen a bird so crafty; then he said “It’s kind of drafty—
Maybe you could be a pal and shut the freakin door”

Was I awake or was I dreaming of this bird with eyes a-gleaming?
Then the raven fluffed his feathers and again said “Nevermore”
And as he stood there preening I said “Fiend, what is thy meaning?”
And the raven said “Well, duh. Hello? I am a metaphor.”

A metaphor! It hit me then; he’d come to drive me mad again
A constant sad reminder of my long lost love Lenore
“Bird!” I cried, “you think you’re clever—

xxx I know Lenore is gone forever!”
Then he took flight—and pooped upon my kitchen floor

Now my tale has been recounted

xxx and the raven’s stuffed and mounted
He doesn’t speak, for he’s as dead as my Lenore
He rues the day that he was hatched,

xxx for the raven proved to be no match
For a poet—and a handy two-by-four

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Last of the Clinched Pennants

Last night in Houston, the St Louis Cardinals were one strike away from losing the National League Championship Series to the Astros. But David Eckstein poked a single through the infield, Jim Edmonds walked, and Albert Pujols hit a towering home run to give the Cards a 5-4 lead, which they managed to hold onto in the bottom of the ninth. This sent the series back to St Louis, where the Cardinals will have to win two games to beat the Astros, win the National League pennant, and meet the Chicago White Sox in the World Series.

Notice I said they have to do that to win the pennant, not clinch it. As long as I'm on the subject of diction errors, I might as well cover the misuse of the word "clinch." (A pet peeve of mine for a long time, as anyone who remembers the late lamented Donowords newsletter will attest.)

From the beginning of major league baseball until 1969, when the leagues split into two divisions each, it was possible to clinch the pennant. In other words, late in each season there would come a day when the first-place team was guaranteed to finish first. Let's say the Cardinals have a record of 90-66 with six games left to play, and the second-place team, the Giants, have a record of 83-73, also with six games to play. The Cardinals have clinched the pennant, because at that point they can't fall out of first place. Even if the Giants win their six remaining games and the Cards lose all six of theirs, the Cardinals still win.

Clinching the pennant means that no matter what you do, you can't finish out of first.

Which brings us to the present. When major league baseball instituted divisional play, the top teams in each division had to play each other to determine who won the pennant and moved on to the World Series. So ever since 1969, while it's been possible for a team to clinch a division title, they can no longer clinch a pennant.

And once you're in the playoffs, it's impossible to clinch anything. Yet I still hear sportscasters (who should know better) and fans (who really should, too) say things like "The series is tied 3-3, so if we win tonight, we'll clinch the series."

Wrong. If the series is over when you win the minimum number of games it takes to win it, then you've simply won it. To clinch, there have to games yet to be played, games that will be, alas, meaningless for every team except the one that clinched.

Pass the word.

And Another Thing

+ I'm a native Hoosier who moved to the Des Moines metro area six years ago, and there's an interesting mix of baseball fans here. You'll find people who root for the Royals, the Twins, the Cubs, and the Cardinals, all of which are well within driving distance. And yet last month when I told a guy I was a Cardinals fan, he said "Jumping on the bandwagon, huh?" I seriously considered jumping out of my chair and beating the guy with a legal pad, but instead I said "Yeah, I jumped on the bandwagon when I was three years old and I've stayed on for the last 42 years."

+ Accuse me of jumping on the bandwagon, by golly--I've got a bandwagon for you right here.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Raising the Answer About Begging the Question

Will Durst had a hilarious column about Harriet Miers at Working For Change on Friday, but he committed a diction error that’s becoming more and more common these days. Durst wrote Defending the selection of his longtime personal consultant, President Bush said; "I picked the best person I could find," which begs the question of how hard he was looking.

See the error? What Bush said doesn’t beg the question, it raises the question.

Begging the question has a specific meaning: It’s a philosophical fallacy akin to circular reasoning. For instance, if you believe George W. Bush has a sound foreign policy, and your reasoning for believing so is that it’s a foreign policy developed by George W. Bush, then you’re begging the question. (Notice how I’m refraining from saying how many other fallacies you’re committing.)

Anyway, it’s a simple mistake, a simple matter of choosing the wrong word. When you’re referring to something that’s been brought to light, you’re raising the question, not begging it. Pass the word.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

How I Got Pulled Into Comedy

For some reason, I didn't set foot on a theatrical stage between my senior year of high school (when I was Mr Smith in the Fountain Central HS production of "Meet Me In St Louis") and October 2004. That's over 26 years, and whether you call it stage fright, a lack of self-confidence, or just laziness, that's ridiculous.

I didn't do any acting in college--didn't even audition--and I suspect it's because the people who did seemed so damn serious about it, and so much more experienced. (By the way, my standard answer to the question "Did you do any acting in college?" is "I acted interested.") I took a class my sophomore year--Theater 5, Introduction to Acting--but over the course of the semester there was only one class where we actually did any dialogue. The rest was pretty much breathing and muscle exercises, so I decided I wasn't missing anything.

Considering I went 26 years between stage appearances, I'd say that wasn't true.

Let's see--I sang and played keyboard at talent shows in 1986, 1987, and 1997 (didn't even place in '87 and actually finished behind cloggers, and won in '97 because I was the only entrant in the adult category). I also performed three times at open mike singer-songwriter nights at the Bedrock Cafe in Springfield, Illinois in 1994 (where one MC said he loved my songs and encouraged me to come back, and another came on stage after my third song and asked how soon I'd be finished). I wrote and performed in some short comedy films with various family members, and that was pretty much it for my performing resume.

All this began to change in early 2004, when my new co-worker Karen--an experienced standup and sketch comedian--auditioned for a new local comedy group called the Patsies. Knowing my interest in writing and trying to be funny, she asked if it'd be something I might be interested in. I demurred, because I was in the midst of this 26-year run of not performing and hated to break the streak (stage fright, lack of self-confidence, etc).

I've always said that the only way I'm ever going to get a novel published is to be pulled in from the inside--I tried to push my way in for years and didn't get anywhere. The same turned out to be true for performing comedy. Karen pulled me in. She showed me the Patsies scripts, which were mostly funny, sometimes coarse, and certainly not rocket science. That prompted a flurry of sketch writing--television news coverage of the bizarre fundamentalist concept of "the rapture," a look at the marriage of Harry Potter and Hermione Granger after ten years, two sketches about a philosophical cavewoman and her ditzy friend, and more, about a dozen in all.

Karen, who had joined the Patsies, liked the sketches. She was working on producing a benefit comedy show to raise money for Marfan Syndrome research, and suggested using a couple of my sketches for that. In the meantime, she also asked if I'd be interested in trying some standup comedy. I was--and for some reason I actually said Yes. The stage fright filter didn't kick on--someone thought I could do it, so that surely meant I could do it.

I started pulling together all the jokes, one-liners, and routines I'd been writing on scraps of paper over the years on the off-chance I ever found the guts to try standup. I had fifteen minutes worth of material and began to rehearse it in the car to and from work every day. Fortunately, we live in an technological age where people who passed me on I-235 and saw my lips moving just assumed I was speaking into a cell phone headset.

In August 2004, I made my standup debut in front of about 75 people at an open mike comedy night in West Des Moines, and people laughed. The best part was that after about 15 seconds of shaking knees, I was perfectly calm for the rest of the routine. I assume it was a combination of factors: one, the fact that I had such confidence in the material, and two, the fact that I was tired of passing up opportunities.

And the next opportunity came at the Marfan benefit in October, when I acted in one of my cavewomen sketches (playing a caveman poet named Morton) and made a short appearance as Jesus in another. Not counting my handful of solo singing and standup performances, that was the first time I'd set foot on a stage since that last performance of "Meet Me in St Louis," 26 years earlier.

You know, a guy can lose his boyish good looks in 26 years.

Most of the other performers were members of the Patsies, and I'm not even sure now how it happened, but I committed to being a guest writer/performer in their big February show at the Stoner Theatre (the small theatre located in the Des Moines Civic Center). I became an official member before their show in May, and all together I've been in ten Patsies shows as a writer and performer.

I can't do anything about that 26-year void, but I'm pretty sure it'll never happen again. This is just too much fun.

Is All This Leading Up To Some Show Promotion?

+ Why yes, yes it is. The Patsies and guest star Darin Larson will be holding their second annual Marfan Syndrome benefit show at 7:30 on Monday, October 17, at The Funny Bone in Urbandale. Tickets are $6 in advance through, or $8 at the door. We're planning four sketches and five standups, and we'll be showing our Public Access Fall Preview video, which will have particular significance for anyone with a morbid curiosity about dingbats like Princess Uriel of the Unarius cult.

+ The Patsies Halloween show will be held at the Vaudeville Mews in downtown Des Moines at 7:00 on Tuesday, October 25. Same ticket prices, I believe.

+ And hey, if you haven't made your New Year's Eve plans yet, we'll be performing twice at the Stoner that night, at 6:00 and 8:30, I think. All-new material.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Pictures From Vacation, Part 2

This is Pass Lake, which you have to pass on your way to Sleeping Giant. This shot was taken from the patio of a restaurant called Karen's Kountry Kitchen--may I recommend the lasagna and Caesar salad.

I wish I would have been able to get this picture while the bear was still in the tree, but I didn't know how well he'd take direction so I didn't ask him to get back up there. I had to wait a few minutes for him to poke his head up far enough to be able to tell it's a bear. Of course, if the picture isn't large enough to tell it's a bear, then please enjoy the shot of this lovely scrub pasture.

Me climbing, or rather sitting, on big rocks at Silver Bay Marina on the way back. There had been storms the night before, there was a great chill in the air, and the waves were crashing nicely. An angry lake is even more interesting and no less beautiful than a calm one.

Finally, out in the distance you can see the same rock the gulls were hanging out on three days before. (See the first picture in the post below.)

Pictures From Vacation, Part 1

If this works, you should be looking at a picture of Lake Superior, just outside of Lakewood, north of Duluth, where the North Shore Scenic Route begins. I was lucky to be there during the gull convention--here are a number of gulls at a workshop on new techniques in bread crumb gathering.

The next shot was taken somewhere between Duluth and Two Harbors. Not many rocks in this picture, for some reason.

An early morning shot on the drive down 587 to the tip of the Sleeping Giant peninsula. This shot has mountains, forest, horses, and fog--it's hard to take a bad picture when you've got all that going for you.

Here's a shot from about halfway up the Giant. Check out the cliffs in the background. Had I made it to the top, it was another 2 km walk to those cliffs and the spectacular view of Thunder Bay.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Miscellaneous Vacation Notes

+ Before setting off last Friday, I put about 30 CDs in a shoebox for my vacation soundtrack. Your basic Dono favorites: Bob, Frank, Van the Man, Brubeck, the BST album with Al Kooper, etc. I got all the way to Canada before realizing I'd forgotten to include the ultimate great north woods CD, "Gord's Gold." I don't know what I was thinking--Gordon Lightfoot's voice and songs captured my previous northern experience perfectly (December '80 and August '81), and that album should have been the first thing I put in the shoebox.

+ By the way, other people have Ipods. I have a shoebox.

+ My favorite sign in Canada was the one that indicated I was crossing over the Current River. I guess they're planning to update that river soon, but for now this is the current one.

+ Here's a tip for driving in downtown Minneapolis: Read the whole street sign. Don't stop reading after you read, for instance, "South 3rd," because there are two South 3rds, and one of them is South 3rd Street and the other is South 3rd Avenue. All the avenues line up parallel, as do all the streets. Knowing this would have made driving there in a downpour a little easier, but probably not by much.

+ I thought I'd be able to post some pics--and in fact told a number of people to watch this space for that reason--but something went awry with that plan so I'll just wait till I get back home on Thursday.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Grand Marais

I felt like I’d missed quite a bit of the North Shore on my way to Thunder Bay Saturday, so since I’d accomplished two-thirds of my goal of climbing to the top of the giant, I left Canada a day early and thought I’d just meander back down along the shore to see what I could see. About a half-hour into the American side, I hit Grand Marais and decided to stay.

It was a good decision. Grand Marais is a tourist town full of arts and crafts, with Dairy Queen and Subway about the only chain stores in sight, but what sold me was the water. I took a room at the Shoreline Motel, where the deck looks out over the lake and you’re five steps from the red rocky beach. The day was slightly overcast and cool, which was the weather I’d been looking for.

I walked half a block down to Drury Lane Books, picked out a Garrison Keillor novel, and took it back to the beach and read while leaning against a rock.—and that was about as much as I exerted myself that day. It was great. It was a very non-Monday afternoon thing to do.

The most exciting moment of the day had occurred earlier, between Thunder Bay and the border. I was heading south at around 8:00 in the morning, practically the only traffic on two-lane Highway 61 at the time, and as I passed a scrub pasture I happened to notice something big and black in a little tree that hardly seemed capable of holding that much weight. Yeah. It was a bear.

I turned around at the next driveway and then stopped across from the field. The bear had climbed out of the tree and seemed to be hiding in the tall grass below it, but occasionally I could see movement so I knew he was still there. A telephoto lens would have been nice, but you know, as Donald Rumsfeld once said, you risk your life with the camera you have, not the camera you want. I stepped out of the car with my camera poised, figuring I had distance, a fence, and a highway between us—although that wouldn’t have helped much if Mama Bear had slipped up on me from behind.

I waited him out, and after a few minutes he poked his head up enough for me to snap a couple of pictures, enough to prove that he was, in fact, a bear. I saluted and said “Thanks,” then he disappeared into the grass and I headed back south.

Frankly, I’m surprised I saw him at all, since I had my bear bell wrapped around my gear shift.

Sleeping Giant

I’d been reading about Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, and it was number one on my list of places to visit during my stay in Canada. They call it Sleeping Giant because from Thunder Bay, it forms the outline of a giant in repose—which is as good a reason as any. The park is at the bottom of a huge peninsula jutting down from the north shore of Lake Superior—a 20-minute drive from top to bottom. My goal was to hike the Top of the Giant Trail, which takes you to the very tip of the giant’s toes, where, they say, the view in every direction is spectacular.

That was my goal. With a backpack loaded with water bottles, nuts, beef jerky, and the high-pitched bear repellent, I set off with my bear bell hanging from a belt loop. Step away from the hiker, Yogi.

To get to the Top of the Giant Trail, I had to hike 6.5 km on the Kabeyun Trail, which was mostly flat and composed alternately of rocks and grass and the occasional mud. It’s a beautiful, peaceful little walk, with the quiet interrupted only the jingle bell at my side and an occasional bird call. If I were a naturalist, I could estimate for you the number of tree and plant species I saw on that walk, but that’s not the case. There were quite a lot, put it that way—and I didn’t peer too deeply into the woods for fear of making eye contact with hairy predators.

One of the first things I did was take off my hooded sweatshirt. People who know me know I like my weather cool, which was one of the main reasons I picked Canada as a vacation spot. But leave it to me to visit Canada, in October, on a day in the mid-70s.

At the end of the Kabeyun Trail was Tee Harbor, a nice, mostly sandy beach that provided a good place to sit and rest and snack. Plus, there were lots of big wet rocks, so that was good.

From there it was another kilometer to the Talus Run Trail, which led to the new start of the Top of the Giant Trail. The original start was closed because of big sections of falling rock, which, again, is as good a reason as any. Another kilometer in, and there was the sign for the Top of the Giant—three kilometers away, all uphill.

This was what I’d come for. I imagined getting to the top and taking pictures so unimaginably beautiful they’d make you cry.

At the beginning of the trail I met a couple from Thunder Bay, both in their 50s, and walked with them for a while. The man—a tall slim fellow with a silver mustache—pointed out places where moose had rubbed their antlers against trees and scraped the bark off. The woman noted that all those piles of black crap with berries in it on the Kabeyun Trail were in fact bear poop.

You don’t have to be a brilliant logician to figure out that the bears weren’t taking a shit in the woods and then throwing it onto the trail. No, they had to be on the trail at some point.

The Top of the Giant Trail winds its way up the mountain with lots of switchbacks and turns, but even so I could tell I was exerting myself considerably more than usual. (Usual in this case meaning not exerting myself.) About halfway up, I had to start sitting on rocks and resting frequently. The Thunder Bay man passed me, followed by a younger couple who were practically running. As the woman passed, she said “Gorgeous day, eh?”

I kept going up a few meters at a time, then sitting and resting. About two-thirds of the way up, sitting there alone, looking through the trees at Lake Superior, breathing rapidly and wishing I’d worn shorts, I knew I’d reached my limit. There was just no sense pushing on, not when I’m prone to heat exhaustion anyway. Two-thirds of the way was going to have to be it.

I headed back down the trail and ran into the Thunder Bay woman, who had stopped for a long rest because she had high blood pressure. We stood and talked for a while, and after a few minutes her husband came back down the trail and said I was probably only fifteen minutes from the top—but they were the steepest fifteen minutes of the trail. I knew I’d made the right decision.

They shared some cheese and a hunk of moose meat with me (delicious, by the way), and then we all headed down the mountain. On the Talus Run trail I ran across several high school kids who were apparently on a field trip; their teachers were bringing up the rear, and one nodded to me and said “Great idea, the bell. Chase the bears away.”

At the time I thought “Yeah, I invented it.” But then later on down the trail when I stopped to rest at an inlet, a couple from Maryland said that some park rangers had once told them that bears consider those dinner bells. So maybe the teacher was being sarcastic.

Honestly, I wasn’t entirely sold on the bell idea. I pictured myself walking down the trail and finding a bear on his hind legs, leaning against a tree and saying “Nice bell. Whatever you paid for it, it was too much.”

The 6.5 km of the Kabeyun Trail couldn’t go by quickly enough. My feet were killing me, I was entirely too warm, and the natural beauty surrounding me didn’t seem to register. I was like Chevy Chase at the Grand Canyon in National Lampoon’s Vacation: Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.

So, in six and a half hours I’d hiked about 20 kilometers—a good year’s work for me. I plan to come here again—possibly next summer—and go for the top of the giant again. Or maybe I’ll just go play on some big wet rocks.

St Paul to Thunder Bay, October 1

I don’t know how long it might take to get from St Paul to Thunder Bay if you were in a hurry. Seems like Yahoo Driving Directions told me it was seven hours, but of course Yahoo threw in a side trip to the moon.

All I know is that on a sunny autumn Saturday, there’s no reason to go from St Paul to Thunder Bay in a hurry. I must have stopped fifteen times to take pictures, and passed up that many chances and more. The North Shore of Lake Superior is indescribably beautiful, as I hope the pictures in the following post will attest.

The North Shore combines two of my favorite things, two natural substances that strike a chord in my soul: rocks and water. There’s a beach down below the visitors information center at the beginning of the North Shore Scenic Route, and it’s full of flat little round skipping rocks and big chunky boulder fragments—and since they’re all being pounded by the steady waves of Lake Superior, it was like heaven for me.

Big wet rocks. Gotta love ‘em.

Three questions I always want to ask these big rocks: (1) How did you get here? (2) How long have you been here? (3) What’s it like being a rock?

Back on the route (Highway 61, for my fellow Dylan fans), there was no shortage of rocks, water, and convenient places to pull off and take pictures of them—and that was true all the way to Canada. From Two Harbors to Temperance River to Grand Marais and everything in between, the North Shore Scenic Route in a non-stop sensory thrill. It’s one breathtaking photo-op after another.

It was approaching 3:00 Eastern time when I pulled into Thunder Bay. I exchanged 120 American dollars for 137 of the Canadian kind, then asked for directions to the Take A Hike Store, where I’d been corresponding with a hiking enthusiast/salesperson who were going to make sure I was set for my trip to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park on Sunday.

The directions were slightly better than the ones Yahoo gave me for the hotel in St Paul. And in fact, a woman at the money exchange even drew me a map: Go down Arthur to Simpson (believe me, I was tempted to say “Simpson, eh?”, which works on more than one level), take a left on Simpson, then take another left on Victoria East. She was very specific about writing “Victoria East,” so when I turned left on Simpson and saw a street sign for Victoria, I didn’t turn. The word “East” was nowhere on the sign.

It was fifteen minutes later that I realized I’d been given too much fictional information.

At the Take A Hike store, a lovely young woman of Asian ancestry greeted me in that wonderful Canadian accent: “Beautiful day, eh?” I asked for Susan, the person I’d exchanged emails with, and two other people said “You must be John Donovan.” These people were store owner Diane Petryna and a young salesman named Jeremy, who proceeded to go over the map of Sleeping Giant with me, and to sell me a bear bell (on the theory that if bears know you’re coming, they’ll stay away from you) and a little aerosol-type tube that emits a piercing screech when pressed. Whether that was to call for help or frighten away an approaching bear, I still don’t know. I frankly think I could come up with a pretty effective piercing screech on my own, if approached by a bear.

I checked in at my bed-and-breakfast short after this, and honestly it wasn’t what I expected. I won’t mention the name because my hosts have been nothing but friendly, but the place is a tad cluttered. And here’s a tip: If a B&B says it’s okay for you to bring your dog, that might well mean the place already smells like one.

Friday, September 30, 2005

If You Can't Trust Yahoo

I’m here in St Paul on the first night of my trip to Minnesota and Ontario, and the drive this afternoon took an hour longer than expected because Yahoo Driving Directions clearly has no idea where the Holiday Inn St Paul North is located.

I’m serious. A week ago, I typed in the address and told Yahoo exactly where I wanted to go. Yahoo returned driving directions in less than two seconds, which is exactly the kind of confidence I want to see in a giver of directions.

But Yahoo was clearly stumped by my request, and instead of admitting it, they just decided to throw out some random directions in hopes that I wouldn’t notice the glaring absence of a big green Holiday Inn sign in the residential neighborhood they sent me to.

I called the hotel and said I had no idea how to find them. The woman at the desk said “Did you get your directions from Yahoo?” and when I confirmed it said “Yeah, we get that a lot.”

The crazy part is that this Holiday Inn is located right in the middle of a busy street, County Road E, and it’s surrounded by restaurants, banks, and other sundry establishments. It’s not like it exists in an alternate universe that Yahoo doesn’t have GPS access to.

The directions, if you’re ever heading this way, are simple: 35W North to 694 East to Lexington Avenue to County Road E—and there’s the hotel on your right.

You could ask Yahoo, but they’ll just pretend to know.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Welcome to the Choir

Welcome to The Rat Race Choir, another blog that might or might not be updated more frequently than its companion piece, The Electron Runes. I'll continue to update the Runes now and then, but that space will be reserved mostly for political and cultural commentary.

Here at the Choir, I'll concentrate on shorter entries of broader interest: nostalgia, travel pieces, family stuff, writing about writing, and all sorts of whatnot. Hell, it might turn out to be nothing but whatnot.

And just because I won't be focused on political entries here doesn't mean the current administration is any less corrupt and incompetent. I'll just try not to rant about it so much in this space.

Let's see what happens.