The Mountain Goats – September 24

John Darnielle, i.e. The Mountain Goats

Lauren and I shot out of The Fitzgerald Theater and headed straightway to Ames, Iowa (with just a slight detour to pick up her car at our house) for a Mountain Goats Concert. We’d had the trip timed to the minute, but, unfortunately, we underestimated A Prairie Home Companion’s running time by an hour…. So we needed to make up some time, which we were doing splendidly until we were pulled over mid-Iowa. As it turned out, our highway patrol officer, Mindy, knew and loved the Mountain Goats, but she was not superfan enough to give us a police escort. She did knock a few MPHs (which is short for “miles per hour,” not “masters of public health”, in case any of you failed to catch the context) off the citation, though. We continued to Ames and arrived at DG’s Tap House while the opening band was still playing.

Before The Mountain Goats went on, we were standing around by the bar, and we saw a guy at a table I was 95% sure was John Darnielle. I pointed him out to Lauren, and she was like, “He looks so much like a normal guy. Plus, why would no one else recognize him?” I agreed, and we did not talk to him. Next time, we will not be so foolish.

As with many of their performances, the band consisted solely of John Darnielle, and we managed to get spots right up front (literally like 2 yards from him). And rather than a set list he was taking nothing but requests. This worked out okay because the people there were mainly die-hard fans who’d driven from all over the Midwest to be there. Awesomely, the devoted audience requested all kinds of recondite songs, which they were happy to help him remember the exact lyrics and keys for, so it was more than just a barrage of best hits. Also awesomely, John had lived in Ames for several years, and he had all kinds of anecdotes about the place.

One of the high points of this concert, as, I should think, with many of his concerts, was the song No Children, which he told us was inspired by the song I Hope You Dance which he hated enough to write the exact antithesis of. Another high point was when John came out for the encore and said he’d always wanted to return to the stage, take a bow, and walk back off like concert pianists and such do, but then he didn’t! Instead, he treated us to about an hour more of music. Wonderful.

So, we didn’t get home until like 5 AM, and it was so incredibly worth it. See, John Darnielle started out making cassette tapes of himself back in the early 90s. The band has gone through several iterations, many of which consist of solo-John opening his one man show with, “Hi. We’re the Mountain Goats.” Still, with all that change and him just being one guy and not always having a record deal or anything, this man releases like an album per year, and they’re all good.

And by good, I mean pieces of lyric genius. Mountain Goats songs deal with untraditional and unpredictable topics, from vampire-cowboy-run-ins to insurance fraud to arson  to delicious jams and jellies (In case you didn’t pick up on it, each of those topics was a hyperlink. You’re welcome.) And in all these circumstances, he somehow treats all his characters with love, even as he points out the extreme and ridiculous in his characters.

What I love most about John Darnielle’s characters is that we so often meet them in moments of intense emotion. Enough of his characters are on the verge of having cataclysmic. When I listen to his songs, I get the idea that they’re having an Ivan Karamazov-style breakdown [Bro’s Karamazov spoiler alert! Also, awesomely, this song references Crime and Punishment.], wherein they see the light of salvation and realize the sacrifice necessary is far more hellish than anticipated. We find these characters in their moments of desperation, speaking with the kind of honesty you would think but not share with even your closest friend and only maybe with a paid professional.

He depicts characters most of us haven’t thought to identify with, but upon doing so, we find inexpressibly loveable. For example, in the song Grendel’s Mother, we meet (surprise!) Grendel’s mother storming Heorot to revenge her son’s murder. Contrary to the tale’s usual mood, Grendel’s inconsolable mother shows love for her son as intense as her loathing for his killer.

I find that Darnielle’s rush of contradicting emotions make his songs particularly accessible for we irrational and inconsistent humans. Rather than giving us pat answers or monolithic voices, his characters are often confused and troubled by contradicting motives. For example, in the song Old College Try, Darnielle’s character refers the love he has for his wife’s eyes, which, “like a trashcan fire in a prison cell; like the searchlights in the parking lots of hell” brighten up even the worst of places.

I think I’ve said enough. But there are about a zillion really great interviews with the guy online, which you can find using Google. In case you’re interested, his Twitter feed is insanely awesome. He’s currently giving away Thusydides II-58 for free to mark reaching 25,000 Twitter followers.

And, finally, in case you didn’t click on any of the wonderful hyperlinks I provided above, here are a few videos I trust you’ll find enjoyable.

He has a slew of songs that begin with the word “alpha” and chronicle the misadventures of the “alpha couple” who are constantly on the verge of divorce. Their story concludes in the album Tallahassee.

The album The Sunset Tree is about his physically abusive step-dad. Somehow he manages to still be remarkably peppy.

This is also from The Sunset Tree , and I think it’s fabulously intense:

He has a series of songs whose titles begin with the words “going to” and are all about running away from problems to some place that you hope promises you peace or answers or, anything but your current troubles. In this one, he threatens to do himself physical harm as a means of showing a girl how much he loves her.

In this one, he actually seems insane. It’s amazing.


Here’s to you, Grandpa.

Grandpa (71) and Me (6)

My grandpa, Donald William Hemingway, died this past June. He was a great friend, and I miss him a lot. I talk about him whenever I get a chance, even if I’ve already told the story a hundred times. Telling it again makes me feel like he’s still around. Like he’s just been too busy picking up on younger women at his assisted living cafeteria to be at home for my phone calls, but one of these days he’ll answer.

I’ll catch him up on my dating life, my classes, concerts and movies, music I’ve been playing. He’ll praise everything I’ve done, even the things I regret; he’ll believe I was always in the right. He’ll tell me how he wants to buy a motorcycle because his jazzy doesn’t have enough power, and it tips over sometimes going up hills. When he says he’s missed my cooking, I’ll pretend I misheard and say, “What was that? It sounded like you said you’ve missed my company.” When he catches on to my tease, we’ll have a good laugh.

My grandpa ate ice cream every day, twice a day. When you’re 92, it doesn’t matter if you’re diabetic and have high blood pressure. You get to do what you want, even if that means going out in a diabetic coma (he didn’t). When I took him grocery shopping, he’d always buy me a treat and fill my car with gas. Then, when we got home, the carton of ice cream we bought would have melted to just the perfect softness. Before putting it away, we’d open it and skim a spoonful off the top.

My grandpa thought everything about me was fabulous. Once I was practicing a song on his piano for voice lessons, and I knew it needed a lot of work, so I asked him not to listen. I didn’t think it would be too hard, considering he sometimes couldn’t hear me from a few feet away. But as I began singing Boston by Augustana, he kept calling in from the kitchen, “Beautiful! Beautiful! It sounds wonderful!” I called back, “Grandpa, you’re not supposed to be listening; how can you even hear this, anyway?” And he called in, “I can’t shut my ears to beautiful music!”

He was like that. Blindly praising everything his grandkids did. My cousin Don was in a play just before starting medical school, and my grandpa couldn’t understand why Don would waste his life in medicine when he clearly belonged on the stage.

I’ll be writing more about my grandpa. He was wonderful, and I’m sorry for all of you who will never get to hear him call boogie woogie the devil’s music or ask you to make sure you put up the cripple sticker so you can park close to the grocery store. Telling his stories, though, makes me feel a bit better for all of us who are missing out on his company.

Up to Date – September 20

Okay guys, I intended to write individual and detailed blog posts for a whole bunch of really great experiences I had this summer. But I’m sick, which always leads me to make rash decisions. Luckily for me, when I’m sick and online, the repercussions are only the cyber kind. So, decision: I refuse to put in the up front time it would take to get myself current, so I’m going to give you a nice little digest of the rest of my summer. Then we’re all going to agree to feel satisfied with my life and times up to the present. All in favor?

Quick succession of posts:

A train: throwback fun!

May: I went to the Spiral Jetty for my first time ever. The water was candy pink. My legs got salt-encrusted. Thanks for playing photo shoot, Mike! We also saw a train.

Me at the Spiral Jetty, Great Salt Lake.

Such an adorable party animal!

July 15: I went to the birthday party of this really adorable baby. For the record, Arjun throws the best parties!

I made this.


July 21: I participated in a Relief Society Cupcake War activity. I’d been eating leftover aristocrat heads all week, so I donated my cupcakes to charity (i.e., Desiree).

July 27: Lauren and I had been apartment hunting our brains out. We took a break at Cupcake, and it was exactly like every other cupcake boutique, except that the porch was all construction rubble.

August sometime: I ate at Acadia Cafe. They have these cookies that are baked with rays of heavenly glory and delivered fresh on an hourly basis by angels from on high. So melted-chocolatey good.

August 10: My little brother Steven got a cell phone. We texted a lot, and he even took my call while he was air softing. That’s love.

August 13: I attended Shabbot at the Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul. It’s a reformed congregation, and the services there are a party! Judaism is all about celebrating that you even get to be alive, and that’s fun to do through hymns that you clap along to! Also, a little boy got to be Bar Mitzvah. His voice was changing even as he sang the Torah. And people threw candy at him to signify the sweetness of the occasion! In a church!

August 13: I ate at Spoon River, and it was sorta chintzy. It was my first experience with mock duck, and I liked it. I also had this crazy salted ice cream called Nicollet Avenue Pot Hole at Sebastian Joe’s which I’d suggest, but which Michael thought went overboard on the sodium. Hypertension!

Also sometime in August: I ate a lot of Vietnamese food in Frogtown (my neck of the woods in St. Paul), all of which was pretty good. I haven’t decided, but I might prefer mock duck to tofu. I’ll let you know.

August 14: I made some molasses bread that was not very good (Megan ate it and said nice things, anyway!), and I watched the movie Hitch for the first time, and it was very good. Laughs!

August 15: I ate at Birchwood Cafe (hipster paradise) and reunited with Marla, with whom I spent Thanksgiving in Scotland in 2004.

August 18: I attended another Talmud class as the Temple of Aaron. The main things I learned were that several favorite Old Testament books are literary fiction and historically impossible: Esther! I also learned that Jews believe the Sabbath is the holiest of holy days. So much so that you shouldn’t even ask for anything (except for health) in prayers on the Sabbath because the Lord is resting, too.

August 19: I ate at Mango Thai in St. Paul… I think I ate mock duck then, too. Both the food and the service were great! Super prompt. I also had some sweet sticky rice dessert; I want to say it was the coconut one, but I don’t want to lie to you.

August 20: I went to Shabbat at the Temple of Aaron. Larry, the ritual director who teaches my Talmud classes, asked me to read the prayer for country, which was especially sweet. It was one of the only prayers in English!

August 20: I saw Captain America. Pretty good! I agree with this review.

Lanterns at Como Park

August 21: I went to the Japanese Lantern Lighting Festival at the Como Park Conservatory! The botanical gardens were cool; people in anime costumes were cool; floating lanterns all about the lake in honor of the dead was cool. Win!

August 23: I saw HMS Pinafore at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. It wasn’t quite as good as the Sideshow Bob rendition, but I understood the plot this time! I enjoyed the view of the city from the Guthrie’s poorly named “endless bridge.”

August 25: I attended another Talmud class at Temple of Aaron. Larry was kind enough to tailor the lesson to my ignorant needs by focusing on the prayers of the Shabbat service. My favorite thing I learned was that one of the first things read in a Jewish service is Psalm 96:1: “O sing unto the Lord a new song: sing unto the Lord, all the earth.” This is seen as a command to daily say something new in thanks to the God. We ought to never take His bounty lightly nor forget the splendor of our very existence.

August 26: I attended a Bassordion concert at Corner Coffee in Minneapolis. Guys, if you ever get a chance to see them play, go! Well worth it. You’ll wish you’d brought your polka shoes.

August 29-September 3: I camped in the Boundary Waters. So super beautiful/relaxing/gruelling! Kayaking, canoeing, portaging, camping, relaxing. I was with an ideal group (Thanks Shanna, Mark, Eric, and Jason!). Because I have spent approximately the same amount of my waking hours watching movies as not, the experience was very LOTR-reminiscent, and we have a reunion planned in which we will watch all three extended movies in one intense 12-hour day. You can see the camping photos here.

September 5: I moved to Prospect Park! I live at the highest spot in the Twin Cities, and in the shadow of this fun Witch’s Hat Water Tower, which, unfortunately, is open only one day per year. See you there next Memorial Day weekend! Also, my room was two inches too narrow for my bed frame the way I wanted to arrange it. Fortuitously, Ranell needed a bed frame. I bartered it to her for her bike, and the trade benefited all parties. Capitalism! Later, I decided I wanted my desk to be 9 inches narrower. Mark brought over a power saw, and we made short work of it.

September 6: School started. I’m now a second year MPH student. Debt!

September 7-11: My beloved Emily came to visit clear from Salt Lake City! We did many enjoyable things together. Among which were

  • Lunch at the Wienery,
  • Finally, a heat resistant waist band. All my problems are solved!

    A visit to the Minnesota History Center specifically for the very underwhelming Underwear: A Brief History exhibit (You will not learn about Egyptian or medieval underwear, only about a few specific lines of undergarments made by the Munsingwear company of Minneapolis.).

  • We ate at Franklin Freeze in Minneapolis, which is almost exactly the same as Conny’s Creamy Cone in St. Paul. They have 24+ flavors of soft serve ice cream! I have tried three of them. They do it by taking plain soft serve, mixing it with a flavored syrup in a little shake-cup, and then pressing it through a funnel-like contraption into a cone. At first I couldn’t figure out how they fit 24 soft serve machines in that tiny place (like how fro yo places each use separate machines). These people are geniuses, and their product is delicious! Also, each ice cream cone size (small/medium/large) comes in an actually different sized cake cone! I didn’t know they made actual cones  in different sizes! But they do!
  • Dinner at Black Sheep Pizza in St. Paul. It’s a coal fired pizza place that I feel corrects everything that was wrong about Punch Pizza‘s thin crust.
  • A visit to Fort Snelling and its associated memorial chapel. We couldn’t go into the chapel on account of a wedding happening right then, but the exterior aesthetics implied an internal continuity of such.
  • A visit to the Mall of America and Paciugo Gelato.
  • Shabbot at the Temple of Aaron.
  • A rendition of Handel’s Alcina put on by Mixed Precipitation theater company at the Skidmore Community Garden in St. Paul. Guys! Go see these people perform. They are a perfect mix of delicious food samples, opera, comedy, and all around good times! These people were so incredibly talented. I wish I weren’t sick and had the temperament to write a full review of this play. Suffice it to say that Laura Hynes Smith, Jameson Jon Baxter, and Molly Pan were fabulous as the leads (respectively Alcina, Ruggiero, and Bradamante the warrior maid), and I still giggle when I think of Lauren Drasler’s part as Morgana and Walter Gies as an enchanted fountain/violinist.
  • Crowd all ablaze.

    We went to a September 11 memorial concert at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. So many religions, so homogenized. But they trusted us all with candles!

September 14: I went to a class about the history of Rosh Hashanah at the Temple of Aaron. Initially, the big deal about Rosh Hashanah was that a loud blast would be made on a trump on that day. Now the big deal is that it’s 10 days before Yom Kippur, so it signifies a time to get introspective about how you want to start afresh.

September 16-18: I went to Nauvoo, Illinois for my first time ever. This place is like Epcot for Mormons. The Nauvoo Temple is the Disney Castle of all temples: super-bright-shiny-white on the outside and super bright colors on the inside. The historical sites were all informative and interesting, and the Trail of Hope was touching.

Carthage Jail, except it was raining like it does when sad things happen in movies.

My favorite thing about the visit was Carthage Jail. We got there two hours before it opened on Sunday, and an adorable missionary couple just happened to have shown up two hours early for their shift. They didn’t have keys, and it was raining. But, undaunted, they gave us a tour from the outside of the jail. Then someone showed up with keys and we got the regular treatment – movie and inside tour. I was touched by their devotion. I was also touched by the sacrifice Joseph and Hyrum made for their beliefs, and the kindness they showed others in their time of greatest duress. I only hope I can follow their example.

Basilica Day – August 14

Basilica Day celebrated of the 96th anniversary of the dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary as well as a celebration of the assumption of the Virgin Mary. A big day!

We hit the 7:30 AM mass, and apparently the priest was impressed by our devotion and apparel, as he asked if Joe and I would carry “the gifts.” Not knowing what that meant, we diffused the situation by saying we weren’t Catholic and sitting down. We later learned that presenting the gifts would have made us part of the procession that brings forward the emblems of the Eucharist, which I imagine is something an actual Catholic is supposed to do.

Anyway, the service was lovely. I loved the acoustics: everyone sounds good singing in a Basilica, especially after being drowned out by a microphoned cantor.

Next, we moved out of doors, where we were treated to Immaculate Confection (virginal pun!!!) ice cream provided by Sebastian Joe’s. We also navigated a grass-labyrinth which, surprisingly, was not a maze. You just wound all about to the center, and then followed the same path back out. It was a very inclusive activity.

Fool-proof grass labyrinth

Weekend o’ Fun: Duluth, Trampled by Turtles, Willie Nelson, Lake Superior – August 6 & 7

Ranell with a bag+mouthlul of hot tamales.

As with all road trips, the fun began before we’d even got out of town. Mike offered us some enormous hot tamales which were the hottest thing I’ve ever eaten and which only one man has has ever managed to eat more than two consecutively, and it burned a searing hot hole not just through his tongue, but straight out the bottom of his jaw. So we decided to have a feat of taste bud strength and each hold one in our mouth, without chewing, as long as we could. The winner would get a prize to the equivalent of ten dollars. Well, turns out if you don’t chew them, they’re not very hot at all. But they do make you talk hilariously, quite a bit like in this memorable scene from My Fair Lady.

About an hour and a half into our drive, we saw a sign for a place called Wacky Yakky’s Magical Soda Shop and Emporium of Treasures. Of course we took the next exit and went straight there. We were delighted to find that the place promised more than we’d dared hope. The signs on the exterior read as follows:

  • Wacky Yacky's

    Italian Charms

  • Wind Chimes
  • Sign Designs by L.M. Redlin
  • Body Jewelry
  • Cement Art
  • Water Fall MOtion Pictures
  • Knives
  • Crafts
  • Gifts
  • Metal Signs by Lazor
  • Chainsaw Carvings
  • Live Theater
  • DJ
  • Magician
  • Dance Teacher
  • Clown

Unfortunately, the place left a bit to be desired. It mainly had a lot of used VHS tapes and some locally made soy wickless candles (I felt a bit guilty after handling all their goods, so I bought some Oakmoss & Amber wickless candle wax, and it has actually been quite lovely).

We stopped off again in Moose Lake, which I was very excited about after having heard it repeatedly referenced in VeggieTales. Lunch at the Lazy Moose and a really delicious piece of lemon crisp pie. Recommended!

Blue Bear (the short-lived band and candy) at one of Canal Park's many high end candy boutiques

Lazy Moose Grille & Coffee House, Moose Lake, MN








Once we got to Duluth, we checked out the shops at Canal Park, ate some high end chocolates, looked at books, and talked to a very nice lady about local fiddle festivals.

We also drove over the famous Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge. In 1871, a canal was built that turned a residential peninsula into an island. Since it was on the other side of a canal where boats needed to cross often, it would be really inconvenient to put a bridge there. So they held a contest to figure out a solution.

Duluth's Famous Aerial Bridge

John Alexander Low Waddell came up with the winning Aerial Lift solution, but the War Department decided to do what they always do: change the rules of the game and do whatever they wanted anyway! America! So, people used ferries for a long time, until everybody realized this was inefficient and inconvenient. So, about 40 years later, they decided to do what Waddell had suggested originally and built this lift bridge that can move up and down to get out of boats’ ways.

Willie times onboard the Nelsonmobile

Then we went to Goodwill to buy rain jackets because it had been raining vengefully all day. The woman at Goodwill was convinced we were going to get on Willie Nelson’s bus and be on the news. She was SO excited for us. Some other people told us if we’d give Willie a rose he’d give us his bandana. I did a lot of Googling but couldn’t substantiate this rumor.


We ate dinner at Fitgers Brewery and Grille. Root beer from a tap! While I appreciate the novelty, it was less flavorful than I prefer. Also, as an FYI, the service was really quite slow, so, if you go there, make sure you have plenty of time or ask for your check as soon as your food comes (that’s what we did). Also, I had a veggie pub burger which I would eat it again. ALSO, and most significantly, the brewery is in the very building is where a 17-year old Bob Dylan stood just three feet from Buddy Holly in concert. Cool!

Then to the concert. Amazing. Trampled by Turtles gave an awesome show for their home town. Beautiful Lake Superior was the backdrop. Willie played almost nonstop for two hours. Good stories; he’s the kind of guy I’d like to go on vacation with. Vacation to Duluth. We did not get on the bus, unfortunately. And he did not give us a bandana. I am also proud to say that my folk-square dancing made a few people’s home videos. At one point, a couple were running through the crowd and stopped to dance, Julia-style, as they passed me. Win!

From above Gooseberry Falls

Next day, we saw Gooseberry Falls, which were lovely but very crowd-packed. The “hike” to them was paved and more of a stroll, but the view from there was lovely. I realized afterward that I think I would have been blown away by the falls if I’d hiked seven miles to get to them. Utah is all about making you work for your scenery. If a person in a wheelchair can access it, it’s probably not worth seeing.

Then we went to Lake Superior. Everyone said it would be too cold to swim, but I doffed my duds and ran straighway into the water, undaunted. Everyone else eventually joined in, and we had a wonderful time. Also, the rumors are true: looking out at Lake Superior was like looking out at the ocean. Not the tropical kind, but what I imagine the British Columbia coast is like. Trees and rocks and water. The maritime effect evinced itself even more in that I kept marveling that I didn’t have a salty taste in my mouth. Lake Superior!

To close, enjoy these videos of Willie Nelson:


and Trampled by Turtles: