Saturday, December 30, 2006

Sidney: not to be confused with Sydney.

Australia-bound tourist ends up in Montana

German man mistakenly books plane ticket to small oil town of Sidney

Updated: 5:05 a.m. CT Dec 29, 2006

BERLIN - A 21-year-old German tourist who wanted to visit his girlfriend in the Australian metropolis Sydney landed more than 8,000 miles away near Sidney, Montana, after mistyping his destination on a flight booking Web site.

Dressed for the Australian summer in t-shirt and shorts, Tobi Gutt left Germany on Saturday for a four-week holiday.

Instead of arriving “down under”, Gutt found himself on a different continent and bound for the chilly state of Montana.

“I did wonder but I didn’t want to say anything,” Gutt told the Bild newspaper. “I thought to myself, you can fly to Australia via the United States.”

Gutt’s airline ticket routed him via the U.S. city of Portland, Oregon, to Billings, Montana. Only as he was about to board a commuter flight to Sidney -- an oil town of about 5,000 people -- did he realize his mistake.

The hapless tourist, who had only a thin jacket to keep out the winter cold, spent three days in Billings airport before he was able to buy a new ticket to Australia with 600 euros in cash that his parents and friends sent over from Germany.

“I didn’t notice the mistake as my son is usually good with computers,” his mother, Sabine, told Reuters.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at the Billings Airport when this poor guy figured out his mistake...

Sidney--it's so not Sydney.

Devil's haircut.

(Not really.)
Devil's haircut.
(It was that, or a reference to "Cut the Mullet," but I didn't really have a mullet, either...and strangely, the implications of aligning myself with the devil were more appealing than the implications of implying that I had a mullet.)

Boy, was that ever long overdue. Plus, it's making me think making a bunch of "evil twin" photo montages of myself might be fun.

Friday, December 29, 2006

My top 10 albums of 2006, Pt. 2.

5. The Decemberists - The Crane Wife

Often accused of being a "pirate band" due to their propensity for crafting the occasional sea chanty--but c'mon, who doesn't love a good sea chanty now & then?--I find the Decemberists to be one of the few bands around that can send me looking for my dictionary. And that's saying something. Where else can you get such sweet-sound
ing songs about serial killers, gang warfare, dead Civil War soldiers and oh, let's throw in some broken-hearted love songs while we're at it? An English major's dream come true. AllMusic: "Colin Meloy has given himself over to early-'70s progressive rock with gleeful abandon, and while many of the tracks pale in comparison to those on Picaresque, the ones that succeed do so in the grandest of fashions."

4. Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins - Rabbit Fur Coat

I'll forever identify this album with the week last February when I got a job as a telemarketer, quit said job as a telemarketer, then got a new job as a receptionist/"practically a lawyer" at C&C Law Factory. (Thankfully, the second job stuck for longer than 72 hours.) I've been a Rilo Kiley fan for a while, and I've always liked Jenny Lewis' voice--not one of the biggest voices around, but it's got a simplicity to it, a precise quality that I like. A solid little collection of songs, with a mix of white soul and country twang that's well-suited for an afternoon of self-reflection ("oh my god, I hate telemarketing!!") on a cold winter's day. AllMusic: " a pure sonic experience, it's a moody, atmospheric listen that never gets quite as melancholy as it suggests and holds together better than any Rilo Kile
y album to date."

3. The Boy Least Likely To - The Best Party Ever

Quite possibly the most sugary-sweet album ever to rear its head in my collection (yes, even surpassing that copy of N*Sync's No Strings Attached that wormed its way in as a gag gift)...and yet, I love it. I really do. There's something about the unabashedly peppy vibe here that hooks me in each & every time. It is, in a word I usually reserve for sarcastic references to my cat, "precious." Don't get me wrong, there's some woebegone underpinnings just beneath the seams--but the sunshine overhead overpowers the gloom and leaves everything it touches coated in a delightful layer of twee-ness. Oh, the twee! AllMusic: "The Best Party Ever is a low-key work of peaceful beauty unrivaled by anything in 2006, except maybe Jim Noir's Tower of Love. The two records share a wide-eyed simplicity and bedroom grandeur that just doesn't come along too often, and if you believe in the power of indie pop music to fill your life and heart with untrammeled joy, these are two records that will bolster that belief and send you out into the cold streets with a smile on your soul."

2. Beirut - Gulag Orkestar

A kid from Albuquerque makes gypsy music. I love it.
AllMusic: "Like DeVotchKa, Condon is heavily influenced by Eastern European folk music and, to a lesser extent, the mariachi trumpets and Latin rhythms of the desert Southwest: the songs on Gulag Orkestar are lousy with mandolins and similarly plinky members of the string instrument family, accordions, horns, and hand percussion clearly played with dramatic in-studio arm flourishes."

1. Josh Ritter - The Animal Years

Josh Ritter is apparently a star in Ireland. Yet ask people in Moscow, Idaho if they're familiar with his music, and you get a blank stare. Which is funny, because that's where he lives. Hell, I lived a stone's throw from there (well, kind of a long throw, I suppose, but I digress) for four years, and never hardly heard of the guy until I moved back to Wisconsin. Crying shame, too, because had I known better, I would've gotten on the Ritter bandwagon a heckuva lot sooner. Hands-down the album I listened to the most this year. AllMusic: "...intimate but transient, like a circus train crawling through a small town on a busy Saturday afternoon."

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

My top 10 albums of 2006, Pt. 1.

Honorable Mentions:
Eef Barzelay - Bitter Honey
Eels - With Strings, Live at Town Hall
DeVotchKa - Curse Your Little Heart (EP)
Taraf de Haïdouks -
The Continuing Adventures of Taraf de Haïdouks
They Might Be Giants - Venue Songs

10. Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

Why, oh why didn't I pick this up when it came out back in March? Nope, like an idiot I go and wait until December...oh well, my loss. To quote AllMusic: "...her tales of failed friendship, faith stretched to the breaking point, and love that causes as much ache as comfort are subtle and expressionistic but deeply evocative, conjuring images and feelings that linger long after the album has ended."

9. Bob Dylan - Modern Times

One year when I was growing up, Bob Dylan was scheduled to be a featured performer on the Grammys. For weeks in advance, my mom kept on us kids with her "now you're going to hear what a real singer sounds like!" and "he's not like the stuff that's on the radio nowadays, he's really got something to say" comments, gleefully digging her own grave. The night of the Grammys came, Dylan wobbled out...and holy hell, he sounded like a power drill with a dying battery. "Rrrreeeem-reeeeEEEEeeeeem, how does it feeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeel?" (The early 90s were not a good time for Bob, methinks.) To this day, my brothers and I still drop that into conversations with my mom, just to turn the screws. I'm glad I got past the electric-drill fixation enough to get into his music when I got older, though. AllMusic: "Modern Times is raw; it feels live, immediate, and in places even shambolic. Rhythms slip, time stretches and turns back on itself, and lyrics are rushed to fit into verses that just won't stop coming."

8. Johnny Cash - American V: A Hundred Highways

Not a party album by any means, and not even my favorite of his American recordings...but it hits like a punch to the gut. I think some of Cash's gloom-and-doom songs over the years were calculatingly melodramatic--the staunch stuff suited his voice, but he could also be wildly playful and funny when he wanted to be, too. But on this album, the darkness feels real, and knowing it was his last gave it even more weight to carry. AllMusic: "Cash was never a great singer in a technical sense: he hadn't much range, his pitch often wobbled, and his lack of breath control sometimes found him grasping for sound at the end of lines. But he was a great singer in the sense of projecting a persona through his voice; his emotional range, which went from a Sinatra-like swagger to an almost embarrassingly intimate vulnerability, was as wide as the spread of notes he could hit confidently was narrow. Such a singer doesn't really lose that much with age; in fact, he gains even more interpretive depth. Listening to this album, one can't get around the knowledge that it is a posthumous collection made in Cash's last days, but even without that context, it would have much the same impact."

7. The Minus 5 - The Minus 5 (The Gun Album)

I'm always amazed that more people haven't heard of Scott McCaughey. I can eat this stuff up with a spoon--granted, it's more bittersweet than some of the band's (featuring R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Ken Stringfellow, and a revolving cast of extras sometimes including Jeff Tweedy, Colin Meloy, et al) previous offerings, but damn, sometimes a little something bitter really hits the spot, y'know? AllMusic: "Despite the wide range of high-priced help McCaughey's songs are the star attraction here, and as usual, the man is one of the underappreciated geniuses of pop songwriting."

6. Regina Spektor - Begin to Hope

I'm pretty sure "20 Years of Snow" has been on every mix tape/CD I've made since this came out in June. Poppier than Soviet Kitsch, but still endearingly quixotic. I like things that are hard to define, and Regina Spektor's music is pretty hard to define. AllMusic: "The album feels like getting to really know someone: at first, it's polite and a little restrained, but then its real personality, with all of its charming idiosyncrasies, finally reveals itself."

(1-5 tomorrow.)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

"Hey, kids! Come get some free candy!"

Scary Santa.
(I've had this on my computer for years, and I can't decide whether I find it sweet & evocative of a more simple time, or just plain creepy. I'm leaning toward creepy.)

From Rancho del Asbach to your house, wherever it may be, Happy Holidays/Merry Christmas/Happy Solstice/Happy Kwanzaa/Happy Hannukah/Happy Feast of Pan the Goat God/"Hallelujah, holy shit."

Friday, December 22, 2006

Requiem for a ball pit.

Last week, the Hardee's restaurant in Ashland closed.

Empty Hardees.

(For those of you unfamiliar with Hardee's—it's the same thing as Carl's Jr. Really. Same company, same food even—I think—just different logos/color schemes. Kind of like how east of the Mississippi River, there's Hellman's brand of salad dressing, and west of the Mississippi it's called Best Foods. Same stuff, different label. By the way, the Hellman's/Best Foods schism BLEW MY MIND when I first moved to Montana. I thought I was seeing things, and yet I wondered if my mind had decided to start hallucinating why it would've picked salad dressing to start with. I mean, it isn't the flashiest thing for the mind to play tricks with, is it? I can't speak for everyone, but it's certainly not something I tend to think about very often. Even when I'm making a sandwich, I don’t stand there with the butter knife poised over the bread, pondering the dressing. Maybe the expiration date on the lunchmeat, or whether or not I want onions on that…but never the dressing. If I was going to start seeing things that weren't there, why couldn't it be dancing pink elephants, or a phantom Ewan McGregor? And besides, I've always been more of a Miracle Whip girl anyway…but I digress…)

I'm pretty sure Hardee's was the first fast food franchise in Ashland—and the current (er, I suppose now it's former) building isn't even the original Hardees. That one was where the current one's parking lot is—it was torn down to make room for the building standing there today. Old codgers like me remember that the old building had what was quite possibly, at the time, the most sophisticated piece of drive-thru equipment in the world: a robot. Yep, it was a little robot cart dealiemabob. It rolled from the counter up over part of the seating area through a glass enclosure, then down a little chute to the pick-up window, ferrying burgers and sandwiches and those little cinnamon raisin biscuits and deep-fried delights aplenty over the mesmerized diners below like a mechanical Sacajawea. It was like something from NASA, or straight off of The Jetsons. (And it's moments like these when I wish digital cameras had existed back then, so that someone might have considered photographing said robot for posterity. Back then, people didn't want to waste film, I suppose…even on the world's most sophisticated fast-food delivery system. I know, what were they thinking???)

Birthday party at Hardees, 1986.

Birthday, 1986.
(7th birthday party, 1986.)

You have to understand—this was a time when fast food was a BIG DEAL. A honkin' big deal. Around here, it was a novelty. (Frankly, it still kind of is.) And it was particularly delightful to kids like me & my brothers, who ate out very rarely…to us, Hardee's represented the trifecta of kiddy delights:

1. Junk food (hot, greasy succulence);
2. Pop (a forbidden sugary-syrupy delight that was rationed out like butter during WWII at the Asbach house); and
3. The ball pit.

Oh, the stories I could tell you about the Hardee's ball pit. You know what I'm talking about, right? One of those shallow holes featured in countless modern fast food joints, the kind that's filled with plastic balls, those little plastic balls that seem really hard when you land on them the wrong way but that dent in with frightening ease when you step on them (hence, the "no shoes in the ball pit" rule, perhaps?), no doubt covered in a festering swarming pulsating layer of germs and spit and drool and grease and god knows what else, I sure don't want to think about it anymore.

More 1988 birthday.
(9th birthday party, 1988.)

This is my favorite Hardee's ball pit story:

I had a lot of birthday parties at Hardee's when I was little. As my mother noted amongst pictures from my 6th birthday party there, "They included a real nice Garfield cake and Mom sure was pleased to see the whole thing only cost $8—cake INCLUDED!" I imagine for my parents, the El Cheapo factor (plus not having a herd of hellraisers storming around the house) was quite appealing, and to me, well, what's not to love about a ball pit, a small glass of Coke and a fish sandwich? (God, is it strange that my tastes have changed so little over the years?)

Anyway—for my 9th birthday, we found ourselves at Hardee's once again—my mom, my grandma ("to help watch the kids"), my little brother Nick (he must've been about 4 at the time), and seven or eight screaming nine year olds. Presents received included an Alf nightshirt, a stuffed kitten, a hula hoop, a card with ten dimes taped to it (?), a unicorn poster, and "a package of white socks." (Taken, again, from my mother's meticulous notes.) At the close of dining & present-opening, it was ball pit time—our time to shine. We descended upon the pit like the furies themselves—surely there was a great deal of leaping, throwing, and surely a fair amount of yelling. The ball pitting continued uninterrupted for a spell until, and I remember this part clearly, my mom leaned her head in the door (yes, the ball pit was enclosed by glass, which I’m sure the other diners were very grateful for when they saw our car pulling in) and asked, "Hey, where's Nick?"

Hey…yeah…where WAS Nick? Cue silence. All eyes turned to the ball pit.

"NICK?????" My mom was in there like a flash—"C'mon, kids, get all these balls out! Nick?? NICK???" So there we are, gleefully throwing all the balls out of the pit (well, the kids were gleeful, my mom was completely panicked thinking her kid had been crushed in a freakin' ball pit, of all things), when all of a sudden way in the back we see a little albino-lookin' head pop up. Turns out the little bastard had been hiding in the back. Buried himself in the damn pit. Demon child. I swear he let out an evil little cackle, too.

Dude, check out Whitey!
(Look at him go!)

Now, the ball pit is no more…it's probably no big loss to the kids in town today, since now there's two other fast food burger joints along Hwy 2 (each with bigger, fancier ball pits and slides and all manner of other elaborate jungle-gym apparatus for facilitating quick energy burn-off), plus a mini water park in a hotel on the edge of town. They've got options. We didn't.

Farewell, sweet Hardees...may flights of cracklin' deep fryers sing thee to thy rest.

"I find tinsel distracting."

Two festive holiday tidbits for you:

1. A company in Milwaukee that makes hand-railing components is, once again, selling Festivus
poles for the holidays. Which is awesome all on its own, right? But you know what makes it even awesomer? When the freakin' GOVERNOR has one!!

2. We don't have a Festivus pole at our house, but we do have a 6' tall cardboard cutout of country superstar Alan Jackson standing in the living room.
Alan Jackson.
So far he's scared the mailman, the UPS guy, the Fed Ex guy, and one of our neighbors. (Not to mention the cats.)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Rubber sharks, mason jars and the grandest house in Iron River.

Shannon's birthday was on Friday.
Shannon with Shark Tank.
Home of the Shark Tank.
Festivities included a trip to Norm's in Superior for drinks. Most notably, for the one, the only...Shark Tank. (Which is basically a Mason jar of booze crowned with a toy shark. And it squeaks!)

In all its glory.
In all its glory.

The best part about the Shark Tank--other than the fact that it comes in a mason jar, oh, and also other than the fact that it's chock-full of boozey goodness--is that you have something to play with as the sharks pile up around you.
Scott and Dana.

Single sharkey.
Sharks shouldn't smoke.

Sharkypile. Like a monkeypile, but with sharks.

Of course, for people with even shorter attention spans, there are always plenty of other things to do at Norm's. There's yer bar standbys, like pool and darts, and there's the "flick the metal hook on a string into the hook mounted onto the wall" game (always a fun one for the drunks)...and beyond that, there's the old standbys like rock, paper, scissors.
Rock, paper, scissors.
(In case you can't tell from the photographic evidence, this was about as confounding to them as the "hook on string into the wall hook" game.)

Shannon & Scott.
I think the blurry qualities of this picture nicely capture the overall vibe of the evening by that point.

Shark trio.

The next day, Shannon, Scott and I made a trip to Walgreens where we found treasures such as:
Tiny appliances.
TINY appliances. (Look at the size of that toaster oven! It's wee!)

This really scary singing ball with Renee Zellweger eyes.

For freedom-lovin' Santas.
The camo Santa hat. (For freedom loving Santas.)

More Walgreens.


All in all, fun galore. But behold, what glory awaited me as I was driving home through Iron River...
The grandest house in Iron River.
It's impossible to miss this as you drive through town, not only because it's on the main drag, but also because EVERY SQUARE FOOT OF THE FRONT OF THE HOUSE IS DRAPED IN TWINKLE LIGHTS. Oh my god, it's a vision. Somewhere, Clark Griswold is smiling. (As is the local electric co-op.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

One weekend in December 1996...

We made Christmas cookies.

One weekend in December 1996...

At least, I think these are from gut instinct says they are, because I remember Emily coming home from her freshman year of college for Christmas, and Joe was hanging around right about then, and when I found these, they were in a cluster of photos from late '96/early '97. So let's run on the assumption that I'm right.

Oh, good times.

Cookies 2.

God, I wore that Crow/MST3K shirt to death, didn't I.

Cookies 1.

Decorating cookies.

In addition to our solid homemaking skills, Emily & I also had some mad car-jumpin' skills. Which came in handy, since we both drove cars that would now qualify for admission to Antiques Roadshow.

December 22, 1997.

Oh, the Chevette. And the garden-hose green monster. God, I loved that car.

Oh, green car!  I loved it so.

My car from  high school/college.

The radio wired directly to the battery...the highly sophisticated instrument panel...the rubber ducks everywhere...the John Cusack pictures/action figures on the dashboard...the vinyl seats. Oh, those vinyl seats. That car was a vision of loveliness.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The day the ice came in.

Chequamegon Bay is icing over.

Icy oredock.

The last of the Canada geese are migrating through town.

Gaggle of geese.
Flying V by the steamstacks.

Honk!  Honk!

And the Christmas decorations are up on Main Street.

Snowflakes on Main Street.

Main Street from the windows at work.

Yep, it's officially winter. And it's officially freakin' FREEZING.