Archive for February, 2009

Feeling mad love for Small Town Misfit and BeeNews.com. They’re two of the best stand-ins around for those times you can’t indulge in the ultimate on-the-road entertainment: a gander at a community newspaper’s police blotter while drinking a cup of coffee at the local diner.


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Photo by Jenna Schnuer

Photo by Jenna Schnuer

For spectators, dog mushing is a hard sport. There’s no loop de loop on a race track. There’s no back and forth on a court. Once the dogs go by…they’re pretty much gone. Dog mushing as spectator sport takes patience, dedication, and a lot of reading (internet and newspaper updates of days-long races are key). But just one dose of a race, one chance to watch it in person, to see the connection between the mushers and the dogs and, quite simply, you’re sunk. It gets in you.

I fell for it in 2006 when I went up to Alaska to do a story about the Iditarod. Really, I didn’t think dog mushing would become an obsession. I figured it’d be an interesting thing to check out and then I would be done with it. I thought it was just another piece of Alaska that I should see. Instead, my interest in the sport keeps growing. It all stems from the connection between the mushers and their teams. We should all be so lucky to have bonds that strong with another living creature. I’m not sure I’ve ever even really seen that between two people. They have to trust each other. The mushers and the dogs know it. I know some will say I’m romanticizing the whole thing; I don’t care—I saw it.

Here’s the moment that got me over and over: as the teams readied to leave the checkpoint, the dogs would go completely hyper. Some would pogo up and down, many would start to pull, almost all would holler and whine. Then, when the checkpoint referee gave the go and the musher gave the “hike” command, the dogs would quiet and, all at once, just start pulling. The only sound coming from the sled runners as it slid on by. It was the most beautiful quiet.

So, you in? The 2009 Iditarod starts March 7. That gives you one week to study up and choose your favorite musher. And then I’ll see you out here.

Update since original posting: Lance Mackey won the 2009 race–his third in a row. The 2010 Iditarod takes off on March 6.

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Cocktails are nice. So nice. David Farley’s marathon drinking session in India got me thinking: what U.S. cocktail-drinking experience would I like to relive? Some may laugh but, after a crapola week, I’m craving the simplicity and sweet ease of drinking a Presbyterian while watching the Peabody Hotel ducks march their way into the lobby fountain. Sounds pleasant right about now, eh?


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There’s a gaping evil awful hole in my collection of travel experiences: not only have I never been to Mardi Gras, I’ve never even been to New Orleans. (OK, while I’m admitting to things, I’ve never seen The Godfather either but I guess that’s an issue for another website.) While I won’t be able to correct the situation by this year’s Mardi Gras, February 24, I plan to right the wrong come 2010. In the meantime, I’ll continue to obsess from afar. With a piece of King Cake and a ridiculously tall plastic cup filled with some sort of soul-drenching beverage by my side, I’m going to read and watch as much as I can about both Mardi Gras and New Orleans. After the jump, some of the goodies in my from-afar primer.

NOLA.com’s Mardi Gras FAQ

New Orleans Web Cams

A Mardi Gras site

Another Mardi Gras site

New Orleans tourism’s Mardi Gras site

National Geographic story: The Rich History of Mardi Gras’s Cheap Trinkets

Mardi Gras 1941

Mardi Gras 1954

Mardi Gras 2008

Pure Joy

And, though it’s not Mardi Gras-related, I’ll also re-read Wayne Curtis’ piece about a newer (and crazy-ass wacky fantastic) New Orleans tradition.

So, until I get there and can create my New Orleans and Mardi Gras story, I’d love to hear yours. Got beads? (Also, feel free to admit to the gaps in your travel experiences. Cause, um, it’ll make me feel better.)

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I don’t know what became of my Nebraska sweatshirt. It vanished many years ago and I still mourn the loss.

I bought the bright red (go Huskers!), short-sleeved sweatshirt in a thrift shop and wore it for years after my first (and so far only) visit to Nebraska in the late 1970s.

Granted, I was there in the middle of the night and barely left the Greyhound bus depot (was in Lincoln? Omaha? I don’t remember now), but I made a point of stepping out onto the empty street to marvel at the fact that I was in Nebraska. Nebraska! Of all places! Me! Little Sophie Dembling from Manhattan, in the most flyover of flyover states!

Whodathunkit? I thought with delight. It was one of those transformative moments that made a traveler of me.

And so I must, with all due respect, disagree with World Hum blogger Eva Holland’s assessment of the Western Nebraska’s Who knew? promotional campaign.

Honestly, I can’t think of a better slogan. Really—who knew? Whodathunkit? Nebraska, I can’t wait to return.

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Pop? Soda? Coke?

Hoagie? Grinder? Sub?

They’re about as basic as it gets when it comes to American regionalisms. Yet they’re still very entertaining to discuss. Just watch what happens in the comments sections (hopefully it happens) when I declare the answers to be soda and sub. (Please, if you disagree, just don’t hurl your hoagie at me.) If you’ve ever gotten into heated battle about (or just discussed) either one of those, then you’re going to want to meet Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, the hosts of A Way With Words. The public radio show is “Car Talk for language. People call us about their questions and peeves and just observations about language, things they’ve always wanted to know or things they heard on television last night, and we help them get to the bottom of it,” says Grant. Adds Martha: “We talk just about everything having to do with language. That means grammar, punctuation, slang, regionalisms, word origins, and usage. A lot of times we’ll get couples who have had an ongoing [word] fight for years…or there’s a dispute in somebody’s office. They call us and we make our pronoucenements.”

One topic that totally tickles the dandy duo (who are probably gagging over that icky alliteration) is American regionalisms. “What I love about regionalisms is that language is a reflection of culture and in terms of regionalisms it’s not just the poetry of language, it also reflects migration patterns,” says Martha.

“When people come up with new words they’re almost never new words completely sprung out the earth fully formed. They’re almost always derived from something that already existed or modified or they indifferently applied grammar rules,” says Grant.

It’s also a very personal topic for both Bs. MB grew up down south and GB is “half-Southern.”

Says Grant: “One of the features of my dialect — southern Ozark Mountain — is that the past tense of to steal is stoled. People shudder when they hear me say it. If you look at the surveys that have been done of this, it’s very consistent in my part of the country. The only way I would know that it’s out of the ordinary is that people say it’s supposed to be stolen. I take a little bit of personal pride in my dialect. I’m not going to speak Harvard English just because somebody else wants me to.”

As for the all-time oh I love it so regionalism for each?

Well, pork steaks, “a cut of meat almost unknown out of Missouri,” are top of mind for Grant. “Don’t you just want to get you some? They’re usually cooked in red sauce, either as shown in a large container, or better, you might marinate them for a while first, throw them on the grill and then as they’re cooking, you keep slathering the sauce, so that it kind of accretes like wax does on a wick when you’re making candles, or like the layers of paint that get added on an old house over the decades. The key, in any case, is not to do any of that half-assed barbecue where the meat is cooked separately from the sauce and then added at the end! That’s just wrong and anybody with any sense knows it.”

And for Martha? She’s not letting go of tump — accidently knock over — any time soon. Use it in a sentence please Martha: “Don’t tump over the canoe! or OMG, he just tumped a whole cooler of beer into the lake. It’s found throughout much of the south, and I suppose I cling to it with pride because I’ll never forget using this word in upstate New York, only to find people actually laughed at me because they’d never heard such a thing. Now any time I hear a Southerner say it, it feels like home, and I want to give them a big ol’ high five in solidarity.”

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Photo by Sophia Dembling

Photo by Sophia Dembling

I keep a file titled “Good Reads,” into which I tuck stories and articles that I enjoyed reading and like to revisit from time to time. The other day, I pulled the file out and found a photocopied page from the book O Pioneers!O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.

I copied the page for a particular speech, spoken by Carl, who has just left Chicago, to Alexandra, who is trying to keep things together on her family farm on the Nebraska prairie.

“Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.”

I felt all “right on, right on” about this speech the first time I read it, which is why I copied and saved it. I had recently moved to Dallas from New York City and I was discovering the nation beyond my big city home town.

For a long time, I imagined I wanted to live in a small town and that Dallas was just a stop en route to that. But after years of life and travel, I’ve come to understand that I’m not cut out for small-town life. It’s not because I need theater, symphony and shopping (although I do like lots of restaurants). No, it’s because I like a certain level of anonymity in my day-to-day life. The intimacy of a small-town—even a small-city—sounds difficult.

I remember visiting an old friend in a small Montana town in the early 1980s. My first night in town, we walked into a bar and a cowboy hollered, “Hey, New York!” I was a little spooked that my presence in town was such fast-traveling news. (Not too spooked to dance with the cowboy, though.)

And the gossip—my gosh, the gossip. When I was working on a travel story in a small Texas town known for its bed-and-breakfast inns, I got my ear bent all over town by B&B owners dishing about other B&B owners. And not kindly.

This all comes to mind after two blog posts attracted interesting but frankly hostile comments about high-profile individuals in small cities. When you dare to stand out in a small town or city, you have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Yikes.

As much as I enjoy visiting small towns, I’ll take big-city life. At the very least, it’s pretty easy for me to avoid people I dislike, and if they talk trash about me, I might never have to hear about it.

So, which is better/worse? Anonymity in the big city or intimacy in a small town?

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