Tuesday, June 29, 2010

day 28: i outran a rabid german shepherd

I'm beginning to suspect my favorite cut-off shorts may be unlucky.

Of course like all cut-offs they started out nine years ago as full-length pants, a perfect pair of size 3 stretch-denim jeans that I wore nearly every day.

After about a year I had worn holes in the knees, which I thought made them even more awesome, especially since I hadn't spent $90 on the pre-ripped kind at the Gap like so many people I knew. Nope; mine were legit. 

My mom rolled her eyes and threatened to patch them, but I was determined to wear them until they unraveled and the last blue denim threads clung to my skin.

bicycle awareness, 43rd and Oak

Eventually the jeans became downright derelicte, with the knees gaping open like cartoon villains' mouths and the once-dark denim faded to a grayish hue. My mom had given up, seemingly resigning herself to the fact that her daughter was going to dress as though she lived out of a 1985 El Camino and just hoping I'd eventually grow out of it.

The last day I wore the jeans I was walking with my younger cousin K. down the rural Kansas highway in front of our grandma's house. It is a mellow stretch of country road, the type that sees mostly farm traffic and from which people are identified as outsiders if they fail to wave hello.

We were enjoying the mild springtime weather and talking about nothing important when two crazy-ass dogs bounded out of the neighbor's yard and headed straight for us.

Because she is nearly six feet tall, K. is much faster than I am, so when she turned and ran the dogs identified me as the straggler, as their target. They were right on my heels, barking and snarling; one of them snapped and caught a frayed piece of my jeans in its teeth.

After a couple of blocks I spotted a car parked alongside the road, and I managed to leap onto the roof. 

I don't remember what happened next. Someone wrangled the wild beasts, or maybe K. had someone drive down the street to get me, but my jeans were ruined. One of the dogs had ripped the back of the left leg off at the knee, and denim strips flapped around my ankle. 

On that day, as much as I hated it at the time, my favorite jeans became my favorite jorts.

On that day I also developed an irrational fear of large dogs, to the point where I have climbed a tree to get away from dalmatians in someone's yard or switched parking spots because the car next to me had a doberman chilling in the passenger seat with the windows down.

Though it's been nearly a decade, I kept the shorts, and because of my new and exciting exercise addiction they fit again. 

I happened to be wearing them during a bike ride with my boyfriend last week. He hates them as much as my mom did; "why don't you wear real shorts?" he'll say, a question I'll shrug off until the day the thinning back pockets of the shorts disintegrate in the wash.

We were riding through an industrialized part of Kansas City, Kansas, with a row of trees along the right hand side of the road, and I was coasting downhill enjoying the wind on my face when a giant German shepherd leapt out from behind a bush.

"What the fuck?" I shouted, and the hell-beast took off after me, barking and snapping at the rear tire of my bike.

"Ohgodohgodohgodohgod," I said over and over, not looking back until I knew the jaws of terror were safely behind us. 

And am I sure the shorts are cursed and it was not merely a coincidence that I got chased by killer dogs on separate occasions nearly ten years apart while wearing the same pants? 

No. But I was also wearing them in Yellowstone the day I almost hit a grizzly bear with my brother's car, so it's looking increasingly likely.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

day 27: i watched a sunrise

morning people
by Charles Bukowski*

some days I don't have it in me.
these days I find myself awake 
at the forgotten hours 
smoking on the patio
watching the city wake softly
as she burns scrambled eggs 
in the next room.

"don't you own a coffee grinder," she says.
"who the fuck has coffee
but nothing to grind it with."

i ash my cigarette
and the cherry falls,
i watch it dig its way
into the tip of my canvas shoe.
it leaves a brown hole,
perfectly round.

"there's a hammer in the drawer," i say. 

anyone else would have gone
to the coffee shop,
it is only a short walk 
down the street.
but she thinks she looks good
in her short red dress
black makeup around her eyes
last night's lipstick
a slap of crimson
on her cheek.

"like this," she says,
holding the hammer above her head,
waiting for me to watch,
and she whacks the bag
with the ten-pound silver head.

the pop goes off like a gunshot.
coffee beans scatter the floor
like fat raindrops.

"you're a fucking idiot," she says.
"i'm going back to bed."

*Not really. I decided to write a poem in the style of Bukowski in lieu of simply bitching about how much I hate mornings, and how getting up any earlier than 8 a.m. feels like the worst kind of punishment, and how I would've gone to a better location than my porch to watch the sunrise (it faces east, dammit, so I figured it would work, but it turns out there are trees in the way), but sincerely felt it was too early to wear pants or a bra.

Had it been the sunset, though, I would've been all up ons, because that fucker can put on a show. I've watched it work its magic here in KC, in the Colorado Rockies, overlooking the Columbia River in Oregon, and most recently while speeding through the Badlands of South Dakota, pictured below:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

day 26: i went to wal-mart without pants

Of course I didn't literally go to Wal-Mart pantsless, because then my next entry would read "I got arrested for indecent exposure." I actually posted some of my fiction Fictionaut, on a social networking site for both legit writers and wanna-bes like me, which makes me feel as exposed as a recurring dream I had in high school in which I was shopping for makeup at Wal-Mart and suddenly realized I was naked from the waist down.

I've never been convinced I'm any good at writing fiction, and yet I feel compelled to do it. My suspicions that I might actually really suck at it escalated when I applied to MFA programs last winter and was soundly rejected by all eight. 

I'm also not convinced, because I'm not a serious literary talent who really has something new to say, that spending my time writing about the lives and loves of people who exist only in my mind is something to which I should dedicate much time. And yet, I do it. I've always done it. 

post-storm rainbow, view from Roe Boulevard, 6-16-10

For about two years I've been writing and re-writing the story, waiting for it to be "good enough," whatever that means. Then yesterday I was driving down 69 Highway* on the tail end of a storm with the air humid and electric, and I realized fuck it, I'm free. So in the spirit of fucking it, I posted the damn story. I got nothing to lose either way.

*Apparently saying "69 Highway" instead of "Highway 69" is a Kansas City thing. I didn't know this until my boyfriend pointed out that it was severely annoying (or he might not have been so harsh; he might have just called it "weird"). In any case, he was right (see "local navigation tips").

Friday, June 18, 2010

day 25: i shot some ribs

Part of my day job - the one for which I actually get paid - includes promoting rural health care conferences in different cities across the country. Because there's only so much health care-related imagery to choose from, and most of it's boring - stethoscopes, mortar and pestle, red cross - my brilliant co-worker L. and I tend to pimp events using locations.

And because we're both suckers for a unique food experience - she has witnessed firsthand my tendency to unleash a string of excited swear words when I try a delicious new flavor of gelato - a lot of our promotional materials end up featuring tasty treats.

For example, one of our 2009 conferences was held in Portland, Oregon, and a google search led us to Voodoo Doughnuts, a Portland doughnut shop where couples can stuff their faces with bacon-topped longjohns before exchanging vows in the on-site wedding chapel.

Naturally the doughnuts made their way onto our postcards:

This fall's conference will be held in, of all places, Kansas City. And for better or worse, for many tourists (and by "many" I am referring to the 20 or so people who actually take vacations to this city each year) KC is synonymous with barbeque.

Which is why L. and I decided to grab our awesome designer Debra Phillips and have a photo shoot with some of KC's finest: a slab of pork ribs from legendary barbeque joint Arthur Bryant's.

To get to the 90-year-old restaurant at 18th and Brooklyn, you have to drive through the 18th and Vine jazz district, a should-be thriving but sadly forgotten part of the city's heritage (also see my Jason's Pitch cover story on the recent cancellation of the annual KCK Street Blues Festival). The death of authentic entertainment scenes such as the jazz district makes the pre-packaged, artificial "fun-in-a-box" of the Power & Light District seem all the more garish by comparison.

Inside, the restaurant is nothing if not functional, and it seems to be an amalgam of a small-town barbeque joint and a bustling urban diner. A faded, grease-stained sign boasts "rib tips" as the "special of the day," though you suspect it's been the special for more like a few years.

While waiting in line to shout your order through an opening in the glass window that separates the cooking and dining areas, the delicious, savory smells of smoking meat will nearly overwhelm your senses. Stay collected. These chefs mean business, and their business is barbeque.

Once we collected our slab of meat and took it back to the office, we dressed it up with Arthur Bryant's tangy sauce - ribs look their best when they're saucy - and started shooting. I climbed on tables and the stove and squatted at rib-level in search of the money shot, and this was the end result:

I think it turned out pretty damn great, despite the fact that, as L. says, "Urban grease is the opposite of rural health."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

day 24: i developed a healthy fear of midtown

It was dark and pouring down rain, and I had just gotten home from work to the apartment I shared with my boyfriend on the corner of 39th and Wyoming, an arrangement about which my parents were none too thrilled. The parking lot behind the building was full – "fucking neighbors must be having a party again," I thought – so I parked along the curb.

As I got out of my car, a man waved from across the street and started approaching casually, as though he knew me. Because of the rain, I couldn’t tell who he was. Not wanting to be rude, I waved back. I might've said "hey" or asked him what was up.

Then he pulled out what looked like a crowbar, and I almost started laughing, skeptical of what I was seeing. "Surely he’s joking," I thought.

But without a word he raised his arm, and terror surged through my veins like ice water. I closed my eyes as cold metal pressed into the side of my neck, forcing me to the curb. He grabbed my purse and jumped into a truck that had pulled up to collect him, and the tires screeched as they sped away. The whole thing took only a few seconds.

I paced around in the rain for several minutes, unable to breathe or process what had just happened. Eventually I wandered into the convenience store across the street and called the police, who arrived several minutes later and said they couldn’t do anything, which pretty much sums up my entire relationship with the cops when I’ve actually needed their help.

For the next month or so I had my boyfriend walk me inside if I got home after dark, but soon I was back to being fearless; I was, after all, a newly-minted 21-year-old, and there were drinking establishments I needed to frequent.

Even after my car was stolen from behind my house; even after I heard reports of a blood-soaked man carrying a sawed-off shotgun roaming my neighborhood; even after I heard stories of friends being beaten, robbed and held up at gunpoint, I still didn’t process that the area of KC where I have lived for the past seven years can be a scary and dangerous place until I saw a Facebook post about a recent conviction for a 2008 murder on 42nd and Pennsylvania, only six blocks from where I live.

The 24-year-old victim had been enjoying an evening out in Westport when two teenage boys shot and killed her in her car because they needed gas money.

Similar to what I experienced when that asshole lifted the crowbar over my head, this young woman must have had a crystalline moment of horrific clarity when those boys aimed their gun at her face, and she knew they wanted to hurt her. Like me, she had been raised in a Johnson County suburb where bad things always happen to someone else somewhere else and are related only on the 10 o'clock news. Like me, she probably thought she was safe, and it's a tragedy that she - and so many others like her - was wrong.

For all its flaws, I secretly kind of love Midtown and have no plans to move. But every now and then we all need to be reminded to watch our asses, because it is a place where bad things can and do happen randomly and for the most petty reasons.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

day 24: i put stuff on my cats

Sometimes on stormy Monday evenings, the only thing that can stop restless dissatisfaction and ennui from seeping through my pores like the rainwater down the chimney is fucking with the cats.

It is endlessly amusing to sneak up on a sleeping Phoenix and watch her demonstrate her ten-inch vertical jump, or convince a confused Bubba Lee Kinsey that the laser pointer he's been chasing really is hiding under the chair, and he just needs to keep looking.

And the web site Stuff on My Cat offers yet another possibility: waiting until your cat is in repose, and then piling household objects on him or her. My cats were surprisingly tolerant of this bullshit:

Wind-up crab on Phoenix

Zack Greinke on Bubba Lee Kinsey

Jack-o-lantern on Phoenix

St. Theresa on Bubba Lee Kinsey

Halloween candle on Phoenix

Giant crow on Bubba Lee Kinsey

Monday, June 14, 2010

day 23: the boozy explorer goes bar-hopping in waldo

First, an unfortunate side note: last week my one-and-a-half-year-old MacBook, undeniably the most expensive thing I own (I like to think of myself as "big trash day chic"), blew up.

All that crazy-talk on the screen at right is what I believe to be the equivalent of a very high-tech hangover, except instead of Advil, Gatorade and pasta noodles it's going to take hundreds of dollars to make it better. In conclusion, fuck.

* * * * *

When the boozy explorer (my Pogues-inspired drunken alter-ego) goes out in search of a good time, she expects the following:
  1. Strong, cheap drinks.
  2. Good music that isn't so loud it prevents conversation.
  3. A laid-back atmosphere in which a girl can look charmingly disheveled (i.e., no douche- or ho-bags. How to tell if you're surrounded by 'bags: count the ratio of bleach-blonde to natural hair, and anything greater than 3:1 is probably a bad sign).
Considering my good-time criteria, on Friday night The Well was pretty much batting 0 for 3. The two-story bar next door to Waldo Pizza was so jam-packed with douchebags, if you had shaken it like a high-pressured soda can, it would have spewed toxic levels of Ed Hardy shirts and spray-tanner over several blocks. The music was too loud to hear anyone without yelling, and the bartender - a skinny 21-year-old in a short, black skirt - poured almost impossibly weak $6 drinks.

Needless to say, our next stop at Patrick's Bar and No Grill felt like a haven. As its namesake boasts, the bar's menu features microwave-only treats like popcorn, mini-corndogs, personal pizzas and White Castle sliders, and pictures of Chiefs players and famous people (including one of a smiling 20-year-old labeled "Sheryl Crow") adorn the walls. Bud Light bottles are served in silver buckets, the rum drinks are strong enough to make you forget whether you left the one or the five as a tip, and the staff is friendly (when we were about two buckets in, the bartender brought us a giant, homemade cookie to share).

There is also a Nintendo Wii, which provides some excellent people watching if you're into drunken shenanigans. And really, who isn't.

I was told these fellas were Wii kayaking, though I like to think they were just really into the World Cup:

And we weren't sure what girlfriend here was trying to accomplish by rocking this saddle, but in the end she was pretty damn pleased with herself:

And pleased with myself is the opposite of how I felt the next morning, especially since boozy treasures are not the lasting kind. Except for that time in Vegas when my boyfriend found a silver bracelet on the ground.

Friday, June 11, 2010

day 22: i stopped at a lemonade stand

At some point late every spring, I relent to the smoldering inferno of my apartment and turn on the air conditioner, an ancient window unit covered in dust and mold that this spring also became home to a nest of birds, which Bubba Lee Kinsey and Phoenix tried to grab by sliding their paws in the space beneath the unit along the windowsill.

Here's a helpful diagram to illustrate what we're dealing with (hint: I really can't draw):

This year I waited later than usual to turn it on, becaue after having strep for two weeks I am in no hurry to inhale two decades of filth and get the black lung, or whatever, which would seriously fuck up my summer. I waited until maintenence man Shawn had time to come over and clean it.

I like Shawn not only because he seems like a nice guy, but because he says things like, "It's so hot in here you really deserve a reduction on your rent. I'm going to talk with Megan about that," and "Really, you're 27? You look so much younger."

I helped him haul the 50-pound behemoth to the back stairs, where he sprayed and scraped until the coils were shiny and silver. So I feel good about having a cool apartment without potentially poisoning myself.

Then I met my co-workers for an open house at Dan Meiners, an extremely high-end florist and interior design store where I discovered, among other things, a $65 candle, hanging terrariums, and more orchids in bloom than I've ever seen in one place.

Everyone there was beautiful, thin and most likely rich, and I would have used my hidden super power (hint: laser beams out of my eyes) to melt their fancy sno-cones if I hadn't been so eager to try one for myself.

And it's a good thing I did. Made by Fresher than Fresh, Kansas City's "first all-natural snow cone stand on wheels," the flavors bypass the traditional bullshit like cotton candy and blue raspberry and go straight for adventurous stuff actually found in nature, such as blackberry lavender, watermelon basil and, the one I tried, agave hibiscus.

The next table had beautiful cyan glass jars cooling in tubs of ice, and when we approached a dude handed us plastic cups and began pouring sample after sample of Get Real Food Company's locally-made organic soda. Available for $3 a bottle, flavors include mojito, ginger beer, rootbeer and, my favorite, Citrus Kicker, which finishes with a mild chili pepper burn.

Oh, and I also stopped at a lemonade stand for the first time ever. Two nine-year-old girls and their bored-looking older sister handed my co-worker and me two glasses of tangy pink liquid for 50 cents a pop. "It has a hint of watermelon," one of the girls said.

Ah, summer. Some days you're perfect.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

day 21: i was proud of kansas

My home state is infamous for some rather unsavory reasons that mostly involve willful ignorance and bigotry: like a hateful, homophobic Santa Claus, so-called pastor Fred Phelps compiles his "god hates you" list at Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka; schools teach "intelligent design" as a "viable alternative" to evolution under the directives of the Kansas State Board of Education; Women’s Health Care Services medical director George Tiller, one of only three physicians nationwide providing late-term abortions to desperate women, was gunned down in May of 2009 while attending mass in Wichita.

In other words, I have a lot of reasons to lie about where I’m from.

But finally, the small town of Greensburg, population 1,574, has given me something to be proud of.

In 2007, an F5 tornado (for those of you who didn’t grow up in Tornado Alley, this is basically like the finger of god descending from the clouds, singling you out and saying you’re fucked) destroyed 95 percent of the town within an hour. People’s lives were instantly and permanently ground into a mash of dust, twisted scrap metal and clapboard. Deaths totaled 11.

When the chaos finally settled in the federally-designated national disaster area, those who stuck around were faced with the daunting task of how to rebuild. After examining cost, sustainability and return on investment, Greensburg decided to go green.

And not trendy “look at me, I drive a Prius and eat only raw foods” green, but all-out Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-platinum certified green. The whole town, from schools to civic centers to Kiowa County Memorial Hospital, has embraced the high standard of sustainable and environmentally-friendly design, making Greensburg the first city in the U.S. to do so.

Some changes in Greensburg include utilization of wind and solar power, building with recycled materials, recycling construction waste, harvesting, purifying and re-using rainwater, and designing buildings and homes to make the most of natural lighting. Even the landscaping has been considered to promote water conservation, and plants are drought-resistent Kansas natives such as buffalo grass. (Pictured above: the town's new Arts Center.)

Greensburg's efforts have been nationally-recognized, and they were recently nominated for a VH1 Do Something award (click the link to vote for them). Which, while an awesome achievement for a small town, still pales in comparison to finally giving this Kansas girl and others like me something to brag about.

Monday, June 7, 2010

day 20: i fell in love with junot diaz

The last time I immediately connected with a writer in a way that made me say “fuck yeah” I was 21 years old and visiting the south side of Chicago.

My then-boyfriend and I had taken a road trip to see the Cubs play, and at a bookstore down the street from Wrigley I discovered Dangling in the Tournefortia by Charles Bukowski.*

Being so young, I had not yet seen anyone write the way he did and get away with it:
From "I didn't want to"
it is difficult for me to get interested or angry.
when a cop stops me for some infraction I simply sink
into some great sea of disgust.
“do you want to know what you did, sir?” he asks me.
“no,” I say.
I’ve been sitting in this
room for hours typing, and drinking
red wine.
I thought I was
alone here. the door is closed
and the window.
now a big fat fly
ugly and black sits on the edge
of my wine glass.
where did it come
from? so silent, motionless
like that.
that’s the way
it might be with death.
Despite being a skinny girl from a middle-class Kansas City suburb, I somehow related to this middle-aged drunk living with whores in Los Angeles motels. In our own way we each tested the limits of what felt safe and crossed lines that left us vulnerable and exposed but ultimately still bored with our own extremism.

Then this spring I visited a St. Louis bookstore with my boyfriend Jason, and while bending over to pet the resident cat I spotted Drown by Junot Diaz.

From the first story about two young boys in the Dominican Republic plotting to steal the mask of another boy whose face was eaten by pigs, I was owned. The story played on my natural sense of voyeurism with the unsympathetic and sometimes cruel curiosity of children.

And the rest of the book doesn't lighten up. The characters of Drown inhabit a world of perpetually leaky faucets, stolen jewelry, and thin walls through which you can hear the daily dramas of the people above and below you. 

But Diaz’s matter-of-fact, occasionally cynical voice belies the stories’ quiet tragedies – a boy’s father abandons his family; a teenager carries on a dead-end relationship with a crack-addicted hooker; a pool table delivery boy helps a young maid escape an abusive relationship with her boss – and makes them at times even funny.

In fact, most of the characters’ experiences are accompanied by little introspection or analysis. Yunior, an adolescent boy who appears in several of the stories, has not yet begun to string together the moments of his life to make whole, meaningful events. And this, I believe, is the part of Drown I love most, as in terms of growing the fuck up already I’m a late bloomer.

*Yes, I know he’s not considered a “literary” writer and it’s a stretch to even call him a poet, but he’s gritty, dammit, and that’s how I like ‘em sometimes.

Friday, June 4, 2010

day 19: i rode a horse in the rockies

I have always feared horses in the way other people fear god; I regard them with such respect that approaching them - and much less riding them - makes me feel as though I've crossed some unspoken boundary and will pay the price with broken bones and possibly my life.

But today I climbed on the back of a sweet old mare named Dixie at a ranch in Rocky Mountain National Park, and accompanied by a small group of other inexperienced riders and two young guides, she carried me along a dusty trail through the mountains.

Once I got over the initial feeling that I was at the mercy of a creature much greater than I (according to guide Lindsey, you can hang your entire body weight from a horse's insanely thick, muscular neck), the feeling was actually kind of exhilarating. 

Dixie obediently followed the horse in front of her - "they're pack animals," Lindsey explained - and would turn or slow with the gentlest tug on her reins. 

As we rode past snow-capped peaks, lodgepole pines and countless grazing elk, guide Jake pointed out the Aspen trees fenced off beside the trail.

"They're the world's largest living organism," he explained, "because they all share a root system. They're all connected underground."

He was referring to Pando, an Aspen grove in Utah with a root system that is approximately 80,000 years old and covers 107 acres. 

My shock and awe intensified as Jake explained that elk eat Aspen in the winter, and the bacteria from their lips turns the white bark black.

"Other animals don't want to eat it," he said, "because they assume it's dead."

This led to an intense "holy shit, everything is connected" moment that ended abruptly when Lindsey told us the park was becoming overpopulated with elk, so the blue collars worn by some of the females were not tracking devices as I'd assumed but actually birth control. 

When the ride ended I went to the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and barfed up the rest of my cash for specialty chocolates and espresso bark. But I enjoyed my two-hour retreat from it all.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

day 18: i saw old faithful erupt

It has been slowly sinking in since Monday, but today when we stopped in West Yellowstone for lunch and I found it odd that the rainwater puddles in the parking lot weren't boiling, bubbling, hissing, or steaming, it hit me: for the past three days, I have been in the most insane place on Earth.

Featuring all the colors of one of those giant jawbreakers you ate as a kid, Yellowstone is home to two-thirds of the world's 900 geysers and is totally going to blow someday. Steam rises from the ground. Groundwater shoots hundreds of feet into the air. Mud puddles boil. 

And of course, there are geysers galore:
near the Fountain Paintpot en route to Old Faithful

Spouter Geyser

Cliff Geyser

Giant Geyser

Grotto Geyser

Castle Geyser

Anemone Geyser

Pearl Geyser

Old Faithful, pre-eruption

Old Faithful, mid-eruption

Geyser Hill

And finally the two geysers that appear to have been named specifically for my brother:

Depression Geyser

and me:

Tardy Geyser

Also, if you step on a geyser, you are so fucked: