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MSNBC: Detourist Travel Blog

Why I hate the Fourth of July

It's too crowded, too noisy, too hot, too trafficky. I have to work the next day. My kids get freaked out. The Beach Boys. I can't barbecue to save my life. Spent cardboard fuselages litter the sidewalks the next morning. People blow their body parts off. I have to spend $400 bucks on reservation fireworks just to keep up with the Joneses. It's overdone. My dog -- who gets nervous when a door slams -- turns into a stoner after we pump her full of Quaaludes and then pees on her pillow and is too tuned out to care.

Mainly, though, I hate the Fourth because it gives the bozos in my neighborhood license to light dynamite every night for three weeks beginning in the middle of June and call it patriotism. Since it doesn't get dark till 10 this time of year where I live, the patriots are always waking us up just as we've settled into sleep. So we close the windows, soothe the dog, check the children, and sweat through the rest of the night.

The holiday mystifies me. Why, to show how much you love something, do you blow something up? We don't do this for weddings or birthdays or Easter. ("Honey, I love you this much." KA-BOOM!) And come to think of it, what would you blow up to show your love of Jesus? It would have to be big, like a country. But then it would seem not really to honor the Prince of Peace. Indeed, nothing blow-up-able really would. So why do we do it for America?

By the way, what do we mean when we say "America" -- as in the sentence: America: love it or leave it, you Independence Day-hating SOB? I mean, is "America" the government? the Constitution? democracy? the land? I'm not quite sure. But it sure feels good to kvetch. It's harder to suggest alternatives, though.

But I'll try. 

Hike with your family in a national park. Visit your grandparents. Read your kids a story. Read the Constitution, or the Gettysburg Address, or "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Donate money to a cause you love, or a politician you admire. Go to an art gallery, even if you hate art. Write a letter to a soldier, especially if you're a pacifist. Lie down in a park and think of all the worse places you could live. Join the PTA. Pray for peace, if you're the praying sort. If not, meditate for peace.

It's a beautiful big-top of a country. Tell it you love it, without all the fireworks.

In praise of those old destinations

I tried out for a game show over the weekend, which is meaningless except for the fact that during the actual game-playing portion of the tryout, we were asked to tell a little bit about ourselves and "what we'd like to do if we won a bunch of money on the show." 

One man said he wanted to build a memorial in his hometown to men he knew who'd been killed in Afghanistan (if I am picked for the show, I'd like to donate my spot to him, but I suspect he'll make it anyway). Another, god bless him, said he'd "probably just squander it."

Everybody else, me included, wanted to travel. I said I'd like to go to France and Italy.

Isn't that boring?

Here's the thing. I used to feel that you had to travel intensely -- exotic destinations, crazy adventures, push the limits, and all that. And I did some of that. But now I pretty much feel the way about traditional destinations the way Nick Hornby feels about good pop tunes. That is, they can be popular and still be great.

In "Songbook," his collection of music essays, Hornby says, "I don't want to be terrified by art anymore." For my part, I don't want to be terrified by travel anymore. I don't need to seek intensity, it kindly stops for me. People I know and love have gotten pretty well banged up by life, or have gotten sick, or have died. "I need no convincing that life is scary," Hornby says. "It has got quite scary enough already -- I don't need anyone to jolt me out of my complacency."

So, if I win a stack of money on the game show, I'd maybe like to take my wife and kids to see the Pont du Gard, that magnificent aqueduct in Provence the Romans built out of fossil-rich limestone.

I want to walk around and think about all those layers of human and natural history, and the transience of empires. I want to plunk rocks into the river. I want to hear my kids say, "Can we go yet?" and let them, and those fossils, put everything in perspective. 

One large pepperoni-and-larva pizza to go, please

A pizza chain is being investigated after a woman says she found insect larvae on her pizza several hours after it was delivered. According to the Asheville Citizen-Times, "samples from pizza brought to the Buncombe County Health Center are being sent to a state lab in Winston-Salem and are expected back in several days." 

My question is: What's the problem? Eating bugs has been a storied tradition ever since John the Baptist got the munchies and started dipping locusts honey. Indeed, go to Zach Huang's Web page and you can see that a menu that includes giant silkworms, mealworms, hornets, caterpillars, and scorpions. Especially impressive is the presentation on the "dead and tasty" scorpion dish. However, I'm not that convinced by Huang's statement that "Cooking probably denatures the potent poison the gland contains." Only "probably"?

Actually, according to site Bugfood III, eating bugs is pretty common. They're abundant and are a good source of protein. And let's face it: chances are you've got a fairly bug-rich diet already.

According to a 2004 National Geographic News article: "It's estimated that the average human eats one pound (half a kilogram) of insects each year unintentionally," says Lisa Monachelli, director of youth and family programs at New Canaan Nature Center in Connecticut. ... [C]hocolate can have up to 60 insect fragments per 100 grams, tomato sauce can contain 30 fly eggs per 100 grams, and peanut butter can have 30 insect fragments per 100 grams (3.5 ounces), according to the FDA."

If all this makes you hungry, perhaps I may tempt you with some casu marzu. As Wikipedia describes it, casu marzu "is a cheese found in Sardinia, Italy, notable for being riddled with live insect larvae. Casu marzu is Sardinian for 'rotten cheese.' " If you're interested, though, bring your protective eyewear -- the little buggers can reportedly jump 6 inches in the air.

I bet they're quite good on pizza.

Traveling without traveling

You don't need to travel: "[T]he pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mindset we travel with than on the destination we travel to."

So writes Alain de Botton in the delightful book "The Art of Travel." De Botton explores why we travel and what we get out if it. His slim volume is full of illustrations and easy to read, and it left me calmed. Barely a day passes when I don't fantasize about moving to a stone farmhouse in the lavender-coated South of France and doing ... I don't know what, exactly, but I know I'd be happy, dammit. My life would be interesting! I'd be somebody!

But if I let the daydream play out, it loses a lot of its energy. My wife and kids would get bored. The farmhouse would get cold in winter. I'd start to hate the smell of lavender. I don't speak French.

"What, then," asks de Botton, "is a traveling mindset?" His answer is that it's about receptivity: "Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting. ... We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs."

Yet de Botton takes time to say you don't have to travel to cultivate this receptivity -- it's available to you wherever your daily life occurs. By the end of the book, he's walking slowly around his home neighborhood in London making sketches and jotting notes just to see his neighborhood with fresh eyes: "Once I began to consider everything as being of potential interest, objects released latent layers of value."

Happy travels, even if you're just driving home.

British food or medical condition?

Of the 10 items below, which can you eat and which should prompt you to see a doctor? (Answers below.)

hotpot

pie and mash

toad in the hole

bangers and mash

bubble and squeak

Cornish pasties

Victoria sponge

clotted cream

spotted dick

cock-a-leekie

Answers: What were you thinking? They're all types of British food, of course.

Hotpot (or "Lancashire hotpot") is a kind of stew.

Pie and mash is a dish of minced beef pie and mashed potato. Pie-and-mash shops are also known for selling jellied eels, which according to Wikipedia are "eels cooked for approximately half an hour and allowed to cool. The juices then solidify forming the jelly." They're often served with chili vinegar.

Toad in the hole consists of sausages in Yorkshire pudding. Here's a recipe.

Bangers and mash: sausages with gravy.

Bubble and squeak is when you take leftover meat and veggies and fry them with some mashed potatoes.

Cornish pasties are meat pies. Victoria sponge is sponge cake. Clotted cream is a thick cream made from unpasteurized cow's milk.

Spotted dick is a dessert, a steamed suet pudding containing dried fruit. Suet, by the way, is raw beef or mutton fat, which strikes me as more of a main course than a dessert. But no matter. 

And cock-a-leekie is a soup of leeks, potatoes, and chicken stock. I must confess that cock-a-leekie is the only one of the foods I've eaten. It was at a London restaurant called, ahem, "Tiddy Dolls."

Oh, for the record: swamp-toad soup, fish-eye tartar, and weed rat (either in a stew or served rotisserie style), are not British foods. They're "Shrek" foods.

Look for me in Radiator Springs

I saw "Cars" over the weekend and am ready to move to Radiator Springs, a mythical town on old Route 66 lost to all but a handful of assorted dreamers.

At one point in the movie, the hero, Lightning McQueen, asks Sally Carrera how a lawyer car like her ended up in a town like this. Her answer is a gesture at the view. (Cars can indeed gesture in the movie and, after a while, you don't even notice.) The two cars have been ascending up a winding cliff-face road and have pulled off for a rest. The land drops away to the valley floor thousands of feet below and Lightning's eyes take in a red-rock desert wonderland much like Zion or Sedona.

The town is just a wide spot in the road, and off on the horizon you can see motorists speeding by on I-40, oblivious to the treasures hidden beyond the hills.

I crave that scenery, maybe because I first visited Southern Utah when I was 7, on a backpacking trip through Zion with my father. And I kept returning, year after year. Except now, all of a sudden, a decade has passed and I feel a sense of loss. I miss those blue skies and ochre cliffs, acutely so today, since the Seattle forecast calls for five days of rain.

Zion functions for me much like the scenery around Tintern Abbey in the Wordsworth poem ("How often has my spirit turned to thee!") -- a place of solace the poet returns to in his mind.

At the same time, the poem really makes me want to visit the Wye Valley, the way Richard Hugo makes me want to have a drink in Philipsburg, Montana; Van Gogh makes me want to take in the night sky in Provence; Homer makes me want to kick the dust in Troy; a Hans Heysen painting makes me want to see Australia; an Edward Hopper -- the Great Plains; an Alexander McCall Smith novel -- Botswana; and on and on. Any kind of art, classic or mainstream, can give you the urge to get the heck out of Dodge.

So, I'm wondering if "Cars" will increase tourism to the Southwest. While Radiator Springs isn't real, Route 66 sure is. And the relationship between art and tourism, as Alain de Botton writes in "The Art of Travel," is a very old one:

The tourist office in Arles [in its promotion of the Van Gogh trail] is only exploiting a long-standing relationship between art and the desire to travel, a connection evident in different countries (and in different artistic media) throughout the history of tourism.

 Who knows, next time you're in Sedona, maybe you'll be able to drive the "Cars" trail. Send me a postcard to let me know how it was. Send it to: General Delivery, Radiator Springs.

The places where the Divine seeps through

I was at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon a few months ago and had a weird mixture of feelings. I suddenly felt I had enough energy to jog down to the Colorado River and back up. But at the same time, I felt I could sit on a bench at the edge and do nothing except be for an afternoon.

I'm not a meditative sort, probably because I'm a parent of two children, 6 and 3. They inhabit a nation that doesn't recognize my right to uninterrupted thoughts. "I don't get it," my daughter said, "it's just a bunch of dirt and rocks."

Still, what I got an inkling of was something like the feeling Peter Illyn had in a Pacific Northwest forest. He writes, in his essay "The Thin Places" for the National Parks Conservation Association magazine:

Standing in that ancient forest, surrounded by trees that were 800 years old, I also had an epiphany of insignificance. That moment when you realize what an awesome, wild, and majestic world surrounds us. The moment when you become small before God.

Illyn takes the title of his essay from the early Celtic people, who felt that the wall separating them from God (which I'll leave for you to define) was thinner in certain wild places.

You can experience that "thinness" anywhere, of course -- a moment with your children, washing dishes, listening to a symphony -- but it does seem easier in wild places. At the Grand Canyon, for example, you're confronted with time on a scale you can't really process. The feeling of your own insignificance, if it doesn't make you nuts, can help put your failures, and your successes, in perspective.