Part 1: Things Fall Apart
“Do you want to go on an adventure?”
A few weeks ago I was clicking around online and I happened to be on John Hodgman’s site and was looking at his upcoming appearances, or “physical manifestations” as he calls them. He was going to be visiting the “3 Ms”: Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. I noticed a fourth “M” on the list. Morris, Minnesota. The only Morris I had ever known was about a half hour south of Winnipeg, famous only for an annual rodeo. Where was Morris, MN? Apparently it is home to a satellite campus of the University of Minnesota and is a couple of hours south-east of Fargo, ND. Six hours one way.
The wheels began to turn. I checked the date: Feb 11. My wife and I have to work 2 out of 3 Saturdays during the winter. Feb 11th fell on the free Saturday. The next morning I woke my wife up with the line, “Do you want to go on an adventure?” To my surprise, she was totally up for it. I shouldn’t be surprised, actually. She’s usually the adventurous one, not me. She’s the Tintin to my Captain Haddock, if you will. That didn’t come out right.
What about our daughter? A quick call to one of the grandmas was all it took. I called down to the Info Desk in the Student Centre and ordered a couple of tickets and less than a week later we were headin’ south.
Before we left I sent an excited tweet, and to my delight and surprise Mr. Hodgman himself replied:
I know it’s kind of silly, but I get such a thrill when a famous person, or a “semi-famous minor television personality” in this case, responds, retweets or follows me on Twitter. I’ve had responds from singer/songwriter Jann Arden, authors Joe Hill, Justin Cronin and Neil Gaiman, and I’m being followed by Tom Cruise (or at least his PR team, which is probably just as good). In fact last year Justin Cronin was going to be doing a reading and signing in Minneapolis and a part of me wanted to drive down for it. It was the middle of the week and I couldn’t make it happen and I sort of regret it. I didn’t want to let this new opportunity pass me by.
We loaded up the ol’ iPod with “Prairie Home Companion” and “Judge John Hodgman” podcasts as well as a healthy mix of Death Cab for Cutie, Arcade Fire, Norah Jones and Ron Sexsmith and we were off on a beautiful clear winter’s day. We stopped in Fargo for lunch at Culvers (Marla: it tastes like Kelekis!) and since Marla was so good-natured to accompany me on this “fool’s errand” that I was happy to oblige any side trips that she suggested. One such side trip was a visit to a yarn store in the south end of town. I don’t know anything about yarn, but I do know that there is a regularly scheduled event at my house called “knitknight” where supper is eaten, knitting and crocheting gets knitted and crocheted, and T.V. and/or movies are watched. I am the designated “ball roller”. I roll balls. I’m quite good, you should see me do it.
Anyway, Marla was in her element. She poked around at the merchandise and even asked the clerk for a bit of help on her current project that she just happened to have on her. I think part of the reason that Marla was so agreeable to this adventure was that she had 12 uninterrupted hours of knitting time in the car. That’s like a month of knitknights, easily! I absent-mindedly wandered through the store touching the various yarns. I didn’t realize I actually hand one in my hand when the clerk asked me if I needed any help. “Um, yeah.” Looking down at the bundle in my hand, “Do you think this would make a good hat?” She smiled and said, “Sure, but if softness matters to you, I’ve got some yarn that my husband really likes.” She led me to another section of the store and sure enough, this yarn felt noticeably softer. I was upsold!
We spent a full hour in this shop and when our purchases were being rung up, the clerk stuck our skeins of wool on an automatic ball roller. This thing will roll a perfect ball of yarn in a minute or two, no fuss, no tangles. I gazed at it with a mixture of admiration and jealousy. I was looking at the future, and the future didn’t include a role for me at knitknight.
We got into Morris at about 4 pm. John Hodgman was to take to the stage at 8 pm so we had some time. Our hotel, which online looked like the better of the two available, clearly had not withstood the scourge of time gracefully. Our only other option was the Super 8. Super 8’s can be a real mixed bag, but in Morris’ case, it looked brand new. Our hotel, although it sported a restaurant and swimming pool, neither one attracted us. The swimming pool was over-run by a kid’s birthday party. Apparently, the community can rent out the pool for events, and the hotel guests can just suck it, I guess. The restaurant was even worse. Marla described the smell as a mix of “wet feet and beef jerky”. She realized that the smell actually was wet feet and jerky, because apparently that’s what everyone was eating at the pool party next door. There was something creepy and exciting called the “Cougar Room” but we were too scared to go in. We decided to eat out.
Hodgman, no E
What were our options? Morris is a town of about 5o00, and the student body of UMM is 2000, so the town felt like it was really the support system of the university and not much more. The main street had a couple of options. One was a “family restaurant” but there were no cars in the lot and the sign outside said “Cooks and Servers Wanted”. Next. The best option seemed like this little Italian bistro. As we approached the front door, I looked down the sidewalk at a group of three of four coming towards us. In the midst of them was John Hodgman. “Marla!” I whispered, “It’s him.” He and his group brushed past us and up to the front desk. Of course they had reservations and went right in. We asked how long it would be, and we were told that the next available table would be 7:45 p.m. This was 5:30. “You should get him to sign your book now. You may not get another chance!” Marla told me. Marla’s always the more outgoing one, and if it wasn’t for her I would never have met my hero Bono in 2001, but that’s another story. My book was out in the car. This wasn’t technically a book signing tour, and so I wasn’t sure if he would be available afterwards so this really was a golden opportunity. Yet, I always feel kinda douchy bothering someone who’s having supper or talking with other people privately. Even when I took Kenny Rogers to task for the decline in quality of Kenny Rogers’ Roasters, I waited until he was done eating in Moxies before approaching. (I know, another story for another time). I respect that famous people require and deserve quiet time too, and it seemed like John Hodgman was about to have a quiet supper with a few notables from the university.
However, my compulsion for collecting signed books got the better of me, and I ran out to the car to fetch my copy of “Areas of my Expertise”, Hodgman’s first book. I approached the table, but this is where I made a tactical mistake. Rather than approaching Mr. Hodgman directly, I went over to the guy who seemed to be in charge of the group. I limply asked “Do you think it would be okay if I asked Mr. Hodgman to sign my book?” He looked kinda nervous and asked me if I was coming to the show that night. “He might sign things afterwards,” was all he said. As far as I could tell, Hodgman was unaware of this brief interaction. His head was buried in the menu. I slunk away with my fanboy tail between my legs. I couldn’t even look my wife in the eye. “Let’s just go.”
Dejected and hungry, we still hadn’t found a place to eat. A promising coffee and sandwich shop across the street closed at 6. We tried a pizza place down a side street, but I thought I had walked into a safe-injection site. The place smelled of disinfectant and there didn’t seem to be any place to sit except for where this bearded homeless-looking guy was slumped. A place billing itself as a “bar and grill” was the only other place downtown. Rather than park and go in, Marla went to scope it out and I stayed in the car. She was gone exactly one minute before she came out shaking her head. Apparently this “bar and grill” place wasn’t so much as restaurant as it was a banquet hall and a wedding reception was just about to get underway. That LITERALLY left three places: McDonald’s, Subway and Pizza Hut. We both dismissed McDonald’s right away, we had burgers for lunch and plus, it was McDonald’s. I would have been happy with Subway, but Marla thought Pizza Hut the better choice. As we were seated and took stock of our situation, I asked her how we were doing for time. Her watch had stopped. At that moment, here we were, in a drafty pizza chain, reflecting on a perfectly squandered opportunity, with a broken wristwatch. It was the lowest point of the weekend so far.
Part 2: Things Get Better