Thursday, November 29, 2012

Go Local with Bike & Tour Websites

Indie travelers strive to get beneath the surface of destination, beyond the middling attractions the tourism bureau is paid to promote. They also want to connect with locals. A couple of new websites are here to help.

* Liquid ( - Connects bicycle owners with visitors who want to rent a bike. Owners submit photos and details of their sweet chariot; Liquid verifies the offer, and then posts it online. Visitors search by location, bike size and type, then deal with the owner directly to rent their wheels. It's like AirBnB for pedalers! So far Liquid is in the US only, but it plans to branch out to 400 cities in 80 countries.

* Gidsy ( - “Gids” is the Dutch word for “guide.” The service matches locals who lead offbeat activities - say, mushroom hunting in an Austrian forest or snowboarding on a Washington mountain - with visitors looking for novel experiences of a place. Tour/activity prices are cheap compared to their professionally led counterparts. For details, read this article about a Gidsy guy who leads a food scavenging tour through New York City. Ashton Kutcher is an investor in the Berlin-based company (he also invests in AirBnB, by the way).

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Obama's Election Day Ritual in Chicago

If you're Barack Obama, today is a pretty stressful day. Will I be president for another four years, or won't I? He has decided to stick to close to his Chicago home, play basketball in the 'hood, and maybe get a haircut to take his mind off the matter.

His barber, Zariff, at the Hyde Park Hair Salon was coy when asked by local news reporters whether Obama would be dropping by. The prez would, presumably, get the "Obama Cut" ($21, as per the price list), though he won't be able to sit in the original presidential barber chair, which is now encased in bulletproof glass.

It's one more thing to add to the day's drama: if Obama stops by, and if he wins office again, perhaps we'll have a second enshrined barber chair....

Monday, November 5, 2012

Road-Tripping on the Lincoln Highway

It has been 99 years since the Lincoln Highway - christened on October 31, 1913 - made it possible to drive coast-to-coast in America. The road beat a path from New York City to San Francisco, unfurling 2900 miles of pavement through the nation's heartland.

But today the highway is fading. It doesn't appear on most maps, because it's no longer an official road, but rather a patchwork of federal and state byways. The Lincoln Highway Association works to preserve the route. Pez museums, fried-chicken diners, giant coffee pot statues, and other Americana reward road-trippers who follow it.

In Illinois, a series of murals also marks the way, denoting hot spots such as Rochelle, where Emily Post honed her admirable manners in 1915, and University Park, where the Van Buren sisters  revved motorcycles for their historic cross-country journey. See more on the Illinois artworks in my AAA article here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Reflections on the Guillotine

Think "guillotine" and an image of Marie Antoinette comes to mind, all poofy haired and silk gowned, maybe wielding a dessert fork (though she never really said, "Let them eat cake"). Marie lost her head to the timbers of justice 219 years ago today.

You can see the guillotine that decapitated her in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in London. (Remember, Tussaud got her start making wax death masks for victims of the French Revolution, including Marie Antoinette.)  Other places for guillotine tourism include:

*  Paris, at Rue de la Roquette and Rue de la Croix Faubin (near the 11th arr) - Indents in the street mark where the guillotine stood outside the Prison de la Roquette, where 69 beheadings took place. Atlas Obscura has more here.

*  St-Pierre, off the coast of Newfoundland in eastern Canada - The guillotine sliced just once in North America, and it was on this French island-territory. The blade remains in the L'Arche Museum. Its bloody backstory is here.

Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin would surely be appalled to know the device that bears his name ended up with such a nefarious reputation; he meant for it to be a humane way to die. The last guillotine dropped in 1977.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

World Zombie Day

Prepare the prosthetic pustules, and bring on the braaaaains. It's World Zombie Day, celebrated the second Saturday of October each year. Fans gather in crusty, dusty solidarity around the globe. Some groups organize blood drives, others grunt over drinks during pub crawls, while others gather for communal screenings of Shaun of the Dead.

Zombies have become a $5 billion-per-year industry. In addition to literature like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and TV shows such as The Walking Dead, zombiephiles can take hatchet-throwing lessons, "walk like a zombie" acting workshops and run in races while being chased by the undead. Zombie tourism is big business.

Personally, I'd go to Indianapolis if I was a zombie, to the Indiana Medical History Museum. It's an old insane asylum with a whole room filled with brains in jars - a zombie version of just opening a can of something for a quick dinner.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Elegy for the Baseball Season

If nothing else it's historic: two 100-loss teams playing a baseball game against each other. The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros will have piled up 207 losses between them when they meet today for the season finale at Wrigley Field. That's 101 losses for the Cubs vs. 106 losses for the Astros. The last time such crappiness collided was in 1962, when the NY Mets - with a still-standing MLB record of 120 losses - whiffed against the, er, Cubs (103 losses). Attendance for the game was 595 fans.

On a related note: remember Adam Greenberg, the Cubs rookie who got hit on the head by the first - and only - pitch he ever saw? The concussion he suffered in his first at-bat derailed his career. That was 2005. Flash-forward to Oct. 2, 2012. Greenberg returns to the majors. Steps to the plate. Squares off against RA Dickey, the Mets' 20-win knuckle-baller. And this is the subsequent headline: Greenberg Strikes Out 7 Years After Beaning. And this: He's Back... And He Whiffs.

A white-haired gentleman named Fred van Dusen watched from the stands and felt the pain. Greenberg, you see, wasn't the only player to have his career halted by one hit-by-pitch plate appearance. Van Dusen is the other member of the dubious club, after he got nailed as a Philadelphia Philly in 1955.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Museum Day Outcast #3: Fluorescent Museum

The world's first museum of fluorescence is a hippie-trippy treat. It's called Electric Ladyland, and it radiates in Amsterdam. Even if you didn't eat a space cake before arriving, you're gonna feel like it, as grey-ponytailed artist and owner Nick Padalino takes you to his gallery/shop's basement and shows you all kinds of glow-in-the-dark objects, from psychedelic sculptures to luminescent rocks.

Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles' 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' and other tunes play on the stereo while you learn about the naturally fluorescent rabbit, and wow your friends with the fact that the most fluorescent place on earth is…drum roll…New Jersey, USA (lots of incandescent minerals in the ground there).

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Museum Day Outcast #2: DEA Museum

DEA's homemade bong collection
Beaded necklaces + bongs = trouble
DEA agent's undercover snakeskin shoes in Detroit circa 1970
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Museum in Arlington, Virginia, is not exactly known for its nuance. Tucked in the lobby of the US agency tasked with fighting drug use and smuggling, it wags a pointy finger. "Everything associated with drugs is bad! Everyone associated with them should go to jail for a long time!" the exhibits practically scream.

Then again, it's the only federal museum in the country with a homemade bong collection. Exhibits on hippies, head shops and drug dealer fashion supplement the pipes.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Museum Day Outcast No. 1: Ventriloquist Museum

Kenny Talk
September 29 is National Museum Day (sponsored by Smithsonian Magazine). In the run-up to the big event, I'm going to pay homage to some institutions you won't see on the list.

First up: the Vent Haven Ventriloquist Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky (just outside Cincinnati, Ohio). Jeepers creepers! When you first glimpse the roomful of goggle-eyed wooden heads staring mutely into space, I dare you not to run screaming for the door. (If you’ve seen Magic, you know what dummies are capable of.)

Woody DeForest
Local William Shakespeare Berger started the museum after amassing a collection of some 700 dolls. Today Jacko the red-fezzed monkey, white-turtleneck-clad Woody DeForest and the rest of the crew sit silently throughout three buildings. Lest you think the entertainment form is history, stop by in July, when the annual conVENTion takes place and 400 ventriloquists arrive with their talkative wooden pals.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Meet the Dark Lord

You know your Dark Lord, if you're a beer geek. It's Three Floyds Brewery's Russian Imperial Stout - considered one of the best beers on earth - available only one day per year during a mythic festival in Munster, Indiana.

April 28th was that day. And it was glorious. Obviously, there's the brew: Dark Lord looks like motor oil, tastes like a mocha shake (thanks to the Intelligentsia coffee, Mexican vanilla and Indian sugar), and wallops your brain with 15% alcohol. Hopheads use lots of adjectives - plum-y, velvety, notes of roasted malts. The best description? 'F*cking delicious,' says bartender Steve.

Beyond Dark Lord itself, the day is all about beer camaraderie. People bring rare brews and home brews to trade. Strangers will let you sip from their glass. They'll even share their Girl Scout cookies. It's like a big sudsy group hug (with a heavy metal soundtrack).

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mathematical Reason for Pie

As if you need an excuse to fork into a tender slice of pie, along comes March 14 - aka 3.14 in date form. That's pi, if you’ve forgotten your geometry: the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Actually, the number is 3.14159265358, plus another trillion or so digits (see the first million in order here). 

Random facts abound for pie, as well:

•    Kansas once had a law making it a crime to serve ice cream on cherry pie.

•    Pie preference links to personality. Pumpkin pie eaters tend to be funny and independent. Apple pie people are realistic and compassionate, while pecan pie fans are thoughtful and analytical. And chocolate pie lovers? They're loving (duh).

•    Indiana is the only state to have legislation on both pi and pie. The Indiana Pi Bill of 1897 defies easy explanation. Best to read the wiki. Easier to digest is 2009's Senate Resolution No. 5, making sugar cream pie the official pie.

Whether a fan of pi or pie, you can now face the day with confidence.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Sweet Pork Magic: Spam Turns 75

2012 is shaping up to be a helluva year for anniversaries: Charles Dickens' 200th, Chicago's 175th, the Titanic's 100th, and the reason we're gathered here today: Spam turns 75.

Ah, the peculiar meat - Spiced Ham, so they say. The blue tins have fed armies, become a Hawaiian food staple and inspired legions of haiku writers. Our favorite:

Spam volcano blows.
Stratosphere laden with pork.
Gorgeous pink sunset.

Even slack key guitar great Keola Beamer (recent strummer on The Descendants soundtrack) collects Spam haiku.

The best place to get in on the gelatinous pink action is MOMA. No, not the one in New York City. We're talking the Museum of Meat-Themed Awesomeness - aka Spam Museum - in Austin, Minn. Here, at Spam's birthplace, you can indulge in free samples (with bacon!) and try your hand at canning the porktastic slabs. The town's Spam Jam over July 4th weekend will host the big birthday blowout.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Happy 175th Birthday to Chicago

On March 4, Chicago will blow out 175 candles on its fiery-cow-bedecked birthday cake.

It all began on March 4, 1837, when Chicago incorporated as a city. Population: 4170. Only 340 people lived in the onion-y patch four years prior, so clearly the place had its mojo from the get-go. William B. Ogden - a wealthy, politically connected Democrat - took the reigns as mayor, setting the iron-fist precedent for City Hall.

Aside from the aforementioned cake, which the Chicago History Museum cuts on Sunday, the birthday parties are pretty tame. Mayne Stage hosts concerts of Windy City music throughout the weekend. The tourism office releases its guide of celebrations during the year. The Sun-Times lists 175 reasons to celebrate.

Whatever you do on the occasion, remember Ferris Bueller's wise words: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Sock Monkey Festival

Just look at that poster - in all its laser-eyed, UFO glory - and tell me you're not going to the Sock Monkey Festival in Rockford this weekend.

Perhaps best-known as the birthplace of Cheap Trick, Rockford also gave the world the sock knitting machine. The garments from said machine became the basis for the Sock Monkey, the classic brown-and-red stuffed animal toted by generations of kiddies.

The city pays homage every March with two days of monkey-making workshops, the Sock Monkey Hall of Fame inductions, and Ms Sockford Beauty and Talent Pageant. Meat will be served, monkeys will be healed (at Sockford General Hospital), and who knows - Cheap Trick may bust out an ax.

Watch this video by author Ron Warren to see monkey madness in action.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New Websites for Gloves, Dibs, Fedoras

Looking for your lost glove? Want to see poll workers filing petitions? These offbeat blogs and websites bring it:

•    Looking for Glove - Helps Chicagoans find lost handwear via photos and descriptions.

•    Chicago Dibs - Check out photos showing the Chicago custom of dibs - holding a shoveled-out parking space after a snowstorm using chairs, boards and other street "art."

•    Wisconsin Government Accountability Board - Watch workers counting Gov. Walker recall petitions via webcam. Woo!

•    To Be Demolished - Gapers Block has a great section with pics and details of Chicago architecture on the hit list.

•    Chicago Shovels - Let it snow, bitches. This portal has the lowdown on plow locations, parking bans, adopt-a-sidewalk and more.

•    Chicago Past - Posts two big-ass photos daily of historic Chicago; lots of horses, buggies and guys in fedoras.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Brains in Jars

Brain tourism: it's a travel trend, in case you didn't know.

I first came across brains in jars a few months ago at the forlorn, barbed-wire-enclosed Indiana Medical History Museum, located in the state's old insane asylum. Tours roam the former pathology lab and show how early medicine was practiced, from the cold-slabbed autopsy room to the eerie specimen room. Pickled brains fill the shelves of the latter. Each is tagged with its defect: hydrocephalus, kicked by a horse, syphilis...

Unique? Not really. Lima, Peru, has a Brain Museum with over 3000 brains in jars. Philadelphia's Mutter Museum boasts Einstein's brain (in slices). Yale has 650 brains on display. Cornell has lots of lobes, too - though it says "brain collecting has dimmed" since the 1970s.

Tell that to Washington DC's National Zoo. It has whole cabinets of brains in jars, from pygmy hippos to blue whales, white-tailed deer to red foxes. Because nothing says "fun!" to kids like a roomful of dead animal organs.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Presidential Haircut and Pancakes

President Obama is returning home to Chicago today for a trio of fundraisers. It's a whirlwind visit - 6 hours in all - which leaves little time for him to get a haircut or pancakes in his old 'hood.

You can both, however. All it takes is a quick trip to Hyde Park. Get buzzed by Obama's barber Zariff at the Hyde Park Hair Salon and pay your respects to the bulletproof-glass-encased presidential barber chair. Then walk around the corner to Valois Cafeteria and fork into the pancakes and eggs special, one of the "President's Favorites." Valois is a real-deal, stand-in-line-with-your-tray cafeteria, and a great place to listen in on Chicago gossip. The socio-economically diverse clientele is so renowned that there's a book about it, called Slim's Table. So grab a piece of chocolate pie and stay for a while.