Sunday, August 22, 2010

I SPY: Deluxe Tree Fort

Like any boy that grew up in a mid-sized town with a green backyard I always wished for a tree fort clubhouse to camp out in, use as a base of operations for a secret society or waste away summer days reading comic books and playing board games with friends in the shade. Alas it never happened - the walnut trees in our yard were too tall, their branches too far off the ground, and perhaps my parents too wise to invest in making me my own fire hazard/eyesore/insurance risk.

I look back at friend's treehouses I visited when I was young that enchanted me and laugh at how dangerous they were. Ladders constructed from rickety wooden pallet slats, nails sticking out to snag on clothes, holes in the rotting floor you could stick a foot through - a buffet of splinters and tetanus shots waiting to happen.

I realize now that my dreams of youth were based on George Lucas-ian Hollywood tree forts, picture perfect and well manicured miniature homes constructed by a small army of stage designers, architects and master craftsmen who were well payed, unlike the legions of fathers who spent what little spare time and cash they had on weekends struggling to create an abode in a living, growing tree.

While driving near our new neighborhood, waves of nostalgia washed over me when I saw this majestic beauty:

It's a multi-level structure with several actual "cabins" and a lookout that towers some 50 feet in the air. My curiosity piqued and so a little internet research revealed Tucker's Treehouse in St. Louis Park was built by an insurance salesman and landlord in the mid-1980's in an attempt to mend fences with his estranged son.

The story behind it is like an Oscar winning movie with a soundtrack written by Harry Chapin. The teenage son leaves home angry, resentful that dad spent more time in the office than playing catch. Overworked dad quits his high paying job and for the next five years builds a titanic tree house hoping to catch the attention of the boy who always wanted a tree fort when growing up.

Unlike most neighborhood NIMBY battles the locals actually welcomed the structure as a sort of local landmark and sided with the builder in a prolonged battle against City Hall that drew national media attention as featured in this New York Times article. The owner used to give tours, but in a sort of non-heartwarming Hollywood story turn for the weird, the builder was accused of neglecting his rental properties and spent some jail time for being a slumlord. Regardless, many would view this tale as having a happy ending - reports indicate the man's tree house tribute played a big part in reuniting him with his son.

If you like tree homes, or want to live like an Ewok, check out this article or this top ten list featuring invisible tree forts, hobbit holes, and more!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Celts and Kilts

This week we celebrated Johari’s birthday with some Irish flair, starting with a Gaelic Storm concert Thursday at the Minnesota Zoo amphitheater. If it’s possible, this band performs even better live - delivering reels and pub drinking tunes like “Don’t go for the One” and my new favorite ballad: “The Night I Punched Russell Crowe in the Head” that bring a sense of camaraderie and evoke audience participation.

True showmen (and woman) they played over two and half hours fueled only by whiskey and Guinness, forgoing intermission with the threat of an oncoming storm. The weather held and we were treated with a three song encore before the band left the stage - to sign autographs and meet the crowd.

The Irish themed weekend continued at the St Paul Irish Fair of Minnesota, featuring a number of musical acts, step dancers, loom weavers, and among other things, an actual border collie sheep herding demonstration.

In addition to the festivities, there were plenty of contests including a "best legs in a kilt" and a Soda Bread and Scone baking competition which I encouraged Johari to enter - for somewhat selfish purposes, as her primary taste tester.

She’s never made scones before, so she played around the kitchen for the past few weeks concocting a number of different recipes from fruity scones like the citrus bursting Peach-Lemon, to the rich and hearty Oatmeal Stout (featuring chocolate, oatmeal, coffee and of course - beer).

In the end, she settled on Apricot Ginger, a decision which combined with her form and technique wooed the Judges, including a Master Baker...

Number of baking competitions Johari has entered: 1

Number of baking competitions Johari came in first place: 1

You can read more about it on her blog, though she fails to mention the gaggle of older ladies who were eyeing her scones with envy and curiosity. The head Judge suggested framing the ribbon - noting that he’s known people who have gone twenty years without earning the best of show prize.

Of course this is just the beginning, Johari will have to defend her title next year - which means the house will be filled with the scent of fresh baked goodness for months to come!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I Spy: Community Gardens

Our newest blog segment, I Spy, gives you a pictorial perspective of our new surroundings. Basically, more pictures, less words.

Every day that we're out on the bike trails we see community gardens.

From suburban parks to abandoned urban landscapes,
we find gardens bursting with brilliant colors.

In addition to the explosion of color,
vegetables and fruit fill the gardens, waiting to be harvested.

From succulent sweet corn, tart, red raspberries,

...there is something for everyone. Even the butterflies.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Urban Assault!

Take the Amazing Race, boil it down to a half day, two wheeled biking adventure across the city featuring checkpoints and obstacle courses, finish with a generous helping of craft beer on top, and you’ll wind up with the New Belgium 2010 Urban Assault.

Sunday, beer makers, beer drinkers and bike riders gathered in the heart of Minneapolis to compete in a zany, pedal-Olympics, featuring human bowling bowls on slip and slides, Mario Kart Big-wheel antics, mini-bike limbo, and a host of other Quack-tastic events.

Prizes included bicycle paraphernalia like messengers bags, helmets, Keen cycling shoes, and even a customized New Belgium Fat Tire Cruiser, featuring a stow and go rack capable of holding a case of your favorite brew.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Johari and I were on hand for the event, not as competitors, but as volunteers. Shucking the hefty entry fee, we scored some free “Crew” t-shirts, lunch from the grill, and of course beer. The best tasting beer possible. Now, what kind of beer, you ask, is the best tasting kind?

Free beer, of course! And we had unlimited access - as we showed up we were immediately deemed responsible enough to operate the beer tent. SUCKERS! For several hours, we poured gallons upon gallons of Fat Tire ale for heat weary thirsty competitors (stopping only to take a sip for ourselves here and there) with no breaks.

As the day drew hotter and the kegs ran dry we spilled the uber-hoppy Hoptober seasonal on our shirts, and got the Ranger IPA on our sandals. My personal favorite was the 1554, a dark ale reminiscent of a stout but without the thickness associated with such a full bodied beer.

A close second was the Mothership, an organic wheat beer, very light and smooth that proved to be one of the most popular of the day as the first keg to run dry.

The real joke, of course is that Johari doesn’t drink beer - she’s more of a strawberry daiquiri, strawberry margarita, strawberry shake kind of girl. While I enjoy craft beer, I don’t usually partake of more than 1 bottle per sitting, and since I’ve been laid off, I’ve all but cut myself off from this luxury beverage.

Still, I managed to enjoy a sampling of everything provided by New Belgium despite 500 sweaty riders breathing down our necks, and a dew point in the mid-70’s. We finished our posts drinking more water than alcohol to cool down from the effective 100 degree heat, and made our way home to relax with cold showers, air conditioning and ice cream feeling as though we had won an endurance competition all our own.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

And now... the weather!

Back in Ohio we didn't watch much television and when digital tv came along we all but gave up on our tv set. Watching digital tv with poor reception is a lot like watching a dvd that someone set on a gravel driveway and backed over three or four times with a car. The screen seizes up or pixelates, and the audio starts to stutter, like a skipping record. Imagine the frustration during a particularly dramatic or climatic scene as such:

"Tonight's Lucky Lotto numbers are Three, Seventeen, Burrrrrrrdiddditttttt"

"Here's the pitch. He swings and Oh! It'sssssssssssdddddddddididt"

"The killer is in this very room Watson. Obviously the culprititttttttttiddddddddtttt"

Suffice to say, that this made watching LOST a gamble.

Investing in a digital antenna didn't help much, as we constantly repositioned it to get the basics and even then never received CBS. When we moved to Minnesota we had no idea of just *how much* better it would be. Our first channel search tuned into an impressive 14 channels. Next, we hooked our tv into the antenna on our roof, and scored an amazing 40 (yes, I said forty) channels.

Full disclosure: several of the channels were duplicates. We picked up blocks of religious channels (15.1, 15.2, 15.3, etc), essentially "clones" showing the same material all the time. Still, with the surplus stations we ended up with what looks like a basic cable package for free; a home shopping channel, a Spanish channel, 4 public television channels, 2 weather channels, all the major networks (including the CW), a block of 3 Ion television channels, and one network that's constantly playing Everyone Loves Raymond or Two and a Half men. I still haven't figured that out.

One other refreshing thing about television out here are the local newscasters who mostly refuse to work under a phony broadcast name. In Minnesota we're treated to the likes of Amelia Santaniello and Rena Sarigianopoulos (take that Rob Powers!).

My personal favorite broadcaster is a weekend meteorologist with an alliterative monicker any super-hero reporter would be jealous of. Even better than Lois Lane, or Peter Parker, Sven Sundgaard gets bonus points for being a weatherman with "sun" in his name.

I couldn't make this guy up, but if I did, rest assured he'd be fighting against the Mighty Thor in a Marvel comic book, or exploring the Tomb of Horrors in a Dungeons and Dragons game. Sven even has an alter ego, dressing up last Halloween as Jack Frost, as if to illustrate the point...

that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

I forgot in last week's update to include our biking viking miles... today we're at 1596!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Bakery Review: Sweets

Around March of this year I became obsessed with the french macaron. I suddenly wanted to try one. They looked so delightful. So brightly colored. So exquisite. Sadly, I could not find them anywhere in our area. That’s when I got it in my head to bake some myself. I knew they were difficult to master, but I faced the task undaunted. Unfortunately, it turned out that while my spirit was bold, my pastry skills needed a bit more practice (see other blog).

After a few unsuccessful attempts, I shelved the idea of making macarons. Now, I didn’t give up on the goal itself, I just decided to wait awhile and start fresh later. Plus, the ingredients can be expensive and when you know you’re going to fail several times before you succeed, well that takes some disposable income.

Luckily for me, it turned out I didn’t have to wait until I mastered the recipe to actually try a macaron. Last weekend we were having breakfast and perusing one of the free, local newspapers when I came across a “buy one, get one free” coupon for macarons at Sweets Bakeshop in St. Paul.

When I saw the ad, my obsession came surging back. Those charming, delicate cookies beckoned to me once again. As luck would have it, we were driving to St. Paul for the Flugtag that weekend, so, of course, we had to try them.

We arrived to find many colorful displays and store adornments, like these paper butterflies...

Or this summer-inspired window display...

Sweets Bakeshop sells a limited menu: Brownies, Blondies, Cupcakes and Macarons. It would have been marvelous to try everything, but the coupon was only for the macarons. We ordered four. I chose salted caramel and chocolate. Jonathan ordered the mocha and a turtle.

Deciding to try the teal-colored salted caramel first, I carefully lifted it out of the mini bakery box and took a bite. The thin, fragile shell swiftly surrendered to the soft, airy meringue cookie and then finally to the creamy caramel center. This being my first macaron, I had nothing to compare it to, but I will say that it was as delectable as I’d hoped. The chocolate one was luscious as well, although I wish they had been more generous with the rich cocoa filling. I think my favorite part of the visit was watching Jonathan’s eyes widen as he bit into one. All he could say was, “Wow!”

We look forward to sampling Sweets other sweets when we get a chance. Their cupcakes looked gracefully decorative and I’m always a sucker for a moist brownie. Hopefully, theirs won’t disappoint.