Archive for August, 2009

An Extraordinary Place

August 29, 2009

Hurricanes signIn my adult life, I’ve lived in more than a dozen cities and spent time in dozens more.  And I’m here to tell you that, in my experience, there’s no place on this planet that can match New Orleans when it comes to pure, irrepressible joi de vivre.

What I find truly extraordinary, however, is the fact that this laid-back, fun-loving vibe has remained virtually unchanged despite the dramatic damage inflicted when Hurricane Katrina hit the Crescent City four years ago today.  While many New Orleans neighborhoods remain devastated, the laissez le bon temps rouler spirit that earned this town the nickname “The City That Care Forgot” remains remarkably intact.

Nine Lives coverThough I’m convinced you need to experience this intangible quality first-hand before you can truly understand it, Dan Baum’s new book Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans comes as close as anything I’ve ever read to getting to the heart and soul of what makes this place so special.  The book is a great read, a real page-turner, as it tells the story of New Orleans’ unique culture through the lives of nine very different individuals, from millionaire Mardi Gras kings to hard-working blue-collar types, all set against the backdrop of the hurricane’s aftermath.

With all that in mind, we asked Baum to share some of his insights on New Orleans:

AR:  In your book you say New Orleans is like no other city in the United States.  What makes it so different?

DB: The U.S. tends to be a place where everyone is always trying to get ahead, trying to make tomorrow better than today.  New Orleans is the opposite of that, a place where the people seem to pay no attention to the future whatsoever, they’re totally living in the moment.  Which is a delightful way to live if you can get away with it.  Another big difference is that there’s no such thing as a stranger in New Orleans.  You ask someone you’ve never met a simple question and you wind up in this long friendly conversation where next thing you know it’s 45 minutes later.

AR:  You went to New Orleans to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for the New Yorker.  So how did you wind up writing a book that’s less about the damage done by the storm than it is the life stories of these nine people?

DB: It was about six months into my reporting when I realized I was really bored with writing about the hurricane.  Katrina was a big thing, but it’s not the most interesting thing about New Orleans by any means.  I just became fascinated by the unique culture of the city and decided the best way to tell that story was through these nine very different individuals.

AR:  It’s been four years since the flood that wiped out entire neighborhoods in New Orleans.  How do you think the city’s recovery is progressing?

DB: It depends what you want to see.  When I go back to visit, I see the glass as half full.  I’m amazed at how much has been rebuilt, especially considering the lousy help they’ve received.  But the people who live there every day really do still feel the loss.  They say “Are you kidding? A third of our people haven’t come back yet, all these local places we’ve been going to for years are gone.”New_Orleans_Sign

AR:  Do you think New Orleans will ever be the same?

DB: People there definitely want changes like better schools, but they’ve also made  a very conscious  decision to put things back to the way they were before the storm.  And I mean that in a good sense.  They’ve already made it very clear they don’t want New Orleans to become just another a big soulless city driven by the dollar and the clock.

AR:  Any final words for someone thinking about visiting the Crescent City?

DB: I’m always trying to encourage people to go to New Orleans.  The food, the music, the architecture, the story-telling—all the things that make it such a great place to visit—are all still there.  It’s also quite inexpensive, by the standards of most cities.  I think it’s one of the best vacations you can take and more out-of-town visitors are exactly what the city needs most right now.

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Mysterious Attraction

August 26, 2009

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why certain places hold special meaning for us.  Places we think of fondly and long to return to, even if it’s only in our daydreams.

Sometimes our attachment to a place makes complete sense, like the tropical island where we spent our honeymoon or the quaint lakeside cottage we remember from family vacations.  And then there are those places we find ourselves drawn to over and over again in a way that defies rational explanation.

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Pirate Alley in the French Quarter

For me, that place is New Orleans.  Granted, the fact that I lived there in the mid-1980s probably figures into my fondness for the Crescent City.  But I’m also convinced that there’s more to this abiding attraction, this strong sense of connection that remains undiminished decades after everyone I knew there decided to pack up and move on.

I’ve spent years trying to put my finger on just what it is about New Orleans that’s cast this spell on me.  Friends have suggested possibilities ranging from the existence of some sort of Sedona-like vortex to unconscious memories of a past life.  All I know is that The City That Care Forgot has its hook set in me so deeply that virtually everywhere else I’ve been (and I’ve been an awful lot of places) seems relatively soulless and unsatisfying by comparison.

But enough about me.  Now it’s your turn to tell us about a place that you find yourself drawn to again and again via the Comment field below. Extra points if you actually attempt to put the reasons for that attraction into words.  Best comment before 5pm September 1st wins a $25 iTunes gift card.

Good luck and I look forward to hearing from you.

Nine Lives coverNEXT TIME: Dan Baum’s excellent new book Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans is one of those rare non-fiction stories that actually qualifies as a real page-turner.  It’s also the only thing I’ve ever read that even comes close to explaining what makes NOLA so unique.  Check back here this Saturday to read an interview with the author as we mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Spaced Out

August 20, 2009

GPN-2000-001036Next week’s launch of the space shuttle Discovery reminds me of a lesson I learned the hard way earlier this year:  Trying to catch one of NASA’s handful of remaining space shuttle launches isn’t as easy as it sounds.

You see, Murphy’s Law caused last February’s Discovery mission to be postponed again and again, until I had to settle for having lunch with an astronaut and riding the shuttle simulator at the Kennedy Space Center.  Both enjoyable and recommended, but …sigh…not exactly the extraordinary experience I was hoping for.

Of course, there is one sure-fire way to guarantee yourself a front-row seat for a future space shot.  For a cool $170 million, Space Adventures will prepare you to blast off aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket and spend time aboard the International Space Station.  The company has several other, ahem, out-of-this-world programs available, including the chance to be the first private citizen to do a spacewalk while orbiting the earth at more than 17,000 miles-per-hour.  Which will make it pretty darn hard for anyone to one-up your stories at the next cocktail party.

Quirky-R-Us

August 17, 2009

Antarctica's Blood Falls

Antarctica's Blood Falls

I readily admit I get bored easily.  Which is why I’m frequently mystified when I read the results of surveys that rate Americans’ favorite vacation activities.  Honestly, the mere idea of spending the day shopping or lounging by the pool is more than I can take.

Which helps explain why I’m always on the lookout for adventures that are a little more unusual, maybe even downright quirky.  If you can relate, you owe it to yourself to check out Atlas Obscura, a new website that bills itself as a “compendium of the world’s wonders, curiosities, and esoterica.”  There are listings for off-beat attractions on every continent, from Antarctica’s freaky-looking Blood Falls to the Cesium Fountain Atomic Clock in Boulder, Colorado that’s guaranteed not to gain or lose a second in the next 80 million years.

Now, I realize that it’s doubtful I’ll ever get to visit all these places in person.  But, somehow, in a world full of increasingly generic pre-packaged and mass-marketed “adventures,” I for one just feel better knowing these kind of extraordinary experiences are still out there waiting to be discovered.

Air Amour

August 13, 2009

Here’s one of those stories we couldn’t make up.  It seems that Brisbane, Australia-based Erotic Airways is now offering private charter flights to couples (or threesomes, if you’re so inclined) looking to earn their membership in the legendary “Mile-High Club.”

milehighRather than trying to squeeze yourself and your partner into the cramped lavatory of a commercial airliner in an attempt to, ahem, fly united, the Erotic Airways folks set you up with a double bed covered in satin sheets in the back of a vintage twin-engine Beech H-18S.  Flights last either 40- or 60-minutes and come complete with mood-enhancers including champagne, chocolates and more.

Once you’ve done the deed and are safely back on the ground, the airline provides a certificate commemorating your sex-perience (their term, not ours).  Now won‘t that be an interesting conversation-starter when you hang it on your office wall?

For a list of charter operations that offer mile-high flights closer to home go here.  For other equally exciting (though admittedly G-rated) airborne adventures, check out our Xperiences page.

Up In Smoke

August 10, 2009

The Burning Man

The Burning Man

No, I’m not talking about that late-70s cult classic starring Cheech and Chong.  In fact, the upcoming Burning Man festival in northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert makes that once-outrageous comedy look positively quaint by comparison.

The annual spectacle, which runs from August 31st to September 7th this year, takes its name from the 80-foot wooden “man” organizers set ablaze on the festival’s final night.  But while that giant bonfire provides a focal point for this gathering of nearly 50,000 free spirits 100 miles north of Reno, it’s only a small part of the story.

At its core, Burning Man is a week-long experiment in utopian ideals like freedom of expression, mutual cooperation, and non-commercialism that you might have thought died out decades ago.  In other words, this colorful temporary city built on a dry lakebed is about as far from your everyday life as it’s possible to get.

From a practical perspective, Burning Man’s wide-open spirit means the whole place is one big blank canvas where the line between art and artist tends to get blurry and even casual first-timers are encouraged to participate in the glorious freak show.  Sort of like Mardi Gras on acid, only with occasional dust storms.1521723124-crazy-costume-starboy-burning-man-decompression-san-francisco

Now for the disclaimer: Burning Man is so unlike any other event you’ve ever attended you’d do well to read through all the info on the event’s website, starting with the comprehensive First Timer’s Guide.  Then head out to the desert for a truly extraordinary experience that’s sure to leave you, ahem, fired up for months to come.

Hot Rods & Cool Concerts

August 10, 2009

Woodstock_music_festival_posterIf you were going to sit down and make a list of every uniquely American pop culture icon you could think of, hot-rods and rock-n-roll would have to be near the top of that list. Which makes two extraordinary experiences on tap for this coming weekend seem oddly patriotic:

Peace and Music

This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, the legendary open-air festival that saw 500,000 people descend on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York for “three days of peace and music.”  If you weren’t there, you can get a feel for the event Rolling Stone magazine called one of the “50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock-n-Roll” as the Heroes of Woodstock tour rolls into the Bethel Woods Center For The Arts, a 2,000-acre performance venue built on the site of the famous hippie-fest with many of the original Woodstock performers, including Jefferson Starship, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Canned Heat, and more.  If you can’t make it to this Saturday’s show, you can catch the tour at eight other dates from Boston to Los Angeles through October 10th.

Hot Rod Heaven

While there are lots of custom car shows held around the U.S. each year, none can come close to Detroit’s annual Woodward Dream Cruise.  This Saturday, August 15th will see more than a million automotive aficionados and their families lining the curbs along 16 miles of Woodward to watch 40,000 of the coolest hot rods, customs, and classic cars you’re ever likely to find gathered in one place roll by.  And the best part is that is that this day-long celebration of all things wheeled is free!

Funny People…Like YOU?

August 6, 2009

ComedyclubDespite the so-so reviews, I can’t help but like the idea behind Judd Apatow’s new movie Funny People. In the film Adam Sandler plays successful comedian George Simmons who gets one of those rare opportunities to figure out what’s really important in life after being diagnosed with an incurable blood disorder.

Besides the fact that I can identify with the whole near-death experience thing, the movie resonated with me on another level.  Namely the fact that I’ve always wanted to see if I had what it takes to be funny on stage.

Now if you’ve ever spent any time in the spotlight—whether it was in a school play or in a ragtag rock band—you know the experience has a certain addictive quality to it.  Even so, the idea of doing a stand-up comedy routine in front of a live audience can be a little intimidating.

Enter the comedy workshop.  For a few hundred bucks, there are a number of schools that will help you find your own unique comedic persona, write and rehearse your own original material, and offer constructive feedback in a room full of other aspiring yucksters.  The payoff for all this hard work is a chance to take the stage at high-profile comedy clubs and do your first set in front of a receptive audience full of friends and family members, a venue  where you’re much more likely to kill than bomb.

If that sounds like fun, check out these links to a few of the nation’s most respected comedy workshops:

ComedyWorkshops.com

Offers an eight-week intensive in Los Angeles that ends with a showcase at the Hollywood Improv.  Also offers one-on-one coaching and a four-DVD set they call Comedy Career In A Box, though we figure trying this in your living room sort of misses the point.

College of Comedy Knowledge

The fact that this program has been running since 1982 says they must be doing something right.  The school takes a more analytical approach to being funny, broken down into beginner and advanced workshops, the latter of which winds up with a showcase at L.A.’s Comedy Store or other local venue.

American Comedy Institute

This New York City-based school meets eight times over a three-week period ending up with a showcase at high-profile venues like Stand Up New York.  A five-day intensive option is available for out-of-towners, along with a one-year in-depth program for those looking to make a career of this funny business.

The Second City Training Center

Like its namesake comedy troupe that has spawned all-star funny people like Mike Myers and Stephen Colbert, this program focuses on sketch comedy and ensemble improvisation.  Classes are offered in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto, and there’s even a semester-long program that offers college credit.  How cool is that?

Fast Fun

August 3, 2009

Photo 10-AThe next six weeks will fly by as fans of land-speed racing—better known to all you cool kids out there as LSR—flock to the stark beauty of western Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats for two of the sport’s most high-profile events.

First up is Bonneville Speed Week, which rolls onto the bright-white salt just west of Wendover, Nevada August 8-14.  This is by far the biggest LSR event of the summer, with hundreds of racers vying to set new class records on three different courses at speeds that often top out at over 200 miles-per-hour.

While it’s hard to beat Speed Week for the sheer spectacle, I’m actually partial to the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association’s World Of Speed which runs from September 16-19.  While you’ll find plenty of serious record-chasers here too, what I love about this event is that its 130 MPH Club class that offers ordinary folks like you and me to take their daily drivers and, with a few simple safety modifications, run them flat-out on this legendary race course.

As is the case with all extraordinary experiences, the chance to be a participant in something this cool beats the pants off being a spectator every time!