Category Archives: Standing Still for a Moment

Blue Moon Dueling Piano Bar

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In case one is curious w/r/t what I am getting myself into these days, it is not a whole lot.

But we have an apartment! So that’s progress. And I think we’re rather traveled out and are thus laying low.

Until last night.

Dun dun dun!

We… hit up… the piano bar.

When we were in St. Louis a couple weeks ago, looking for somewhere to eat dinner, I spotted a dueling piano bar. Very excited, I was.

“Pshh,” Jay dismissed it. “We’ve got one of those in Des Moines.” So we didn’t go, but I made Jay promise he’d take me to the one in Iowa.

Two weeks pass, we see a lot of family and friends and farmer’s markets and fairs (the four F’s of the Midwest, clearly…) and somewhat forget about the piano bar. Also, it’s moved from downtown to (shudder if you’re a Des Moines-ian) West Des Moines. I.e. where all the wannabe Des Moines-ers live. I.e. where Shawn Johnson actually lives even though all the Olympic advertising said otherwise (I’m sure that was a real letdown for Gabby Douglas when she found out).

In any case, we finally make it there last night, bringing along a friend of Jay’s he hadn’t yet seen (even though he was planning on being at work at six the next morning! here’s hoping he’s not in too rough shape today…). We had dinner in the East Village–of Des Moines, I know, confusing–at “Quinton’s Bar and Deli”, and though I have to say that while it was excellent, it definitely was not a deli. It was still a bit early when we finished, so to kill time we went to “The Underground” and caught the tail end of happy hour ($2.50 gin and tonics!) and shot some pool. Much to my surprise, I won both games (the first was ’cause Jay’s friend Tyler knocked one of my balls in by accident, but still.) A very nice contrast to my staggering loss in “Ticket to Ride” at a party of another friend of Jay’s, in which I was, ahem, quite the sore loser afterward (and also a bit dismayed that the game had absolutely nothing to do with the Beatles. I mean, really?!). You know, I say I’m not competitive…

But so finally we trekked out to West Des Moines. The bar is in the middle of this large, new-ish Big Box Goes Classy development. “West Glen Shopping Center”, or something. Most storefronts are either Opening Soon or Going Out of Business, and the hum of trying to be hip is deafening. That said, the place itself was really pretty great. More spacious than I’d ever have imagined (again, New York City bias talking), big loft area to accommodate large crowds, and two bars–one on either side of the stage, with mirrors on the back wall so you can see the hands of the two pianists sitting at two grand pianos. “Dueling”, it turns out, is a bit of a misnomer, because they tend to complement each other’s playing more than compete. Though, maybe if we had picked a more crowded day to visit (Wednesday, shockingly, is not a big night in Des Moines, not even to piano bars), there would have been more competition for tips, &c. They have three piano players per night, switching out for one another regularly. Our trio was comprised of a woman and two men, one of which was married to the woman! I thought that was pretty cute.

We got there around eight, and checked out the menu–and they had a group “fishbowl” drink. Jay and I had talked about doing one since the Heffen House of a few nights prior, where we shared a giant glass beer boot with a group of people. So of course we ordered it (and I have to say it put the boot to shame). It was called, of course, “The Blue Moon”, and it was (to quote the menu): a “gallon size fishbowl, Burnett’s cherry vodka, blue curacao, lemon lime soda, and lemonade.” And it was (to quote Tyler) “way too delicious.”

Keep in mind we were seated in the center of the place, directly in the line of sight of the two pianos. I think the piano players got as much entertainment from the sight of us as we did from their playing. “You guys in the back–what are you celebrating? (We shrug) Nothing? Just… Wednesday? All right!” What made the evening so fun was that these guys weren’t just pianists, they really knew how to work a(n albeit small) crowd.

They weren’t the best piano players I’ve heard, and it turned out that they sang a lot more than I would have thought (I should have guessed instrumental music only entertains bar goers for so long). But they really interacted with the audience. And even when they hardly knew a song, they unabashedly tried anyway, sounding pretty decent all the while. One high point for me was when they took my request to do the theme song of Frasier (I’ve been watching that a lot recently), which I thoroughly enjoyed despite it being completely improvised. I guess most of their work is improvised within a certain framework they know pretty well… I am so impressed with that sort of skill.

The height of their improvising came when they brought up a woman in the audience onstage. She was sitting near the front with another woman–they were there eating dinner when we arrived. It wasn’t clear why, but at one point the pianists had the woman (Cheryl) sit on the piano and they sang a song about her. It was goofy, light-hearted, and about them seducing her into bed and giving her a back massage (because this was the married pianist), and okay it was silly but fun. The song dwindles off and all of a sudden a man from out of nowhere is coming onstage and I was like “What? Why’s he there? He’s not Cheryl!” But she seems to know who he is and then they’re slow dancing a bit and then suddenly he’s down on one knee and he’s saying something we can’t hear but then she squeals “Yes!” and they hug.

I was grinning ear to ear from the whole evening and witnessing this pure moment of joy for these two people. I’m grabbing Jay’s knee to contain my excitement, and I look over at him smiling as well, and he’s all “You have to blog about this!” and so here I am. What a night to remember.

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The Fair!

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What if this post was empty, due to the aforementioned “writer’s wall” post? That would be some meta-irony or -humor, or something.

 

Oh well. Guess I’m too in love with the sight of my own type (as opposed to “the sound of my own voice”, which I feel like comes out all gravelly sometimes. Thus causing some self-consciousness and wishing that people would stop asking me questions. Though actually I think this anxiety is the result of having met about 25 distinct persons (plus more who are less distinct, as in the we-met-at-a-party-and-have-two-degrees-of-separation-between-us kind of way) in the last week. More or less. Jay has a lot of friends and family here!).

Red velvet funnel cake. Blue sapphire funnel cake too! (Missed that one, sadly). Chocolate covered cookie dough on a stick. Corn dog. Pulled pork sandwich. Raspberry slush. Watermelon “slushee” (Very different, I’m sure). Hard boiled egg on a stick! Maple jerky snack stick. Lots of sticks. Free Diet Sun Drop on the way out…

Fair Snacks Are The Weirdest (alternate title to this post).

At least I resisted the deep fried candy bars, though I suspect I will regret that in a week or so. Because, come on–aren’t you a bit curious? I am. Deep fried butter on a stick, though, I’ll leave well alone.

It’s a weird thing: feeling challenged by the “How much of too much can you handle?”, which many of the vendor’s booths seem to be implying. The huge block letters, flashing lightbulbs, and garish overload of photos help–I have a feeling they know the portions and combination of ingredients are insane. That’s their angle! Playing into the “Well, it’s only once a year and so why not?” rationalization we easily fall prey to (think turkey on Thanksgiving, candy on Halloween, &c), they don’t pretend to be healthy, or even reasonable! They don’t skimp on the sugar and icing (even though you complain it’s too much) because they know that’s still what you want to see. You don’t want to hear “deep fried in trans-fat free oil” even if it is! That’s not why you’re buying these products. You’re here to indulge, and if you were reminded that you weren’t indulging “as much” because the fat is free of trans (whatever that means, says the customer in a hurry who doesn’t want to bother to think about that), you’d maybe be reminded that, “Oh yeah, things like vegetables and complete proteins do exist!” and “Shoot, maybe I’d be better off having some of those instead.” And then you bypass the deep fried Snickers entirely. Nope. That’s definitely not what these guys want.

So those are my thoughts about that. For the record, the chocolate-covered cookie dough on a stick was pretty awesome. Though I’m really glad Jay and I split it.

And besides, food selling is only a small part of what happens at the fair. All the contests for biggest and most impressive plants, fruits, vegetables, flowers, pigs, steers, &c ad infinitum. Some of that we saw, and some of it I enjoyed looking at (a bit to my surprise). Corn art was surprisingly neat, as was the photography in the Culture Building. Something called the Animal Learning Center had many, many adorable baby pigs and ducks and chicks and goats and calves (and elicited many, many ridiculous squeals of delight, thanks to your embarrassed correspondent). Honey bee hives were cool to watch, and to hear their keepers explain.

But wait! I have to backtrack. Maybe the best part was before we even got there. I feel like it’s poor storytelling to say that, but it was so beautiful. We drove to the Fair Grounds, a permanent structure on the south-east-ish side of Des Moines…

And of course the first thing we see is the enormous parking lot. The fair this year’s been seeing around 90,000 folks per day, so they gotta have a lot of parking. But $10? No thank you. We did what (apparently) the smart ones do, and drove around nearby side streets looking for inviting lawns. Sure enough: “Need a parking spot? Five dollars, we’re here all day, come back any time you want!” A woman on a folding chair, peddling squares of her front lawn to fair-goers. And she was one of dozens! There was something lovely about doing business with a friendly neighbor and walking in the back way, seeing all the fair laid out before us as we (cautiously) trod down the hill and planned out day at the fair.

Some of the things inside: a giant slide, a Ferris wheel, and many other rides besides; very persuasive game booth vendors–I half-wanted Jay to win a stuffed animal for me until we both felt way too dumb for how easy targets we were to these guys; a Varied Industries building selling As Seen on TV things and registering you for community college if you wanted.

A craft beer tent that we sampled a few things at–Jay wanted the sour ale but it ran out mid-pour, spraying everywhere. Suddenly a siren was ringing, Jay was getting a free “Beer” t-shirt (complete with “I tapped it at the Iowa State Fair!” on the back) and his picture on the Fair’s Facebook page. And all Jay could say at the end of it all was that he had really wanted to try that sour ale (Killjoy ;)).

It was all quite a sight to behold. I feel like I blinked my eyes and 10:30am had become 5pm, and here I was, eating dough off a stick and watching young children in one-pieces and Crocs frolic in the water fountains (I was jealous, it was hot!). I didn’t get to wear the short overalls like I had wanted to (after reading about the “fad” fifteen-odd years ago in Illinois, according to DFW), but I had my cut-offs, and I had my cowgirl boots. We got to meet Jay’s elementary school GT (Gifted and Talented) teacher who had long abandoned teaching to open a tie-dyed clothing store, and who was doing demonstrations. Oh! Demonstrations! I loved watching one woman make lampworked glass beads with a torch, and another a bowl on her pottery wheel. It made me think of my relative lack of enthusiasm for museums–I don’t want to look at stuff, I want to watch people doing stuff! Especially when it’s their craft–so beautiful when they clearly love doing it, too…

And that was my impression of the fair. If this was a rather jumbled read, well I suppose it’s a pretty accurate reflection of my experience. Fun, in a whirwindy kind of way. (I’m a broken record, but) Guess I’ll have to make it back to Des Moines!

 

The Wall

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How is it that a blank page can stare back at me so menacingly that I’m picking every pimple on my face and blister on my toes before I even know I’m intimidated by it?

In case that wasn’t enough information. So often before I start writing, I feel less of a writer’s block and more of a wall of my own undoing. It’s not that I don’t know how to write or where to start, or (fortunately) have a lack of things to write about. It’s more like I think of a million immaculate beginnings, middles, and endings, all whirling above my head in potential perfection. They immediately take off like flying bricks, falling into place* in the shape of a giant wall before me; a crack-less edifice I’ve created. But it’s both beautiful and terrible, because the united front of them prevent me from ever picking just one idea and getting started. I’m paralyzed because I know that as soon as I do commit to that one beginning or middle or end, the innumerable possibilities must fall away, and the one I picked suddenly seems much less perfect and much more constricting. The brick starts to crumble and won’t interlock with any of the other bricks (now also crumbly), and the whole lot of them definitely refuse to make anything remotely cohesive, let alone pretty or (heaven forbid) functional.

 

To sum up: I’m having trouble writing about the Iowa State Fair.

 

*I’m realizing now I’m borrowing this image from the Pink Floyd album cover, which I now recall was brought into my awareness rather arbitrarily in seventh grade. My language arts teacher, Mr. Romano, was clearly either trying to kill time when a lesson plan ran short or because the art teacher called in sick, because he had us all draw a brick wall crumbling in the middle. For like, two hours. Maybe we were meant to learn something about geometry, the z-axis in the Cartesian plane, something. But I kind of doubt it. In any case, his appeal to coolness–“You know, ‘The Wall’? You guys know Pink Floyd?”–was not effective. I’m a bit startled to realize he probably wasn’t much older than I am now, and as judgmental as I am of his naivete, I’m also recalling my similarly naive attempt in high school to teach an e. e. cummings poem to a bunch of “inner city” middle schoolers on their first day of a voluntary poetry-writing workshop. Uh, come on, Audrey.

The Hawkeye State and a Probable Hiatus

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So Iowa is the Hawkeye State? I still can’t quite figure out what that means, but I’ve gathered it has something to do with Native Americans, maybe Chief Black Hawk, but I think the important part (when I ask Jay, anyway) is that a “hawkeye” is supposed to invoke fierceness, like the predatory hawk has such a keen eye that it’s… impressive. I don’t know, you’ll have to ask an Iowan.

In any case, we are arrived at the halfway point! We are half-arrived. Nice to have a chance to sort-of-settle, but emphasis on the “sort of”. There’s lots to be done, to prepare for, to get used to…

Another DFW essay (“Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All”) is all about The Illinois State Fair. Given that Jay is indeed a Midwestern boy and is indeed adamant about taking me to the Iowa State Fair (which I am indeed hell-bent on being miserable at… somewhat kidding), the only lens I can imagine seeing the whole deal through is one of a reporter, as DFW did for the article, originally in Vanity Fair. The funny thing, though, is that DFW was himself from somewhat rural Urbana-Champaign, IL . I am not from Iowa, have never been to Iowa before this trip, and have maybe been to one county fair in my life, at most.

What have I gotten myself into? 😉

The Hiatus refers to the fact that this part of the trip has been distinctly less about people watching and making interesting observations about whatever state I’m in, and more about trying to keep all of Jay’s relatives’ names straight, and not come across as weird to his friends or ungracious to his family. Whee! Strange times. But good ones! It’s been fun to meet his infamous Anime Club friends from high school, and to discover that every member of his mom’s side of the family I’ve met has the exact same way of smiling. To go to the Des Moines farmers’ market in the center of downtown, and to witness the absurdly expansive beer selection on tap at El Bait Shop, also downtown. I may continue to post,  but I also may get submerged in plans for how we’re going to pull this second part of the move off. Wish us luck, please!