I learned about a whole lot of new things this year: places, people, foods, TV shows, music, trends, ideas, factoids, and fun jokes. It’s been a year of discovery, truly–from the very beginning of 2011, when I found myself at a ska club in Barcelona, to the very end, in the Texas Hill Country celebrating the arrival of 2012 with some of my oldest friends. What better way to condense a rich, unforgettable, unsummarizable year of new adventures into a few hundred words of jaunty prose than to make a list of the best things I discovered over its months?
So here we are: a top eleven for 2011, of my favorite discoveries of the year. This first part counts down from 11 to 6:
11. Flipbacks. Flipbacks are these tiny little books you can hold in the palm of your hand. They’re smaller than a deck of cards, and lighter too. You hold them sideways and, if you so choose, you flip the front cover under the back cover to create a super-portable but super-readable tiny book.
Flipbacks are awesome for traveling. They’re so small I could fit one in a pocket (unlike those “pocket-sized” books that are always too big), they’re so lightweight you would never think twice about carrying one, and they’re kind of fun to use too. The only drawback is a fairly mediocre selection of books so far; there’s exactly one book per type of reader. If you like Michael Lewis, they have one of his; if you like Stephen King, they have one of his; mine was John le Carre’s masterful espionage thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I carried it in my pack as I walked across Spain. If your type is “trashy”, then they have A Million Little Pieces, too!
10. Extreme Ironing is a real thing that exists. There is a sport where people compete to iron clothing in the craziest places.
Extreme ironing competitors are also judged by the quality of the ironing. So they actually have to get the job done, rather than simply whipping out an ironing board and taking a picture.
Some of you are saying, “OH MY GOSH THIS IS AMAZING SHOW ME A PICTURE OF SOLDIERS IRONING IN IRAQ.” My pleasure.
Others might be saying, “Hang on, I don’t get it. Isn’t this a really silly pointless waste of time? What’s so appealing about it?”
To which I reply: mankind’s noblest pursuits are their own rewards. This man, for example, will always be able to look upon his life with pride, and know that his purpose on this earth had been successfully fulfilled. Because no matter what happens to him, and no matter what hardships he endures, he will know in the bottom of his heart that nothing can stop him. Because one time he ironed clothing underwater.
9. Austin, Texas, is actually very cool. I feel like I was the last person on earth to figure this out. Everyone else already loves Austin, so I’m late to the party. But you know, we got off to a bad start. The city doesn’t make a great first impression: it’s cramped in the extreme, with tiny traffic lanes, tiny parking spaces, and tiny public areas, but slightly too big and hilly for a conveniently walkable city center. The university atmosphere has a sort of grungy, dirty underside; there’s a lot of town which is unappealing. And the traffic is, incredibly, the worst in Texas, all centered on a huge state school with an unhealthy fixation on football.
But I wasn’t giving Austin a fair chance. On further inspection, the city offers so much that is good-humored, delicious, and all-around wonderful that I really need to reverse my opinion.
How did I finally come to love Austin? Let me (Roman-numerically since this is already a numbered list) count the ways: (i) Book People, one of the best and biggest truly independent bookstores around; (ii) the original Whole Foods, just across the street; (iii) spacious, lovable Zilker Park, with its lake views, hiking trails, rock escarpments, and herb garden; (iv) a real-life frozen banana stand with a sign out front inevitably reading, “There’s always money in the banana stand”; (v) the Omelettry’s uniquely amazing gingerbread pancakes; (vi) cheap and clean public buses on a fairly regular schedule; (vii) maybe the most delightful food truck scene in America; (viii) a truly outstanding local-ingredient and specialty-food scene; (ix) some quiet, cozy neighborhoods which offer shelter from the bustle; (x) an easy-going attitude that you sense would be open to more or less anything; (xi) Hopfields, the too-comfy gastropub with 43 spectacular beers on tap and casual French food on offer (tomato and manchego cheese tart, anyone? what about ratatouille?); (xii) definitely the best taco I have ever eaten. Behold:
I really cannot emphasize enough how amazing this taco is. It’s not one whose flavor jumps out at you and seizes your attention: its glory is, if anything, the exact opposite, the way that the taco welcomes your palate like an easy chair. There’s a certain trend among food lovers today to go for really complicated crazy gourmet stuff: burgers with eleven toppings, macaroni with seven cheeses, penne with chicken, pancetta, and shrimp. But some of the very best things in the world are the simplest. And the Democrat taco at Torchy’s is a taco so perfectly executed it feels like no effort was involved at all.
Austin is the opposite of that, in a way: a city into which tons of effort was clearly put, a city caged in by busy roads and interstate overpasses. But it is the spontaneity, the effortlessness, the easiness of the true Austin spirit which makes this city, well, redeemed. I’m glad I finally learned to like it.
[Other items in the Top 2011 Discoveries, Special Subcategory: Stuff Everyone Else in America Already Knew About but I Somehow Missed: 30 Rock, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, This is Spinal Tap, the glories of melted goat cheese, taco trucks, the city of Dallas, full-time employment.]
8. NotGraphs. Somehow, I managed to be a good baseball fan for years without reading FanGraphs, but I rectified that in 2011. FanGraphs is an analysis site for true baseball nerds, covering every move (and many a non-move) in as wonky, detailed, and stat-oriented a way as possible. Just my thing. But what’s really shameful is how long it took me to discover NotGraphs. NotGraphs is even more just my thing: it’s all silliness, all the time.
As baseball’s leading (only?) devoted humor site, NotGraphs is happy to provide you with old pictures of Ron Paul in an Astros uniform, a battle of the sexes over the worth of fantasy sports, real Mets-logo toilet seats, what prominent players would be if they were food (“The Prince Fielder”: an order of every vegetarian item), comical clips of players making wacky mistakes, and overly-literal illustrations of athletes’ inane Twitter thoughts. Fun, fun, fun!
Also, I’m very much hoping they take up my own suggestion of a “Write a Sentence About Baseball in the Style of David Foster Wallace” contest.
7. Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony. Funny; the Gothic Symphony doesn’t place first on my mental list of the best music I’d never heard before 2011 (Schubert’s string quintet in C, or Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra), nor was it probably the best or most soul-nourishing concert I saw this year (Mahler’s Third live at the Warsaw Philharmonic), but seeing the Gothic live was one of the great concert spectacles of my lifetime. An earlier blog essay talked about this at length, and I’m pleased to report that that blog essay will soon be appearing in the official journal of the Havergal Brian Society. In the meantime, here’s one of my photographs of the 1,000 performers at the Gothic:
6. The sticky toffee pudding at Brown’s Pie Shop, Lincoln, England. The guidebook described this dessert as “earth-shattering.” That’s putting it mildly. Their sticky toffee pudding was the most astonishing thing I ate in England and one of the three best foods I had in 2011, alongside the Democrat taco (above) and a goat cheese salad in Girona, Spain (at Restaurant Vinil).
That does it for this installment; stay tuned for my top five discoveries of 2011, coming to this page soon!