HMM WEEKLY for September 24, 2019

From the Makers of HMM DAILY

HMM WEEKLY for September 24, 2019

Another Week, Another Hmm Weekly

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A Serial Travelogue, Part Five

Banh Mi

A BROWN CRUST of bug matter was baked all over the white paint on the front of the Kia. A hot night and a hotter morning, out in the treeless expanse of the Sheraton Sioux Falls parking lot, had not improved the vomit smell inside the vehicle. I lifted up the towel from the younger boy's seat and squirted the upholstery down with more Febreze, and we set out. This leg was a little shorter, but possibly even emptier, than the last: some 450 miles, from Sioux Falls to Rapid City.

The first few hours of the route didn't seem as if they would have any especially obvious lunch stop in them, so we looked for food and gas before leaving town. Google told us there was a Vietnamese restaurant that was open early enough. They had sweetened iced coffee and Thai iced tea, which solved the constant coffee problem. I ordered a meatball banh mi, and it arrived on a still-warm crusty dinner roll. We have a cookbook we bought years ago, written by the woman who made my wife's wedding dress, based on her experience in the United States cooking Vietnamese dinners on a tight schedule and with limited ingredients. Here, it appeared, the restaurant people had figured out how to get nearly everything they needed in South Dakota, till the final limit, requiring a workaround, was not the Vietnamese groceries but the baguette.

Yellow Clover

The pavement of the highway was a rosy color, from some crushed reddish local stone. The sun got into the grasses and some of them glowed green-tinged white, a silvery gleam in the low places of the median or roadside. Here was, one could imagine, the subtle but rich beauty of the prairie, the interplay of shades of green. Other patches, more and more of them, were vibrant yellow-green—yellow sweet clover, we would learn later, "a massive wave" of it, at the peak of a two-year growing cycle. It was, moreover, not a part of any primeval grassland, but a European invasive, albeit one that the native animals love to eat, and which sometimes stabilizes the soil so that native plants may have a chance to grow.

The World's Only Corn Palace

The 12-year-old said he wanted to see the World's Only Corn Palace. My Wisconsin and Minnesota sources had told me it was not worth the trouble, but I wanted to believe, and I supported the 12-year-old. It was not as if there was much else, between the Minnesota end of South Dakota and the Mount Rushmore end, to compete with it. What was a road trip for, anyway, if not for seeing arbitrary roadside attractions? And what could be more arbitrary than the World's Only Corn Palace, in Mitchell, South Dakota? I had been taken, too, with the modesty or narrowness of its billing: not the Great Corn Palace, or the Most Amazing, but the Only. It could not be accused of overpromising.

Nor was it far from the main highway. Or it wouldn't have been, but something went wrong again with Google Maps, right on the way into Mitchell, so that we briefly found ourselves heading deeper and deeper away from even small-town density, down straight-line gravel roads surrounded by fields. But we worked our way back easily enough, to the proper foursquare downtown of Mitchell, and there was the Corn Palace parking lot and an outer gift shop.

The critics were wrong. The Corn Palace was wonderful. It is a century-old multipurpose arena, set up as a tribute to itself and to America, with corn as the medium for both tributes. Corn is quite literally the medium: the exterior of the Corn Palace, under its Russian-style domes, is decorated with mosaic panels made of multicolored corn. The pictures change from year to year; this one, pending the 2019 harvest, was Salute to Military, with a dark corn silhouette of the Iwo Jima flag-raising against a striped sky of red and yellow corn.

This rather understated the power and expressive range of corn as a visual format. Inside, along the upstairs concourse, we found a display of older mosaic designs drawn by the Yaktonai artist Oscar Howe. Howe had worked on the corn art from the late '40s to the early '70s—covering the building with pictures of space flight, nuclear holocaust, deer fleeing the flames of an environmentally ravaged world. The images felt poised somewhere between the graphic flash of Golden Age comic books and the surety and mystery of cave paintings, with touch of Socialist-poster idealism.

Downstairs, the lobby pillars were fat and covered with tiles to resemble or at least suggest giant upright ears of corn. Their plumpness made it easy to lose sight of the children among them. Around the lobby and the rest of the lower level were placards giving a potted cultural history of the United States, decade by decade. Among the building's functions is basketball, so along with displays on the World Wars and the '60s counterculture, there was a section celebrating Mike Miller, who had played his high-school ball there.

We descended through the seating bowl of the arena to the hardwood floor, which was occupied by the gift shop, overloaded with corn-themed merchandise: corn-shaped novelty hats, corn-shaped magnets, corn-shaped garden gear. There was dried corn on the cob with a bag so you could pop it in the microwave.

On the upper concourse, enraptured by Howe's artwork, I had assumed without question that the gift shop would have to have copies of the corn pictures, and that we would buy some for our home and study them at leisure. We circled the whole arena floor, looking carefully, but we could find no prints of the Howe images for sale, only shelf after shelf of yellow anthropomorphized corn. The World's Only Corn Palace, it appeared, had missed that chance to celebrate or market its own particularity. Even the Corn Palace underestimated the Corn Palace's appeal.



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Ad Astra, directed by James Gray

WHAT IS IT with these movie stars who pretty much avoid big solemn science-y science fiction movies for most of their careers and then end up in some sprawling blowhardy intergalactic thing that is not about the stars, but the Star? I answered my own question!

Ad Astra is a slick, slightly dystopian science fiction movie with gripping action sequences and lots of Brad Pitt acting.
Me, quoting myself about Ad Astra in Hmm Weekly

There! You don’t have to read the rest of the review if you don’t want to.

George Clooney made Solaris (snore) Matthew McConaughey made Interstellar, which was like three and a half movies long with a Matthew McConaughey movie inside it, blergh! Sandra Bullock made Gravity, which was a pretty good movie, possibly because it was around 90 minutes, i.e., not too long, and now Brad Pitt is out there being an astronaut who has to save the Solar System, I think, or at least the planet Earth, from some weird pulsating wave coming from his dad (Tommy Lee Jones), who is on Neptune, maybe. I’m not kidding. Spoiler alert.

Ad astra means “to the stars” (they tell you right at the beginning of the movie, I’m not trying to flex my Latin), and it was directed by James Gray, who also directed the bummer crime flick We Own the Night, which was way too long, and way back in 1994 made the super-bummer crime flick Little Odessa, which just seemed way long, and sitting there in my comfy recliner in a deluxe movie theater, I still felt every mile of the kabillions of miles Brad Pitt ekes out on the way to the Moon and so on, but technically, and this is not really a spoiler, he didn’t go to any stars, just saying, we’ve got to keep the Science in these science fictions!

Most of the time I go to science fiction movies just because I like to look at rocket ships and stuff, and there’s a show on Amazon Prime called The Expanse—which, I know, it’s all bullshit—is a very science-y teevee show. The rockets are all just sort of crude metal tubes, very difficult to pilot, and they’re insanely fragile in the hostile vacuum of space. Ad Astra has that vibe with the rocket-ships part, and it has flashes of the banal aspects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the trip up a metaphorical river to do bad things like Apocalypse Now, and the thing where the robot had to keep taking psych evaluations like in Blade Runner 2049. Plus, with Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones in the cast, it reunites half of the stars of Space Cowboys, hiyo!

The psych evals though; Brad Pitt’s astronaut Roy McBride character spends a lot of the movie talking to the air because he is telling his feelings to a computer that is making sure he’s sane enough to fly around in outer space. He realizes he’s selfish and self-absorbed and is not there for people who love him, and he talks about what may have made him that way, and it’s an actor’s dream, me, me, me!

No offense to Brad Pitt, it’s easy to see why he took the part. You will spend a lot of time looking at his face, acting, and into his interestingly-lit and photographed eyes (however, he takes his shirt off way more and way better in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood), and he’s captured the character, a space pro who is calm, cool, and collected, and kind of a dull person, even though he does all kinds of badass stuff in space, but if action is why you enjoy science fiction films, there’s lots of rad sequences, and a few surprises, but between Mr. Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones being a lot like I imagine Tommy Lee Jones is in real life, you have to pay a sizable Actor tax to watch all that fun stuff.


Sorry, Sometimes You Have to Just Get It Out of Your System



WE PRESENT A selection of recipes for antique but entirely reproducible sandwiches, found in The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich, published in 1909 and now in the public domain for all to enjoy.

If you make any of these sandwiches, kindly send a picture to

Chop hard-boiled eggs fine, season with salt and pepper; moisten with mayonnaise dressing. Spread on buttered whole wheat bread. Garnish with a pickle.

Between thin slices of white bread, place thin slices of cold roast pork; on top of this spread applesauce.

Chop olives fine, add a little finely chopped green and red (sweet) peppers, a dash of mayonnaise dressing; mix and place between thin slices of lightly buttered white bread.

Pare, chill, and cut ripe tomatoes thin, season with salt and pepper and a little lemon juice. Place between thin slices of lightly buttered white bread with a crisp lettuce leaf between.


Left to right: Rambo, flambeau

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