Science Museum of Minnesota: Ultimate Dinosaurs

Triceratops Horridus, the largest complete triceratops skeleton on display, a standard at the Museum for decades!

Triceratops Horridus, the largest complete triceratops skeleton on display, a standard at the Museum for decades!

Though it is now closed, I managed to check out the special Ultimate Dinosaurs traveling exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota last week. It was pretty awesome.

During my childhood, probably my biggest interest was, of course, dinosaurs. Like many children, something about the prehistoric creatures fascinated me to no end and I memorized the many species of dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles and mammals, and learned all I could about evolution and deep geologic time. While I was interested in nature and science in general, the mysterious and intriguing Mesozoic period was what i wanted to study most. Though there are no dinosaur fossils here in Minnesota, there are plenty of Cambrian fossil deposits in the Twin Cities where you can dig up brachiopods and crinoids, among other ancient creatures. I still have boxes of them from when I took a class from the Science Museum of Minnesota paleontologists and went out to the cliffs near the Mississippi in St. Paul to search the limestone bluffs for these ancient shells and fragments. I even hoped to go into paleontology to study fossils in order to piece together the ecosystems of the past. Sadly, though, my math skills were not up to the task of any hard science, so I followed the path from natural history to human history, where we could just avoid mathematics at all costs. My fascination for prehistoric life has kept with me, though and I could not pass up an opportunity to check out this special exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota before it packed up.

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An actual skull of Edmontosaurus, one of Canada’s most well known dinosaur species and featured prominently in the Royal Ontario Museum’s collections.

As a kid, probably my favorite place in the Twin Cities was the old Science Museum of Minnesota, a large rectangular building with rounded edges in downtown St. Paul, with a giant metal iguana out in front and cool stairs that made music when you walked on them. Nowadays, of course, the old Science Museum is now home to the Scientologists (a totally different use of the root word); the building which housed the dinosaurs, though, is now a part of the McNally College of Music. The Science Museum of Minnesota has had a pretty impressive paleontological collection, specifically dinosaurs, by itself for a state that contains no known Mesozoic fossils. The famous triceratops skeleton being most well known, (one of only four such fossils displayed in the world, and the largest of them as well) but also an impressive diplodocus and allosaurus, ancient crocodiles, and Pleistocene mammals.

Since 1999 the Museum has moved into it’s new and impressive home on the banks of the Mississippi, and expanded in space; in addition to a greatly expanded paleontology collection, they host some very impressive traveling exhibits such as last years fascinating exhibit on the Maya. This summer, the go to subject was the ever popular display of dinosaur skeletons, and as can be seen on TV spots and billboards around town, it was greatly hyped. It was a pretty good exhibit, if a little steep. In the end, the price might have been a little high, but for anyone at all interested in dinosaurs, it was well worth it.

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An unusual sauropod from South America, Amargasaurus is one I had never seen before.

Organized with the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (a very awesome museum itself), the exhibit showcases reproduced mounted skeletons of twenty “new and exotic dinosaurs” from the Southern Hemisphere (known during the Mesozoic as Gondwana).  The exhibit focused on continental drift and had a lot of cool, hands on activities to explain how the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea into Laurasia and Gondwana during the Mesozoic, and how this spurred a diversity of dinosaur species. Containing reconstructed dinosaur skeletons from a variety of rarely seen species from diverse areas of the globe, such as Ouranosaurus, Eoraptor, and Giganotosaurus, and some I had not even heard of before, like Cryolophosaurus, Rapetasaurus, and Amargasaurus there were some very good information.  The exhibit arranged the fossils by geologic period and geographic location, including Triassic Argentina, Jurassic Antarctica, and Cretaceous Madagascar. Not only dinosaurs were spot lighted; I particularly enjoyed the Simosuchus, or “pug nosed crocodile,” a short, stubby herbivorous crocodilian from Madagascar. In all, an informative and eye catching exhibition. For anyone with kids, or for anyone who has held on to their child like enthusiasm for the prehistoric, there was a lot to look at. If it moves to your city next, check it out! I am looking forward to seeing what the Science Museum’s next special exhibit will focus on.

From what I have been reading about recent findings, though, I am surprised we did not see any more feathers; I’ve been reading some books on paleontology lately, so stay tuned to my book blog Reading Rainstorm as I go into some discussion of paleontology.

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Cryolophosaurus, a large theropod from the Jurassic discovered in 1991 in Antarctica. One of the species featured by Ultimate Dinosaurs.


Japanese Lantern Lighting Festival 2014, Como Park

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Crowd at Japanese Lantern Lighting Festival, 2014


One of my all-time favorite events of the summer, the Japanese Lantern Lighting Festival held annually at Como Park on the third Sunday of August has become a tradition for me since at least 2006. A vibrant, yet intimate cultural event celebrating Japan’s “Obon” festival and the almost 60 year relationship between St. Paul and Nagasaki, celebrating peace and cultural understanding between nations.

Every year I have gone has been great, offering a taste of Japanese culture and history with a Minnesota twist, as well as good eats, music, shopping, and some great people watching (my Mom’s favorite hobby). Even with the rain and thunder this year, (the first time the weather has not cooperated since I started going), spirits were not dampened and a sizable crowd converged in Como Park to participate in the festivities. The heavy skies and low rumble of thunder in the distance added to the ambiance, if anything, making this a particularly memorable year. As the rain trickled down on the umbrellas of the diverse crowd, an enthusiastic audience watched performances of everything from traditional taiko drumming and classical shamisen, to J-Pop and martial arts performances. The rain was finished by the time it came around the the penultimate event of the Festival, the lighting of the lanterns themselves as they are set afloat in the park’s Frog Pond.

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Rain does not dampen the spirits of festival goers

The largest Japanese cultural festival in Minnesota, Como Park’s Lantern Lighting festival pays homage to a Japanese holiday that occurs in the later summer, under humid skies, summertime heat, and the droning of cicadas. Not too different from the Minnesota summer. Known colloquially in English as the “Japanese Day of the Dead,” when family members visit grave sites to honor dead loved ones. Along with this, of course, there is plenty of dancing and delicacies as well, and these aspects are definitely present at Como Park. Dances such as the Bon Odori welcome the spirits to the celebration, ending with the lighting of small paper lanterns which are set adrift on a body of water, here the Frog Pond near the McNeely Conservatory.

The Lantern Lighting Festival began at 3:00, and, while the rain seemed to lessen the crowd somewhat, there was still a large and boisterous group gathering. Like most weekends at Como, if you are driving, it is advisable to arrive early in order to find parking nearby. The entire park is quite crowded on any given nice summer Sunday, let alone with an event. A better option would be to take public transit, as Metro Routes 3 and 83 provide bus service to the park, and there are plenty of bike routes as well. The park also offers a free shuttle bus from the nearby District Service Center.

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Exploring Ordway Japanese Garden, as thunder rumbles in the distance

Arriving at the park, finding a place to spread a blanket and set on the grass with a view of the stage, one can watch one’s fellow festival goers arrive as well, a diverse group wearing all manner of costume, from traditional summer yukata (summer kimonos), to cosplay. Many umbrellas were on display this year, in particular. Set up around the park are a multitude of booths and stands, representing local Japanese-American cultural and educational institutions and other local organizations sharing their missions with entertaining games and contests, often traditional to such celebrations. In addition, you can often find booths selling Japanese antiques and specialties, where you can get some pretty good deals on a used kimono or obi, some pottery, or some used manga. While I am unfortunately not proficient in the language, I scored a few cool English language cultural books as well.

By this point, you are probably hungry, so there are also the food vendors set up to offer a variety of delectable Japanese street food from local restaurants. The Tea Source, my favorite purveyor of tea in the Twin Cities was there offering Japanese teas this year, both iced and hot (the hot was particularly appreciated on the cool, wet, blustery afternoon). In addition to this, I had some takoyaki (octopus balls) and agedashi tofu from local restaurant Saji-Ya, and some red bean paste treats, a dorayaki and a steam bun as well. These provided energy as I explored the beautiful Marjorie McNeely Conservatory and the Ordway Japanese Garden. No matter how many times I visit these gardens, it seems there is always something new to look at, and wandering the elegant paths and stones of the garden is made even better with a volunteer playing folk tunes on a shakuhachi.

But of course, the big draw are the performances, and each offer something unique and different; this year, in spite of a handful of cancellations due to the rain (and the damage humidity can do to delicate instruments), there was a lot to see. A variety of martial arts groups, demonstrating various forms of Japanese martial arts, such as kendo, karate, and kyudo (Japanese archery), practice their forms on the field, offering membership for those interested- it is always fun to see people chopping apart bundles of bamboo with their katana!  I particularly liked the taiko drumming, always an energetic and dynamic show, performed by two different groups this year, Sansei Yonsei Kai and the ever popular Mu Daiko. In addition, the classical Japanese koto tunes of Sakura Kai and folk and popular songs of Mu-Min are also fun to listen to.

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Among the most popular performances are the dances, with a Japanese school group showing off some J-pop moves, while others exhibited more traditional forms, but even these had their own local twists. Many of the dances invite the audience to participate as well, though, this being Minnesota, many do prefer to watch. The most important dance is the Bon Odori, which welcomes the spirits of the dead and rounds out the performances, as the dancing procession is lead over to the Frog Pond to begin the lighting of the lanterns. This year was particularly awesome, with an original Bon Odori song being performed by drummers Mu Daiko, the  Mu-Min choir, and dance troupe Mikaharu Kai, celebrating the blend of Minnesota and Japanese culture.

As the sun set, the sky started to clear as the lights of the Conservatory shine down upon the Frog Pond, upon which has been set a raft of small, glowing lanterns, floating slowly, gathering in rafts as the wind rippled the water. Gentle koto melodies were played in the background as people gathered in the dim evening light to watch the lanterns begin their journey around the pool, allowing watchers to reflect upon those who have passed on. The St. Paul night seemed quiet, serene. It was a great and relaxing finale to a vibrant and exciting event.

Next year will be the 60th anniversary of St. Paul and Nagasaki’s Sister City relationship and it is promising to be a very big deal, with visiting dignitaries from Japan and a lot of fanfare, so if you have not been yet, 2015 might be the best time to go. I’m definitely looking forward to it!

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Lanterns floating on the Frog Pond, Como Park



MSP Reading Time: Guy in Real Life

Check out my review of the latest book I read set in the Twin Cities, Guy in Real Life, over at my BookLikes Blog, Reading Rainstorm. The latest in an ongoing segment over there segment over there, Land of 10,000 Reads, it was a sweet, geeky, teenage love story with a lot of references, both for gamers and for residents of St. Paul!

Speaking of St. Paul, I’ll be attending one of my favorite events of the year in the neighborhoods discussed in this book this afternoon, at Como Park’s annual Japanese Lantern Lighting Festival. Should be fun!

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2014

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Rarig Center, Fringe Fest night at the U of M

Well, the Minnesota Fringe Festival is officially over, but it was definitely an interesting year. I managed to catch four shows across Minneapolis over the last two weekends, and each were, in their own ways, an adventure.

From the corporate spires of Downtown, to the trendy streets of Uptown, to the blocky grey edifices of the University of Minnesota’s West Bank (to mention a few), expectation defying productions spring up at theaters and venues over Minneapolis in the dog days of summer, as July turns into August. In the Twin Cities, we are known for our love and support for live theater, and no event showcases this tendency more than the Minnesota Fringe Festival, which this year showcased 169 different productions at 19 different venues, from a plethora of backgrounds, genres, styles, and art forms. There are shows for kids, shows for adults, and shows for adults who are kids. You could choose your favorites from among musicals, dance, improv, or drama. Whether you are looking for humor, horror, pathos, the sublime, the absurd, or the genre defying, there is something to peak just about any interest, even those whose interests are very, very specific.

I have been going since seeing a production of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,” a one man show staged by local actor Tim Uren in the basement of the Mill City Museum in 2006, and it was so awesome I’ve been going back every year since. Every year was a surprise, and every year offers something completely different; I’ve seen musicals about giant balls of tinfoil and xenophobia, a mime production of Hansel and Gretel, an adaptation of Robert Anton Wilson’s, ”Mask of the Illuminati,” and a comedy about squirrels and self actualization.

According to the City Pages, the Fringe had a record amount of tickets sold this year. The four shows I saw (beating the general average of three shows seen in 2013) each had a totally different take on the art of drama, though it was hard to decided on just those four- there were at least six others I had wanted to see as well! This year included probably the least successful show I’ve seen as well as among the most successful, and in general, a fun time was had all around.

Here are some short reviews of the plays I saw, along with a nearby restaurant recommendation.

Amateur Hour by English Scrimshaw Theatrical Novelties

The first show I made it to was “Amateur Hour” at the Illusion Theater, tucked away on the 8th Floor of the Hennepin Center of the Arts on Hennepin avenue. Before the show, I enjoyed some delicious pomegranate gelato over on Nicollet Mall at the great little crepe place Le Belle Crepe. I’d recommend this place for lunch in downtown in particular, I stopped by a lot when I was working or volunteering downtown.

As for the show, it was a fun and amusing production that I enjoyed from beginning to end, a great opening to the Fringe. Featuring a cadre of dancers, comedians, and actors showcasing their evolution and background as performers and artists by showing off their juvenalia, the first dreams that nudged them onto the stage. Whether adorably awkward poetry, adorably awkward dancing, or adorably awkward and terrible jokes, everyone’s story was both heartwarming and also super funny, and it brought on some major nostalgia of my own early attempts at writing stories and plays. Should I even look back?

The Ohman Stone,” by It Works

Oh, the Ohman Stone. Oh man, the Ohman Stone. What to say? I basically HAD to go to this one, promising “THEE” most controversial show ever on the Fringe (debatable) as, during my time as a masters student of history, the Kensington Runestone was my chosen thesis topic. Like many people who happen upon this topic, I find myself intrigued by the weirdness around this roadside attraction. I could go on and on, believe me. This obsession was definitely evident in every minute of this play, which I believe could safely be called a “labor of love,” in which every cast member “put in their heart and soul,” so passionate were they towards the authenticity of the runestone (or KRS, to aficionados).

Hosted by Intermedia Arts on Lyndale, I enjoyed some delicious tea a few doors down at La Société du Thé, a great place to peruse an exhaustive list of loose teas as well as enjoy a pot of it. The show, sadly, was not quite so tasty. The story of the runestone, hoax or “authentic” is a rich vein to mine from, and a musical celebrating this Minnesota icon with ghosts seems a great idea, you betcha. However, in what could have been an amusing take on the ridiculous nature of the debate, there was instead a deep undercurrent of bitterness and spite running throughout the play.

I do not want to go into any long winded debates here, but suffice it to say, as a runestone skeptic (one of those horrible villains), this was an insulting, exploitative, heavy handed piece of pro-runestone propaganda. When they weren’t mocking people for not buying their conspiracy theories, they were pausing the proceedings to deliver preachy pedantic “power point” lectures that would glaze over the eyes of anyone, let alone someone who had never heard the story or its background. The bizarre and frankly creepy love story tacked on added nothing and seemed really out of place. The music seemed almost an afterthought to just repeating pro-runestone arguments to the audience, with the ghosts, romance, and afterlife motifs being mere set dressing. Sadly, while there was some nice music, the lyrics and dialog were often cringe worthy.

“The Ohman Stone,” I feel, will not change anyone’s minds who were not already decided on the topic; in fact, my friend who had never heard the stone prior to the event felt he was insulted by this one sided attack. Okay, enough about that!

The History of Minnesota Unscripted, by the Theater of Public Policy

I was very happy to see this show (again, because Minnesota history), and was excited to go down to the Bryant Lake Bowl, home of some great craft beers and a place where I’ve often seen some quality improv. I’ve seen the Theater of Public Policy before and was always impressed with their brand of political discussion and improvised humor and this was a great way to do it! Each show at the Fringe invited a different local historian to share a story of Minnesota history, which would then be riffed on and interpreted by the talented actors of the Theater.

I was lucky enough to be at the show hosted by Doug Hoverson, author of Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota. He told some fascinating stories about the history of brewing and beer in Minnesota, and I’m glad I picked up a pint of Steel Toe Sommer Vice to enjoy with the show. Nothing like a tasty beer while learning fun facts about the first brewery in Stillwater, Andrew Volstead, and the invention of malt liquor in Minneapolis (who knew?), the theater took Hoverson’s thought-provoking background and used to poke hilarious fun at Minnesota, our love of beer, and it’s changing status in the state. Who knows? Maybe next time they’ll be joking about how we used to not be able to buy beer on Sundays? You never know!

Twelfth Night by Rough Magic Performance Company

The last play took us to the U of M Rarig Center on West Bank, the home for us history majors at the U. For this one, I invited my parents, and after dinner across the river in Dinkytown at the great Wally’s Falafel and Hummus– I highly recommend checking this place out, and the tea, in particular, is great (served with fresh mint, sage, or other herbs).

As for Twelth Night, it was a funny, heartfelt, and intriguing take on Shakespeare, this was charming interpretation of the famous play, with what seemed to be some influence from Wes Anderson movies. Great customs, evocative acting, and sharp humor, this is really showcases the best of the Fringe.The gender bending and shifting romance were played up here, though one can definitely see the Shakespearean origin of “insta-love,” and it was all condensed into an hour. I would definitely see more Shakespeare interpretations from this team (sadly, I did not make it to it’s companion piece, What You Will, which may have explained the guy in the socks!). I will definitely look out for this group next year!

So, speaking of next year, the Fringe will be scheduled between July 30 and August 9, 2015. So go and check it out- tickets are $12 each, along with a $5 admission button that is used for all shows and also can get you discounts at other productions throughout the year- next year, I’m thinking about getting a 10 show pass and checking out even more shows!

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West Bank Arts Quarter, outside the Rarig on a warm August night

Culinary Adventures: Minneapolis Farmers Market

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A Minneapolis morning

It’s been a pretty adventurous week for me and it will continue to be, since it’s been Fringe week since last Thursday and is on it’s last day. As one of the most adventurous live theater events of the year, with 169 unique, strange, and interesting shows at the 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival, you never know just what to expect. I will be reporting more on the Fringe in upcoming days.

Aside from going on adventures biking, hiking, and traveling around the Twin Cities visiting its many lovely and beautiful attractions, I do spend a lot of time at home just thinking about things I could be doing, but one kind of mundane, every day adventure I like to confront is cooking. I do it everyday, pretty much, at least on the day’s I’m not too lazy. One of the perks of living alone is that you can experiment, try out some of the most interesting and go for things that you are not sure your friends and loved ones would tolerate. You can cater to your own tastes, eat your favorite foods, go for the “different.” Me, for instance, I like spice. I’m not one of those masochistic people who is really into hot sauce (though some sriracha helps just about everything), I just like to make food with a little kick. Green thai curries, chipotle mole, things with a lot of peppers. I’ve trained myself to be able to tolerate food heat indexes that would render most Minnesotans into a gasping, water swigging state and, in fact, I enjoy it! I never self censor when I’m trying out the Indian or Thai recipes- on occasion this can require some quality ingredients, and in Minnesota, we are lucky to be able to draw from such a fertile farmlands, allowing for an expanding palate of awesome dishes.

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Rows of produce at the Farmers Market

While some weeks ago, I reported on the new kid of farmer’s markets in Minneapolis, the Mill City Market, which is very nice, and I love, if you are looking for a sheer variety of produce and food, nothing can be the old standby of the Minneapolis Farmers Market. Nestled under the 94 overpass and in the shadow of the downtown Minneapolis skyline, it is still an atmospheric and vibrant space and I’m so glad it was not plowed under for a new Vikings stadium.

Visiting the market is always a vibrant and exciting experience, and I have great memories of coming here with my parents on summer Saturday or Sunday mornings to get ingredients for seasonal soups or camping. Don’t forget to bring a tote bag! Probably that one you got from a Minnesota Public Radio pledge drive, right? Grab a tamale from the tamale stand, it makes a great breakfast! Of course, there are those who feel roast corn is perfect at any time of the day. Wash it all down with a refreshing limeade, so much tangier than the average lemon.

After having breakfast, browse the produce. Farmers from around the region sell their wares, from flowers, fruits and vegetables, honey, maple syrup, wild rice, and all sorts of food items. While much of the produce is from the local region of Minnesota and Wisconsin, they also offer produce grown elsewhere due to Minnesota’s rather short growing seasons (particularly for things like bananas). I always try to get there early, as it definitely can get crowded, with the rows of covered platforms offering double columns of things to look at. The thick perfume of dill and basil, cilantro and flowers, as well as the constant tang of roasted corn, drift through the air. Many merchants offer samples of their wares, and this time, I try a delicious garlic dip, a Chilean salsa, varieties of rare Wisconsin cheese, and some great hot sauce. I ended up buying a bottle, along with some local bok choi, daikon radishes, broccoli, garlic, red onions, cilantro, and zucchini. A good haul, I made a delicious soba noodle soup, a broccoli/zucchini fajita, a radish curry, and a rice zucchini hotdish. Enough for two weeks of meals, all turning out well this time.

Been meaning to try out some bitter melons next time- I’ve got a Nepali recipe I’ve been wanting to test!

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Minneapolis Farmers Market

Minneapolis Farmers Market, 312 East Lyndale Ave North, Minneapolis, MN 55405

Open every day 6:00-1:00, April to November