Literature of Desire: The 1976 Sears Christmas Wish Book

Cultural criticism: The Sears catalog might well be considered a great work of American literature, having influenced the syntax of advertising, transformed mail-order commerce, and catalyzed America’s (decidedly democratic) language of desire.

[Appeared on on December 23, 2016.]

Stranger Things: 5 Differences Between the Pilot Script and the First Episode

Writing craft: Studying a show’s pilot script is a useful way for aspiring scriptwriters to get a sense for how its creators chose to establish the world of the story, introduce its characters, and leave the viewer wanting more.

[Appeared on on November 14, 2016.]

Clowns Weren’t Creepy in 1921

Poetry: “At least, not in the pages of Billboard Magazine / Which chronicled showbiz scuttlebutt in the days / When entertainments were an in-the-flesh affair.”

[Appeared in Hobart on October 31, 2016]

Notes On the Narrative Conundrum of Baseball Fandom

Sports commentary: As a die-hard fan, seeing your team lose in the postseason is a rich source of speculation and mythology. Seeing your team win it all makes for a much better story, save one key conundrum.

[Appeared in Medium on October 12, 2016]

The Slippery Slope of Musical Appropriation

Cultural criticism: Steve Miller had a clear-cut legal case when the Geto Boys used his guitar-hook in their raunchy 1990 single “Gangster of Love.” The racial implications weren’t so simple.

[Appeared in Longform on June 24, 2016]

The Great Rap Censorship Scare of 1990

Cultural criticism: The Geto Boys’ self-titled third album rattled America’s cultural gatekeepers, making N.W.A and 2 Live Crew look like a society luncheon.

[Appeared in Cuepoint on May 25, 2016]

Age, Formative

Lyric essay: This prose poem jumbles passages from slave narratives and self-help books, Walden and the Hadith, online therapy forums and celebrity memoirs, weaving together a series of age-specific moments that shed light on the boundaries of memory and the complexities of self-presentation.

[Appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Creative Nonfiction]

HBO’s Treme Corners You at a Party

Satire: “Hey there, I’m a TV show set in New Orleans. I’m about art and integrity, and I don’t give a shit what you think of me.”

[Appeared in The Morning News on March 17, 2015]

Emails from Beatriz

Found poetry: “I loved drawing out / the symbols / of the alphabet. / They were all / their own kind / of monster with / their own kind of tongue.”

[Appeared in Hobart on February 5, 2015]

The Sweet Superstition of Rooting for the Royals

Sports commentary: During Kansas City’s inspired 2014 playoff run, social media only heightened the gloriously irrational, neurotic nature of baseball fandom.

[Appeared in The Atlantic on October 11, 2014]

A 14-Year-Old’s 1984 Diary, Illustrated By A 14-Year-Old In 2014

Graphic memoir: Aided by illustrations by his adolescent nephew, Rolf plumbs the humiliations, triumphs, and idiosyncrasies of his own adolescence.

[Appeared in Hobart in June of 2014]

Burying the Present

Personal essay: Thirty years ago, Rolf and a friend from elementary school created a vision of the future—a space opera put to tape—and buried it in a time capsule. Listening again today reveals how we remember the present as it never quite was.

[Appeared in The Morning News on December 17, 2013]

Treme’s Authenticity Problem

TV criticism: HBO’s series about post-Katrina Louisiana obsessively works to prove it’s not a tourist in New Orleans. It ends up losing the city — and the viewers — in the process.

[Appeared in The Atlantic on November 27, 2013]

Cannibal Habits of the Common Tourist

Cultural criticism: Dennis O’Rourke’s 1988 documentary “Cannibal Tours”, which probed the absurdities of global tourism, was as brilliant and cringe-inducing as any episode of “The Office” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Twenty-five years after its initial debut, the rise of social media self-documentation has made the film feel more relevant than ever.

[Appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books on November 15, 2013]

Selfies and the Touristification of Everyday Experience

Cultural criticism: When, two generations ago, Susan Sontag wrote how “needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” she very well could have been making a prophetic observation about “selfies.”

[Appeared in Medium on November 10, 2013]

Mandarin Graffiti

Commentary: A Chinese teenager defaced the Luxor Temple. That’s bad, but scribbling on Egyptian antiquity is as old as tourism itself.

[Appeared in Slate on May 31, 2013]

Murder of football player in Kansas shakes town, raises questions

Long-form reportage: In September of 2012 a Kansas small-college football player was beaten to death outside a late-night house party, allegedly at the hands of players from a rival school. Rolf takes an investigative look at the 125 years that led up to the murder, and how small prairie-town colleges stay alive through sports, often importing inner-city kids to fill out rosters.

[Appeared in Sports Illustrated on December 4, 2012]

The Upside to All the Online Chatter About Girls

Media criticism: Compared to the “Generation X” media frenzy of the early 1990s, the online chatter surrounding HBO’s Girls is a refreshingly diverse inquiry into what it means to be young in recession-era America.

[Appeared in The Atlantic on June 13, 2012]

Tourist Snapshots

Cultural criticism/personal essay: Why do we take pictures when we travel? And what has been lost and gained as our photo albums move from hard copy to digital?

[Appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of The Common]

Remixing Reality

Literary criticism/collage essay: In his literary manifesto Reality Hunger, David Shields argues for artistic plagiarism and the end of traditional narrative. Rolf’s response — embedded in a story about getting drugged robbed overseas — appropriates its own flavor of plagiarism to counter Shields’ argument.

[Appeared in the March 2012 issue of Hobart]

The Joy of Reading Graham Greene

Interview: Rolf talks with travel writer Pico Iyer about his book “The Man Within My Head,” and how art can help us identify parts of ourselves we never otherwise could have articulated.

[Appeared in The Atlantic on January 9, 2012]

What’s in a Name?

Commentary: The same travelers who insist on dropping the “s” from Laos in the interest of linguistic accuracy would never call Egypt “Misr” or Finland “Suomi.” What factors influence the names we give to the places we visit?

[Appeared in AOL's on September 7, 2011]

Paul Theroux on Blogging, Travel Writing, and ‘Three Cups of Tea’

Interview: Rolf talks with the legendary travel author about technology, traveling light, reportorial accuracy, notions of home, and the “Tao of Travel.”

[Appeared in The Atlantic on May 17, 2011]

Canon Fodder

Essay/Reportage: When allegations surfaced that parts of Greg Mortenson’s memoir “Three Cups of Tea” had been fabricated, reports noted that the book is “required reading” for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Various other branches of the military promote titles like “Freakonomics” and “Starship Troopers.” Why is this the case, and what do these non-military books offer to combat-bound soldiers?

[Appeared in the May 2, 2011 issue of The New Yorker]

Around the World in 80 Hours (of Travel TV)

Media criticism: Where does the Travel Channel take us? To find out, Rolf locks himself into a Vegas hotel room and embarks on a one-week experiment in gonzo-criticism.

[Appeared in AOL's, February 21-25, 2011]

Sons of “The Beach”

Literary Criticism: Between 1996 and 2002, a spate of British-authored pulp fiction portrayed self-absorbed 20-somethings trying (and failing) to use travel in Asia as an escape from the superficial, directionless, consumerist lives they lead back home. What did these novels predict about the way travel was changing?

[Appeared in World Hum on Nov. 11, 2010]

The Difference: Living Well vs. Doing Well

Advice: There is an overwhelming social compulsion – an insanity of consensus, if you will – to get rich from life rather than live richly, to “do well” in the world instead of living well. This excerpt from Vagabonding explores the notion of simplicity.

[Appeared on Tim Ferriss's Lifestyle Design blog on May 12, 2010]

5 Travel Lessons You Can Use at Home

Advice: Travel has a way of slowing you down, of waking you up, of pulling you up out of your daily routines and seeing life in a new way. This new way of looking at the world need not end when you resume your life at home.

[Appeared on Tim Ferriss's Lifestyle Design blog on Feb. 25, 2010]

Che: The Ronald McDonald of Revolution

Commentary: “In Cuba, Guevara’s ubiquitous image appears to fill the role of both Jesus Christ and Ronald McDonald — a sainted martyr of unwavering purity who also happens to promote a standardized (if not particularly nutritious) political menu.” An analysis of Che’s legacy in light of Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 movie biopic.

[Appeared in World Hum on Jan. 27, 2009]

The Henry Ford of Literature

Media history: How one nearly forgotten 1920s Kansas publisher’s “Little Blue Books” created an inexpensive mail-order information superhighway that paved the way for the sexual revolution, influenced the feminist and civil rights movements, and foreshadowed the Age of Information.

[Appeared in the September 2008 issue of The Believer]

Focus Films’ “City Confidential”

Film commentary: To mark the DVD release of In Bruges, Focus Films asked Rolf and a panel of select travel writers (including Pico Iyer, Heidi Julavits, Tony Wheeler, and Ayun Halliday) to outline their favorite cinematic portrayals of cities. Films mentioned in Rolf’s profile include Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, and Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt.

[Appeared in Film in Focus on June 16, 2008]

Humor Doesn’t Translate Internationally

Media criticism: In recent years, the most vivid legacy of B-movie gimmickry has been the emergence of “mockbusters” — cheaply produced straight-to-DVD films with names like Transmorphers and Snakes on a Train. What sets mockbusters apart is that these films are deliberately released on DVD just as their blockbuster namesakes hit the big screen, thus creating a niche market based on simple consumer confusion.

[Appeared in the March/April 2008 issue of The Believer ]

One Man’s Odyssey into Eat, Pray, Love

Book review: For men, reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book is like traveling the world with a lovely and intelligent girlfriend who can’t stop talking about herself: You’ve come to admire this woman — and you wish the best for her — but you wish she’d stop yapping about emotional minutiae so you could both look out and enjoy the scenery from time to time.

[Appeared in World Hum on Feb. 11, 2008]

10 Sizzling Hot Travel Tips From Sir Francis Bacon

Satire: Rolf repackages the 17th century philosopher’s ‘Of Travel’ essay in the manner of a 21st century magazine feature

[Appeared in World Hum on Jan. 22, 2008]

The Trouble With ‘Smile When You’re Lying’

Book review: Chuck Thompson’s ‘Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer’ slams modern travel writing as mediocre, if not dishonest. But glossy magazines aren’t the only venues that create a fictional matrix to lure audiences: Books like Thompson’s tend to sell themselves on overstatement, as well as the exaggerated sense that the reader is getting privileged information.

[Appeared in World Hum on Jan. 2, 2008]

We Don’t (Really) Know Jack

Commentary: Though innovative and inspiring, “On the Road” is a bad blueprint for life on the road. Kerouac’s characters might cover a lot of miles between San Francisco and New York, but their adventures along the way are rarely more remarkable than what one might encounter in the freshman-pledge wing of a fraternity house.

[Appeared in World Hum on Sept. 5, 2007]

The Death of the Mile-High Club

Commentary: Regardless of how you try to sugarcoat the flight experience, planes have functionally become flying buses — and the only people who would consider having sex on public buses are invariably on their way home from serving 18-to-24-month prison sentences for crystal-meth possession.

[Appeared in World Hum on July 25, 2007]

The Last Antiwar Poem

Literary criticism: 50 years on, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” reads like a drug-addled, homoerotic variation of “Jackass.” If we aspire this year to recognize the anniversary of a Ginsberg poem that still seems relevant and challenging, we should fast-forward ten years to 1966, when the iconic Beat poet penned “Wichita Vortex Sutra.”

[Appeared in The Believer, Nov. 8, 2006]

The worst tourists in the world

Travel-culture essay: Disparaging one’s fellow travelers by national stereotype is a time-honored parlor game. Does it serve any purpose?

[Appeared in Yahoo! News on Oct. 9, 2006]

The Tourist Who Influenced the Terrorists

Literary criticism/travel anthropology: How One Egyptian’s Bad Haircut from a Greeley, Colorado Barber in 1949 Provided Ideological Fuel for 9/11.

[Appeared in The Believer, October 2006]

Slumming the golden arches

Travel-culture essay: Within certain hipster circles of indie travel, announcing that you patronize McDonald’s is kind of like confessing that you eat your boogers. But the contempt sophisticated travelers hold for McDonald’s has less to do with ethical principle than the fact that fast-food franchises ruin the fantasies of otherness that are an inherent part of travel.

[Appeared in Yahoo! News on June 5, 2006]

World Hum’s Top 30 Travel Books

Book reviews: In a round-up of top travel books for the Travel Channel’s World Hum, Rolf sings the praises of Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu (#8), Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (#11), Tim Cahill’s Road Fever (#21), Tony Horwitz’s Baghdad Without a Map (#26), and Jeffrey Tayler’s Facing the Congo (#28).

[Appeared in World Hum in May of 2006]

Why we buy dumb souvenirs

Travel-culture essay: Souvenir hunting is not a meaningful examination of place so much as it is a litmus test of our own whims and preconceptions as travelers. At a certain level, buying an electric blender is more representative of day-to-day Indian life than buying Kashmiri silk (though, admittedly, a blender would not look as good in your living room).

[Appeared in Yahoo! News on May 9, 2006]

An Open Letter to Lewis Lapham

Commentary: Though the outgoing Harper’s editor’s opinions invariably carry a left-wing slant, Lapham would seem to be a profoundly conservative thinker — someone who has never questioned the insipidity of his elite, east-coast patrician-intellectual assumptions.

[Appeared on on Dec. 13, 2005]

The tourist is always the other guy

Travel-culture essay: The rhetoric of tourists and travelers is not just trapped in the rituals of human vanity: it has become hopelessly mixed up in the postmodern wash.

[Appeared on on Oct. 10, 2005]

Signs of Confusion

Travel-culture essay: As alarming as it can be to find “Fried Rice With Crap” on a menu in Asia, bad translations can go both ways. Indeed, it’s only a matter of time before someone travels to China and discovers that the “Crouching Tiger” Chinese ideogram on his butt cheek (purchased in good faith in Seattle) is provincial slang for “Adult Diapers.”

[Appeared in World Hum on Dec. 3, 2004]

Remembering the Hippie Trail

Book Review: As David Tomory’s A Season in Heaven reveals, the wanderers of the 1960s and 1970s were creative and intrepid — but they also tended to be petty, competitive, self-ghettoizing, and self-deluding. In short, they had the same charms and weaknesses as any self-conscious, authenticity-seeking counterculture movement of the last half-century.

[Appeared in Vagablogging on July 2, 2003]

Staring Off Into Space is an Investment in the Soul

Poetry: “Looking at a steer and / imagining balls is not / nearly so hard as / looking at balls and / imagining a bull.”

[Appeared in Zuzu's Petals Quarterly on September 1, 1998]

A look back at the Korean presidential election of 1997

Political commentary: Dissident politician Kim Dae-jung was not (as Time declared upon his inauguration) “Destiny’s Choice” to lead Korea into the new millennium, but the beneficiary of mudslinging, opportunism and circumstantial luck amid a wacky 1997 election season.

[Appeared in the Wichita Eagle on June 4, 1998]

Letter from Korea: September 1997

Commentary: Simon Peter once found that a relatively small amount of faith allows a man to walk on water, but he was never faced with the more relevant prospect of navigating intersections in a city where 15.5-ton Hyundai buses careen four abreast down streets originally designed for oxcarts.

[Appeared in the Wichita Eagle on Sept. 15, 1997]

A review of Robert Bly’s The Sibling Society

Book Review: Robert Bly’s The Sibling Society is the latest doom-oracle for those born after the advent of polyester clothing. Conveniently, society is never as good as it was during the time when a given doomsayer came of age, and everything since has been a slippery slide on the downward spiral.

[Appeared in the Wichita Eagle on Sept. 16, 1996]