For about as long as humans have been communicating, it’s been a rather linear affair — a person says or hears things serially, writing is described as having a ‘flow’, and even two-dimensional media like films and comics tend to have a single narrative thrust at any given time (Shintaro Kago be damned [nsfw]). While many novels through the years do indeed have criss-crossing subplots of intriguing, duplicitous letters sent amongst the major players, I feel the immediacy of electronic communication and social networking breathes fresh life into stories about stories, including the stories we tell ourselves. Christine Love’s “Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story” takes full advantage of this, weaving a metafictional experiment that also counts as a fine way to spend an afternoon. While I’m fully aware I’m months late on its release, I only recently found the installer here on my work laptop (some past client of mine is looking through their network logs and now thinks I’m a weaboo) and ran through it a few times.
DTIPBIJAYS (oh, and we were so close to an acronym about the hygiene of bisexual blue jays!) is a Japanese-style “visual novel” distributed as a free Win/Mac/Linux download, built on the Ren’Py engine and licensed under Creative Commons. In it, you play a man who, racked by insecurities, his second divorce, and various mid-life crises, decides that OF COURSE being in charge of impressionable youth is the best thing for him, and takes a job teaching literature at a local high school. On your school-issued mobile computer that all faculty and students receive, you can not only view your students’ public social-network posts but, unbeknownst to them, their private messages as well. In other words, you can be having a conversation with two characters while also seeing the private messages they are sending one another as well as those to separate friends ABOUT each other. It’s presented very attractively, with alpha-blended graphics and a minimal interface laid atop professional-grade manga character art. The music is passable and doesn’t distract from the experience, but if you mute it, I promise not to tell anyone. Character dialogue is colorful, expressive and of higher quality than one normally sees in a free product, even if it often swings into swaths of annoying-because-teens-using-internet-slang-is-annoying and annoying-because-the-author-can’t-quite-find-the-voice-of-straight-male-characters.
If you’re into this sort of interactive fiction, and also the type that doesn’t want to hear anything about the underlying themes before trying it, go ahead and play it first. I’ll wait.
There we are. What I keep hearing is that this game is a “spiritual successor” to her previous game Digital: A Love Story, but all that really means to me is that the primary interface with the game is through a fictionalized computer system and that completing either leaves you with a powerful but peculiar mix of feelings including loss, vicarious excitement, and flat-out nostalgia. Well, if high-school drama is something you get nostalgic about, anyhow. I did truly enjoy both experiences, and I think ‘experience’ really is a better word than ‘game’, especially when DTIPBIJAYS basically ends with the curtain closing and Puck coming onstage to shout “It’s a question about the value or lack thereof of privacy!” to those few players who might not have gotten it beforehand. Along the way to developing those large-scale feelings about the way that people interact, I did mildly connect with the characters and mildly enjoy directing the few relationships that I could, but what really struck me was the multi-dimensional storytelling.
As I stated before, you can at any time, even between your character’s sentences, choose to read your students’ private posts and messages as soon as they happen, and this immediacy makes it a bit like reading their thoughts directly out of cartoon thought bubbles hanging over their heads. You know which ones have a crush on you, and you can choose whether or not to call on students who are goofing around online instead of paying attention. These sorts of classroom interactions, along with the “passing notes in class” feel of the messages and the idea of pranking a teacher, makes the structure of the narrative feel very approachable, while simultaneously crafting her dialogue in such a way as to make it feel a bit immature and foreign to people of my particular age, old enough to be plugged into these networks but having learned to communicate before their arrival. It truly demonstrates, especially when the anonymous imageboard intermissions are thrown in, how you can feel somewhat disconnected from people while technology makes you all equals, and closer than ever before.
The use of “12chan” (which, haha whoops, was actually a thing) as a Greek Chorus is a novel-by-way-of-retro move that I like due to its contrast with the hyper-modern structure of the story, and it truly drives home the idea that everything happening around you all the time is happening in layers, of which the average person only is privy to the superficial one. There’s the private side of an interpersonal dispute, the public face that’s put on it, the extended gossip of which it is the subject, and in this case, commentary directed at you, the voyeuristic player. Finally, I have to give credit to Love for crafting a true carrot-and-stick that builds even another outer layer onto the concept; In order to retrieve the password protecting a girls’ sexty pictures emailed to her lover, you the player have to remove your cloak as John Rook, protagonist, in order to leave the app and find it online. In other words, it’s no longer just John Rook who’s invading people’s private chats just because they happen to be laid out before him, it’s now you the player that’s doing the same, and going out of your way to do so.
Alright, I’ve ranted on for a thousand words, so I should get to the negative bits. I’m willing to put aside how annoying some of the dialogue from the students is because I think that, like a very mild version of A Clockwork Orange, it’s intended to be a tool to create separation between teacher and student. I’m even willing to put aside the wishy-washy and unlikeable nature of the main character because again, it might be missing the point to get hung up on him and not the focus on the communications revolution that the internet has brought, and how the way we interact with that technology that’s changing how we interact with one another. And on that note, I wish there was a much bigger visual distinction between those in-game posts that appear on a student’s public wall and those that are private messages to truly help exemplify the “sliding scale” of privacy. To treat those that a teacher might ostensibly see without invading anything so closely as the truly voyeuristic ones undercuts the moral of the story, that privacy is a gradient rather than a toggle.
Perhaps this is an unfair criticism (though I see I’m not alone in offering it), but I think that the presentation of this story as a manga-style visual novel, while generally pleasant, actually detracts from the emotional punch the author hopes to deliver. The idea of a student-teacher relationship doesn’t squick one out when quite a lot of (ahem) adult-oriented VNs deliver much more graphic versions of the same without batting an eye. I also think that it helps John Rook seem more of an empty shell of a person, given that many of these VNs feature a faceless, hollow protagonist explicitly so the player can substitute themselves as the lead; how can we truly respect a story about interpersonal relationships when our POV character seems so muddled? Finally, the big one. The emotional weight of anything that happens, either in the subtext of voyeurism or in the plot itself (and really, I’m sorry, but I didn’t buy the shinigami angle in the slightest), is totally undercut at the very end when the characters basically ask you to not take everything so seriously. When the characters quite literally say, “oh hey bee-tee-dubs, it was all a comic farce,” it forces you to introspect upon the feelings you’ve been having, but only for a second before you wonder if any of it meant anything. LOL U MAD?
Even despite these holes, I give the author high marks for what she’s accomplished and eagerly hope to read her further works. I genuinely think that the whole experience of writing, publishing, and gaining feedback on this game has given her ample ammunition for next time. See, now I’m about to make this review meta as well! If you head on over to her blog, you’ll see that she’s very open about her own feelings on the work as well as accepting of and responsive to that of the public, and the true “conversation” about the topics at hand that’s started in the game immediately and seamlessly bleed over onto real-life social networks.
(Important Note: I don’t agree, but found it hilarious when Christine Love claimed no review could surpass this one. Given the “internet culture” on display throughout the game, there’s a sort of backhanded logic to that statement.)
So, really, go download the game if you’re into this sort of fiction and didn’t do so many months ago. Now begins the part where I worry about Ms. Love’s Google Alerts picking up this post and she tweets unkind things at me. I MUST NOT FEAR. FEAR IS THE MIND-KILLER.
No, this site hasn’t been hacked (yet). It’s just that if one were to tag-cloud ANY trip to Las Vegas based on frequency, that phrase would be the big one in the center. If you’re not aware, prostitution is legal in Nevada, and one of the low-pay jobs that rounds out the local economy are for the poppers; typically Latino men, who pop the ladies’ cards against their wrists before handing them out more aggressively than any religious tract I’ve ever seen. (TAKE NOTE, random minister who somehow got to this blog: Hire latinos for next-to-nothing instead of the listless bored teens in your youth group!) I do believe many of them were amused to see me decline only to have Amanda greedily take the cards. I think she and Stephen were battling to see who could amass the best Triple Triad deck. Of whores.
I flew there on FF miles in order to meet Amanda en-route on her countryside climbing trip so we could celebrate a whole year of being married to that wonderful lady, but because ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’, I will only mention a few highlights which I heartily recommend to others who are visiting in the near future.
THING THE FIRST: “ABSINTHE” AT CAESAR’S PALACE
Lest you think the vegas-show shark has been encircled underwater and then RE-JUMPED by Cirque Du Soleil’s “Viva Elvis” and “Criss Angel Believe” shows, let me tell you that sexy burlesquey acrobatics is still alive. Because the tagline that the show’s producers so dearly love is the one from a review, “Cirque Du Soleil Filtered Through Rocky Horror Picture Show,” I actually mistakenly believed this to be a CDS production and that they were merely bucking the trend by not being horrendously expensive, in a very well-designed intimate venue, and a fucking awesome event. Let me first go ahead and say: Nobody at Caesar’s will know what the hell you’re talking about. Not the parking guys, not the Colosseum box office (where I mistakenly thought it was playing), not anybody, because it actually takes place in their Spiegelworld biergarten, right off the strip. Quirkily decorated with a trashy-belle-epoque flair, it abounds with dark woods and constructed chandeliers in the open air. If you arrive early and want something more active than just drinking at a bar, try out their “Dom Pong,” which is just your regular run-of-the-mill beer-pong-played-with-fine-champagne, at $600 per game. After the show, you can access the VIP area by entering the green phone booth, which opens as a secret door after you phone in. But Vegas has enough glitzy expensive shit, so allow me to digress about the show itself.
‘Absinthe’ takes place in a smallish tent that fell through a Moulin Rouge time portal and centers on a tiny stage fully in the round that gives you quite a good chance to get kicked in the face by an acrobat if that’s the sort of thing you’re into. Coupled with the fact that we were shoulder to shoulder in homey wicker chairs, I got a bit self conscious that we hadn’t gotten off the walls at Red Rock Canyon soon enough to get a shower. The opening number, a chair stacking gig that led into a song by the beauteous Green Fairy herself, helped those sitting around us to be as mesmerized as we were. I’d describe the characters’ between-scene banter as stupid-humor delivered smartly, and there was a fun striptease or two tucked in, but the real takeaway here are the (usually foreign-born, usually unspeaking) acrobats. The tightrope group (yes, they managed to squeeze in a small tightrope into the tent) manages to have a fella balance on a chair, that’s balancing on a single horizontal bar, that’s balanced on two other fellas, that are balancing on the tightrope as well as pull off a keg-stand on a tightrope. A lady does an interesting variation on a silks act by having her feet tied to the master point above by separate lines, two burly Ivan Drago clones balance trapezius-to-trapezius without hands, and in my personal favorite, a roller-skating couple does some of the most legitimately dangerous work I can imagine given the surroundings.
In fact, I almost hesitate to post a video of this act, because the video does not begin to give the impression of speed and proximity that one gets in real life. Since the show is general-admission, perhaps we just had better seats than the person filming this. C’est la vie!
THING THE SECOND: RED ROCK CANYON
It would seem I’m going backward in time, but I figured more of you were into sexy death-defying people than rocks. The reason Amanda was out there in the first place, actually, but let me say that it’s beautiful in that sparse, austere desert way and a great place to climb if you can find the damned routes. Everything’s run out, Everything seems to be either terribly hard or too easy to enjoy, and yet getting to the top of a multipitch route and seeing the Vegas Strip glistening in the shimmering heat down below makes it all worthwhile. It’s a nice area that allows for scenic views and hiking as well as climbing, and offers areas with approaches ranging between 5 and 90 minutes. The guidebook’s pretty good, unless you have Stephen trying to find the wall in question. He’s much more likely to spy a bail-biner up on an entirely different wall and try to climb that (a 5.12a) in order to retrieve the booty instead of the 5.9 route we were ostensibly looking for. A funny thing about the area being open to hikers and scenic-viewers is that they seem to enjoy plopping down on the nearest rock and watching you, as if Vertical Limit 2 were unfolding. “I really think what you guys do is awesome,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Sr. told me before spitooning his chaw at a chuckwalla.
I love it when I finally get to experience viscerally something that I mentally knew to be true, and this time that experience was that it can get cold in the desert. Even after reading a near-accident report in which some gumbys got caught after dark with no lighting and no jackets due to slow progression, I thought to myself as I packed my single bag, “Gee, should I even bring long pants?” The answer was yes, because a combination of high-sixties temperature and 20mph-gusting wind kept me on my numb toes for most of the afternoon. However, the route was great fun even if part of that fun came from trying to not drop my Grigi five pitches up due to shivering, blood-starved fingers.
THING THE THIRD: DEL FRISCO’S DOUBLE EAGLE STEAKHOUSE
I actually won’t say so much about this because you can read all about it on Yelp. I will say that their amazing bone-in Wagyu steak, ordered “Just hot enough to melt the marbled fat” is by far enough to convert any vegetarian. It looks like the brontosaurus steak that tips over Fred Flintstone’s car, can easily be split between two diners if you’re feeling slightly less extravagant, and is easily worth the slightly exorbitant price. They do martinis right and even froth up their pineapple-infused vodka in order to give it more body and a better mouthfeel. Because it wouldn’t count as Vegas if it weren’t trashy and overdone in some regard, they also has a robotic “James Bond” table that opens up from the center, displaying custom-etched bottles of wine for each James Bond movie and plays the theme of that film through integrated speakers when you choose one.
BONUS THING: CIGARS APLENTY
I am not enough of a cigar afficianado to speak properly about this, but due to the high-rolling image the city has, there are a few local shops that hand-roll their own stogies from Cuban seed, some huge cigar shops, and as I recall, cigar exhibits in the Bellagio (I think the Riviera no longer has theirs). Probably the most pimp thing one can do in Vegas is to grab a few maduros and stroll through the YESCO Graveyard (yes, the one from Mars Attacks!). Just maybe do it before it becomes an organized tourist activity, now that the Neon Museum is pouring money into old-sign restoration and seeking a return on investment.
All in all, it was a little sumptuous, a little XTREM, and a little unusual. A good end to a good first year of married life. Now I’m just waiting for the Leather Anniversary!
People have been asking me all day today whether I’m happy that Osama Bin Laden was killed. Maybe it’s because my initial comment on the story was ambiguous. It’s a difficult thing to address, because I don’t think I believe that a person can, through immoral actions, remove himself from the moral society. I think that at the most basic level, a person’s life is worth the same as any other’s, even if some deaths are easier to mourn than others. What I’ve really resonated with is the probably-fake quote, attributed to MLK, Jr, even though no one can cite it. “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”
There’s an old story about one of Shakyamuni’s lives before he was reincarnated as The Capital-B Buddha we all know and love. The bodhisattva was acting as a navigator on a sea vessel carrying 500 people, and he knew for a fact (as this comes from the Mahayana school that accepts supernatural elements such as mind reading, not to mention reincarnation) that a certain person on the boat was going to kill all 500 passengers. It was a difficult choice, but he realized that more suffering would be had by not only the 500 victims, but by the murderer as well in the form of negative karma, that he decided to magnanimously take on the negative karma of murdering the future-murderer himself.
In a utilitarian sense, the world is better off without Osama in it, but I think it’s a mistake to not realize that we have committed the (probably) lesser evil in creating it. And if you want to cite applicable MLK, try the following:
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” –from ‘Strength to love’
“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.” –from ‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence’
“You gullible motherfuckers will believe any damn thing you read on the internet if it’s pithy and smugly self-serving.” –from ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail’
Amazon Prime is a lovely thing. For $4, I got to force one of the biggest consumer shippers in the world to pay overnight shipping costs on a 130-lb package. That’s about $650 at the rates you and I would pay. I sincerely doubt Amazon made money on the deal, and that’s a shame because I truly enjoy what the package contained – the capitization minefield that is the BowFlex SelectTech Adjustable Dumbbells (model 552). My good buddy Rick nudged me toward these when I mentioned looking for a deal on the big ugly PowerBlock dumbbells, and I’m highly grateful for it. I highly recommend these dumbbells to people who don’t have regular access to a nearby gym, but want the benefits of using free weights over range-limiting exercise machines.
These bad boys have a single handle per dumbbell that will pick up a number of plastic-coated metal plates out of a base stand, based on the weight selection chosen on a dial on each side. Operation is simple enough — twist the easily-moving dial from 30 pounds, past 35, to 40, and the handle will unhook from a smaller plate before hooking up to a larger one. There’s no magic or electronic trickery here; just a metal ring with ‘teeth’ of differing arc lengths. The width of those teeth will line up with different combinations of weight plates in a fashion almost identical to binary counting. I’m sure I don’t have to explain binary counting to the beautiful and brilliant people who read this blog, but in short, let’s imagine that your thumb counts for one, your pointer finger for two, your index finger for four, your ring finger for eight, etc. To count in this fashion, hold your fist out – zero fingers are up, so that’s zero. Since your thumb counts for one, extend it. Now to count two, put your thumb down but simultaneously put your pointer finger out. Three can be represented as two plus one, so keep your pointer out and take your thumb out as well. The index finger is four, so put away all your fingers except that one. To represent 21, one would simply have out their 16 finger (the pinky), their 4 finger (the index), and their 1 finger (the thumb). Easy, right? Well, the SelectTech dumbbells work in the same way. The handles weigh five pounds, so selecting “5” on the dial means the handle will attach to zero plates. Spin it up to 40, and the metal teeth in the handle will cause it to grab the heaviest plate that will fit into the total weight, followed by the next heaviest that will fit into the new, reduced “total” weight.
The mathematic satisfaction of the device is all well and good, but is all this spinning metal safe? Having used them for nearly a year now, I give it my full confidence. The other important feature of the metal teeth on the handle’s main wheel is that in addition to handle-facing attachment points on the plates themselves, there are also base-facing attachment points in between. In other words, the handle cannot be removed from the base if one or both dials is not fully clicked into place. Regarding that click, I should state that I’m virtually never confused as to whether the weight is set properly, as there is clear auditory and tactile feedback as you hear the satisfying metallic sound. Even through an unreasonable amount of effort, I haven’t been able to detach a plate from the handle when locked into place, nor remove the handle from the base when not locked into place. If you try, you’ll instead lift the whole 55-pound assembly of the handle, all the plates, and the entire base. I’ve used these for standing, lying, swinging, static and isometric exercises and never have they felt insecure. This is important when you have cats that are very inquisitive about things dangerous to them.
Lest you think I’m mindlessly praising the product, rest assured I have a very few minor quibbles. Because of the demands of the mechanism therein, and the need for clearance room between multiple, plastic-coated plates, the dumbbells are pretty large, and there are a few exercises where this becomes a not-insurmountable issue (think upright rows if you have a narrow frame). This large size also means that naturally the weight doesn’t feel quite as dense and solid as single drop-forged blocks of metal, but isn’t that a fair trade for only needing to have one set? Finally, in my one largest criticism, I would actually suggest that owners of these dumbbells not use them on their maximum setting (52 or 90 pounds, as appropriate); this is because the unused plates still left sitting in the base provide an easy path to ensure that the handle drops down into the proper alignment, and if there are no plates unused, it’s pretty easy to miss by a centimeter. Precision is hard with over 50 pounds in your hand. If you do happen to miss that proper alignment, get ready to spend the next three minutes nudging, thumping, and shaking the entire handle-weight-base assembly, now stuck together for safety, in order to free the dials for proper operation.
In short, I think that 50 pounds per arm is enough for most people on most exercises, and heartily suggest these as a cost-effective, high-value way to bring free weights into your life. The 552 version’s 2.5-pound increment allows multiple people to find the appropriate weight if, for instance, your household contains folks of different strength-training abilities. If you regularly do single-arm exercises of 60 or more pounds, the 1090 version is available to you at greater cost (with fewer newbie-friendly increments), but I also figure that people of this fitness level already have a gym or other system they use.
“The good news is you have choices! The bad news is the choices are Boston Pizza, Pizza Pizza, or Pizza Nova.” The lady at the hotel is one of those tiny mysteries that makes the day worthwhile; she’s got a big nose, but somehow it works with her soft features and huge, expressive eyes to make her adorable in a way I can’t quite describe. Her accent is Canadian-plus-something, that I later learned in that city, could be damn well anything. I’m in Toronto, ON for “Advanced Consulting Excellence Happy Feelings-Of-Success Fun-Times” (or so I recall the name of the course), except I’m distressed to find that I’m not in Toronto at all. I’m in Mississauga in a corporate office park where everything shuts down at 9pm. I order a “Cajun Jambalaya” from Boston Pizza for giggles and return to the surprisingly modern-but-classy cherrywood suite at the hotel. Other surprises of the evening included in-room recycling, quinoa shampoo and amaranth conditioner, and the fact that US Netflix accounts refuse to stream anything north of the 49th.
Though it was first time in Canada, I’ve found that it’s those tiny differences, at times when you’re not expecting any, that seem to make the Canadian experience enjoyable. A culture where they eat crickets and drive jeeps through the savannah? Yawn. But two-dollar coins? Madness, y’all. The hotel lady carefully broke the two-dollar-coin news to me as if informing a kindergarten that the pet goldfish just died because even though I’d already answered her question with “Well, there’s the loonie, the toonie, and the queen’s on ALL OF IT,” what I realized soon enough is that Canadians think we United-Statesians are stupid. To spare us the taxation of our burger-clogged brains the trouble of focusing on anything that doesn’t involve monster trucks, HVAC controls in guest rooms are in Fahrenheit and everyone does the kilometers-to-miles conversion for you. It’s what counts as “Canadian Nice.”
The training itself was a bit blasé. Yes, I’ve had to talk down angry customers before. Yes, I’ve had to resolve conflicts with team members. Yes, yes, yes, blah blah yackity smackity. Our training coordinator is a caring, interesting fellow, but at the end of the day, at least half of my purpose there was to bolster my campaign for promotion. The fact that they took us out curling was just icing on the cake. Curling, as you will know if you’ve ever suffered a bout of insomnia during the Winter Olympics, is the one where you shove 40-pound chunks of Scottish granite (starting at only $500 CAD apiece) down a rink of ice that would be perfectly respectable if a game of hockey were being played on it, while your teammates scrub furiously to supposedly change the qualities of the ice upon which the rock slides. Call me skeptical; I bet it works on quantum wishing or whatever The Secret is based on. Still, it was fun, and there was green beer. I like green beer, because it makes you feel that much worse about your decisions the second time you see it. My ‘Fuck You, Snakes Day’ revelry was also lightened by the realization that Canadians are level-headed enough to allow Cuban products to be sold there. I had a hand-rolled Romeo Y Julieta tubo which was definitely my sort of thing, floral and easy-going, but that single cigar didn’t give me enough data to feel like the clamor and mystique that surrounds forbidden fruit to be quite worth it. I’ll stick with my beefy, spicy triple maduros for the moment and heartily welcome your Cuban suggestions.
I finished my training Friday, only memorable in that the trainer said the same thing about me that he did when I started with the company in 2006: “If RJ doesn’t work out as a programmer, let me know and we can get him into sales!” It probably speaks to my lack of knowledge about Toronto’s transit system that I took a cab, because I exited that cab bleeding out my financial asshole. An older, wiser RJ took the trip back to the airport for 20 times less money in not that much less time. My new hotel, the Toronto Downtowner Inn, is hilarious and hilariously divisive: as it is basically a backpacker hostel, I have to say that it is both one of the worst hotels I’ve ever stayed in, and one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. I’ll leave it at that, and say that probably 95% of people, who crave comfort over adventure, should not stay there. The other five percent will reconsider when they hear college students alternately arguing, partying, screaming, and fistfighting literally the entire night. It felt like being back in the dorms, but I liked the dorms. It’s called March Break, which is what you too would call your Spring Break if there were still huge slushy piles of ice everywhere.
The fun thing about Toronto being 48% ethnic (or so was the figure I got), and being in a bit of a seedy neighborhood is that you can walk into any number of tiny random shops named “TASTY FOOD” (right between “Mombasa Hair” and the “BAR GRILL”, and across from a Tim Horton’s because EVERYTHING in Canada is across from a Tim Horton’s), and be pleasantly surprised with fairly cheap deliciousness, so long as you don’t particularly care going in what type of food it’ll be or which health codes it violates. I’m glad I stayed where I did, and not only because it was a block down from Filmore’s, the home of “Naked Chicks and Hockey Sticks!!” Also in my neighborhood was Smoke’s Poutinerie, which deserves props right then and there for putting the word “poutinerie” in my lexicon. Poutine, you may know, is a damn mess of French fries, gravy, and cheese curds; it’s your own personal heart attack, propped up by (somewhat validated) ideas that grease helps settle your stomach after a night of drinking. I recommend the traditional poutine there, but why not toss a little onion, bacon and mushroom in as well? Oh, there goes my indomitable American viewpoint, steamrolling over a beautiful native culture.
I decided the best thing to do after choking down my hot mess was, naturally, to run a few miles and drink a bunch more, and therein figures the Hogtown Hash Harriers, keeping the dream alive in the frozen wastes. Toronto actually has a pretty traditional hash (in addition to their coed runs, they have men’s and women’s hashes), skewing small and older. The trail was mostly neighborhood and FILLED WITH CHECKS such that sometimes you wouldn’t even get a third mark off the previous check before reaching ANOTHER CHECK. It’s a problem when they don’t use flour and ergo, there’s nothing to kick. My feelings on the trail were somewhere between maze-rat and Pacman, but I came in FRB (that’s worth 1.1 American FRBs) and made friends by declaring things in circle like “Fuck the queen, fuck the Mounties, and fuck your… softwood lumber!” It’s how you build bonds, and the good news is that several of the hashers there plan to come to InterAmericas in October.
There at the hash, I could finally get a straight answer to the very first question that popped into my mind when I heard Canada stopped printing $1 bills. No, not about the monetary policy, but rather: How the hell do strip clubs work? I’m told that out west, people like to fling coins at dancers of either gender with the express intention of hitting them in the genitals, but that in most places, it’s up to the dancer to decide how to work with that (if they don’t think they’re worth $5 bills, I suppose). The best of these was that the lady on stage rolled up a poster of herself into a funnel, stuck the small end of the funnel into her vagina, and had the patrons fling their loonies and toonies into the funnel, in a bizarre, hilarious, pornographic reimagining of Bozo the Clown’s Grand Prize Game. The clubs also perpetrate another volley in the war of Cold As Weapon: the advertised cover charge may only be $5, but there’s a mandatory $10 coat-check fee.
There was touristy stuff, too, naturally, so let’s get a rundown:
What I really took away from Toronto in general, is how lively the streets seem due to the huge pedestrian traffic. This enables other ways of interacting, like walk-up windows that help a city in my opinion to feel more like a city and less like a tightly packed suburb. Toronto also uses this to take a whole city block, complete with original buildings, and drop a super-building on top of it. It’s very stealth-mall, but it helps to duck through a block instead of walking around it. From the outside, though, it retains that city feel which I prefer to Buckhead’s towering palaces of consumption. So there you go; I’m now a tiny bit sad to be back in no-transit, no-street-life Atlanta, even though it’s home and full of awesome people. So let’s get out there and make this city as awesome as any other, eh?
It’s Saturday night, and I’m far from the internet, from most of my friends, and from even the barest hint cell phone service. I’m swatting nocturnal insects at a picnic table in a field in backwoods Kentucky. To one side a few people are playing cards, and to the other, people are walking a stretchy rope drawn between two trees. Aside from a few Fat Tires, this is just about the equivalent of an Amish barn-raising party, but I’m loving every moment of it. The place is Miguel’s Pizza at the Red River Gorge, epicenter of sport climbing in much of the south.
The drive up to Kentucky was only six hours — relatively short when you think of all the Wisconsin tags at Miguel’s — but stressful and more than a little dull. Tennessee is the evil man, you see, and I’m the righteous man, and Mr. Large Can of Red Bull, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. I blew out far too much of my phone’s battery on amusement and women, but this turned out to be a non-issue considering how little service I got out there. Finally arriving at the pizza/climbing-gear shop with the creepy-as-fuck logo, we decided to grab a slice and an what I naively hoped to be cheap beer. Ale-8-1 (read: “A Late One”) is from about a hundred years old, and tastes every second of it. Imagine a sweeter-than-sweet ginger ale that makes you want to break out the steamboat and oppress some coolies. It is legend in these parts, spilled propitiously on the pagan altars to thundering horse-gods in this part of Kentucky, and nowhere else that I’ve ever seen. Its devotees are so fiendish for it that the bottler was able to make a deal with the US Postal Service to allow it to be shipped to soldiers overseas.
One restless and nearly-dew-drenched night later, we were up with the sun. Maybe before the sun, depending on the time zone. Took us a few days to figure out if Kentucky was Eastern or Central, and nature wouldn’t cooperate with our Bear Grylls-esque super-woodsy time-telling techniques because of the torrential misty dew downpour every night and morning. We trudged down into Miur Valley, an odd mix of exhausted and cold and excited, to hit up a few walls. Miur Valley has the best warning signs in the world, because they helpfully remind you that not only will these rocks probably kill your dumb ass, the owners don’t, won’t, and in fact could not possibly begin to care. They very helpfully list out every natural feature or bolt or safety gear that can break, and how nobody does or could even rate the rocks or bolts for security. The fog burned off and didn’t affect the beautiful corbin sandstone nearly so much as the everpresent…. you know… sand. Tiny windblown quartz sands stuck to everything, most especially those things upon which you were hoping to gain friction. Nice assortment of many different holds – crimpers, jugs, a chickenhead here and there, and the occasional hueco-cum-cave. Best route name: Tie between “Buddhalicious” and “Beware of Bear,” even though we never saw the bear. Or knew they could climb 10b.
They sell Fat Tire in cans in Knoxville, as we found when we stopped for ice, and the abundance of said elixir is probably why I don’t remember much of Saturday night. Miguel’s is a constant cross between hobo-camp and dorm-party. With water balloons, because it’s a high-tech place, after all. Though I’m the slackline equivalent of a waddling, clumsy baby duckling, I’ve since found myself scouting trees around our apartment that are about the right length apart.
The next day we went out to Military Wall and Left Flank where a group of gorge-experienced climbers were taking their friend out for his very first climb. None of them had ever been in a gym, but with 2000 routes in their backyard, I’d be ashamed to admit they’d ever have a need for one. Their technique was dead-on pumpy aggression, and my few suggestions to the newbie on how to keep his feet under him or properly work the rock’s features were met with mildly disgusted blank stares. Just under the route Mr. Bungle, we were variously excited and horrified to find that there was an active copperhead nest, with two active copperheads. One escaped, but the other was trying to cuddle up in the rednecks’ backpack and was beaten to death with a rock for its effort. At least neither was able to bite one of the children and small dogs around.
Probably the highlight of the trip was a very tall 5.10a climb at the end of the wall called “To Defy The Laws of Tradition,” widely known as a great first-10 to bag, and chalked more heavily than any gym route I’ve ever seen. Coming at the end of a second day of climbing, we were happy to have our rope taken up by a friendly lead-climber so we could project it without taking too many whippers. A funny thing happens to you at a certain point on that and similar routes; after feeling perfectly fine and making smooth moves, you suddenly feel blown to all hell before looking down to realize, “gee, I’m just as high now as the walls at Atlanta Rocks!” A few rests, and one minor bit of belay-cheating at the crux, and we all felt pretty proud of making it to the top, even if it wasn’t clean or on lead. Best route name: “Rectal Excorcism.”
Sunday took us out to the imaginatively-named “Roadside Crag,” which appears to my naive eyes a minor geological marvel: caves, waterfalls, huge arching 5.13 mono-filled death marches, and more than a few four-star climbs. I believe it was here that Amanda said I’m beginning to develop a climbing style, which amuses me to no end. You’ll all be shocked to hear that said style is best described as methodical and emotionless. Best route name: “Milkin’ the Chicken.”
The less that’s said about this rock, the better, because Amanda took a nasty fall here and the only good thing about it is that a probably-trained and definitely-cute fellow climber had diagnosed the sprain and popped a cold-compress before we even lowered her to the deck. Kyle and I carried her down the crag, and while such carrying is quick and awesome-looking when you do it to a teammate for 50 yards, it’s significantly less so for a half mile or so, across minor boulder fields, inclines and caves. Didn’t even get thanked for it! =P
It’s come to my attention that some people think I’m a wishy-washy douchebag. More than usual, that is. It’s because I’ve been trying as of late to dedicate myself a bit more to the philosophy of life that I’ve found appealing for the last year or so, or as some have said, “talking about that Middle Way Buddha shit”. I figure the best way to approach this problem is the way that I approach ALL problems: by bloviating wildly. I really will try to keep this on-track and pithy as possible since I’m quite sure I’ve lost some of you already.
So there’s this guy, right? (All great spiritual sagas start this way.) His name was Siddhartha Gautama. He’s so important, both of his names are in MS Word’s spell checker. He was the prince of the Shakya nation in Kapilvastu (in modern-day Nepal), and the legend goes that at his birth, the fortune teller got conflicting visions and couldn’t tell whether the new prince would be a great leader or a penniless, wandering monk. That bit sounds mythical enough to be added after the fact, but what is known is that the king’s desire that his son should also grow up to be a great king caused him to completely hide all negative aspects of life from Siddhartha. Ol’ Sidd had three palaces to himself and never came into contact with disease or death until he was 29. On a trip outside the palace, he just so happened to see a sick man, an old man, and a dying man all on the same day. He fled his father’s palace in the night and spent the next six years as a wandering ascetic, meditating on the existence of suffering in the world until at the age of 35, he is said to have achieved total enlightenment. How much or little magical importance is attached to the concept of “total enlightenment” is debated in the various traditions, but the important fact remains that it was then that he formulated the basis of the Middle Way of Buddhist thinking, traditionally called the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path. There are lots of lists like the Five Hindrances, the Five Virtues and so on, but it’s really not important at all to know these for the purposes of this discussion.
A word on suffering. The idea here isn’t that sentient beings get sick and die, but that above and beyond the literal physical experiences that we perceive, there is a layer of mental experiences that we build on top of it. In fact, this idea of a separate mental environment is the core of Buddhism and why Buddhism should properly be called a science of mind rather than a religion. The second reason is that I like this idea, and I’ll be goddamned if word gets out that I’m religious. Here’s the classic analogy: Let’s say you’re walking your dog out through a wooded area at night when all of a sudden, you see in the bushes, a SNAAAAAAAKE! Ohhh, it’s a SNAAAKE. So you do whatever your natural reaction is; maybe that’s running, pulling back on the leash, looking for a stick to beat it with. And a few seconds into this natural reaction, you realize that the thing you saw wasn’t actually a snake but an old discarded bit of rope. The snake did in fact exist, but it only existed in your mind, because your perception was clouded by darkness and underbrush. With perfectly clear perception, the snake would not have existed and Buddhists believe that with perfectly clear perception, suffering will not exist in the mind even if bad things happen to the body that you identify with.
So, perfectly clear perception. Awesome. Let’s banish our greed, hatred, and delusion. How do we do that again? Aside from following a very few non-dogmatic ethical precepts (which basically amount to “don’t kill, steal, lie, or rape”), the answer is to develop awareness and compassion. Mental awareness is really a lot like gaining an appreciation for wine (or scotch, or what have you); at first, you may only be able to coarsely feel pleasantness vs. unpleasantness, but with practice, you gain a finer sensitivity for the specific characteristics of your experience, and a vocabulary to name the things you’re feeling. There are lots of kinds of meditation, but the most basic and common is to simply sit in a comfortable position, close one’s eyes, and focus on one’s breathing. By keeping the attention with the breath, feeling the physical sensations of air against the nose, throat, and lungs, and of your chest rising, it is eventually possible to let conscious thought fall away. This can take awhile, but with this respite from conscious thought, it’s much easier to gain a physical awareness for the processes and sensations occurring in your body. A sensation arises, and you note its existence without dwelling on it, and gradually gain sensitivity not only to physical sensations, but to mental ones and emotional ones. The general idea is that, when you understand the subtlest aspects of your own environment, you will also start to understand how the mental and emotional states you create are caused by the external phenomena in the world, and that this second type of awareness will cause you to make wiser choices and have better reactions. It’s a workout regimen for the mind.
The Buddha (and now all of you due to my excellent writing skills) believed that this mindfulness allows a person to see that for every experience, pleasant or not, the human mind attempts to either cling to it, or push it away. Speaking clinically, the sort of compulsive reactions he’s describing could be described as addiction and phobia, respectively, and show that the mind is in some small way trying to deny the reality of existence, to wish that reality were other than it actually is. This isn’t to say that we aren’t allowed happiness or that we shouldn’t seek out happiness; in fact, Buddhism expressly seeks happiness for all beings including you-yes-you, unlike a lot of dogmatic “give of yourself and suffer to earn your eternal reward” religions. The big difference is that you shouldn’t deny the current moment, or miss it altogether, because you’re too busy remembering past experiences or anticipating future ones. That’s mindfulness in a nutshell, really – the belief that there’s only a present, and that everything that anybody ever did, they did in the present. Anyone who numbs themselves to the experience of the present moment isn’t really living at all.
Oh, fuck me. I just boiled thousands of years of sublime and beautiful mental philosophy into a god-forsaken greeting card line.
ADDENDUM: What about reincarnation?
Unlike some other religions, the Buddha was expressly disinterested in metaphysics and cosmology. He never supposed the existence of a particular, uniquely-identifiable “self” like a soul, but did attach somewhat to views of rebirth similar to the views that were popular in India and Nepal at the time in stating that life forms arising later are dependent upon the karma that you and other current beings create. This isn’t really any more controversial than saying that all of one’s actions have far reaching and possibly unidentifiable results a la the butterfly effect, but was seized upon by many early Mahayana Buddhists as a spiritual, magical framework upon which to hang ideas about heavens and hells. Luckily, monks like Buddhadasa (who is absolutely NOT in Microsoft’s dictionary) have rejected the non-materialistic interpretations of these teachings, and it’s equally valid to interpret terms like karma as having a real and even utilitarian explanation. This materialistic view is why it’s possible to be a Buddhist Atheist, or even a Buddhist Christian, in the same way one can be a Democratic Dentist. So there.
Amanda’s a college student again, and I’ll be damned if I let an excuse to have a Spring Break pass me by. Upon her suggestion, we decided to pick up where we left off at our eight-day hike of the Georgia Appalachian Trail and see if we can’t run across any… tar… or whatever else North Carolina is famous for. With these visions of glory in our minds, we set off. If by “set off” you mean, see snow in the forecast and decide instead to frolic madly in a snowy Piedmont Park, then gorge ourselves on $1 beers and $5 buckets of oysters at Park Tavern. Then we set off, except for really reals.
What you’ll notice about North Carolina the first time you see a topographical map of it is that it’s pretty smooth the whole way across except for its western border, dripping in chunky little mountains. Those would be the Appalachian Mountains, formerly the tallest in the world, and exactly where our walk took us. I was a bit apprehensive; the cold weather raised my pack weight up to 35 pounds, we were only bringing our ultralight single-wall tent, and the sort of people you can meet in the state’s backwoods are downright terrifying to someone like me who got a real purty mouth.
Parking at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, by the gorgeous, shallow, and relatively tame Nantahala River, put me in the perfect mood to go on a kayaking trip, and letting thousands of gallons of water gently propel you through the valley seemed an infinitely better idea than trudging up and down mountains on only two of my four meatsticks, but just as soon as I lost myself in that reverie, I was greeted by our shuttle to the south: the absolute best conversion van the 1970′s had to offer, and one Ron Haven.
Ron Haven is a figure that looms large in Franklin, NC and over the 50 miles of AT surrounding it in either direction. Even though he looks like the bastard lovechild of Ron Jeremy and Jed Clampett, Ron is the most disarmingly charming man you’ll ever meet, so long as you’re agreeing to attend his FREE Hiker Bash and pay the required $10-per-person-per-day donation. As best as I can tell, his Hiker Bash is to be just like the ATC’s annual Trail Days festival, but smaller, with less things to do, and directly profiting Ron, but I’m sure I’m being cynical. He’s really just putting it on because he loves Franklin, NC. He has to – he owns most of it. That’s right, owning over 100 properties in town (and hundreds more across the country), Ron’s come back to Franklin to drive his crusty van between his hotels and trailheads, and to re-popularize the second-person plural “you’uns.” He’s apparently lived a Forrest Gump-esque life of intrigue and adventure, but nobody calls him on the truthfulness of his stories because they tend to be amusing. “Did you know that the US Government is based after the Cherokee tribal councils?” he’d ask us, after regaling us with tales of how 1920′s moonshiners used to mutilate and burn revenuers alive as a warning. “Well, no, Great Britain had had a bicameral parliament and tribunals of judges for over a hundred years by the time–” you might be thinking, but before you even think of finishing such a heretical thought, Ron desperately needs to know if you know the native language word for ‘mountain.’ Because he does, and it’s important for you to know too.
$60 lighter, and with the smell of the Haven Budget Inn smashed into our clothes, we began our hike in a gap filled with ice needles. Ice needles (related to and sometimes confused with ice flowers) are probably common in colder areas, but this was the first time I’d ever seen them; they’re patches of hundreds of filament-like (and sometimes dagger-like) upward pointing strands of ice, and rather fatiguing to one’s feet to walk on all day. Worse if you’re a dog. Many of them were quite beautiful, but you’d never know that from seeing my pictures because the batteries we thought were fresh were actually nearly dead, and gave us only about three shots before giving up the ghost. It was a unique experience and somehow refreshing for me to hike over the frozen streams that ran across (and sometimes along) the trail, often with tiny air bubbles slipping downstream like migrating fish through the water below, and to plow through the five-inch-deep snowdrifts that built up in the bends. What you may already know if you are of a more northerly persuasion than I is that, with the sun so low in the sky during winter, only the equator-facing sides of mountains tend to melt their snow, so a hike like this gives you a multitude of opportunities to turn a corner from a sunny, dry side of a valley into a fresh white frozen ramp of snow, howling winds pervading.
Monday and Tuesday nights were probably two of the coldest nights I’ve ever had the misfortune of spending outside a real house. Monday’s low dropped to three degrees Fahrenheit, and Tuesdays was a comparatively-miraculous fifteen. The shelters along the AT (spaced every 8-10 miles so that slower hikers can reach one per day, and faster hikers can reach two) are typically three-sided mouse-infested lean-tos made of logs, and the ones in NC are no different. If it helps describe how cold I felt, I couldn’t even read the book I’d brought. I’ve never been so cold I couldn’t concentrate or move my eyes slightly side to side, so instead the entertainment of the evening was to alternately remove each glove so I could shove a numb hand into my armpit to restore feeling to my fingers. With the appropriate gear, I made it through the night in better shape than I’d expected, only awoken twice by mice chewing on my pack.
Wednesday was a bit warmer, as if trying to tell Georgia State that their Spring Break was too early, and the hike was a bit more pleasant. It’s important to note that, in the cold, sweating is the worst thing you can do. As soon as you stop moving, or as soon as you descend into a windy valley, that sweat will cool you down far too much and can possibly trigger hypothermia. It’s therefore important to notice when you’re about to start sweating and remove a layer of clothing, regardless of how cold you are. This would explain why you’d have seen me standing in the snow Wednesday, still frigid, in my underwear, removing my lower base layer, an action that is as singularly depressing as any I’ve ever done. Wednesday ended well, though, because as we neared our destination, we were visited by the heavenly host.
Trail angels, as they style themselves, are typically retired middle-class caucasians who have nothing better to do with their time and money than feed and shelter hikers. The 70-pound expedition-class 12-person tent with stove that we came across in the woods belonged to one such fella named Apple, who lives in the woods full-time for a month or two out of the year catering to northbound through-hikers. Apple, who is really one of the nicest and most dedicated people I’ve met in awhile, goes by his trail name. Trail names are one of the more interesting facets of a through-hiker’s life, because among a self-selecting crowd of people who think it’s a good idea to walk 2200 miles across the country (and sometimes right back to the start), you are not memorable. You have to have a clever call sign for people to remember you by, so it’s considered good form to do things that are really embarrassing or stupid so that others can give you one. You really want to do this, because if you don’t, you’ll be forced to come up with your own, and if my experience is telling, that leaves you with a 90% chance of calling yourself “Lone Wolf.” By the time showering once a week becomes natural to you, it’s not much further to get used to calling people Booger and Tatanka with a straight face. That night, we stayed with a representative sample of hikers, which is to say 19 year olds and retired pensioners, but at least this time we had 1/3000″ of plastic between us and the elements, and the residual heat of a stove to dry out our socks.
The highlight of my time in the angel’s tent was definitely the moonshine. Tatanka has been hiking the trail on-and-off for 30 years and apparently knows everyone. He’s prototyping tents and gear for a few designers, is good friends with Miss Janet (legendary for running a hiker hostel in Erwin, TN, but recently brought into the Havensphere to run one in Franklin, NC for Ron), and knows most of the good moonshiners in the South. “Good moonshine” would have been an oxymoron to me until the thermosfull he brought to the angel’s tent, because most of the gustatory abortions I’ve had in the past wouldn’t have passed muster in a prison, but apparently the cream of the crop have been perfecting and jealously protecting their recipes for decades. The shine he brought had a bit of a delicate floral aroma like sake, and similarly had a taste that was simultaneously complex but not strong. Extremely smooth, A bit herbacious, with very light citrus notes, I enjoyed it neat and felt it was wasted in coffee. Having less burn than cheap tequila, a lighter body and significantly better mouthfeel than vodka, with a better finish than many scotches I’ve had, I’d easily add this to my liquor cabinet if I could find it again.
Tearfully leaving Apple and his horde of Resse’s cups, we had to beat feet to make up the mileage we’d lost on Wednesday by stopping early, and so we did. The highlight of the day Thursday was the watchtower on Wesser Bald, from which you could see at least 40 miles, and three forest fires that we later found were controlled burns. Even to someone like myself without a strong affinity for nature, it’s depressing to see a large swath of smoke rising from the forest, but seeing all the way up to the Smokies was worth it. Here is where you see the reason for the weather changes every 20 minutes, because of the ridges of hills that run into a single main ridge of each mountain. At the risk of making you hate me, the topography of the mountains looks rather like that of Kalimdor’s Barrens, but with more trees and less dinosaurs. Most of the day Thursday was a controlled fall into the Nantahala Gorge, sometimes requiring jumps down piles of boulders along a narrow ledge walkway. My knee didn’t appreciate this, but my other alternative was to be one of the people every year who call 911 to pick them up in a helicopter because they don’t want to walk down a mountain.
About four hours, or 40 cc’s of fluid in my knee, later, we found ourselves back at the NOC, still drooling over their nice selection of creek boats and playboats. Drooling was all we could do, because the NOC’s beautiful scenery and perfect location has you by the short and curlies, and they know it. They won’t stay open for a second longer than they have to, won’t stop shutting down the register if a famished hiker walks through the door, and generally won’t give you the time of day unless you’re meaningfully contributing to their bottom line. To spite them, we chose not to eat at their restarant (slightly famous for their “Sherpa,” a bachelor-chow mix of rice, beans, cheese, and whatever else is in the fridge that day), and drove defiantly to a Taco Bell instead. After all, my calculations had me at a 5,000 calorie deficit for the week, and I never let the opportunity for a guilt-free Grilled Stuft Burrito pass me by.