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In Board Games, Seattle, Travel, Video Games on August 31, 2011 at 4:42 pm

PAX is, bar none, the best convention I have ever been to.

Granted, I don’t have that much experience with cons. I’ve been to Seattle’s Emerald City ComiCon and once went to a Star Wars con in Japan. I’ve also turned up at several geeky gatherings in Portland, but I’ve never really traveled with the sole intent of going to a convention. Until now, of course. It was entirely worth it.

Being able to go at all was something like winning the geek lottery- PAX had long been sold out, and it was by pure fortuitous chance that I was able to get a three day pass at face value. Pass in hand, I made my way up I-5 with the photographer extraordinaire Sarah Giffrow and two other lovely Portland geeks.

Day One: I Am Surrounded By Shiny Stuff and Don’t Know What to Do

Upon arriving at the Washington State Convention Center, I had only a vague idea about what was going on. I knew that there were panels, exhibits, and free-play areas but had no coherent idea of how to address them all. I flipped through the schedule and, not really knowing what to do, just wandered into the main exhibition hall.

The hall is probably the most “normal” part of PAX. It’s all exhibits by major game companies promoting various triple-A titles and new releases. The screens are huge, the lines are long, and noise and light pulsate from displays that range in size from big to huge. I don’t really try to stay current with my gaming habits (the last game that I got really into was the original Dawn of War) so the new releases didn’t hold much interest for me, but the exhibition hall was amusing in an over-the-top sort of way.

Wanting to do something that did not have the volume turned up to 11, Sarah and I attempted to get in line for the Wil Wheaton panel. We thought that we would most assuredly have a spot, given that we were there an hour ahead of time. The line, though, was closed. Wheaton is a popular fellow at these events.

We wandered around the indie games exhibit for a while, and were somewhat amused by a booth promoting a game called Uncle Slam. “It’s like Punch-Out but with presidents.” The game’s concept was amusing enough, but the poor play control got in the way of my enjoyment. For my comments, they gave me a t-shirt.

We ended up playing some Marvel VS Capcom 3 in the console free play area, which I found to be an absolutely wonderful space. PAX goers could sign up to play games on current-generation consoles and stay there as long as they liked. It was a great space to try out new games, and it also served the function of being a place where people could chill out, sit down, and yet still do be doing something PAX-related.

I got a text from a friend of mine, and we ended up joining him and his wife for a panel on indie RPG design. I wasn’t initially excited about it, but it was kind of inspiring to hear self-made creative types talk about what they do. After that, we got some dinner, played some Steve Jackson card games with people, and went to bed. It served as a nice introduction to the whole thing, and the next day I was able to much more coherently enjoy the event.

Day Two: You Will Stand in Line and Like It

One of the main things that I’d wanted to see at PAX was Tycho and Gabe from Penny Arcade actually make a strip in front of an audience. Even though it was one of the first events of the day, I knew it would be popular. I took my place in line in front of the main theater an hour and a half early. My expectation would be that I’d spend most of the time reading, but someone shouted “JOE!” and I ran into someone else from Portland. The line ended up being quite the fun social hangout. People were playing card and dice games, I ended up having a nice chat with some complete strangers, and various PAX volunteers (amusingly known as “enforcers”) kept things interesting by giving us stuff to do. Several of them were handing out pipe cleaners for people to make pipe cleaner art (there were some very magnificent specimens- later on, one woman ended up making a pipe cleaner Sonic Screwdriver), enforcers gave out candy and buttons to people who could answer trivia questions, and several beach balls ended up getting bounced around the crowd. (At one point a beach ball got lodged in a fire escape and had to be rescued by a rather daring gentleman. He was cheered as a hero, and was pretty much our very own Spiderman.)

I appreciated all of this. If participants are going to spend a lot of time in line, then the line might as well be interesting. There was very much a carnival atmosphere in the air, and by the time we all went into the main theater, we were already having lots of fun.

Tycho and Gabe (aka, Jerry and Mike) both have fairly good stage presence, and it was clear that they were quite happy to be in front of their fans. Tycho wrote a comic script in the first few moments of the event, comically pretending to make typos and punctuation errors. For the rest of the event, Gabe’s drawings were projected onto a large screen, and various fans asked them questions.

I found the relationship between the Penny Arcade guys and their fans to be kind of wonderful. Neither of them seemed standoffish or inaccessible, and frequently fans presented them with whimsical gifts such as stuffed animal microbes. It was amazing to watch Gabe/Mike draw. It really is true about skilled people making it look easy. What he was doing looked extraordinarily simple and intuitive, but only because he’s been drawing for years (I guess it’s fair to say that at this point, it’s simple and intuitive to him.)

The whole thing was excellent, and later on I met up with Sarah again to see a live recording of the Acquisitions, Incorporated podcast. It was pretty much the PA guys, Wil Wheaton, and Scott Kurtz all playing D&D, but they were amusing enough to make it a whole lot of fun. Later on I went to a panel all about gaming’s relationship to the LGBT community, and ended the evening playing the Battlestar Galactica board game until about 1:30 in the morning. (The game perfectly captures the paranoia and desperation of the show- I kind of want it now.)

I went to bed immensely satisfied

Day Three: Portland Geek Pride

On day three I wandered about a bit more, played a whole lot of Marvel VS Capcom III and Street Fighter IV, and realized that as much as I like fighting games some guys are just mind-bendingly skilled. I also went to a panel on freelance game journalism, which is relevant to my interest, but none of that is what I want to focus on. No, day three was all about the Omegathon.

The Omegathon is a competition wherein a small number of lucky PAXers are randomly selected to participate in a tournament-style gaming competition. Five rounds precede the finals, and various preliminary rounds can feature games as disparate as Dance Central or Mario Kart.

The final round of the Omegathon acts as a closing ceremonies of sorts for PAX, and one of the players was actually from Portland. Normally I wouldn’t have had any kind of emotional investment in the outcome, but one of the guys was from my general geographic area, and that changed things.

Several Portland geeks crowded near the front of the theater, bumping up against the stage in a manner that reminded me of mosh pits. None of us knew what the final round would consist of- in previous years it had been claw games and ski ball, and is usually something whimsical or weird.

So, we were very surprised when a familiar eight-bit theme started playing. Two televisions were set up side by side, and the final round was to be competitive Legend of Zelda. Whoever got to the first piece of the Triforce the fastest would be the winner.

A large mosh-pit like conglomeration of Portland geeks proceeded to absolutely lose their shit, and shouted various bits of high-volume encouragement at their representative on stage. Including myself. I was utterly emotionally invested in the outcome of this game, solely because one of the guys who was playing was someone I’d seen before at Geek Trivia.

When something like this happens, I sort of mentally prepare myself for disappointment. I try to cope with losing before it happens, which I’m sure is probably unproductive in a lot of ways. There was no need for that here, though. Our boy from Portland actually won, and got himself a trip to the Tokyo Games Show.

I can understand why soccer fanatic feel the way they do. It was exhilarating to be part of a large, cheering group, all of our various enthusiasm bent on one thing.

I went home exhausted, and satisfied, but also sort of wishing that I didn’t have to go back into the real world again. There’s something nice about hanging out with a bunch of like-minded people, and simply playing games together, striking up impromptu conversations, doing things off the cuff with people you’ve never seen before. That can happen in the real world, certainly, but it’s far easier for that to transpire when you know everyone in the vicinity shares something with you. You’re all there for the same thing, and common ground has already been established.

The Idea of Los Angeles, Part Two, Wherein a City is Redeemed in My Eyes

In Los Angeles, Travel on June 22, 2010 at 11:16 am

Hollywood is awful.

Up until I set foot on Hollywood Boulevard, I’d been enjoying my time in L.A. I’d had a fine time at the beautiful, art-filled Getty, and the grandly sleazy Venice Beach. The palm trees, gimmicky as they were, gave the place a recognizable sort of local character, as did the Spanish-inspired hacienda architecture. Other than lacking public transport, L.A. didn’t seem that bad.
Until I got to Hollywood, which was, easily, the single most disappointing tourist experience of my entire life.
Now, I’m all for the whole “be a traveler, not a tourist” type of sojourning. Walking down an unfamiliar street or sitting in an unfamiliar local bar or restaurant can be quite rewarding. One of the things that delighted me about L.A. was just being in a different sort of environment, taking in the buildings, people, and climate. Appreciating the change in latitudes, etc.
But, every so often, I like to have me a good-old-fashioned tourist experience. There is nothing wrong with going to a well-recognized landmark and saying “Woo! There’s the Golden Gate Bridge/Taj Mahal/Statue of Liberty/Big Ben/Great Wall! Wow! I’m actually looking at it right now!”
Mind you, I was warned. “Hollywood is kind of crappy,” said Seph, as we drove there. I assumed as much. I thought that it would be a row of shops and restaurants, and that would be about it. I had low, low expectations, and I was okay with that. Mainly, I was happy to be hanging out with a good friend in a new city.
Hollywood, however, did not meet even my low expectations. The place is an utter shithole. A depressing and despondent stretch of concrete. It is exactly the kind of place where beggars ask for weed instead of change. The shops along the way ply movie memorabilia and stripper boots, all the while bedecked with promotional posters and faded cardboard cutouts of Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood’s suicidal bombshell of a mascot.
The stars on the street are bland and undifferentiated. There is very little separating Jack Palance from, say Larry King. They are cracked and largely uninteresting, and resemble inexpensive headstones more than anything else. Ostensibly I was walking up and down a monument to art and glamor, but I felt nothing. The stars were generic and perfunctory. Even finding one dedicated to one of my heroes didn’t move me particularly much.
Yup, that’s Gene Roddenberry’s star, and that’s my foot on it. I was genuinely attempting to enjoy myself and find something to like about Hollywood, and hoped that Star Trek would fit the bill. I love Star Trek. To me, Star Trek is warm, wonderful, safe, cuddly, and comforting. It is like chicken soup combined with oatmeal, but not in a gross way. Star Trek is like an old friend who knows exactly what to say can totally make you feel better. If I ever have a kitten that gets caught in a blender, I will seek solace in Star Trek. If I ever am enduring a bad acid trip and start believing that the curtains are trying to eat my lungs, I’ll try to calm down with Star Trek. If I ever lose both my earlobes in a freak Cuisinart accident, I’ll try to cheer myself up with Star Trek.
Star Trek, however, didn’t really make Hollywood that much better.
Here’s another Trek-related picture. Again, this is me attempting to have fun.
Unfortunately, despite the pistol-pointing and my jaunty smile, I am not experiencing very much of what can be called “enjoyment.” I’m making a good go of it, though.
That picture, by the way, is right in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Now, it is a very cool looking building. The place is wonderfully distinctive, and I liked that a lot. Something that I think is sort of funny about the theater, though, is that it’s so obviously reminiscent of yellow-peril Orientalism. Now, I’m not going to go all Edward Said on you, but one could definitely imagine Ming the Merciless or Fu Man Chu walking out of the place (not that that wouldn’t be awesome, mind you). I wasn’t in China very long, but the exterior didn’t really match many of the historical buildings I saw there. It seems much more of a “woo-woo exotic East” sort of building, rather than anything built by, say, actual Chinese people.
The building is still a working theater, which I like. Landmarks are especially interesting when they are still actually used by their local communities. The front of the theater, though, is choked by tourists. On several different occasions, a uniformed staff member asked us if we wanted a tour, and we declined. People were constantly snapping pictures of the handprints and footprints in the cement, and the place really was spoiled by its obvious identity as a tourist trap. A nearby tour was a Chinese chapter of Amway who probably came to the States for a convention pertaining to their grand pyramid scheme. People wearing shorts and khakis milled about, and I was sort of embarrassed for the setting. I really, really don’t want to sound like a cliched, snotty, Kerouac-reading backpacker here, but the crowd of tourists really did make things suck.
At the same time, though, I empathized with the people there. I wondered how many of them were having a supremely shitty time of it all, kind of like I was. How many families from Iowa rolled into Hollywood expecting… something? Something significant and at least partially enthusiastic. Something other than a street names less interesting than the cheapest of headstones. How many of these Iowan families went back to their rooms at their mid-ranged hotels and wondered if they’d done it wrong? How many of them thought, “I didn’t see what’s so great about Hollywood. Maybe I went on the wrong day? Maybe I didn’t go to the good part?”
Hollywood has a reputation, a reputation that draws those families from Iowa who show up with their shorts, khakis, and expectations. It does not back up that reputation. Hollywood half-heartedly goes through the motions, doing the bare minimum of what it takes to be a landmark or district of note. It lets each and every one of those Iowa families down, and, for that, Hollywood is a truly vile place.
Oh, yeah- the Hollywood sign. It’s on a hill behind some smog.
In Seph’s car, I became despondent. That’s exactly the right word for it- despondent. At that point, I hadn’t been able to completely articulate my disappointment with Hollywood, and my idea of Los Angeles was beginning to suffer. I thought, perhaps, that my horrid preconceptions of southern California had been right all along- that it was a massive but ultimately culturally insignificant region.
I thought for a moment that I really need to visit Austin. It’s supposed to be pretty cool.
We made our way to a bar in downtown L.A. to meet a mutual friend. I was in a funk. About halfway through my first beer I said “I was astounded by how much, Hollywood sucked.”
“Yeah,” said our friend, “It’s awful.”
And there it was. I proceeded to go on a beer-fueled invective about why Hollywood was the most disappointing travel experience I’d ever had, and damn if it didn’t feel good to hate on the place. After a few beers my spirits were up and I started milling about the bar, interviewing and photographing attractive strangers for an assignment.
We left the bar, and walked through downtown L.A. to an art walk. Stepping through the streets I realized that this was precisely what I’d been missing- walking through a city’s downtown, strolling past stoplights, under skyscrapers, past people, and in an area where one feels that something is going on, there is some real authentic human activity vibrating all about you. Tokyo had this. Tokyo is my ideal of this, really. I could walk through that city all day (and did) and simply enjoy the crush of the crowds, the blare of the neon, and the ambient activity.
L.A. had a little of that, so far. I enjoyed Venice Beach because it was such a good strolling area and filled with weirdos, but Hollywood had erased that goodwill. Downtown L.A., though, began to redeem the city in my eyes. Or rather, L.A. finally started seeming like what I think of as a “city.” (By the way, I know that it’s kind of ludicrous to refer to the second-largest urban area in the U.S. as anything other than a “city,” but I think you know what I mean.)
An art walk was in progress, and it dwarfed anything that Portland had to offer.
The streets were crowded with people of a particular demographic (mine) and various galleries were lit up and open. A band bedecked in sparkles and glitter played in one area, and I had no trouble collecting interviews and photos for my assignment. Eventually we found ourselves inside the Alexandria Hotel surrounded by people. In a ballroom a dorky-looking hipster guy was singing David Bowie karaoke. Art was strewn on the walls. Odd looking films were being projected. Very attractive people were milling about. Sexy architecture was being put to good use.
I said to Seph, “I am enjoying this.”
“Welcome to my town, bitch!” He said this knowing that I’d just gotten it- that I’d just figured out that L.A. is worth it, after all. Our friend had to leave and eventually we found ourselves drinking in a swank-seeming basement club with vaguely steampunk-looking decor. Various people were dressed up in twenties garb, a pretty good jazz band had the stage, and several silent films were being projected on different walls.
“This is normal,” he said to me, “there is always something going on.”
I knew he was right, that with millions and millions of humans of course awesome things will emerge. Of course there will be things of cultural relevance and interest. I was immersed in an environment that I was enjoying a great deal.
I thought of my beloved Tokyo. Admittedly, there are plenty of lame parts of Tokyo- there are whole tracts of Chiba suburbs that are somewhat less than exciting. I’d much rather visitors judge it by taking in the performers at Yoyogi Park, geeking out in Akihabara, or getting plastered and going clubbing in Roppongi. There is still plenty of mundanity there, though.
If I lived in L.A., I’m sure that I would be able to find its equivalent of Yoyogi, or Akihabara, or Roppongi. I know that I’d be able to dig in and find the awesome bits, just as Seph had. Hollywood, though, the single most famous part of the city, actively makes you believe that that urban life just isn’t there.
My idea of Los Angeles had indeed been revised upwards. I left with an overall positive impression. It is not just undifferentiated sprawl- there really are a few very nice things down there.
And if they ever get a mass transit system, it might actually be an alright place to live.

The Idea of Los Angeles, Part One

In Los Angeles, Travel on June 17, 2010 at 9:49 am

I’ve been to Northern California several times, and regard San Francisco as a sort of far-flung cousin of the Northwest. The same sort of ineffable Ecotopian vibe that I appreciate in Portland, Eugene, and Seattle pervades SF. The city is walkable and criss-crossed with mass transit, an air of palpable liberalness pervades the atmosphere. And (just like Portland) it’s filled with weirdos, hobos, and people on impractical fixed-gear bicycles.

My mental image of “California” is of the mostly-empty North- the Sierra Nevada and I-5, the vast area between Eugene, OR and San Francisco, CA. This image of California was unthreatening, boring, and filled with cows. San Francisco seems unjustly separated by its Northwestern brethren by these vast tracts of bovine-munched emptiness. “California,” to me, was equivalent to empty driving.
I had never been South. I’d never trekked below the Bay Area’s latitudes (at least not in California) and had never seen what went on in the tract of land known as “SoCal.” I had never seen so much of what feeds into the popular mindset of what is called “California.” In my head, however, there was an idea of Los Angeles:
A vast and undifferentiated city that can only be barely called a city. It is only a city in that many people are there. However, it has no center. A city must have a hub and axis, a point of communal recognition. There must be a beating heart within some ever-lively downtown area where something is always happening. I did not imagine this. I did not imagine a center to L.A., or things happening in L.A., or even the idea of walking through L.A.
My idea of L.A. was that despite the presence of millions of humans in a given area, a real metropolis had failed to take hold. The thing was massive but uncomplex- as if single-celled organisms had kept dividing and multiplying, but had never bothered to evolve. Sitting there would be an immense amount of undifferentiated biomass- heaps of cells but not a single organ.
That was my idea of Los Angeles. I’d gone down there to help Seph move from SoCal to Seattle. He’d been telling me to visit the city for some time. Finally, I did.
My first impressions of the place were poor. My rideshare from the Bay to L.A. was a woman who had what I found out was an Orange County accent. This surprised me. I think of regional accents as something that are just naturally going extinct, especially west of the Mississippi. When I imagine future English, I imagine it as neutral and unaccented. She and I had some confusion about directions, and immediately we got lost while I was on the phone with Seph, trying to find a spot to meet up with him.
Eventually we did, and he dragged me to his soccer game, which was held in a venue that was not at all apocalyptic, smog-choked, or otherwise despondent. One of his teammates informed me that people do, indeed, have real lives in L.A.
Seph, being a good host, was determined to show me the sights, such as they were. One site was Wilshire Drive which, he said, “kind of looks like a real city.” He was right. It did. There were skyskrapers and everything. Wilshire clashed with my view of L.A. as a spread-out unbuilt place. I was amazed. “Keep in mind,” he said, “this is really just the downtown area.”
The next few days would confirm some of my suspicions about L.A., though. It is extremely spread out, and there seem to be precious few options for public transportation. This boggles my mind. I do not understand how a city can be of appreciable size and no demand for competent public transit emerges. I know that I have been spoiled by Portland and Japan, but I think of public transit as something fundamental about cities. You have plumbing, electricity, and public transit. Otherwise, you’re just wallowing in barbarism.
Anyway, Seph took me to the Getty, which is nice. Very, very nice- if it wasn’t free you’d probably imagine that you couldn’t afford admission. The building itself is almost more interesting than the art inside- most of what I saw were some oils and impressionistic works that I didn’t really care for. (I think impressionism is boring. That’s right! I said it!) The view was more visually stimulating than any of the Monets, though. I found out that L.A. smog is very real, and various sub-skylines seemed to dominate the sprawl. Below the Getty, the vast city stretched out and various pockets of tall building occasionally poked out of the landscape.

Strolling through the structure seemed to hammer home the idea to me that, yes, L.A. actually is capable of containing some rather nice stuff. For my whole trip there, I was trying to revise my idea of L.A. upward. I wanted to find redeeming things about it, and the Getty was certainly that. If you’re in L.A., go there. It’s a beautifully made building filled with green lawns and fountains, and it has some fairly neato art as well.

As were the palm trees, the hacienda architecture, and the various art deco buildings. After we went to the Getty, we strolled on Venice Beach and through Santa Monica. Venice Beach was surprisingly enjoyable. The place is sleazy, dirty, and weird. In a good way. It’s immensely touristy, but it seemed to be focused pretty well on a certain demographic. Pedestrians were redolent of tattoos, and it seemed as if every third storefront was selling, if not actual marijuana, something related to cannabis.
Or, you know, botox.
The stores selling bongs, pipes, and sophomoric weed-themed t-shirts did not really surprise me. What did surprise me, though, were the amount of medical marijuana dispensiaries along the way. Most of them had barkers outside, petite women holding signs shouting that “the doctor [was] in” and that you could “get yourself legal.” This, by the way, only bolstered my belief that medical marijuana as a cause is sort of silly, and we should stop kidding ourselves and just legalize it for recreational use. I sort of appreciated how blatantly the law was being bent. It made me feel like real change is going on.
In Santa Monica itself, I found myself revising my opinions of L.A. I enjoyed the smell of the ocean, the temperate climate, and the palms shifting in the wind. “The palm trees aren’t native, you know,” said Seph. “They were brought here in the forties as a publicity stunt.” I didn’t care. They were just… neat!
I experiencing something that could best be described as “fun.” Between the high-falutin’ Getty and nicely nasty Venice, I was beginning to get this idea that L.A. was a pretty alright place. Sure, the lack of public transport still seemed sort of fucked up, but my idea of Los Angeles and of California was spiraling upward nicely.

Until I got to the misery-inducing belt of disappointment known as Hollywood Boulevard.
Fuck Hollywood.

Ten Hours

In Crazy People, Travel on March 24, 2010 at 10:58 am

“If you have any guns they have to go in the trunk.”

“I… I don’t have any guns.”

“That’s fine if you do, they just will have to go in the trunk. I’m a firm believer in gun control! Keep both hands on the gun when you’re firin’ it! Ha!”

And thus began my ten-plus hours in a car with what can only be described as an ultra right-wing hippie. I’d gone to Craigslist to get a rideshare to San Francisco. I had several possible leads, but the only one that left when I wanted to (and wasn’t going in a completely decrepit car) was one that I felt sort of sketchy about. The guy’s reply had contained spelling errors, on the phone he’d seemed sort of out of it, and he said that he could take me to a BART station, but not into SF proper.

I had a bad feeling about this rideshare. A bad feeling that turned out to be entirely justified.

The guy’s bead obscured most of his face and chest, and his hair was in a white tangle on top of his head. I tried to keep the conversation focused on niceties like travel and music, but every so often things like this came up:

“I’m more Republican than most Republicans.”

“I say, you get six months on welfare. Six months! If you don’t have your shit together after that, you should put a bullet in your head!|

“This fuckin’ health care bill is government-run extortion! Just a big present for the insurance companies! Before we had insurance, everyone could affor health care!”

“That government bailout was bullshit. Fuck ’em.”

“There are people living off welfare. Did you know that? They’re reachin’ into my pocket to live. Fuck ’em.”

“I’m in favor of local currencies.” Me: “What do you think about the gold standard?” “I’m all for that shit!”

“I used to be in a gang. I hurt a lot of people.”

“If you can’t take care of your own shit, then fuck you!”

“This world would be great if there weren’t so many fuckin’ idiots in it!”

“We haven’t been a real democracy for over fifty years.”

(I would like to emphasize that I try to use exclamation points sparingly. However, given this man’s volume, passion, etc. necessitates liberal use of them.)

Ten hours of this. Ten hours. I managed to sleep for a while, and we did have some pleasant conversations, but for the most part this guy seemed to be driven entirely by anger. When he was talking about things he enjoyed, like music, hiking, or drug experiences, he lit up, and went on about how wonderful it was. However, it only took a slow car, the presence of the highway patrol, or any other aggravation to get him going on about “fuckin’ idiots” once again.

It was not his conservatism that bothered me. (Conservatism weirdly blended with hippie philosophy, I might add.) I can deal with people less liberal than myself. What bothered me was that his most animating feeling was rage, the thing that fueled his conversation about politics, society, life, etc., was disdain for others, frustration at something that he saw as wholly malevolent, a lack of joy when it came to percieving others.

I sympathize with political anger. I really do. All too often, though, we forget that the vast majority of the things that we do, we do right. We are not living in an unfixable, unchangable world, nor are we in the First World under the heel of something implacable. Rage has it’s place, but if it defines us, we lose. We get sour and feel impotent, and rather than a wonderfully complex world pointing in all directions, we see slings and arrows coming directly for us.

I got out, after ten hours, and made my way quickly into the BART station. I cracked open the Neal Stephenson book I’m reading, and sunk into the intellectual joy of the fiction. I rode the train for the better part of an hour, and relaxed.

In Which I Go to Burning Man

In Burning Man, Social Conventions, Travel on September 9, 2009 at 7:42 pm

The Playa glowed like a flattened, Jesus-free Christmas tree on fire. The cracked desert was filled with noise and shining movement, fanciful creations of freaks and artists, the spitting and exploding light of a dance stage lit with flamethrowers. Despite my fatigue from the day’s drive from Eugene, I couldn’t help but be impressed with how otherworldly it was. The landscape, the lit-upedness of it all, was just neat.

I approached Burning Man with a mix of expectations. On one hand, I was very excited about going to what is essentially one of the biggest parties in the world, a vast, odd collection of all things awesome. What’s more, I was going with Seph and his very cool girlfriend L. Nifty things are always best shared.

On the other hand, my unquenchable skepticism kept acting up, bristling with reflexive spurts of ire at the hippie ethos that seems to float around the thing. (For instance, don’t let anyone ever tell you that Burning Man is ecologically friendly…) On another, third, hand I didn’t know what to expect. I would just check it out, see what was up.

Not that that’s really an option. Everything I’d read about Burning Man emphasized the ideal of complete participation, of having “no spectators.” Not in the sense that all of the art and performances were interactive, but everyone had to do something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something huge or complicated, but walking around in just jeans and a t-shirt and merely looking at things is not in the spirit of BM. Every single person there is expected to participate in some way, get their freak on, act a bit strange, get into the mindset.

This, I found, is what makes Burning Man so neat. It’s not merely the scale of the event that’s mind-blowing. It’s not the fact that it’s especially large or in such a harsh climate, though that is a bit part of its unique appeal. The thing that makes Burning Man especially incredible is that it is a temporary setting in which different sort of social norms apply. It’s a big swathe of unstructured playtime wherein you can mess with just about everyone and everything there. For instance:

I was walking about on the Playa (that is, the dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert on which Burning Man is held) alone one day, when all of a sudden I saw a giant slide. It was perhaps sixty feet high and twenty wide, and at any one time perhaps thirty people were either climbing up or going down the thing. At its foot were a collection of large foam blocks to break the fall of the sliders, and several people at the bottom were also chucking them at people who were going down. Of course, I wanted to slide down the thing, but I wondered: Who was in charge? Was there a line? Had a group already claimed the slide, and would I be intruding by climbing onto it? What was the etiquette and protocol? I shook of those thoughts, though, and realized that the protocol was basically “do what thou wilt,” climbed onto the thing, and slid down while going “woo!”

At the foot of the slide a rather large red bus was parked, blasting dance music. The driver was a big butch lesbian dressed as a Catholic priest, and a mostly naked woman lounged on the hood of the vehicle, writhing to the music. Several people were dancing on the bus’ two levels, and I wondered again “what is the protocol for getting on?” And again, I had to remind myself that it was socially acceptable to just climb on it and start dancing.

Now, it may sound like I was overthinking things in those last two examples, but such thoughts and hesitations are valid. How many times have you asked yourself “Ok, how does this work?” or “What do I have to do to get X?” We go through those thoughts all of the time in our daily lives because we want to live in a socially acceptable manner, do things in a socially acceptable way. In general we want to not be (at the least) embarrassed or (at the worst) a total sociopath. Every single day we think “What rules, spoken or unspoken, must I abide by?”

At Burning Man, several of them just aren’t there, and that is simultaneously really odd and a lot of fun. I’ve seen shiny, loud and weird before. Saturday nights in Shibuya and Sundays in Yoyogi Park provided for plenty of that. The upheaval and substitution of social conventions, though, that was the real show. There are almost no monetary transactions in Black Rock City (the temporary community where Burning Man takes place), and that changes the environment fairly dramatically. Two guys came by our camp and just gave us screwdrivers (the drink) no questions asked. A complete stranger gave me a beer. I was given a few memorial trinkets, and obliged several people who asked for hugs. It was awesome. Burning Man is otherworldly in the sense that it is a spectacle, yes, but it is also somewhere where lots of everyday assumptions don’t apply.

Because a complete narrative of what we did there would be tiresome and probably inaccurate, I’ll limit myself to some bullet points of things that I thought were awesome.


Every year a group calling themselves Death Guild reconstructs a Mad Max-style Thunderdome at Burning Man. Just like in the movie, people climb up on the sides of the geodesic dome and shout at the two combatants who are strapped into bouncing harnesses. At Burning Man, the fighters used padded weapons, so unfortunately there as no resorting to chainsaws or spiked hammers. It was all excellent nonetheless, though, particularly in that the goth atmosphere served as an antidote to the hippie love fest that was going on elsewhere. Peace, love, forgiveness, self-expression and all that shit are all well and good, but damn it was nice to see some action. Girls in black corsets, grinding, thrashing guitars, huge shouting dudes bringing the hurt on each other. That was fun. Hippie niceness is okay, but what really got me going was the awesome adrenaline rush of regulated violence.

As much as it seemed to contrast, though, nothing going on at Thunderdome was really “against” the spirit of Burning Man. The goths and metal fans were as free as anyone else to show off what they had, regardless. The hippie ethos is very dominant, but not at all mandatory, and those who “transgressed” it were as welcome as anyone else.

There was also roller derby, which was also awesome and combat-filled.

-The Rocket!

A large, shiny Buck Rogers-style rocketship jutted up from the Playa, and via a gantry one could go inside and take a look around. The interior was a collection of space-age doodads, shiny buttons, comical alien specimens, blinking lights and screens, and a swiveling captain’s chair at the very top. The artists who’d made the rocket said to nearly everyone there that it would be taking off on Friday night.

“Really?” was the inevitable reply, “you’re going to launch this thing?”

“Oh yes,” they said with an entirely straight face, “we have a plasma engine expect to get it a good two or three feet off the ground.” I’ve got to give them credit- they got everyone talking about their installation, and what they were going to do with it. Lots of people wondered if they were serious about it all or not, and whether that thing was going to rise at all. There was no way that they could actually generate enough thrust. Costs alone would have gotten in the way. I thought for a moment that they might have buried a pneumatic elevator underneath it, but that, too, would have been a huge undertaking.

The day before the launch we were sitting around our camp doing nothing in particular when one of our neighbors, an Australian, started talking to us and the subject of the rocket came up.

“You know they’re going to launch it on Friday, right?” he said.

“Well, that’s what they say,” one of us replied.

“Yeah, well. They got this plasma engine in it. You know what plasma engines do, right? They give the finger to technology, that’s what. That’s what they’re all about. They’re going to fuck every bit of technology here. Watch out for your credit cards. They’re not going to work after that. The plasma, you know- it fucks technology. That’s why all of those Chinook helicopters have been circling around. The military is very interested in what’s going on here, all these Silicon Valley types building weird shit out in the desert. You watch. They’re going to launch that thing.”

(I’d assumed that the Chinooks were circling mainly because we were on protected federal land.)

“It has lots of vents in the side,” I said, “I think they’re just going to do a pyrotechnics thing.”

“Nah. It’s going to launch. You’ll see.”

Listening to this guy, I dearly hoped that he was being extraordinarily sarcastic and dry, though I don’t think that he was. It was my least favorite part of Burning Man, all of the people who believe in absurd things like government conspiracies or auras. The rocket, it turned out, did not really “launch” and didn’t fuck all of the technology in the area (my cards work just fine). The rockteers who built it made it the center of a sizable fireworks display, albeit one that I wasn’t able to catch for a variety of reasons. Sure, I only beat out a crazy conspiracy loony, but it still feels good to be right.

-Naked People!

While there were a few attractive naked people about (no, not me- I enjoyed dressing oddly) the vast majority of them were older men. I was a bit perplexed by this at first. Promises of public nudity bring with them adolescent male ideas of firm, nubile, unclad women flitting about the atmosphere clothed only in the admiration of my appreciative eyes.

Okay, I know better than that. But still…

While individuals fitting that idealized description did indeed exist, most of the nudity on display was in the form or rather unappealing, aging, graying man-butt. Talking with Joseph about this, it soon became utterly logical as to why that would be the case. Women are probably less likely to doff all of their clothing than men, what with apprehensions regarding sexual harassment and all. What’s more, most young people (I believe) don’t view nudity as an ideological thing at all. I’ve never met anyone my age who thinks that they’re making some sort of political or social point by taking their clothes off. Those kind of ideals belong to an older generation. When viewed in that light, it’s entirely sensible as to why old, gray dude-balls were more likely to be seen than perky, young lady-butt.


There were two sizable dance clubs at Burning Man, and several small ones. (One of the smaller ones insisted on recitation of poetry before dispensing booze, which was fun.) The setups were amazing, all the more because looking at the sound systems, lasers, projectors, props, etc., I was very cognizant that someone carted all of that stuff into the desert, and would be carting it out pretty soon. One of the large ones, aptly named Opulent Temple, featured no small amount of fire dancers performing amidst the appreciative crowd and beneath of blanket of pulsating lasers. One of the fire dancers actually caught himself on fire, which was good for a laugh. Don’t worry. He was alright. I hope.

These clubs were not provided by the Burning Man organization. Like everything else, they were put together by participants. They obviously took a staggering amount of time and money to put together, and I wondered what the incentives were for the coordinators. The DJs, I imagined, could gain a fair amount of notoriety by playing at Burning Man, and whoever bankrolled this was in for a fair amount of return with regards to reputation and social capital. But, really, this was it. This was the biggest party in the world. If you’re going to run a dance club, if you like electronic music, this was the place to be. I could see some very dedicated rich people doing this sheerly for fun, purely because no party in any city was going to be better than this.

-The Temple

Every year at Burning Man there are two recurring large-scale art installations, both of which are burned at the end of the event. One, of course, is the Man himself. The other is the Temple, whose structure changes every year.

For a temporary structure, it was impressive, a three story high building that resembled a lotus, each panel cut in patterns that reminded me of classical Islamic art. The timbers themselves were strewn with markings, people’s written messages to lost loved ones or other such personal things, all of which would go up in flames on Sunday night. In all honesty, I was surprised at how sincere they all were. My first reaction on seeing all of the heartfelt personal messages was to write something clever, something cutting or sarcastic that would wither the hippie sentiment. Unexpectedly, though, that I couldn’t find any sarcasm or wit written on the timbers. I was surprised as well, when I actually wrote something sincere on the Temple the day before it burned. I suppose it’s easy to write something honest and heartfelt, to get it out of you, when you know that it will be immolated in the near future. It’s like confessing to a stranger, shouting to an empty room, or tearing up one’s nocturnal poetry. Not that I’ve ever done any of those things. Goodness, no…

-The Burn

Saturday night was the big event, the night that the Man would finally go up into flames. There was a brief moment of doubt, though, because of a considerable dust storm. The winds had been calm for most of the week, but that night we could hardly see twenty feet ahead of us. Tents whipped about and the whole of the Playa seemed to be a swirling mass of white and darkness. We hunkered down in a friend’s camp, set up like a bar. I had some rum, and wondered if the storm would subside at all.

It did, though, and nicely. Just before ten we made our way out onto the Playa and saw nearly the whole of Black Rock City’s population focused upon one point. The art cars were all stopped in a giant bright circle around the Man, pumping music and colored lights into the now-calm desert night. Fire dancers gyrated and gamboled in front of the gigantic wooden effigy and all about us people screamed and buzzed with an undefined enthusiasm.

Preceding the burn itself was a fireworks display made all the better by the thumping music and ambient light. People were jumping around in costumes just as they had been earlier in the week, but now there was a sense of communal anticipation and excitement. The fireworks popped, and suddenly a massive explosion of flame flung itself upwards from beneath the Man. The effigy and all of the wood around him had been licked by flames and heat, and soon the Man himself was on fire.

And he took a damn long time to burn. According to one of my campmates, who’d been to Burning Man the year before, the Man last year took only a little while to burn and fall. This time, though, he and all of the wood around him were on fire for a good half hour before everything collapsed. I was expecting a sort of final fireball or explosion, but it never really came. Instead, the Man and everything around him smoldered in the fashion of a gigantic communal campfire, falling only after taking its sweet time to burn.

Hours later, I rode a bike out to the site of the Man by myself, and walked about amidst the embers. There were people there, sitting down in a heat that I couldn’t tolerate for long, and no one was really talking. One guy did pound on a drum arhythmically, and other people sat off to the side, warming themselves against the huge, orange coals.

The fact that the Man (and the Temple) are both burned, I think, is rather essential to their appreciation. With both structures, I would have been not nearly as impressed with either of them had I not known that they’d been temporary. The fact that a group of artists and engineers can build something that they know will only be appreciated within a given time period is something that I find rather inspirational, a word that I use very sparingly.

Things are not meaningful because they are endless or immutable. They’re not significant because they’ll always be there. Things, people, jobs, relationships, works of art, conversations, whatever can be immensely important and wonderful even if they only last a couple of days. Or hours. The Man, the Temple, and indeed all of Black Rock City are gone now, and that doesn’t invalidate, at all, the temporary experience that they imparted on me or anyone else who was there. If anything the brevity makes me appreciate them all the more.

I’m back now, in Portland. The other day while I was on my bike I saw a pair of goth kids, leaning against a wall, smoking and surrounded by less radical Portlanders. Not an unusual sight. I was immediately reminded of Death Guild and their huge camp and Thunderdome setup, at home in an environment that was unconditionally accepting of whatever they thought was awesome, whatever, on some level worked. I like it that those sort of environments exist. As cynical as I might act about hippie ideals, it was absolutely spectacular being in an environment that unlimited, that unrestrained and free. If I can ever attend again (no idea if that will happen) I know that I’ll be even more into it. I’ll be bringing an art project, or at least a really nifty outfit or camp, with me. Something definitively mine, something that I can throw into that brilliant and beautiful insanity on the Playa.

"It Seems To Be Some Sort of Internationally Recognized Landmark…"

In San Francisco, Travel on August 23, 2009 at 3:51 pm

That Robert Frost poem is really misinterpreted. The Road Not Taken isn’t about rugged individualism or how wonderfully shiny self-expression is. It’s sort of an ironic poem, really, if you bother to read the whole damn thing and not just take the last bit and paste it on a Hallmark card.

Yet, there seems to be a certain breed of snob out there who take that shit literally, who blanch at the idea of seeing a tourist site, who shudder at the thought of going to any place that’s going to swarmed by families with cameras and baseball caps. I’ll cop to having a little bit of this attitude in me. Even as we approached the Golden Gate Bridge, a place I specifically wanted to go, my inner hipster-snob-asshole voice said “Oh god, we’re tourists now.” Once the thing reared up on the skyline, though, once the great orange towers reared up against the sky, I was duly impressed with the thing, and able to shove the annoying inner voice down into a mental oubliette where he belongs. We got out of the car and there were indeed several families with cameras and baseball caps swarming about- khaki shorts, sweatshirts, minivans.

The contemptuous arrogant bastard was safely in his damp little hole, though, and I was determined to be a tourist and enjoy it. I like being a tourist. People who say, “Oh, I love traveling but I hate tourists,” or “I’m a traveler, not a tourist,” are hypocrites. I like the sense of renewed perception that comes from being in a new venue, and I like seeing what the place has to offer. That includes places that are staggeringly famous and overrun with out-of-towners. While I do like wandering about on my own in the non-famous parts of a place (and did plenty of that in SF) there is a certain feeling of niceness that comes from going to a place that is absolutely, unmistakably famous. Iconic and symbolic. Somewhere or something that encapsulates its city, region, or country.

Every time I stood at Hachiko crossing in Shibuya, I sensed that I was somehow taking in an abreviated version of Tokyo, a kind of concentrated, focused bit of the city’s zeitgeist. I felt the same way about the Shanghai’s Pudong skyline, an image that fired rapid development into the the night sky. Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive is like that. Driving down it you think, “Yes, there are the Big Shoulders, right there. There’s the unmistakable something-ness of this place.”

The Golden Gate is, of course, a symbol of San Francisco. It’s also a symbol of everything that San Francisco represents, and that’s saying a lot. It’s also a big damn bridge. I love seeing the functionality of these places, knowing that this thing that’s a symbol of so many amorphous things is also part of someone’s daily commute. That’s great. Walking across the bridge, I loved seeing the road signs. This thing that gets imprinted on so many cheap gifts and duplicated in so much media is a living, workable thing, and you would be an asshole to try a U-turn on it.

I was sort of pleased to see, though, that there really are rather prominent anti-suicide signs on the bridge. I guess that’s one other thing that the bridge is famous for- the dramatic ejection of people and things into the San Francisco Bay. One of my high school English teachers claimed to have angrily thrown her engagement ring from the bridge. Seeing the signs though, I wondered how big a drama queen you’d have to be to kill yourself by jumping from this thing. What a cry for attention. What a final, pathetic “hey, guys- lookit me!” act. You’d have to have a weird alchemy of self-loathing and self-aggrandizement to actually do it.

I loved it, though. I loved that it was crowded and covered with camera flashes, the feeling that somehow we were participating in something significant just by walking across a sizable piece of urban engineering. I loved that it was crowded with bicycles and people shouting, plenty of people walking along and making use of this gigantic, significant and beautiful bit of metal and concrete. Yes, I thought, this is the Golden Fucking Gate Bridge and I’m experiencing it right now. I’m on it. I’m on top of this thing, that whose image I’ve seen, but now my experience is unmediated.

One last thing- I was lucky enough to be with three friends from Japan, people with whom I was very pleased to see again. Six months ago I left, and wondered what my relationships with people there would be like in the future I wondered if the connections would hold. Here, they did. My friendships, it seems, can take a bit of abuse and estrangement, which is an encouraging, when you think about it. We looked across to the Pacific and waved to our erstwhile home. “Hi, Japan!” we said, jumping up and down with utterly appropriate overenthusiasm. Seeing them was excellent and I feel that this picture is utterly representative of them.

China! (Possibly, Maybe)

In Jobs, Travel on June 2, 2009 at 9:33 pm

Even though I didn’t get the Foreign Service job, I’m still planning on living abroad again, and eventually working for either the government or a political organization. One of the best ways to get one’s foot in the door with that is joining the Peace Corps, and yesterday I was nominated for a position in China.

The recruiter told that things may change, and that this was all tentative. However, because of my experience as an English teacher, she said that she’d rather not send me to an ordinary English teaching position. Instead, the Peace Corps wants me to join their teacher training program, wherein I’d be teaching future English teachers both advanced English, and how to run a class. Most of these positions are in China, but the program has other locations in Asia as well.

I’m thrilled with this, and very much hope that circumstances allow me to go to China. I quite enjoyed it the last time I was there, and would very much like to learn a bit of Mandarin. What I find especially amusing, though, is that if this whole thing plays out, I’ll be in a situation already described by two of my favorite books.

River Town Peter Hessler is a memoir by a former Peace Corps volunteer about being in a teacher training program in China. The book and its sequel Oracle Bones are both excellent. I would not say that the books encouraged me to apply for the Peace Corps (those seeds were planted long ago) but they certainly made me want to travel and write more. I can’t recommend them enough.

So, I’m on track to do precisely what one of my favorite authors has already done, which is sort of cool/weird. It would be like joining the army and having the exact same assignments as Hemingway or something.

In any case, I’m thrilled to not only have been nominated for a position at all, but also for one that demands a certain amount of experience and expertese. Plenty of people whom I’ve talked to about the Peace Corps have said that there is a certain “hippy” factor to a lot of the volunteers, and the recruiter made it very clear that this program would be an actual, regular job. No chance to hippy around, though she did not say so in so many words. I couldn’t be happier about it. Of all of the positions that I could have been offered or nominated for, this would have been in my top five. I’ve still got to get poked and prodded by medical examiners, wade through tons of paperwork, and do a bunch of other stuff. But, I’m definitely leaving again, and wouldn’t have it any other way.