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Lakes! Of! Fire

Eight years ago I went to Burning Man and had a terrible time.

Now, as I've been careful to point out in recent years, it wasn't entirely Burning Man's fault. I was in a crappy place in my life (leading to my leaving the country a year later for far shores & and of indeterminate length), the preceding months and the trip itself were filled with an oppressive and appalling amount of interpersonal drama, and I'd already been growing frustrated with the amounts of hippie culture I was experiencing and exposed to at the time. Let me tell you: If you're at all conflicted or frustrated with hippie culture, going to a week-long event like Burning Man will fucking cure you of any remaining interest.

As to the event itself? There's a hell of a lot of spectacle to be seen: Massive art installations, fire & lighting displays during the night, dancers, fire spinners, and so much more. And for the first few days that spectacle was exciting! But after that I became bored, and then frustrated, and wanted to leave. Which, having road-tripped there with several others, I could not. So I had to spend the rest of the week in the desert wanting desperately to go home, and not being able to. (To make matters worse, we'd planned a meandering route back - lasting another week or two - going through the Badlands, Yellowstone, etc. In other circumstances that would have been great, but as I then was I couldn't really appreciate the experience.)

Needless to say, I never went back to Burning Man (certainly not with an estimated price tag of ~$1000 for the trip!), I stopped hanging out on the fringes of hippie culture, and I never looked back. I never even went to another Full Moon Fire Jam on the shores of Lake Michigan. I left it all behind.

Zach went to Burning Man at least a couple of times after that, but cited increasing frustrations as well. (When he & I went, it was 40,000 people. Apparently now it's up to about 70k.) Instead, he and his have in recent years instead opted to go to the regional Burning events - such as Lakes of Fire, up in Michigan. As he would describe, it's all the best parts of Burning Man without the worst excesses. And so for the last few years, every time Lakes of Fire has been on the horizon, he's asked if I had any interest in joining them. To which I'd always responded NO THANKS.

...until last year when, after giving my instinctive, gut-level response, I suddenly ... stopped. And considered. As mentioned, I was self-aware enough to realize that a lot of my rancor had nothing to do with the event itself, but rather where I'd been in my life at the time. And not only are my circumstances today vastly different than they were in 2006 - but so too am I. And I found myself thinking about the few elements that I did enjoy from that Burn, and thinking about how at the very least it's a radically different context for one's life than one is normally used to ... and I began to reevaluate. Reassess. And wonder.

So earlier this year, when Zach said that he & Maggie were going to Lakes of Fire again, and they had an extra ticket if I were interested ... I told him Yes! I would take that ticket.

I had no idea what the experience would be like this time around, but I was interested in finding out.

Granted, at the end of April certain events in my life gave me a bit of a wobble, and I wondered if it would still be a good idea to go ... or if I should just pawn off that ticket instead. Eventually I decided I would still attend, and see what Life - and the experience - handed me. If I determined that I still hated all that hippie bullshit...? Well, unlike Burning Man, Lakes of Fire is only a long weekend (Thursday - Sunday), as opposed to a full week or more. If I just felt like taking it as a few days to myself, and avoided all personal interactions as much as possible, that's certainly a route I could take. And by Sunday I would be on my way back home. Not too unbearable.

My mind was further made up when I went to the "Newbie Night" presentation being hosted at Catalyst Collective - an impressive loft space located around North & Western. Gina (whom I know from Living Canvas) was one of the people who lives in the space, and she showed me around and introduced me to a few others as well. Most useful and inspiring, however, was during the presentation when they went over the Ten Principles of Burning Man. There were ideas with which I was already familiar, like the very important Leave No Trace. But other principles which really resonated with me were Radical Self-Reliance - ultimately, you are responsible for yourself - and perhaps its polar twin, Gifting. Everything at these Burn events runs on a "gift economy", where people bring items, services, offerings ... and just give them to each other. There's no money changing hands, and there's not even a need for barter. It's people providing for their own living needs... and beyond that? Just being generous to each other.

There have been a couple of times in my life when I've been called generous, and the declaration has surprised me a bit. But then there have been other times when I've recalled that, and have realized that such ideas and intentions felt entirely alien to me, and unenacted. Generosity is something I try to aspire to, but often fall short of - and thus something I appreciate being reminded of, as often as possible.

And the other principle that really called out to me was that of Immediacy. Living In The Moment is something I excelled at while living in London. I mean, I had to! I moved over there only knowing (barely) two people, not having any plan as to where I would live beyond the first few weeks, what I would do, who I would meet, how long I would stay, or how the experience would go. And yet I was moving to another country in 2007 largely because I'd been unable to break out of my year-long depression, and needed radically altered circumstances in which to start over. All in all, I found - once I'd resolved the mental/emotional hurdles I'd been struggling with - that I was able to live out my life in that other city, in that other country, with a joyful relishing of whatever goddamn thing happened across my path. ("I take things as they come," to quote the good Ian Chesterton.)

That said, one regret I've certainly had over the past seven years is how hard it's been to retain that intention since I've been back in the States. With a full-time job of ~50 hours a week (coincidentally, twice what I was logging while in London), always short on resources, and in a management role with employees in constant need of direction ... it's a hell of a lot harder to keep such an easygoing attitude as an instinctive way of living one's life. Especially when trying to find enough spare time to do all the other things one wants to accomplish! (Theatre, writing, socializing, down time, etc.) So on the one hand, I'm constantly needing to be forceful about using my very limited time to the best of my ability ... but on the other, I really do miss being able to just let it all go, and simply be thankful for being where I am, and having what I have in front of me. It's yet another balance I struggle with, and I come down on the side of easygoing immediacy far less often than I'd like.

So, I determined that I very much wanted to go, to try to embrace these ideals, and hopefully have a good time - whatever kind of time my experience ended up being.

Still, I first had to figure out how to even get there! Zach told me that he & Maggie would have their tents in Open Camping (as opposed to being part of a planned "theme camp"), and I was welcome to camp with them - as would several others - but that I would need to find my own ride there. And for the next several weeks, I really worried as to whether I'd be able to attend after all! I had deactivated my Facebook account at the end of April, but with the need for easy communication that Fbook offers I reluctantly reactivated it so I could message all the people I knew who were going, and thus see if anyone had any spare seats in their vehicle (and could use another person with whom to split the expenses of travel). Frustratingly, no one did. And so, upon recommendation, I posted and scouted out the Lakes of Fire Rideshare page on Facebook, hoping to come across someone driving and looking for passengers. To my relief, such a thing finally came together in the last couple of days before the event, and Thursday morning thus found me with a packed duffel bag & hiking backpack, getting up significantly earlier than usual, and jumping into a stranger's car. After picking up a third passenger in the Loop, we were off!

So, after all the wondering, and varied expectations: How was the experience?

In a nutshell: It was pretty goddamn great.

Now, that's not to say it was ideal, at least for the first couple of days. After getting in on Thursday afternoon, I quickly found Zach & Maggie's campsite, and the midday heat was enough that I peeled off my shirt while setting up my tent in the baking sun. Zach had a spare air mattress to loan me, which was far more comfortable than sleeping on the ground would have been (even with the mattress's tendency to largely deflate each night) ... but which hardly fit in my teeny-tiny tent at all. I really do need to replace that budget-rate item with an at-least-slightly-more sizable one at some point; fortunately, Zach also had the mystifyingly awesome foresight to have brought an extra tent. (!) So I broke down the one I'd already built, stowed that away again, and erected the larger one. By then it was nearly night, so I took my first round of the camp's environs, checked out a few of the sights and attractions, and - considering the day's early start, the typical torpors of travel, and the draining effect of a good summer's heat - went to bed on the early side.

The next day, regrettably, was not nearly as blessed with good weather. The rain began at morning, and frustratingly lasted till the early evening. I tried to make the best of it and put on a persevering attitude, but I was disappointed, and unable to hide that from myself. I don't recall if I'd brought an umbrella, though I did at least remember my rain poncho & waterproof pants - but after a while of walking around the lake, and through the camps, a certain amount of unpleasant chill & damp was unavoidable. Dammit!, I thought. I'd so wanted this to be a good experience!

Fortunately, by day's end the rain had let up, and I took advantage of my pent-up energy to explore. Close to our own camp was a massive construction deemed the Touchy Duchess (Youtube link), a medieval-looking tower which would shoot a jet of fire from its flaming demonic face when a series of buttons was pressed in a particular order or timing. Also of note was Tick Town, which featured both an explicitly interactive bar (when requesting a drink from the bartender, you had to spin the wheel of fortune and then follow the instructions the ticker landed upon) as well as a number of well-built challenge games testing aim, balance, etc. Another camp had not just an ever-burning fire pit but also a seemingly neverending supply of ingredients for the making & roasting of S'Mores. And FreakEasy, known (and feared) for their massive sound system and all-night dance parties, had a couple of large lit-up domes for dancing and scheduled performances.

Plus, one camp was giving away Bacon Bloody Marys. Seriously: they had a jug of vodka with a HUGE chunk of bacon just infusing within. I'm a fan of both bacon AND the Bloody Mary, so this sounded like heaven. They also had bacon fudge, of two varieties - bacon maple fudge, and bacon peanut butter chocolate fudge. I absolutely partook of both the latter and a Bacon Bloody Mary. And the next day came back for the same again!

I'd actually had a fair bit of drink while wandering around from camp to camp - since so many sites have bars, or otherwise have boozes to offer, you're invited to bring a cup as you stroll around the place - and so it was while in a pleasantly sloshed headspace that I first ran into someone I knew. While admiring the pyrotechnic majesty of the Touchy Duchess, I was surprised to see my friend Barrett, whom I knew through a couple of the shows I'd run for Vaudezilla. She & her fiancee had been living in Florida for the past year as she finished her Master's Degree, so it was quite a treat running into her! Like Zach, she's someone who has been attending LoF for a few years now, and so gladly made the trip back up for it.

While talking to Barrett, I also had my first pleasantly arresting experience of the weekend in which someone complimented me on what I was wearing. This was a bit of a surprise, to be honest. While packing for the trip, I'd completely forgotten how much burners enjoy costuming, and thus entirely failed at bringing any of the couple of fairly ridiculous shirts and other accoutrements I might own. That night - after changing out of my wet clothes from the day - I'd simply donned a black t-shirt, with my black-and-grey-striped long-sleeve shirt button up draped over it, more to give my arms a bit of protection against the night's chill than to make a statement. It's possibly my hair might have still been slicked back a bit from the rain. So despite having felt a bit chagrined at having left some of my more colorful outfits at home, I nonetheless was tickled and a bit bemused to have my "creative look" so commented upon. ("But", I thought, "this is just what I normally wear!") The round Lennon-style sunglasses I'd snagged off eBay the prior week also drew an unexpected number of great remarks over the weekend!

Fortunately, as if to make up for the prior day's largely shitty weather, Saturday was if not baking hot then at least warm and sunny. I had once more leafed through the LoF pamphlet of scheduled events (any performances or workshops or timed anything else that a camp might be putting on was listed within), but nothing really caught my fancy - so after accepting one of several bacon sandwiches that campmate Ken was making and offering up for breakfast, I set off around the lake. All the camps were arranged in a U-shape around Lucky Lake (PDF map), and it took me about 20 minutes at a leisurely pace to make an entire circuit. So at several times that weekend I got into the habit of setting off for another circuit 'round the lake if I had nothing to do. I would usually come across something new that would draw my attention, or run into someone I knew.

Which, I realized, was a large part of what was making this new experience so much more satisfying! In addition to having travelled up with two people I'd just met (Eli & John), and Zach & Maggie's campsite with 7 or 8 other friends (some of whom I was just meeting), I'd been surprised when looking at the Facebook event page to see just how many people I knew who were going. In addition to Barrett, I knew Gina (from Canvas) and ran into both Meg Wolfe & Taylor a couple of times. Michael Sherwin, who I've worked with on both Canvas (Nocturne) and the three years of the David Bowie Christmas Special, was part of Camp Valhalla - about a 20 second walk from our own site! And I was pleasantly surprised to see Matt & Nicole, also from Vaudezilla, who had decided to come to the LoF just a couple of days earlier! At any given time I was striking out on my own, I was almost guaranteed for my wanderings to cross paths with someone I knew, and then change or join plans from there. John had introduced me to his roommate Jeremy, and that was one more person I kept running into! Because that's the kind of thing you can do when the attendance is capped at about 1700 people. You can't really have that same experience when exploring an ad hoc desert city of 40-70,000+!

I also made sure to wholly embrace the proper intention and mindset as much as possible. I turned off my phone when I arrived on Thursday, and left it in my tent the entire time. I didn't check texts, and I didn't check voice mail. I did not bring my computer, and did no work. No matter how silly or hopelessly idealistic some people might seem, I was determined to approach this weekend with an utter lack of judgmental attitude; all things considered, I wanted to leave behind my eye-rolling gut reaction of UGH - hippies! that I'd had since 2006. (And I'm pleased to report that intention was a success.) At one point in my wanderings I didn't actually come across anyone I knew, and instead just lay out at the pier on the far side of the lake for a half hour. Just relaxed and soaking up the sun.

Saturday night - the final night - was the big burn, when most everyone gathered at the lakeside "temple effigy". The event kicked off with an impressive series of fireworks setting off from the structure, followed by a half hour or so of fire spinners, fire dancers, fire swallowers, etc. Only after that was the effigy itself set alight. The approximatey 20'-high wooden structure was a pyramidal skeleton base constructed around a hefty polyhedron (Zach referred to it as a "bucky ball" - a term I'd never heard before). I can only assume that the entire structure must have been treated with some sort of fireproofing, because although it quickly and successfully was set alight, it seemed to take an hour or more to actually burn down into a proper, massive, and fully razed blaze. In the interest of embracing the principle of immediacy I had left my camera in my tent the entire weekend, but that burn is the one time I truly wish I'd had it with me - for when the dodecahedron became superheated enough we could see, through the wood of its facing side, a burning heart-shape of flames shining through. I have no idea how they engineered that, but it sent a thrill through my own.

And then it was just a massive, massive fire, around which people warmed themselves, circled in a moving chain of linked hands, and eventually danced around. At one point I came across Zach & Maggie, who were excited to introduce me to a friend of theirs they had apparently wanted me to meet. For the life of me, I cannot remember this person's name and never found out why it was awesome that the two of us were meeting. This was also the second night in a row I found myself in a state of inebriation intense enough that I eventually became sick - but even in the midst of that, I was not having a bad time! It's just that at a certain point my physical state needed to take some time to recover and recalibrate, before I found myself collapsing with a smile on the pillow.

And the next day I woke, made myself a wonderful breakfast wrap of chorizo, halloumi & eggs in a sun-dried tomato tortilla, tore down the tent, packed up my gear, and set off to meet my travel mates (Jeremy joining us for the return trip). I got home about 5pm and was pleased to find I didn't actually have quite as many emails and quite so much work to catch up on from the past half-week as I'd feared.

A day or two later, Zach dropped by the apartment briefly, and asked how the experience had gone. I was really, really happy to tell him what a wonderful time I'd had (and to thank him for continuing to urge me to go, and everything he'd done to help make it such a great experience). What I found even more pleasing was that my estimation of the experience actually continued to improve after my return! Knowing how epically shitty my experience with Burning Man had been, I think there was still a tiny nub of worry in the back of my mind that something might go wrong over the weekend, and so even in my determination to have a great and relaxing weekend there remained perhaps a bit of potential stress. Once I was back, and realized nothing had gone wrong, and I'd had a truly, truly GREAT time ... I found myself able to accept that wholly and absolutely, and think back on the experiences I'd had - and just smile. As the weekend had gone on, I increasingly found myself wondering if I might in fact come back the following year. By the time I was home? I was sure of it.

Eight years ago I went to Burning Man and had a terrible time.

This April, I spent a long weekend with a bunch of hippies and utterly loved it.

Who could have seen that coming?

Dread, and Two Years' Passing

It's ridiculous how long you can keep "to do" items on your desktop. And by "you", I clearly mean me.

Just over two years ago, Tasha emailed me to say she had come up with a superhero-themed role playing game scenario she wanted to try out. (I'd replied to a post of hers several months prior to state interest if and when an RPG got off the ground.) So even though I hadn't seen her in about seven years (!), I said hey great! And Ryvre might be interested too. So the three of us gathered one evening at The Grafton for dinner/drinks, for Tasha & Ryvre to meet each other, and we talked about the game, life, etc.

It's so funny to think that was two years ago. On the one hand, I remember the storyline of that game pretty well. On the other, so much else has changed! I'd only hung out with Tasha a couple of times previous (most of our interactions to that point having been via LiveJournal & email), had met Bob at one of their Oscar parties years ago but only in passing, etc. On the other hand, in the two years since, we've gotten to hang out with Tasha much more - Ryvre more than me, as Tasha has not only run a couple of additional RPGs that Ryvre has participated in, but comes to G-Mart's Thursday board game night most weeks - and I've additionally had the opportunity to discover not only what a cool & interesting guy Bob is, but I first Kickstarted and then auditioned for and acted in his Hamlet webseries, as well as meeting and getting to know other new friends through them (such as Lisa).

Not to mention all the other people I've met over the past two years. Relationships formed. New interests, such as swing dancing, acquired.

(And in the meantime, Tasha - LiveJournal stalwart of so many years - seems the latest in the long line of people to have left their LJ blogging behind. A shame, that! Not that I can't relate...)

I'm reminded of all this as I looked at a text file called "dread" on my laptop's desktop. After that initial - and much enjoyed - superhero game, Tasha emailed us about another RPG she wanted to run: this time a horror-themed one by the name of Dread. (Appropriately, we would gather to play it on October 28, 2012, just a few days before Halloween.) To help get the roleplaying gears turning, she sent out brief, personalized questionnaire to all of us players to fill out - ideally in the week before we were to play, but life being as it was, I didn't get a chance to fill out mine until the hour-plus commute from our house to theirs, in Evanston.

Surprisingly, even though I was just coming up with ideas and character details as I typed away on my laptop while on the train, I felt I was able to come up with a fairly interesting character sketch pretty quickly. And I was pleased that (once I printed up my sheet) Tasha seemed to think so too. Her questionnaire mentioned that one of the bonus cards she was giving out would be for the one whose character profile she liked the most, and I ended up getting that one.

Anyway, I had enough fun coming up with the character - even if most of the background details went (understandably) unused, like the baby-snatching bit - that I saved the text file on my laptop ever since, planning to one day save a copy in my LiveJournal.

Well, nearly two years later - but here we are. Yes, I can procrastinate with the best of 'em. :P

Background: You are a small-town North Carolina high-school student and a member of your local 4-H Club, which brings together teenagers from all over the local area for “youth development projects” ranging from volunteering at hospitals and retirement homes to engaging in collaborative creative-arts projects to competing in local contests and events. Every year, the 4-H Club assembles a 4-acre “haunted corn maze” at Phillips Farm, a 1,200-acre family farm and orchard in rural North Carolina at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Normally, up to 50 adults and teenagers participate in preparing and designing the maze, but this year, a stomach-flu epidemic has sidelined most of the usual participants, either because they’re sick or because their parents have denied them permission to participate for fear of them getting sick. The 4-H leadership determined that the maze should be cancelled this year, but you were determined to make it happen anyway.

You are part of a group of die-hard Club members who don’t know each other particularly well—your really close friends are among the sick or grounded, or are back in your rural hometowns and aren’t in 4-H at all—but you’re each determined enough to make sure the maze happens this year that you’ve all agreed to camp out on the grounds and work around the clock to construct the admissions booth, the props, the signs, and especially the elaborate tableaux that make up the scary parts of the maze at night. It is three weeks until Halloween, and the maze isn’t ready yet. Since you have three days off school due to parent-teacher conferences and in-service days, you all came out to the farm on Wednesday morning, planning to work on the site together every waking hour you can until Saturday, when the farm has its Fall Festival grand opening.

Everyone will receive an individualized questionnaire with mostly different questions from everyone else. Filling these out promptly will let me consider your character’s personality when designing the game. As an added incentive, anyone who has their questionnaire in by Thursday, October 25, at midnight will get a one-use bonus card for gameplay—essentially, a competitive edge that will be useful in a pinch. Anyone who has their questionnaire in by noon THIS SUNDAY, October 21, will get the first bonus card plus a second, even better competitive edge card. And I will be awarding a third competitive edge card entirely subjectively, to whoever answers their questions best and most thoroughly before game day.

Any questions for me about the setup or situation, let me know, I’ll be happy to answer them. In the meantime, here’s your personalized questionnaire:

1. What’s your name, and how do you feel about that name? What do your friends call you?

Hey there! I'm Mac. Good to meet you. Well, my name's Trevor McCarthy. But nobody calls me that - well, except my dad. And my teachers, obviously. But everybody at school just calls me Mac.

2. What’s your best subject in school, and what do you wish you were good at instead?

I dunno. I guess my best subject is English - I've always enjoyed reading, and have also been pretty good at coming up with stories ever since I was a kid. (Well, writing them. Not nearly as great at making them up on the spot.) I don't know that I've got all that many subjects that I'm poor at and just can't get...? Mostly it's just a matter of whether or not it's something that's interesting, or bores me.

3. Which tableaux in the haunted maze did you dream up? What costumed character are you planning to play when the haunted maze opens?

Well, you know, my tastes don't run in the direction of trying to literally *terrorize* somebody. I guess I'm more along the lines of the classic Universal monster movies - you know, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, stuff like that. I've always enjoyed dressing up as the Dracula character; we'll have some other people be the Mummy, the Wolf Man, etc. Maybe have this tableaux start things off pretty early, before the creepier stuff some of the other people devise?

4. What one behavior of yours do people most often complain about?

I dunno. I guess some of my friends can get a little annoyed that I'm generally pretty "by-the-book". I try to do a good job at everything I do - why half-ass anything, right? - and I try to help others out when I can. I'm not what you'd call particularly religious, but I do think it's right to help other people out when they need it. My family sure went through hell five years ago, and a lot of people spent a lot of time and energy trying to help us. And, y'know, I appreciate that.

5. How did you feel when your parents moved here from a much larger city? Where do you want to live when you grow up?

Well, y'know ... it made me pretty upset and angry at the time. I mean, living in a city was pretty cool. There was always stuff to do! And moving to a backwater place like this just seemed so BORING! But I got used to it, in time, and eventually made friends and everything. But I sure wouldn't mind moving to someplace like New York when I'm older! Or even someplace exotic, like London or Glasgow. But that's pretty unlikely, I think.

6. What are you superstitious about even though you mostly think superstitions are ridiculous?

I don't joke about dying. A lot of people do: "My parents are gonna kill me for this." Or that party game where you guess how you're going to die, and people try to come up with the most ridiculous or convoluted methods, and try to top each other. I can't get into that. At all. I'll say it: The idea of death terrifies me. And yeah, I'm only in high school and I'm terrified of dying. I know how messed up that is. So I just try not to think about it.

7. You are the oldest member of this group. How do you feel about that, and how do you think it changes how the group relates to you?

I'm cool with that. Honestly, I've never really been close to the people in my grade level for some reason. When I was a Freshman, the people I was close to were the Juniors & Seniors - you know, the drama geeks, the goth girl who used to be a cheerleader, the leather-jacket guy who was always smoking and getting into trouble. The outsiders. Which meant, of course, that in the next couple of years I had to deal with my closest friends leaving, and me staying behind. Which sucked. I guess I've always had to deal with loss.

So now, anyway, I'M the Senior, and MY good friends are the Freshmen and Sophomores. And I guess they look up to me and follow my lead, in the same way that I looked up to those upperclassmen when I was a Freshmen. I've got no illusions about "popularity" - I'll never be one of the jocks or whatever - but I've got a place. So if I'm the oldest of the kids to get this maze up & running, that'll be just fine with me!

8. Why do you hate your boss at your afterschool job so much, and why do you keep working there?

He's just kind of a TOOL, man. He's one of those managers who thinks everybody who works under him is an incompetant schlub, and treats us all like children. I HATE that. News flash: I know what I'm doing, and I'm actually pretty good at it - when you're not interrupting me all the time for things that aren't important. Yes, getting the silverware bundled for the next shift is necessary. Pulling me away when I'm with a customer probably isn't the best time to go over it though.

9. Who are you most going to miss this weekend while you’re hanging out in the field, and why?

Um ... No, I think I'm good, actually. I mean, yeah, Mandy & I just started dating a couple of weeks ago, but we haven't even used the words "boyfriend"/"girlfriend" yet. And come on - it's just three days! I THINK I can handle *three days*, y'know? It's not the end of the world or anything.

10. What’s your planned college major, and what jobs will it get you?

Man, I've got NO idea. I mean, obviously I like to write stories. Even won a couple of "young author" awards. But good luck getting steady work from that! I suppose I could try journalism, but the news just bores the crap outta me...

11. You intermittently have nightmares terrifying enough that you wake up yelling. What are they about, and what event in your life do you suspect caused them?

Well, my nightmares revolve around the night my baby brother disappeared. Obviously. It was a Saturday night and he was fine. I even poked my head into the door of his room, which he'd only moved into a few months previously. (Before that, he was still in a crib in my parents' room.) It was storming pretty badly, but I sat on his bed and talked to him until he fell asleep. And the next morning, it was empty. It was a horrifying and traumatic time for all of us, and my mom never really recovered. I just visited her at the hospital last month and she's still not really "there". The doctors say she just suffered a traumatic break with reality. Which, y'know, anyone could understand.

So my dad and I just try to carry on. We don't really talk about it, and I try not to think about it. But not having any clue what happened with something like that is a thing that haunts you. And sometimes I dream. And it's ... not great.

12. What secret skill do you have that you suspect other people would laugh at?

Well, I don't know that you'd call it a "skill" really, 'cause it's not something I can control. Or is, y'know, reliable. But sometimes ... WEIRD stuff ... just happens around me. Coincidences. Small things nobody can explain. And the funny thing is, sometimes, right before this happens...? I'll sneeze. I dunno - it's not all the time, and it's not 100%. But it's something I noticed a long time ago. Which means that if I ever get that itching going on in my nose, I definitely start paying attention - y'know, that whole "heightened awareness" thing. But sometimes it's just a sneeze.

13. What are you most afraid of your parents discovering in your room while you’re away?

I dunno. A couple of girly mags? My dad and I may not talk about our feelings or anything, but we get along pretty well. I don't know if there's anything that I would feel like I CAN'T talk to him about, or would have to hide.

Live Through This And You Won't Look Back.

On Friday night, I got together with Tish for drinks and to catch up. She'd been to WisCon the previous weekend, and I wanted to hear all about it. (Hopefully next year I'll be able to go?)

At one point, I talked about how I've done the 5-mile run a few times now, but it's still hard as hell, and more often than not I'll try to run that in an hour, and just fall off 15 or 20 minutes in. I'm lacking the energy, and I just can't do it. This especially happens when I'm trying to run in the morning, as by nature I'm not a morning person and my body seemingly isn't set up for that - but due to the particulars of my schedule, it's far more conducive for me to work out in the morning than at night. So I've been going online, looking for help and advice on how to have morning energy, how to really wake myself up, and how to hopefully have what I need to be able to make it through the whole 5 miles when attempted, and not fail out. And, knowing how much amazing progress she's made with this sort of thing - and how hideously, massively early she has to get up if she wants to exercise before beginning her work day - I wondered if she had any advice or suggestions too.

And she did, but it wasn't what I expected. She didn't have particular advice on the energy or wakefulness component. Intead, what she said was that when I'm feeling like I have to stop running, and I'm feeling like I'm going to die ... I have to just push through it. That whether she's running 5 miles or 20 - because that's seriously the level she's at - it's always the first 2-3 miles that are the worst. (In serendipitous timing, nothinfinah confirmed the same in a post earlier that same day.)

I thought about it for a second, and had to admit it made sense to me. After all, that feeling of "oh my god I want to die I can't do this"...? It's not actually (entirely) physical. My feet and legs aren't sending me shooting pains. My heart and lungs aren't about to explode. What I'm feeling then is the psychological torment of physical stress. And that means it can be overcome. That means it really is all about willpower.

The next day I went to the gym and proceeded to have the most intense workout of my life. I'd been (surprise!) lifting 100 lbs for a few weeks, and noted as I began that it was starting to seem a bit easier. So I added a third set of 10 reps onto my regimen, and succeeded at nearly all of them! (Being sure to keep the heart rate up between sets, so as to get the full "circuit training" effect.) By the time I was done, I felt exhausted, and wiped, but strong in mind and body.

Then, feeling ambitious ... I decided to try a run. Even though adding a 5 mile run at the end of intense weight training hadn't worked for me before. But I got on the treadmill, gave myself a 5-minute warmup walk, and then ... took off. Letting the pumping music in my ears push me further and farther, giving me an occasional boost forward when needed. I'd selected one of the treadmills at the front, as I often do, and was amused to see through the gym's large full-length windows the many attendees of Mayfest below me gathered and binge-drinking enormous quantities of beer.

And yes, it was hard. Especially after a full workout routine already. Especially at the 15 minute mark. The 25 minute mark. But I kept on pushing forward. I kept on pushing through.

"Live through this, and you won't look back" is a great line from a great song: "Your Ex-Lover is Dead", from the Stars 2004 album Set Yourself On Fire. The lyrics are beautiful and evocative, the music is alternately poignant and thrilling ... and having for the first time sought out the music video, I can confirm that's just as gorgeous too. It's an amazing opening track to an album that impressed all of us at the time with how fantastic it was - and honestly, it's a dizzying peak their subsequent albums never again quite reached.

(I will also always remember the comment a fan shouted as Torquil began to play the song the first time we saw them, at The Empty Bottle: "MELODICAS RULE!" Yes. Yes, they do.)

"Live through this, and you won't look back." It's a sentiment that moved me the first time I heard it, and one I've taken advice from, or strength from, in any number of wildly different situations over the years.

Well, it looks like I've found one more applicable use! And when my feet are pounding those steps, and I don't know if I can do it, if I have it in me ... I'll endeavor to keep that in mind.

Tired of Weighting

(Two entries in one day? You must be joking!)

So, the experiment didn't quite go off as planned. Mostly because a different experiment prevailed.

I got into the gym and settled into the first weight machine. Planted my feet, set my back, grabbed the bars and lifted. And--oof! I realized that I'd foolishly gone to lift my first set before actually setting the weights to the 85 lbs that I've been lifting.

So I went to grab the pin to set it to the correct amount, glancing at what it had been set at: 100 lbs. Geez - no wonder!

And then I stopped.

Because lifting 15 more pounds than I'm used to had been hard ... but I had done it.

And I wondered.

See, I've very very gradually been increasing my load on the weights. I'd be at 75 lbs, and doing 3 sets of 10 reps. Then when I was ready for it, I'd progress to 4 reps. After that, I might go up to 5 reps, but I'd more likely add on another 5 lbs and see how many sets I could do from there (probably back down to 2 or 3). And so on.

And that's worked fine. But it's been very, very gradual. And I thought about how last week I had pushed myself further than I thought I could - and surprised myself.

"So," I thought, "fuck it. Let's give it a shot."

And I lifted those 100 lbs ... 10 times. And HOLY GOD was that tough. But I did it!

And then I rested a minute, heart still pounding.  And then I did it again.

And I rotated around to the various weight machines, doing the same.

And it was amazing. I did sets of 10 on all my "regular" machines, jumped up to 100 lbs each. And I was tired as shit by the end ... but I'd done them!

Then, of course - because I apparently don't know when to stop - I got on the treadmill to see if I could run 5 miles even after having just given myself a fuck of a workout on the machines.

The answer? HELL NO. I think I got about four and a half minutes in, and then realized I couldn't even see to the 10 minute mark, much less 60. I shut off the machine and declared it a victory nonetheless.

...and an hour later, because I'm not a wimp (or something), I biked my ass off on the 4 miles into work. And just got home from the return trip.

So. Yeah.

This return to working out really seems to be ... working out. I feel like my body's recently levelled up or something.

It's Always Worth Running

Last Tuesday, I ran 5 miles without stopping, for the first time in my life.

I was irritated, and needed to burn off some steam, so I went to the gym and got on the treadmill.  Normally I do intervals: I'll run for 5 minutes (5mph), then walk for 5 minutes (3mph), back and forth for an hour.  If I'm feeling really ambitious I'll run for 10 and walk for 5, again for an hour.

But I'd been wondering how far I could go without stopping.  Back when I was following the Couch to 5k plan (before a hectic life interrupted), I got up to the point of running for 20 minutes nonstop.  I did it, but just about died.  Still, I was feeling a fire this night, and determined, and decided to see how long I could go.

And I ran, 5 miles an hour, for the full hour.

I was flabbergasted.  I was exhausted.  So many times over that hour I wanted to stop, and rest, and sit.  But I just made myself keep running because goddammit I'm going to do this.

And I did.

On Saturday, I ran it again.  Just to make sure I could, and that such determination wasn't a fluke.

It wasn't.

Now my experiment grows twofold: First, I want to see about doing weight training before the run.  After the run (both times) I've felt too exhausted to do anything but go home.  Weight training will exhaust my arms and upper body, but hopefully I'll still be able to do a full run after.

Secondly, I aim to see if I can still keep up the determination while listening to an audiobook.  Both times I had driving music playing in my ears (Mighty Mighty Bosstones).  But because I've got shitty earbuds, my ears would be ringing afterward.  An audiobook would be better for keeping my mind engaged, though worse for helping to impel me along.

Both of these questions occur to me because ... knowing that I can do this?  I want to push myself to see how often I can do it.  Every other day?  At least.  But I wonder: Could I run 5 miles EVERY day?  Is that a thing runners do?  I had expected my legs to be screaming murder on the days following, but they weren't.

I'll be heading to the gym in the next hour to try it again.

I've recently had an unexpected increase in free time.  Hence the return to working out.

Relatedly, I've been wanting to get back to writing in here.  And I have some things to write about.

Let's see how that goes...

On the Rareness of Liars

I will never understand why some people, when faced with someone who has a different perception or understanding than they do, immediately leap to the defense of "So, what - you're calling me a liar?!"

No. Of course that's not what I'm saying! What seems clear to me is that there's a misunderstanding of some kind, and I want to communicate with you to figure out where that deviation occurred. It might be you misunderstanding something, or it might very well be me. But the thought that you might be deliberately lying never even crossed my mind!

Thankfully, this sort of thing doesn't happen very often - but on the very rare occasion that it does (either from a friend, or a customer), I always find myself stunned, and a bit boggled, that this is the first place their reasoning process has led. Is it just a matter of them being so blindly self-assured that they simply can't conceive of the idea they might have got something wrong? Or does it go deeper than that, and they've never really considered the fundamental difference between the concept of an objective reality, and that of the subjective one each of us uniquely perceives?

Because I have. Honestly, it's one of my main building blocks in the way I try to interact with the world. I'm pretty confident in a number of things, and often feel I have a pretty good idea (more or less) of what's going on. But I'm also intimately aware that every bit of data I get from the world around me comes through my five senses ... and hey, maybe those are flawed. More to the point, every conscious perception we have goes through our reasoning center, and that's far more likely to have erred. (Maybe we were certain X was happening, when it was really Y.) It gets dodgier still when you add in the ambiguous nature of human communication!

So when I encounter someone who has a radically different understanding or memory than I do ... I'm not going to assume they're crazy. I'm not going to assume they're lying to me. I'm going to keep talking to them to see if we can figure out where that deviation occurred. It may be that there's a simple answer - but other times, there's not. I've occasionally had a close friend tell me, "No, that's not what I said at all." Or they'll describe to me a revelation or new understanding that I professed ... and which I have no memory of whatsoever. Guess what? When those things occur, my assumption isn't that the other person's memory is at fault. Instead, much though it may boggle my brain, I'm going to assume it's me.

I don't know. Maybe the "leap to liar" happens with people who instinctively believe there's a simple answer for everything. Me, I'm so convinced of the complexity of human life that I'm honestly kind of staggered these massive miscommunications and errors don't happen more often than they do!

Although another possibility does occur to me. I am by nature an optimist (despite what pitfalls arise), and part of that means believing people are, at their core, inherently good. The reason I always want to work out misunderstandings through conversation is because I default to the assumption that your intentions are good, and I hope you believe the same about me. I'll be straight with you, and I naturally expect you're being honest with me.  On the other hand, someone of a more cynical bent might generally assume that the world is always out to screw them - and this is clearly just one more example of the same, goddammit.

Like I said: It's an instinct that I will perhaps never understand. But I've just got to remind myself that all I can do is keep communicating, and keep trying to see things from their point of view, and hope for an eventual meeting of the minds.

Return of the Star Wars

So last night's bit of late-night Google roaming, which kept me up far longer than I'd intended, at one point led to someone referencing the proposed "reordered viewing" of the Star Wars films - wherein the prequels are placed between ESB and ROTJ.  When I'd glancingly come across the concept a few years ago, it sounded DUMB.  Admittedly, not far dumber than the prequels themselves, but still.

But this guy's argument for the idea - and specifically, how doing so actually strengthens the narrative of Luke's story - turned out to be, to my great shock, really quite compelling.  And the further I went along, the more I realized I actually felt kind of excited by the idea!  (Bonus points: If you want, you can leave out Episode I entirely.)

And it's then that I came across reference to something even more thrilling.

See, I think we can all agree that the Special Editions of IV-VI are Crap, which is why fans have been clamoring for the release of the original editions ever since.  The only thing is - if I'm being completely honest - the versions originally released on VHS and DVD aren't exactly what I want either.  Because you know what?  They look like hell.  The first movie was made in the 1970s, and versions released to the home video market in the 1980s (or early 90s) make that apparent.  Sure, it was visually impressive for the time, but there's no denying that the original release needed some cleaning up, by today's standards:  Crisping the blurry picture, brightening the dim lighting, making the colors vivid and impressive (though not garish) instead of a muted wash.  All the things that the Special Editions DID do - minus all the gratuitously-grafted CGI, of course.

Essentially, I've always wanted the remastering that made the Special Editions look gorgeous ... without the blatant revisionism that made them completely unacceptable.

And, as it turns out, that's what the "Star Wars Despecialized Edition" is.  In what may be the most impressive fan edit ever conceived, this dude has spent an incredible amount of effort and time keeping the content of the theatrically-released Original Trilogy, but going above and beyond to make them look as crisp and appealing as any remastered Criterion Edition.  (The before-and-after photos are stunning.)  And I'll be damned if this isn't precisely the version of the Original Trilogy I've been yearning for!

Reading these two article back-to-back ... I suddenly found my Star Wars fandom rekindled again, for the first time in over a dozen years.

zarfmouse - I think we may have a marathon in our future...!

Surprising Lucidity

In my dream, I'm in Britain, walking alongside the English coast as the lashing waves crash against the rocks.  I'm headed towards the line of houses which are still some ways off, since I want to see if my friend is home and knock on her door.  Except that my friend doesn't live upon the sea, and with a start I realize I'm dreaming.

The very next thought is exactly what it should be: Lucid dreaming!  The concept has always fascinated me, but I've never been able to try it, because I've never been able to have that prerequisite realization of "I'm dreaming!" while still in it.  So:  Let's try some things out!  And what's the obvious first thing to try?  Flying, of course.  Which, as every respectable geek should know, requires simply to throw oneself at the ground - and miss.

Which I do.  I'd already begun running and leaping along the rocks in my excitement, and then I leap a little too large and a little too far, and I lose my footing and don't come down where I mean to - and I'm in the air!  And, as did that pioneer Arthur Dent, I find myself testing out little slopes and curls, riding the air waves and gusts of wind as I try to get a hang of this flying thing.  Except that I've totally lost track of the idea that I'm dreaming and should therefore be able to control this, rather than be subjected only to the whims of the weather.  And within moments I'm dunked in the drink.

(Right before that happens, I'm recalling that quote from Neil Gaiman's Sandman: "Do you know what Freud said about dreams of flying? It means you're really dreaming about having sex." "Indeed? Tell me, then, what does it mean when you dream about having sex?")

So I climb out of the sea, a little chagrined and a lot wet.  I'm more concerned about my computer, which was inside a case but certainly got some amount of water in it.  I get up to my friend's house and knock on the door, but sure enough no one's home.  So I head back to the kind-of-crappy hotel and take my computer out of its case where I verify that yep, it's pretty damn damp throughout.  I ask the couple of people at the reception desk if I can have a towel to dry it out, but they're pretty useless.  And so the remaining moments of this otherwise remarkable dream trickle out in the most mundane manner possible, as I stand in a hotel lobby and wait on its incompetent staff.

But for about ten seconds there?  I was entirely lucid.
On Sunday afternoon, after a couple of weeks of working nearly 60 hours due to severe understaffing, I made a small mistake with potentially major consequences for a large portion of our customers.  I realized the error immediately, contacted the owner, and we figured out how to correct it.  Still, the mistake had been obvious to many (I'd already been getting emails and inquiring phone calls in the time it took to handle), and I therefore had to email everyone to apologize for the situation, and explain that it had been corrected.  I felt terrible and more than a little embarrassed.  On a Sunday night, no less.

(I'm also eternally grateful to zarfmouse for speeding up my process of contacting everyone by HOURS, via his stellar data munging skills.)

While glad that such a situation was taken care of as quickly as possible, I still woke up this morning feeling more than a bit stressed ... and nervous.  Even with having handled things as efficiently and proactively as we did, it was still a mistake that could have upset people (and several of those who contacted me yesterday initially were).  So I sat down to check my email a few minutes ago, bracing myself - as I noticed by the subject lines that I'd already received a couple of dozen responses overnight.

And, to a one, they were all thanking me for our attention to detail, correcting of the situation, and care in following up.

I'm kind of overcome.

I suppose it just serves to remind me of the terrible level of customer service that everyone is used to receiving from most places.  Where you don't really trust the companies you do business with, don't feel confident that they have your interests at heart, and don't feel as if they're really watching out for you.  It's stunning to me the way most companies treat their customers, in a way that's so uncaring, indifferent and detached.  So that when you DO explain to someone that a mistake has happened, when you DO take responsibility for it, and speak to them like they're a real person ... they're so unused to that approach that they're entirely grateful and appreciative.  (I was equally touched by the responses that said "No problem.  I knew you'd take care of it.")

I think of things like bounced check fees, or someone having barely missed a deadline for payment, or any number of gray areas where maybe you'll end up getting some relief but only after a lot of stress and maybe some yelling.  And it doesn't have to be that way!  Treat your customers like people - with understanding, patience, and consideration - and they'll appreciate that, and do the same with you.

Last night I felt chagrined and terrible.  This morning I feel grateful and blessed.

Not bad at all.

(Crossposted from Facebook.)

Travels Anti-Spinward

OH GOD.  Eastward transatlantic travel.  I knew it messes me up, but I forgot how much.  Well: I suppose I'll see the full extent of that later today.

Travelling against the sun.  It's a killer.  I remember the first time I visited the UK, leaving in the Chicago afternoon and arriving in the London morning.  Except: Due to the direction of travel, it's as if the speed of night is doubled.  Suddenly: There is no night. Greet the new dawn!  When we landed at something like 8am London time, it was only 2am Chicago time.  The time of night I would normally, in those days, only be starting to fall asleep.

Walking around my first day in London (something hotly and feverishly anticipated), on a night's slumber of zero, was not how I'd hoped to start that first trip.  I was still enthralled as I first encountered what would become my favorite city on Earth, but I also recall feeling as the shambling dead: brain-dead, rapidly deteriorating, and ready to fall to pieces at a moment's notice.

Ever since, I have always tried to time my eastward ocean journeys appropriately: Leave early in the morning, so I arrive into London at night.  I'll only have been up half a day, but the rigorous stupors of travel, combined with the presence of night, easily coaxes me to sleep.  When I wake up the following morning, I've already made significant progress on resetting my body's clock to its newfound clime.

But this time, no.  I looked at morning flights, truly I did, but the difference between one that arrived at night versus one that arrived in the morning totalled (if I recall) in the hundreds of dollars.  So I went against my better judgment and chose the overnight transit.  Further, I reasoned that the way to induce my body to fall asleep on the plane would be to upset my rhythms the night before, going to bed very late and rising very early, only allowing myself a scant few hours in bed.  I might sleepwalk through much of the day, but when the time came and the hour was necessary, I would easily fall asleep on the plane - ideally waking only upon our arrival into the London dawn.

Sure would have been nice if events had gone according to plan, no?

Instead, despite my shallow doze of the night before, I could *not* fall asleep as soon as I boarded the flight from Boston to the UK.  I read a bit on the Kindle, I read a couple of comics, and I was about to watch a half hour of television on my iPad - strictly to ease my mind toward cozy relaxation - when the airplane crew finally turned off the lights in the cabin, and instead showed on the monitors the time till arrival: just under four hours.  OH GOD.  I curtailled my Pad, snuggled into blanket and mini-pillow best I could, and put music into my ears with the volume turned low, with the hopeful intent of lulling myself to sleep soon as could be.

(Oh for crap's sake.  Only after the fact do I realize the name of the album I put on: Neutral Milk Hotel's magnum opus, In the Aeroplane over the Sea.  Of course.)

Once again: It was a lovely plan.  Yet though I did rest, I did not sleep.  Or if I did - for I recall some few abruptly noticed transitions of unconsciousness - then my sleep was measured not in hours, but mere minutes.

And this after a previous night of well-intentioned sleep deprivation!

We land very shortly.  Estimated arrival time: 7.45am London time.  2.45am Chicago time.  After disembarking, I'm to immediately hop a second, much shorter flight, before finding myself in Ireland: First time visiting Cork.

Once again, it's going to be a very, very interesting first day.

Also: Real-time journalling?  After so many years of not?  Huh.  Who knew?