British Health Care

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Search doctor + tea = this image.  Sorry, best stereotype for a British doctor I found.
Way back in July, on a fine summer evening, biking back from a lovely night of comedy and beer, my bike decided that it was fundamentally done with supporting me and thought it would be great laugh to instead opt for horizontal positioning.

This was while I was happily cruising down the street, dreaming of a soft bed and restful sleep before waking  for work in the morning. My dreams were interrupted by my head bouncing along the ground, luckily well wrapped in a helmet. My shoulder bore the brunt of the impact; I distinctly remember it skidding and grinding along the pavement, bringing my forward progress to a halt.

From my prone position on the (luckily deserted) street, I looked around for what might have caused my sudden fall from grace, and saw no obvious culprit. It was close to midnight and I picked myself off the ground, saw that my bike was more or less fine (it was the one, after all, that had opted for this change in the scheduled programming), and decided that I would just have to walk the rest of the way, pushing my traitorous steed along.

I limped, cursed, thanked everyone who has ever admonished me to wear a helmet when biking, and tried to feel-out where I was damaged. Doing quick math in my head, I figured I had about four miles yet to go, which at my hobbling pace would get me home after 1am, and since I had to wake up for work at 6:30, this just would not do.

So I remounted my untrustworthy ride. Upon doing so my shoulder informed me that it was distinctly unwilling to perform any requested duties, and was in fact really quite angry with me.

No matter, I gritted my teeth and attempted to lean as much as possible on my right side, only using that arm for small steering help and braking.

I arrived home without further incident, collapsed in bed, and found that sleeping on my side was something that I just would no longer be doing.

The next week involved me complaining loudly about my damaged shoulder to anyone who seemed to have some sympathy to spare. Unfortunately the fact that this incident happened after the afore-mentioned comedy show where beer was consumed reflected the blame squarely on me. The accusations that I must have been drunk felt all the more unjust since I clearly remember having a mere three beers over the course of the night. Math of three beers divided by three hours yields sober, yeah? Sometimes math lies, I’m told.

Regardless, eventually both Firefly and a co-worker talked me into going to a doctor. I am normally of the opinion that one’s body will heal itself unless part of it is unexpectedly detached or otherwise performing unnatural activities. The fact that my shoulder was not healing rapidly was easily chalked up to the fact that I have become old (much to my dissatisfaction).

However, here was a chance to fully experience how British Health Care works. Years ago (June 2013 to exact) I had a brush with the system as a traveler.  I remember being quite pleasantly shocked that a bill for setting me up with a walking boot, xrays, and doctor visits came to less than $300 back then.  Now I had a chance to experience this as a local. It was in this spirit that I embarked on this next journey.

So here is a quick inventory of state of things around a week after I was betrayed by my own bike:

My shoulder had a lump poking up at the top. Like someone had decided to build an extension up by my left ear and had started to erect some scaffolding.

Moving my arm was generally fine, except for a few motions. Any pushing motion was excruciating. Raising above chest level: similar.  This made writing on white boards at work a comical exercise of grimacing and propping up with my other hand. It also made activities such as donning or removing my shirt to be a ten minute charade each morning and night.

Sleeping was problematic due of the previous note that laying on my side generated a wild array of bodily complaints. Any attempt to lay on my damaged shoulder would elicit fire alarms, air raid sirens, and screaming children. Laying on my right side was initially without pain, but within minutes my left shoulder would start to ache as gravity pulled it in a position it did not want to go in.

Still: I’ll just heal, yeah?

First neat discovery: there’s a hotline that people in England call to help one decide how to proceed with a medical quandary. Here you speak to a real-life person who will ask a battery of questions to help diagnose how severe your situation is and whether you should make a physician appointment, go to the A&E (accident and Emergency) for urgent treatment, or if you just need to rub some dirt on it and grow a pair ya pansy. Below is a partial recreation of this conversation:

her: What is your trouble?

Me: My left shoulder hurts.

Did you have recent trauma to it?

Yes, bike accident.

Are you able to move it?

Yes.

How severe is the pain?

Depends on the motion.

Can you lift your arm vertically without pain?

I mean, isn’t all lifting vertical?

Are you being purposely obtuse?

Don’t British people respect this and basically practice it as a religion?

Do you really think you should be asking me questions when you have a potentially terrible medical problem?

Look, I’m just doing this so my girl and a random co-worker will know that I’m right; I don’t need a doctor, I just need some time to heal.

Let me guess, you searched online and have diagnosed yourself expertly.

God no! the Internet told me I have cancer.

So what is the basis of your belief that you don’t need a doctor?

Ignorance and optimism.  This is how I live my life.

I see. Your nearest A&E is a half mile away. Go there now.

It’s 7pm! On a Tuesday!

We know your kind. Go. Now.

(note: I may have short-cut the actual diagnostic questions that led the nice lady to direct me to the A&E. I feel the mood, however, is representative)

So I went. My coworker direly intoned that he hoped the wait would be less than a couple hours. Dry British wit, I presumed; if this was to be multiple hours I wouldn’t be getting home until midnight. Sleep deprivation had become a force in my life and I was eager to not exacerbate it.

At the A&E, you are greeted at reception where you complete an intake form and wait for someone to take a quick measure of how urgent you problem is. My turn came quickly, and after answering a few questions about my situation and filling in a meager form, I was told to go wait in the waiting room.

It was here that the reality of my situation set in:

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Is this in metric units?

So apparently Tuesday night is a hot night for A&E. Who knew? I silently hoped this monitor was displaying for some other waiting lines. Majors, for example could mean there was a waiting queue for military leaders. Urgent might be a euphemism for people with toe nail fungus that really, desperately needed some treatment. Children were getting preferential treatment, obviously. I pondered whether dying the gray out of my hair might help me pass for twelve.

So I wandered around the waiting room, feeling ridiculous amid a sea of people with bandages on the heads, makeshift splints, crutches and other obvious ailments. I had no obvious malady; I just looked like a guy loitering in the waiting room, hands in my pockets (helped keep weight off my shoulder). I came to wish for an openly gushing wound or other such visible damage.

Eight pm came and went.

Nine o’clock barely touched it’s toe on the stage before it too was rushed to the exit.

Ten o’clock slid by grudgingly, unwilling to give up the limelight to it’s later brother.

Eleven o’clock chimed in cheerily and I fumed in the corner. What if I really was gushing blood? What if I had a life threatening problem? Well, the answer there was obvious: All the people I saw with head bandages and splints and such seemed to be getting attention before me. I began to suspect I was a victim of some sort of able-ist prejudice.

During these hours, I cleared out my backlog of podcasts, read every news item on my phone, paced for 6,000 steps, and made up backgrounds for my fellow waiting room patrons. I also seethed about this waste of my night when ultimately I knew the doctor would tell me to ice my injury, keep it elevated, take ibuprofen for swelling and pain, and take it easy.

It’s not my first time to the injury rodeo. I know how this goes.

Eventually my name was called by a large, efficient nurse. She introduced me to the baby-faced trainee that was shadowing her, took me behind a curtain, asked a few questions, helped me remove my shirt (when assisted this activity is much easier, I found), prodded me a few times, then sent me for x-rays.

I returned with the following results:

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frowny-face added afterwards, in case you thought I have a sad ghost visible only in x-ray

Turns out the gap is not supposed to be there. This is what is called a “separated shoulder”. The nurse explained quickly but compassionately that this is an injury that will require a fair amount of Physical Therapy, and they usually do not recommend surgery for this as you can strengthen the surrounding muscles to restore full mobility and functionality.

The trainee fitted me with a sling.  The nurse gave me a number to call to set up a PT appointment. A tube ride home, and a restless sleep found me in the morning looking at my shoulder in the mirror, accusingly. Why just a week ago I had been doing fifty pushups in the mornings, and now trying to push open a door stabbed a knife through my shoulder. This situation seemed monstrously unfair.

Not to mention I had to endure the fact that Firefly and the co-worker had been right.

Through July, August, and September I attended a few physical therapy sessions where an intimidatingly good looking Australian man gave me exercise advice, workout bands, and told me stories of his own rehab of a similar injury from a surfing accident. I diligently grimaced and sweat at home, and by the second appointment I had nearly full range of motion. By the last appointment he pronounced me as “recovering really well” and instructed me to get into a gym where I could start adding weight to my movements instead of just the bands.

And so it is that I now go to a local gym and grimace through light weight movements, telling my shoulder to quit it’s complaining. But it is still a fine time to recollect on what we have learned about British Health Care:

  1. The A&E could really do with a little more staff on a Tuesday night. I don’t know how it is the rest of the nights, but given my co-worker’s hints, this might happen more often than ideal.
  2. The nurse, Physical Therapist, and all other people who treated me were very attentive, knowledgeable, and compassionate. This is worth pointing out because it is subtle until contrasting with the business-like brusqueness of most doctor visits I experienced in the states.
  3. The total bill for my A&E visit, sling fitting, PT appointments, exercise bands, comes to (Drum roll please): a clean zero. Donut. Nada. Zilch.

I simply walked in, announced that I required medical help, and was given requested help.

It’s almost like there is compassion and healing built into the entire system, instead of a business model.

Madness.

I don’t know what has gotten into these people. Obviously nobody has informed them that the only reason to get into the medical practice is to get rich.

So now my shoulder and I are on relatively better terms. I am able to lay on my side and sleep is once again something to be enjoyed like a fine wine. Pushups are still somewhat elusive in that I can do a few but soon my shoulder advises me that it would rather I didn’t.

And I have a much deeper appreciation for the security the British populace must feel, knowing that if something catastrophic befalls them, they only have to worry about dealing with that problem and not extra financial destruction and horror.

I’m also aware that I can purchase “premium” insurance (one of the perks of my job), which will give me access to private health care. Perhaps this allows one to skip the wait? I can’t imagine needing better care than I have gotten thus far, only quicker. Hopefully I don’t have another opportunity to explore this further.

Biking in London

Getting around without a car in a city of nearly 8 million people turns out to be simple.

My first few months here I was infatuated with The Tube. For someone who has never lived in a city where there is reliable transit which comes nearly every minute, connecting to a webbed network that can whisk you from one part of the city to a far-flung exotic other, this was magical.

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You can go anywhere! In minutes! Carried along by 19th century magic!

Seattle for most of my years there, was much more similar to Dublin.

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True fact.

So I rode the tube everywhere.  To work. To the park. To go get a loaf of bread (just kidding, you don’t get bread in England, especially after you’ve had bread in France or Germany).

However, after a few months of this, I began to see the Tube for what it really is: a compression sock for humanity.

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I’m pretty sure we can all fit if we put aside our British sensibilities for a moment.

During the summer months where the Tube is a full 5-10 degrees warmer (which is naught.6 – tea.pi for you Celsius folks) than above-ground temperatures and moistly humid to boot, the underground because a thing to avoid unless your leg has broken off and you need to carry it to clinic to get it reattached.

And so it came to pass that I acquired a noble steed. Of the steel and rubber variety.

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Eight gears of fury

Here I must point out some differences between Seattle and London from a biking perspective.  First off, Seattle has, shall we call it, elevational challenges.

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Gravity is a harsh mistress

London, as a way of comparison, is basically a smooth sheet of glass.  Well, as smooth as brick, cobblestone, and cigarette butts can be anyway. As further proof, here’s an elevation map of Seattle and London for side-by-side comparison.

Anywhere you go in Seattle, you are going to have to climb like your life depends on it. After which you will descend like a death-defying rocket, only to bottom-out in some intersection where you must somehow maintain speed through traffic to get up the next bloody hill.

Whereas in London, I’m pretty sure if you got up a good head of steam you could coast from one side to the other, were it not for the winding roads and traffic.

Ah, but the traffic!  Here’s where things get tricky.  In Seattle you have a monstrously polite populate espousing an ethos of “you go, oh no I insist you go first, no I couldn’t possibly and we are both going to die at this intersection if you don’t go.”

London traffic is a much more independent, watch-your-back sort of affair. And while they have designated some truly excellent “Cycle Superhighways” that mark out space for bikes, most roads were built for ox-carts and prostitutes so you are fighting for space with black cabs, scooters, buses, other bikes, pedestrians and the occasional grocery delivery robot.

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You go first. Oh no I insist, you go.

It was into this environment that I cautiously pedaled, hoping to find an alternate fresh-air transportation option.

Due to my first experience in this environment, I opined on the Book of Faces that biking in London is very much like playing dodgeball in a narrow hallway where all the balls are actually large metal boxes that want to kill you.

I would like to extend that:

Biking in London is like affixing your mouth to an exhaust pipe and exercising vigorously for twenty minutes.

Biking in London is like being a fish in a fast-moving school, where the school consists of  metal, rubber and lycra and all the other fish might commit suicide on you at any minute.

What I’m trying to say is that biking in London is busy. Crowded. Fraught with giant buses, angry scooter drivers, kamikaze bikers, sullen pedestrians, and roads that quaintly harken back to a time when people move at a more glacial pace.

And there are a lot of us bikers out there.

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Typical morning intersection. Do these people look trustworthy to you?
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The joy of the morning commute. You can read it on their faces.

Also, I quickly learned that bikers see roads and lines and stop lights and any other impediment to their progress as either polite suggestions or active challenges.

Bikes go anywhere, everywhere, at any time, and however they please.

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Despite all of these challenges, it is infinitely preferable to the tube. Which gives you some idea of how stifling the tube can be.

In addition, the dodging and weaving and forced alertness of your trip yields an invigorating commute, ensuring you arrive at your destination awake, with adrenaline coursing through your veins, and with a newfound appreciation for what it means to be alive.

Because you realize that you are, in fact, still alive. And that’s not to be taken lightly.

Comedy Under Lock and Key

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Horses? Comedy? What’s happening here? Patience, gentle reader. All will be clear.

While making new friends in your late 40’s is a somewhat fraught affair, especially when starting from scratch in a new country and in a city that seems to be even more famously stand-offish than the Seattle Freeze, I eventually did meet some fine folks who deigned to invite me along their various outings. One such outing is a comedy night.

Now, this is not your normal comedy night. Sure, there are comedians. And to assist you in laughing at whatever the current act happens to be going on about, there is also alcohol, should you wish to imbibe.

But there are notable differences: For instance, this comedy night is held in a brewery. A tiny, ancient, decrepit brewery.  Actually, a mostly defunct brewery. More on that in a bit.

Another difference: you are locked inside. Literally locked in with a key and all.

Lastly, all the beer is free.

A bit more about the first point to help explain the last two: more than a decade ago the Ram Brewery was abandoned by it’s commercial brewers. At the time it was the oldest continuously brewing brewery in London. This seemed to be a tradition worth keeping, so a heroic rogue brewer named John Hatch stepped up and decided to keep brewing even without the commercial side of things.

Eventually the developers of this area envision a glimmering pantheon to “progress”, and this construction is active and apparent from every direction. In the meantime, this ancient little brewery crouches amid the construction of shiny condos like the family’s pet rat: not unwelcome, but also not really lavished with love and attention either.

Waitaminit – you said the beer was free?

Oh, yes.  Sorry, I got off on history for a moment there.  So John keeps brewing. however, this is not a commercial enterprise anymore.  John can’t sell any beer on the premises. So he brews for the sheer love of it, and then hosts these comedy nights.

He does this as a way to allow people to consume his beer.

For free.

Well, basically.

So here’s how the night works: you must have heard of this comedy night by word of mouth from a current attendee.  You must have paid precisely £20.50 per person ahead of time through England’s byzantine bank transfer methods. You arrive between 7 and 8 where you are greeted by a perpetually grinning man with mad scientist hair and a honest-to-god lab coat.

This is John. He checks your name on his list, and then you are in.

Once inside the gate, you walk through a cobbled courtyard amid huddled brick buildings being actively reclaimed by nature. Ivy curls up, tall grasses erupt out of the corners, moss and leaves clutter the walkway. The entry to the the brewery is through a single sliding door. This is where they used to keep the horses.

And a token Ram. Thus the name.

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Comedy nights: not what this building was designed for.

The main room of this building is set up with folding chairs and a banner instructing you as to the proper activities for the night.

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We have marked out our seats. We always claim the front. We have become known as “The Front Row Only Gang”.  So, yeah: FROGs.

Your first order of business, naturally, is to acquire some of the fruits of John’s labor. You will be instructed to keep your glass as they don’t have extras to wash between servings. They will, however, be happy to rinse it if you’d like to change your drink selection midway through the night.

Most people seem happy to keep their glasses as this allows them to have more beer.

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These people are smiling because they have more beer than you.

Then, drink in hand, you socialize until the acts start.

John the brewer will stand on the tiny make-shift stage and explain that you are, indeed, locked in a brewery (I’m guessing this is a precaution against serving alcohol freely?).  Then the acts start.

You will be treated to a variety of comedians. In my three times there I have seen three each time, and each one has been well worth the price of entry even without a beer. We’ve had acts from Ireland and Australia. This last time had a comedian with Cerebral Palsy who was equal parts alarming in his gyrations and creative in his jokes. By that I mean he was just downright hilarious.

At the end of the night (around 11 by this time) you are informed that you must leave the premises, though if you wish to continue your revelry, there is a commercial pub just down the way that will happy to entertain you. Since this has always taken place on a work night, I have not opted for a continuation of any festivities.

I’m counting this as my favorite London discovery so far. And I have DCT to thank for the cross-pond introduction to a great group of locals who took us under their wing in this city.

So if you plan on visiting, check with me ahead of time to see if your visit might happen to coincide with a comedy night. It’s the best thing you can do in this city. If you know the right people.

London Cat Retrieval.

Let’s file this under relocation tips: lessons about moving pets abroad.

First off, let’s be clear: my position on the matter was that perhaps the cats didn’t want to come to London? Perhaps they would be happier with friends or family back home? Perhaps the small London flat, while procured specifically for it’s cat-friendly qualities, might cramp their proverbial style?

Alison’s stance was that the cats are family. You don’t leave family members behind. That’s just not a thing one does.

So Alison made the arrangements and the cats would become international travelers. When all was said and done, the cats were required to embark within 10 days of getting their final clearance from the vet in Portland. As fate would have it this meant they would arrive a day before her. This means that yours truly was conscripted to go pick up the cats. Korey Kitten Katcher to the rescue.

Now I’m a penny-pincher in most things, and I’m already blanching at the cost of importing felines across the pond. The service she has selected handles everything to pamper her cats in flight, even gives them a little play-and-pet break at their layover.  We should all be this lucky. So the deal is: this service will manage the cats from Portland through customs in Heathrow. They ask if we want a delivery service to the house and I’m immediately thinking: pay some exorbitant fee only to be required to stay at home for some 3-4 hour delivery window, during which some cockney gent with a cab will hand over two cat carriers filled with unstable cats in unpredictable mental and emotional states after a wild ordeal in the air and in a car? Madness. I can just was well throw them in an uber on my own and not be constrained to waiting around for the delivery.

This saves money: good.

Also: the cats would see a friendly face as soon as possible after their trip: better!

And I show that I’m doing my part to make Alison’s transition as smooth as possible: I’m a hero!

In conclusion, I am not only frugal; I’m smart, self-reliant, and actually a very caring man to boot. I’m pretty much a saint at this point. Alison will be so proud of me, and thankful for the care and nurturing I have shown the cats.

besides: penny pinching FTW.

Let us jump to the day of delivery: I leave work early, take the tube out to Heathrow Terminal 4 and set out to locate this customs office, this quaintly named “Animal Reception Centre”. While the name implies a friendly area where jetsetting animals of all stripes might be received upon arrival, their dog-and-kitty passports stamped, a bowl of caviar to snack on whilst they wait for their humans to greet them, I’m pretty sure that it’s actually some darkened office in the bowels of the airport.

Wrinkle number 1: I discover it is not at the terminal. It’s not at the airport at all.  It’s a separate building.

Across a freeway.

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Okay, well fine. That’s a couple blocks, yeah? I set out in the warm August evening. Now whomever designed Terminal 4, was sitting at his or her drafting table, and not only did the thought of someone WALKING out of the terminal never occur to them, it was actively planned against. The exit has fences up to the curb, zero sidewalks, a long cue of cars and trucks leaving, and the winding freeway channels hurtle large metal boxes in every direction at you as you hug the fences and attempt to cross where no man was intended.

My presence in this no-mans-land elicits a fair number of expressions from drivers that basically are summed up as “What’s this gent here think he doin, eh? Escaped mental patient maybe?”

I ended up on a green swath of grass along a “river”. (looks to be more runoff management than river, but allow me my poetic license.)

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Not bad, eh? It occurred to me that, with the street-locked nature of the exit from the terminal, actual human interaction with this untouched heath is probably extremely rare. I suddenly felt myself an urban explorer, a pioneer traversing greenery never before discovered (save the landscape maintenance crew).  Anyway: seems a shame for all this prettiness to be perpetually unappreciated. I continued on.

Soon I reached the “Reception Centre” (read: Cat Jail, as this image shows).

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Here there is a meager waiting room separated from the business of animal importing by a door made of 1-way glass. I am instructed to take a seat. A lone TV screen, probably of regal stature when it was installed in 1982, now an almost embarrassing bulk, shows a documentary of sorts, recounting the thrills and challenges of live in the import business.

When I sit down it is showing a set of dogs behind cage doors, and is intoning dire consequences for them should their owners not be located. The story setup is familiar to anyone who has watched early National Geographic shows.

People waiting for animals are joyfully and tearfully reconnected. Kids scream in delight as a curly haired mutt leaps and licks and cavorts on them, barely restrained by a leash.

The looming TV has moved on to a very large turtle. I seem to have lost the story line.

A calm couple is reunited with a spent-seeming poodle, who nevertheless manages an appreciative crane of it’s neck and affectionate series of thankful licks.

The screen is now showing sea lions. I’m not sure why.

Pets come and go. People come and go. Tears and happiness and screams of delight parade in front of me. It’s really quite a moving display, one after the other.

The TV is showing crocodiles and snakes.

 

A nice lady informs me that my cats will be out shortly, and advises I wait out front for them. As I leave, the TV has decided that showing how to handle tarantulas is the most applicable story line for those waiting for their pets.

The wait was long, and the day is turning to night, but eventually they produced the required felines.  Two carriers arrived on a flat bed cart, much like if you were shopping for lumber at Home Depot. Now Alison’s cats come in two varieties.  There’s the smart, calm, reasonable one.  Then there’s the other one.  We will call him the “sweet” one for purposes of not maligning his character too hastily.

This “sweet” one, going by the moniker of Timmy, arrived already expressing his displeasure in outbursts spaced roughly one second apart, and hitting a jarring note that causes my molars to sink deeper into my gums. Which is fine because, well, receding gums and old age. Anyway, I digress.

The calm one, Groo, regards me with one eye from his curled bed at the back of the carrier.  As if to say “Human, I know not what hell you have chosen to visit upon me, but I shall bear this burden until it’s end. When this ordeal is finished, you and I will have a reckoning.” Having communicated clearly with a hate filled glare, he returns to sleeping.

Timmy’s outbursts are also rather easy to interpret.  His is basically saying: “Hey! Hey! Oh My God! Hey! Hey! Heeeeeey! Goddamit hey!” as he paces the length of his oversized carrier.

I poke my head down to his level and assure him in calm, placating tones that everything is fine now, he safe, and he shall soon be to his new home.

Timmy expresses: “Hey! Hey! Hey!”

Tearful reunion this is not.

So with this cat alarm going off in the carrier by my side, the evening darkening and getting colder, I arranged for our passage home, hoping that the cat would calm down and copy his smarter brother as soon as I get them in a car.

And that is where we encountered wrinkle #2, and it’s a doozy:

Turns out Uber will not pick up anyone from a place that is not the actual, physical, geographic terminal. The app snaps your location back refusing the drop a pin at your current location. So I try another route: I request the pickup at the terminal, then contact the driver to explain that I’m actually a mere five minute jaunt to the south and west of the terminal.

The first driver hangs up on me. I check the app and the ride has been cancelled.  How rude.  I set another pickup.

Upon calling this new driver, he explains in a heavy accent (Sudanese?) that while he is effusively sorry, he cannot pick me up anywhere but the terminal.

My rising panic leads me to explain to him that there is sweet, sweet lucre to be had for him, cash in hand, should he opt to just come pick up myself and these blasted felines. The deal falls through.

At this point my civic duty rises to the forefront. Fie on Uber, they are an evil company anyway, right?  I should support the local service.  The black cabs are where it’s at, even if they will be twice as expensive.

The black cabs, which have been in heavy competition with Uber since the later arrived in town, is known for requiring it’s drivers to pass a ridiculously extensive test taking two years or more of memorizing London streets and landmarks, and thus is a much more expensive though reliable service to the feisty upstart Uber. Any cab driver you happen to take a ride with will take the time to explain all of Uber’s failings to you while you sit, a captive audience in their back seat. It is with this fierce competition that I confidently call a cab.

Timmy applauds my decision by asserting “Hey” a few thousands more times.  Groo continues to sleep malevolently.

The app used for hailing a cab is called Gett.  It functions much like Uber’s app. I can see the cab that has answered my call on a small map. Five minutes away. Two minutes away. I position the carriers expectantly, hoping they will fit okay in the spacious rear area, and the Tim will quiet down once he is in a car.

Five minutes away. Seven minutes away. I begin to worry. Then the cab disappears and the app tells me that the ride has been cancelled, and won’t I please wait while they find my closest ride?

Long story short: through five attempted cab hailing’s, three calls to the cab company and zero actual cars arriving, I get sent an apology from the cab company with a coupon for 10% off my next cab ride.  Just not THIS cab ride.

I look at Groo.  He blinks and returns to sleep.  Timmy expresses his displeasure by continuing to hell in the same fashion he has since I encountered him. Potentially since Portland, for all I know.

The path forward is sadly clear: I must carry these cats to the terminal, where I can secure a blasted Uber. Or a Black Cab. Even a bike messenger who could strap us to the back of his cargo would do. Anything will do at this point.

Wrinkle #3 – This is also a doozy: one of the cat carriers is large enough for a German Shepard. And has no handle.

This is also a problem in that I recently suffered a separated shoulder, thus rendering one of my arms less than useful.  There’s really no other choice than to consolidate. I pull Timmy out of his mansion, at which point he makes a wild, writhing attempt to either thank me for rescuing him or to escape this hellish prison he has been subjected to.  His narrative evolves:

“Hey! Heeeey! He–  OMG freedom! OMG OMG OMG!”

I quickly shove the writhing beast into Groo’s carrier. He glares at his rest being disturbed. His simple glare is again easy to read:

“If you expect me to share a house with my insufferable brother, you are sadly mistaken, human.”

Timmy ripostes: “Hey! Heeeeeey! OMG HEEY!!!”

Cats condensed, I abandon the carrier-mansion at the Cat Jail and begin my trek back from where I came.

If dodging metal boxes and traversing freeways on foot was a challenge earlier, it is now worse in several ways:

It is night.

I’m tired and irritable.

I have a bulky, surprisingly heavy package.

I have two angry animals inside said package.

I must stop every thirty feet to rest my shoulder which has begun to inform me that it is in no way up for this activity.

Simple calculations at this point taking what should be a fifteen minute walk when healthy, multiplied by encumbrance, adding 30 second rests every 30 feet, yields the inevitable result: sweat, exhaustion, frustration, and regret.

Timmy informed me that he know how I felt.  He expressed this by saying “Hey!”  in one second intervals between exhortations to catch his breath.

I eventually got to a bus stop that promised to take me the terminal. Seven buses passed and I was about to give up when my chariot arrived. Sadly it was standing room only, so I balanced the cat carrier on a seat and crowded in with my fellow passengers.  Timmy informed everyone that he was less than happy with the entire situation and asked them if they might help alleviate this suffering.  He expressed this via repeated “Hey’s”.

The bus deposited me at the terminal and I dragged the carrier to a waiting Black Cab, fearing that the cab would take one look at the carrier and speed away.  Luckily this man, this saint, this angel among mankind just smiled and nodded and we piled in.  The drive from Heathrow to my flat is about an hour. With traffic we will call it ninety minutes. Timmy informed the man that this was, in fact, bullshit.  He continued to do this for the length of the trip at one second intervals. I apologized at roughly two minute intervals.

It was around nine o’clock when we arrived at my place where I released the cats into the new flat. Groo immediately discovered that under the bed was the only safe place in the world and remained there.  Timmy, suddenly silent, strutted around like this was the most natural place in the world, and wasn’t it nice to have arrived.

As for me: I reviewed the wisdom of my frugal nature and found it lacking in wisdom.

How to Argue

cup-of-tea-01Frustrated by the ever-more-extreme level of division and discussion?  Also frustrated by the lack of enough tea in your life?

Me too.

So here’s some guidelines to restore sanity:

  1. First check yourself: are you at all open to new information?
    • No, I know I’m right: Stop. You are part of the problem. Your need to shout your position comes from either fear or anger.  Figure yourself out before engaging.  Perhaps a cup of tea will help you consider things properly.
    • Yes: good, you are one side of hopefully a two-sided discussion.
  2. Before you say anything, can you state the other side’s position in a way they would find acceptable?
    • No: Ask more questions until you can. People find it hard to listen until they have been heard.
    • Yes: Good job, you are not adding to the problem.
  3. Can you state the problems with their position without resulting to name calling?
    • No: Perhaps a cup of tea might help? Come back and try again later.
    • Yes: Excellent, you are less likely to alienate them for unrelated reasons.
  4. Can you state your position a way that invites them to consider your side and keeps them from feeling stupid or attacked?
    • No, they are obviously stupid: Okay sparky, back to the tea for you.
    • Yes: Good, the only way someone will be open to change is if there’s a welcome and open door for it.
  5. Can provide backup (preferably unbiased) for your position?
    • No: Perhaps you need to state your position as an opinion then, and keep an open mind to changing your opinion.
    • Yes: Well done, we are on stable ground here.
  6. Have they seen the light of your position and are considering it?
    • No: Go back to asking questions so you can understand why not. Questions are the only thing that inspire change.
    • Yes: Great, now be absolutely sure to not mock their previous stance. Change is hard and you must be welcoming and nurturing, not boastful.
  7. Have you stated your position, provided backup reference, and they still won’t change their mind?
    • Yes: you might be dealing with someone who didn’t pass step one on this list.  I recommend you have some tea instead of continuing.

If everyone followed this lovely checklist we might make some real progress.

Now I’m off to make some tea.

A Gaijin in Tokyo

Recently I had the opportunity (requirement) to travel to three countries in five days for work. Seoul, then Shanghai, then Tokyo were our stops. It was a bit rushed. However, after we were done with business meetings in Tokyo, I had one full day to wander the city.

Here’s what happens when you let a forty-something gaijin dude loose in Tokyo.

After a ridiculous run at the massive hotel buffet (don’t eat like this at home, kids), I wanted to walk around Harajuku. This district is famous for being a place where young kids get dressed up in crazy costumes and just… hang out. Go there to be seen in their awesome outfits. Especially at Yoyogi park (which is just fun to say, even without crazy people dressed up).

To give you another example of why Harajuku might be a fun place to go, you find things like this on the street:

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Harajuku. Where you can pet 11 captive very hairy cats.

So, I took the subway from my hotel in Ebisu out to Harajuku. On exiting the subway station, I was impressed by a couple things:
1.) the sheer number of people streaming out of the sub station.
2.) there were a bunch of people with signs near the exit.

 

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Undecipherable signs.

My initial thought was that, like you often see at airports, they are waiting here to pick people up who might need a friend to be their local guide. How nice, I thought. The fact that anyone savvy enough to get themselves there by subway probably doesn’t need a guide, much less this veritable plethora, didn’t occur to me. Because my brain sometimes doesn’t like common sense.

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Waiting for Godot?

I also noticed that several of the signs said “Kat-tun” above the indecipherable gibberish that followed. I made a mental note to ask my travel partner who was fluent in Japanese if “Kat-tun” translated to something like “Hello, I’m here to pick up a friend, if you see them, please direct them to me.”

But as I continued on, making for the walking overpass that led to an interesting building I could only see the roof of, it dawned on me that everyone around me was female.

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It’s… all girls? Women? What’s the proper designation here?

I puzzled at this as I walked, feeling a little more out of place with each step. Does Harajuku only allow females? Do guys just not like this kind of place? Have I made the first of many catastrophic errors as a big dumb foreigner? My god, what other faux pas am I committing without realizing it?

At the top of the overpass I was finally clued in to what was happening. I was greeted with the following sight, and the fact that there was a large sign in the middle advertising “Kat-tun”, I came to realize I was in the midst of the gathering for a Japanese boy-band concert (see their pictures on the side of the truck?).

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Progesterone overload.

If you ever want to feel like a total creeper, I highly recommend this as a near-perfect situation. Surrounded by girls / women on the verge of screaming and loosing their collective minds over the prospect of the boy-band goodness they were about to partake in, and being the only male in the surrounding two-mile radius is a good start. Add to this the fact that I stand head and shoulders above everyone there only heightened the sense that I was vastly out of place.

So I bailed out of there rapidly. Back over the walkway, back towards the park opening. I figured some seclusion in the natural beauty of the park would do me well.

I had forgotten that the park was also the site of the Meiji Shrine. My fortunes improved rapidly.

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Natural beauty amidst the Metropolis.
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Peace and tranquility. Literally a two minute walk from the subway. And three minutes from boy band madness.
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Serenity now!
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I actually took even more pictures. But you get the idea.

Along the way to the Shrine, you come across two large displays, one of wine and one of sake.  Supposedly these are donated to the shrine, and are blessed here as well.  I think these are now just empty representations of the historic practice, but I like to think that these are here in case you get parched in your walk along the glorious path to the shrine.  Do you prefer wine or sake? There’s not really a wrong answer here folks.

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Wine that has been blessed.
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Barrels of blessed Sake.

Eventually the path leads you to your destination.

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We approacheth the temple proper

Outside of the temple, there is a station where you are to perform a cleansing ritual where you take a quaint wooden dipper, pour water first on one hand, then the next, then sip a bit and spit it out, thus cleaning your hands and mouth before you enter the temple.

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Ceremony. Even before you enter.

I watched several people do it first as I wanted to get it right.

I’m pretty sure I still messed it up, I’m just not sure how.

Ignorance is bliss, so we move on.

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We stand on the threshold.
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Not a bad crib you got, Mr. Meiji.
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How do you sculpt a tree to be this perfectly round?

As luck would have it, this was a perfect Saturday afternoon, and as such several wedding parties were parading through the temple. I attempted to be polite and let them have their ceremony unmolested by cameras. However, when all the rest of the crazy people around whipped out their cameras and started snapping away like madmen, I went with the crowd.

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If you wish to be married, first you must prove you can walk a straight line and NOT SMILE.
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Alright everyone, back the other way now.

After having my fill of nature and beauty, tranquility and tradition, etc, I figured it best to head back into the city proper and get my fill of the bustle and madness of Tokyo on a saturday.  I was not disappointed.  There are so many shops, interesting buildings, and cool little stands and restaurants to stop in that it would be hard to get bored.  I eventually found a fifth-floor rooftop deck with a beer garden and was able to take a bit on an arial view.  In the distance the slopped roof of the boy-band venue taunted me from afar.

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The rest of the day was spent roving through many little shops filled with many strange things that make you shake your head and go “oh Japan, will you never cease to be delightfully odd and bizarre?”.  Sadly I didn’t capture pictures of these strange things.  One example: a store entirely devoted to stickers with bizarre sayings overlaid on emoji and cartoons saying things like “beware drunkards, don’t give them any piss.” and “listen, I will not, my mind set!”  I was tempted to buy one of each of the 40 thousand stickers, then decorate a building in downtown Portland with them.  Sadly, I acted all responsible and grown-up like and didn’t do this.

One last word about Japan: the food is pretty special.  Even in the grocery stores.  For example, you will never see fruit treated with such care and reverence as you will in Japan.  Example below: every single grape is PERFECT.  And each stalk has been groomed to act as a handle while you pluck each pleasingly rounded globe of perfection and deposit it in your mouth to experience exactly the right crisp and crunch along with a flood of juicy sweetness.

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Fruits never had it so good.

However, some care should be taken on who you let pick the restaurant. My boss, who happens to have lived in Japan for eleven years as a younger man, took us to a delightful little hole in the wall (actually hole in the floor as you go down from ground level to get in it). The menu was a fabulous experience, but required us to put us in his hands for ordering:

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Dead Sea Scroll or dinner menu?

My first warning sign should have been the decoration they chose to hang above our table. I’m not sure who’s mind thought “this is just the thing to accompany guests as they dine on strange and highly speculative foods”

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Not very appetizing, Japan. Not at all.

To be fair, the food was quite good. Except for the “rare chicken”. That was a bit sketchy. I’m a firm believer that chicken needs to be cooked within an inch of becoming charcoal. There’s no telling what’s in a bit of chicken. Nuke it from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure.

In closing, Tokyo is always delightful, with a fantastic blend of new and ancient, tradition and bizarreness. Someone chose to interpret John F. Kennedy’s statement about Berlin as a statement about Tokyo, and I thought it summed it up nicely:

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Eddie Izzard may have been misquoted, but the point remains.

Dusty Addendum: get lost, burning man.

Near the end of my time at Burning Man, I realized I hadn’t spent any time in The Temple.

About the Temple: if most of burning man is white water rapids, the temple is a placid alpine lake. Although both are completely devoid of any water whatsoever, so my analogies leave something to be desired. Whatever, moving on.

This is one of the main constructs and the last to burn. It is a place for people to remember and honor people or things close to them, and hopefully find closure and peace. It’s also a quiet and contemplative place amid the maelstrom.

While I had thoroughly enjoyed my time thus far, I felt I was missing some of the deeper, more potentially “spiritual” aspects of burning man. Which, since so many people had reported that Burning Man could be a life-changed experience, I felt I hadn’t so far gotten the full experience.  I didn’t feel changed.  So I wanted to seek that out.

Nature, however, elected that day as national “dust-storm-a-palooza” day, and as such once I got onto the open playa I was in a near white-out (or “tan out” as the case may be).  I was not to be denied, however.  I pushed on, happy to have a full liter of water on me, good goggles for my eyes and a shemagh for my face.

Burning Man is laid out very logically with roads aligned at hours of the clock, and the giant Man at the center to serve as a focal point so you always know where you are.  This method breaks down when you can see neither the Man, nor any of the camps or roads.  I ended up pushing off in the direction I thought the Man would be, and ended up in a brown cloud of nothing.

Every now and then the blowing would ease up and an opening would appear, allowing me to actually see around for a few seconds.

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A brief clearing in the storm.

However, nice as this was, it didn’t actually help me orient myself, so I continued trying to triangulate myself from various art installations I happened upon, trying to recall by memory where I thought they were in relation to the Man. Anyone who knows me and my memory probably cringes at this thought.

I was not alone out in the storm though. Many people on bikes, on foot, and especially in the roving art cars were out enjoying the storm, and I would from time to time have booming music come through the dust cloud to my right or left, or somewhere ahead of me, only to pass by unseen. A few times I had alarmingly close calls as a behemoth emerged from a cloud of sand nearly on top of me.

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You wouldn’t think this kind of beast could materialize out of nowhere.

A couple times I stopped at an an art installation, just to take a break from the wandering, and the increasing complaining coming from my bike chain. It did not like the gathering of dust, it seemed, and cried out for oil, sweet oil.

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Any port in a storm.

Eventually however, a clearing in the storm happened when I was close enough to actually make out the Man through the dust.

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Ooo! Look! Landmark. Finally.
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Hey… man. Where’d you come from?

I took this opportunity to walk around the Man and see what activity was there. Surprisingly what was normally a busy hub was mostly devoid of people. Only a very dedicated drum circle remained, pounding out a beat invisibly.

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Normally a bustling den of activity. Or wretched hive of scum and villainy. Depending on your perspective.

Back on my bike, now that I had orientation from being at The Man, finding the Temple was pretty quick. The number of bikes outside its perimeter clued me in that even in this storm it would be crowded. Once inside, I noticed the blowing dust winds less, and an overall feeling of quiet and stillness prevailed.

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Somber.

The center of the Temple is the focal point, and where many would leave their momentos and offerings. However, the walls and surfaces were also littered with messages, drawings, papers, and comments. The Temple becomes the embodiment of everyone’s projected emotions. Looking around, I found the Temple itself, even without the emotion attached, to be beautiful and ornate.

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Giant dangling decorative structure.

While I pondered all this, a man in a hot pink mesh shirt, pink skirt, and bright pink furry boots stepped gingerly over other people near the center, and knelt in front of offerings he had apparently left here before. He straightened them, tenderly brushed the dust off of them, and stared silently for several moments. Suddenly his face twisted into a grimace and his body rocked and heaved with open sobbing. I was shocked at his sudden and public outpouring of grief. I wanted to step over the bodies between us and offer comfort, but had no idea how.

Then out of nowhere, the opening strains of “Ode To Joy” erupted. It was a surreal moment, and I wondered at its source: an art car nearby blasting classical music?  Was it possibly in my head and I was having some sort of spiritual awakening in the face of this man’s grief? Seconds later I would realize that an orchestra had amassed in the Temple and begun to play.

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If you look closely you might see a bow.

In the midst of a dust storm, in the middle of the desert, a twelve piece string orchestra had gathered. Violins, cellos, even a double bass I think. These people in their burner garb, goggles and boots, were putting on a performance worthy of black tie and tails in a concert hall.

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The masses press in on the orchestra

They ran through all manner of songs from Ode to Joy to Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, and many I didn’t recognize. It was beautiful and strange. After a few songs I remembered the grieving man and wondered how he was receiving this. When I looked for him he was gone.

The concert finished, silence resumed, and I left the temple.

On the ride back to camp, the dust storm had diminished somewhat so I and my wailing bike chain had a pretty straight shot back.  Which was good because I was out of water and thirst was becoming an issue.

I went looking for a deeper experience, some spiritual side.  But the heavens didn’t weep, my soul didn’t soar, my mind didn’t crack open with new and miraculous understanding.  However, I did get to wander, lost in a desert, without any need to panic or fear for my life; I was safe the entire time and could just enjoy the moments.  And I gained understanding that grief and release are assisted by physical objects and places; to walk away from the physical representations helps one move on.  And lastly I got to experience sublime music played by people who dearly love it, received by people who dearly needed it, in a place everyone shared.

You really can’t ask for much more from an afternoon.

A Week in the Desert

In retrospect, I was not prepared.

To recap how I got here: I tried all year to get tickets to Burning Man. Didn’t work. Gave up hope. Through random chance (and kindness) I managed to meet a group of people heading to Burning Man. I Met them two weeks before we had to leave. And the rest, as they say, is history. As this post will recount.

The group of Burning Man virgins I was to head down with all agreed to meet up and pack the RV’s on Friday, starting around 4pm, with the intention of leaving at 10pm sharp. This would allow us to arrive before noon Saturday and have the rest of the day to set up camp, pitch tents, get our bearings, set up the dome, all that.

The reality was far more chaotic. People filtered in from four until midnight. We didn’t actually leave until after 1 am. One surprised member of the troop commented “Oh, you guys were serious about leaving at 10? Hold on, I haven’t started packing.” This was, as I understand it, at nearly 10pm.

We packed an inordinate amount of booze.

And food.

And bikes, chairs, tents, carpeting, PVC, rolls of spandex, tools, sunscreen, throw pillows, hanging paper lanterns. And glowing things. My god the sheer number of glow sticks, EL wire, and glow in the dark do-dads. We filled two RV’s and two trailers, as well as the trucks hauling them.

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Only the essentials, please.

We even loaded up a six foot tall welded steel heart.

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Bike racks: not just for bikes anymore.

We drove all night, our caravan of RV’s and trucks with trailers. We stopped frequently for gas. Or food. Or regrouping. Night turned to daybreak, then crawled forward to noon and beyond. In the heat of the day we hit Gerlach; last stop before the vast empty desert. In Gerlach we topped off with fuel to last the week, and took on water.

If you are to spend a week in the desert, you must have water. Burning man recommends 1.5 gallons per person per day. We had eighteen people for nine days.

I did some quick napkin math, and while I’m not very good with numbers, my calculations showed we needed precisely: one crap-ton (metric) of water. Luckily one of the camp members had somehow found a giant “water cube”, which was basically a five-foot cubed monstrosity of a holding tank, braced with aluminum bars. More napkin math revealed that while this would indeed hold a metric crap-ton of water, the weight of said water might be a little more than the axle of the u-haul trailer was prepared to shoulder. After much deliberation and shifting of some of the contents in the trailer to arrange the cube squarely over the axel, the agreement was to fill it “mostly” full, and pray everything worked out. So long as the truck could still drive we’d be okay.

So we sped off down the single-lane road towards the empty desert. In our eagerness, our RV might have been piloted a little more aggressively than expected. The coolers shimmied across the floor of our RV, knocking urgently on the door, trying to make a break with our cold beer and food.

Then suddenly we were there. The single-lane paved road brought us to the edge of a vast, flat, empty expanse, like a lakebed long-since dried, white and dusty and featureless. This emptiness was dotted with orange traffic cones which neatly marked out a plethora of lanes winding into the distance.

Since we were there on early passes, the lanes were not filled with cars yet. However, we couldn’t careen wildly about the playa, as the speed limit posted admonished us to keep it down around 5 mph, so as to keep the generation of dust clouds to a minimum. We crawled patiently through the heat until we found the rest of the early birds; lines of cars waiting to get in. The lines were long enough we couldn’t actually see any gate or line of demarcation that would let us know we had arrived.

So we waited.

Every ten minutes or so the cars would move.  Between this time everyone got out and mingled with people from other cars, checking out each other’s outfits or what strangeness was strapped to each other’s vehicles for use later in the week.

An hour of so later our tickets were inspected, our early passes reviewed, and we were given wrist bands to mark the fact that we were allowed in.  The bands were bright red with black, gothic lettering:

“Work Hard.  Don’t Do Stupid Shit.”

A fitting motto, yet a surprising one given Burning Man’s perception from the uninitiated as a hedonistic, hippie-ish playground.  Nobody talks about the work that goes into it.

Next we were caught out as virgins.  We received a welcoming speech at the line between Burning Man and The Rest of the World.  We were welcomed home.  We crawled through the dust to ring a bell and proclaim loudly that we were no longer virgins.  Thusly baptized (and disabused of any thoughts of keeping ourselves in any way clean to start this adventure), we found our site and were shown around the boundaries by a “placer”.

At this point we had about one hour of daylight remaining. So we set about taking care of the priorities: food hastily eaten, tents roughly erected, but most importantly: bikes lit up.

To explain for those who have not been to Burning Man: you are in a desert at night, which means there is no light. If you are moving around, you need to be lit up or Bad Things will happen. People will run into you. You will run into people who don’t see you coming. If you are part of a group, you will become a roving damage field. Bad Things.

So we lit our bikes with battery-powered rope lights, chemical glow sticks, dangling lanterns. And we lit ourselves up too, threading glowing things through our clothes, hats, and shoes. Thusly prepared we ventured out en masse to the playa. This would become a nightly ritual that would never get old. Sadly, pictures can’t do it justice (at least not from my crappy camera):

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Playa at night. Got it? Yep, didn’t think so.

Riding across a darkened flat desert, cool wind rushing by you, amid a sea of lights, sound, and occasional jets of fire, turns out to be a spectacular way to pass a night. And we would do this every night because it is simply amazing. Even without a plan of where to go, you could see something in the distance, fly over to check it out, and invariably you would end up at something spectacular. A roving dance party in the desert. An interactive art installation. A fire-breathing machine. Some combination of all three.

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A lit stage in the background. Various madness in the foreground.

Next time I must bring a camera that is capable of nighttime photography instead of my poor little phone camera. We returned to camp after 2am. And that would be the earliest we ever returned for the rest of the week.

The following morning, I was awakened by the unexpected intrusion of Sheena Easton into my tent.  Apparently one of the camps near us decided that “My Baby Takes The Morning Train” might make a perfect alarm clock.  This was not the “oontz-oontz” experience I had been promised.  By 8:30 the tent’s greenhouse properties were in full effect and I was thus left with a choice of either getting up or dying in a puddle of my own sweat.

So we rose, gather for breakfast, and planned our fist day on the playa.  But not before we saw our first desert fish:

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A fish. In the desert. Sure, why not?

Our camp site was large, and climbing on top of the RV’s gave an excellent view of both it and the rest of Burning Man.

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The camp site
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Dust devil on the march.
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Panorama-rama

So, first order of business was to get the camp constructed, build the dome and all that. However, the encroaching sun reminded us that if we didn’t rapidly construct something to provide us a retreat from it we would regret it. So shade become the priority.

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Shade: a precious commodity.
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The common area, which would shift with the sun until every chair was piled under a tiny spot of shade.

With shade constructed, and our camp common area established, the real work could begin in earnest.

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Let’s build a dome in the desert.

A few of the guys had actually stayed up late, after everyone had gone to sleep and threaded all the branches we brought down into the steel heart to make it more awesome.

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My heart is a work in progress

With enough people working, constructing a thirty foot dome and decorating it, complete with sound system, carpet, throw pillows, and a giant beating heart decorated with leather souvenir bracelets goes pretty quickly.

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The fully operational battlestation. Err… heart.

Once we had the dome and our common area constructed, our attentions turned to experiencing all that Burning Man had to offer. And here is where days blend into one another and I fail to take any pictures to help distinguish or document the days. So instead of giving a day-by-day, I’ll try to summarize what boils to the top for me.

We quickly learned there is too much going on for you to possibly see everything. You won’t be able to even attend all the things that sound extremely interesting, never mind the “kind of interesting”, “slightly curious”, “intriguing but rather scary and intimidating” or even the “wouldn’t normally, but what the hell” options. There is a guide book that lists everything going on every day at every hour. It’s daunting. Most of us ended up wandering around and seeing what we ran into.

Which is not a bad approach, as it turns out.

We quickly made friends with our neighboring camps, especially the Shady Lady Saloon, which contributed to the community by holding happy hour every afternoon with custom created bourbon drinks, a new one each day and each one lovely.  The camp just up the street, Spank The Monkey, offered to instruct you on how to either give or receive a good spanking.  Up from that was the “Department of Collections” which had a wall of things or experiences they were collecting.  We planned to partner with the Shady Lady camp to earn the “30 Person Cinnamon Roll (group hug)” item, but someone beat us to it.

And the madness went on from there.  Yoga classes, tattoo stamping stations, football viewing parties (most unexpected), climbing structures, movie walls, and many, many places to have a drink and get to know people.

In between all this, we offered our own camp to people.

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Step into my office.

A heart that would pulse light in time with your own heartbeat if you put your finger on a sensor.  Leather bracelets to take away as keepsakes.  A place to sit and relax, listen to music, or even perform some if the mood took you.  Also a good launching place for our camp madness each night.

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Everything is perfectly normal here. Just another Tuesday.

We even hosted a guided bike ride around several points of interest on the playa, complete with liquid refreshment in the form of the finest (not really) bagged wine one can purchase (Franzia, natch). This was, of course, called the Tour De Franzia, and the bags of wine were well received.

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Count the things wrong with this picture.

Some experiences that stand out for me:

  • Climbing a plexiglass pyramid at night, looking around at the view of the lights on the playa from the top.
  • Finding a massive array of discs in the ground that light up when you jump on them.  Proceeding to leap from one to the next in an attempt to get them all to change color.
  • The Space Cowboy’s saloon, hanging out on second floor, looking out over the railing at the massive Burning Man experience go by all night.
  • Climbing into a giant spinning steel globe, and alternating climbing down to push it around, or sitting in it while others pushed, like an elevated grown-up merry-go-round.
  • A giant tesla coil that made music by alternating the intensity of the crackling lightning that erupted in the gap, a singularly impressive sight at night.
  • Riding an art car around in the wee hours of the night, stopping at art installations, dancing, relaxing, exploring.
  • Paint cannons that blast you with your choice of color (leaving you to figure out how you will deal with suddenly being covered in paint yet without ready access to a shower).
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More colorful than the dust one is normally covered in.

The days and nights eventually took on some semblance of pattern.  We would explore in small groups during the day, gather for a group dinner at night (no shortage of amazing food), recount stories from the day, and call out nighttime destinations.  After dinner and clean-up, we would proceed out in a massive lit mounted calvary.  Trying to keep eighteen people on bikes together through a nighttime ride through the streets of the playa was a unique challenge, and invariably we splintered into satellite groups.  We would run into each other throughout the night a surprising amount of times though, given there were sixty five thousand other people there too.

And the mornings would take on a certain pattern as well

Sheena Easton at 8am like clockwork.

Forced out of the tent by 8:30.

A walk to the port-a-potties where along the way a man with a megaphone would offer some morning jab at you.

This would be followed by a group breakfast to recount the adventures from the previous night, then the forming of small groups to explore for the day.

Eventually the week marched on, and the three burns that mark the close of Burning Man were upon us.  The first was the burning of “Embrace”, which was the first-ever day time burn.  We chose to watch this from atop the RV’s since none of us actually slept the night before and just couldn’t bring ourselves to be too far from our beds.  I do wish I would have made myself go close up as the experience looks to be totally unique.

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Sunrise is better in a pink onesie. And with your friend the bear, of course.
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The bear finds your exhaustion unacceptable.
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The burn! Less impressive from this distance…

Here’s what I missed by not being up close and personal with this one.  It is particularly amazing to see the dust devils spawned from the heat of the burn:

This being the first burn, it was sad and shocking to realize that this amazing sculpture was just gone.  One day you could walk up in it, look out from the eyes, marvel at all the work it took to construct it.  The next: it’s just gone.

The second burn was The Man himself.  We gathered the entire camp for this.  We sat in front of the man along with everyone else.  Sixty Five thousand people in one place.  It was remarkable that when people started sitting, everyone followed suit to ensure the people behind them had a decent view.  Art cars ringed the gathering, jets of fire shot out at random intervals.  Booming music played from every part of the ring that formed around The Man.

The Man’s arms were raised.  Fireworks went off and people cheered.  The man burned.  And burned.  The woman next to me and I shouted a discussion over the music while we watched it burn; her reasons for coming, what this meant to her, my reasons, our takeaways.  It took a long time.  Here it is reduced to one minute.

It was a big thing to watch this construct that not only took a massive amount of effort to construct, but also represented the colossal amount of work, time, emotion, expectations, and dreams people put into burning man, burn up into the night.  The message for me: doing good work is what matters, not the remains of your work.  The outcome is secondary, and ultimately temporary; doing the work is the important part.

Our camp originally wanted to stay for the third burn: the Temple.  After The Man burnt, we all agreed we would have one more epic night, strike the camp in the morning and head out before the infamous Exodus got too bad (it’s notorious to wait for hours in line as sixty-five thousand people all try to enter a one-lane road to Gerlach).  So we had an epic night.  And we all collapsed late in our tents and RV’s.

And at 8 am Sheena Easton reminded us that her baby was, indeed, taking the morning train.

And the sun pushed us out of our tents.

And the dome came down quickly.  As did the shade structure, all our tents, the sound system, and the throw pillows.  We packed the RV’s and the trailers and the trucks.  We handed out water to other camps as we drained what was left of the mighty water cube.  We picked up all aspects of our camp, no matter how tiny to ensure we would follow the Leave No Trace principle.

Our departure was slightly delayed by one of our camp members not showing up, but we left one car behind for him and the rest took off.  Exodus was an hour or two before we were again on paved roads.  We drove through afternoon, then into night, finally arriving back into Portland around three am.

And as great as Burning Man was, the shower and clean bed I experienced were pretty damn fine as well.

So a few notes now that I have had time to process Burning Man.

People have many pre-conceived notions of what Burning Man is.  A drug fest.  A hippie commune.  A sex party.  A playground for Bay Area Billionaires.  An experimental society.  An art project.  None of these are really accurate.  If you go looking for something, you will probably find it at Burning Man.  But you will find both more than you expected, and perhaps less in some ways as well.

To live for a week in a place that has no economy other than gifting is hard to describe.  The interactions and behavior this engenders is completely amazing, and a total antidote from the horrible feed of news that comes at you the rest of the year.  Nobody is trying to get ahead, keep up with the Joneses, or accumulate.  People give things, and both parties in that exchange feel great and are better off for the interaction.  I came out thinking the human race might just be okay after all.

Unlike any event or festival you might have attended, there are no trash cans, no facilities other than port-a-potties, no real central authority to talk to or rely on.  Despite this, there is no trash anywhere.  I saw no rowdy altercations or poor behavior necessitating security or authority to intervene.  Everyone took care of themselves and got along fine, all sixty-plus-thousand of us.  A friend reminded me that this is not a festival, it’s a community.  Everyone has skin in the game, and that’s probably a large part of why things just work.

There are two ways to attend Burning Man: you can drive down, pitch a tent or park an RV, and experience all that the place has to offer.  You will have an amazing time.  Or you can form a group (or join one like I was lucky enough to), put in the work and participate in the community.  I got so much more out of this second aspect than I expected, and cannot ever attend in any other way now.

And I will go back.  Oh yes.  I will return.

In closing, here’s a great video summary by another Burning Man virgin this year:

Preburn

I tried all year to get tickets. I was unsuccessful at every stage. Preregistered, exchange program, last chance sale, somehow I lost out on all of them.

I had set this year as the year I would finally go to burning man. Fruit Cup and I had made grand plans. For ten months our hopes were thoroughly dashed.

Then two weeks ago a random person I met back in June informed me she knew of a theme camp from portland that might have an extra ticket. A quick interview by a few of the guys from the camp and I was in.

Now I’m in an RV, hurtling down the freeway at 3am with a bunch of people I barely know, intending to spend ten days in the desert. Madness.

I have read articles that tell me Burning Man is past it’s prime. It’s too big, too popular, too mainstream. The magic is gone. The REAL burners are off doing some different and better.

I’ve seen that the ethos is still alive. People still want it for the same reasons. Perhaps I’ve missed the heyday of this event. Maybe not. But I will experience a temporary society built by the participants themselves. For ten days I will live in a community where people come together intentionally under a set of guiding principles and make up the rest.

And yeah: glitter, glow sticks, sand storms and heat, non stop music and partying, costumes and nakedness and mobile art on wheels breathing fire. All that.

Honestly I have no real idea of what to expect. And that’s cool. And exciting.

Here’s to the burn. See y’all on the other side.

The Monster Under The Bed is Nothing.

I’ve never been particularly brave.

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While I idolized the heroics of the X-men in comics as a young lad, and the chivalry and gallantry of King Arthur and his knights who preferred their tables to be generally round, my own actions and emotions ran on meeker lines.  And often my fears were products of my own overactive imaginings.

Coming home from school one fine day, I remember seeing an ant hill teeming with ants.  Hundreds of the little scampering things, a seeming flood of them pour out.  I ran home in a panic and spent the rest of the week waiting for the ant-pocalypse to arrive, as I knew it inevitably would.  My dreams were of me drowning under a sea of many-legged, antennae-waving soldiers.

Sometimes walking home on the dirt road by my house, I could glimpse Sasquatch through the trees, his hairy, menacing frame flitting hungrily through the bushes and branches.  I would arrive home wild-eyed and out of breath, pushing the sliding glass door behind me with relief, confident than even an eight-foot monster couldn’t violate the sanctity of a door well shut.

Then there was of course the monster under the bed, which I was far too well acquainted with.  His brother, Monster In Closet, was also a frequent tormentor of mine.

But perhaps you learn to discard, or at least temper these irrational fears when you are faced with a real horror.  If that is so, then I can credit my current ability to open the closet without screaming and to notice ants swarming without expecting the end of days, with a trip to Canada when I was young.

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Note: not actual vehicle. Also: didn’t actually get stuck like this.

My father drove the old Jeep Wagoneer along a dusty summer road while my brother and I fought in the back.  I’m sure my mother by that point had pretty much had it with us; the road trip up to Bella Cool, British Columbia has started from our home in Ashland with a stopover at my grandmother’s house in Portland..  My brother and I were not good at getting along when we had lots of space between us.  So with  just a narrow expanse of vinyl seating, any petty excuse became a valid reason for outright war.

In addition to this, it was the middle of August, at least ninety degrees as the sun beat down.  I remember the dust from the road coated the windows forming small drifts along the frame.  The windshield had twin arcs cleared through the yellow haze coating the rest of the view.The wipers had grudgingly cleared away the clouds of dirt that seemed to be all around us.  So we sweltered and sweat and bickered.  And the Jeep drove on.

I remember at some point the back window blew out, likely from a stray rock kicked up from a passing truck.  We cleaned out the bits of squarish safety glass from the door frame as best we could, then shrugged and carried on.  Bella Coola was a long drive.

Mmmm, inviting
Mmmm, inviting

At some point, we stopped in a clearing that was straight out of travel books, postcard perfect: green forest surrounded a blue lake under a clear sky that beckoned to our dry and dusty bodies.  My brother, always the first and braver of us, stripped his shirt off and splashed into the water.  I was more cautious (lake monsters, such as Nessie, were primary on my mind), but quickly the dry, dusty heat of the trip was too much for me and I ran in after him, splashing wildly.

If you know young boys, or have been one, or are currently one, you will know that you can’t have more than one boy in a lake without a war of some sort breaking out.  It starts with splashing and some laughing and yelling.  For my brother and I, it quickly escalated to us ripping up large swatches of the slimy green lake weed growing in huge fields under the water, and slinging it at each other.

This was the height of entertainment.  Better than a snowball fight, as one doesn’t get cold.  Better than a rubber-band war, as it doesn’t sting when you get hit.  The cool green weeds were soft, slimy and refreshing on sun-baked skin.  A quick grab under the water brought up fistfuls of the stuff, and we hurled volleys at each other like feuding lords.

I don’t remember exactly how, but I do know at some point my brother stopped, brushed at his arms wildly, and screamed something at me as I let fly my latest barrage.  I, being younger and usually disadvantaged in any battle, felt pride that I seemed to have him on the run.  Indeed, I saw him run out of the lake like he was being chased by a school of Great White Sharks.  I giddily screamed after him, exultant in my victory.

He looked back at me when he was out of the water, dancing about, scrubbing at his arms and legs wildly, and yelling at me something I couldn’t process.  Slowly I came to understand he wasn’t running from me.  He was running from something in the lake.

In that moment my inner gibbering coward took full control; if something was enough to scare my older brother, it must be something horrific indeed.  I did not look back, but rather sprinted out of the water.  I believe I probably hydroplaned getting out of there, so fast was my fear-driven flight.

Once to the safety of the shore, I looked back to see what horror was chasing me, but saw only clear blue water, rippling from my recent exit.  I looked questioningly at my brother, intending to convey the adolescent version of “WTF?”.

My brother, however, stared back with wild eyes, scraping at his arms.  I then saw him pick a small green thing off his forearm and throw it to the ground,.  Arms clear, you continued on to his bare legs, addressing them with the same scrutiny.

Slowly I processed what I was seeing.  And I looked down at my own arms with a dawning horror.  Small, light-green curves dotted my skin.  It looked like bits of the lake weed we had been fighting with.  I wiped them off, but they didn’t budge.  I picked at one of the small things, and as I pulled, it stretched, remaining stuck to my skin by one of its tiny ends, which I was sure at that point housed impossible massive sets of rotating teeth.

Stand By Me: formative movie moment
Stand By Me: formative movie moment

Growing up, movies and cartoons prepared us for some of the primary fears one must deal with in life.  Quicksand was one.  Leeches were another, but until this point I didn’t actually accept them as any more factual than quicksand.  To actually be confronted with the reality of leeches, even tiny grass-like leeches, was too much for my young mind.  I scampered and leaped and thrashed at my body with a mindlessness that would ensure a visit to a mental ward and a very tight-fitting jacket in other situations.

I remember sitting numbly in the car for some time after that, my brother and I both somber from our recent experience.  Our bodies had been picked clean, as best we could, but in my mind I could never be sure that I’d gotten them all.   The rest of the day my mind tortured me with the thought that some of those small green worms had gotten inside me, burrowed under my skin, and were even then swimming up my veins, towards my heart, where they would feast on me from the inside until they finally grew large enough to burst out from within  me, like a horrible human piñata.

Happily that never happened.  After we returned from that trip, I still got the occasional visit from Sasquatch, or the Closet Monster, but they no longer could generate the same level of fright they once held.  So perhaps I have leeches to thank for my grown up ability to handle the creeping horrors in a mature way.

Thanks, leeches.  You blood-sucking demons.