Archive for September, 2008

Driftwords – Betrayed

Lying in bed one afternoon, I overhear my neighbor talking to someone on his cordless telephone. He’s outside in his garden, and he doesn’t realize – he never has – that everything he says floats up over the hedges and into my bedroom window. From my nest of pillows, I’ve overheard a great many intimate details… He should be more careful.

As it turns out, he’s finalizing his plans to deliver me to the enemy. I can’t hear everything, but I hear enough. It seems that this whole neighborly business was just a charade. Seven years… seven years he’s lived next door! And all the while, it was just a cover – in reality, he was peering at me through the drapes, and scribbling the details of my existence in notebooks. What vision this man must possess; not to mention stamina! The faith required for such a mission takes my breath away. I almost want to go along with his plan, just to reward him.

My driver is involved somehow, though I can’t quite make out the details. I suppose every time I get into the car I’ll have to wonder whether he’s really taking me shopping, or whether he’s taking me to my kidnappers.

Perhaps I can just stay in bed forever. He can’t, after all, break into my home and carry me bodily from the premises. Rather, he must wait for me to make myself vulnerable – to entrust myself to the care of another.

I wonder what the enemy wants with me. I’m quite curious, actually. Perhaps I’ll call my neighbor on his portable phone and ask. I’ll wait until he’s deep in conversation, until something particularly sordid has just floated up over the hedge, then I’ll dial his number and try not to giggle when I hear him, through the window, excusing himself to take another call.

Add comment September 29th, 2008

Dances With Lobsters

I first watched the film Real Genius when I was in high school – and it wouldn’t be overstating the case to say that it was formative in determining my expectations for higher education. A young Val Kilmer plays Chris Knight, the charismatic, disaffected leader of a group of undergraduate science majors – all of whom are brilliant and socially maladjusted, but deeply creative. Of course they create their own version of society where misfit is the new normal. Together, they romp through adventures that include growing hydroponic cherries bigger than human heads, freezing the dormitory hallways to better facilitate sledding, developing cutting-edge space-laser technology, then inventing even better technology that hijacks the laser and uses it to fill an evil professor’s house with popcorn.

Chris Knight had a sartorial sense that I still admire: jeans, fluffy bunny slippers, snide t-shirts (“Surf Nicaragua,” “I Love Toxic Waste,” etc.), sunglasses, and an occasional headband sporting twelve-inch antennae on springs. Sometimes, during moments of introspection and clarity, I realize that my own extended educational adventure may have been driven by a search for the Real Genius geek-family. Never mind that I was a rather unfocused humanities major, not a brilliant scientist; I feel certain that they would have taken me in.

(An aside: This clip from the film is a family classic; as my father points out, it’s a perfect representation of the life of a PhD student…)

From time to time, I’ve caught glimpses of the extended Real Genius family. Once, during finals week at my next-to-last university, I was walking down the sidewalk, lost in reverie, when an unlikely rustling in the bushes caught my eye. There, in the narrow strip of grass that separated the sidewalk from the dormitory, was a lobster. Rather far from home. But there it was, moving around in the grass, kind of shuffling along, like it was disoriented. Then I noticed that it was red… so perhaps the disorientation was a result of having just recently escaped from a pot of boiling water? But what kind of undergraduate boils lobster in a dorm room? I watched the lobster more closely, and realized that it had been partially eaten. But that didn’t slow it down – it responded to my attention by standing up on its tail and waving at me with one claw, before moving into a strange, halting little jig. Unwilling to fully believe, I kept walking, and the lobster sank back down in the grass and resumed its general, aimless rustling of the shrubbery. I continued on my way, then stopped and glanced back over my shoulder. For a split second, sunlight revealed several strands of fishing line extending from the lobster’s general area up, up, up four stories until they disappeared into a dorm room window.

A boiled, half-eaten, interactive, lobster marionette. Deployed in order to procrastinate finals-week studying. Brilliant!! The Real Geniuses are still out there…

Add comment September 22nd, 2008

Odyssey – Burning Man II

Dark comes quickly out here. In the time it takes to drive from the greeters to the outskirts of Black Rock City, our home for the next week, ambient sunlight dwindles, replaced by fire and glow sticks. We see from the map that the city is laid out in a near-circle with a rounded horseshoe-like shape. The streets that radiate out from the center are named after hours and half-hours. The long streets that go around the camp in concentric circles are supposed to be named after letters of the alphabet, arranged in ascending/descending order but are instead, confusingly, named after cars. We’re looking for friends who’ve arrived ahead of us and will be hanging out at 3:00 and Esplanade. We didn’t realize that the camp would cover nearly five square miles, and include close to 50,000 people.

We drive around the outer-most road for what feels like days until we spot a street sign for 3:00. It’s desolate at first, but the animation increases as we progress towards the center. People are out for the night dressed up as animals, vegetables and minerals; electronic music vibrates our car, flames shoot into the night sky and restaurants and nightclubs – architecture assembled from only those elements that could be packed in, and will be packed back out later – line the streets. By the time we realize there’s no hope of finding anyone in the dark, we’ve been swarmed by a group of over two dozen zombies who stagger down the road, fully costumed and made-up, attacking all non-zombified people in their way. For a moment I think I’ve lost Sam; he’s only been at Burning Man for 30 minutes and already he’s found his people.

Fortunately, we are soon discovered by a ranger who is sympathetic to our plight (“discovered” may be too generous a term, as we are parked at this point, baffled and amazed, in the middle of a major intersection). He drives ahead of us through the crowds, leading us to an empty campsite where we can stow our car while finding our friends on foot. We take off on a mission which leads into then away from the camp at 3:00 and Esplanade, then off to Center Camp in search of an information booth where campers can leave messages for friends. There are no cell phones out here, and no internet; communication is reduced to the essentials – speaking directly to one’s interlocutors, screaming their names into the wind, or leaving notes in places they are likely to frequent. Meanwhile, our friends have our place to sleep for the night, and we have all the food for the coming week. It feels a bit desperate – like we’ve intentionally abandoned our car in favor of walking aimlessly around a five-square-mile circus in the dark, hoping that every hay bale, every trapeze that emerges from the shadows might reveal people we know. But then I discover a note at the information booth – possibly the best note ever:

“R&S! We’re on Impala between 300 and 2:30 Streets, on left if coming from 3:00. White and grey El Monte RV. Impala is “I” street. Burning Man symbol in tape on back window. Not many other RVs nearby. Just past a red SUV and flaming torches. We’ll be there R&S don’t worry and plenty of space for the car. No matter how late just drive slowly and come to us.”

I aspire to write notes that are so resoundingly informative and comforting.

Following instructions, we find our way to the RV and into our friends’ hugs. The biggest shock of the night – bigger than the scope and scale of Burning Man, bigger than being attacked by wild zombies – comes when I look down and realize that my black flip flops have gone totally, completely white. Along with my legs from the knees down. Playa dust is invincible.

Add comment September 4th, 2008

Odyssey – Burning Man 1

The road to Burning Man is long; twelve hours long. We leave Los Angeles at 7:00 in the morning and spend most of the day flying up the middle of California, hurtling through Sacramento, and dragging through Reno at rush hour. Along the way we spot other potential Burners… you can recognize them by their back seats filled with camping gear, the bikes tied to the car, and sometimes, the Burning Man symbol etched into the dust on the windows. Or, as we later realized, you can recognize them because they’re the ones driving the pickup trucks with toppers, the thirty foot long RVs, and the rental trucks the size of a semi. At a gas station on the corner of I 80 and highway 447 a young man sidles up to me, shifty-eyed, asking if I know anyone who might want to buy a hookah.

The last hour and a half traverses high desert at an elevation of 4000 feet; hearty low-lying green brush covers the ground and rolling hills, tumble-weed clings to the fences, and a lake surprises off to the west. This is open range country, and we expect to find random cows around every turn in the highway.

Gerlach is a bend in the road, but on this particular day its gas stations and road side taco stands are clogged with Burners, many already in costume. Men wearing striped pants, vests and top hats amble down the road; women in skirts and bustiers sit cross-legged on benches. The police are high-energy, pulling over four vehicles in a two mile stretch.

After Gerlach we drive 11 miles before finally catching our first glimpse of the playa – a vast expanse of dust-like sand that used to be an ocean bed, but now exists as a highly alkaline, dust-storm prone desert. It’s beautiful in the twilight; an off-white, stone color that catches the sun and reflects it, glowing.

We drive onto the playa and navigate along a four-lane road that’s been fabricated out of string and orange plastic cones. At five miles an hour, the drive goes on forever and we are entertained and somewhat discomfited by poetry that’s been printed and adhered to stakes alongside the road. This year’s theme is the American Dream, and the poems reflects all the cynicism and disappointment such a title is meant to conjure in the context of a massive, avant-garde art party.

Once, we’re stopped by a woman in bikini briefs, a furry t-shirt and a staff badge who takes a look inside our car and waves us on. Later we stop outside of “will call” – a makeshift bunch of buildings filled with elated, beaming, dancing staff who hand over our tickets. Finally, we reach the greeters – a line of Burning Man officials charged with the task of initiating us into the coming week. We’re in line for a greeter who is taking forever with her initiates – she’s making them do pull-ups, run around in circles, give speeches – we can’t tell what else. We’re beckoned over into the line of another greeter wearing hot pants and a sequined bra who leans into the car, smelling faintly and pleasantly of wine, and asks if we’re virgins. We are, so she commands us out of the car, then instructs us to lie down on the ground and roll over once – just once – just to get over the fear of getting dirty on the playa. We do it – I even roll over twice for good measure – then realize that the playa dust has a strange sticky quality. We’re coated; anything that touched the ground is now thickly covered in playa. Our greeter hugs us both for a long second, and whispers “welcome home” into our ears. I don’t know what she’s talking about, but my eyes and heart apparently do, because her words immediately elicit tears and a smile.

Add comment September 3rd, 2008