personal

We should all have such problems

Gwen and I are leaving today on a trip to Spain.

We had written a rather large check from our investment account and deposited it in our regular checking account, so we’d be able to get at those funds from an ATM while abroad. When we made the deposit, we asked the teller if she could deposit it without a hold, and she said Yes. Sure enough, the next day, the money appeared in our account.

Then yesterday at about 4:30, I checked our account again and saw a negative balance. Uhhhhhh…

Frantic calling to the bank and the investment house resulted in conflicting stories. According to the bank, the investment house refused to honor the check (which is strange, since we’ve written checks against that before and had them clear, and there was enough money to cover it), so they were returning it; according to the investment house, the check was never presented for payment. If we didn’t resolve the situation in exactly 24 hours, we’d be in Spain with no ready way to get at our money (beyond what we’re bringing, which isn’t enough to last the trip).

Today I ordered a wire transfer instead. It looks like it has gone through.

As problems in life go, this is not big. It’s the kind of problem only a fortunate person can have. I bear all that in mind, but the situation still made me very angry and anxious.

Honyakuhome.org is live

I started a web page that I called the Honyaku Home Page back in 1995 (for whatever reason, the wayback machine only shows iterations going back to 1997—still pretty old for a web page). Over the years it grew and transmogrified. For a while, I ran it using a crude homebrewed CMS written in Hypercard.

When I upgraded my Mac to OS X, Hypercard became a non-option; my hacked-up CMS had been very awkward to use for a long time anyhow. Eventually I transferred most of the site’s functions to Movable Type, using some jury-rigged templates. That too became unsatisfactory, and for a very long time, I looked around for other options.

I found one in Drupal, though when I first encountered it, it was somewhat primitive. Over time, Drupal has developed, and I committed to using it. After a false-start, I hired a developer to customize a module for me, bought a domain name (which I should have done a long time ago anyhow), and soft-launched the new site.

Even though most of the ducks have been in a row for some time, I’ve been reluctant to have a public launch. Drupal has numerous add-on modules these days, many of which would no doubt make the new site more useful, but the double-edged sword is that every new module creates new administrative tasks, and some of the spiffier features would require even more futzing around. I was stuck in option paralysis. The best is the enemy of good enough.

Today, I finally said “fuck it,” decided to launch with a plainer site, and announce it. Check it out. honyakuhome.org.

The goggles, they do nothing!

I underwent LASIK treatment yesterday.

I’ve been very nearsighted (20/400) since I was in 6th grade, and from the day I first wore glasses (on a class trip to Springfield), not another has passed where I haven’t. I’ve been ready to be done with them for a long time, and finally got around to it.

The procedure was very weird. Lying back in the chair, things happened to me very quickly. It’s impossible to see what’s going on, but I’m familiar enough with the procedure to know “they are attaching the vacuum clamp to my eyeball…rotating over to the flap-cutting laser…cutting the corneal flap…folding back the flap…ablating the cornea…smoothing back the flap.” The whole process took less than five minutes. Gwen watched the whole thing in horror and amazement (which is pretty much how I felt when I watched her go through it about a year ago). When Gwen had hers done, they gave her valium that kicked in before the procedure started, so she was checked out the whole time. They gave me valium too, but it didn’t kick in until after I was home. So I lay there, rigid, thinking in the abstract about what was happening to me, while the actual events were proceeding with well-practiced speed above me.

Right now my left eye feels kind of scratchy. Both are bloodshot. Light sources have haloes around them, and my vision feels a little off—a little hazy or something. It’s hard to describe. Nothing out of the ordinary from what I understand. But my acuity is good. Predictably, my near vision has suffered a little—it’s hard to focus closer than 3.5“ away (that’s still very good, of course). I’ve got a follow-up appointment tomorrow morning.

Not putting on glasses is a weird feeling: I tried on my old glasses and was bowled over at the funhouse-mirror effect.

Now, for the first time in my life, I can buy cheap sunglasses. Or expensive ones.

Burning Flipside 2006

Chalice top

Photos from Flipside are up. I’ve got commentary in the notes on a lot of these photos. I would have taken more, but Flipside instituted very restrictive rules on photos intended for the web—and although I consider the rules unenforceable and overreaching and kind of resent them, I understand the reasoning behind them.

Many of my Flipside observations from 2005 apply to my experience this year as well. But my experience at this year’s Burning Flipside was somewhat different from last year’s. More advance prep, less on-site hassle. This year as in past years, Circle of Fire was my theme camp, and I think everyone who was part of last year’s COF wanted to make this year’s camp a better one, and so we had our shit together a little better. I took responsibility for organizing a shade structure and PA for a DJ to use (luckily, Clint, a friend of the camp, volunteered the use of his DJ rig, and sat in on Friday night to play music for us; Schon played music Saturday). I put together spin-out buckets and soaking tanks for the fuel depot, and made a dozen sets of practice poi for lessons that never quite materialized (in the end, only four pair of those practice poi got used, and somebody else brought even more)—if we’re serious about holding poi lessons, we need to schedule a time and get it on the calendar of events. And have a clock somewhere. And although COF did have functional, acceptable infrastructure for a change, our camp was still put to shame by so many others that had fantastic installations, showing a level of creativity and industry that we didn’t come close to matching. Of course, we had the firedancing, but that was our only draw. Other camps hosted firedancers plus this or that, such as Spin Camp (which always has incredible infrastructure, and had Mark’s Bible lessons and Greg’s spinning jenny) or Groovepharm (which has the best firespinners, even if they don’t come to Flipside to spin, as well as the best DJs, and a giant trampoline-lounge). What can I say? We’re a bunch of slackers.

Circle of Fire did have a much better location than it did last year, thank you site committee. I would have preferred a bigger space for our fire-circle, but since we didn’t really push the boundaries of the one we had, I can’t complain. We had a monumental fire circle that could easily accommodate six people in 2003; this year’s would would be a little cramped with four, but an improvement over 2005, when the fire circle would barely accommodate three, was on a slope, was not obvious, and also happened to be used as an alleyway to cut between parallel roads. On Thursday, I was too whipped after getting the shade structures set up to burn even once, but I had many good light-ups and even some great ones on each of the remaining nights—a few that pushed me to a different level. Firedancing can be considered a form of ecstatic motion, and in its original usage, “ecstasy” referred to a form of religious possession that is something to fear. I’m neither religious nor spiritual, but a really good light-up is one of the few occasions when I feel what I guess must be something like ecstasy in its original sense. Part of this is good, loud music, part of it is energy from the crowd, and part of it is the importance that all the participants invest in the moment. And I only have a few burns to show for it.

The new location, Flat Creek, has pros and cons compared to RecPlan. The fact that it is bigger, and therefore Pyropolis is more spread out, is both a pro and a con in itself: Flipside was definitely outgrowing RecPlan, but things are now sufficiently spread-out that it can take a lot of walking to get between two theme camps. I estimate that I walked five-plus miles a day. !Bob told me that Flat Creek has 600 acres we never even touched. I’m guessing we used 100-200 acres, so that’s a lot of potential for growth, which will bring its own set of pros and cons if it happens.

The fact that Flat Creek is laid out around a roughly horseshoe-shaped road, with “center camp” on a plateau in the middle of it and radial paths cutting across at random, means that it’s hard to get a clear sense of where camps are in relation to each other. Contrast this with RecPlan, which basically has one long road with a couple minor branches. A bicycle will be necessary equipment at future Flipsides; some kind of signage showing which camps are where would be especially helpful (an interesting wayfinding project for Gwen’s office, perhaps). One improvement in layout that we saw this year was theme camps zoned by noise level—that said, I was still camping in the loudest zone, but the fact that we were more spread out seemed to lower the intensity a bit. One curious fact about the Flat Creek site plan is that the plateau feels smaller than the field at RecPlan. A little more ground-clearing (if possible or desirable) to remove some of the trees that break up the plateau’s space would fix that. The terrain at Flat Creek is much rougher than at RecPlan, both at a large and small scale. The field at RecPlan is practically like a city park—smooth, with nice grass. The plateau at Flat Creek is much rougher, with giant divots where trees have been uprooted, prickly pear here and there, etc. And where RecPlan has a gradual hill, Flat Creek has cliffs. Flat Creek has a much more inviting cold-water stream flowing through it, the best feature of the property. It is unlike the creek at RecPlan in that it is removed from everything else—you need to go through a cave and down a bit of a hill to get there. At RecPlan, the creek is right next to the field, so you can be in the water and still semi-connected to the main action. But many people, myself included, spent a lot of time down at the stream, and with the cliff overshadowing it, it was by far the coolest place to be on days that climbed to 100°F.

The theme camps and installations blew me away, as much as ever. Somebody built a hot-tub on the bank of the stream, for cryin’ out loud. This fits right in with what I called the “extravagant gesture” a year ago. The effigy, a chalice, was built by a Houston crew (that wound up getting into a fight with the Chupacabra Policia, who were otherwise suspiciously well-behaved). The effigy was smaller than the past couple of years and relied more on propane than wood for its fuel, so there was almost nothing left the next morning (in contrast to last year, when there was still a huge pile of burning wreckage). The firedancers had a typical procession, although it was disorganized enough that many of us who were standing right there almost missed it. After the big burn, firedancers formed a couple of fire-circles next to the remnants of the effigy and burned for hours. I had some killer light-ups.

It’s hard for me to condense the Flipside experience down into a few well-organized paragraphs, and I’ve put off hitting the “publish” button on this post for a few days as I try to bring some order to it. Then again, the motto at Flipside is FUCK SHIT UP!, so trying to bring order to one’s reflections on it is perhaps missing the point.

Goin’ down to Flipside, gonna have myself a time

Gwen and I are going to Flipside in a couple of days, and we’ve been in buzz of activity getting ready. I’m really looking forward to it.

Today I went to rent a PA system from Rock-n-Roll Rentals. At least two other patrons there were (I’m pretty sure) renting equipment for Flipside. The guy who took care of my order immediately sized me up.

Is this for Flipside?
I’ve got it written all over me, huh. Are you going?
Yeah
Which camp are you with?
I’ll be at Get Lost.
Oh, do you know Ish?
Sure, I know her

It’s as if we’re there already.

Dizzy

gray's anatomy picture of the inner ear

I’ve been laid up since Wednesday with labyrinthitis, an infection of the inner ear, which results in fluid-filled and inflamed ear passages. And dizziness. WoOOOooOOooo. It’s slowly coming under control with potent antibiotics; I was initially prescribed dramamine to deal with the immediate symptoms, but that turned out to be completely ineffective; I saw the doctor again yesterday and he prescribed a combination of valium and prednisone (cortisone) instead. The valium also seems to be ineffective (perhaps he prescribed it in part to counter the behavioral side-effects of the prednisone, which can put you on edge, from what I’m told), but I am on the mend.

For a couple days, I wasn’t able to keep food down. Since then, I’ve improved gradually. Today’s the first day I’ve been able to comfortably read more than a paragraph or so at a time, although it still requires more concentration than usual, and I’m unsteady when moving around. With any luck, I’ll be over all this by the end of the week. It’s been a strange experience: I think it’s the first time in my adult life that I’ve been so incapacitated by an illness that for days on end, I can’t do much more than lie in bed and watch TV. It’s also kind of strange that I would be laid low by just this one symptom–there’s been no pain or anything else that you’d normally associate with being laid up.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

I’ve been offered a big chunk of change for the crossroads.net domain name. There’s a good chance I’ll take it. If this happens, everything under this URL, as well as my e-mail (and Gwen’s) will change. More here soon.

We’ve moved

Giles house after move

Our renovation is done. We’ve moved in to the new place. Now we just need to unpack and get rid of all the stuff that won’t fit. I’m exhausted.

The Trouble with 37th Street

I lived on 37th Street during the Christmases of 92, 93, 94, and 95, and was an enthusiastic (if not always artistic) participant in the whole lights display. I have always thought the lights were wonderful, and that they helped create a sense of community on that street that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I’ve stayed closer to the folks I knew from 37th Street than any other neighborhood I’ve lived in.

In recent years, the light show has shrunk. I believe the Christmas just past will be the last.

The Chronicle just ran an article on the diminishing lights, fingering absentee landlords in California as the ultimate culprit. This is nonsense. Mike Dahmus used this as a jumping-off point to complain about low-density student housing.

The reason that 37th Street is going dark has to do with people and personalities. It has something to do with landlords as well, but a homegrown one.

People leave

Jamie and Bob were the original instigators of the whole show. Robert later joined in and, with his volcano and motorcycle, put up one of the three showcase displays on the street. Robert and Bob have both left; Jamie is leaving. Ray was also noteworthy for his car-hedge of lights. He’s gone. There’s just not that much holding the street together anymore.

The real-estate market

There are a lot of rent-houses on that block, but there were a lot when I lived there too—I was in one of them. Eight of those rent-houses are owned by a local guy, whose name seldom passes from my lips without being preceded by the word “slumlord.” In fact, he owns 308, which Jamie once occupied, and which under this guy’s stewardship has been home to a meth dealer; I believe it was more recent occupants of that house that Jamie got into a fight with (as mentioned in the article). When I was living on the street, I believe the same guy owned the same number of houses on the street. 308 was unoccupied—it was owned by this guy, who was undertaking an extremely desultory and dubious expansion and renovation of it. All of his houses are messes, only rentable to less-discriminating students.

Note the way this article changes gears in such a way that you’re not supposed to notice:

Neighbors partly blame changes in the neighborhood on irresponsible and absentee landlords. “We didn’t demand all we could get from the houses,” Pine said. Now, eager to reap the highest rents possible from the maximum number of tenants, greedy landlords are letting “kids get away with murder and won’t do anything about it,” he complained. [Emphasis mine]

The irony is that Ray himself once owned most of the houses in question, and sold them to people like this guy.

Barnes – who counted five homes that have changed hands this year on 37th Street, compared to what he said is usually one

If you want to place the blame somewhere, you could also blame the outrageously high property taxes in this state (and rates of increase in those taxes) that force people out of their own homes once their neighborhood becomes sufficiently desirable. This increasing churn rate is not unique to to 37th Street–it can be seen throughout the surrounding neighborhood.

Personalities

When I lived there, there was, shall we say, an institutional memory for the lights. There were enough people on the street to enforce certain social norms. Jeannie would lecture visitors who left trash behind, and there was a strong anti-commercial sentiment on the street. So there may have been a broken window effect in action: by dealing with minor infractions, major infractions never happened.

As this institutional memory left with the old-timers, street hawkers moved in and the scene became rowdier. Another less public aspect of this is Jamie himself. While Jamie has never openly appealed for money, he has always been the recipient of spontaneous largesse from visitors to his backyard. The amounts of money involved are considerable, and this created animosity between Jamie and some of the other old-timers, who felt that he should donate the money, share it out, or simply not make it so obviously easy for visitors to give money to him (he kept up clotheslines with clothespins where people can hang money). I have to believe that this friction within the street’s micro-community must have caused some old-timers to lose interest in maintaining the street’s Christmas zeitgeist.

. . .

It pains me to write all this, rather, it pains me that all this is so. Living on 37th Street was a great experience, and it is sad that the community that made the lights possible no longer exists.

First Night

Other cities have been doing this for some time, and now Austin is holding its first First Night, which will turn the downtown area into a big arts festival on new year’s eve.

I’m going to be a performer—there will be a total of five fire troupes (including Sangre del Sol, who are amazing, and our own troupe, which we are calling Pyrogenesis) performing at Auditorium Shores, in front of the skeleton of the old Palmer events center. The fire extravaganza will supposedly be running from 8:00 to 11:00 PM (add N minutes to allow for disorganization); our troupe is smack in the middle.

Every time I mention First Night to friends, they say “wha…?”. I’m sure this blog entry will make up for the paucity of publicity the event has been getting.

pictures

iPhoto is bundled with every new Mac, but I never really bonded with it. The way it maintains photos is grossly inefficient, and it doesn’t deal as gracefully with batch processes or metadata as I’d like. I always used Graphic Converter for that stuff, but I have to admit that it isn’t great for just organizing photos.

From time to time, I’d read that people using the current version of iPhoto found it much improved–indispensable, even. And with a 250-gig hard drive, I could tolerate some inefficiency. So I decided to give it a shot. Thanks to the Keyword assistant and Flickr export plugins, I can use iPhoto with a tolerably efficient workflow. I’ve managed to import, tag, organize, and upload a lot of old photos to my flickr account–check ’em out. More to come.

Mi casa es su casa

Gwen and I bought a house yesterday. The circumstances surrounding the sale are a little unusual, but not in a bad way.

We had been looking for a long time–before my old house was even on the market, in fact. And the longer we looked, the more discouraged we got. There was this duplex that intrigued us, but left us with some reservations–it had been languishing on the market for over a year and was withdrawn from the market three days before we decided to make an offer on it. Long story. No point in kicking ourselves over that lost opportunity.

For quite some time, everything we looked at was too expensive, too awful, too remote, or some combination of the three. One day a friend of ours, Mychal, mentioned that the folks across the street from her were thinking of selling their house. She gave us their number and we all-but coerced them into letting us go for a walk-through. They didn’t have a realtor at that point (in fact, we found out after the closing, they weren’t entirely sure about selling at that point). We mentioned this new development to our realtor, who actually told us that we should get the sellers to handle the transaction as a FSBO (for sale by owner, pronounced “fizzbo”), and that she would step aside. And that’s how we did it.

When I bought my previous house with Jenny, we walked in the door and pretty much knew instantly “this is it.” That’s not a responsible approach to home-buying, but we got lucky in that instance. This time around, I think Gwen and I were both a little too savvy to fall in love with the place immediately, but we knew this could be it.

We were also looking at the house not just for what it is, but for what it could be. My last house we never even repainted rooms (with one exception) until we decided to fix it up to sell. This time, we’re going to have a fair amount of work done before we even move in. Not that there’s anything actually wrong with it, but it is a small place, and the disposition of space isn’t optimized for Gwen and me. So we’ll be moving some rooms around. I’ll probably start a renovation blog to document that process.

Handling the transaction without an agent was not that difficult. It did require a fair amount of attentiveness at times, making sure that the title company, insurer, lender, and we were all on the same page. And it required some delicacy with the sellers, since they’re nice folks (in fact, we established that we’ve been present at the same party at least once, and have several friends in common), and we didn’t want to alienate them, but we also wanted to look out for our own interests. If realtors had been involved, everything would have been completely arm’s-length and faintly antagonistic. In our case, they wanted to sell and we wanted to buy; they were happy that the house was going to be in good hands, and we were happy to be doing business with them. The whole process felt more cooperative. The tensest moment came when we were shooting the breeze about neighborhood restaurants, and mentioned both Vivo and El Chile. Either Gwen or I added “not that there’s any comparison,” and one of the sellers asked “which one do you like better?” A moment of ominous silence passed, as if this were a test to determine our fitness to buy their home, the reliability of our judgment, and our compatibility with the neighborhood zeitgeist. “El Chile,” we answered. A barely-perceptible wave of relief–we gave the right answer. Some people get hung up about doing business only with others of the same political leanings, but this was important.

Although apparently many closings are handled with the seller and buyer not even being at the same place at the same time, we did this at the subject property–an agent from the title company drove over and we took care of everything at the dining-room table. Afterwords, we drank excellent mojitos and shot the breeze.

Another one of the unusual aspects of this deal is that we have a lease-back agreement with the sellers–they’re moving out of the country in about a month, so rather than trying to find temporary lodgings, they’re renting their own house back from us for the time being (actually, we reduced the sale price by an agreed amount).

So the whole deal has an air of unreality about it. Between the lease-back and the renovation, we probably will not be actually occupying the house until some time in January. And yet it is ours.

Born to be wild

For some time now, Gwen has been planning to sell her car and replace it with a scooter (probably a Stella). But to even test-drive a scooter larger than 50 cc, you need to have a motorcycle-operator’s license. Since I’d want to be able to ride her scooter (even if, as she plans to, she puts pink flames on it), I’d need to be licensed as well. So this past weekend we took a motorcycle safety course.

That was interesting.

Gwen chose this place because they offer training on scooters, which she thought would be more relevant. In this case, perhaps not. It turns out the scooters they had were 50-cc automatics, and she’s planning on getting a 150-cc manual. So after the first couple of exercises, we asked to be switched to the bikes everyone else was riding (Kawasaki Eliminators–an intimidating name for a laid-back 125-cc bike–stripped of their turning signals and mirrors), and the instructors agreed. Gwen, the diminutive thing that she is, was put off by the size of even small motorcycles, but quickly decided that was the lesser of two evils, and once she was on it, she was comfortable enough with it–but she still plans on getting a scooter.

I think this was only the second time since college that I’ve had any type of formal instruction, and it was very different from the normal academic environment. The big difference is that we were all being treated like adults: we were being moved along quickly and we were expected to “get it”–to not need to be told every little thing. The instructors were telling us we needed to go faster a lot more frequently than they were telling us we needed to go slower. Although it’s not really possible to ingrain good habits in a weekend-long course, that’s really what they were trying to do–they wanted us to have the reflexes to do the right thing in real-world situations, rather than (or really, in addition to) showing that we intellectually understood a set of instructions. There’s a lot of stuff that’s equivalent to learning how to pat your head and rub your belly, and you really don’t nail that in two days.

It was interesting how my experience as a cyclist helped and hindered me on a motorcycle. For the most part, I think I had an advantage in terms of handling, but for low-speed maneuvers (especially the “U-turn box”) handling is sufficiently different that my instincts didn’t do me any good. Where cycling was really interfering was on the controls: On a bicycle, your left hand controls your front brake and front derailleur, your right the rear brake and rear derailleur. On a motorcycle, your left hand controls the clutch, your right hand the front brake, and hey, you’ve got to use your feet–left foot shifts, right foot works the rear brake. I’m accustomed to setting my right foot down at stops (my left foot is my good foot), but when you’re coming to a stop, you need your foot on the brake, so I was doing a little left-foot down, then left-foot up and right-foot down dance.

At the end of the course, we all underwent an evaluation that, if we passed, would allow us to dispense with taking the practical exam at DPS, get us lower insurance rates, and (perversely) allow us to disregard the helmet law. Now that we’re been conscientious enough to take a class to learn how to ride safely, we can be reckless. We all passed.

The Maelstrom

Moved the 14th. Closed on the sale of the house the 15th.

We effectively had nine days to pack: we had long since scheduled a trip to Chicago that conveniently fell during our contract period. Nine days is not a lot of time, but we managed to do a pretty good job weeding out junk, keeping things categorized, labeling boxes, etc. Where I didn’t do such a good job was in estimating the size of our load for the movers–I was low by about half on the box count, and missed a few pieces of furniture. Oops. Moving day was about as much fun as it ever can be, and very hot.

The place we’re in now, by a series of fortunate events, is the house in front of the garage apartment where Gwen was living when I met her. And right around the corner from the house I lived in during college. It’s smaller than the old place, and has much less storage space (and what there is is less usable), which poses some problems. Boxes and stuff everywhere. Last night was our first real attempt at getting the highest-priority stuff unpacked. After the constant pressure to keep the old house in showable condition, and the crunch of getting it packed, we’re not in a big hurry to deal with the disarray.

I’ve got a lot of money now (or I will, as soon as my realtor drops off the damn check, which I expect to be physically huge, like one of those Ed McMahon checks). Gwen and I met with a couple of financial advisors yesterday, and we discussed ways for us to avoid eating cat food in our later years. Looks like if we invest the money and have garden-variety luck in the market, we’ll accomplish that. The advisors were nice guys, but they seem to proceed from a different set of assumptions about what aging means than I do: they’re trying to create a plan so that we won’t need to work when we’re old. I said “look, I’m much more afraid of not being able to work than of needing to work.” One point where we were all in accord was in assuming that Social Security wouldn’t exist.

The issue of long-term planning raises a host of knotty questions, most relevant (to me) being medical care. It gets more and more expensive every year, and it gets more expensive as you get older (two trends that seem to run in lock-step with each other, too). With my previous insurance carrier, I plotted the rate of increase in my premiums to them against my projected income, and found that, if I stayed with them, my insurance would eat up 100% of my income by the time I turned 60. That’s obviously an untenable situation, and it makes me wonder if the USA will do anything as a nation to resolve it. Can we make assumptions about what the healthcare landscape will look like in 25 years with any degree of confidence? Hell, there are people talking about eliminating death in our lifetimes.

And the question of long-term investments makes me wonder about the health of the U.S. economy over the long haul.

There’s a lot happening all at once, a lot to think about, a lot to do, and a lot of boxes.

Now my head explodes

My house has been on the market for about 7 months. That’s a long time. Gwen and I had reduced our asking price shortly before Flipside, and we were getting a lot more interest. I had a feeling that we might get an offer while I was at Flipside (and out of cellphone range).

Sure enough, when I got back early Monday afternoon, I learned we had an offer. Within six hours, we had a pending contract. With a 15-day closing period. And a 6-day trip to Chicago scheduled in the middle. Meaning we have 9 days to pack up my house, assuming the deal goes through (which it probably will, but might not). We’ve already lined up a good deal on a temporary rental.

An event like Flipside gives your brain a lot to chew on (see my previous post), and puts you into a different reality, from which you return to the humdrum world only reluctantly. Being forced to shift so quickly back into everyday life has completely stripped my mental gearbox.

Everything is happening at once.

So Gwen and I spent a few hours Tuesday night boxing up books. Normally, Tuesday night would be fire practice. Normally, the Tuesday following Flipside, nobody would go. But because we had heard that Andy (a phenomenal firespinner visiting from Germany) was going to be there, a pretty good number of people turned out. Gwen and I set aside the boxes and went down as well. A little Flipside dessert.

Burning Flipside 2005

shirries feet

Went to Burning Flipside this past weekend. Unfortunately, Gwen wasn’t able to be with me. We found out (after we had our tickets) that a friend was having a weekend-long wedding bash at the same time, and because this was the same friend who had officiated at our weddding, we didn’t feel like we could miss that. But because The Powers That Be at Flipside had gone out of their way to make it possible for us to be there, we didn’t feel like we could say no to that. So we split the difference: one of us went to Flipside, one went to Davey’s weddingpalooza.

For those who don’t know, Flipside is a “regional burn,” a companion event to Burning Man, which started it all. Flipside is the oldest and largest of these regional burns. What these burn events are is a little harder to explain. When I don’t want to go into details, I call it a camp-out, but that’s like calling the Grand Canyon a ditch. It’s also an intentional community, an art festival, an experiment in “radical self-expression and radical self-reliance” (meaning: anything goes, and you better be able to take care of all your needs except for sanitary facilities). At the popular-perception end of the scale, it’s also an opportunity to do a lot of drugs and see a lot of boobies, but again, that’s completely missing the point.

The Intentional Community

Larry Niven wrote a science-fiction story called “The Anarchy Cloak,” which I read as a teenager. It was a gedankenexperiment about a future society with “anarchy parks” where anything goes, as long as it’s not violent–and there are little hovering robots to zap you if you get out of line. His story explores “what happens when the little robots get knocked out”–basically, warlordism in miniature. Niven’s view of human nature is cynical, albeit with ample justification.

Flipside is like an anarchy park, but without the same social-control mechanism. People are generally decent to each other because they want it to work. There are rangers to deal with problems, and problems do exist, but for the most part the rangers seem to get people to back off from confrontations and deal with people who have OD’d on some drug or another. I was discussing the whole experience with a ranger, Keeper, on the way out, and she observed that people show up not only wanting to make the event work, but to do something to make it better.

Flipside is a place where you can watch good karma in action. At Circle of Fire, the theme camp for firespinners, we had the dual problems of an inadequate sound system and inadequate power supply for it (despite Scott’s ingenious efforts), along with the fact that we were near two DJ’d camps, and would be competing with their sound output. Scott and I had strategized ways to deal with this without really coming up with a solution. At one point, I was filling the tiki torches surrounding CoF, and someone came over asking to bum some fuel for his tiki torches. I offered him all he wanted (there was still plenty left over when we were packing up to go home), and he asked if I wanted anything in return. I said no. He then told me he was from one of the adjacent camps, Winner’s Circle (whose DJ had been spinning vinyl I really enjoyed spinning fire to), so I said “you know, there is something you can do for me: point one of your speakers at the fire circle.” He was happy to do that, and our music problem was solved.

The Extravagant Gesture

Flipside, like other burner events, involves an astounding amount of work for a very large number of people who are derided as hippies and slackers in everyday life. An ordinary person showing up at Flipside would observe the amount of work going into creating a temporary community and ephemeral art, and shake his head in incredulity. Even the simple act of showing up at an event like this involves bringing a hell of a lot of shit for most folks. I showed up with my little wagon packed to the gills, and one of my campmates said, without sarcasm, “you travel light!”

The psychological cornerstone of every burner event is an effigy that is burned on the last night. At Flipside this year, the effigy was a rocket (resonating with this year’s theme: “Innergalactic Circus”). Major sub-assemblies for the rocket had been completed offsite in advance, and were assembled on the spot The result was (I am guessing) about 40 feet tall, and built like a brick shithouse. Seriously: houses that people live their whole lives in probably are not as solid. As I understand it, Dave Umlaus was in charge of the rocket’s construction. I doubt he slept for a week, and construction was still underway just a couple of hours before the burn.

What’s the point of building something, only to burn it down as soon as you finish? There are a lot of ways to answer that. To acknowledge the temporary nature of all things. To put on an exciting show. To create a ritual in which people can cast off the past and purify themselves. To have fun burning shit. Ephemeral art is common in Japan (cf: ikebana) and in other cultures. Perhaps this kind of thing wouldn’t seem so strange (at least for that reason) elsewhere.

Part of the reason behind this is the “wanting to make it better.” I think there’s also an element of auto-one-upsmanship, that is, people think “well, we did this pretty well last year, but we can do better this year.”

This is the most obvious example of the extravagant gesture, but only one of many. I was talking with my friend !Bob about the LED ring, which describes a very large circle around the effigy (this area is referred to as the L2C). Bob had written the code (in Assembly, no less) to control the lighting patterns of the ring, and explained to me just how homemade the damn thing is. I had seen it before, but never knew that it started life as epoxy mix, lumber, bare LEDs, custom-printed circuit boards, and some cheap off-the-rack chips. !Bob had dedicated a ridiculous amout of time to writing patterns for the ring, only to have his efforts stymied by various hardware malfunctions–overextending the limits of the serial communications protocol between the panels, two power supplies that failed because of the rain, poorly soldered joints on the boards, etc.

At many theme camps, people had schlepped out domes or other massive shade structures, DJ rigs and speaker setups, enough rugs to carpet the entire interior, etc. Perhaps the most extreme example was Chupacabra Policia, which set up a three-story scaffolding stockade, surrounded by a locked barbed-wire gate, blaring Extremely Strange Music, fake news reports, and intimidating directives over their PA at all times. Its members adopted names like Bootcutter, and wore uniforms with custom badges and emblems. They even had their own squad car. As Bootcutter put it, it’s not easy being that obnoxious, and that makes it a higher form of art. Just to piss off any feelgood PETAphile hippies, they made themselves notorious for slaughtering and cooking chickens at their camp.

Food

Andy, a firespinner from Germany, seemed to be marking his Flipside experience by the meals he ate. At every theme camp, someone was pushing some kind of meal on him. We had been chatting for a couple of minutes when he excused himself because a camp up the hill was about to be serving chili.

A lot of people (me included) pack way too much food so that they’ll have something to offer to others. At Spin Camp (where I sited my tent), we had a de-facto cook, Crispy. She had brought along hard-boiled eggs from her own chickens. She made cowboy coffee over a campfire every morning. On Friday morning, she made bacon/skirt-steak skewers for breakfast. On Sunday, she filled two massive cast-iron kettles with breakfast-taco fixing (again, using eggs from her chickens) and cooked them over the campfire. At other camps I saw Greek food, fajitas, burgers, chili, etc. One camp (Better Brains Bureau) made a name for itself by handing out chocolate cake and bacon for breakfast. Right after I heard about this, I ran into Striggy on the trail down to the field, and mentioned this to her. She enthused that that was exactly what she wanted.

The counterpart to all this food, of course, is booze. I packed a case-worth of good beer, which I barely made a dent in (beer is not as effective for hydration as water, and hydration is important). Also fixings for damn good margaritas, which, again, mostly went unused despite my persistence in offering them around. There were several theme camps that ran open bars as their centerpieces.

Music

There’s a lot of it, and it’s loud. If you read the theme camp descriptions, you’ll find a lot with vague, trippy descriptions that don’t tell you what will be going on at that camp. These can mostly be translated as “we will have DJs and lasers.” Different camps had different musical styles, of course, and there’s enough variety that anyone can find something that they’ll like. There was at least one camp spinning 130-bpm trance music more or less non-stop, and it all sounded the same. Wonderlounge, next to Spin Camp, had an interesting musical selection that I mostly enjoyed, but kept some of my camp-mates awake later than they wanted. Some of my camp-mates were using both earplugs and earmuff-style protectors to block out the sound.

The real problem with all this highly amplified music is that when you’re down on the main field (which some people wistfully refer to as “the playa”) and between music-oriented camps, you can hear at least two–and probably three–different tracks at any given time. This was a problem at CoF, because we were pretty much relying on the sound from a nearby camp for our music, and when you’re twirling fire, it really helps to have a beat (just one) that you can groove on.

Events

There are a lot of different events during the long weekend, which are all more or less open for anyone to participate in (that’s the whole idea). Both CoF and Spin Camp were holding poi lessons, in addition to hosting fire circles. Spreader Bar & Grill was tying Japanese-style bondage knots on anyone who asked, and you could see a lot of people wandering around with elaborate trusses around their torsos. There was a “Cthulhu Devival Hour.” A “Miss Flipside” competition, which was most entertaining–the first round of judging was an obstacle course in which contestants had to light someone’s cigarette in a creative fashion, hammer rebar with a sledgehammer, and wipe something–anything (and they did) with a wet-wipe–all while carrying a tray full of drinks. The second round consisted of the talent and interview portion. I have no idea who won, but my favorite contestant was Miss Firepants, who had enough attitude to power a small village.

There was a wedding held there. I didn’t know any of the parties involved, but a fire-friend did, and he asked me to be one of several people spinning fire as part of the ceremony. I was happy to oblige. As I heard it, civilians were also being trucked in to take part in the service, and I can only wonder what they thought of the freak procession (which was over a hundred people).

Rain

It has rained at every Flipside, as far as I know. This year it rained a lot–some folks were calling the event Burning Mudslide.

We had a relatively brief but heavy storm on Friday night. This fried two power supplies used in the LED ring, and made a hash of many campsites.

Saturday night, we had a rainstorm strike earlier. It was obvious that storm clouds were rolling in, so we had time to batten down the hatches, and I made it into my tent about a minute before the first drops hit. Some folks stayed out and made merry anyhow, but it was a massive storm that dumped sheets of water on us for hours. I am pleased to report that my tent basically stayed dry (upon striking it, I discovered that there was a small divot under my tent, and a pool of water had collected between the groundcloth and tent floor, soaking through the floor, but my air mattress was between me and the water). I took a nap. When I woke and found the rain had stopped (around 4:00 AM, I guess), I pulled on my shoes and walked down to the field. Except for one camp, it was dark and quiet. That was worth experiencing.

Fire

The big draw for me is the firedancing. Although my tent was at Spin Camp, I put in more work at Circle of Fire (both of which are oriented towards firespinning).

Because of the nature of burner events (hell, even the name), firedancers seem to have enjoyed a little bit of priviliged status at these events. But firedancing has become common enough within the freak community that the priviliged status seems to have worn off–it doesn’t draw as much of an audience, or as many would-be spinners eager to learn, and a lot of firespinners have decided that they have better things to do at flipside than burn.

If this sounds like I’m bitter, I’m not. There were a number of fire performers at Flipside who I knew by reputation, or who I saw goofing around during the daytime, and I would have enjoyed watching them more and doing fire-stuff with them more than I did–but it was a pleasure to watch them and play around with them as much as I did. If you’re out there–Skunk, Nico, Rachel, and Dan–I had a ball. Andy, the firespinner from Germany, never lit up that I saw, but he always had his poi in his hands, and would distractedly toss off crazy moves while chatting with you. I also noticed that he seemed to have his keys clipped to his wicks, for some reason.

Stress

Some time before Flipside, Tym asked me to coordinate the fire performance before the big burn of the effigy on Sunday, and I accepted. This turned out to be the overriding aspect of my Flipside experience.

I developed a general plan for how to organize the fire performance. Nothing very complicated–I knew that any plan would need to allow for a lot of flexibility. And I wanted to strike a balance between two conflicting schools of thought on how the performance should be organized: those who thought that it should emphasize talent and showmanship, and those who thought it should maximize participation and inclusion. In case this is of any value to anyone in the future, my original plan was this:

  • Divide the circle into eight wedges.
  • Have performers segregate themselves by ability. Beginners would serve the same role as backup singers, and would station themselves along the back edges of each wedge, laying down a simple pattern with transitions every four measures. More proficient performers would be front and center, going crazy.
  • With 15 minutes of performance time, we could divide the performers into two or three shifts, so that as one performer went out, another would file in.
  • No fire-breathing. I was concerned that the circle would be too crowded and dynamic, and that the crowd would be too close to have safe fire-breathing. This probably pissed off a couple of people.

I had put out a request on a couple of Internet forums asking people who wanted to take part to contact me in advance. A few people did, but there were clearly far fewer respondents than there would be participants.

So at Flipside, I started tracking people down who I knew personally, knew by reputation, by referral, or who I just saw playing with firedancing equpment. I explained to everyone where and when to assemble, what to do, and what my plan was. And it was interesting that I got pushback from a few people who said the plan was elitist or hierarchical, but I knew that any plan would be unsatisfactory to some people, so I shrugged it off. I asked everyone to pass word on to other fire performers they knew. I found the “drum gods” camp and asked them to send a contingent of eight drummers to lay down a steady beat–my original idea was one drummer per slice. They explained they all had to be in one spot to stay on the same beat, but that the sound would carry across the ring. They were especially concerned about hot fuel being cast off by a wick, hitting a drum head, and destroying it.

On Sunday morning, someone asked me how many people I expected would be taking part. I answered “between 10 and 100.” In fact, I thought the number would be about 60.

At about 6:00 on Sunday, I just happened to be present at a war council in the circle around the rocket (having just marked wedges with orange spray paint), discussing the latest weather forecast: there was a thunderstorm watch, flood watch, tornado watch, and chance of hail for the entire county. Oh, shit. Everyone stands around with very serious faces, wondering “now what?” Dave Umlaus, who looked like he had been run through a cheese grater and hastily reassembled into his original form, absorbed the news with a dead expression. The original plan was for rocket ignition at about 10:00 PM, and it was decided that we would try to stick to that plan, but might move the launch up by one hour, to avoid the worst of the weather–apparently, high winds were the main concern, as they could carry embers into the trees.

This meant that I had to track down everyone I had previously told to assemble at 9:15, and update them that they should be there at 8:15. Maybe. Tym apologized to me unnecessarily, and I said “if I wanted to take it easy, I would have stayed home.” I started making a couple passes throughout RecPlan, and seemed to manage to find almost everyone who needed to be found. I also found a few people who had never gotten the invitation in the first place, so I was able to get them on-board. I stopped by the drum gods again–they had heard something was up, but wanted to get my story. After the previous night’s rainstorm, they decided to place their biggest drums on one of the “gator” utility carts that constantly crisscross the site, so they could drive it under the nearby roofed pavillion at the first sign of rain.

This was stressful.

I changed into my eveningwear, and someone from my camp (also named Adam) blasted some glitter onto my brightly sunburned torso. I grabbed a granola bar for dinner, and carried extra fuel down to Circle of Fire, the place where everyone was going to congregate. I arranged the fuel depot to make it clearer what was going on.

At this point, the decision on when to launch the rocket was still up in the air, and in fact was not going to be decided until the last minute. That decision was up to the fire marshal.

Tym was leading a parade throughout the site, gathering up people from every camp as he went. His original plan (also a shambles now) was that the parade would arrive on the field just in time for the firedancers to start their show, then we’d do our thing, and then the rocket would be lit. Instead, he had to arrive on the field early and lead the parade through multiple laps around it. On one lap he gave me his bullhorn so that I could rally my troops. It turned out that there were a little over 30, with about a dozen safety people. I had them count off by eights to determine their position on the circle, had them start soaking and spinning out their wicks. At this point, I had too few firespinners to justify taking shifts, but 15 minutes of time to fill, so I told everyone to resoak and come back out immediately.

On another lap around, Tym came over and said “as of now, all your people need to be ready to go on at a moment’s notice” and I relayed this. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Tym came by again and said “get them out there now and light them up.” So they did. I patrolled the perimeter while they burned. One of the safety people took me aside and explained that someone in her wedge (whom I had not met) was insisting on fire-breathing–the safety had explained my position, but he was adamant. As it turned out, this wasn’t a big deal, since there was a pretty wide band between the fire performers and everyone else, being patrolled by rangers, and the circle itself wasn’t that crowded.

After about five minutes of burn time, someone came to me and told me “we have to clear the circle now.” So much for the re-soak and re-light plan. I ran over to the fuel depot and told everyone to stop re-dipping, though a few people got past. I went back out to the circle and hollered at everyone to clear the circle. A couple of showboats delayed leaving for a couple minutes, but apparently that wasn’t a deal-breaker.

Once the field was cleared, we waited. There were drummers everywhere, people hooting and hollering. The predicted storm was gathering–massive thunderheads, with frequent lightning. It made a perfect backdrop, and I half-expected a lightningbolt to strike the rocket. After some period of time, thrusters at the bottom of the rocket fired and everyone went nuts. Although there was a spinning fire-fountain on the top of the rocket, and it had been test-fired the previous night, it did not fire at this time. I suspect there were a hundred things that went wrong (the LED ring was completely shut off), but there was so much going on that you’d never miss it if you hadn’t known it was there. It took a while for the rocket to really start burning in earnest, but once it did there was a massive wave of heat that pushed everyone back about ten paces. It took a long time to burn and collapse (there was a lot of wood in there, and it was solidly built). It was sending embers perhaps 100 feet into the air, with the smoke creating a weak vortex. Firefighters were spraying their hoses to wet down the field downwind. As soon as the edifice had collapsed and the heat died down a bit, a lot of people moved inside the LED ring, and started walking in a circle around it. I was relieved and happy things had gone off as well as they did, and I hugged, congratulated, and thanked people as I went by or they did. As the fire died down a little more, people moved in to get as close as they could tolerate. Firespinners stepped into the band between the embers and the rest of the crowd (that is to say, the zone where the heat was intolerable). I grabbed my chains and joined them. After four light-ups in the hot zone, my sunburn was twice as bad–practically purple.

The storm mostly passed us by–we got a light sprinkling, but that was it. I wound up turning in relatively early. It was difficult to find a comfortable position to lie in with my sunburn, but I managed to get a pretty good night’s sleep.

The next morning, I hastily struck my own campsite (which was still kind of wet and muddy) and got it ready to load. I grabbed some garbage bags and went down to CoF to pick up the cigarette butts, tinsel, bottlecaps, etc. Finished up with that and went back up. Went to get my car, and found it blocked in by a gator–apparently someone at the adjacent camp had OD’d, and there were rangers and medics dealing with the situation. A few minutes later, though, I was able to get my car out. I loaded it up quickly and said goodbye to my camp-mates. On my way out, I saw Jori, a camp-mate and ranger, and said goodbye to her. Another ranger came over and asked “can you give someone a ride to the airport?” I said sure, and they loaded up Keeper and her one duffel bag (talk about travelling light!). The ranger gave me a piece of “flipside currency”–I have no idea what I would do with it, and I’m not inclined to part with it anyhow.

flipside coin

More

I’ll write more as I think of it.

Hill Country Ride for AIDS

I’ve signed up to do the Hill Country Ride for AIDS as part of Team Soup Peddler (for those of you who missed it, the Soup Peddler himself was the officiant at Gwen & my wedding). I’ll be very grateful to anyone out there in TV land who is interested in sponsoring me (yes, it’s one of those fundraiser things).