The British Museum part deux

We had but a scant half day in London before we had to catch the Eurostar to Paris, and we elected to spend it at the British Museum, mostly browsing the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and Southeast Asia. The last time I visited, security did a very cursory glance into my purse. This time, the guard very nearly unpacked the whole of my backpack; if you haven’t had the joy of having a stranger paw through your clean and dirty underwear on a table in front of spectators, just know that it’s a really special experience.

This is a Native American saddle pad design from the mid to late 1800s; with it, their horses had much greater endurance, able to travel twenty miles more per day owing to the relief of direct contact on the spine from bareback riding, while still allowing for close contact between leg and flank. Cree, Ojibwa, Plains Peoples.

Mosaic mask of Tezcatlopoca: Human skull mask inset with turquoise, iron pyrite, white conch, and thorny oyster. Aztec, believed to have been worn for ritualistic purposes. Extremely dilated from the optometrist.

Double-headed serpent turquoise mosaic: turquoise, hematite, and shells inlaid into cedar.         Aztec, 15-16th century.

My face whenever I hear something juicy; jade, Tang dynasty AD 600-1000

This jade horse sculpture was HUGE compared to most of the other jade in the exhibit. An absolute unit.

Number three is a silver bong, pissing off parents in China since the 1800s when they find one in their kids’ sock drawer.

Jade, marble, and ormulu (an alloy of metals, gold-colored, often gilded) base for a hookah pipe, London, 1700.

My mind boggles when I think about how many uppercuts this guy could do all at once.

The mother of pearl inlay is just stunning. This platter is alive with iridescence.

Ceramic pillow, China, Jin dynasty (AD 265–420). The inscription reads “The wind rustles flowers under a snow white moon.” There are many of these uncomfortable looking pillows in existence, some plainer and some far more elaborate, but no one really knows for certain their purpose. Because they were a woman’s possession, it’s believed they were a reminder to women of their matrimonial duties. “It’s hard and uncomfortable–like your life! Now start rustling your flowers.”

Ravi Shankar’s sitar. Gourds, teak, bone.

Ladies and gentlemen: the world’s most fabulous crocodile.

Tsam-Tanz boots, Tibetan. 

Conch shell trumpet, used in Tibet and China in Buddhist temples to call monks to prayer. 1700-1899. I know in my soul that this one in particular summons an oceanic dragon when it’s sounded but they keep it behind glass because the dragon makes a mess.

Ritual dagger or kīla, 1800s, used in Nepal for religious and magical purposes. They derive their power from their connection to the deity represented on the handle.  Not traditionally used for stabbing, but there is no classier way to be stabbed than with this baby.

If this is your ladle, your soup had better be damn good.

So many pieces in this wing referenced human dominance over animals, most often with their foot planted on its back or head. I liked this reversal of fortunes.

All too soon, it was time to make our way to St. Pancras. Years of mostly traveling in US airports has conditioned me to expect security lines to be long and painful, but this one was breezy and involved no tumbling of my underwear into public view so it was a vast step up from the morning. The train ride itself was uneventful but my chill kind of evaporated in Gare du Nord where I officially became the sole sort-of French speaker between the two of us and did not feel all that confident about it, despite the Duolingo owl stalking me day and night to practice for a year and a half. No doubt part of my insecurity lay with the fact that I’d never spoken French with another person, only into a microphone at my computer, and I suspected that in my efforts to pronounce words properly, I sounded more like someone putting on a bad French accent than a regular everyday French speaker.

The train systems in Paris and further into France are complicated enough that I wanted to handle as much as I could in advance, figuring out exactly what trains we needed to take, where to board, and booking tickets in advance if I could.  It’s not a trip planning method that leaves a ton of room for spontaneity but when it comes to transportation, I’d rather have a plan than feel like a free spirit.  I’d booked our first night at the Hotel Eiffel Seine, not due to its visibility of the Eiffel Tower* OR the Seine but due to its proximity to the RER-C train which we’d be taking to Versailles early the following morning. I knew what trains to take and where to transfer to get from Gare du Nord to Champ de Mars – Tour Eiffel…on paper. Gare du Nord in person was sensory overload, huge and loud with so many trains and a sea of fast, purposefully moving people and an unforgiving subway ticketing system that only vaguely indicates what you’re buying and if you make a mistake, you need to start the purchase process completely over which isn’t frustrating at all. After I finally figured out the machine I was at was broken, I waited in line for another one, had to start and restart my purchase three times but finally had subway tickets. Finding the correct train was another struggle but once that was figured out…boom, there’s the Eiffel Tower.

We made our way to the hotel and the moment came: I was going to have to speak French. As I opened my mouth, I realized I didn’t know the words for “reservation” or “check in” and it was just like when I got into my first car accident: I was blinded by the morning sun in the direction that I needed to turn, I couldn’t see if a car was coming, there was pressure behind me from other cars in the neighborhood and so I decided to just go for it, pulling out in front of a white van perfectly camouflaged by the sun, totalling both vehicles. “I’ll never drive again,” I cried on the phone to my father. “You’re driving again TODAY.” he replied.  So here I am, in the lobby of this hotel, I know I’ve got to say something, but I don’t know the right words, and pressure real or imagined made me decide to just go for it, so I opened my mouth and a car crash in French with my name came out. The receptionist replied immediately in English. I felt simultaneously better about my chances of surviving the week and disappointed in the Duolingo owl for preparing me to inform someone that a bear has pants but not this. Still, I wasn’t going to let this stop me from continuing to attempt to conduct business in French; I didn’t want to assume everyone speaks English and I also felt as though it would be rude to not at least try to communicate in the language of the land. And also because I didn’t spend a year and a half mangling a language into a microphone to get shy about mangling it now.

Our room was oriented to get a peep at the Seine but somehow we still ended up with a view of the Eiffel Tower(s).

After we checked in, we dumped our bags and walked to get a closer view of the Eiffel before it began its hourly disco party. I don’t know if we could have gotten closer to the tower than we did, but not far up the block from us were soldiers carrying what appeared to be automatic rifles and my reaction was to find some pressing business in the opposite direction. I know that they are a continuing presence on the streets of France ever since the the January 2015 Île-de-France attacks but generally I don’t see a person with a huge gun and think “Hurrah! My personal safety level has increased!” No, I’m more invested in the idea of not having to try to explain myself in French to someone with a huge gun who wants to know why I’m trespassing after visiting hours. 

BURGER PIZZA

We spent the drizzly evening walking around, taking in the sights and trying to figure out where we wanted to eat. Neither one of us was really in the mood for a full restaurant meal so we went to Poilâne where I conducted a transaction for bread in French pretty easily (hurrah!) and they gave us each a small, buttery cookie. Afterward, we walked to Franprix and bought some cheese and fruit and other goodies and had a hotel room picnic.

 

 

 

*It is my understanding that the Eiffel Tower is visible from any part of Paris which is why any movie or TV show that cuts to Paris always has the Eiffel Tower in the shot. Look at how many times it appeared in this post alone!

Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland

Jason and I flew to London on yet another screaming deal from IcelandAir. The plan was to arrive hungry, ready to hit the Borough Market, but on our flight, Jason broke down and ordered the admittedly delicious-looking pizza and hummus as a snack. And while I know that jokes about the quality of airline food had their time in 1991, what the flight attendant delivered to his seat in the name of each of those foods is, if not a violation of the Geneva Convention, at the very least, a crime against humanity’s tastebuds. The hummus was dry and crumbly and I refuse to call to that odd, sweaty cheese tart “pizza”. The pizza in the photograph and the congealed food item that arrived look like they were made on different planets. It’s like it was made by someone who had only ever read about pizza in an illustrationless book but was intrigued by the concept.

Jason still ate some of it, though. And later, when we were waiting in line at Heathrow customs to see one of the two customs agents who had bothered to show up for work that day, and I was getting hungrier and hungrier…did you think I was going to say I wished I had eaten some, too? Hell no! I thought back on that hockey puck of crust and coagulated dairy patty and added IcelandAir to the list of entities who have deeply betrayed me.

We were spending the night at The Morton Hotel in Bloomsbury, just across Russell Square from The British Museum. The Russell Square tube station exit involves cramming oneself onto an elevator with a lot of other people and a staircase with a stern sign at its base. “This staircase has 175 steps (equivalent to 15 floors) Do not use except in an emergency”. Well, my emergency that day was that I didn’t want to ride in an elevator with an entire tube carriage’s worth of people, and I started heaving myself up the stairs. I made it, but paid for it with the deep, racking cough of the consummate non-runner and someone who definitely hasn’t climbed fifteen continuous flights of stairs in a good long while. That cough continued through check-in at the hotel, and I can only assume that they thought I was bringing a new plague to their doorstep but were polite enough to wait to talk about it until I was out of earshot.

As this was a backpacking trip, I was glad of the opportunity to stop at the hotel and strip out all unnecessary items from my bag to lighten the load. In addition to my camera, I’d managed to fit everything I needed to keep myself clean and presentable-ish for a week in my travel backpack with a little room to spare, but even travel sized everything and the bare minimum of clothes and paper took on what felt like a mighty mass when carried on my shoulders, especially when said carriage involves fifteen flights of stairs for some reason. But I didn’t need spare underwear or the noise-canceling headphones I’m too spoiled to travel without for the rest of the day’s activities: the aforementioned sandwich-eating and Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park.

My sandwich at Roast Hog was perfect (again), greasy, crunchy, chewy and absolutely restorative. Here’s the photo from last time, I was too busy eating to take another.

Afterward we rode the tube to the vicinity of Hyde Park and its spectacular Winter Wonderland, host to 2.5 million visitors annually, and based on the number of prominent warning signs throughout the grounds, a fair portion of those visitors are in good standing with the Pickpockets’ Guild.

We were there primarily to meet some friends at the ice bar but since we were going to be there, I prebooked tickets for us at the Magical Ice Kingdom presents: The Secret Forest.  We were supposed to arrive 10 minutes prior to our appointed time, which was rapidly approaching, so after we got through the security line, we hustled back through nearly the entirety of the grounds so as not to be late and forfeit our sole opportunity to experience to this hotly-anticipated attraction. Their website really emphasized the importance of prebooking tickets, and particularly when I’m planning an international trip, I take website recommendations very seriously. Very seriously. So I created an account, I bought those tickets, and when I say “we hustled back” I mean that I walked so fast that I could’ve set a small fire between my thighs and Jason had no choice but to keep up.  And when I arrived, ashen-faced and distraught and two minutes late, hoping they’d still admit us, I realized the Winter Wonderland website may have oversold the public’s keen desire to view ice sculptures. And while purchasing tickets in advance may indeed be necessary during the high periods, on a Monday at 4pm, not so much. In wintry terms, the crowd was more “scattered snowflakes” than “snowpocalypse”. However, that may just be the genius of a perfectly timed ticketing system working precisely as it should. 

One enters The Secret Forest through a door underneath a sign clearly marked “Secret Forest” so…the secret’s out. The snow and ice sculptures contained therein were in turns realistic and whimsical, and they had some fun photo opportunities, including the ability to photograph yourself as half ice-faun or half ice-centaur and on a throne of ice surrounded by icy battle unicorns. The ice throne was obviously my favorite, and it’s the kind of thing where I’d be tempted to show up with a costume if not for being 4700 miles from home and constrained by what I could fit in a backpack. Speaking of the backpack, I learned that one does not slide particularly well down an ice slide while wearing one. It was day one, and my resentment against this backpack was already growing.

After hanging out in a refrigerated warehouse for a while, then scooting down a ramp of ice like a dog across carpet in front of some British teenagers offering suggestions about my technique, I was more than ready to be somewhere warm with a similarly warm beverage. We settled on the Arctic Lodge Bar, an open rectangle with a bar, a series of benches, and roaring woodfires. My wish for a warm place to drink a warm drink was granted; I thought the condition of “breathable air that doesn’t leave you with the start of a fine smoke ring” was implied, but alas. The smoke would have driven me out eventually but the only seats in the house were directly across from a couple engaged in some vigorous displays of public affection and the layout of the seats were such that there was nowhere to look to as to avoid knowing the finger points of a stranger’s kissing technique, so that got me out first because I am evidently a prudish American. 

Also because there was plenty of stuff I wanted to see before we went to the ice bar, and I am referring in particular to the giant man looming over the Bavarian village that I had noted from a distance. I spent some time watching this enormous puppet do its thing, and finally concluded that it was the dirty, independently-moving fingers that were the creepiest, and not the the little shudder of flesh under its chin when it spoke, but it was a close thing. 

This was Jason’s third hot chocolate or thereabouts and the glee is starting to kick in.

Jason and I were both drawn to Dr. Archibald, Master of Time, and his vaguely threatening steampunk owl looming over the midway. It was a combination physical and virtual reality ride, and either one of us would independently admit to this day that we would have rather kept the admittance token as a souvenir. The ride itself is fine (it’s not my favorite thing to put VR headsets over my glasses, and I like having a ride attendant jam one over them far less) but that token is spectacular and handing it back after a few steps felt wrong. 

We met our friends Sean and Colleen outside the ice bar, where we were issued parkas and (damp) gloves. This “sub zero” ice bar sounds on the edge of perilous until I remember that -10°C is equivalent to 14°F, or vastly warmer than most winter mornings I spent waiting for the school bus in a hooded sweatshirt in Wisconsin. The gimmick of the ice bar is fun for a bit but after you’ve sat on an ice chair and drink from your awkwardly thick ice cup, you’ve fairly well plumbed its depths. I did have a wonderful time catching up with them both and hearing about their adventures over the past few months, like hiking Hadrian’s Wall–the kind of action-adventure travel that probably doesn’t begin with someone hacking their lungs out after climbing fifteen flights of stairs.

Chicago: Surgery and Stamen, Puerperal and Purpurea

It was our last day in Chicago as a triad, and we started it at the International Museum of Surgical Science. I haven’t often considered the great debt I owe to history’s physicians, and I take the relative ease with which many formerly deadly ailments can be healed for granted. Which, when I really think about it, is wild. It was just 100 years ago that a broken femur meant an 80% mortality rate. An 80% chance of dying from a broken bone! The Thomas splint, introduced in 1916 by Hugh Owen Thomas, the father of orthopedic surgery in Britain, reduced the mortality rate from 80% to 20%.

About 200 years ago, doctors started to believe in germs, but there were holdouts into the mid-late 1800s who staunchly refused to accept or understand their role in transmitting disease from patient to patient.  Before the germ theory of disease was accepted (the idea that microorganisms invade the bodies of humans and animals and it is their growth and reproduction that cause disease), doctors would go from patient to patient or from an autopsy to a birthing without washing their hands or changing their clothes despite their being “most thoroughly imbued with effluvia“. Disease was thought to be caused by an “imbalance of humours” or by walking through bad air.

Anesthesia was developed around the same time, with the first successful anesthetized procedure occurring in 1846, and while many doctors were excited about its surgical possibilities, there were, again, some holdouts who considered its use wrong and even immoral. “I think anesthesia is of the devil and I cannot give my sanction to any Satanic influence which deprives a man of the capacity to recognize law! I wish there was no such thing as anesthesia! I do not think men should be prevented from passing through what God intended them to endure!” remarked William Henry Atkinson, physician and first president of the American Dental Association, which makes me wonder what I’m intended to endure when I purchase a toothbrush or paste endorsed by the ADA. 

Still, even doctors who embraced anesthesia for its ability to allow more invasive procedures often found that their successes ended in the death of the patient, and this is the direct result of antiseptic measures not yet being in place due to the idea of germs being rather newfangled. Thanks to the work of individuals like Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister (who promoted the sterilization of operating rooms and equipment in the 1870s), the risk of contracting an infection after surgery has been dramatically reduced. And so, on the few occasions I’ve been under the knife, I haven’t had to gnaw on a belt, conscious, while a doctor rooted around in my insides who may or may not have washed his hands beforehand. Modern surgical science has given us all that.

The Hall of Immortals, sculptures by Louis Linck and Edouard Chassaing

The Right Honorable Sir Joseph Lister, surgeon, pioneer of antiseptic surgery, and for whom both Listerine and Listeria are named.

Marie Curie, physicist and chemist, who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity.

Louis Pasteur, biologist, microbiologist, chemist, discoverer of the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation, and pasteurization.

The books at the International Museum of Surgical Science are soft packed in tissue paper as a means of preservation. 

With all the natural sunlight spilling into the room, I would not be surprised if the top of the desk is discolored around and thus ironically damaged by the sign they placed to protect it.

Antique glasses case made of shagreen, a rough-textured leather that is traditionally from a shark, ray, or horse and dyed a pale green.

Medical device or chill piece of fashion? 

Things that came out of people. And maybe animals? For sure people.

A fascinating series of illustrations demonstrating pioneering techniques for nasal reconstruction by using adjacent flaps of skin. Making your armpit the first thing you have to sniff with your new nose is the medical profession’s way of keeping you humble about your new nose.

It’s going the extra mile in your medical illustration to not only finely render your subject but add a whole rhino in the background. 

All that talk and video of invasive surgery gave me the kind of renewed zeal for life that it takes to eat a slice of deep dish pizza at Giordano’s or any place that deals it Chicago style. I used to be defensive about whether Chicago style was “real” pizza or not (it is!) , but I will now begrudgingly admit that it is not the style that springs to mind when the word “pizza” is uttered within earshot. Chicago style is pizza but it’s pizza that’s being extra by basically being a pizza stacked on top of a pizza.  A pizza casserole,  stuffed with more mozzarella than I’m comfortable contemplating when I’m not eating it. When I’m eating it, I’m more than fine with the amount of cheese in there. 

We drove past this place on our way to the Chicago Botanic Garden and I just…why would you name your outlet for luxe furniture The Dump? What on earth do you think is appealing about that name? Would you name a fancy ice cream shop The Squirts?

It was sweltering when we visited the Chicago Botanic Garden, hot and humid. The kind of heat where you don’t know if you’re sweating or the moisture in the air is condensing into droplets and rivulets on your skin or large amounts of both. The two pounds of mozzarella rolling around in my stomach probably didn’t help matters. It was so steamy that my glasses started to fog up even as my eyelashes spritzed the lenses with sweat for what amounted to a constant blurry filth filter on the world.

We sweatily unfolded the map and determined that the one place on the entire 385 acres we definitely didn’t want to visit was  “Spider Island” so of course we found ourselves on Spider Island almost immediately. It’s the same kind of magnetism that draws a cat over to fawn on a visitor who isn’t particularly fond of cats. The spider hivemind on Spider Island sensed that Dianne and Dee were both vehemently uncomfortable with their kind and by the powers granted to them by Newton’s Third Law they thus reoriented the earth so that they might love us, placing our feet on the bridge even though we were trying to get to the sensory garden.  At least once they had lured us near, the spiders deigned to reveal themselves. Repelled by our sweatiness, they preferred to just peer at us from above. And behind. And below. And just next to the nape of your neck.

Echinacea purpurea

Sphex pensylvanicus, the great black wasp. The gothest of the wasps.

Dahlia

I love a willow draping dramatically over anything.

I feel like I will never have truly lived if I don’t see a martial arts movie where someone uses this kind of banana as a flail.

Gardenia

There were plenty of other visitors, but most had gathered on the lawn for the music event, so we mostly had the grounds to ourselves. And the spiders, of course.

An Introduction to Mounted Archery

Even before I bought Navani, I knew that I wanted to get into playing mounted games, and having had some practice at and aptitude for archery, it felt like an ideal place to start. I signed up for a two day intensive clinic with Heart Horse Industries in southern Washington, and resolved to become a good enough rider by the time it rolled around. 

June came so, so fast. In the intervening 8 month period between signing up for the clinic and driving to the clinic, I had come to learn that owning a horse and riding your horse are two distinct hobbies. I also fell off Navani in late December (my first fall since returning to riding) which did a number on my body and my confidence. It was hard to practice riding when I felt anxious about falling and hurting myself again and being anxious on the back of a horse is essentially asking to fall or be tossed off, as they are a half ton of empathetic nerve endings waiting to fire. A horse takes its cues from its rider, and if you’re afraid, they will also be afraid, and if they’re afraid, you’re going to have a bad ride which isn’t going to help your confidence any. It’s a feedback loop of fear and inadequacy*. So I’ve had to do a lot of mental and emotional work since then to deal with my anxiety and build my bond with Navani to help me get my confidence back. Unfortunately, that meant that I hadn’t made nearly as much riding progress as I had anticipated, and I was concerned that I wouldn’t even be allowed to take part in the riding portion of the clinic when my inexperience came to light. As there was nothing I could do about that, I determined my best course of action was to go in as confident as possible, and to that end, I borrowed the mare on which I’d learned to ride and rode her easy trot hands-free up and down the arena, turning my torso left and right and pantomiming drawing a bow. It must have helped, because I had a couple of good rides on Navani after that, and managed to stay aboard when she was startled on our most recent ride by that noted danger to horses and public menace, a butterfly.

It’s a three hour drive from my neighborhood to Brush Prairie, give or take, and so I elected to spend the weekend in nearby Vancouver at an Airbnb in the Hough neighborhood in order to be fresh for class and fresh for the drive both ways. The drive from my accommodations to the clinic wound past all manner of homes–mansions with great lawns situated across the road from run down trailer parks surrounded by debris. Several homes in a row had signs advertising the potency of their CBD oil (“with 0% THC!”), one behind a chainlink fence with a pointy Doberman stalking the yard. Almost everywhere had horses grazing nearby.

Our group of learners was small: four women. We took some time to discuss our riding and archery backgrounds and how we came to be interested in this fusion of two highly specialized sports, and it all essentially boiled down to wanting to be horseback riding warrior women, to claim power and space for ourselves. “I’m just tired of women being diminished,” said the woman seated next to me, and that is how I came to know and admire Kim, because I feel very inch of that sentiment. My other classmates were Kristi and Magalyn, two fierce women whom I also came to admire over the course of the weekend.

Introductions made, we were each issued a hip quiver, the side effects of which include at least 50% additional swagger in one’s step, and a heightened sense of both competence and coolness. We were introduced to the principles of loading, drawing, pulling, and releasing on the bows, and I learned that the technique is very different from the recurve three-finger archery I learned at Next Step Archery. In mounted archery, the arrow goes to the outside of the bow, you twist your draw arm to stabilize the arrow, you thumb release, and the arrow rides over the thumb of the bow hand. I also learned firsthand that you can crack your arm with the bow string if you hyper-extend the elbow in either form of the discipline. 

After we learned the basics, we started playing shooting games, like walking at a consistent pace on a track around a beam on the ground, loading your arrows without looking at them (because your eyes should always be seeking targets), and shooting at the targets as you walk by. We also practiced shooting at moving targets (rounds of duct-taped sound board rolled across the arena). After we broke for lunch, it was time to mount up. Magalyn and Kristi rode Ronan and Columbia, both Lipizzaners, and Kim and I rode Tuffy and Tommy, both American Quarter Horses. Our position in the lineup also reflects our horse’s status within the herd: nobody likes Tommy. Maybe, and I’m just spitballing here, it’s because Tommy is kind of an old curmudgeonly jerk, and I mean that in the most loving way possible. When we would wait in lineups, Tommy would constantly be trying to fidget with Tuffy, rubbing his face on Tuffy’s hindquarters, wanting to just groom and be in Tuffy’s space. On our way into the outdoor track, Tommy tried to take a bite out of Columbia’s butt, and on the second day when Ronan was watching from the sidelines, he made it clear that he would love nothing more than to take a chunk out of Tommy. Tommy was also the only horse who necessitated the wearing and use of spurs, something I have never worn or done before. With those spurs jingling on the back of my boots and the hip quiver combined, my swagger became almost unbearable, because every time I walked, I felt like I was off for a showdown at the O.K. corral. 

Tommy knew I was bluffing, however. He could feel my reticence to use those spurs and took full advantage of it, attempting to cut through the track and crack my knee into walls and other objects and this continued until I finally did bump him with the spurs on the second day, because I had tried and tried and tried to ask him with a strong leg and no spur and treat him like a fragile egg and he told me again and again that he wouldn’t unless I got more assertive.

I also had some struggles with the saddle on the first day–the stirrups had been adjusted as short as they could go, and still my left foot kept sliding out which makes it difficult to impossible to be in the 2-point position, where you’re standing in the stirrups, because with one foot out, it’s more of a wobbly 1-point-I’m-gonna-fall-off-this-horse-in-front-of-everyone-and-either-I’ll-die-or-I’ll-wish-I-had position. I’m sure it was also challenging for me because I’ve not yet learned to post the trot, which is the thing that I think marks me most as a very beginner rider. Posting involves rising from a seated position into a 2-point and settling back down in time with the horse’s gait to compensate for the bounciness of the trot. Going from not having that piece of the puzzle at all to having to learn to do it in front of an audience while clapping my hands overhead and/or juggling a heavy ball hand to hand, combined with my need to be immediately good at something despite never having done it before was almost too much for me. It was one of those times where I manufactured pressure for myself, and that self-generated pressure was making it harder for me to be successful. Another negative feedback loop. Thankfully I recognized it and self-corrected. 

At the end of day one, I was exhausted from four hours of drawing a 25lb bow and three hours of riding with strong leg cues while also drawing a 25lb bow. Exhausted. It was 5pm, and I drove back to my Airbnb, walked to the nearby Vancouver Pizza Co where I guzzled ice water on their patio and devoured half of a calzone stuffed with mozzarella, spicy Italian sausage, goat cheese, and cashews, served with a creamy garlic sauce, and I maintain that this meal had just barely enough fat and protein in it to keep me alive as all I’d eaten that day was a croissant. The other half of the calzone I saved for my lunch on day two, and I decided that a successful day of riding a horse I didn’t know hands-free while juggling a ball at a trot deserved some ice cream, so I walked down the street to Ice Cream Renaissance. It was a hot day and they were jammin’. I ordered a scoop of lemon raspberry cheesecake in a waffle cone and brought it outside to enjoy, but ultimately ended up discarding it after two bites, the second bite to confirm that it was oddly gritty-icy-crumbly and not worth the effort it would take to eat it. That is how tired I was. After binning the ice cream, I walked back to my Airbnb, took a cool shower, and immediately went to bed. 

I was surprisingly not sore when I awoke the following morning. Not very sore, anyway. Aside from the sunburn I’d gotten and the hand-sized bruise blooming on my forearm, I mean. 

We started off the morning again with stretches and a series of archery games and exercises, my favorites being launching arrows 50 meters downfield at a Hungarian target which required you to use every inch of draw, and a supremely fun game called “Battle Bows” wherein two people stand inside of a hula hoop across from one another at a distance, you’re armed with arrows with big soft foam heads, and you shoot at one another’s knees.  You can’t leave the hoop but you are otherwise allowed to dodge. If you strike your opponent, you win. If they catch your arrow out of the air, you lose. If they touch the arrow but fail to catch it, you win. Any arrow that lands within reach of the hoop can be reused. This game ramps up your adrenaline in a major way and really forces you to keep your eyes on target–you can’t risk looking at your arrow to nock it, because that lapse in attention could make you an easier target for your opponent. I struck two hits on Kim and managed to escape Battle Bows unscathed…this time.

Magalyn departed at lunch to attend a Portland Thorns FC game, and the rest of us were put into a friendly competition with one another. Of course, all it takes is the word “competition” for me to get in my head and start biffing things, and the teacher, Lisa, came over and spoke with us about her technique of dealing with pressure by treating it as a wave: something that can pass over you and beyond instead of carrying you away. Breathe, allow it to pass, and move on. She also encouraged me to engage with more intensity, ferocity, aggression and that’s an entirely different way of being for me but it feels freeing. We had several rounds of competitive shooting on the ground, and then we mounted up. As Magalyn was gone, I got to use her saddle instead, and found it much easier to sit properly and keep my feet seated in the stirrups.

We did a couple of laps around the outdoor track shooting at a walk, then we practiced shooting at the trot (a first for everyone), and finally we had a few rounds of free-for-all shooting at myriad targets including styrofoam heads and a half buried small green target worth fifty points. You could shoot at any target you liked, but the points only counted if you were trotting. You could enter the track with your first arrow loaded, and it was wise to do so as that fifty pointer was on the first stretch and you don’t want to be fumbling with an arrow instead of drawing on it. Immediately after the entrance was a larger yellow twenty-five pointer, and I committed to shooting at them both on every lap. This meant that the arrow I had loaded upon entering the track was dedicated to the twenty five point target, and I had about a third of the track to draw, load, aim, and fire on the fifty pointer, at a trot. I didn’t hit either one of them on any of my attempts, but my misses were close, and hearing Lisa compliment my gutsiness for going for those targets was all the reward I needed. Plus I nailed a couple of bullseyes off of the back of a moving horse when just a day earlier I wasn’t sure I was ready for that kind of riding.  Kristi brought home the championship golden arrow keychain, and I brought home a confidence boost to end all confidence boosts.


 

 

 

*Feedback Loop of Fear and Inadequacy would make an excellent title for my memoirs.

Shiny and Oh So Bright: Smashing Pumpkins at United Center

When I was thirteen years old, I stood at the sink, washing dishes, wearing a Smashing Pumpkins t-shirt, and informed my father, who was drying, how lame it is that bands go on “we still hate each other but we ran out of money” reunion tours and how lame the middle aged people are who go to them, trying to recapture their lost youth. We had a lot of discussions like that, many centered around the center of my life, The Smashing Pumpkins. 

And I was obsessed. Obsessed in the way that an awkward, often-lonely person can be when they feel understood for the first time in their lives. I channeled that obsession into spending my time on the internet discussing the band on Listessa. I scoured the at-the-time brand new website eBay for memorabilia, rare cd singles, a print of their first album before it was slightly remastered and reissued under the parent label, fan-made merch…anything I could get my hands on and my babysitting budget would allow. I had a closet full of Smashing Pumpkins t-shirts and when I saw them live (my first concert, Summerfest ’98, opening bands were Blonde Redhead and Hum), I bought four more. I got in trouble with my parents for using too much printer ink printing photos of the band I’d found online. I bought that hundred dollar (or more?) black and white hard shelled mini suitcase of singles and b-sides. I committed to memory track names, song order, lyrics. I started taking guitar lessons and bought Smashing Pumpkins tablature books so I could know the music. I lip-synced in the mirror. I drew fan art. I waited in line for nine hours to meet the band on their Machina signing tour. I would evangelize the band to anyone who would listen. If they were willing, they could also listen to the music on the portable cd player I carried during the only years of my life when I had pants with pockets generously sized enough to accommodate a portable CD player. (They were so generous I probably could have wedged a smaller boom box in there.)

I was soundly mocked by my family for announcing that I wanted to change my name to Starla because of my love of the band, and endured another round of mockery when we watched the episode of The Simpsons where perpetual loser Kirk Van Houten introduces his new hard-living special lady friend, Starla, who almost immediately proceeds to steal his car.  I will admit now that name would probably not be my first choice; I think at the time I was just tired of being the least popular of the six Melissas in my school, and it was another way for me to be able to demonstrate my dedication to the band.  Somehow, only one of my two stupid tattoos is even incidentally Smashing Pumpkins related–how I got out of the 90’s without the SP heart tattooed on my ankle remains a mystery and a miracle.

That was the band. But only one member wrote the lyrics that spoke to my soul, the music that was the soundtrack to my teenage disenchantment: Billy Corgan. I idolized him for it. There’s no other word for it. In the early days of the internet, I even ran a fairly popular fan site* that was solely dedicated to tongue-in-cheek “worship” of Billy Corgan and definitely portrayed him as a messianic figure, and though I did not worship him as a literal god, I gave his words and thoughts and actions such power that I may as well have. When I got my first real job at a family run music shop, I bought myself an American-made Fender Stratocaster in Inca silver (the kind Billy had) and I replaced the pickups with lace sensors (the kind Billy used, in the same configuration–it turns out that the tone of my original pickups wasn’t what was holding me back, it was my lack of talent). I’d use my mouth to speak his opinions. When he sang “believe in me”, I believed him. When the band broke up and he said “There’s nothing wrong inside the band. But the way the culture is and stuff, it’s hard to keep trying to fight the good fight against the Britneys.” as though the teen pop star and her ilk were somehow responsible for the band’s decline and the lessening popularity of alternative rock, you’d best believe that for a while, I blamed Britney, too.  

This was taken in ’98 or ’99. Although there’s a lot going on here, note the Pumpkins shirt. As a side note, if you ever see someone who looks like me but aren’t certain: if the photo is flattering, it’s not me.

When I was thirty-six years old, I flew to Chicago for the express purpose of seeing the Smashing Pumpkins’ reunion tour. I hadn’t listened to the band heavily in many years, and it had even been several since I’d listened to my favorite of their albums. I downloaded them all to my phone so I could refresh myself on the plane ride over. I don’t remember the track order as viscerally as I used to, anticipating the first note of the next song, but all the lyrics, every vocal inflection, every drum fill, every feedback squeal and hopeless wail…they’re all inside me. I could hear them in my head as clearly as I could hear them through the headphones. I don’t think I could forget them even if I tried.

It’s been not quite twenty years since I abandoned that fan site, and in the intervening period, as I’ve grown up a lot and cast off the obsession and the idolization that came with it, I’ve come to see Billy Corgan as a person. A disappointing, petty, vindictive, bewildering person. From the aggressive way he reacts to a fan’s criticism, to his multiple appearances on Infowars (the unhinged, far-right American conspiracy theory program hosted by Alex Jones), to offering himself up for a charity lunch where the high bidder is also responsible for the lunch bill, to dating Jessica Simpson after indirectly blaming her for breaking up his band, to releasing five different versions of the same album to really stick it to his fans in a misguided attempt to game the Billboard charts, to kinda-sorta trying to start his own religion, to wielding his power in a petty fashion, to whatever this is.  The public beefs and self-aggrandizement lost its allure to me, especially after a “reunion” tour  ten years ago where Billy was the only original member of the band after Jimmy had enough and fucked back off to his own band, The Jimmy Chamberlain Complex. I’d reached my ridiculous behavior to life-altering music ratio lifetime limit. I couldn’t reconcile that the person who had written the songs that made my heart thrill, that gave me comfort and an outlet in a world that hurt too much, hates people like me now. It’s like preeminent Pumpkins writer Ian Cohen of Pitchfork muses on this excellent podcast if you’ve ever loved the band, “It’s just incredible that we actually got records like that out of this guy.” But I was still going to this reunion concert (now with most of the original lineup!). I was going to meet my friend, I was going for me, and I was also going to make little know-it-all thirteen year old Melissa a hypocrite. 

____________________________________

Dianne, Dee and I started our evening at the Revolution Brewpub, which we slipped into after being followed down the street by a man who proceeded to pace outside the front of the restaurant and peer through the windows, looking for us, and where I goddamn well should have ordered the Yukon potato, spring pea & cheese curd pierogi that I wanted instead of that bullshit salad I ordered so there were two reasons to be sad and scared. I know why I ordered that sad salad, because I’m recently middle-aged and I was afraid that eating a plate of carbs wrapped in carbs would make me fall asleep in my expensive concert seat before midnight. It was a responsible, flavorless choice. Or perhaps the sense of taste was driven from my mouth by the man still staring through the window, head scanning, which I could see from my seat on the balcony. Thankfully, he was not still waiting by the window when we finished our meal, nor was he waiting beside Dee’s car, which he had seen us exit and could reasonably expect that we’d return to at some point.

Metric

My emotions quickly took a huge swing in a different direction when we arrived at United Center. In addition to music, I also listened to some Ted talks on the flight to Chicago, one of which was a talk by Ingrid Fetell Lee about finding and embracing joy in our lives, and I realized as the bass thudded through my body from opening band Metric’s performance as we walked the hallways of the event center to our seats that I was experiencing joy, there in that moment, and in anticipation of the near future. We looked at the merch booth and it was the usual: t-shirts, hoodies, and vinyl. Dianne and I joked that they’d be more likely to appeal to our demographic if they had a nice silk scarf with the Mellon Collie art on it, or perhaps a flowy dolman-sleeve top. A line of scented candles–Appels + Oranjes seems like an obvious first choice, but I can easily imagine an entire range of song and album inspired scents and at least one band member belittling a frazzled nose that the “Kaleidyscope” blend doesn’t contain enough essence of mechanical child ghosts OR vetiver and that he’d just do the whole thing himself or burn down this candle factory trying. One guess as to which band member I’m picturing.

When we got to our seats, we were all surprised to learn that we actually skewed young for this audience, which was full of ill-fitting jeans and “I would like to speak to your manager” haircuts and no actual young people to speak of anywhere. When the band came out, the audience didn’t surge to its feet so much as shuffle, including the human bowl cut seated in front of me, and this low-energy feeling persisted throughout the show. Some of that has to do with the music–it’s not super danceable or headbangable and the songs that are usually change gears a few times so people just kind of stand around and nod their heads. It also didn’t help that the stadium seemed half full.

The Smashing Pumpkins’ set started with Mellon Collie played over a video referencing a lot of their album and liner art, and next was a solo acoustic performance of Disarm, which made it pretty clear that while the audience had paid to see The Smashing Pumpkins, they were at The Billy Corgan Show. It wasn’t until the rest of the band joined in on Rocket, Siva, Rhinoceros that I realized the video playing behind the band, cuts of music videos and new material, had been edited in such a way as to make it appear that former bassist and founding member D’arcy Wretzky never existed and that is when my joy died and I started to cry. I couldn’t stifle them, they were the kind of furious and bitterly disappointed grief tears that just punch their way out of the duct. It wasn’t enough to have invited D’arcy onto the tour and then renege. It wasn’t enough to disrespect her by playing all of her parts on two albums. It wasn’t enough to hound her so much during the recording of another album that she had a miscarriage from the stress,  nor was it enough to disparage her contributions after she quit the band. No, every bit of her contribution had to be obliterated, replaced. How could he do this to her, how could he be so cruel? She was in the band before Jimmy! This is her life’s work, too. I knew beforehand that she wasn’t going to be on this tour, but I didn’t know that it would be so hostile to her. This atop of all of the other messages Corgan has sent through the years about women musicians and their value, abilities and interchangeability proved to be too much. It took my breath away when I realized what a disservice I had done to myself by elevating this petty man’s opinions above my own for even a little while.

Who else but an utterly self-indulgent megalomaniac would have a double sided staircase wheeled onto the stage solely so he can ascend dramatically in an awful hooded silver lamé cape while performing the most tortured, overwrought cover of Space Oddity since William Shatner touched it

Who else but a rampant narcissist would see a video of himself driving a car and think, “Do you know what this needs? Another, larger me looming in the backseat!” I bet if we flipped to a side view, his spinning face would be on the hubcaps.

I don’t mean to imply that the show was bad. It wasn’t bad, but the thing about this being The Billy Corgan Show means that how I felt about The Smashing Pumpkins in that moment was intrinsically tied to how I felt about Billy Corgan, and how I felt about Billy Corgan in that moment had taken a steep dive from mere minutes earlier which was already way down from its all time peak in 1996. And that’s the problem with the band, and the problem with the concept of a reunion tour for this band, when one man has made it so clear over the course of his career that he’s done everything himself and that everyone else is replaceable. I am convinced that The Smashing Pumpkins would be Billy Corgan and three+ mini Corgans grown in a vat if he only could figure out the technology. Billy Corgan and his Corgestra.

The band played a lot of hits and a few deeper cuts, powering through three hours and fulfilling the role of a reunion tour by finally embracing their back catalog as they’ve been historically loathe to do. In the background were more videos of widely varying technical skill and artistic merit featuring Billy Corgan in religious, magical and prophetic iconography, along with more Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray notoriety in a vaudeville outfit than anyone ever asked for. Corgan dedicates a song to his mother, the one where the official music video is about a homeless pregnant couple with addiction issues and behind him on the blazing screens a glimmering starlet nods out, her eyes shimmering with tears. In the audience, Dianne and I turned to each other in that moment and exchanged a very meaningful look. Out on the arena floor, an electric virgin Mary was slowly wheeled around the audience; from where I was seated I was unable to ascertain whether or not she cradled an infant Billy but I can only assume she did. 

The setlist covered a wide segment of their career but did stick to albums released before their initial breakup, with the exception of a new song written by this lineup, Solara. If I could have made changes, I would have eliminated the covers (all of them, even Landslide) in favor of a few less likely candidates from my favorite era of the band: Set The Ray To Jerry, Obscured, Jellybelly, Bodies. I can’t complain because the last time I saw them, the only song they played from Mellon Collie that wasn’t a single happened to be my favorite, Thru The Eyes of Ruby, and it was so unexpected that I felt like the luckiest person alive on the happiest day of her life. I was glad this time to get a live Porcelina and Muzzle. The scope and the vaudeville and the iconography of this glittering stage show was exactly the right amount of bombast for this band.

There wasn’t a lot of stage banter at the Chicago show, nor at the nearly-identical Seattle show which was broadcast online, and in that latter, it felt so…typical that he’d use his short time talking with the audience, his time introducing the last song pre-encore, to get after “the people who left early to go home and do heroin”. Typical to focus on the empty seats instead of the packed ones.  Typical to be so small, to snatch an insult from a few people leaving when literally thousands of people spent the last three hours listening to what he wanted them to hear and looking at what he wanted them to see. Typical to take this opportunity to introduce himself to a whole new worldwide audience and punch himself in the face with just three songs to go. He immediately followed it with “That was a joke, come on. It’s ok. We have heroin in Chicago.” and while his lack of empathy for people outside himself (including, clearly, Jimmy and his struggles with the drug) is Billy Corgan canon, I think it’s more telling that in reviews of other dates I’ve read, he has made a point several times in several other shows of calling out people who left early in a joking-not-joking fashion, and that speaks to a larger problem of someone who still thinks he’s not getting something he deserves at the worldwide arena tour dedicated to his ego where people are screaming for him. 

I think I will always love the music that spoke to me when I needed it. It would sure be easier to call myself a fan, however, if Billy Corgan would adopt some measure of generosity of spirit, grace, forgiveness, and gratefulness in his life in addition to singing about it. But D’arcy is probably right.

 

 

*An archived version of that page still exists online, to my complete surprise. I looked at it for the first time in since I abandoned it and while it’s not a good website, and it’s very of its time, it starts off fairly sensible (entertainment only, don’t stalk him, be cool). I expected a full-body cringe so intense that my guts could produce diamonds and I didn’t get one…until I landed on the page where I attempted to define the cardinal sins in music and I expect to pop out the Koh-i-Noor sometime tomorrow. Yikes. Good thing I’m not doing anything embarrassing on the internet anymore!

Chicago: Designer toys, metal burgers, and buckets of blood

Situated at the corner of W Belmont and N Francisco in Chicago, the original Kuma’s Corner has been dishing up gourmet burgers with heavy metal flair for fourteen years, and I swear I’ve been hearing about it from my local friends for just about that long. At least one of those friends even made a special trip for their Bleeping Blagojevich burger in “honor” of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who was removed from office and is currently serving fourteen years in prison for corruption for what basically amounts to trying to auction off former President Barack Obama’s open Senate seat to the highest bidder–that burger was topped with a thick slice of salty balogna, had grilled cheese sandwiches as the bun, and was served with a dollar symbol emblazoned in mustard on top. Just like the cost of that Senate seat, the price of the Bleeping Blagojevich was negotiable, but not available for free.

Kuma’s Corner stopped serving that particular burger a while back, because you can’t rest on your laurels and also because no one remembers a political scandal longer than a week anymore. Our group had tried to get in a couple of evenings previous at their West Loop location (also on a corner) but it was so full that we ended up at another nearby restaurant whose name I have forgotten which is for the best because I couldn’t say anything nice about it even by accident, how do you cut up a sausage for a slider and not notice that it isn’t cooked through?  …ahem.

We found it much easier to pop into the original Kuma’s for lunch on a Monday, metal blasting from the speakers, movies playing on their screens instead of sports. Their walls are painted crimson, their ceilings and fixtures black. On the wall behind the bar, a disheveled bear reaches with arms outstretched to wrap them around the beholder, its mouth and chest covered in blood as it proclaims its desire for MEAT. Adjacent is the chalkboard that informs patrons which charity they’re helping if they order the monthly draft special. 

Kuma’s also stocks Jeppson’s Malört, Chicago’s most infamous liquor. Originally advertised as a “challenge to the braggart who claims he can drink anything”, Malort is flavored with wormwood (not gasoline, as is rumored). It doesn’t appear that any bar or restaurant outside of Illinois serves Malort, so I decided to seize the opportunity, ordering a shot along with the recommended beer to wash it down. Malort tastes like bitter dirt that is on fire somehow, and that fire infuses your tissues from your tongue all the way down. Malort’s flavor is so aggressive that its own creator concedes that “The first shot is hard to swallow!” but ominously adds “Make it past two ‘shock-glasses’ and with the third you could be ours…forever” which sounds like exactly the kind of devil’s bargain that goes down in a metal burger bar on a Monday afternoon.

I kept up my goat streak and ordered the Goatsnake: a thick, medium rare patty of their proprietary ground beef blend, topped with a hockey puck of herbed goat cheese, poblano sweet corn relish, a Cholula lemon vinaigrette, and buttermilk breaded deep fried red onions on a pretzel bun. The resulting burger is THICK, hard to pick up, hard to eat, but harder to put down because it was so delicious. It’s the kind of burger that you need to smash down a little and then hold on for dear life. I loved the flavors at play here–it brings a lot of tang to the table between the goat cheese, the lemon vinaigrette, and the buttermilk breading which pairs so beautifully with the richness of the beef. I love a mountain of fried onion so this was going to be a delight to me regardless, but that hearty pile was exactly the right amount of crunch to balance all that soft cheese. 

Hell Kitty Kitty

The same beer from above plus a shot of Malort.

The beer from above minus the Malort plus the Goatsnake and its fried onion mountain.

After lunch, we walked to nearby Bucket O’Blood Books & Records, a resale shop with a curated collection: sci fi, fantasy, horror, speculative fiction, metal, punk…you get the drift. I have some thoughts on why “romance novels” were specifically called out as an entire genre that they do not accept even though, for example, books like Kushiel’s Dart have fantasy and blood to spare, but instead of getting into it, I’ll just say that I think it boils down to a pervasive problem that rhymes with “schizogeny“, even if it’s unconscious schizogeny.  We browsed for a while; I didn’t end up leaving with anything* as I was saving my limited carry on room potential for our next stop, Rotofugi. 

Rotofugi is the other kind of adult toy store, the kind with limited edition art toys and a gallery of original work by current and emerging artists and two full aisles of blind box toys. If you’re not familiar with the concept, blind box toys are an assortment of toys sold in identical boxes but you don’t know what you’re getting until after you open it. It’s like gambling except instead of winning money, you end up with a bunch of the same toy you didn’t want, because the odds of getting the really rare toy you do want are approximately the same as you being crushed by the toy factory falling from the sky. Trading cards but non-biodegradable. They can be fun if the concept is unique or you’re not overly invested in what you get–I bought a Stink Box featuring art by Jason Limon and any plastic kitty pooping in that box would be just as funny as any other. I also bought a blind box of tiny glow-in-the-dark realistic looking magnetic mushrooms that now cling to the side of my fridge. But generally I feel that blind boxes are just ways for manufacturers to hide what they’re selling to you so they can (1) get you to spend more money and (2) sell out the edition so retailers don’t end up with a stock of less-popular figures/poses that they can’t move. The art toy world does lay claim to starting the blind box trend but I honestly can’t help but think of the utter wave of trash this trend has created and will continue to create when people get tired of having fifty dusty reminders of a TV show they used to watch. Or of a plastic kitty infinitely squatting in a cardboard litter box.

I really enjoyed browsing their art gallery, and I seriously debated buying a Jason Limon original, Cinq. It’s a 2013 piece and especially interesting to me as I didn’t know sculpture was in his body of work and yet his style translates to it clearly. I didn’t bring it home but I still think about it sometimes and I feel like it belongs in a room next to a plant in a macrame hanger.

Sea Horse Tim Shumate

A Star in the Darkness Tim Shumate

Cinq Jason Limon

*I know it’s basically a Crime Against Books to admit this but really old paperbacks that don’t belong to me gross me out, especially when they turn that awful yellow-brown and they get that extra soft texture on the page that kind of lingers on your fingers along with that musty book smell. I get that some people really dig the smell of old books but I cannot ride that ride with you. I bought a book from 1943 online for a friend for her birthday about a goat who goes around causing mischief, and when it arrived, I intended to read it (so we could later discuss goat mischief) but I could not read more than a few pages at a time because the experience of handling it was just too awful. And then, to top it off, I ran into the passage where Billy Whiskers gets racist because why not ruin an otherwise charming story about a whimsical goat with some casual racism? So of course I couldn’t even send it to her because it’s not going to be Auntie Melissa’s fault her kids learn old timey racial epithets. NO. 

The Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, Wisconsin

My hometown has one of the best Renaissance faires in the country, and I was so excited when Dee suggested going there for one of the days Dianne and I were going to be in town. YES. YES. It’s so great. I remembered it being really good but it had been fifteen years since my last visit and many of the details had faded, no doubt dulled in my mind and muddled by my feelings that nothing that great had ever come from my hometown*, myself included. I had even blogged about my 2004 visit but that post got ‘lost’ in a digital purge because pretty much nothing about how I portrayed myself from that era of my life was a good look for me or anyone around me. Regardless, the Bristol Renaissance Faire is not merely really good, it’s great.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After we parked in one of the fields that serves as their lot, I strapped on my (mandatory) jingly bellydancer’s coin sash to jangle my way around medieval-adjacent times. Not only does wearing one make me feel like I’m throwing a parade for my ass,  it also makes me a lot easier to find in a crowd, as without it I can just disappear, like any short person. It’s one of our powers. Stringing myself with noisy metallic coins that crashed about at the slightest movement was really the only responsible thing to do, so as to aid the people who didn’t know me well to be able to track me and simultaneously deny they know me if I start to sound too much like Santa Claus at a bell convention.

As the renaissance faire exists so that we might feast like kings, shop like lords, and befoul ourselves like…most everyone, we immediately set to feasting upon entry. Dianne and I got some some surprisingly good iced coffee (“surprisingly good”, my Seattle is showing) and Dee beelined directly to these amazing deep fried cheese fritters which she shared and I gladly partook. They were crispy, dark brown, stuffed with gooey monterey jack, and came with honey mustard and barbeque sauce for dipping on the side. You go to Wisconsin, you eat fried cheese. It’s what you do. Fried cheese is the Eiffel Tower of America’s Dairyland. 

There wasn’t any cheese eating on at least one of my previous Bristol faire visits with my family.  I was about twelve or thirteen, and my mom had us all on the cabbage soup diet.  If your family never participated in group disordered eating, the cabbage soup diet is basically a week of starving yourself with as much bland, horrible cabbage soup as you care to eat with extremely rigid rules about supplementary eating. Day two is the hardest day, when your food for the day is cabbage soup, raw or cooked vegetables, plain, with an emphasis on leafy greens, and, in the evening, one medium baked potato with a tablespoon of butter or oil. That sad potato was the high point of the day, the rest of it being spent alternatively peeing gallons from all of the extremely low calorie soup you’re eating, trying to generate enough saliva to swallow dry leafy greens, and wishing you could eat something that would actually stop the gnaw in your stomach so you could forget you were on a diet for even five minutes. And of course it’s all for nothing because you’re mostly just shifting water around and the weight you lost comes right back on when you start eating normally again.

This is the diet the whole family is in the trenches of in the middle of this renaissance faire. Everyone was hungry and crabby, and our misery was compounded by all of the awesome smells wafting on the wind, reminding us of all the things we couldn’t have. It was day four: banana day, the day that with your soup, you can eat unlimited bananas and drink unlimited skim milk, both of which were verboten every other day. That morning post-soup banana was almost heady, intoxicating, after days of it literally being forbidden fruit, but it couldn’t hold a candle to funnel cake. I don’t remember precisely how it went down, but I remember my younger brother and I inhaling funnel cake while my parents made disappointed noises about not finishing the things we start and willpower, like the cabbage soup diet was something we wanted to do instead of something in which we had no choice but to participate, like somehow any one of us was going to peel off enough weight over the course of this week to make a difference, to make this utter misery worthwhile, to ruin an otherwise grand day out. We went home shortly thereafter, missing the final joust that I’d very much wanted to see. My parents were too hungry to stay any longer.

Also absent from that trip with my parents was any activity that cost an additional fee above and beyond the cost of admission, because it was understood in my household that those things were for suckers and no self-respecting person would spend money on them. As a person who lacks self respect and understands that additional fees tend to be opportunities to try something novel, I jingled straight up to the first knife throwing booth I saw, even if it was luring me down the path of financial ruin, five dollars at a time. Those of us participating were given a basic rundown on how to fling a knife with deadly force and accuracy and then we were set loose. We didn’t get to choose our targets; mine was an innocent merperson. I fired a good seven warning shots and never delivered a killing blow but I did manage to stick a knife to the target which was significantly better than I did axe throwing at the 2018 Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire when I accidentally hurled an axe into a field.

I’ve spent more than a little time thinking about the three-legged roving crotch target in the middle, what it could represent, and ultimately decided that when rotated and viewed from another angle, it probably looked like this** (not NSFW but at first glance it could register as somewhat obscene, but what did you expect from a crotch monster?) keeping with the mostly water creature vibe they had going on.

Sassafras, one of many beverages I genuinely enjoy for about three sips.

This instrument is a hurdy gurdy and I want one.

We made sure to get decent seats for the joust, which made us a captive audience for a variety of vendors. The first was the flag seller, a foppish red leather crown on his head, his deeply low cut medieval toppe baring his chest, which also glistened red in the sun. He beseeched us for five dollars for a flag to support the knight of our section, Sir Maxmillian, by telling us that the funds raised would go toward the feed and care of the horses, and that after the show, Six Maxx would autograph them. And another five dollars I crept toward financial ruin.

After him came the meat wench, a box of three flavors of beef jerky strapped to her waist as she walked through the crowd bellowing “MEAT.” “MEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT.”

After her came the pretezel vendor, bearing a wooden pole, crossbraces strung with salted pretzels, and a satchel filled with individual portions of liquid cheese for dipping (Wisconsin), and after her, the flower crown vendor with a similar setup minus the cheese (I think), and in the distance “ᴹᴱᴱᴱᴱᴬᴬᵀ“.

The joust was full of pageantry and fanfare and feats of athleticism and at least two very cool people seated directly behind me who made certain to audibly mock me every single time I led our section in cheering for our knight. And the real kicker is, why am I the one who feels shame when I was contributing positively for the enjoyment of all, including the turd golems behind me and all those guys contributed to was my desire to turn clear and just skulk about for the rest of my days cosplaying as a ghost? But I’m the one that’s gonna go read a self help book about it while those walking chaw stains are just gonna continue to inflict themselves on people by existing. Regardless, our team’s knight won and I didn’t stop cheering him despite knowing I was going to get jeered and that seems like two kinds of victories.

After the joust, we did wait in line to meet Sir Maxmillian. I told him that I wanted to get into his line of work (true!) and about the horse I was potentially looking at to buy. (Dragon at the time.) He gave me a business card and told me to drop him a line, which I have yet to do but have a feeling I’ll get around to soon. The stick for the flag that he signed was too long to fit in my carry on, so I got to cheer him with my flag waving all through the airport.

Goddamn we looked sultry in this swamp. I’m not dripping buckets of sweat, MY SKIN IS DEWY.

 

On our way out, we stopped to see part of a fire-whip-cracking show that looked quite promising–there was actually a lot on their entertainment schedule that I didn’t get an opportunity to see. The only thing for it is to come back! And no one had better be on a diet. 

 

 

 

 

 

*And then I looked it up and it turns out all these very cool people came from my hometown, like Orson Welles, Mark Ruffalo, and both the inventors of the answering machine AND the QWERTY keyboard! And a whole bunch more but you could just look at the Wikipedia page yourself.

**You have no idea how much I regret attempting to draw in those insect mandibles. No idea.

Chicago: Boating & Goating

Ever since the first AOL disc was inserted into my dad’s work laptop, I have lived on the internet. Back then, the closest thing we had to social media was email message boards, where people of a common interest would sign up to be part of a group and then you’d get a digest email of messages from group members. It was like the comments section came to you, daily, and all those commenters had your email address, but you were excited about it instead of horrified. My special interest/obsession at that point in my life was The Smashing Pumpkins, and one of the things I did after I first fumbled onto the internet was join a Smashing Pumpkins email group. I was thrilled to have all of these strangers’ opinions of albums and songs and band member rankings delivered to me daily, but the overall group size was a bit overwhelming, and eventually I broke off with a smaller group onto a different Smashing Pumpkins-but-not-exclusively list, and these people transformed from strangers into friends I’d never met. We haven’t all kept in touch over the past twenty years, but some of us have. So when the Smashing Pumpkins announced a reunion tour and one of these friends floated a suggestion that we meet in Chicago to see their hometown show and make a weekend of it, I immediately agreed, because I feel like if someone is planning to abduct and murder a person, gaining their trust at 16 is a good move but twenty years is too long a time to lie in wait, so I could probably risk it. 

Our party was three: Me, Dianne, and Dee, a fellow Pumpkins fan and someone Dianne had met through their mutual interest in Sphynx cats. Dee lived in the city and wouldn’t be able to join us on the first day because of work, so we decided to hit up some tourist spots and see where the day took us. First, we walked to the riverwalk to buy tickets for a riverboat architecture tour–the next available time was in a couple of hours, which was more time than we wanted to spend just dinking around the waterfront but not really enough to do much of anything else. 

So we walked south to Millenium Park and spent a little time there. Its most well-known feature is Cloud Gate, otherwise referred to as “the bean”. Cloud Gate was designed by artist Sir Anish Kapoor and officially unveiled to the public in its final polished state in 2006. When I looked up that date to confirm it, a little bell went off as I know I had seen it before then, in 2004–it turns out, I had seen it during the brief window it was unveiled to the public before its seams were polished off.  

2004

It took me a minute to find me but then I couldn’t stop seeing myself everywhere.

August 2018

People were zumbaing across the great lawn as we walked to the Lurie garden. I grew up in a town about an hour drive north of Chicago and had an almost visceral reaction to the garden, as no smell is as immediately familiar as the smell of the sun warming the plants and dirts of your childhood, the years when you spent the most time out in among those plants and that dirt, skinning your knees, picking cattails and growing up. My nose took me back decades in an instant.

Before the architecture tour, we decided to grab a quick beverage and a snack somewhere, and settled on Le Pain Quotidien, where they defy the very laws of nature and existence itself with how long it takes them to whip some dragon fruit into a smoothie.  Parties came and went and I drank my entire turmeric latte and Dianne ate her meal and still my gloppy snack had yet to arrive. I tried to cancel the order but they took another ten minutes to pack it for me to go and carry it on my lap in the hot sun on a boat for an hour and a half and threw away afterward because for some reason a long slow warm-up in the sun doesn’t do much for an amalgamation of coconut yogurt, key lime, avocado, and cashew butter.

We made it back to the boat with mere minutes to spare before boarding…and still we were not the last in line.  When the queue got to our turn, we sat front and center on the boat, as most of the seats to the back and either side had been claimed already, which was fine by me as it meant no one’s head was ever blocking my view. I bought myself a beer for the tour, which sweated into my hand and onto the bag that held the aforementioned Warm Yogurty Mistake, I got a mild stripey sunburn thanks in part to the fancy shoulder cutouts on my shirt but mostly to my perpetual failure to ever apply enough sunscreen everywhere, and friends, I could not tell you really anything that I learned on this tour which means that I would be happy to go back and do it again anytime and see if it sticks.

We ended up going back to the hotel to freshen up and take a bit of a rest, and the struck out again with intentions to go to Girl & the Goat, a Chicago fine dining restaurant with plenty of vegetarian options which could not be said of the highly-lauded Au Cheval, which is literally across the street and where I wanted to go to all the more because it turned out Girl & the Goat was closed for a private event that evening. Never fear, just down the block was Little Goat Diner, serving diner fare with the same top quality ingredients and care they use at Girl & the Goat. 

Their menu is enormous but I went nearly as goaty as possible, with a little goat latte, a lil caesar salad, and a sloppy goat sandwich on brioche topped with coleslaw. …I may have gone a bit too goaty overall. I think the goat milk from the latte and the goat from the sandwich came from goats who clearly knew and hated one another and decided to continue to butt heads in my guts. It doesn’t look like they have the sloppy goat on the menu at present, but when I had it, I didn’t love it–it was too big, too rich, too soft, the goat flavor a little strong. But I also think that’s what a sloppy joe should be, and thus I can’t fault them for serving me what I ordered. I think I was just bad at picking what I wanted that day.

 

This didn’t deserve its own post: Atlanta, oh nah nah

When I take a trip somewhere, if I don’t do a day-by-day recounting, there’s usually a bunch of tidbits left over that I either couldn’t write more than a few sentences about or don’t have any photos for or would drag out the series far beyond what any human could be expected to tolerate.  All combined, however, they make for something a little more substantial, so here’s yet another one, this time about Atlanta.

We walked Walter in his stroller to Venkman’s to grab a light brunch and make an art deal

R. Land

This feels like a trap. Is it just me?

Hodgepodge Coffee

Other than the joy of slapping my peepers on a real life whale shark, I did not really enjoy my time at the Georgia aquarium. The bloodcurdling screams to lookin’ at stuff ratio was suboptimal, and surprisingly, my dolphin show experience wasn’t enhanced by being kicked in the back constantly which came as a total surprise. 

Dooley, Spirit of Emory, Lady of Misrule, and officially my favorite college mascot.

Before going to the Atlanta Botanical Garden, we fueled up at Sublime Doughnuts. Clockwise from upper left: Sweet potato cake, salt & vinegar, fresh strawberry & cream, I do not remember this donut at all, chocolate banana fritter. I’m not usually a fan of the cake donut, but the sweet potato cake was the standout of the bunch, moist and spiced with a swirl of cream cheese frosting. It’s full on cake for breakfast but I’m not complaining. 

I have no photos of the most fabulous meal I had in Atlanta, at Atlas in the upscale Buckhead neighborhood. Atlas is located in the St. Regis Hotel, with Christopher Grossman as their Executive Chef. It’s a swanky place, beautifully decorated, with art by masters on the walls, and it’s precisely the sort of place that I feel intimidated pulling out my camera to photograph the interior or my meal, because I guess I feel like I can either maintain the shabby illusion that I am the sort of person who eats in nice restaurants all the time OR I can photograph my meal from three angles but not both. I did the mental math and since I’ve really leaned into Seattle Casual™ the last few years in terms of my ill-fitting regular wardrobe, I landed on “I’m just lucky they let me inside” and left my phone in my purse.

But the food there. THE FOOD. I ate two entrees that evening. Every bite of both. I’m not ashamed. I would be ashamed to leave even a scrap of something that life-alteringly delicious behind. It’s like all of the picky, halfhearted eating I’d done over the few days prior all served to prepare me for this one beautiful meal. I’d never eaten softshell crab before I ate it at Atlas and now if I was to order it somewhere else, Atlas would be the sole point of comparison which isn’t fair to anyone involved, including the crab. My other entree, Atlas’ famous wagyu burger, was breathtaking. It’s a classic American cheeseburger with every component done to its zenith: fresh ground wagyu, cooked medium rare on a brioche bun with house ketchup, American cheese, sliced pickles, and pickled ramp thousand island dressing, with a side of perfectly crispy fries.  It is “treat yo self” expensive (for a burger) but for a meal at a AAA four diamond restaurant, it’s damn reasonable. 

Afterward, we went to a bar in east Atlanta (na na na) at the peak of Havana oversaturation and played it on the jukebox and laughed and laughed.

 

 

And that’s it for Atlanta! All the stuff I didn’t talk about really didn’t deserve its own post. 

Spotted on the Roadside: AutoEater

Autoeater is 16 tons of Italian marble encasing a Fiat Panda and resembles nothing so much as a car being devoured by a giant condom. Or a really emaciated sandworm eating the only Fiat on Arrakis. The minor controversy over what it resembles reminds me of another piece of public art I blogged about in 2014.

Spotted on 10th st NE in Atlanta, GA