Merlutia – Chapter 2 – Dr. Juxi

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Dr. Juxi

Back in his quarters, Dr. Marlos Juxi stripped naked and entered the drip mister shower. He pushed the red nodule that closed the splash sheath and then the white one that engaged the misting fronds. From the mossy walls of the shower lush pink fernlike arms unfurled from all angles and pushed against his body, still strong and virile despite his age. Some of the larger branches were warm and emitted a lightly scented secretion that tingled on the skin and left it smooth and fresh. The smaller branches passed over the same areas moments later, wiping clean any residue. Marlos breathed deeply in the oxygen rich compartment, turning slowly as the leaves lapped over him. After a few minutes he sighed and reached through the foliage to press the white button again. The branches curled up and receded back into the wall.

His skin glowed pink for a moment after he stepped out, an aftereffect of the shower. Lab tests had revealed that continued use of the showers strengthened the cellular integrity of the derma, keeping it moist and taut. It was one of the many luxuries the Bioglots had produced in their ever-growing understanding of the plants. He wrapped himself in his seasilk yukata, slid into his thick sponge slippers and then poured himself a beer from the pod tap. The pod – Trident 1 – held 1,000 living quarters, multiple laboratories, one of the three existing pod punchers, energy scaffolding and numerous other facilities, and was tethered to three other pods, one larger and two smaller. They in turn were tethered to two others, the smaller of those the reservoir house for the three strainer pods that filtered elements from the deep current waters.

Trident 1 was the first pod to have been made: the canary in the coalmine. It was tethered by seven massive plasma cables to the bedrock off the eastern coastline of a landmass formerly called North America, but that now had no name. A child of the Subterrestrials, Marlos’ parents had been reluctant Prescribers. It was their idea that their son should study the metaphytic sciences, as the future had no need for any more lawmakers. His childhood had been spent observing the growth and reproduction habits of the plants propagated from the great seed banks of the Terrestrials and he and the other young Bioglots had learned to work with them, to nurture and finally communicate with the flora, creating a language by which the different species could converse.

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Marlos sat at his desk and rubbed his temples, taking a long draught off the sweet spiced beer the brewers Jacko and Shin had made. It wasn’t bad, although a touch more konbu wouldn’t hurt, he thought. The alcohol was higher, as it was a brew for the adults. The beer Braxon and the other children consumed, while much the same flavor, wouldn’t have the any of alcohol until after they’d mastered a technical skill, Colony Architecture in Braxon’s case. If he made it that far.

He’d done well today, Marlos mused, but an Architect needs more confidence in his decision-making. Granted, the boy was still young and just beginning to learn the feel of the plasmodesma. He’d known the right ratios for the interior growing compounds well enough, and the order with which to apply them. His first pod had turned out fine – perfectly usable, although he’d have to make many more before it was decided whether or not he continued beyond an apprenticeship. What the colony needed, however, was innovation, not more of the same. The intelligence was there. Just a little more initiative…

Tunxon would no doubt be inquiring about his son’s progress, although there was little the professor could give as an answer. It was still too early. Nine other boys were also in various stages of training. Should any of them misstep along the way, they’d be released from the program to pursue other disciplines, and another child would fill their position. There were several young girls on the roster of applicants this time around. Only one Architect would be retiring – the venerable Granseed Tana – but it was paramount to find the best possible replacement there was. Piper Melfund, a few weeks ahead of Braxon in the program, showed promise with his structural design. Rinny Litchtang too, with his love of multiport tethering experimentation, although he’d shown some confusion with his growth compound mixtures. Marlos wondered if Dr. Trommel, another architect supervising the new trainees, would let him go or keep him yet. According to program protocol he should have been failed and replaced. But protocol had been written with the first pod creation nearly 80 years ago, and needed updating. Besides, Trommel liked his creativity, as did Marlos, and it’d be agreed to let Rinny stay in the program a bit longer in the hopes he’d shake things up with some of the genius he supposedly possessed.

If the colony was to thrive it would need exactly that: genius and ingenuity that moved things forward. The existing pods were all surviving well enough, but to continue as a race a mastery of ocean living was crucial. And they were so very far from that.

Marlos finished his beer and refilled the glass halfway. Tomorrow Braxon would make another pod, this time without the professor’s instruction. More freedom would be given to the interior punch out, for if the young boy really was to be a future Architect, he’d have to develop his own style. Such things hadn’t been required before, long ago when the Dr. himself had punched his first pods. Structural integrity, buoyancy, all-around livability had been the chief factors. He’d made breakthroughs and that is what was asked of the new designers of the colony.

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There were several basic problems to solve first. One was the desalinization of ocean water that didn’t require hours or vast quantities of energy. The second was how to take better measurements of the deep channel currents for the addition of three more turbines. And the final one Dr. Marlos Juxi was quite at a loss to even describe succinctly. Given the number of men and women in the colony and the rate of new births to deaths it was calculated the population of Merlutia would dwindle to just a few hundred in the next hundred fifty years or so. People needed to have more sex. How to foster that was the question…and not one for an eight-year-old Architects apprentice.

Marlos sighed again and drained his glass, putting it into the sterilizer with the other dirty dishes. When he closed the latch to its tightest lock setting a bright white light flashed three times. The doctor unloaded the plates and bowls, chopsticks and glasses and put them on the shelves and then lay down on his bed, a large sponge that floated in a rectangular water-filled box. The weight of his body activated the current and the water below the sponge began to flow softly underneath him from head down to feet, recycling through the body of the box in an endless stream.

For a few minutes he lay, looking up at the blue bioluminescence that twinkled in the curve of the ceiling. Try as he might, the power to remain focused on the day receded like a tide into the inky black of his mind, so he let himself fade to unconsciousness.

“And to the currents may I go…” he said, drifting off to sleep.

Merlutia

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                                           Braxon

In the lower corner of a stadium-sized sphere that was anchored to the seafloor 200 meters below the choppy waters of the Atlantic seaboard, a trial was underway. A young boy dressed in a simple blue tunic of lightly spun sea grass was receiving his first lesson in what was to be his profession, should he pass the course. Standing beside him his professor gave step-by-step directives on how to proceed.

“Now ease your hands into the plasmodesma articulator, up to your elbows.”

Braxon did as Dr. Juxi instructed, feeling for the first time the cool green jelly he’d studied so much about. It was intimidating, this first punch of his. Every would-be architect had to learn the basics of pod expansion, tether tubing and external-pressure-to-wall-density ratios. Whether or not any of those lessons had stuck in Braxon’s brain would soon be apparent.

“Remember to wait a minute to let the chromatids read and accept your genetic signature. Failure to do so will result in the plasmodesma going inactive.”

“I can feel them,” Braxon said, his eyes widening as the box of green matter began to glow more brightly. “It tingles.”

“That’s good. It means a healthy connection is being established. You’ve been taking your supplements according to a schedule that optimizes connectivity. Wait a bit longer until the sensation settles.”

Braxon tried to keep his breathing steady as every pore on both arms underwent what felt like an electrical basting. The older boys had said the first time felt strange. After another minute the buzz subsided and he had lost any notion of where his arms began or ended.

“Are your hands gone,” asked Dr. Juxi. “Do you feel one with the activator?”

“I think so.” Braxon wasn’t sure what he felt. “Everything is cool and…and I feel very calm.”

“Then you’ve got a good connection, and that is the most important thing. Now, move your fingers, starting from your pinkies to your thumbs like when you play the keys.”

Braxon did so and suddenly sensation returned to his hands, although the goo surrounding them had lost all viscosity. It glowed brightly in different shades of green depending on how fast or in which direction his hands moved.

“Not too quickly,” the doctor advised. “You don’t want to overexcite the material. Your cellular information is being logged at this very moment. The more passive it’s registered as, the more quickly future connections can be made. You’re essentially establishing a relationship with the chromatin and trust needs to be built before you’ll be allowed to do any real building.”

“How long does it take, Dr.?”

“Years, really. You’re only eight now, so you won’t be able to work on any big projects for at least seven years. But it’s important to get you in the system now, so that you both have a strong familiarity with the other.”

Braxon nodded, happy to be in the hands of one of the great architects. It was Dr. Juxi who had made the early breakthroughs with metaphyte manipulation and designed the first colonies. It was because of him and a hundred others that anyone was even alive at all.  When the temperatures had risen too high for life on the surface to continue, those survivors who hadn’t been aboard the stratojumpers had fled underground. For billions unable to move either up or down, they wilted with the rest of terrestrial life.

For the Subterrana, it had quickly become apparent that space to accommodate the people and the plants they needed to survive would be problematic in the future. Petro fuel was too scarce to run the old boring machines and the increasing frequency of earthquakes made substrate expansion tenuous at best. It was true the solar stations above could power the caves, storage reserves and laboratories for years to come, but maintenance became progressively more treacherous with the weather’s increasing violence.

Besides that, nobody liked the idea of an existence underground. The inability to move freely as their DNA had programmed them to do forced them to seek alternative spaces.

It was the Bioglots, not the Prescribers, who had come up with the idea of going to the ocean. They had learned to use the plants to shape and build structures capable of recycling oxygen underwater. Dr. Sleenix had created the first pod puncher, a living machine that produced bubbles of organic matter big enough for the remaining humans to live in. The same machine Braxon was training on now. At first they’d outfitted the big pods with traditional electricity and water and the old people remembered what it was like to live in a conventional house.

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The Architects’ skill grew however, and within a few years interiors were wholly self-sustaining, harvesting light from the surface that could be converted and stored for myriad applications. Water from the skies was collected in the giant spouts of pitcher plants grown to float on the surface that filtered it for bathing and cleaning, cooking and drinking. Cleaning the nitric and sulfuric acids was laborious and time-consuming, however new plant technology was being worked on to filter seawater to a drinkable condition. There was talk of a need to work faster though, as the inhospitality of the upperworld intensified every year. Braxon had seen thousands of pictures of the surface, and the rest of the world before The Burn, but had never been up there. He was the second generation of water babies, his parents having been the first.

“Look into the build chamber. Do you see your hands in the center?” Dr. Juxi’s head hovered parallel next to Braxon’s, his eyes squinting behind his glasses.

Braxon looked up from the plasmodesma articulator and through the bioglass into the cavernous build chamber. In the center his hands floated freely in a pale green mist.

“Yes, I see them. How should I start it?”

“Strum the biotic just as you did before until it congeals into the molding putty,” said Dr. Juxi, now standing straight with his hands clasped behind the back of his white lab coat. “When you feel the putty in your hands you can begin shaping.”

He moved his hands as if plucking a harp and the plasmodesma articulator again glowed brightly. In the center of the build chamber a complimentary light grew in intensity and Braxon could feel the putty coalescing. He cupped it as it firmed and rounded it out to the size of grapefruit.

“That’s very good,” said Dr. Juxi. “Make it as smooth and perfect as possible.”

The young boy spun the ball over and over, deftly pressing out all of the little bumps until it felt as though made of glass. In the build chamber the same hands held the same ball, only they were much larger to accommodate the sphere that was now five meters across.

“Now hold the ball in one hand, and with your dominant hand take the pulse pen and gently push its tip into the top of the pod.”

Braxon focused back on the plasmodesma articulator, pulling the pen from the tool rack on the interior side of the box. Its thickness was awkward in his little hand as he pushed the tip in so that it just poked through the surface.

“Good, boy. We’re going to expand the size of the pod into a minimum livable size. How many meters is that, do you remember?”

“Thirty meters diameter or 94.247 meters circumference,” the boy recalled from his lessons.

“To give you an area what size?”

“Seven hundred six point eight five eight,” he answered.

“Good. Now, remember that one squeeze of the pen expands the pod diameter by one meter. It’s already five across so…”

“I should squeeze twenty five times.”

“Ah, you’ve forgotten the first rule of membrane elasticity,” the professor chided.  “After initial expansion the cell wall will harden when it sets, making for a loss of one meter exactly when done. That’s how we’ve engineered it. ”

Braxon flushed with shame. He’d studied many hours in preparation for this day…how could he have been so careless as to forget such a basic principle?

“Sorry, Dr. Juxi.” It wasn’t the doctor’s forgiveness that he’d need – it would be his father’s if word got out that he’d made any mistakes. Open positions for Architects were limited to ten in the colony, and given how strong the competition to even apply to become one was, a single mistake could mean the end of an apprenticeship. Not that being a technician or a ranger or any other one of many jobs was necessarily bad. But his father, Tunxon Findel, had decided that Braxon would be an Architect and not a Harvester like he now was. His great-great-great-great…he couldn’t remember how great grandfather had been an upperworld architect, back when humans used wood, stone and steel to make their homes. Braxon liked the idea of being an Architect but knew if he failed, his father’s wrath would be greater than his disappointment.

He pumped the pen in an even rhythm counting silently to himself…24, 25, 26. In his hand the sphere hadn’t grown any larger, but in the build chamber it now occupied a significantly larger space. Dr. Juxi said nothing as Braxon removed the pen from the surface of the ball and returned it to its place. In the build chamber the two hands were dwarfed beneath the expanded pod.

“OK,” said the senior scientist, “you may proceed with the next step.”

Timidly, afraid to drop it, Braxon gripped the pod ball and moved it counter clockwise like one trying to spread oil in a bowl. As he became comfortable with the movement he increased the speed, aware that any jerk of the hand would ruin the spin. Just as his studies had said it would, the interior of the ball separated from the outer shell and rotated independently like a gyroscopic core, slowly feeling heavier as it gained rotational speed. He spun it faster, feeling a burn in his wrists and forearms as the weight increased.

“Faster,” Dr. Juxi commanded, “now is the critical torque point.”

Braxon focused the full of his attention on the ball, his body becoming heated and shaky from the exertion. The ball, the plasmodesma articulator…the whole damn room seemed to have grown unbearably hot. Sweat beaded up and dripped down his forehead, through his thin blond eyebrows and into his eyes. He squinted from the salty burn but didn’t dare lessen his concentration. Just as his arms and hands threatened to fail him, Dr. Juxi calmly gave the next order.

“Release the ball.”

He obeyed and in the build chamber the hands fell away from the pod, which now turned at 1,000 revolutions a second, suspended by the gyroscopic force of its internal mass. A thin hum came through the wall separating the student and professor from the massive spinning globe.

“Well done,” said Dr. Juxi, patting Braxon on the shoulder. The boy smiled and bent forward to wipe his face on his upper shirtsleeve. “Now the fun can begin,” he continued. “You’ve scaled and activated the pod shell. It’s time to shape it, give it some utility. Remind me how that’s done again?”

“By hitting it.” As delicate as the work was, Braxon was intrigued with how physically abusing the creation led to its manifestation.

“It’s not called a punch pod for nothing. So, go ahead. Punch it and see what happens.”

Braxon opened and closed his hands a few times and then balled them into small fists. In the plasmodesma articulator the ball of organic putty spun unwavering on its vertical access, a ribbon of slightly brighter light emanating from its equator. The boy cocked back his arm and struck the ball and in the build chamber before them the giant pod flashed red for a moment before turning a light shade of yellow.

“Don’t be timid, it won’t break.”

He hit the ball again, and then a third and fourth time. Each time the pod would flash with color and then settle into a slightly darker shade of yellow. He continued punching until the pod ceased to flash, finally reaching the bright fiery orange of the sun that Braxon had heard so much about.

“It’s finished, isn’t it?” His knuckles didn’t feel the least bit sore, he could keep going if need be…

“Yes, the initial shaping is over. You did well. But there’s still a great deal of work left to do before the pod is operational. What’s the next stage, then?”

“Growing the respiratory membrane inside the pod, then the energy nodes and luminary leaves and after that the hydration pools.”

“And installing the tether tube ports, shaping the living and working quarters, vibraworks connectors and so on and so on. And it’s your job to decide how to go about all of those things, under my supervision of course.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You may remove your arms from the articulator, Braxon.”

They were covered in a light green film of liquid that had a salty sweet scent to it. The professor handed him a towel to wipe himself clean with.

“C’mon then, let’s go mix the punch out compounds.”

“Yes, sir.” Following Dr. Juxi, Braxon allowed himself a small smile as they walked along a wide corridor to the compounds’ lab, his very first pod spinning brightly in the build chamber, behind them.

Well, isn’t that just fantastic?

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From the ages of about 10 – 15 I read a crapload of fantasy books. It all started rather innocuously, with occasional endeavors into Greek mythology (religion being fantasy in its own right) and classic stuff like Frankenstein and Poe (fantastic, if not phantasmagoric). But the genre as it’s known had yet to grab me full on and other stuff like Robinson Crusoe or Calvin and Hobbes would circulate around on my bedside table.

And then, after rediscovering The Hobbit as a kid attending a boy’s summer camp, my interest mutated into full on obsession. I went through The Lord of the Rings, the entire Tolkien omnibus in fact (Silmarillion included), and from there entered the parallel worlds of the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms series, the Shanarra trilogy and even a few of the Dragonriders of Pern tomes. Before long I was smoking 400-page books in under 76 hours, devouring trilogies in less than 10 days. I was hooked, a fully armored fantasy junky.

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My zeal for the genre spilled over into other aspects of life. I became deeply enthralled with heavy metal, with evocative lyrics of demons rising from hellish graves to wage war against the mortals and pixies wearing boots. I went to the Renaissance Festival several years in a row, drooling in front of full-scale replica swords and maces. I matched eagle claw necklaces clutching crystal orbs with Slayer and Megadeth shirts. In the back fields of my parent’s country property I’d hunt imaginary ogres with an old fiberglass bow and arrow, my bloodthirsty barn cat turned battle lion Timber never far behind. This was as close to LARPing as I ever got.

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You can bet I played the shit out of some D&D. And Final Fantasy, and Dragonwarrior and every other RPG Nintendo or Sega produced. I couldn’t get enough…

Until finally I entered high school and then, suddenly, I did get enough. Elves warring with Dwarves over ancient scripts just didn’t seem to matter as much. Whether or not my Ranger ever finished his campaign or not became unimportant – it wasn’t real and I didn’t have time for quaint childhood trivialities. I was nearly an adult! So I sold all of the novels and D&D books, once the pride of my meager estate, to younger friends.

My focus shifted like Legolas’ nocked arrow to mountain bikes and trucks with big tires and girls. I didn’t read as much. Instead, I started playing drums and wearing clothes that were more likely to get me attention from the opposite sex.

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Fantasy books, the games, the tacky amulets were all gone.  Metal, too, lost its edge. I went into a quasi-hippy raver phase of loving Phish and trance music, hip-hop and jazz. All that I had identified with in my early teens I shed as I searched for my real identity, something I’m convinced never really crystallizes.

When I did get back into books a few years later, I was much more highbrow. Understanding classic works, distilling the universal truths that great literature inevitably engages was my priority. Homer, Dostoevsky, Bronte, Achebe, Marquez, Rand, Zamiatin, Huxley, Hemingway, Orwell, McCarthy…I could fill the rest of the page with the names of the master’s I came to know. I discovered…nonfiction. Stephen Hawking, Bill Bryson, Michael Pollan, Richard Dawkings, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Schlosser, Barbara Ehrenreich, Walter Truett Anderson, Jared Diamond…Noam Chomsky… Sheeeiit, I even minored in Philosophy and got introduced to Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and Betrand Russel.

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There was no going back, I thought. I’d suppress smug smiles whenever I saw an adult with a fantasy book. Still stuck in that world, are we? I knew I was being a self-righteous prick…reminding myself to be more open-minded. But in a world so rich with the products of supreme thinkers, why waste time on mental junk food? And then just at the end of last year, when I’d burnt myself from a string of books on sociology and morality, I put A Game of Thrones on my Kindle. Probably won’t even finish it, I thought. Just something light to relax my overstimulated skull jelly. Just a hundred pages…

 I’ve since been forced to rethink my position on fantasy. Martin’s stuff isn’t the fantasy I read as a kid. Most characters are human, and they do all of the same crazy shit we do – incest, rape, pillage, murder…lots of moral ambiguity. Magic doesn’t really feature as it did in my beloved Dragonlance books. Instead the arcane weirdness of religion factors much more heavily in the lives of the characters. They marry and make alliances, fight and kill for their gods – just like we do. And there are healthy doses of fornication and inebriation – things that we people here in the real world find so utterly enchanting. Martin’s creation is believable. Sure there are undead, black witches and a trio of dragons, but the pure fantasy is kept to a minimal, something that adult me can appreciate.

As tempting as it is to confess some guilty pleasure in reading the series, to do so would be to cheapen the good value of the work. As one who likes to put words into stories from time to time, I find Martin’s writing style instructive. He knows how to put together an impressive story. It isn’t particularly prosaic, rather it’s a class of well-balanced literary economics that is as addictive as crack. Or maybe cigarettes, since I don’t know much about crack addiction.

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At any rate, I’m surprised how much I’m enjoying the books so far. If you, good reader, feel perhaps you’ve outgrown fantasy novels as I once did, I say have another go at them, with Martin even, and embrace the scimitar swinging nerd that still dwells inside. I’ll save the smug smiles for myself, lest I need to look in the mirror the next time I judge another’s reading selection.

Happy Brew Year

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And thus begins a new year! Many of you have no doubt taken on some resolution or another, with the honorable intent of bettering yourselves, and hence the world. Mine are relatively few – less nose picking, more smiling, safer snowboarding, yada yada yada. A few years ago I went the first half of 2011 giving up something I love, one thing every month. No coffee in January was a system shock; no Youtube in March was no problem; No Meat May I’d done back in my 20s. But I’d never done no alcohol. Not since I’d acquired a taste for it all those years ago. So for that February I gave it up and it was fine. I still went out a bit, hung with my buddies, faced no withdrawal symptoms and reintegrated on March 1st like a kid getting back on a bike. No booze was no problem.

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Not long ago I was reading a book review in the Wall St. Journal. It discussed a book about writers and alcohol – specifically alcoholic authors, and seeing as how I was 2 beers deep in the ANA airport lounge, a sudden sudsy wash of inspiration for this year’s first blog post swept over me.

Strong anthropological arguments can and have been made for the essential presence of alcohol in the development of civilization. Without early meads, beers and wines, humans probably would have just given up many millennia ago. But with sweet blessed alcohol to soften the harsh realities of life, then and now, it’s easy to understand how we’ve become hardwired to enjoy a drink. And having just returned from 10 days of festing with loved ones back home, you can be sure I imbibed my fair share of hops, grapes and grain.

I’m at that age where a daily drink isn’t a drink so much as just a beer, or wine, or whiskey. Ninety nine percent of the time they’re consumed after the sun has gone down, with rare exceptions like the brewery lunch I had a few days ago, or perhaps a cerveza on the beach. All in all I reckon I’m pretty conservative with the sauce. I do have a genetic predisposition for it, after all. My grandfather – a successful Washingtonian lawyer and man of the town – lost his legs to scotch, when liver failure turned them gangrene. Pretty much all of my family enjoys a celebratory tipple, and my brother and I have been known to teeter towards excessivity at times.

But who hasn’t, right? We’ve all had fun, gotten loose…sometimes too loose…and have paid for it one way or another. So far my worst penances have been 2-day hangovers, a late arrival to work and being far from the toilet when I thought I was standing before it.

Innocuous consequences in the grand scheme of things.

Looking back, I can remember my first sips of my father’s Guinness, thinking it was the stale piss of coal miners. But by high school I had an affinity for Icehouse and White Russians; PBR in college (or Legend, when I had the cash) and finally in my late 20s transitioning into that Zen-like state of being a regular beer-drinking dude, which is generally what I default to when I want something with a little octane.

Just as much as you enjoy your martini, Malbec or sour mash, I enjoy a nice cold Evisu at the end of the night. Or a Woodford Reserve on the rocks. Or a deep, bloody glass of Syrah. Or a ________________. Everyone has his or her thing. And sometimes it’s in that thing that they hammer down a big fat ego stake. Connoisseurs live to talk tech about yeasts, different cask woods, distillation methods or which bitters are best. Frat bros and sorority twots claim recognition for longest keg stands and most beers down in a night. Chuggers clock speed drinking, shot nuts count empty glasses…everybody has a binary presence in the world of booze that conversely allows them to be unique and delegates them to a tribe.

There’s Jon. He loves whiskey… really knows his stuff about Japanese single malt. Find him on r/whiskey talking shop with the other 30,000 subscribers.

Then there’s the degree to which we drink. Personally, I like to get nice and jolly. Not raucous, not blotto, not destroyed. Which isn’t to say it hasn’t happened before. I’m not one for getting liquored up, don’t really care for blacking out and have no tolerance for the spins. I can happily say I’ve left all of that behind, and have come through unscathed (minus a few scars). Of course, there are far far darker penalties to imbibing the hooch that I’ve no need to name. You know them as well as I do.

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But there is a bright side to boozing and it deserves its credit. Drinking is, a: fun, b: relaxing, c: inspiring, d: of social importance (at times), e: …the list goes on. Booze tastes good. It compliments food nicely. It has a complexity and sophistication to it that elevates it to art. It helps the mind uncoil, allows for abstract contemplation, even moments of lucidity.

Some of America’s greatest writers were notorious boozehounds: Faulkner, Carver, Hemingway, John Cheever, Tennessee Williams. One could make a case that we wouldn’t know their names if not for their drinking habits. American high school curriculums universally carry The Great Gatsby, but Fitzgerald’s love of Gin Rickeys is never discussed in class. In the end their addictions got the better of them, leaving us with moody, penetrating works of brilliance that inspire the world.

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I often wonder if a little more booze wouldn’t help my own productivity? More whiskey to oil the cogs? Maybe, but knowing me I’d just fall asleep at the computer, or use the ensuing hangover as an excuse not to write. Without a doubt, I’ll continue to enjoy the pleasures of a pint or glass of Pinot. And I’ll do it in moderation, for that folks, is the key.

Here’s to a happy new year of sipping, slurping and swilling, done within the limits of control.

Continue reading

Musings of an illustrated man.

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If you haven’t noticed, I’m trying not to take this whole blogging thing too seriously. I’ve bigger crab legs to crack. Some people blog daily, packing articles so full of cutting edge content it’s enough to melt your neocortex.  They do it professionally. That ain’t me. Me writes what me wants, doing as little research as possible. I don’t blog at a rate faster than once every 10 days or so. But I saw a prompt entreating bloggers to talk about their tattoos, and being subcutaneously modified myself, I thought I’d say a bit about being inked in the land of the rising sun.

I’ve been prompted to be more prolific.

Japan has one of the oldest traditions of tattooing in the world. It also has some of the strictest, most blatant (and legal!!) discrimination towards tattooed citizens of any first world country. The logic behind the rules is as simple as can be: Yakuza have tattoos, and since they do bad things tattoos are bad, too.

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Sounds oversimplified…

It is.

Surely layers of complex cultural forces play a role in the social stigmas tattoos now have?

Yes, and the resulting conclusion to all this complexity and nuance is, “Tattoos are bad, m’kay.”

Fortunately, like so many racist grandparents out there, these ideas are dying off. (Unless you’re talking about Osaka’s draconian anti-ink laws, which will make me throw this computer through the big glass window in front of me if I say anymore about them.)

I’ll leave it at that. There’s enough scholarly print on the subject to papier-mâché a bridge from San Francisco to Fukushima.

Instead, I’ll talk about being a colored minority in a largely homogenous country. Deliberately colored, I mean – like I paid big bucks to have colorful images surgically implanted in my body.

Don’t ask me why because you’ve already heard every reason there is for people get tattoos; celebrating loved ones, self-expression, cultural rites of passage, drunk frat decisions…yada yada yada.

My tattoos are the direct result of having been a teenager in the American 90s, raised on metal and rock albums like Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magic where all of my musical heroes sported some sort of indelible epidermal design or another. As soon as I turned 18, I got a trippy hippy sun/tree/sky image that I drew myself tattooed on my left shoulder. For a few years I was pretty proud of it. Then I got a little fire imp thing on my right bicep with the word Innerspark under it, which was my stony Zen way of acknowledging my own spirit of individuality. When I showed my mother she said something supportive like, “Oh, great. You’ve got Satan on your arm now…”

Then I went to uni at VCU in Richmond, VA, where you had to have at least 10% of your peel inked to be eligible for graduation. It seemed students there sleeved their arms without blinking an eye. I upped the inkage and got a belt around my waist and chilled out, thinking I was probably done. After teaching high school for a couple of years, I got the itch again and covered up my first tat with a big left arm piece. Then I peaced out to start a life in the land of sake and samurais. Just last year I got my left arm filled in up to the middle of my forearm by an artist who studied under Horiyoshi III, the world famous Japanese master who’s coincidentally done work on my Richmond artist – the brilliant Amy Black.

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Hurt so good.

Very few people besides a fringe minority of artists and wannabe (or real) gangsters are tatted. Even then, they generally keep it covered up. Tattooed people are not a common sight in public. Being a tall white guy with a ¾ sleeved left arm, I stand out like a house fire at a kid’s 4th of July sparkler party. So yeah, people stare. Not too hard, though. I look scary at first glance, I’m sure. But given that I’m foreign, there’s a certain amount of acceptance that these things are to be expected with cultural outliers.

What I’ve actually found is that there’s an overwhelming curiosity surrounding my tats. If I were Japanese, I wouldn’t be as approachable. I’d be Yakuza and thus to be avoided. But I’m gangly and awkward with a goofy smile and people warm up to me pretty quickly. When I go to the local community sports center (no tattoos allowed at the big chain gyms…) the old ladies pinch my arm and tell me the flowers are pretty.

Kids point and say “Segoi”, wondering if their arms might grow a jungle someday. Younger guys and girls are all about it too, with lots of big ups and sighing that they’d like to get something too, but…無理…it’s impossible. For them, as for plenty of people in other countries, tattoos equate to a life of social stigma; frowns from elders, refusal to onsens (I’ve only been kicked out of one!) and long sleeves at work.

Welcome to my world, kids. I haven’t worn short sleeves at work in 8 years. Parents of friends, girlfriends…even my own mother and father, give a hard squint when they see the blues, greens, reds, oranges and pinks that adorn my appendages.

Naturally, it bothers me sometimes, but it’s more of a feeling of disappointment, really. I’m one of those people who holds the door for you, helps push your car out of the snow, lifts heavy stuff for old people and what not. I ain’t no criminal, so don’t look at me like one.

Well it’s your own fault…

For what? For wanting to add a little color to my otherwise pale physique? For supporting the epidermal arts? For embracing the first form of bodily decoration known to mankind? So be it. If tattoos are a badge, I wear them with pride. I’d better, cause they’re not coming off. And what of that?

tatted old boys

Tough words, old man.

What’s that, punk? Ask me again.

Awesome as fuck tats

Life favors diversity. When I die, I’ll decompose and my atoms will take on some new form, as they have done since their blinking into existence. I’m very happy to think that for the short time they comprised my body, I did my best to make it all look good.

I’ve been to hell, I spell it…

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… I spell it 南警察署。

Not two months ago I blogged about Japanese convenience stores, singing praises for their efficiency and practical public utility. I stand by that article.

Today I have a different tune to whistle, one with archaic chord progressions and logic-defying structure. Call me The Bard of Bitching, for today’s song is about the absolute mind-fucking, time-wasting, money-squeezing process I’m mired in as I jump through hoops to buy a car.

I’ve gone nearly 8 years without a car, something that I’m proud of. But, as anyone living in Sapporo for a number of years knows, having your own ride becomes a necessity if you want to enjoy places outside of Susukino. And so, when I saw an offer for the sweet little German ride I’m to acquire, I thought, “Yep, it’s time.” Pretty much all of my buddies have cars, as does my girl and every other working adult in the city. Little did I know I’d be time-traveling 50 years to the past every time I needed to complete one of the many check points in the course.

I’ll try to keep it simple.

First, I needed an inkan. This is a personalized seal, the kind that people used hundreds of years ago to sign off on official documents. They’re still used here when making contracts and for me to get my car, I threw down $60 for one with ジョナサン モット carved on its end. Then I needed to register my new wand of identification at the ward office. Upon paying the $5 processing fee, I got an official sheet saying that I was legit. Armed with my inkan I could now stamp the hell out of anything that came my way.

I stamped the contract I made with my parking lot company (since all the spaces under my building are taken, except the one for a “K-car”, which is the size of a tricycle). It costs $80 for me to park at a little outdoor gravel lot 3 blocks south of my apartment. Add $30/ month from December to May for snow removal. Want to switch to the closer lot when a space opens up? That’ll be $50 to process, thank you.

Now that I had the parking spot, I had to go down to the police station in the southern ward to register it with the local authorities. This is required before the title of the car can be signed over to my name. But I at least needed copies of the car’s inspection certificate, to show it even existed. Several runs to the north side of town later, I had what I needed.

So we went, my girl and I, last week and got the parking registration papers and were told we couldn’t proceed any further until Dec. 1, when the contract begins.

Really? You couldn’t send somebody to check it out right now to keep things moving along?

Sorry, no. It’s standard.

Last night I spent 30 minutes painstakingly filling out the registration forms. I stamped them in triplicate, as required. One mistake in the kanji and I’d have to do it over. But I did a good job…or so I thought. We went this morning to turn the papers in and as the nice woman at the window pointed out the most microscopic disparities in the address writing, I worried I might headbutt the glass window above her. Why wasn’t this being done on a digital database? In an office of 20-odd people, I saw one – ONE – computer?!?

It was at least ten years old.

The next highest example of technology was the rubber band on the woman’s thumb that allowed her to flip through papers more quickly.

Sorry sir, please fill them out again.

Really, Sapporo?

I can pay for my car’s insurance at the convenience store with a quick show of a digital confirmation number, but to register parking a bunch of papers must be filled out in triplicate and filed stored away in giant metallic cabinets.

Oh yeah, that’s $22 to process, thanks.

It’s already 2014 in 7-11, but in the police departments of Sapporo it’s still 1951. Andy Griffith had more technology at his disposal than the poor luddites in blue here in town. It’s not their fault, I know. The general lack of crime here fails to necessitate ever-expanding budgets for law enforcement. That’s a good thing. But…

andy griffith

I was hoping they’d send somebody tomorrow to come verify my residence and parking space, but apparently a 10-minute drive to do a 10-minute job will take at least 48 hours. Once confirmed, I must return to said office for another official stamp. Not an hour ago I got a call from the nice lady cop. Although written by my girlfriend, the address still wasn’t right. Please bring my inkan on Thursday to stamp the necessary documents.

When this is completed, I can finally go to get the deed signed over. And then I’m done.

I think.

I hope…

At least until January when I have to renew my license. That’ll be worthy of another blog of its own.

Poltergeist Pizza

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To dismiss the story I’m about to describe as one of mere paranoia would be to do a disservice to the eeriness of the world. A superstitious man would suggest unholy agents had been at work. I’m not superstitious, but the memory of it all still raises hairs on my neck 13 years later. It was as if I’d walked into a crooked little stitch in time that occupied the same space of the building to which I had to bring a pizza.

I remember quite clearly pulling my car up to the middle of the block diagonally across from the Grover Cleveland Hotel. I’d delivered to nearly every hotel in the downtown Richmond grid, but it was my first time to this one, another presidentially appointed relic of early 19th century amenity. It was around seven on a late summer night. Earlier in the day I’d gone to my classes and now I was working, running between downtown and The Fan slinging cheese pies. This was the last of a 5 order run, the previous four having all been to residential addresses. With longer circuits I had the luxury of taking my time if I wanted, but I needed money and was hustling to get back to the restaurant.

The area surrounding the hotel wasn’t a busy part of town. A few parked cars punctuated the otherwise empty streets, the lights of a barbershop here, a diner there. A warm wind blew through my windows as I killed the engine, finishing out the last two minutes of the Fear Factory track that was playing. A city bus slowed for a vacant stop at the end of the block and then continued on, passing the front of the hotel before it disappeared.

From the backseat I grabbed the pizza bag, its red surface stained with dark grease spots. Inside was a single pie, a flat bread Mediterranean with goat cheese, olives and pepperchinos. It wasn’t my favorite on the menu but it had its merit. Walking to the hotel I noticed it was under some kind of construction, with bits of scaffolding along the side of it going up several stories. From the 6th story up the building was dark. It looked like a giant black stone had been sat on top of the glowing lower floors, its mass threatening to crush the 5th story at any moment.

Unlike every other hotel I’d ever delivered to in the former Confederate capital, the entrance of this one was entirely empty. A low light illuminated the front desk, but nobody stood behind it. Clusters of musty green leather chairs sat situated around heavy round wooden tables, all unoccupied. There was no concierge standing at his post, no guests wheeling about suitcases. The fountain in the middle of the vast atrium was dry. High above it a multi-tiered chandelier glowed dimly as if its control dial had been turned back to the lowest setting. The automatic doors closed behind me with a faint murmur and I stood still, looking for signs of life. As I stepped further inside, I looked around the massive granite pillars for any hint of activity, but there was none to be found. The white order slip I held did indeed say Grover Cleveland Hotel – Rm. 446.

Crossing the shadowy carpet toward the back where I assumed the elevators were, it occurred to me that there was little more light inside than outside. Had I owned a cellphone to check the contact number scrawled on the paper, I would’ve used it at this point.

They must be running on minimal operations, I reasoned, timidly padding into the deeper into the interior. Lights for the bathrooms, the snack bar, the restaurant were all dark. Just a few fixtures above me on the pillars lit my path. Even the elevator lights were dark. But the doors parted when I pressed the arrow and so, despite a growing inclination to turn and abandon the job, I was compelled to carry on. A light blinked on as entered, shabby pink carpet below my feet. The button board’s tarnished brass plating warped my reflection, making me look grubby and grotesque.

Buttons 6 through 13 were dark, confirming what the building’s exterior had intimated: the top of the building was closed. I pressed 4 and the weights lurched, jerking the elevator upwards. As it moved up the shaft the ghostly sound of air being displaced whispered above me. On the 4th floor I got out and checked the room number – 446. The floor diagram on the wall showed it to be on the opposite side of the building’s wide square layout. The hallway was reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel, minus the warmth of a grand mountain lodge. Naked light bulbs flickered every 10 feet or so. No artwork on the walls, no tables with fake plants in the corners. I listened for voices, TV noise, any indication that somebody else was on the floor, but there were none. Turning left at the corner I kept counting the rooms as I went, past 415, 421, 430. I turned another left and continued until I reached the middle of the hallway.

  haunted hallway

The door to room 446 was the same as every other, an olive green rectangle with a dull brushed-metal knob. I put my ear to it and listened, thrilled to hear the faint sound of a TV and knocked hard three times. It annoyed me to knock incessantly for countless minutes before people got around to answering their doors. My new policy was knock hard if there wasn’t a doorbell, and wait a minute. If that didn’t bring them, I reckoned a swift kick at the baseplate wasn’t out of order.

On the other side of the door a bed creaked and a body shuffled about. The deadbolt snapped back, but when the door opened the chain was still done. Half of an old woman’s face looked me up and down through the crack. She closed it, undid the chain and opened the door partway. I was given a nod, but she said nothing. Her hair was a blizzard of misaligned strands and she wore what looked to be some kind of pajamas suit with an old knit jacket over it. I told her the price and she counted money out of a pocket purse.

As I took the money and handed her the pizza, I noticed a little girl behind her, looking at me from around the corner. She couldn’t have been older than 6 or 7. In her hand was a ratty blue blanket that she held close to her bone white, almost translucent face. The older woman was her grandmother I guessed and she smiled when she saw me looking at the little girl, turning back to her with the pizza box outstretched for her to take. The girl walked forward, accepted the box and disappeared out of sight.

I thanked them and the door closed without her having said a single word. My job complete, I wanted nothing more than to get the fuck out of the hotel. There was another elevator just two doors down behind me and I took that instead of returning the way I’d come. Inside I saw buttons I hadn’t noticed before. There were the 5 numbered floors, as well as Mezzanine, Lobby, Ground Floor, B1 and B2. I pressed Lobby and when I stepped out of the elevator not half a minute later the room I entered was not the one I’d originally come through. It was faintly lit and had a long bar on the right side that disappeared into shadows. It was, as the entire hotel seemed to be, devoid of people.

I knew I was on the backside of the hotel and got back in the elevator and pressed 1st floor, thinking to go back to the familiar layout of the hallways and walk back around to the front side elevator. This was more sensible than trying to navigate the dark labyrinth of an entire floor. Back on the first floor, as I made my way down the hallway, I caught myself walking unnecessarily fast and tried to slow my pace. But long empty hallways in dark forsaken hotels will have that effect and I continued at a fast clip. To get back to the shop, I told myself. After turning several corners the other elevator failed to materialize. Had I passed it? No, that was impossible.

Just then a door to a stairwell appealed itself to me and I took it, remembering that stairs often provided a direct exit to a building. I went down two flights without seeing another door and then down two more. The walls were cinderblock painted hospital blue, the metal stairs a sickly yellow. My footsteps echoed above and below me as I descended.

Still no exit.

I turned on the next landing and saw a sign, or rather a mark, painted directly onto the wall. In what looked like red spray-paint were the words Basement 1. A kind of template had been used to frame the lettering but whoever the writer had been had sprayed too closely for the paint had dripped, looking much like the bloody scribbles of a lunatic.

My pace quickened and I skipped stairs down to the next landing. A door! I tugged on its latch several times but it was locked. You’re fucking kidding me… Just at that moment, far above me was the sound of a door slamming, or something like furniture being thrown about. I couldn’t be sure. It was violent and abrupt. Then all was quiet.

I continued down the stairs in growing desperation for an exit. The sweat of my hand mingled with the pizza bag’s grease and made me feel queasy so I switched it to my other hand. A matching sign was painted on the landing 4 flights lower. It felt like I’d gone down 10 floors now, far below street level. If there was access to the lower basement, what chance was there that it would lead to outside? I didn’t care. I just wanted out.

Two more flights and then the staircase came to an end. There was another door, also locked. An icy primeval fear spread from the base of my neck, numbing me. I listened, standing absolutely still. The only sounds I heard were my own panting and the beating of my heart. With nowhere else to go I began to climb the stairs again, ears tuned upwards. Again, I passed the bloody signs, their drips looking longer than before. As much as possible I kept my footsteps soft. For a moment I thought to take off my shoes, but didn’t. Up I went, uncertain of how many flights I’d gone. A second crash came, this time from below. From the bottom door? I froze, not allowing a single muscle to twitch. Was this some kind of TV prank? If so, it was going to be a smash fucking success. Dread tightened its hold on me, my legs weak and wobbly.

Feeling quite the child, I hurried up to the 1st floor door and cracked it open, peering through. It was the same hallway as before. I strode towards the elevators, struggling to remain composed. Surely there were others in the building. Some staff had to be working tonight. It was inconceivable that the only other people in the hotel besides me were the old woman and the child.

Back in the elevator I pressed the button for the Mezzanine, not even sure what the word meant. Even with a watch I wouldn’t have been able to tell you how long it was before the doors opened. Five seconds? Five minutes? When they did a great long balcony stretched before me off to my left and right. Below the balcony was a fountain, the same as the one I’d first seen. I walked down the right side to the end looking for a staircase down but there wasn’t one. I tried to look across the inky expanse of the atrium to see if there was one on the other side and saw nothing.

I just had to go down one floor. One floor and I was out. I looked over the railing and fought temptation. It was too far too jump safely. In the elevator, I went to press Lobby, but hesitated. The last time it took me to the bar. But that was on the hotel’s back side, I reminded myself. I pressed it and when the doors opened this time, the fountain I’d just been looking down on was nowhere to be seen. It was the same room as before, the same bar. I stepped out into the room a few feet. My eyes adjusted a bit and in the far left corner across abyss of the room I could see the slightest crack of light coming through an open door. Did it connect to the lobby, then?

All of a sudden the elevator doors closed behind me, before I had time to get back in. Above, a small orange 4 glowed among the other blank digits. Steeling myself to the task I half walked, half jogged into the darkness, keeping my eyes on the light of the door. Jet-black shadows, chairs and tables I assumed, appeared before and beside me and I bumped into a few as I went. Something momentarily snagged my bag, almost ripping it from my hand. Nearing the door, I heard the elevator doors ding as they opened behind me. I looked back and could just make out the silhouette of the old woman standing inside, the little girl’s body in her arms.

My heart lodged in my throat and I wiped tears from my eyes as I burst out into the lobby. I ran, past the columns and the gushing fountain, past the mustached men at reception desk, past the guests laughing in the green leather chairs, past the concierge as he lunged for me.

In my car I fumbled with my keys. When I turned the corner, I took one last look at the Grover Cleveland Hotel in my rearview mirror. It was as dark as the night sky.