Experience Junkie

Murder Kittens and Tutu Crew Complete the NorCal ToughMudder

1009.jpg

I was leaving the North Fork farm, but not heading home to LA just yet; first, there was some serious business to attend to! Billed as “The Toughest One Day Endurance Race on the Planet!”, The NorCal ToughMudder was assembling teams from all over the world to participate in a 7-mile course at an elevation of 8000ft, with multiple fluctuations of 2000 feet. The 3000 participants, were a good mix of serious atheltes and groups of misshapen folk dressed in ridiculous costumes, but all determined to hop over, crawl under and trek through obstacles with names such as March of Death and Dragon Wheel!

Our posse was made up of 15 people, comprising of two teams, The Murder Kittens and The Tutu Crew (made of of members of The Phage). We’d decided to rent a cabin nearby and we were all gathering for dinner the night before the big race. The event was pricey at about $150 for the pleasure of being tortured, not to mention more than a little intimidating, so I had just registered as a spectator, which I had found surprisingly emasculating upon clicking the online ‘submit’ button.

The first challenge was unexpected. I had tried to take a short cut through Stanislaus National Forest and I was good and lost and had already missed dinner. My cell phone’s GPS was also completely useless in these mountains. Eventually I came upon a ranger station where I asked directions.

“Well, you’re going to have a tough time off roadin’ to Bear Valley!” The rather butch female ranger amused herself as a couple of very cute female trainees giggled behind her. “But you could either head back the way you came, or keep following this road – after a few turns, you’ll be back on track.”

I’m really not a fan of back tracking when it comes to life in general, and after I managed to get her to clarify “a few turns” I continued on, deeper into the pitch black forest with an impotent phone and some pumping, bass heavy music to add to the alien planet vibe. I finally made it to The Eldorado Ranch, where most of the team was already good and drunk, all too happy to celebrate their victory before the race even began.

Upon arrival, the weekend’s second unexpected challenge was exposed: our friend Enki, a member of the Tutu Crew, had come down with a cold and would not be able to join the team. In an effort to reclaim that ego-jabbing feeling of emasculation, I impetuously offered to take his place. Many of the team had been training for the last month whereas I had only done yoga a few times; I was more than a little apprehensive.

After winning the title of Game Room Champion by beating Tristan at foosball, pool and finally ping pong, I returned to the main house to set up my ‘bed’, which was really just a pile of blankets, in the living room under a large moose head. There was a sign next to the decapitated trophy, indicating that it was not OK to touch the moose head; obviously the landlords had had some troublesome tenants in the past, but they made their friendly intonation clear by appending each written rule (also found in the kitchen, bathroom and game room) with “Mahalo!”

The following morning we woke up early to get ready. I ate a muffin, granola and a big serving of pasta from the previous evening’s dinner and I also managed to squeeze into Enki’s camouflage Tutu, which looked sexy yet hardcore. We saddled up in a few cars and drove about 1 hour to the site of the course. Each 15 minutes, a couple of hundred people gathered at the start and after a dramatic, yet inspiring speech, a pistol was shot and we were off.

1009-3.jpg

The first obstacle was to crawl through mud under barbwire – but in fact, we had regular wire separating us from the barbs. After running a mile down some rocky terrain we assembled in a neat line as we waited for people to walk down a sharp precipice. Multiple signs warned us of the fact that we’d signed a death waiver, and to think about that before being stupid. We didn’t slip on the Ice Shelf, because it was rather warm and all the ice had melted. We found out the Dragon Wheel was really just an old cable bail. OK, I don’t want to completely belittle the effort, after all, running up and down hills at 8000ft is pretty exhausting and everyone’s lungs were burning – and of course, submerging yourself in the frigid waters of the Snow Making Pond is definitely a memorable brain shock. But if there’s no real timekeeping and pretty much 100% of those that partake pass, except the occasional clumsy or seriously unfit runner – how hardcore is it really?

1009-2.jpg


After the race, which ended by jumping through a rather low fire and drinking a watered down shot of Sriracha Hot Sauce, we had a couple of beers and headed home. The next 24 hours is a blur of endless BBQing, more than a little tequila punctuated with shifts in the LED lit hot tub, and numerous rematches in the game room that only enforced my reign (at least most of the time J To at least be a little healthy I brought out the veggies that I’d obtained from the farm cellar and did a little restorative yoga.

Before I left for Los Angeles I hunted for my lost sunglasses, which someone had put on the moose. I could imagine the scene with the landlord had I not found them:

“Those little bastards, I expressly put this sign in place to tell them not to touch my moose head… Mahalo!”


1009-4.jpg
Read more

My Birthday Gift? Escape to the Farm!

1003-1.JPG

Last year I had wanted a big birthday party. In fact, as I entered my 30th year, I decided that the appropriate thing to do was combine forces with the relentlessly altruistic Sloane Berrent, for yet another once in a lifetime tuxedo clad quest: Cause It’s My Birthday! 7 parties, 7 cities, 7 days! For charity of course! So last year I ate cake and dank champagne for a solid week while raising $20k for fighting Malaria. This year I was going to take it easy.

I decided to not tell anyone that it was my birthday and after one of the more challenging months of my life I woke up, said goodbye to my roommates and high tailed it for the farm. This was in fact the only gift I wanted. Even my family kept asking: “What do you want for your birthday?” I told them that I was opting out of the whole chronologically contrived gifting cycle. I thought it was pointless and often found the expectation stressful and unfulfilling. Furthermore, I think birthdays should perhaps be a time where instead of expecting to receive gifts for just being born, you actually show the world why you are worthy of occupying any space at all. OK, but that rant aside, I’m officially opting out of it, and that goes for Christmas too. I can’t sum up the love that I have for my family and friends on a time and price agreed upon schedule.

1003-2.JPG

As I made my way down the foggy road to my studio a gentle rain began to fall. Soon it began to pour down, accompanied by the most sever lightning that I’d ever seen. I made a fire, made some hearty soup and read some of Sam Harris’ “A Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”. All night long the thunder clapped and lightning strobed on the other side of the skylight. The roof leaked and even a small beetle tried to get in bed with me. At times I thought the windows were going to smash inward. Eventually I got to sleep and when I woke up, the rains had cleared and made way for a beautiful day.

1003-3.JPG

Later that day I ran into Hansel, the owner of the farm and mentioned to him how wild the storm had been.

“I’ve been up here for 30 years,” He said through his large grey beard. “and we’ve only had a couple of others like that! The storm of the decade!”

as I walked down to the little waterfall near the farm I thought about what a perfectly dramatic cleanse it had been to end my 30th year 🙂

1003-4.JPG

Read more

Burning Man!

0901-3.JPG

I am currently in the Nevada Desert creating a temporary community at Burning Man. This year we are bringing together art installations, science lectures, music events and other aspects of creative expression like never before. All hail the inaugural year of “The Institute“! This is Phager Mat Heitel’s rendering of the village – comprising of three camps: The Phage, False Profit and Relaxomatic Plushatorium:

0901-5.JPG
The Phage was especially proud of this years iteration of Strangelove, our beloved art car:

0901-1.JPG

So what does Burning Man look like from space, you ask? Pretty awesome organization for 50,000 debaucherous campers!

0901-2.JPG

Read more

Tuxedo Tyrants / Santa Monica

0808-2.JPG

Tuxedo Travels was a project that I undertook in April 2007. It was the journey of two men, over the course of 6 months, as they journey from Asia to London wearing nothing but tuxedos. More than just a bizarre adventure, it was a mission to raise money for charitable causes that we executed along the route when we came into contact with needy communities or individuals.

If Tuxedo Travels is the altruistic, more responsible sibling – then Tuxedo Tyrants is the hedonistic younger sibling, who enjoys the intersection of bar crawls and public improv. It started in early 2008 when Dan Busby got a new tuxedo and knowing that I had one, he had asked if I wanted to join him for a drink, in tuxedos. Of course, it was so much fun, that we decided to to do it again – this time inviting our friends.

The idea quickly spread around our posse – ‘Tuxedo Tyrants: lets all get dressed up in tuxedos and ballgowns and go on a bar crawl!’. It was more than just a drunk night out, it was in no uncertain terms, a stroke of unexpected genius. Girls, as it turns out, have a slew of fancy outfits that they love to wear, but never get the opportunity – and so in the week preceding, they chit chatted about what they’d wear and flock to the event! Every month or two, a new location was chosen and the Tyrants gathered. This already would have been enough, however, never wanting to be labeled as anything ordinary, we began making up elaborate stories before hitting the bars, to tell people when they inevitably asked:

“So are you guys all coming from a wedding.” Was the obvious question.

“Actually, we’re celebrating the initial round of funding for an orbiting space casino…” Deadpan delivery.

“Haha, no, seriously!?”

“I am serious, of course, it’s no where near ready, but the planning for orbiting space casino’s takes time.” Invariably, the inquisitor would saunter off, only to approach a more timid looking Tyrant.

“So, what’s really going on here? Are you coming from a wedding?”

“Actually, we’re celebrating the initial round of funding for an orbiting space casino. But i’m only in the accounting department.” And that was the genius – a cohesive story and a role you felt comfortable in faking. Sales, legal, marketing, engineering, accounting – all were represented.

In the couple of years that the Tyrants had been crawling around the city and gaining in numbers, we’d hit about 15 neighborhoods, and each time, we’d come up with a different story. Some of my favorites:

  • “The successful (re)launch of the BuddyGuard™ 2.0 robotic system. BuddyGuard was a government subsidized program that offered poor and underprivileged children a robotic helper. It could help them with school work, engage them at play time as well as protect them from bullies with a built in tazer. The ill-fated launch of BuddyGuard 1.0 was doomed by a critical flaw that categorized almost everyone as a bully. But we have great faith in the new firmware, loading into almost all 2.0 systems…”
  • “ZyCorp is an Elton John Foundation sponsored company that focuses on genetic splicing. We’re excited to be celebrating the fist success at creating a healthy zygote (the pre-embyonic ball of splitting cells) derived from the genes of two sperm. We’re excited to pave the way for homosexual men to have offspring made up of their combined genes…”
  • “We’re a privately held research and development group, attempting to bring the new field of Perceptive Therapy into the mainstream. We’re excited for our first successful implant which is able to augment the perception of those suffering from schizophrenia and depression. Of course there are many other potential conditions that we could see treating in the future, as well as even spilling over from the world of therapy, into the world of consumer recreation… That of course, it a little way off!”

And so on and so forth! But tonight, amid the gleaming white patio of a Santa Monica hotel, we were representatives from Everyoung Labs, celebrating the healthy first birthday of ‘Tuck‘ – the companies eldest ‘permakitten‘. Thanks to isolation of the Greenberg gene, named after Leyah Greenberg who’s body had shown some unusual aging processes, Everyoung Labs has created a technology so that kittens, stay kittens, for life.

Happy Birthday, Tuck!

0808.JPG

Read more

A Funny Thing Happened in Fresno, on the Way to the Farm

0802-1.JPG

On the way up to the Farm, I dropped into Fresno to catch a jazz show with my old friend Ric. Ric was quite a character: he’d been to jail a few times, lost at sea at one point, in crutches at least twice and who celebrated kicking his drug addiction by drinking liters of coffee and smoking like a chimney. He was also a hell of a jazz player before he’d fallen down some stairs.

After the show, we grabbed a few drinks at a local restaurant / bar / music lounge where a few of the jazz musicians had moved on to. The Fresno girls that waltzed in and out were surprisingly loud and trashy. We didn’t stay too long and Ric offered me a spot to crash at his place.

Ric had always had interesting friends and his roommates, or more accurately, his hosts were no exception. He led me through a living room that was either being renovated or just falling apart, it was hard to tell in the darkness. He pulled at a bookcase and it came ajar, revealing a carpeted staircase. I crept upstairs, tip toed past some sleeping dogs, and passed out on a sofa.

As I opened my eyes, I found myself on a dusty couch and for a moment forgot where I was. I happen to find that feeling quite enjoyable – it’s like waking up in a new adventure and trying to figure it out. The dusty room was ornately decorated and furnished with a full oak bar and as my eyes drifted downward they met the stare of 3 equally dusty poodles. Big questions in my head were centered around the responsibility of successfully creating and leading community. And no random house could have been more helpful to wake up in.

I came down the stairs and out of the book case to a morning breakfast scene. Ric and his host, an 86 year old sociologist who wrote a book called “primitive drinking”; Chandler Washburne, had taught for years at UC Fresno, been a friend of Kerouacs and married to Ex belly dancer Beyla, who herself had previously been married to Spencer from Jefferson airplane. I sat on a faded floral-print couch in his study and began a conversation that lasted well into the afternoon. Some of the things we covered:

  • Learning the social OS
  • Dynamics of various sized communities
  • Can communities run in a decentralized way or is hierarchical leadership needed?
  • ‘Encounter’ groups from the 60s
  • Benevolent dictatorship, positive emotional
  • Distributed leadership
  • Pre lingual laws Only as many as Can be remembered
  • What is the mission out there and do you know if you’ve achieved it.
  • How do you quantify social success?
  • Establishing of rules and objectives
  • Lead by action not by mandate
  • Consistency is crucial to successful leadership
  • Laughing is an extension of panting – it’s a mammalian thing
  • Rat licking experiment – rats that got licked by the mothers were friendly and more exploratory, others were more anxious. This is epigenetic..
  • Brains develop differently, ability to use language plays a huge roll in this
  • Most people hear music with right side of brain, but musicians use the left because they can put names to things..
  • Artists communicate in a non standardized language
  • Social hackery to manifest changes, appeal to a visceral emotion
  • We don’t see the actor, we see the part they’re playing
  • It’s a grand experiment / life is improv
  • If life is indeed a play, then all roles must be filled!

With many of my questions answered, or at least on the way to being answered, I sat down and wrote a long email to my Burning Man camp, discussing many of the things that we had covered over glazed donuts that morning.

How can serendipity be so abundant!?

Read more

A Return to the Farm

Sometimes serendipity takes you by surprise – but sometimes, if you really pay attention, you can catch it with its hand in the future jar. After serving a Vipassana course back in April near North Fork, CA, I had experienced a great stroke of luck. At the end of the week, a fellow meditator, a Thai man named Sathya, had informed me that he was visiting a farm up the road and asked me to come along. Of course I’d agreed and as soon as I had entered the property and met Hansel, the farm owner, I knew – right then and there – that this place would hold a great importance to my future.

I had been in touch with the family soon after returning to LA, expressing my desire to offer them a little rent in exchange for letting me come up from time to time. They told me that that sounded like a great idea and to just give them some heads up before I came through. I could have easily put it off, after all, who has the time or capacity to stop life and go live on a farm? Well, the beauty of a lot of the work I I is that is can be done online – and the farm was blessed with DSL and even decent AT&T reception. Technically people didn’t event have to know I was on a farm 🙂

So soon after a joyous July 4th in the woods of NorCal, I ascended through the winding mountain roads to North Fork. I passed through the little town and continued driving into the Sierras, carefully noting my odometer so I would not miss the nondescript turnout for the farm. I had even made a note of the combination lock of the gate, so when I finally found it after a few wrong turns, I was able to open it right up and find my way to the small cliffside studio I had rented for the week.

0708-2.JPG

Part of the deal however, was that I had promised to help out on the farm as much as I could and the very next day at the crack of dawn I found myself, together with a handful of volunteers, moving large amounts of earth to create some new fruit tree terraces. It was a extremely liberating feeling, being out in the sunshine, creating something with my energy that would produce unquantifiable amounts of new energy in the future, in the forms of apple, pear and cherry trees. Around lunch time, the days work would come to an end and we would all gather in the main house for a big vegetarian lunch.

0708-1.JPG

I spent the afternoons and evenings in quiet solitude down at the studio. Writing in my journal, doing yoga on the porch and reading a slew of old books, magazines and articles that I’d neglected over the previous months. Occasionally I would take small hikes around the property, discovering small waterfalls in hidden groves and exploring the rusting artifacts in the farms junk yard. As evening fell, I would often sit on the large rock that clung to the cliff’s edge outside the studio and look at the winding river one thousand feet below. When the sun set it would often casting rich reds and purples long after the burning yellow orb had disappeared behind neighboring mountains.

This had been the first time I had visited the farm since discovering it in late April. As I locked the gate behind me, I was glowing with a sense of calm satisfaction and creative fulfillment, ready to tackle whatever the City of Angels was cooking up for me next. It could toss me around and suck my energy, but as long as I knew this farm was here, I knew I could always have a place to heal and get ready for the next iteration.

0708-3.JPG
Read more

EPIC: The Death Valley Dunes 2010

Wild Skies

A few times a year a group of adventures seeking individuals meet up and go on EPIC outdoor adventures. This is the 3rd year returning to the Eureka sand dunes of Death Valley to spend a night on the dunes, under the bright stars.

Group Shot

There’s nothing like retreating to the desert with some of the smartest people you know to discuss topics such as quantifiable morality, malleability of social order, altruistic incentive, interstellar logistics, routine hacking and continued experiments in experience engineering.

The Dunes

The “booming” dunes of Death Valley are just a handful in the world where the conditions are just right that the sand, as it shifts emits a deeply resonant groaning! A magical place filled with old mines, bizarre rock formations jutting up from the austere desert landscape. More pics here…

Read more

CA Mountainside Exploration / Vipassana Service / Farm Discovery

0424.JPG

While I was in South America I experienced a fantastic realization. Besides the interesting people and cultures that I came into contact with along the three month expedition, I reached a state of deep internal contentment. The search for this state was a large part of what had driven me to take the trip – and so its discovery made me hugely happy. But ultimately I knew the trip had to end, and that inevitably I would have to head home.

Upon my return to LA, I hid out for a few days and took the time to really pin point how this feeling had come to be, and even more importantly, how I could bring the feeling back with me. The worst thing I could now do was to return to the exact same path I’d been on before. Sure, much of it was very positive, and I was looking forward to returning to – but I needed to trim that which had aggravated me and drawn me so thin.

What I discovered upon reflection is that there was no perfect place – but by being very aware of how places, people and activities made me feel, I was able to use them, almost like a drug, to achieve the mind state that I desired. Throughout the South America trip I saw my existence as a series of iterative cycles. Social times with new friends in new cities, then the escape to solitude to reconnect with nature and my internal being. I had also experienced a middle ground, where I was present in towns or cities but actively choosing to not engage in social or distracting activities, instead I used the time to reflect on the previous week or two and write. This dynamic structure had allowed me to feel fulfilled socially, spiritually and creatively – and now that I not only knew this, but had explicitly defined it, I would be a fool to not continue on this path – that is, as much as regular life could let me.

Luckily, much of my work could be done remotely, and the life I had set up in LA rally only required me to be there for a portion of the month, so soon after a wild couple of weeks back, I decided to head on a road trip. I left LA and after descending the Grapevine I split off from the 5, heading north east to Lake Isabella. I had noted down some for sale properties – and while buying a house wasn’t on my immediate to do list, I just wanted to scope things out. After heading up and down some dusty roads and hopping a few fences, I continued to make my way north, through little towns and over winding mountain roads, making notes and taking pictures. I found a variety quaint and rustic places that I would feel comfortable in. I had no plan, but I didn’t need one to feel excited.

Eventually that evening I came to North Fork, the last stop of my little tour and “Exact Center of California” as the proud sign displays as you enter the town, which is little more than a bend in the road with a few shops and conveniences. I passed through and soon afterward I ended up at the Vipassana Center, where I had planned to serve part of a 10 maintenance period. It was a wonderful opportunity to silence the mind and be around truly good people – and the gift of service (in this case, trimming the grass, cleaning bathrooms, and generally fixing things around the place) was the least I could do for a place that had served me so well over the last couple of years.

Some days later it was time to leave and as I packed my bags, an old Thai man had poked his head in my room:

“I’m heading up to see the farm that provides much of the produce to this center. Apparently volunteers can apply to work there, and live and eat for free, in exchange for some hours every day as farm hands. Would you like to come with me?” Satya asked.

“That sounds amazing – I’m in!”

0424-4.JPG

The Vipassana center handyman, Bruce, gave us a ride some miles up the winding road as I questioned him about the surrounding area. Eventually we pulled off the road and an unsigned turnoff and met Becky, the daughter of the farm owner. She took us to the farm and there we met Hansel, the owner and our tour guide. He patiently showed us around the farm, taking us across the acres of functional farm fields and terraces, through WWOOFville (where the volunteers, also known as WWOOFers live) and eventually down to a little cliff side studio. It was like a hobbit house, carved out of the hill side, with great natural light, pretty rock work and a sunken fireplace. As for amenities, there was a simple kitchen, solar electricity for appliances and a functional bathroom with gas heated water.There was some cell phone reception and even internet available up the hill. At the time, no one was living there and I asked if he ever might like to rent it out part time.

“You’ll have to speak to my wife, she’s in charge of that sort of stuff!” Hansel said, and laughed in a jolly, almost Santa Claus like way. I took down their information and promised to be in touch. We left the farm and headed down the hill.

As I drove away from the Vipassana center, I was giddy with excitement. I had left LA on a hunt for a possible get away spot. I had found a few good leads before reaching the Vipassana center, but nothing that had offered an immediate respite from the city. And in one blatant stroke of serendipity, the cosmos delivered me a giant gift, right onto my lap. As I passed through North Fork, a town where the fire station is also the library, I knew I’d be back sooner than I had expected.

0424-3.JPG

Read more

Life on Death Road

See the rest of the Death Road pics here…

That corner, we call that ‘Italian Corner’.” Our tour guide, the self appointed Speedy Gonzales laughed.

Why do you call it that?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.

A few years ago, an Italian – he fell down!” Speedy grinned, “And the jungle, it ate him. So be careful amigos! Let’s go!” Speedy pulled a mini-wheelie and headed down the rocky, cliff-side trail.

Read more

Valparaiso and the Earthquake

I still have to write the update from Isla Chiloe to the Las Campanas Observatory but wanted to post my earthquake experience ASAP. See all the photos here…

It had been a wild couple of weeks while I raced to La Serena, in order to catch Stella Kafka, the most lovely observational astronomer that I know, on her last night of observation at the Las Campanas observatory. I blazed through Santiago and only spent about 8 hours in Valparaiso – the most colorful and expressive town I’d ever visited. I was sad to have to rush, but the invitation was too fantastic and in the end it was absolutely worth the race – the observatory felt more like a moon base and the stars were unparalleled in their clarity. I was Stella’s assistant for her final night and kept her awake while she searched for distant suns with orbiting planets that might, or might not, be appropriately stable enough to allow for a ‘habitable zone’. (I will write this story next – very cool stuff  – thanks Stella!)

Read more