Lisa Makes Soap!

The cost of my plane ticket to San Francisco was a weekend helping my friend Lisa of Feto Soap teach hoards of eager human young how to make soap. We set up a booth on the grassy square at the center of Maker Faire and lined it with hand made soap examples and a pile of her fetus soap and razor blade soap (for the emo kids).

Everyone who came through had a chance to make their own soap with a choice of mold, color, fragrance, glitter and embedded horse head, spider, or other random toy. The frogs did really well, as did glitter covered horses. When things got rolling, they didn’t quit. In the end more than 150 bars of soap happened while Lisa and I were furiously chopping at our 25 lb block of soap, melting soap, measuring soap, showing tiny kids how to use a pipette, extracting colorant bottles from hot soap when misjudging a young human’s motor skills…

People’s choices said some interesting things about the changing demographics of the San Francisco area. In Austin, there were dozens of people asking for “natural soap base” and extremely concerned about what was in it. Lisa brought out a huge pile of it just in case and we debated quite a bit about how much to bring. I felt like not only would the event be larger, but San Francisco’s being be the accredited hub of all hippiness would mean even more concern about “naturalness” etc. As it turns out, I gave out two cards with ingredient lists and not a single person muttered the word, “natural”.

Exhausted by the first half day, I welcomed the moment’s peace that came with a trip to the bathroom to wash the soap base off of pipettes and stirring sticks. The beauty of washing them being, of course, that they were already covered in soap. This worked out wonderfully when a tall hip looking guy in shades walked in covered in yellow paint. He had been teaching screen printing in another craft area. The paint on his hands was so thick that even though I was pouring my leftover soap over them every few minutes, the only stuff he was only able to get off were the smudges that covered the sink, mirror and wall around him. “Oh man…” he muttered, looking around helplessly and holding his yellow hands out in front of him like a surgeon. I imagined similar moments of wreckage were happening in parallel all over the faire grounds as various mad science projects came face to face with the reality of big crowds and untethered children.

By the end of the adventure I had completely forgotten how to stand up. I had a few minutes to run through all of Maker Faire and catch my favorite fire breathing robots, amazing screen print design work and kite-based remote photography. In one hall an old trailer housed a series of restored pinball machines and here I found it, my old friend and nemesis: The Cyclone.

Several times in my life I’ve made an active decision to get into something for the very sake of getting into it. I wanted to understand the excitement about sports and so I threw myself into keeping up with the Chicago Blackhawks because hockey was what I already loved to play. Of course once I got into it, I loved it and used to follow the games on radio. I did the same thing with pinball, and between classes I went to the student union to play the game I’d carefully chosen to obsess about. It was a carnival game built before there were digital displays, but had voices built in that would shout, “riiiiide the cyclone!” and, “riiiiiide the ferris wheel!” It had this gloriously satisfying rumble when the ball shot up and around the ramp. From halfway across the room, I heard it call me.

I ran up to the machines on the side, my heart pounding. “Hurry hurry hurry. Step right up!” There it was in all its orange carny glory! I stood behind the little boy working the machine and tried to remember all of my best moves. He lost the game and started the next. He was playing really badly and talking and shouting to himself while wildly batting at the flipper buttons. After the third restart I walked up and said, “hey, mind if I take this next game?” He jerked away and wrapped himself even tighter around the machine shouting, “come on!” as he continued to beat the buttons mercilessly and pretend I didn’t exist. I stood paralyzed, frozen without a set of behavioral options to choose from.

When the kids had been coming through the line waiting to make soap, they may have been impatient but they were eager to learn and were fully aware that we were the gatekeepers of the personal soap making experience they so craved. When I told them not to pour all of the glitter onto the table or use only drop from the pipette, they listened. It was too easy.

The thing about kids is that they often exhibit the same behavior seen in adult human beings… the ones we jail or fine. Yet somehow the same greed, selfishness and violence are tolerated or even seen as adorable in children. Worse still, in trying to interact with them I am bound by a mysterious undefined set of guidelines set by parents I likely don’t even know. Any move I make might be in direct violation of these guidelines and lead to outrage and perhaps even incarceration. Some parents insist on physical discipline. Others on verbal discipline. Still others on elaborate, carefully worded reasoning.

Being California I had to assume latter and, not having the energy for either hand to hand combat or a battle of wits with a six year old, I decided it was better that I just leave. I felt defeated and irritated with myself for not knowing these games better, but the idea of having this kid’s screaming bring down the hammer for my having abused or mistreated a child was too loathsome.

In the end this defeat simply left me determined to learn a few of the socially acceptable tricks. The rest of the event, while physically exhausting, had been quite fun and seeing small humans ratcheted up into a creative frenzy gave me hope for the future. TV is dying. People are learning at a young age to seek out interactive and creative amusements and the growth of Maker Faire exemplifies the trend. I can only hope that in our robot-laden future, most will be built at home!

Kai Makes Soap!

We Are Flying Monkeys

There was no way I could leave San Francisco without having some kind of a supervegan meal and so we found a religious commune of sorts full of beaming people serving dahl with zing and chick peas with zang. Dicky got into a healthy rant about the fact that we are all Monkeys and I gleefully fed it with my own philosophies on the subject. Yes, we are all monkeys chewing on bananas, but once we have food we discover that throwing feces at one another, making scads of money and talking about nuances of artistic expression are all equally valuable pursuits.

Maslow’s Hierarchy keeps coming up lately, perhaps because whenever I talk about my recent trip to India where I was surrounded by people with real needs, the Americans around me uncomfortably check their fussing about music or complaint about modern art. I keep trying to point out that just because some people don’t have the luxury of spare time and energy to devote to philosophy doesn’t make its pursuit any less legitimate. It’s what we do. We’re monkeys.

Flight out of San FranciscoSomething that always astounds me about air travel is that, well, we call it “air travel”. We forget something amazing… it’s flight! I look out the window and suddenly we’re rushing along the ground at incredible speed, and then there is a jerk and we are pulled up into the air! We’re flying! Beside me a guy in a business suit is trying to get coffee and a hipster is futsing with an iPod. Can’t they see that we’re experiencing something incredible?! This is a moment humans have dreamed of for thousands of years! They jealously watched birds overhead and dreamed, planned, and fell off of countless cliffs in desperate attempts to join them. Now we complain about peanut allergies and turbulence.

Of course, once I got over the fact that I was in a two ton tin can floating over the earth, I had time to study Go and the chance to meet a cool actress in the seat next to me. I really appreciated her deliberate approach to her craft and we talked about the similarities between the mental states required for writing and acting. When I write fiction, I often have the experience best described by Ray Bradbury. He would go to sleep thinking about his characters, and when he woke up they would all be talking in his head and he would write down what they said.

While I don’t always have this immediate an experience, stories and characters always take on a life of their own. The better I get to know them and their stories and voices, the more they take over and tell me what they will and will not do. The story wanders off in new directions and I have to be open to where it wants to go, and to craft it into a coherent tale once I’ve felt it out. In many ways this process involves becoming (in the method acting sense) these characters for a while. It also requires the very immediate, open, empty mind of the improv actor who responds immediately to each new idea or change as it occurs. Because each new fact that is revealed changes the context of the story, it can’t be written out in any one actor’s head beyond the current moment. (This stems from the “yes and” rule of improv.)

And so I’ve returned to Austin, another flying, philosophizing monkey typing furiously in the dark in hope that other monkeys will nod or spit out some kind of emotional response to my analysis of my experience. There are certainly worse things I could be doing with my time.

SF v Austin Way of Life

Many San Franciscans seem to believe that one of the things that makes San Francisco so much better than Austin is that there are so many things going on all of the time. This amazing DJ here, that incredible artist there. The thing is, I feel like I have the same complete over saturation of cool events in Austin and so through a series of conversations I teased out the difference.

To make sweeping generalizations, San Francisco seems to foster small, tightly knit groups of friends who have insane numbers of choices to make about which events featuring high profile artists to attend. In Austin I have a huge community of people, and while there aren’t as many big names in the events here, I am overwhelmed by the number of opportunities to spend creative and social time with my large group friends.

While in SF I met a lot of people who had trouble making friends there despite the number of people packed into the city. One had, I believe, the best theory: that everything is so full that it creates an extremely competitive environment. You have to complete for all of the basic resources like parking, apartments, and jobs. You have to work hard just to be able to afford to live. This then leads to competition for people’s time and friendship as well. People are less likely to invest until they know someone is a “sure thing”.

In Austin it’s a lot easier to survive, and it’s still a small town here at the center of the city. The growth, instead of being dense, is primarily sprawling out into the suburbs and filled with people that never enter the city and certainly don’t compete for time and attention. I still walk though this place like it’s my living room and will happily drop onto the sofa to chat with anyone who walks past.

Got Church

I stood in line for a few minutes before a big friendly tough looking guy with wild hair and soft eyes asked me if I was Kai. His name was Blue and he had the other half of a ticket. I picked up a Macallan 12 and a single cube of ice and followed him to the far front corner of the little club known as the Rickshaw Stop. I appreciated that they’d gone so far as to park a crude bike hacker style rickshaw in front of the place, although I still haven’t seen one in actual use anywhere in the city.

Within minutes of arriving I started to spot the various people I’d seen during the day in the Haight. They were scattered throughout the crowd that was quickly thickening as people were poured in like Kuzu to a sauce. I was either in just the right place that night or this was some kind of regular ritualistic gathering for everyone in the surrounding area.

The first few songs were a great mix of west African style riffs, gospel choruses, folk pop and nicely built psychedelic digressions. The lyrics were about bears seeking honey over the mountains. One guitar player had a beautiful hollow body Gibson and wore a headband under his long hair and beard, syncing up beautifully with the tie dyed American flag draped behind them. The one closest to me looked like Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. (He was apparently a guest musician from the Dodos.) They wrapped up the set with a warning and a request for extra water, as though we should be preparing ourselves for what was to come.

The second round started out slowly. Another solid stomp tune got the whole place clapping and moving, until one song ended and the continued rhythmic clapping or snapping became the bed for the next. I found myself swept up in the rhythms and when they stopped, singing out the choruses in harmony with the rest of the swaying, grinning crowd, only to return to bouncing and leaping when the music kicked back in.

The audience and the band began to feed each other in a loop. The exploratory breakdowns grew longer and longer, becoming an evolving dialog between the crowd and the performers, unifying us all until our emotions rose and fell as one. The lush crimson drapery surrounding us made sense and bouncing against the people around me became communion instead of aggression. I felt like I was moving and singing and pulsating with the crowd almost against my will, beyond the point where I was an individual who had a will, beyond the point where I cared to have one.

The band slowly left the stage one by one with the crowd singing, in harmony, “If the window wasn’t dirty there would be so many colors”. Every throat vibrated with this chorus and continued on unbroken until the band began adding small bits of quiet horn or shaker, weaving them in and out and around the chorus that fell and receded against the stage again and again like saltwater waves to the beach outside. No one wanted it to stop and so it continued, rising and falling, some snapping or whistling around it, but none breaking it up or stopping the flow in any way. We continued on like this for at least fifteen to twenty minutes.

In the south, they would say that we “got church”. To some this probably sounds like a cult gathering about honey bears. An American plains Indian would nod in understanding.

Despite being well past 2:00AM, Zikk started IMing with his father back in Texas, who is apparently up at such random hours. Zikk was explaining that he’d been to “church” and his father refused to accept this. “In order for this to be church there has to be an object of worship. I worship the son of God.” Zikk tried to explain how experiencing great feelings of shared love and light can themselves be worship, and the experience can only be called spiritual. The discussion ultimately broke down over a long standing chasm of understanding.

What we call “church” and what we call “culture” are equally interwoven. While there is always room for any large group of people to argue about which music, writing, or art constitutes a given group’s “culture”, few would argue that these are threads from which the fabric of culture is made. For the people in that room, sharing that experience, there is no question that this music and this experience were culture just as much as another might say the same about classical music hundreds of years old, much of which was originally written for liturgical use.

At the same time that this seemed a profound fact to me, I had a corresponding thought: were not these musicians, magicians, scientists of the emotion really just extremely skilled manipulators of the human brain? Trance music, and its power to move people in a deep way has been used by countless cultures and while modern Americans have tucked it away in warehouses and southern churches, it remains no less powerful. As Jill Taylor described at TED, despite being a brain scientist and being able to analyze what was happening during her stroke, she was no less moved by the awe she experienced when she was suddenly enlightened by a severed connection to her left hemisphere.

The bottom line is that if you get a chance to see Akron/Family live, check it out, and when you find yourself in your church, just breathe it in.