Thursday, March 31, 2011

Prague Pints pt. 1: Playthings & Shadow Paintings

Days Remaining to Next Beer: 350

One day Lindz and I set out from our hotel determined to reach the Prague Castle up on the mountain. The route we chose eventually lead us onto a bridge flanked by huge statues under renovation to clean the surfaces weathered blank by pollution and harsh rain, a slow and delicate process that seemed to time lapse before our eyes as we passed statues not yet touched, then ones roped off and in progress, followed by ones given a fresh lease on life. Musicians and artisans practiced their arts and sold their wares along the sides of the burly bridge. 

There were moments as I looked at the stones beneath my feet, the statues to either side, the waters churning in from the channel to pass by beneath us, hearing the multilingual chatter of passerby, smell foodstuffs and candle wax, hear gypsy fiddle mingling in the air with Germanic horns and Czech percussive prowess. Look up to the highest point in the city and see the spires of the castle pricking the heavens like something out of Army of Darkness. The roofs of rows of buildings knit the foreground, layered pottery tiles like dragon scales or Spanish missions snaking terraces up the slope, folding into self as riddles sometimes do.

We reached the end of the bridge and saw the steep slope leading to the gates of the castle grounds. We heard the lions roar from our stomachs and looked off to the right for signs of lunches to be had, and found a place with plates of sauced perogies fit for king’s horsemen and pilsner pints fair enough to roll down the throats of handmaidens.
Sated and quenched, we leaned towards the ground and strode up the steep slope with purpose. Near the castle gate we discovered a marionette shop that could have easily cost us our life savings had we had one so spend. Such beautiful craftsmanship, no Made in China stickers on the bottoms of the Devil feet we found there. We bid sad farewell to many magical marionette that day, however we didn’t leave empty handed. Our shelves at home warranted long overdue upgrades and we’d little intention of giving one little red wooden devil his suitcase transit due.

Passing through the gates with a paper sack full of devil we head first to the massive chapel where Prague royalty come for weddings, funerals, baptisms, any old excuse for a family get together.  Scaffold wrapped up one side of the structure, more restoration work, acid rain perhaps, or charcoal smoke, or Chernobyl, or the lengthy Russian occupation during U.S.S.R.’s tenure, so much surface to scrub, and there will always be residue in the cracks and seams. 

After a respectful hatless stop inside the cathedral, we wandered on to explore the grounds, the reflecting pools, topiary, statuary, look out points for stealing lover’s kisses by the cupped hand bushel while looking out over a city that reflects various tenants, a long history of different ruling bodies while the city remained standing, evolving, growing, never destroyed by war, never bombed into oblivion or sub-prime unsecured loaned into bankruptcy and foreclosure. Prague viewed from such heights is essentially the opposite of the Detroit downtown skyline for more reasons than simply age or an unusual affinity for stone as an architectural construction material. The city is majestic and somewhat timeless, yet motley and mutated as different cultures have added their spin, their stamp of influence, tacked on neighborhoods and erected their own sideshows of splendor to the landscape.
As we neared the back wall of the compound and began to speak of turning back one of us noticed an odd sign with a picture of a very American style Barbie doll. Curiosity piqued, closer scrutiny revealed that in this back corner bastion of the complex sat the royal toy museum, a place MOMA representatives should visit and take lessons from, as the next two hours of our lives flowed through multiple floors documenting all the highlights of industrial design as tied to entertaining children, be it a massive tin mountain laden with a lit village, clockwork train, and artificial flowing river from the royal children’s collection circa 1880 to a massive celebration of the respective histories of Barbie, Action Man, and GI Joe for the children of the world. 

Stuffed animals, lead figurines, metal race cars riding the slots towards acrylic checkerboard finish lines, pewter, plastics, velvet, wood pulp, wire and straw, rubber tree extract, cast Bakelite, glass marbles, ivory knee board dancers, plush, animatronic, electronic, the most robust and comprehensive anthology of toys through the past century plus, whether hand crafted or mass produced, simply amazing, all the more because the museum, this exquisite manifestation of patience, effort and passion, just sat there waiting to be discovered like a shop of needful things. I left there wondering if another couple round the corner they would discover a building filled to the brim with something their hearts would appreciate, perhaps a wax museum or livestock or talk show hosts or throw pillows or the history of Warner Brothers cartoon music. I didn’t look back to see, why ruin the mystery?

After we made our way back down the hill from the castle we were once again hearing animals grown and bray from our bellies, and after again crossing the bridge and seeing the statues devolve from spic and span clean to under restoration to simply filthy soot black we wandered into an adjacent neighborhood clutching our bellies to quell the wolves growling, licking lips with sandpaper tongues, our throats so dry, parched as Mason parchment, our primal need our Illuminati eye guiding us along this avenue and that lane until we saw a stencil on a wall that stopped us cold, and with eyes uncomprehending the exact meaning, we knew all the same that this mark was as sure as the wooden devils in our pockets where we needed to be.
And so it was that fateful October day we found a place with a view of a stairwell winding up a hill where a smattering of metal people stood here and there along the length posed mid-stride as though waiting for someone to tell them all the light had again gone green. We found the place, and entered full well knowing that we were welcome and had found our haven to recoup from our travels of the day and quell wherever the wild things were inside of us. An artist friendly place with wonderful paintings though out on the walls, floors, ceilings.
We had found the Shadow Cafe, and had ourselves a lounge on low padded benches leaning on short coffee tables with thick wooden tops and square, blocky legs. The engaging energy of Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra’s 2005 CD Live Is A Miracle In Buenos Aires serenade us from box speakers and lead to a subsequent CD store excursion the following day for an album that had become must have.
And the pint that I slurped back as I sat caddy corner to my newly wedded wife had all the intonations of an intricately crafted draft pilsner piped into my glass from the very golden, pulsing heart of Prague itself, as though I’d tapped a vein or siphoned an safe sample of arterial backwash. We discussed the art of the place, snapped pictures, and I grew increasingly interested in creating, drawing, writing, something, the place seemed to called it forth from within all present. The Tank Girl sister tending bar, the pair of beat poets sharing a bench at the far end of the room we were in, or the couple of street artists that came in as we were readying to depart once our cosmic batteries had recharged, snacked consumed, pints politely burp huff wheezed contently after.

The style of art in the place remind me of the bubbly headed work of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, collages that spread from various corners of the room against strong Russian red background hues, strong and iconic yet playful and lively, sometimes obnoxious and crass, other times safe and soothing as baby smiles. Speaking of Takashi Murakami, check out this comprehensive gallery of his work over on Artsy.

The next day we followed our roused muses to a comic book convention, and I’ll recount some anecdotes about that experience later in this series. 


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

diffusing pearls

Days Remaining to Next Beer: 351

The strangest thing about being laid off is the need for a hug you feel when it happens. Not from the HR person with the knit brows trying to offer you one metaphorically through an offer for getting you something, like a coffee, tea, or box of Kleenex. They mean well, yet you just need the hug from someone else, someone not seen as inadvertently hostile, someone outside the management layer. If there's a group of you being let go, perhaps commiseration hugs help ease the sting a bit, yet that's always rung hollow for me too, like cows locked in a rail car bound for the butcher trying to reassure one another that all will be well in the world, just wait until we get outside, hold our  heads up high with nostrils flared to breath a deep lungful of air, and have some schmuck in a smock put a bolt through our brains. 

No, the need for a hug is a deep yearning for someone outside the condition suddenly opened up like a velvet Judy Chicago womb to engulf us to birth us through the other side, with hands like forceps to pull us kicking and screaming out into the harsh reality of unemployment, of lining up interviews and contemplating relocation and rooting around for the details on your mortgage insurance and dreading the call to your Mom. With those same hands to also hold us, close as can, and assure us that despite being found unfit, untenable, redundant, difficult to work with, a right pain in the arse, or however the case might be framed in the affected person's mind, that there is still warm regard for them elsewhere. That spec of objective affirmation can gestate into a glowing tanning bed of assurance, a sunshiny day after a rainy month of Mondays.

Not like a grain of sand turning into a pearl so much, because the pearl is a protective coat built up around the grain to insulate it and cut it off from irritating the fleshy bits of the tasty mollusk. The hug, real or metaphorical, from the right person or people does the opposite, cutting through all the milky excrement ball a wallowing, smarting, self-pity prone, victimized, deflated, insecure, vulnerable, disheveled person swiftly throws up around themselves, a bit of warmth punching through all the shocked white noise like a knitting needle through a dung ball to rescue the peanut of a person cocooned inside, withdrawing and isolating self from further exposure like a bumper nicked cat dragging itself beneath the biggest, nastiest dumpster it can find so no one can ever inflict that much pain on it again, just let it die in peace, inside a self wrought sense of dignity.

What does this have to do with beer, you ask?

Today is the second time I've ever been sacked, for any reason, and not had a pint with friends to commiserate or what have you. Let's break that down some. Well, have I ever been let go before? Yes. Only once ever though for being a rebellious jerk and seeing how far I could push a manger before getting fired. Showing up two and a half hours late with only half a uniform and an afternoon's worth of other plans was how far.

I'd walked my bicycle into the mall, hooked a left, and tread softly along the tall and narrow hallway that fed back into the three screen cinema. The same theater where a year or so earlier I'd sat through Return of the Living Dead twice with my friend Steve. The staff had played the ROLD Official Soundtrack between the showings, and when the usher came in to clean the theater and saw that we'd elected to stay and groove to the likes of the Cramps and TSOL, he'd simply shrugged and said cool. I decided as we left that day that when I turned 16 that cinema would be the place I'd one day earn my wage. How things change after a year of minimum wage employment. Ms. Shannon Kidd, my fiery yet largely fair manager, met me at the island ticket counter, and informed me my services would no longer be required because I had not just shown up late, I'd wilfully missed an entire showing, the 12:45 to 1:15 block, with each film's start time offset by 15 minutes to try to stagger the surges assaulting the box office counter and the concessions counter.

The freestanding counter Ms. Kidd intercepted me at like Little John guarding his bridge was a spot I'd spent many boring afternoons standing around trying to remember all the words to Iggy Pop's "Repo Man" song, and make up a lot of new ones, shifting my weight back and forth like a teenage dinosaur so my legs wouldn't fall asleep since Ms. Kidd wouldn't let anyone use a stool at the island counter when selling tickets. Staring at the Snow White standee long enough to notice one of the dwarves in it had an extra finger on one hand.

The island ticket counter sat like an abandoned astro mech droid at the end of the long, patterned maroon carpeted hallway. It exclusively existed for busy weekends to intercept prospective patrons early, before they moved on to the irresistible concession counter. During the weekdays, tickets would be sold at the concession counter, meaning on really slow nights the same person both sold tickets and shilled popcorn, snacks, and carbonated sugar water. Concessions, that name always amused me, because the term meant both the frivolous food stuffs you'd buy to consume while watching your cinematic feature, yet the term also seemed to indicate the concessions you'd have to make as you pulled far too much money from your purse or wallet to procure said munchies and soda pops. Ms. Kidd had this thing she'd do when she wanted to treat the staff after a busier shift, or when she felt board, or both. She'd ask one of the concessionists of ushers if anything looked wrong in the candy case, perhaps the Junior Mints, or the Twizzlers? I recall staring in to the case long and hard, then leaning back and shaking my head, no, everything looked OK to me, i said. She glared at me as though i were an idiot, same time with a cockeyed smile to tell me there was a joke afoot, before she theatrically pulled a box of candy from the case and made a big show of juggling it as though trying to catch a clumsy mistake before letting the box hit the ground, inevitably denting a side or caving in a corner. "Well, look at that. Clumsy me!" She'd shrug and look at us all, making us now all her unwitting accomplices. "Spoilage!" And then she'd share the contents of the damaged box with everyone while reminding her right hand woman, the assistant manager, to make a note of the spoilage to report with the stats when she phoned them in at the end of the night.

The island counter had a metal flip top riddled with metal flaps the ticket strings fed up through, triggers by pressing metal push buttons numbered to denote how many tickets to spew out before a razor mechanism sliced through the strand with a decisive Kuh-chunk! followed by a raspy Shhhhip! sound as the razor slid through the paper molecules, parting them like brothers beneath a separatist flag. I thought I heard that same sound when a producer came around to find me today. Kuh-chunk! Shhhhip! But I digress.

Tickets at the theater were the same sort of inch wide two inches between perforations, acre long color coded print enumerated paper stands you see at carnivals, or beer tickets portioned out at company events. Each film typically had a corresponding color, as did elderly / children tickets at night versus matinees where everyone costs the same. Matinee shows were like an act of socialism, while after 6 pm shows were segregated, and even more so during the first week or two of a film's playing, where all coupons and vouchers were void for admittance. The tickets were like ammunition belts, and were stacked into thin metal open top boxes that resembled pistol clips. Sliding a fresh stack of tickets into the feeder boxes was always a tense task, both for the risk of overcompensating with the foot tall refill strand of fresh tickets and the risk of slicing fingers open on any of the thin metal edges of the clips or the various clamps and edges of the overall feeder mechanism. More than a few tickets sold at Fayette Mall Cinemas had my blood on the edges.

Everything depended on either counting, or tracking the printed numbers. Drink cups and popcorn cups (this was the pre-bag era) were stacked and counted, and grouped like bundles to expedite counting; drink cups in stacks of 50, the much bigger popcorn cups in stacks of 25. If you looked at the bottom of your cup and saw a number 50 or 25, it was from the top end of the stack. If you popped the lid off and saw Coke syrup grime has browned the rim of the cup, it was on the bottom of the stack. Tickets, because they were numbered, had to be tracked, with a starting and finishing number. Everything had to be counted or accounted for before and after every shift, and if busy after every set of shows let in. Candy had to be counted, and restock counts had to be kept. Everything ended up on a page on a battered and stained brown chip board clip board, date at the top, boxes in columns, with adjacent spaces for notes, and a box on the bottom for noting spoilage, real ones or managerial mishaps. At the end of the business day every theater had to tally and then call in their numbers to head office, thus informing box office receipts and concessions sales. all the cash had been counted, and the cash in hand minus the fixed "banks" kept in the safe to start each day with had better match up to the figures on the sheet. After all that the cash not going into the safe had to be zipped into a lockable deposite bag, and that bag went to a key locked deposit box at the bank at the far end of the mall. Multiple mid-day deposits weren't uncommon during the busy seasons. The last usher would always walk with the female managers when dropping deposits, not safe walking around with a bag full of cash in an empty mall after hours. With everything being cash only, a sold out show for a 400 seat house plus concessions meant a pot belly pig of a deposit bag to send squealling all the way home.

Something I liked about the all cash system, particularly since the concessions counter didn't have cash registers, came from the need for a system teenagers would be less likely to fubar under duress as the frenzied throngs of movie going barbarians stormed their gates and demanded service in time for the trailers. So at some point long before I started working their on my 16th birthday someone clever had decided to make a little sign that said simply "taxes included in price" and affix that sign to the front of the center pop fountain. That clause allowed all of the prices for everything to be multiples of a quarter. No pennies, no nickels, no dimes. Just quarters and whole dollars. I believe that even now, in a progressively more and more cashless society, all businesses and government should find ways to round everything out so cleanly. I don't mean interest percentages or capital gains so much, just banal things like cups of coffee or bag of pork rinds. There is no reason at all that Starbucks has a $2.53 cup of coffee. Is it really that difficult to sort out a price that with tax rounds out nicely?

After Ms. Kidd let me go, I went for a long ride, enjoyed my freedom until about an hour later when I realized I might have shirked off the shackles of an oppressive employment situation, yet fact remained I still needed income, and I knew i weren't nearly cute enough to get by on my looks or athletically skilled enough to get bankrolled by a collegiate booster sponsor. I went to visit my friends that worked at the cinema across the street, a newer freestanding eight plex that had enclosed box offices and state of the art platters systems in the projection booth. They suggested I ask their manager for a job, and tell her I'd left the other theater, spin my termination as a deliberate act, which fair enough it had kind of been an act of defiance, just not the sort they intended me to make it. I'd been defiant because I was

bored and had perceived rightly the diminishing return that is being 17 and working for a mall cinema without becoming a manger or projectionist. I had become great friends with the key projectionist, a mister Reginald Forest, a gentleman and a scholar, and a cat I'll write an entire post about another day. Mostly, though, I'd become bored, and teenagers plus boredom equals all sorts of mischief and hootenanny. I met with the manager of Southpark Cinemas, the sister cinema to Northpark Cinemas, the one on the far side of town famous for

having been driven into by a semi trucker angered over not receiving a full refund after watching 3/4ths of a film and deciding it was crap. He managed to drive 3/4ths of his tractor into the lobby, though slowly doing so as the roof of his rig peeled away against the concrete roof that covers the sidewalk leading to the cinema's box office. telling her I'd quit the mall cinema through getting myself fired as an act of defiance against Ms. Kidd's oppressive managerial techniques won me the gold stars with Southpark's Big Bertha of a manager just as my friends had advised, as this manager had some deep beef with Ms. Kidd and viewed hiring me as a chance to thumb her nose across the belt line at Ms. Kidd sitting over there all high and mighty in the mall.

I felt a pang of guilt almost immediately, felt as though I'd sold Ms. Kidd out to get ahead, or at least, get a new gig working with way more girls and boys my age, some of whom had uncanny access to things like beer via their frat boy older brothers. One girl taught me how to drive in her hand me down Celica so that I could chauffeur her and her college age friend when the two of them got too wobbly on Peach Schnapps. Driving them around dark city streets the couple times I did felt like the Chauffeur in a Duran Duran song, there on Planet Earth, and didn't even occur to me to get past awe or feeling fortunate like the kids Tom Sawyer convinced to white wash the fence to develop a crush on her, though i did let her talk me into going to a pledge party mid-day BBQ at her brother's fraternity at the end of summer before I began college, everyone was very nice and I was way under-dressed and feeling like a John Hughes character. They played Jarts, which felt so edgy to me then since Jarts went off the market years earlier after impaling a kid and making them like animals more than railway work or something like that.

I recall driving that particular girl once to the grocery store, still awed by her but viewing her as so far out of my class as to have positioned myself into the role of either eunuch or gay friend, not sure which, and as we walked along the aisles looking for whatever she thought of or remembered suddenly like Helena Bonham Carter on a support group bender I suddenly wondered if this is what marriage felt like, this banality, what one moment had felt so awe inspiring, so I'm not worthy to step on your shadow under merciless florescent lighting between shelves laden with canned peas or boxes applicator tampons  suddenly transformed into something so mundane, so common. after that I drove her home in her car, she fell asleep in the passenger seat. I parked the car in her wide driveway behind her parents van, tried to nudge her awake, got a whiny grunt and sleepy deep breathing, pulled her jacket from the back seat, immediately ascertainable thanks to the compact Flinstones-mobile nature of the Celica, covered her up, whispered good night, locked the car doors and her inside it, and walked home in the dark feeling like I'd probably finished my career as a chauffeur.

A couple years later I took a film criticism class, and quickly discovered my breadth of exposure to of 80's films would do very little to assure that sure A I'd thought I'd be getting oh so easily. Competing theaters had a friendly agreement to let employees from one company attend shows at the other as long as it wasn't opening week or typically on Friday or Saturday, though there were exceptions and manager discretion prevailed always. Since I could effectively see anything I wanted for free, I saw basically everything, sometimes 3 films in a row on my days off. The moment of enlightenment of a sort for me came with watching and analyzing David Lynch's Blue Velvet. I'd been floundering and largely lacking the depth of worldliness, or cultural diversity, or classical viewing, or critical exposure to get better than low B marks on my papers so far. And that was after trying, something I'd been hit or miss about, lackadaisical even with English sorts of papers. You might even say cocky, and this film criticism class was handing me my ass ala mode on a heaping helping of humility pie.

David Lynch's Blue Velvet changed all that. because somewhere in the flow of the post viewing discussion a flashback happened. Kids were discussing, and the Gene Shallot style mustachioed instructor egging on, the real meanings of the violence in the film, the tone, to lead to the ending as it did. What did it all mean? And as I stared at my knuckles feeling stupid and unwanted and desperately in need of a hug i remembered trolling the grocery store with the girl and suddenly not finding myself in awe anymore, and upon finding the situation boring, electing to change my situation. I kept my hand down and worked the idea into an opinion, an assessment, and eventually, into critical thought. I layered it up into a pearl if I might invoke the mollusk metaphor again. And I wrote out my theory and included my explanations for my perceptions as counterpoint, that the film is charting a person's journey of discovery through something initially shocking and dangerous until he fully understands the constraints of it, and the limits of it, and the repetition of it, enough to find it banal, boring, and elect to take action to change it, and to confront how something inherently dangerous becomes more so when challenged or threatened.

Might not be Ebert caliber, but it netted me my first A in the class, and taught me to begin trying to understand and interpret things by relating them as best I can to my own experiences, if I can. And meantime, work really hard on garnering more experiences to compare against, through travel, friends, reading, vicariously through the shared experiences of others, etc.

And that brings us full circle to the point of this post. When unfortunate circumstances happen that leave me feeling vulnerable or alone, the need for some sort of impartial validation is like air for drowning, it's essential, imperative, maybe more like air for a spark on kindling, fuel for stoking a fire that can rebuild confidence. For me beer has often been a part of the first stages of the healing process, basically have a pint with friends and bitch a bit, have another and find something to laugh about. Feel more relaxed, get some rest, and start out fresh the next day with the rest of life ahead of you. Let me be clear, beer is much less useful as a curl up on a sofa in a basement with a two four and drink your troubles away part, or as a double-fisting pitchers life of the party until a bouncer tossed you teeth first onto a curb for trying to liberate some woman's coat so you can tango with it on the bar. I've written before that beer is best when part of occasions shared with friends and family. Getting let go is certainly one such occasion, and a great pint can be a handy way to open up and let your concerns and disappointments flow out so some healthy healing can begin. Just remember that when you're fragile that moderation is key.

After Symantec let a whole lot of us go after only one day on the phones, I felt seriously sorry for myself and tried to bolster my spirits with an excessive number of pints. First mistake is that instead of getting together with more impartial friends or family I went to a Mexican joint a block away from Symantec's big office in downtown Eugene with a slew of the fellow lay offs and a couple still employed, including a manager in a wheelchair. If you're in a wheelchair, and drinking alcohol causes you to have seizures, maybe don't drink alcohol, just a thought. Mistake one, everyone there is cocooning into balls of self-pity and or loathing. Doing that as a group exercise isn't any better. Second mistake, having management there. Fosters a weirdly passive aggressive aspect to the conversations, people begin fostering

some naive hope something they wittily or poignantly say will earn them favor to get back into the forbidden city, or get paranoid that everything they say will be recounted at their expense by the obvious mole in their midst. Third mistake, no life lines present, no one there that isn't involved somehow. No impartial spectators, no referees. Three sodden hours later my friends finally come to haul me out of that ceaseless cesspool of crummy commiseration and get me home to air me out. Net gain, less than zero. Not Symantec's fault, not my former coworker's fault, not beer's fault. My fault. Picked the wrong square-dance to go to for a person in my circumstances, and the results were abysmal.

So while I seldom get laid off, when I do, I drink moderately, and only with people that really care for me to know I'm not worthless.

And for the record, today I'm having tea Lindz procured in Montreal. Very soothing stuff.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The White Horse that managed to drag us away - Part Two

Days Remaining to Next Beer: 352

While we spent a short time in White Horse, we made the most of our time there, exploring the landscape, getting the lay of the land, watching the cattle slowly graze along the valley floor laced with ribbons of morning  mist. It's the sort of place where people stop by the tavern to see if anyone has seen a loose horse run by and to confirm the time for the Rugby finals to be shown on the big screen the next night in the tavern.

We visited a horse farm where I ran amok snapping loads of pictures around the barns barns and sheds with my 12" pal while the Missus and my friends checked out the horses and chat with the stable owner's daughter. And with horses there come a regular occurrence of horse droppings dotting the landscape. Boomer loves horses, and loves their deposits even more. Can you tell I'm writing this sitting in an airport in Montreal, and that I miss our 100 pound mutt?

The property had more than horse stables, though, and that's what made me so excited. Sarah and David had firmly instructed me to bring my1/6th scale pal along for the excursion, and once there assured me that since their wonderful little cottage belonged to the wonderful family that owned the ranch, for lack of a better term, we had free run of the place as long as nothing ended up collapsing or on fire. And so I and my 12 inch mascot began to explore the work sheds and barns and fence rows and storage buildings, discovering new and exciting things around every turn.

On building had several ancient vehicles, a domestic family sedan, a vintage tractor, all in good shape though over grown a bit and fringed with my favorite second favorite color, rust. My absolute favorite color is oxygen starved River's Edge, Twin Peaks Laura Palmer wrapped in plastic expensive and elitist hue of paint to make during the Renaissance blue.

Another structure with angular holes through with god rays of sunshine poured, transforming flecks of drifting pollen and dust in the air into dancing fireflies when they passed through the shafts of fiery illumination, held a collection of tools, wood working machines, and abandoned old kitchen and laundry machines. Seemed like you could fling or drop the doll almost anywhere and create a composition that at least caused a chuckle. Despite the scale differential, the playground of archaic machines and tools support scene after scene of a diminutive protagonist negotiating a wonderful landscape with nary a fear of tetanus, lock jaw, or premature digital detachments.

For one outings, our friends took us to a public house of some regional notoriety, the Prince of Wales in Shrivenham. Walking in we passed a gent wearing a t-shirt that on the back asked the obvious question, how's my drinking? Inside the place I learned that the shirt is a strange sort of promotional traveling gnome sort of thing, that folks that like the place buy the shirt, and when they travel to places abroad, they send back photos for the owner / operator to hang up on the wall of fame / shame.

I bought a shirt and subsequently sent them snaps of the shirt in action in Paris, Prague, Vancouver, and I think possibly also Stockholm.

Another odd thing the management of the Prince of Wales saw fit to adopt as policy is to graphical demonstrate a green practice, and that manifest through throwing spent or emptied crisps bags into the eternally roaring fireplace.

The management felt this would help demonstrate to the locals a benefit of only serving crisps or chips in bags from companies using the newer corn based bags that are supposed to be bio-degradable, meaning, the bags will also burn away clean and possibly look really cool doing so.
After exploring some of the local area, Sarah took us to Oxford to see a public house known as the White Horse Duke of York that had remained open and in operation since the 16oos. A spot by the heart of campus that had gotten generation after generation of Freshmen drunk celebrating exams or simply celebrating the weather. A narrow, wood laden space that reeked of what could only be described as primordial pints, entering and stepping down the steep stairs, you couldn't help feeling like I was stepping down into the berth of a ship, bar along the length of one side, narrow seats and tables lining the other where cannons could conceivable once been were this actually a vessel at sea.

Dexterous wait staff whisked food and pints through the throng of students and regulars, and I wondered where the kitchen was, a question soon answered when a bell rang, the barman hollered the all clear "mind the gap" and heave-hauled the floor plane up behind the bar on a hing, revealing another, even narrower stairs in the form of a sloped step ladder the sort you might expect to climb up into an attic with. Shrouded in a rising billow of steam, a waitress emerged carring twice her body weight of grub and bar back supplies, scooting out from behind bar while the barman let the hinged plank with the rubber grid nailed to the top clomp back down so he could resume attending the standing room only guests down the length of the bar.

Sarah pointed out the massive book on the bar, one of several, a registry where visitors could leave a note and tell where the herald from. Leafing through the large, beer tinged tome, I spot signatures, names, notes, and doodles from places far farther away than our Vancouver. Japan, Australia, Nepal, Texas, Rio, Isreal. So many notes, languages, even the occasional taped in snapshot. There are dozens of those books, I discover, going back years and years since someone had the notion to keep a registry at the bar. So of course I spent the next hour doing a doodle in the newest installment of the book, fueled by some of the finest pints in all of the Queen's country.

The night before we bid our friends and White Horse a sad farewell, the world's Rugby finals were having their culminating match in France, the teams were South Africa went head to head with England, and we were able to be wall flowers while the entire local village descend on the B & B's tavern to watch the game projected across the full back wall of the place from an HD projector via a live satellite feed. I've never cared more about a Rugby game since watching our friend Reuben play back in high school before we all went our separate ways. Pint raised for you, Reuben, you're missed by many, myself included.

We enjoyed pulled pints, pot pies, loud peoples, and more of the same, please. A hoot of an evening, and one for the proverbial books. Hell of a way to kick off a honeymoon, and my deepest thanks to my friends Sarah , David, and the owners of the White Horse Bed & Breakfast for showing us such a grand, eternally memorable time!


Sunday, March 27, 2011

The White Horse that managed to drag us away - Part One

  Days Remaining to Next Beer: 353

After getting married a most folks take some sort of honeymoon. Some travel to wonderfully burly amusement parks like Ceder Point, others visit relatives in neighboring counties, and others like us hop a plane and fly the friendly skies (and suffer the unfriendly airport security protocols) to reach exotic locales abroad.

Our honeymoon landed us initially in London for an overnight in a business hotel that seemed to cater largely to Italian and Spanish businessmen. After a delightful ride in the distinctly spacious back of a black London cab, a style of luggage friendly vehicle versus footprint I'd like to see adopted in North America, we stashed our bags at the hotel and set out to find a proper English pint. minutes later we did, as sat outside a cute corner pub at a park bench picnic table where I could have a puff and we could watch the passerby while we wore off that loopy euphoria lengthy air travel leaves you with.

The next day we slipped out early for a proper English breakfast, finding it in a public house accessible from two streets that at best were alleys but to my American sense of scale seemed like crew access corridors for people needed to reach the plumbing or some such. Narrow streets with tiny service and delivery trucks whisking along them.The plate of food that hit the table, with the seared mushroom cap, fried tomato halves, backed beans, back bacon ham slices, grease bleeding bangers, eggs, and grainy toast were the stuff any good hangover needs. I recall the public house's water closet, accessible via winding flights of narrow stairwells carpeted and wallpapered in some era when maroon with gold patterns and flecks meant something, was the sort of toilet that needed a tank mounted way up high on the wall with a pull chain to flush it. Believe that's the first one I'd ever seen in person, reminded me of the fly paparazzi harassing and spying on the sick bunny in Meet the Feebles. "Got one leg missing, how do I get around..."

The Missus and I whiled away the morning exploring the nearby sights and scenes, Buckingham Palace, a military history shop specializing in metal Britain's figurines wherein I picked up a gift for my Dad and WW2 a field reporter figure typing up his report with a vintage typewriter set onto a stump presumably a stone's throw away from all the action, and a killer toy store well decked out for Halloween & Guy Fox Day that had wonderful toys I'd not encountered before and wish I could teleport back to visit with now.

We eventually returned to the businessman's hotel, fetched our gear, and head off into bustling train system to rumble the rails out to Oxfordshire, specifically a quiet, quaint little spot called White Horse. Here's a thing, if you see Ridley Scott's adaptation of Robin Hood, you'll see White Horse mentioned, however, apparently no one on the crew bothered to Google map White Horse, or it's proximity to the shore, or search Flickr for people's photos of the actual horse on the hillside the village is named after. Perhaps the film makers thought Americans would be too ill traveled or otherwise apathetic as to bother investigating the English landscape further to fact fund after seeing the film. The film presents a massive, bloated as though with foal white horse silhouette that in only a drunk might mistake for the real thing were they to see it at a party.

The actual White Horse is an aboriginal style hieroglyphic depiction of a horse, a stylized, sleek and slender, utterly sultry affair that can best be spotted from a distance, especially the distance afforded from flying by in a plane. And it's been that way for centuries, from way before Robin of Locksley ever threaded a bow or called any sort of John "little".

White Horse amounts to a heap of firsts for me. First time to see houses with thatched roofs, causing images of Smurfs to springs to mind. First time to meet my long time friend Sarah's husband David, or for Lindz to meet either of them in person. First time to stay in a English Bed and Breakfast, wish we could take Boomer there, our 100 pound dog, he'd go mental.

And first time I ever had a pint pulled, literally pulled, from the keg at the tap. It is a magical, beautiful thing to behold, and fortunately on the afternoon this happened shortly after Sarah dropped us at the B & B to check in and deposit our suitcases in our appointed room the public house portion of the B & B stood fireplace warmed and otherwise empty. What better way to celebrate finally arriving in White Horse but with a pint, and oh what a pint it turned out to be. A couple owns the B & B, and the husband poured that mighty pint, explaining as he went his choices about keeping and maintaining the taps as they were when his wife and he had take ownership of the place and begun to renovate. He liked the sense of tradition, and that all the parts were locally serviceable. Most of all, though, he liked that the pint, ale or bitter, simply tasted better than something pumped full with bubbles by a machine. He worked the pump arm slowly and deliberately as though pulling water from the Earth to give parched desert explorers some reprieve. He wiped the side quickly with a bar towel and slid the pint across a counter top older than the United States to the very hands I fought to keep from shaking in the face of such history, tradition, and quality.

The pint tasted like a first kiss, something in a summer field near a fence, while other children play and the girl of your secret dreams finally decides to give you another reason to continue living. The second sip tasted like the fronds of a massive willow tracing circles on the surface of a clear, steadily flowing creek, the sort of rippling waters that slip over rounded rocks crawdads slumber fitfully beneath, the sort river spiders dance across, pairing their legs to only seem to have four, wearing teardrops for moccasins and whirling like dervishes across the shallows while boatman bugs paddle by beneath them on urgent errands all. the third sip tasted like a need to hug friends, and so I did, any I could find, and the fourth tasted like a need to find more friends, simply to hug them and tell them they have helped to make your world magically delicious, if for nothing else than their simply existing within my humble context.

Fortunately my wife and friends, and the management of the place, shared my enthusiasm and all was good in the world. Even the large family dog had a grin. Did I mention their tavern allowed dogs? Again, Boomer would love the allowances and appreciations of the fine folks and fields filling the English countryside.

Continued tomorrow in White Horse... - Part Two

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Radical Beer: Part Deux

 Days Remaining to Next Beer: 354

Radical was my professional home for about six years. Sometimes, Radical was also my extended home, and many coworkers surrogate family members, with all the hugs and spats of siblings and country cousins of course. And one of the many aspects of Radical that made working there so dear to me is that while many companies brag loudly while pointing a Power Point presentations about their rich and wonderful corporate cultures, Radical actually had culture, and one of the many ingredients that helped to glue together such culture was beer. Not alcohol as an opiate of the masses sort of ingredient, nor a bribe the barbarians with beer and they burst through the barricades sort of grind house ingredient. Rather, beer served along side several ingredients to both reward hard efforts and, I would venture more importantly, as a catalyst for creating comfortable casual social interaction, the very core of culture.

Perhaps I felt immediately at home at Radical from the moment I walked off the elevator and followed the hallway to a locked door, and since I didn't have a key card or fob, I followed the hallway the other way to where opened up onto a balcony overlooking what I later learned was called the Great Room. Great indeed, particularly because across the way at the far end of that expansive space sat a full, complete, and utterly eerily familiar sight, a log cabin. Not dissimilar from the one in the park I played in as a child that claimed to be a replica of the one Daniel Boone had been born in, though idealized as though assembled from giant Lincoln Logs, a toy named after another cabin that also once housed someone famous during their formative years, though I've heard the yarns of a three-walled cabin were folk tales, a good thing since as a kid upon hearing those stories I thought it odd anyone would make a man president that came from a family too disingenuous as to erect a cabin to protect from hostile elements yet leave one wall off as though worried they'd miss the bus.

Speaking of cool cabins, my Granny Lou lived in a cabin across a two lane highway from the Milligan College campus and two doors down from our stucco sheathed house, a facade skin bristling with razor sharp seashell shapes. Granny Lou's cabin had been built from oily black rail road ties recovered sometime after the New Deal became old news. The mortar between the ties had been white, so at first glance I'd thought momentarily the cabin had been constructed from giant Oreo cookies. Granny Lou used a wood burning stove to cook, so even at the height of summer black smoke puffed and wafted gently from a crooked pipe jutting from her A-frame roof as she prepared blackberry pies and other delectable treats worth pretending to be sick as school for so you could be fetched by a parental unit and deposited in Granny Lou's kitchen for looking after while the parent returned to work. Her chicken noodle soup, all scratch made short of raising the chicken, better than anything from a can, and her chicken and dumplings, my oh my, Cracker Barrel is a pale comparison, though great for bringing back memories of our Granny Lou.

The home of Radical's log cabin, the Great Room, is also where the Town Hall meetings occurred roughly every month or three. Town Hall meetings were opportunities for management to call all the company employees into one centralized space for announcements and updates, to hand out plaques, celebrate accomplishments, and acknowledge anniversaries. The development teams could show project clips, concept art, tech or playable demos, and talk about their production progress. ATG, Radical's core technology group could show hints of futures possible, shooting tiny Tony Montana statues into shattering towers of glass and stone to demonstrate dynamic physics, destruction, and contextually driven mass to impulse reactions. HR could talk about the new benefits packages while Recruiting could remind folks of the referral bonuses waiting to be had.

Town Hall did more than this, though. Town Hall pulled everyone away from their desks and problems, gathered them together to encourage everyone to take a moment, breathe, look away from screens and bleating machines and remember that games are made for people by people, and while one might not always make games, when one does, one might also want a beer. Stay thirsty, friends. Like the scene in Starship Troopers when Michael Ironsides show's up after a hard day out slaughtering Tea Party sized bugs with several pallets of military crates that open up to reveal a day-glow violin and kegs of beer, Radical had a set of taps built into a bar on wheels that sat like an alter in the Great Room day in and day out silently promising robust rewards for hard work, and at the Town Hall event those taps sprang to life, tricky mistresses though they were requiring a firm hand and a steadily tilted glass lest your glass fill with nothing but foam, and for the impromptu bar master that happens to know how to pour a headless pint, he who controls the pour, controls the universe.

As the Town Hall about to commence email arrived into everyone's in-box footsteps could already be heard thundering up the stairwells while the elevator doors parted to release a spill of bodies appearing to crave front row seats for The Who in Cincinnati, 1979. Snacks lined the kitchen island, sometimes healthy, sometimes finger staining Cheez-Its, platters of ridged for our pleasure Ruffles, and upended buckets of Onion Dip. If large unmarked corrugated cardboard boxes sat on the porch of the log cabin, plaques were going out, an exciting time for everyone because plaques meant something had sold another million copies, would it be something I worked on? Would they remember I worked on that? Did they mistakenly think I worked on it? I have plaques for Scarface and Crash of the Titans, each has an image and a disc clamped between two thick planes of Plexiglas secured by four industrial bolts, one at every corner. If zombies were to attack my home, either would make for a handy bludgeon. Otherwise they look damn spiffy up on my office shelf.

Not every cardboard box stacked on that porch contained plagues, however. One time they contained bottle upon bottle of champagne to celebrate the purchase of Radical by Vivendi, the culmination of a courtship that had kept people guessing for months. I honestly can't recall if the champagne were good or subsequently re-gifted. I do remember that was the first time Radical had stocked an amber on tap, and after a 70 hour work week, hell of a grand way to kick off a weekend.

Radical and beer have other joint appearances. One is on team outings, such as the now legendary scavenger hunt my wife's team embarked on to build better understanding among contributors to the the project now known as Prototype. After a day of groups adorned in color coordinated t-shirts cavorting throughout the downtown core trying to work out clues and locate items, imagine the mayhem that converged on a sleepy, unassuming, utterly unsuspecting pub at the edge of Gastown. When I joined them, an honorary member of the Hairclub family thanks to my wife and the number of them that had come from my Scarface crew, many of them were nearly comatose from a long day of running themselves ragged trying to get all the items on the scavenger hunt list, while others were almost equally exhausted for collectively electing to shirk the contest and sequester their group somewhere safe for the day to chit and to chat and ultimately, whether winning or forfeiting the contest, managing to accomplish the goal of the day, that of improving interpersonal communication and interdisciplinary exchange through better mutual understanding. I arrived to a bevy of jovial faces, of artists sitting with programmers, members of QA sharing hots with tech leads, production managers handing out drink tickets while animators bought old and new friends rounds.

And I sat on the narrow patio with Russel, the dynamic character with the helicopter logger history and the hair like Christopher Lloyd on Taxi. The man that climbed an I-beam in the Great Room and dangled by one arm from the exposed ceiling girders two stories over our heads. The man that tried to merge pool with golf, also in the Great Room. The man that concocted the hexadecimal tiling system that inspired the revolutionized streaming system that made Hulk: Ultimate Destruction's world space viable. The man that afternoon on the patio turned me on to big green flip top bottle Grolsch beer. Sitting with Russel and his pal Danny, a world builder that formerly built commissioned cardboard and plastic scale replicas of architectural designs for downtown towers, I felt for the first time like I'd found my community, albeit a rather bohemian lot on the upswing of an industry still in it's relative infancy. Like Henry Miller gumming in Paris and fleeing joints after his pal had dropped a toxic deposit into a bidet, that afternoon was beautiful and certain to have stories for some folks, though none horrible or reckless or condemnable beyond ensuring no one drove home blitzed. I may have been a wallflower, as I had the great fortune to be for many Hairclub outings, however I can confidently testify to the strength of the bonds those outings built, the easing of personal boundaries and reductions of prospective workspace misunderstandings.

I'm not saying for a team to get along and be productive they need to run out and get shitfaced at the first pub they find. What I am saying is that for Radical folks social outings helped coworkers better collaborate inside the workplace because they knew each other better. I'm also not advocating the required drinking session after work a lot of Korean and Japanese businesses reportedly expect from their office men and women. Not at all. The events need to be seen as rewards, privileges even, and utterly voluntary. Frankly, nothing is gained if people don't want to be there.

I definitely think there are times when functional groups need to get out of the disctractions of the office to better put their heads together and work out what needs to get sorted. From my experience, a tremendous amount of design got worked out, often with hefty and mostly healthy debate, over the patio table at one pub or another with a pitcher of beer catching sunlight in the center of the table. Is beer necessary for great design? No, not at all. Beer might help take the edge off folks so they open up for ideas, discourse, to present content or criticisms they might otherwise hold back. However, from my experience, beer does not help with actual implementation or task completion. Great for brainstorming and churning through a myriad bits of minutia, however horrible for scoping or focus testing because beer can add a rosy tint to things that might cloud or misguide judgment. Wake up and find out you just cut cars out of your automotive racing game. Oops.

Radical and beer hang together for office parties. There were a few versions of office parties at Radical, though most weren't actually held in the office. One is the wrap party, another is a milestone party, and the last is the holiday party.

Over my time there, Radical hosted year end holiday parties both on site in the Great Room and off sight at exotic places like downtown pubs or the round reception area on the top floor of a downtown hotel. While the off campus events were fine, I actually preferred the on-site events because they felt like upscale Town Halls to me, with the added bonuses of people dressing up some and bringing their partners, wives, BFFs, what have you. Always an interesting test of character to bridal your gut response to seeing the unexpected at bring-a-date events, and a hoot to meet the people that influence or even sometimes subdue the firecrackers you work with day to day. My favorite memories of in-house holiday parties at Radical were winning an early round of Texas Hold 'Em at the casino tables Radical had hired in, and the memory of unlimited oyster shooters that tasted like suckling on Heaven.


Milestone parties were generally in house, more specifically, in team space. Hitting a meaningful milestone is always a big deal, and often on the more ambitious projects you would arrive on milestone ship date feeling like you were Steve Austin on fire tumbling down the Cape Canaveral landing strip. Like a Michael Ironsides moment, startled faces look up as a production manager or producer slams a two four or case of bottled brew down on a vacant work desk and announces work well done, time to celebrate. Sometimes, on rare occasion, the beer arrived simply because an inordinate amount of overtime had been worked by enough people, as a sort of thanks, and please keep working sort of bribe. Not often, however beer can grease the wheels of progress on occasion. Just be sure to lock Perforce after the beer arrives or strange things might end up afoot at the proverbial Circle K.

The Main Event, the Big Kahuna, is the Wrap Party. Shipping a game is like collectively giving birth, a momentous occasion that warrants phone calls, passed cigars, and glasses raised for toasts aplenty. Radical knew how to make wrap parties memorable, and the people organizing them took what budgets they were afforded to try their best to make every celebratory experience unique. Hulk: Ultimate Destruction occupied the Vancouver Aquarium and threw down with Beluga Whales for a backdrop. Scarface: The World Is Yours locked down and fully occupied a security guarded glass fronted shotgun joint on Granville typically reserved for jet setters and underage supermodel American Idol wannabes. Crash Bandicoot reserved a dock side clubhouse and let us pick the tunes to pipe in. Prototype brought in a full pig roast and held Stanley Park's Boat Club at bay (pardon the pun) well into the wee hours of the morning. That party should've lasted a week.


People danced, sang, hugged, toasted, milled, mixed, and rinsed, lathered, repeated. Sometimes beer tickets, sometimes open bars. All filled with celebration, with relief, with the full well knowledge that other projects died mid-term, others got canceled, team mates were lost, others went away. Next week there might be less teams, next fiscal quarter the studio could become vapor, the next title request shovel ware. Party like it's 1999 and for all tomorrow's parties as well, all within this moment on  this momentous day, when the game is finished, placed in a wicker basket on the river to replication, raise a glass and toast as you watch your baby sail away.

Six years is a long time to be in prison, and an even longer time to work in a single game studio. All companies have core staff that remain for the long haul, often for the full life of the studios, however the business of making games is trending to different circumstances that make maintaining a sense of community culture in a studio difficult. As publishers and developers look for places to cinch their belts tighter, contractors comprise larger percentages of development teams, and temporary employees don't empower a culture of greater whole. How emotionally invested do you get into a company when you're not a full time hire? When you have no benefits? When your contract can lapse and you have to hit the street again? You might care about your project and give it everything you can to leave your best stamp on it to better help you land your next gig, however that is about you and the project, not the company, not contributing to a culture of shared risk or consideration for the success of the greater organism, er- organization as a whole.

At Black Box and subsequently at EA when Black Box got called back to the "Mothership" in Burnaby, Beer & Cake happened every Friday afternoon at 4 pm and people gathered to get their drink on and chat up their pals before heading off for their weekends. On the surface, this sounds like Town Hall, and to some extent, it served the same function, getting people to come together and converse and enjoy a treat for all their hard efforts. Except a couple things were different, and struck me as deficiencies though I'd wager many folks having only known EA as an employer might beg to differ.

First problem, the regularity and frequency. Part of the charm of Town Hall was the unpredictability of it. Didn't happen every week, or every month necessarily, and the line-up for presentations or what have you varied. Curiosity drew folks in as well as free pints and treats, excitement about other projects from other teams and floors, questions about relationships with publishers, the merger, etc.

Also, the food, and sometimes the type of beer, varied from one Town Hall to the next. Cake is great even if it reminds me of Eddie Izzard, Marie-Antoinette, or Rome. Actually, panem et circenses does seem appropriate when I recall the weekly Beer & Cake, particularly because unlike the Great Room which had a large open space to better facilitate intermingling, the Black Box social space was compartmentalized, not unlike Colosseum box seats and that narrow trough flow of stadium rows, encouraging people to clump into cliques and shout at one another over the turned up digital DJ racket.


Regularly enough to take for granted free beer and tasty treats in an environment that subdivides or alienates people doesn't quite inspire me to hang about waiting to be noticed or to try to interject myself into people's conversations. Felt like the high school lunch room all over again, freshly moved to Kentucky from Tennessee and the only person talking to me is the neckless mono-tooth letter jacket Neanderthal wanting access to the seat I'm about to sit on that he'd claimed by line of sight from the lunch line some ten minutes back, with his pals standing behind him wondering if I knew the lay of the land, or needed to be laid down in it yet? Think Heathers, think Breakfast Club, thinking I'm too old to play reindeer games for a free pint. Instead I found myself stealing down, grabbing a pint and a snack, perhaps stopping to chat with the couple people I knew before heading back upstairs to wrap up for the night or to play some Left 4 Dead with my coworkers.

My crew at Next level Games has a handful of old souls from the school of Radical that predates even my years there. They have monthly Town Hall sorts of Announcements and Birthdays all hands sessions in their lunchroom and my team's producers bring in beer to celebrate significant milestones and to reward the hard work people put when the hours went long and weary asses fell off a week ago. The key difference, really, is that the nature of the games NLG makes historically cater to a different demographic that Radical, skew younger and more towards Japanese sensibilities. Not a thing wrong with that, every place is different, and more the better for that, I suspect. A fair bit of NLG's staff is contract based, changes the tone some from a situation where majority of the staff are full time hires. Still, there is a warm and fuzzy core to NLG's culture, and can't help but think some of that is contributed by the Radical veterans in the midst.

Radical and beer, the stuff some damn fine dreams were made of.