Year Two


I left Google exactly a year ago today, which also means today marks the first birthday of this blog. But rather than look backwards at the year that was (as awesome as it was), I’m going to look forwards and celebrate the beginning of Year Two. Admittedly, when I started this blog, I had no idea whether there’d even be a Year Two. Hell, when I came down from the woods three months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you if there’d be an Year Two. I might’ve told you that there was a good chance it’d just be Laptop in a Cubicle in 2010…

But here we are. It’s March. The days are growing longer, and even in this foggy city of San Francisco where I found myself taking refuge for the winter, the sun is starting to make itself conspicuous, more often than not. And like a bear awakening from hibernation, I can feel my heart stir. My mind, more so than in weeks past, is drifting back towards Serenity Valley. If there was any doubt in my mind whether I’d go back when I came down from the mountains in November, cold, filthy, and broke, there’s no longer any doubt. I’m going back. With my laptop and a rifle, I’ll go again.

I’ll also bring some soil and gardening equipment. My goal for this year is to start a garden, and the planting season is rapidly approaching. And so is the dry season. That means I need to start collecting water. The area gets 3.5 to 4 inches of rain in March, a little under 2 in April, around 1.5 in May, then less than an inch for a few months after that. So, I need to go set up a water collection system soon. Even then, I might not be able to collect that much water, but hopefully I’ll get enough for a tiny garden. At the very least, I’m sure I’ll learn a thing or two, and probably have some fun.

The tentative plan is to make it out there once this month to setup a water collection system, then go back next month to start a garden. I’m doing some traveling in May, but hopefully I can spend most of the summer months up there. There’s a lot to figure out in the mean time, but I’ll be sure to keep the blog updated… Welcome to Year Two.

Hi. Who are you? Where are you from?

Blog Stats... see the rocket launch?

Blog Stats... see the rocket launch?

So, what you see above is my blog’s stats as shown to me by WordPress. See how that line goes up steeply and sharply starting around the 17th (the day I posted News From Serenity Valley)? That’s what we in our biz call an organic viral growth pattern. You get that kind of curve when people come check out your site, then tell other people about it, causing, on average, more than one person to visit and the cycle continues. So. If you’re here on this blog for the first time, leave a comment and let me know how and where you learned about this site. I’m just curious. I won’t bite. Thanks!

In other news, I’ve been chillin’ in Tahoe with my parents. I’m eager to get back to Serenity Valley, but my parents are visiting from Japan and I only get to see them a few times a year (if even that), and seeing how they’re getting old and all, I should spend time with them when I can. Serenity Valley will be there for a while.

I’m currently planning on getting back out there on the 23rd (assuming my generator gets repaired) and then you should get a steady stream of updates every few days (or however often I decide to go to town to get internet access). I’m hoping the weather will stay clear and warm enough for me to stay there for at least a few weeks, which should be enough time to set up camp, know if I have everything I need to sustain life, and start working on improvements. Stay tuned, or add this blog to your feed reader or something.

Burning Man Notes: Ramblings from day 2

I jotted down these words on a piece of paper the evening of the 2nd day. The first day was about settling down, and not leaving. The second day was when I started thinking about how to make something of my time there, and what I needed to do.

Just as I didn’t ask for my blessings, I didn’t ask for my faults. But, just as I enjoy my blessings without question, I must also strive to overcome my challenges, also without question.

****

Some may say I left and went on an adventure. The cold reality is that I merely escaped into a world I created. Buying land is just the first step to creating my own world, but it won’t change the fact that I haven’t figured out how to live, thrive, and be happy in this one.

****

I went to a meditation session today. The guy said we must learn to become independent of our egos. He said our egos manifest themselves in our desire to control externalities. Instead, we must control ourselves, overcome our fears and crutches, and adapt to our external world as it is.

****

I am nobody. Anonymous, unremarkable. I can vanish now, and nobody will notice. The only way to change that is to engage.

****

I’m trying to change. Baby steps, I tell myself. I try not to avoid eye contact. I say “hi.” I ask strangers what’s going on at this exhibit. Maybe tomorrow I’ll introduce myself to someone.

As I wrote in the previous post, I had considerable success in changing how I interacted with my environment. But it was a struggle to get there, and I thought it was worth posting the words as they were written at the time.

Burning Man Notes: A Letter

The following started off as a letter, but then was converted into a blog post in letter form. Who the “you” is is not important; I used the format of a letter as a literary device, to bring out a certain tone that was direct and focused, without the distractions of flowery descriptive prose. The words below are for you, the readers of this blog, not “you”, the addressee of this “letter”.

When we parted, you said you thought I looked smaller. The people we respect always look bigger, so if I looked smaller to you, maybe I lost your respect. I thought about that, then laughed out loud. I laughed because you have no idea what it was like for me to be at Burning Man, alone. The truth is, I am exceedingly proud of myself for all that I’ve accomplished this week.

For starters, I am proud of the fact that in less than a week, I planned, assembled, tested and acquired all the gear and supplies I needed to be a self-sufficient one-person camp, but with a compact enough footprint to fit in my little car, without having ever been to Burning Man, and only found myself missing two items during the entire week. I am proud of the fact that I designed my shade structure on the fly at a Home Depot, picking up necessary supplies as I planned each aspect of the structure in my head. I am proud of the fact that, despite never having built the actual structure other than in my head, it turned out exactly as I’d envisioned, and that it only took me half an hour to build, alone. I am proud of the fact that the shade structure withstood a week of constant pounding from the winds gusting across the playa, with very minimal damage and no repairs in the interim. I am proud of the fact that I struck camp entirely alone, pulling rebar stakes driven deep into the ground using nothing but a length of para-cord, a piece of two-by-two, and my own two arms. I am proud of all this, because I personally don’t know of very many people who could’ve done what I did.

And that was the easy part.

You have no idea how terrified I was when I arrived, alone, and surrounded in a strange environment unlike anything I’d ever seen before. You have no idea how, as an introvert, every new sight, sound, smell, or person felt like a threat to me, and the abject terror I experienced while being bombarded with a constant barrage of threatening encounters without a single friend in sight. You have no idea how dejected and distraught I felt when I asked to join the safety of you and our friends’ camp, and you threw me out, and sent me off to go alone or go home. You have no idea what went through my head as I sat in my car, trying to decide which it was going to be: to remain in this terrifying space alone, or to retreat to the relative comfort of the open road.

You have no idea how much courage it took to decide to stay, to put up that shade structure, to pound those stakes into the ground, to commit myself despite immense trepidation and doubt. But I did stay, and for that I am proud.

You have no idea how much courage it took me to decide that in order to enjoy Burning Man, I had to change. That I had to doff my armor of introversion that has protected me for so long, and open myself up to new experiences and people, and actively engage this unfamiliar world with open arms. But I did open up and engage, and for that I am proud.

I used to be afraid of talking to strangers. At Burning Man, I introduced myself to girls I didn’t know, for the first time in my life. I helped a lady carry ice down the street, instead of simply watching her struggle. When on my daily morning stroll, I said “good morning” to people I passed. When invited off the streets to take a drink, I never said no. These are all things that I used to be terrified of doing, but I overcame my fear, and for that I am proud.

I used to be so afraid of dancing that I would intentionally, with great effort, walk off beat when in the presence of music, lest I be seen “dancing.” At Burning Man, I overcame this fear, and went dancing for the first time in my life, and for that I am proud.

I used to be terrified of eye contact. I went to an eye contact workshop and stared at several strangers in their eyes for minutes at a time, opening myself up to them completely, trying to fill myself with compassion because when you stare someone in the eye, they feel what you feel. It was uncomfortable and scary, but I did this, and for that I am proud.

I never thought I’d find an inner peace, a feeling of wholeness and compassion for the world around me while in the midst of strangers. But I found all that, as fleeing as it was, and for that I am proud.

I climbed the fire truck ladder, despite the wind, and for that I am proud. I went down the big slide, four times, even though people were around watching and it looked kinda scary, and for that I am proud. I woke up every morning at 7:30am, staying out until well past midnight almost every night, making each day count, and for that I am proud.

I began the process of healing my deepest, darkest and most persistent emotional woes, by examining the darkest moments of my past, and for that I am proud.

Me, smaller? Hardly. I’ve never been bigger. So I’m sure you were referring to the 8 pounds of weight that I’d lost that week.

Those of you who know me may recognize the addressee of this letter as being my ex-girlfriend Nikki. While she is portrayed antagonistically here, she ultimately deserves credit in the transformation I achieved at Burning Man. It was she, who, nearly two years ago when we began dating, set me on a path of rigorous introspection and self discovery. Without that gift, I would not be on the journey I am on today, nor would I have found the courage to do all I did at Burning Man. The antagonism in the letter arose from my disappointment in not having been able to share with her the cumulation of what we started together. Nonetheless, even as we now go our separate ways, I will forever be grateful for having been shown a way, which I may never have discovered on my own.

Burning Man Notes: Arrival

For me, Burning Man started in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Reno, which happened to be a major supply depot for the thousands of Burners headed to the desert. There were cases of water everywhere, and the parking lot crowded with vehicles of every description jam packed with equipment, furniture, bikes, supplies and people. The Burners were easy to spot, for the most part. If the cases of water and booze piled in their shopping carts didn’t give them away, their dress, or something about the way they looked did. This was the first time I realized that Burners were somehow different.

From the Wal-Mart parking lot, the trip to Black Rock City rapidly turns into a bona fide pilgrimage. Going East on I-80, even a casual observer will notice the unusual concentration of RVs and vehicles with bikes strapped onto them. These vehicles then stream off on exit 43 onto Route 447, which becomes saturated with Burner-mobiles. As Gerlach, the nearest permanent town to Black Rock City approaches, this line of car comes to a halt. Ahead, an endless snake of red tail lights. To the rear, a winding trail of bright white headlights. Off in the distance, glittering dances of light indicated the location of the promised land. The congestion was such that people put their cars into park, shut off their engines, and walked around, chatting with neighbors. I had a nice conversation with the fellow behind me, a butcher from Oakland; my first of many conversations with a fellow Burner.

By the time I reached the gates, it was 4:30am. Being a first timer (a “virgin” as they call you), I dutifully performed my rite of passage by ringing a bell with all my might, and shouting “I am no longer a virgin”. Of course, I was alone, and I don’t think anybody really cared.

Once I entered the playa proper, excitement quickly turned into confusion, then disorientation and panic. It was still pitch dark, and with few camps set up, the streets were hard to discern from the camp sites. I’d seen maps, but I hadn’t anticipated the enormity of the “city.” In the darkness, I had no sense of scale. The concentric roads seemingly spiraled into chaos, the dust obscuring their edges, fueling my disorientation. I knew my friends were planning on camping at around 8:30 and D. They had been ahead of me on I-80, but without cellphone reception, I had no way of contacting them. I drove around, trying to spot the dark suburban they were in, but it was simply too dark to identify cars, much less any specific one. I eventually pulled into an area that seemed relatively empty and quiet, then dismounted.

With a water bottle, flashlight, and GPS in hand, I began a search for my friends. To make sure I could return to my car, my only base in this foreign place, I saved a marker on my GPS. It was dusk, and the world around me emerged, ever clearly, as the minutes ticked by. But the light only added to my disorientation. Sometime during the night, I had been transported into a vast flat empty dried lakebed, where something resembling the cross between a refugee camp, frat house, and art gallery was assembling. There was nothing about the place that felt familiar, especially after my weeks alone on the road. As I walked, I reflected upon my own introversion, realizing with dread that everything was strange and new and therefore threatening and frightening. I walked with my senses alert, every new encounter evoking a fight-or-flight reaction. I desperately wished for safety, to take refuge among familiar faces.

I walked for hours, starting with 8:30 & D and gradually spiraled outwards. The rigor of walking kept me sane, focusing my hightened senses on spotting and identifying tents and cars that looked familiar. I’d lent them my yellow Coleman tent, of which there were a couple of instances. None of them had the dark colored Suburban or any familiar bikes parked nearby, but I marked their location on my GPS and walked on, to confirm later.

It wasn’t until around 8am that I spotted my friends, only a few hundred yards away from where I’d parked. They had taken a wrong turn and had been delayed. I ran towards them, relief spreading through my body. I was safe.

I pulled Nikki aside and told her how afraid I was, and asked her to reconsider letting me camp with them. When I decided to go to Burning Man at the last minute, I’d volunteered to camp separately, and Nikki had urged me earlier in Reno to camp separately as well. But now, actually on the playa, I was as frightened as a 3 year old separated from his mother in an unfamiliar mall. I wanted to be near friendly faces, where I could feel safe. There was no way I could survive out here on my own. But Nikki wouldn’t budge. She didn’t want me around her camp; I could either camp alone, or go home. I stormed back to my car, frustrated that someone I considered a friend wouldn’t grant me a safe harbor at a time of distress. I retreated to the relative safety of my car.

I sat for a long time, considering my options. I could stay, and potentially be scared and miserable for a week, or I could go home. Except I have no home. I felt like I couldn’t leave, but I couldn’t start unpacking because I wasn’t sure how long I would want to stay. Why unpack if I might decide to leave in a few hours? Out of desperation, I headed back to my friends’ camp.

At their camp, I helped improvise a shade structure out of scavenged materiel originally intended to be a hammock structure. That was something I could do. I can build things. Helping Igor build that structure calmed me enough, that I was then able to head back to my car, and start pulling out lumber to build my own shade structure. It appeared that I would be staying, at least for a little while.

Secure loans

Nikki and I found ourselves in a situation that is probably not all that uncommon between two people dating. Nikki incurred a lot of debt to get through college, the most egregious (though not largest) of which is her credit card debt, with its high interest rate, fees and penalties. I have some money, so I’d like to help her out, but it took us a while to find a good way to do so. The amount is large enough that, in our stage of relationship, it would be over the top for me to pay off entirely. I could lend her money at a low interest rate, she could pay off the credit card debt, then pay me back. But having that kind of debt between us would add unwanted complexity to our relationship, which could turn messy if things don’t work out between us in the long run.

We found our ideal solution in the form of secure loans. I first heard about the general concept of secure loans when I talked to Andrew and Steven of Open Produce about ways to invest in their store. They said I could put money into a CD in my name, then let them use that as collateral for a bank loan. My money would only be touched if they defaulted on the bank loan, but otherwise I keep the money and interest. That sounded like one of those win-win-win situations. The bank can give a loan with virtually no risk (since there’s collateral), my friends get a loan at a low interest rate, and I feel better about investing because I don’t have to handle the logistics (and potential mess) of collecting my money and interest. That got me thinking; maybe something like that would work for Nikki as well.

We spent the better part of a day earlier this week visiting financial institutions in the Mountain View area, to see if we could get her such a loan. Our first stop was WaMu/Chase, but due to the recent acquisition and transitionary period, they didn’t offer secure loans. We then tried Bank of America, who told us the best option would be for me to get a credit card with a low introductory rate, and lend her money directly; exactly what we didn’t want. We then tried Wells Fargo, who did offer secured loans, of the kind we were looking for. They said we could open a CD, then take out a loan of up to 90% of the amount in the CD. Unfortunately, the rates weren’t great. Right now, CDs have a pretty low interest rate, but the loan would have an interest rate of around 10%; lower than the 16% she pays for the credit card now, but it seemed high for a loan for which the bank incurs virtually no risk.

The friendly lady at WaMu/Chase had told us to also try credit unions, so after visiting 3 “real” banks, we did some research in the car using Google WiFi. Our conclusion? Credit unions are awesome. They’re like banks, but owned by its members, so they generally have lower rates. Indeed, the two credit unions we visited both offered secure loans, and had much better rates. One offered loans at 2% above the interest rate on the CD (rounded to next .5%). So if the CD has an interest rate of 2.1%, the loan would have an interest rate of 4.5%; more than 10% less than Nikki’s credit card! The other place was similar, but with rates of 2.5% above the CD rate, instead of 2%. There were other minor differences. One of the credit unions had no minimum monthly payments and the whole sum was due when the CD matured, but the other place had minimum monthly payments. One required both our names to be on the CD and loan, while the other allowed for the loan to be in her name only (which is exactly what we wanted).

At the end of the day, we felt pretty good about having found a financial mechanism that suited our needs, and one that would save her thousands of dollars over the next several years at that. I also reflected on the fact that, for millions of other Americans in debt, such financial machinations aren’t available to them, not necessarily for any fault of their own. But, that’ll have to be another post.

New Header Image

The "studio"

The studio

If you’re reading this on the actual site (as opposed to a feed reader) you may have noticed that the banner image at the top of the page has changed. I spent a couple of hours today creating that image, so I’m going to talk a bit about it.

First Version

First Version

My first attempt was pretty basic: my MacBook and my Marlin 39a, an iconic lever action rifle that’s over a hundred years old in design. To fill some space, I sprinkled some 22LR ammo. As a background, I used a coffee table/trunk I built myself.

Second Version

Second Version

Although I was pretty happy with the Marlin, I decided to try the M1 Garand, another iconic rifle. The Garand was the standard military issue rifle through most of WW2 and the Korean War, and should look familiar to any war movie buff. Ultimately, I decided it conjured the wrong impression. I made a few other changes in the 2nd version, which I did end up keeping. One was a different orientation for the rifle, and the second was to display my blog on the laptop (yay recursion!), and the third was to use larger .308 Winchester rounds to fill the space.

Third Version, revision 2

Third Version, revision 2

I switched back to the Marlin, and things looked pretty good. But something didn’t feel quite right. I went out to run errands, and realized that the wood panel background was a little boring.
Final Version

Final Version

Since I had a target from a match today that I was planning on photographing for a post on my gun blog, I decided to stick that in the background. The target also added a sense of seriousness, and sportiness. I liked it. Cropping the image to fit the dimensions required by the blog’s template was somewhat challenging, but because I composed the image with cropping in mind, it turned out ok. Here’s the final product (click to see super-high-res version):

Final Version Cropped

Final Version Cropped