Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Top Ten Nude Celebrities of 2013


I looked at the calendar today and realized that time was running short to make my contribution to the valuable body of work that is the collection of annual year end lists. If you are like me, you spend the better part of twelve months ignoring popular culture, current events, literature, film, politics, and the events of your own life, and wait eagerly for the weeks leading up to January 1 when internet content providers of all stripes take cursor to screen and map out the top ten of everything from the prior year. As the lists are published, I am able to catalog all of the movies I should have seen, the books I should have read, the photos that should have moved me, the meals that would have been most memorable, and the destinations I should have visited over the prior year, thus saving me from the work of experiencing any of it on my own. It is a real time saver, and I think we all owe a collective debt of gratitude to the tireless critics and social gadflies who do the heavy lifting for us.

But no longer wanting to take without giving, I have decided I too should help the people of the world and make my own top ten list to guide others.  And, no, the list won't include any nude celebrities.  What do I know from naked famous people?  That was just a teaser to get you to read.  So, without further ado, I present the Cobras In Alaska 2013 Top Ten list, with items presented in no particular order:

1. Puppies.
2. Em7add11.
3. Sipping Pina Coladas, served on the rocks out of citrus rimmed glassware and mixed from fresh pineapple juice and coconut infused rum, watching the sun set, bare feet dangling in the warm salt waters of the South Pacific, while mermaids nibble deliciously at the bacteria under my toe nails, their hair tickling my shins.
4. Cleveland, Ohio.
5. The International House of Hot Dogs.
6. Brownout – Oozy.
7. Akron, Ohio.
8. This guy:



9. Determining the proper influence of science on policy.
10. Learning a valuable lesson about the importance of friendship AND the true meaning of Arbor Day while solving mysteries on a tandem bicycle.

I hope the list proves helpful to each of you as you either map out the details of the coming year or prepare to let chance yet again dictate your fate. Happy New Year.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

On Tour


I like to plan trips around my hobbies, which means I will not bother leaving Anchorage unless I can accomplish one of two things. First, continue my exploration of the artisanal pickle world, perhaps by meeting a producer, tasting product, or volunteering to shepherd free range cucumbers from their summer to winter pastures. Or second, by visiting iconic bridges. Really, other than the satisfying crunch of a perfectly brined and seasoned Kirby, does anything satisfy the soul like a beautifully designed conveyance across water?

To advance my appreciation of river crossings, I launched my Tour of Iconic Bridges back in 2011. You've probably seen my Kickstarter campaign, setup to fund my Tour (although don't think that I haven't noticed that you haven't contributed). The Tour got off to a bang-up start, with an early visit to the Tower Bridge in London.



The Tour slowed significantly thereafter due to lack of activity on my Kickstarter page, but last month I had the opportunity to visit the Brooklyn Bridge.



And now I got to visit the Golden Gate Bridge early this month, hopefully a sign that the Tour's momentum is really picking up.



With any luck, you will find the above photos inspirational, pull out your credit card, and rush to make a donation. Feel free to recommend another Iconic Bridge as a stop on the Tour at the same time. Perhaps the Trenton Makes bridge from Trenton New Jersey?

Since we were already in San Francisco to admire the bridge, C and I decided to make good use of our time and attended Alex and Daniel's wedding. They exchanged vows and then proceeded to impress us all by serving a fascinating selection of artisanal pickles at the reception. Other highlights? The chance to join the hungry crowds on Mission St. at 1 a.m. looking for burritos, stumbling upon a ukulele orchestra playing Sinatra tunes in the Presidio while hiking a big loop through the city, and realizing that the tourist zone in and around Union Square still bumps up against the city's rougher edges when gun shots rang out somewhere outside our hotel late one night. Three rapid shots, followed shortly thereafter by a flood of police cars rushing up Taylor Street. Nothing in the paper, which left me to assume that the gun play involved some dispute over an artisanal pickle sale gone bad. San Francisco's pickle mongers are, by reputation, some of the most territorial and fierce to be found. It will probably be safer to just focus on the bridges from here on out next time we travel.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Get off my lawn!


I did not intend my corner of the internet to be a place to either publicly gloat or complain, but feel compelled here to do a little of both. You see, after coming home from New York (see previous post), we were beset with news both good and bad. First, the good news. It turns out storms dumped snow on Independence Mine State Park at Hatcher Pass, and the powers that be started grooming trails. C and I were able to get in the first ski of the season nice and early this year. The problem with Hatcher Pass is that to get to the ski loop, you must first climb a ¾-mile hill. So, here we are, out of shape and weak, and the first thing we have to do is climb and climb long. It is a rude awakening to every season, but we are happy for it just the same.

And now the bad news. There is no way to sugar coat this, so I am just going to come out and say it.  Slayer canceled their show at the Sullivan arena that had been scheduled for October 22, apparently realizing that it costs a ton of money to ship their tour set up to Alaska. They officially blamed “logistics,” but I expect that means “dollars.” Maybe they thought we were just north of Vancouver at the time they scheduled? What ever the reason, it has brought a dark cloud across the Cobrasinalaska household. “Why? Why must you toy with our emotions, oh Godfathers of thrash?” I cry to the bleak and uncaring skies.

Of course, I use “we” pretty loosely here. As you might imagine, this cancellation has had a bigger impact on me than on C. Indeed, C—by her own choice—didn't even have a ticket to attend. Upon learning that Slayer was (purportedly) coming to town, the conversation went something like:

“Slayer is coming to Anchorage!”

“Who?”

“FUCKING SLAYER!” [Which is, by the by, the universal and officially sanctioned greeting of Slayer fans worldwide, either followed by or preceded by an out-thrust of the arms in a devil-horn salute.]

“What does Slayer sound like again?”

I proceed to cue up and start the 1986 masterpiece Reign in Blood, an album that leads off with the at times controversial “Angel of Death.” Precisely 7 seconds later: “You have got to be kidding me.”

So I bought a single ticket. But as already mentioned and whined about for some length, I never got to use it. And now I wander the halls and wonder if my life will ever have meaning again.

That I have reacted so strongly to the cancellation of a single concert may suggest that we do not get much in the way of nationally recognized live acts in Anchorage (my prior discussion of the Red Hot Chili Peppers being the exception that proves—that's right, proves—the rule). But we did get the chance to watch some of this year's Lollapalooza streamed live. Readers of a certain age (read: mine, plus or minus) will remember Lollapalooza as the brain child of Jane's Addiction's Perry Farrel, a music festival that criss-crossed the country in the early- and mid-nineties. It disappeared for awhile, but has resurfaced as a single three-day festival in Chicago. And technology having reached the point that it has, several of the sets by the festival's top acts were streamed live. And because one of those sets was by The Cure, I decided to tune in and watch. And I walked away wondering, “What is wrong with kids today?”

You see, from time immemorial rock-n-roll has been about two things: repulsing parents and inspiring children. If a kid needed a role-model for debaucherous living, was he going to look to his own parents? Of course not. But the rock star in leather pants, empty bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand, a gold record in the other, with vomit drying on his shirt? That is an image that gives a kid hope that the future will not be bleak and populated with responsibility and the routine of 9-to-5 (or, more accurately, 8-to-6, Dolly Parton movie or no).

One look at some of today's top acts makes clear that something has gone awry. As the following scientifically rigorous graph demonstrates, the social respectability of your typical rock-star had been on a consistent downward slope, but has taken a surprising upswing that brings today's top acts in-line with Please Please Me era Beatles.


Really, what message is it sending our kids when Vampire Weekend (photo at far right of the graph) is made up of a bunch of Columbia graduates and is perhaps best known for a song that is single-handily responsible for teaching an entire generation about the Oxford comma? Do we really want the youth of America to come of age aspiring to an Ivy League education and a comprehensive understanding of grammar?  And what are they wearing, anyway?  Sweater vests?  Suffice to say, not a leather jacket in the bunch.

On further reflection, though, I may be looking at this all wrong. Perhaps rock-n-roll has nothing to do with inspiring kids and everything to do with repulsing parents. I may not have kids, but I fit the demographic. And really, how can you repulse someone who came of age with this?

 (Slayer, circa-1984)

Yup. Sweater vests. Long live rock-n-roll. These kids may be on to something yet.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities


C has a friend, Heather. There is actually more to this story than that, though, although it requires some background. Heather sings, and sings well. Someone with a background in music and voice could probably describe her singing with more nuance than that, but what do you expect from a lawyer? “Well” is as good as it will get. But you can judge for yourself ( http://www.heatherhillsoprano.com/779071). From the layman's perspective, let's just say she sounds professional, which she is. The kind of voice that astounds as an instrument, makes me simultaneously want to break into my own aria and never open my mouth again for recognizing that some things I will never be able to do. Sing an opera is one. Heather can, and has. These days she sings on Broadway. Heather is a cast member in the longest running musical on Broadway, working in the ensemble of Phantom of the Opera. But she also understudies for the role of Carlotta and at times gets to strut her stuff—fittingly—as the operatic diva of the Paris Opera house. A couple of weeks ago, C received an e-mail from Heather announcing her schedule for filling in as Carlotta. C had never heard Heather perform, but always wanted to. As it turned out, C was in up-state New York, visiting family, and as such in the neighborhood for one of Heather's scheduled turns as Carlotta. C rebooked her return to allow a side trip to Manhattan, and I flew out for a long weekend.

We saw the show, which despite its long running tenure had an incredible line at the door 15 minutes before curtain. As I suppose it has several nights a week for 25-years, the chandelier came crashing to floor, Christine Daae was both repulsed by and drawn to the Phantom, and the diva pouted as divas do when younger voices muscle in on their spotlight. After the show, Heather led us backstage to marvel at the wigs (which we learned quite a bit about from another friend in Manhattan; suffice to say, I never much thought about Broadway wigs before, but the hair you see on stage could be the subject of another complete blog post), see the inner workings of theater magic, and stare out at the empty seats of the Majestic Theater.


But the excitement of Broadway and catching up with old friends was only part of the trip. Walking the streets of New York also gave me the opportunity to dabble in comparative urbanism, a school of study in which I am something of a hobbyist. I can't claim any formal training, but have, of course, read the classics. Being in New York gave me the chance to come home and look at my current hometown of Anchorage with new eyes as compared against one of the world's great—some would see greatest—cities.

Clearly, the foundation of a great city is great architecture. Buildings and living space provide the framework upon which a vibrant society is draped. The buildings and structures of New York are true icons, recognized the world over. The Empire State Building, the Flatiron, the Brooklyn Bridge, they are unmistakable symbols of urban America and the pull of the new world.






Well, Anchorage does not have the benefit of long history, but just as New York stands shoulder to shoulder with Paris, London, and other giants of the old world, Anchorage is itself home to inspiring architecture enhancing life in our city despite its relative youth. In just a few short years, classics like the abandoned layer cake church, the Wal*Mart, and that weird shanty like building in the middle of mid-town have been built and inspire Anchorage residents on a daily basis to strive for greatness.





Similarly, great cities have great cuisines. Some of the best restaurants in the world (or, at the very least, the most expensive) are found in New York, but classic eats are found at all points on the economic spectrum, including the classic New York slice.



Not to be outdone, Anchorage too is known far and wide for its food specialties, like the classic waffle, biscuit, gravy, roll, a celebration of carbohydrates smothered in fat.


Great cities often have rich spiritual traditions. Home to famous cathedrals, New York embraces religion at all scales, and it is not unusual to turn the corner and find streets closed to accommodate a procession celebrating the Virgin Mary.


Anchorage's houses of worship similarly operate on all scales, including the humble Wilderness Village Baptist Church.


But a rich and complex urban life is built on contradictions, and just as New York welcomes its residents to worship in its great churches or in the city streets, the city billboards make its residents question the very utility of prayer.


Anchorage's contradictions are evident only in geography. The Wilderness Village Baptist Church is, after all, located directly across the street from the city's most famous strip club. I like to think that gentleman, having spent a night and the bulk of their savings within the dark walls of the Alaska Bush Company, stumble out into the bright light of a Sunday morning and directly across the street to pray for forgiveness. A closer look at the Wilderness Village sign, however, makes me wonder if that is such a good idea.



The Wilderness Village congregation appears to have very specific ideas as to what should be done to sinners. That is a picture of two angels pushing some poor man to an eternity of damnation in the fires of hell, right? I think I would want to make sure I knew what side of the line I stood on before I walked through those doors. Maybe safest to just head back to New York. At least there you have a chance of getting lost in the crowd. Or you can hope that the two angels will get distracted by the bright lights of Times Square and maybe forget about you altogether.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Study in Science Reporting

One statement from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.  Two headlines.

"Ice Cap Rebounds from Record Low of 2012"  -- Anchorage Daily News
(http://www.adn.com/2013/09/21/3086257/ice-cap-rebounds-from-record-low.html)

"Arctic Ice in Significant Retreat"  -- The Guardian
(http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/sep/20/arctic-sea-ice-decline-melting-summer)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Catching Up On Summer

A perk of working at a reasonably-sized national law firm is the occasional boondoggle. For instance, the Anchorage office takes a day each summer to ostensibly relax in each other's company outside of work. Every year that has meant fishing. Back before my time, the office took fly-in trips to remote sandbars, battled weather and halibut in boats too small to the task, set tents, and drank whiskey around the fire until someone started throwing punches. But the office has grown, and in recent years we have limited our summer trip to salmon charters out of Seward or drifting the Kenai River. This year our office manager—on whose lap planning the summer trip always falls—suggested we branch out and explore something other than fishing. She threw open the door for suggestions.

Easy!” I thought. “We should all go see the Red Hot Chili Peppers!”

The thought was not as random as it may at first appear. The Red Hot Chili Peppers had just announced a concert in Anchorage. I intended to go. After all, I had history with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

As a young boy, my older cousin came West to visit us in New Mexico. My parents packed up the car and we took a road trip to the Grand Canyon to marvel at deep geologic time. Somewhere on the road, at what I imagine was a dusty service station with tumble weeds piled six-foot high against the eastern wall and a vending machine that dispensed packs of cigarettes along with the candy bars, my Dad jokingly asked my cousin by the magazine rack, “So, you want me to buy you a girlie magazine?”

What is a girlie magazine?” I asked.

I imagine my Dad was surprised to see me standing by the magazines too, and possibly immediately regretted opening his mouth at all, but nevertheless dutifully explained, “Well, it is a magazine with pictures of naked women.”

Oh. Doesn't that sound intriguing. To this day, I remember the mental image that followed: a magazine with pictures of buildings on white backgrounds shown in cross-section, outside walls removed so we could peak at the people inside. The buildings were filled with women. The women were going about the tasks of daily life: cooking, working, shopping, sleeping. But they wore no clothes. Fascinating. This I have to see.

Can I have a girlie magazine?”

No, you're too young.”

Maybe later?”

Sure, kid. For your next birthday. I'll buy you one then.”

I'm sure my Dad thought that was the end of it. Little did he know I would store his promise, pull it out, keep it polished and dust free, and lift it up to his attention on my next birthday. “Dad, do I get a girlie magazine now?”

What are you talking about? What do you know about girlie magazines?”

You promised I could have one on my next birthday. That's today. Can we go get one? Now?”

Wait. What? I did?”

It is not my intent to start a debate on parenting, pornography, or promises. Whether against his better judgment or without a second thought, Dad kept his promise. Later that night he presented me with the latest issue of Playboy, hot of the presses and direct to my hot hands. Suffice to say, I don't think it did me any harm. In fact, it probably helped my popularity immensely with the other 11? 12? year olds in town, each of whom took a turn flipping through its pages. And I flipped through the pages with them. From front to back, again, and again, and again. While there is no denying that the pictures of the women devoured the bulk of my attention, it turns out there were words and other tidbits in the magazine as well. Including this picture in the back, with a short press-release about a new L.A. Band getting attention for its choice of wardrobe:



Some years later, I actually bought albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Some time after that, they became international rock stars. And then they announced a show in Anchorage.

It turns out no one else in my office thought a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert would make a good summer trip. But somehow we did overcome the inertia of fishing and went kayaking in Blackstone Bay instead. It was a beautiful day on the water in front of glaciers.

We stopped for lunch on a beach, just out of view of the face of Blackstone Glacier, in a small amphitheater bordered by steep slopes. While eating from the spread that the guiding company provided, we marveled at the roar from what was clearly an immense calving event. Moments later, the water pulled away from shore, regrouped, and crashed back in wave after wave, circulating within our cove to amplify and confuse the later sets. One partner was knocked off the rock he had been sitting on and was pulled part way to sea (though he immediately stood, wet but no worse for the wear). The boats were sucked out and pushed in. We grabbed flotation devises and the other flotsam and jetsam of our trip, casually left strewn across the beach, and now swirling in the salt-water. Way more exciting than hauling in a salmon on a charter.

As fun as kayaking was, it meant I was on my own for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. So C an I bought our tickets, showed up on time, and put in our ear plugs, because, well, we have become the old people standing in the back of the show worrying about their hearing while the kids go crazy up front. But we weren't the only old people at the show. After all, the band is in its fifties. Thankfully, they've started wearing more clothes over the years.



Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Why don't we go . . .

As a dutiful college student at New Mexico State University, I shared a number of German courses with fellow student Doug.  Doug was an amiable guy.  Other than a New Year’s Eve road trip to Tucson to see Billy Bacon and the Forbidden Pigs play Club Congress, we never spent much time together outside of class, but our social orbits aligned at times.  Doug played guitar.  Proving once and for all the value of language degree, he went on to form a well-regarded Kiddie Rock band called the Jellydots.  I had no idea Kiddie Rock was a thing.  Black Metal?  Sure.  Tex-Mex-Blues-a-Billy?  Of course!  Billy Bacon established—or at least perfected—that genre years ago!  But Kiddie Rock?  Well, you learn something new every day.  Or at least every now and again.

The relentless tentacles of Facebook connected Doug and I some years ago, which is when I first learned about the Jellydots.  I downloaded (bought and paid for) some songs.  One such song, called “San Diego,” included the following question in its chorus: “Why don’t we go to San Diego?”  [For those interested, the song can be streamed at the Jellydots website here.]  Why indeed.  I like to think that Doug’s song resonated at some level, and is what propelled me and C to visit what is, essentially, a dusty border town with high-rises and the pretension to rise above its station.  But really it was just the Esri User Conference that brought us to town.

C was sent to the Esri User Conference, presumably to confer with Esri users, and spent the better part of ten days in and around the massive San Diego Convention Center.  She was, unfortunately, a week too early to revel in San Diego’s Comic-Con, and cannot compare its costumed excess to what we observed in Phoenix.  I followed and joined her for a three day weekend, in large part to experience the single feature that, in my estimation, makes San Diego the envy of urban centers the world over: an airport you can walk to.

Is there another major airport anywhere you can easily walk to?  This is not a rhetorical question.  Does anyone know?  Is there such an airport?  I don’t mean airports that you can get to, however easily, by public transportation.  Washington National is certainly convenient, but I’m not sure if you can safely approach it on foot.  Same with Logan.  At San Diego, I shouldered my bag, walked outside the terminal, crossed one street at a conveniently placed cross-walk, and strolled into town along a pedestrian and bike path along the waterfront.  Thirty minutes later I met C and sister M at the Hyatt.

I have walked to precisely one other airport, this one in Albuquerque.  So I guess I just answered my own question.  I had not intended on doing so.  I had planned to take the bus.  Albuquerque is a big city, right?  Am I wrong in thinking it should have public transportation to and from New Mexico’s only major airport?  Well, I researched bus routes prior to that particular trip, and there was in fact a route to the airport.  I could catch the bus on Central Avenue, which was fine as I was in town to visit the law school and would be close to a bus stop.  Unsure of the frequency, I gave myself plenty of time, which proved fortuitous as the bus only ran during the commuter hours in the morning and evening.  What the hell?  Is the bus line there to serve airport employees alone?  It seemed that the city transit authority never considered that visitors to the city might also be interested in the bus route and that their schedules may prove more variable than the typical 8 to 5 work day.  I considered calling a cab, but decided to walk instead.  Distance wise, it was fine, but there wasn’t much of a sidewalk, and I had to share the road on my final approach.  As I neared the terminal, a car pulled to a stop next to me.  I assumed the driver was about to offer me a ride, which I appreciated.  Not anticipating much of a walk, I had not packed or worn shoes that were up to the task, and my feet were aching.

“Hey, can I buy gas around here?”

“Excuse me?”

“Gas.  Where is the closest gas?”

“What part of my walking to the airport makes you think I have any idea where you can buy gas?”

The window went back up, the car sped away, and I limped onward.

So while the Albuquerque airport is within striking distance of passengers on foot, it is not (or at least was not—perhaps it has been upgraded) particularly welcoming to foot traffic.  San Diego, on the other hand, proudly includes walking directions to and from the airport on its website.  I acknowledge this feature is probably of most use to the tourist.  Or perhaps the small handful of people that can afford to live downtown, most of whom, based on San Diego real estate prices, likely hire helicopters to lift them from private helipad to privately charted jet rather than mix with the rabble found on city sidewalks or commercial airlines.  But still, a walkable airport should be the goal of any and every municipality.

Having accomplished my one and only goal for this trip within an hour of hitting the ground, what else was there to do?  We considered hopping the border and exploring Mexico, but only two of the three of us had passports.  We considered an evening at the Old Globe Theater—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was playing—but failed at getting tickets.  We thought about a Padres game, but could not be bothered.  So that left eating burritos and eating sea urchin, both of which we did with abandon.   Well, both of which I did with abandon.  C and sister M took a pass on the sea urchin, which just puzzles me.  What is not to like about the cutest of all the tide pool detritus? 


Now back in Anchorage, I’m left searching for rhymes for “walkable” and “urchin.”  It seems Doug’s song needs an additional verse that really captures all the city has to offer.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Dissecting Art

Long time blog readers may recall that I am a supporter of the arts and artists.  While I may myself hold on to every last dollar earned in clenched fist and live in never-dying fear that some liberal-leaning, paint-spattered, self-anointed chronicler of the human condition will try to wrest me from my wealth by hocking me a simplistic painting or—perhaps even worse—cause me to pause and think about my hopes, loves, and fears, I am nevertheless more than happy to point out fine examples of art and an opportunity for you to spend and support creativity when I encounter it.   For example, you may recall the brilliantly curated jar of plastic bag clips I highlighted back in 2011 that the good folks at Partners & Spade are willing to sell to you for $125:


Seriously, that is the kind of opportunity you want to take advantage of, because those clips will not be available at that price for long.  More recently I ran across a photo blog post on Slate with some highlights from a show by a photographer Doug Rickard:


To those un-interested in clicking through to see the Slate story (or following the link in the story to Rickard’s page at the Yossi Milo gallery), the photos explore “images of cities [in the United States] either forgotten or symbolic of economic collapse.”  The catch is that rather than explore such cities himself, Rickard spent four years virtually driving about this country’s decayed urban cores in Google Maps Street View, taking pictures of images on the screen for later gallery display.  This raises a couple of questions.  First, four years?  It took me five minutes to find the following similar images:







Couldn’t Rickard have pulled this thing together any quicker than four years?  Second, is this kind of thing art?  I tend to say “yes.”  Rickard’s pictures paint a bleak portrait, and culling slices from street view to tell a coherent story will qualify as art in my book.  Besides, if a blank canvas qualifies than I see no reason not to include stealing pictures from Google under the art umbrella.



But does Rickard's collection really tell a coherent story, or are the pictures only interesting from the comfortable perspective of the flip-side of poverty?  Do we learn anything from Rickard’s selections or just take a moment to bathe in waves of schadenfreude?  Or simply take a “there but for the grace of God go I” moment?  It would seem to be the inclusion of people that turns Rickard’s photos from portraits of urban decay to slices of poverty-porn.  But I’m asking questions now, so, see, the pictures equal art.

Of course if you want real porn, you can find that on street view too.  But be warned, the following link is not-safe-for-work and probably not anything you want to try and explain to your kids:



In much more innocent news, C and I went up to Fairbanks last weekend for her [undisclosed] high school reunion.  Up until a few days ago, all of Alaska has been baked by unrestrained sunlight and a comforting blanket of heat.  I actually got more sun in Fairbanks than I did in Phoenix, due most likely to my neglect of sunscreen rather than the extra hours of daylight.  In any case, we took the opportunity to run the Midnight Sun Run, a 10k held every year near the solstice.  The race starts at 10:00 pm, and the neighborhoods through which the race passes turn out for late-night picnics and parties.  Spectators crowd the course, narrowing the road and giving forth raucous cries of support as you pass, particularly if you happen to be wearing a full Gumby costume.  I had a decent enough race, but feel a little silly that I couldn’t shake Gumby until about mile 3.  And I still finished immediately behind an 11-year old.  I'll blame it on the heat.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Phoenix

“So, do you guys want to spice things up?”

I heard the words, but the meaning was slow to seep into my sleep deprived brain, still foggy from a red-eye flight south from Anchorage to Phoenix.  Was the nice young man behind the rental car counter offering us salsa packets?  Trying to put us in touch with some kind of escort service specializing in couples?

“Yea, maybe a Mustang?”

No, he was just trying to up-sell us, anticipating perhaps that the pasty, vitamin-D starved pair in front of him was a sure thing for a convertible.  But, no, we stood our ground.  “Just whatever we booked, please,” which turned out to be some kind of Mazda sedan with lots of trunk room and a perfectly functional air-conditioner, a good thing because the weatherman was telling me that the coming days were going to be hot.

We wheeled our carry-ons into the garage, located our car, and in no time pulled out from beneath an awning and into traffic, causing C to let out a cry and bury her head into the crook of her elbow.  “Aiiee!  It burns!  What is it?  What is that pernicious source of radiation?”

“That?  Oh, just the sun.  Best get used to it.  After all, it is the whole reason we are here, remember?”

Back in the still frigid days of late spring, we booked a trip to Phoenix, anxious for searing heat and charmed by the off-season rates and direct flight access that Phoenix offered.  Our goal was to keep things simple.  Find a place to stay with a pool and keep our schedules free of any obligations beyond the need to stay fed and the desire to do some trail running in the early hours before the day’s temperatures started to soar.  We had no idea at the time that as soon as we set foot on our red-eye south, Anchorage would settle into a weather pattern that C’s co-workers later described as the nicest days ever seen in the Anchorage bowl.  True, they may have been dabbling in hyperbole, but there is no question that the days we see here warming into the upper seventies are few and far in between.  But as nice as it was going to be at home, we could still hold these truths close to our hearts: how ever warm it was going to be in Anchorage it would not settle anywhere near a temperature that makes outdoor pools seem like a good idea, and the desert trails in and around Phoenix were guaranteed to be snow and mud free for running, a luxury we would not find at home for weeks to come.

A consequence of the red-eye, we found ourselves turned loose into urban Phoenix with a number of hours to kill before our room would be ready for us to take occupancy.  So with no agenda, we pulled into downtown just to take a look around.  A parking garage rose up on our left, with a temporary sign promising “Comic-Con Parking.”  Comic-Con?  Isn’t that the event where everyone dresses up as their favorite monster from the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual?  Orcs and Gelatinous Cubes?  Maybe this was just the spice that the rental car guy was talking about!  Why the hell not, C and I agreed, taking a parking spot and risking various degrees of sunburn by walking a city-block to the Phoenix Convention Center.

Crowds of people were funneling in all around us.  A shocking number of people, really.  We found a nice woman, possibly the mother of an attendee, working behind an information booth.  She told us that a daily pass would cost $30, which was also shocking.  In the exhibition halls, vendors appeared to be hawking comic books, action figurines, and role-playing games, while people lined up outside of the meeting rooms for panels discussing important topics like “The Science behind Zombie Eradication” and “Inter-Species Sexual Politics on the Starship Enterprise.”   We decided we didn’t need to part with the $60.

But we did find a bench in the hall and enjoyed the people watching.  Whole families trooped by, little boys decked out in Hulk body-paint and cut-off shorts, little girls dressed like Princess Leia in the classic white robe with hair done up in matching sticky buns.  I recognized some of the characters on parade—Bobba Fett, Marvel characters I remembered from the eighties—but for the most part the costumes were over my head.  Who were all the girls with yellow and red horns, looking like demonic candy corn had sprouted from their head?  And the guys with giant keys?  What were those keys supposed to open?  And were the nerd-girls in barely-there costumes made from three cocktail napkins and some LED lighting really nerd-girls, or local strippers hired to walk the grounds and draw in ticket purchasing legions of science fiction fans who see that much exposed flesh precisely once a year at Comic Con?

In that vein, we watched a woman saunter into the hall in a push-up bra and cut off jeans.  Who was she supposed to be dressed as?  Captain Kathryn Janeway after a night of too many vodka tonics?  Whoever she was, she was quickly approached by another attendee with camera in hand, a man with ample girth possibly dressed as an un-groomed fur trapper.  We were too far away to catch the conversation, but clearly the trapper was requesting a picture of the vixen.  She obliged, and the services of a third stranger were sought to snap the photo.  The trapper draped an arm about the vixen’s shoulders and a flash fired.  As the vixen and stranger relaxed, expecting perhaps to go about their mornings in the warrens of the convention center, the trapper put forth an uplifted index finger in the universal signal for “Wait, one more!”  The trapper reached into a coat pocket (A coat?  In these temperatures?) and pulled out a pair of lacy, bright red women’s underwear.  These he stretched between his two thumbs to better suggest that the trapper had just, mere moments ago, coaxed the vixen out of this very pair of undies in what I can only imagine would have been a rapid, uncomfortable, and sweaty session of love making, and that the vixen, so taken with his deft attention as a lover, insisted that they record the moment forever with a photographic trophy.  The trapper nodded at the stranger as if to say, “Take the picture!  Quick!” and smiled sheepishly.  A second flash fired, and the whole awkward exchange came to a close.

It all reminded me of an earlier awkward exchange I observed involving beautiful women, an awkward man, and Phoenix (if only peripherally).  In 2001 I was on my way from Fairbanks to a friend’s wedding in Phoenix, on a flight with a layover in LAX.  My gate shared seating with a flight heading to Las Vegas.  One after another, stunning young women were approaching, gorgeous girls, the kind of women you always suspected lived in L.A. while growing up in small towns anywhere east of the Pacific.  They took seats near me,  some alone, some in pairs.  I like to think they were attracted by some base need to be near me, but strongly suspect they were each simply waiting for a flight.  In time, a matronly woman waddled over with a stack of folios in one arm.  She appeared to be the den mother, reading glasses sitting at the tip of her nose.  One by one, she handed each of the girls a folio, embossed with a gold Playboy bunny.  The girls pulled out plane tickets (this was back when you could still proceed through airline security without a boarding pass) and paper work—what looked to me like a schedule.  I started to notice that most—maybe all—of the girls were wearing the Playboy bunny logo on t-shirts, sweatshirts, tight shorts, necklaces.  They were heading to Vegas, and I started to suspect that, with all due respect to Jason’s wedding, where ever they were going to end up was going to be a better party than where I was heading.

Notwithstanding any fleeting fantasy of striking up a conversation with one of the girls and so charming her as to get myself invited to join the lot of them in Sin City for, well, sin, I instead kept reading my book.  Which is probably a good thing because it kept me from being the awkward man in this story.  Instead, a thin man in red pants played that role.  He was sitting a few seats over, flipping through pages in a manila folder, looking up at the Playboy bunnies, flipping through the paper some more, and finally approaching a girl.  It turns out he had a glossy photo, and was hoping to get an autograph.  The girl barely looked up and half-attentively scribbled her mark.  The man scampered back to his seat, looked through his folder some more, found another picture, and approached another girl.  This went on for several exchanges.  At one point, he neared me, handing a blond in sweats, flip flops, and bunny ear-rings her picture.  She looked at the photo, looked at the man, and asked “What’s my name?”

“Umm,” is about all the man managed.

“I’m not signing this unless you know my name.”

You could tell the man’s attention was turning inward, searching deep in his memory, trying to find the answer, probably inscribed on the stats included on a centerfold he had pinned to his bedroom wall, listed right above her surely ample measurements and list of turn-ons, but he came up short.  In the end, he took back the photo, scampering again to his seat to start the process anew with another model, and the girl went back to her book (suggesting that “reading” may really be a turn-on for some Playboy models).  The whole thing was odd to watch, and raised one vital question: did this guy just travel around with glossy nude photos of his favorite models and luck into this particular bunny nest or did he spend all his time stalking centerfolds?  Either way, I was left thinking he most lead a pretty lonely life, and I didn’t envy him his autographs.  Now, in Phoenix some 12 years later, we decided to move on from the convention center before the trapper could find another scantily clad sci-fi character to drape in red panties.

Moving on from the convention center meant finding lunch.  In his book on pizza, baking guru Peter Reinhart, James Beard award winning author, singled out Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix Arizona as having the best pizza in the United States.  Following his proclamation, foodie forums are rich with gushing trip reports and tales of three and four hour waits to get a table.  We had time to kill and I like good pizza, so we went to investigate.  At lunch on a Friday, we had no trouble getting a seat in the cozy, brick-lined space with all seats staring into the maw of a brick oven, where dough went in a boy and came out a man, or whatever the equivalent is for pizza.  C and I ordered two pies, a simple margherita and a white pie with arugula and roasted mushrooms.  The crust was delicious and the pizzas were very good, but the best in the United States?  I’ve walked out of pizzerias (primarily in Trenton and Boston) thinking, “I could eat that meal every day this trip, this month, this life, and not feel like I’m missing out on anything,” and that simply wasn’t the case for me at Pizzeria Bianco.

So, 2,000 words into this travelogue, and I’ve made it through lunch on our first morning in town.  You might be forgiven for thinking you need to reshuffle your afternoon appointments in order to follow along on the fascinating details of rest of the trip.  But frankly, the rest of the trip fell into a lazy blur, just as we intended.  We booked a room in North Scottsdale.  We went to the pool.  Each morning we arose early, before the heat, and went to the McDowell Mountains to run a variety of loops past cactus and stone.  We napped.  We ate enchiladas on the patio at Frank and Lupe’s and chiles en nogada at the Bario CafĂ©.  We went back to the pool.  We read books.  And we napped again.  A successful vacation by any measure.

On our last day, we had to vacate our room by 10:00 am, but didn’t fly from Phoenix until 7:45 that evening.  Needing to fill the day, wanting more sun and pool, and otherwise unsure of how to fill our time, we took advantage of the Scottsdale spa culture and booked what you would, I suppose, call a spa day at a fancy facility with plush robes and an outdoor pool.  We had massages.  C was scrubbed clean by a technician with a loofa.  I cycled through the sauna, steam room, and cold plunge pool, with opportunities to recharge by sitting in the sun in the men’s solarium.  Most of this activity took place in separate men’s and women’s facilities, but C and I rejoined at the outdoor pool to slowly swim laps with a prime view of Camelback Mountain.  A fine way to spend the day, and I was thinking the spa was a very good idea indeed, until I was presented with the bill.  I won’t embarrass you with the details.  Suffice to say, we would have been better off simply booking our hotel room for another night, which would have provided access to a perfectly good shower and pool, and all of the Arizona sun we could tolerate, at a fraction of the price.  The kicker?  We get better massages in Anchorage, albeit without the plush robes.

So fortified against the ravages of the pending work week back in Anchorage, we made our way to Phoenix Sky Harbor, passing the miles and miles of Phoenix sprawl, windows down, air thick with summer.  Topping off the tank as required before returning the rental car, I looked up at a nearby strip mall and saw a Victoria’s Secret store, all flirty in the late day light.  I turned to C.


“We’ve got one more stop to make.  I need to get some red women’s underwear.  I have a last picture idea for the trip.”




Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Desert Run

Is it time to start running again?  I guess perhaps.  To jump start the process, I signed up for a trail half-marathon in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which took place last week.  What doesn't sound fun about  a red-eye flight and 13.1 miles of under prepared foot steps in the desert?  Clearly, this was a good idea.

My preparation consisted of a 5-mile and 7-mile run, so I was left hoping that ski fitness translated directly to running.  I hit the ground in El Paso and met my dad who drove south from Las Cruces to resume his role of chauffeur, last practiced with distinction back before I got my driver's license.  The sun washed across the desert in endless abundance.  We bought tacos and made it to my parent's house where my mom was fulfilling her maternal obligation to bake cookies.  The following morning, sufficiently fueled by those same cookies, I set out to mill around a line drawn in the sand and designated the official start of a series of runs out and back on the Sierra Vista Trail, single track paralleling the range front of the Organ Mountains.  At the appointed hour, some nice young man said "go," and those running the full marathon started weaving in and out of prickly pear cactus and ocotillo, disappearing from sight down the backside of a hill.  A little while later, the same young man said "go" again, and this time I started running.

The race results indicate 51 of us ran the half-marathon.  It took abut two miles to shake the field out.  The trail was reasonably technical--loose rock, and lots of ups and downs across arroyos--and the desert's habit of draping its flora in spines meant painful consequences for an ill-timed off-trail pass.  But in time we all settled into a pace, either solo or grouped with like minded individuals.

I was in sixth position at the turn around, but immediately lost some ground by choosing to refill water, watching several folks roll in and out without missing a beat.  The final profile of the run looked something like:


Suffice to say, I did not run a negative split on this race.  But I nevertheless managed to keep plodding.  The final couple of miles included lots of short punchy climbs and a steady ascent, and the lack of preparation miles took its toll.  And that hill that I got to watch the full marathon runners disappear down the backside?  I had to climb back up it too.  Despite the terrain challenges, I was the ninth runner to cross the finish line in the half.  I knocked back some peanut M&Ms and a few bites of banana, and called it a day.

And so begins summer.  Though a quick glance at the thermometer on our porch suggests it is still below freezing in Anchorage and summer may be stuck in southern New Mexico.  Here is hoping it manages to break free soon.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

SKAN 24


“Why?”

Our six-year old neighbor looked up with a furrow in her brow.  C and I were unloading the car, parading multiple arm loads of gear – skis, poles, sleeping bags, coolers, glow sticks, and other essentials – past her and into our home.  Our neighbor asked what we were doing and we explained that we had just spent the weekend at Kincaid, skiing for 24 hours.

“Why?”  She quite possibly thought that sounded like the dumbest thing she had ever heard.

I think we gave her a George Mallory “Because it is there” kind of response, but if we’re going to be honest the only reason why we signed up for and participated in the SKAN (“Ski Kincaid All Night”) 24 hour race was because of the poster.


It is a pretty cool poster.  I noted in an earlier post about the Tour of Anchorage that C won an age group medal in the Tour.  A couple of weeks ago, she stopped by the NSAA office to pick up her hardware, and took the opportunity to ask if they had any extra copies of the SKAN poster lying around.  “Well, would you like to meet the artist?”

I don’t know that C really wanted to meet the artist, but there is no polite way meet such a question with a “No, I just want a damn poster.”  So C was brought back to meet the artist, who, as it turned out, was also half of the entire volunteer squad of two that was organizing and directing the race.  C complimented her work, described how we had seen the posters from previous years and how she had always wanted a copy, and slyly asked if there were extra copies floating around looking for a home.

“Well, have you done the race?”

“Done the race?  Good God no.”

“Well, if you sign up, we’ll have extra copies at the bib pick up.”

A short while later I got an e-mail at work.  “Scott, we have to do the SKAN.”  Um, ok.

For those unfamiliar with the 24-hour race format, such races are endurance events that ask the question, “how far can you go over the course of a day?”  I don’t pretend to know the deep history of 24-hour racing, but to the best of my knowledge they rose in popularity as mountain bike events, at least in this country.  I know there are some 24-hour runs that take place.  And here in Anchorage, we have a 24-hour ski race.  Typically a race director will set a course of some moderate distance and the participants will have 24-hours to try and do as many laps of the course as they can.  Most laps wins.  Pretty easy, at least until your legs fall off or you abandon the course to chase pink elephants through the dark and fall in a lake.  Then things tend to get hairy.

Having decided to ski, we still had options, and could have opted for 6- or 12-hour events, either solo as part of a team.  Showing an obscene lack of common sense, we signed up for the 24-hour solo category.  Our preparation consisted mostly of forgetting that the race was coming up and then frantically packing ten burritos, some bananas, and a bag of energy bars and calling it good.  My race strategy was simply to start skiing, eat a lot, take lots of breaks, and see if I could manage not to cry.

We pulled up to the race venue a little after 8:00 am and staked out a piece of real estate in the wax bunker, a cavernous cement monstrosity used by ski clubs for weight training and setting up wax benches.  For the SKAN, it doubled as base camp.  C and I stretched out our sleeping bags and wondered what we were in for.  Grant, who we knew from the ANR ski program and who, albeit unbeknownst to us at the time, was about to set a new course record, set up camp next to us.  We started to eat and wait for the launch.  In due course the whole lot of us wandered down to the stadium, stepped into our skis, and at 10:00 am started the journey.

The start of a 24-hour race is something to behold for its lack of excitement.  Off the front, skiers on teams who will get lots of rest between laps launch off the line in a jumpy wave of frantic double poling, but the soloists amble forward in no hurry to get anywhere because, let’s face it, we have all day.  A photo of the start gives the lay of the land.  I’m in an orange jacket way in the back.  C is next to me, but mostly out of view.


Finishing the first lap, C was all smiles.
 

In comparison, I looked a little concerned, which in and of itself should be concerning as a close look at my watch shows that I’m only 25 minutes into a 24 hour race.


We continued to ski laps, each one characterized by big hills separated by small hills.  We skied up and down the contours of Kincaid park, stopping after each lap to drink a little water, eat a little snack, and in one instance to pull over and re-wax our skis.  In due course we were ravenous.  Up the rise a picnic had formed.  “Aha! They are serving us lunch!  Fantastic,” we proclaimed, and hiked up the hill to get in line.  After filling a plate with two kinds of potato salad, a flaky meat filled pie, and a cookie, we started to notice a pattern in those around us.  Everyone was wearing blue jackets.  Each jacket was labeled “APU,” a local ski team and training club.

“Umm, is this the APU ski team spread?” we asked while staring at the ground and kicking clumps of snow about sheepishly with our ski boots.

“Yes.”

We learned an important lesson that day: stolen food tastes oh so sweet.

Sufficiently fortified with simple carbohydrates, I continued to ski and C went to take a longer rest.  C started documenting her race with a series of self portraits.  Here, after lap 4:


And here, looking similar after lap 5:


And looking hungry after lap 6:


And after lap 9:


Yes, Christie skied herself into the emergency room.  We had reconnected on her 8th and 9th laps after skiing our own races following the poached APU lunch, taking breaks as needed.  At 4:00 pm, the race switched from the first course to the second (we skied each course for six hours, first in one direction and then in reverse, effectively giving participants four different courses to help mitigate boredom).  The second course looped about the south side of Kincaid, returning to the stadium via a long climb called Hair Pin.  It was exhausting.  C declared after eight laps that her body was telling her to take a longer break, but she headed out again, hoping to get ten laps in before dark.  Back in the stadium, though, she was having trouble catching her breath.  A likely combination of fatigue, cold air, and exertion brought on an asthma attack.  Not too much later, C decided that a trip to the ER was in order.

Sometime after 7:00 and after nine hours of skiing, I packed C into the car and we made the trip across town.  An ER nurse did the intake.  “Have you had any exercise today?”

Does skiing 58 kilometers count?  We had to explain the SKAN.  “Wait, you’re skiing all night?  Why?  Is this for a charity or something?”

No, it isn't.  Why indeed.
 
Sufficiently pumped full of steroids, the hospital released C back into the night.  She wisely decided her race was done.  But mine kept going.

I was back on the snow at 11:00 pm, some thirteen hours after the race start, with ten laps done in daylight prior to the ER visit.  We were now on course three, skiing the first course backward.  Headlamps were required.  The long downhills I remembered from the morning had turned into long climbs, with a fun and fast descent of Elliott’s climb the reward, a trail generally only skied in the uphill direction.  The narrow reach of our headlamps served to block out everything but the stretch of trail ahead.  I skied the first lap of the day where I did not see a single other body on the trail.  At 2:00, I plodded back to the bunker for a burrito and a nap.

Sleeping in the bunker was surreal.  We’ve all been there at one time or another.  Bodies over-tired, mind both exhausted and restless, unable to calm itself and unable to make sense.  Shifting in and out of sleep and waking dreams.  Difference being that in the bunker you were liable to close your eyes and open them to find that a new body had crawled up and fallen asleep at your feet:


Conversations would come and go, people would sleep and rise, eek out another lap.  Grant’s girlfriend, who was running support for his race, would appear and cook up a mug of hot ramen and disappear back into the night.  That ramen fueled Grant to 38 laps (242 km).  I ultimately got up at 6:00 am, sipped some tea, and prepared to head back into the early morning, still well short of 38 laps.


It turns out that a storm had moved in.  The wind was blowing a fresh inch or two of snow around the stadium, and flakes continued to fall at a steady pace.  The storm would ultimately produce between 12 and 15 inches of new snow across the Anchorage bowl, but thankfully the full brunt held off until late on Sunday.  We were back on the second course, tackling the hair pin turns for which the Hair Pin climb was named in reverse at alpine speeds on skinny skis.  At least it felt like alpine speeds at the time. 

The falling snow captured plenty of ambient light, which was a good thing as my headlamp proved to be a distraction, acting like high-beams on a car in a snow storm.  With the lamp on, all I could see were individual flakes rushing forward, the trail itself lost in a continually shifting milky way of falling snow.  However, with the lamp off, the new snow did as new snow does: muffled sounds, smoothed the rough edges, blanketed the trails in contemplation.  It also slowed the skis, making for much more work.  But the sun was starting to rise, birds awoke and sung, and spirits rose… and then fell.  The trail on return skied up and over Little Niagra, a short hill always skied as a descent.  Coming the other way, the hill was a vertical wall that I had to somehow surmount.  One step after another, because I was reduced to steps on Little Niagra and unable to get any glide from my skis at all, I was at least grateful it was a short hill.

Back at the stadium, our race directors were cooking waffles.  More people started to emerge from tents and from the bunker, putting skis back on for a final go at the race.  Sometime after nine, I poled out of the stadium for the last time.  Roughly 40 minutes later – appropriately the slowest lap of the race for me – I came in and crossed the finish line.


Note the 1,000 yard stare, eyes turned inward, all attention turned to forward momentum and pain management.  In my mind, my form was perfect: weight transferred from side to side, perfectly aligned on a flat ski, arms powerful and well timed.  In short, I looked like the male version of Marit Bjorgen:


Take a close look at the photo above and the photo below of my actual triumphant finish, and judge for yourself how well I fit my mental image:


In any case, I was soon told that I did not need to ski anymore, and I reacted appropriately:


And here are C and I are once it was all said and done:


I ultimately skied 16 laps, which amounted to 101 km (about 63 miles).  Total time on skis was between 9 and 10 hours.  I slept for 3 hours.  The trip to the ER took about 4 hours all together.  That leaves about 6 to 7 hours for eating, sitting around, and waxing skis, i.e. wasted time.  Clearly, there is a lot of room for improvement next year.  C stuck around and stayed awake for the night, helping to cheer me on, doing what she could around the stadium to help out the race, and distributing glow-stick necklaces to those in need.  We were both exhausted, and ducked out of the award ceremony early.  We went to bed at 6:00 Sunday night (after struggling to stay up that late), slept a solid 12.5 hours, and would probably still be sleeping today if we had not had to get up and go to work.

A public thanks to our race directors, who appeared to do, well, basically everything, and a thanks to the race sponsors (although I would be surprised if any of the above happen upon this web page to receive their thanks).  The good SKAN folks are reporting by way of summary that 137 racers, a number that includes 12 24-hour soloists, skied a total of 4,071 miles, and I am glad that C and I got to contribute to that total to the best of our ability.  The race was a lot of fun, although once you figure in the ER bill (which has yet to arrive), the total costs (registration, new headlamps, food, medical care) probably make it seem ridiculous to participate on either a dollar per mile, dollar per lap, or dollar per hour basis.  To make it more affordable next year, we will probably aim to either eat less or skip the ER room altogether.  We’ll research it over the summer, see what makes the most sense, and report back to you.