Monday, December 28, 2015

Getting the impression

Maxie and I are teaching ourselves impressionist painting and some music concepts.

Here's my first try at a painting, a standard issue subject matter.

Christmas 2015

Upcoming shows


Have a few shows in the immediate future. 

All are listed with details at markmikunas.com

Head out to Phylis’ Musical Inn (1800 W Division St) Tue Dec. 8th @ 8.30, I’ll be doing a 30 min set.

Also, on Fri Dec 18th @ the Store (2002 N Halsted) around 8pm for the Creative Self Expression Showcase where I am playing with several amazing performers. Hope to see you!

Album release party highlights video

Been away a while, a bit of a personal situation...but back, and here is the highlight video of the album release party. Still need to make a site with the photos, etc...but it's a start. Much more stuff coming soon...


Low Rez Brewery

Nice article written about my excellent friends Kevin Lilly & Dave Dahl's impending brewpub. Can't wait guys!

Dogs Bark at Strangers released!

At long last, my latest album, "Dogs Bark at Strangers", has been released!

Check out my music site for more details.

You can listen at the link below, and it is for sale at CDBaby, iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, etc.

Cry, fuzz

There's nothing like fuzz live. A great guitar wave sizzling and crackling, like a tail of fire whipping the crowd across their collective faces.

My current sound is produced by the clean channel of a Blackstar HT5 (which I will be micing to compete with the drums at the release), and a Timmy surf green overdrive pedal most often at around 11 o'clock. I love this tone for anything from a volume cut tremolo crystal string sound to a slightly fizzy aggressive sound. However, for a few songs on the new album, I have been in want of a kick azz fuzz.

So, as usual, problems abound.

I use a Morley wah pedal for several songs as well, often times in the same ones I want the fuzz box for. Unbeknownst to me till recently though, fuzzes and wahs don't play well together (well, most as I was to learn).

The fuzz pedal is a relatively low impedence pedal, meaning it takes the line level signal of the guitar and is hyper sensitive to it in order to generate its tone. The wah on the other hand, puts out a high impedence signal. Both pedals like to be the first in the chain, the first the guitar plugs into. Typically, and optimally for the wah pedal, it goes first. You'd run the guitar cord into the wah to get the full sound sweep, then the wah into your other pedals (in the case, fuzz).

Fucking everything, right? Well, after hours of research, I have found the best options (there are others out there that all have caveats and I won't list here.) I'll tell you what I did. And this may not be perfect for everyone as it requires a specific fuzz pedal. But for me, I love the sound of this pedal.

Ended up getting an MXR classic 108 fuzz pedal. It has a built in buffer switch, which allows pedal to correctly temper the sounds for the fuzz. Solved! And, I love the sound of the overdrive and the fuzz mixed together. It really allows me to taper my sound to exactly what makes me happy for each song with minimal fuss (usually a pickup change and volume cut on the guitar is all I need).

Moral is, always learn and research, never assume. Hopefully before you spend the bucks.

The album is done

After what feels like a lifetime, the album is done. All the recording, mixing, and mastering has been completed. The raw files generated, mp3 friendly ones, etc. Honestly I can't say how I feel right now. Vascillating somewhere between proud, happy, disappointed... I hear all the flaws, see what could be, wondering if I should take more time. Just gotta cut that cord and let it go. I've realized that cycle never stops if you don't break it yourself. So here we are.

I guess I shouldn't say it's completely done, as it still needs album artwork, but that will come.

No rest for the wicked though, as I need to have a distribution plan in mind. Right now I am mostly leaning towards using one of the services like Tunecore that allow you to distribute across all the major digital distributors, but do take a fair cut of your earnings. Need to research more, and those experiences will be a separate blog entry.

Also, need to decide about the physical medium that I will use. Do I have a run of CDs ordered? Does anyone listen to CDs anymore? I am learning towards actually having cards printed with a QR code linked to a site providing listening options. Seems that would be a good, cheap way to get your music into as many hands as possible, and anyone with a smart phone can scan and listen easily.

I will admit though, I miss the artifact. I like having a CD or an album to hold, display, be proud of. I've looked into short run vinyl, but that presents lots of issues. First, it's expensive. Second, my album is not mastered correctly for vinyl. I have read enough to know that due to the grooves in the vinyl and sound frequencies inherent in writing to vinyl, you need to make sure your album is mastered for it. And, I have no clue how to do that without spending tons more time learning, and frankly, I'm exhausted. Third, the length of how many songs I can get in there, in conjunction with the cost of larger vinyl and track size of my songs mastered. There are 14 songs and I am sure I'd have to cut some or just have an EP style album made. No idea how I'd choose what tracks make the cut. I kinda like em all, and they all together tell the story of my life the last few years.

Honestly, it almost feels surreal I will not be working on this album anymore. It's become like a third job for me. Don't get me wrong though - I am ecstatic to be done with this. Anxious to start writing some songs :)

Album Release - Working through the mastering

So, following up on the mixing. All the songs are mostly mixed. I say mostly as it's a process of mixing on monitors, then listening in studio cans, ear buds, car speakers, computer speakers, taking notes on what is off on different playbacks, going back, tweaking, and repeating the process for weeks. But, at least I am in this part of the process. I see a light. It's funny (or sad) thinking you have to mix to account for most people listening on stock white apple ear buds, but you do. When I was younger I only really cared about making things sound good on my headphones, which obviously is pretty stupid, but I will say as an artist it is hard to let the producer in you cull some of the full spectrum to let the mixes play nice on bargain equiptment. Or maybe I am just doing somethings wrong. Anywhoo.

For mastering, I am using iZotope Ozone. It's a fantastic tool with many usable presets as jumping off points. Currently I am finding a cohesive overall EQ curve for all the songs. I have most points nailed down and luckily most songs are in the same general spectrum. A few I have to massage the EQ and do some low end roll off, but for the most part things are where I want them. The most valuable lesson I have learned over the last few years is to tame the low end /bass of all the tracks. If you have ever wondered why your mixes sound muddled, it's often way too many tracks with excessive low end competing and masking each other. I had the notion that things would sound massive if you kept the full guitar spectrum/etc, but in reality I was making it sound flat and less pronounced since it wasn't given it's proper space. When I was younger I would boost treble or add gain to try to get things to sit better, often times making things much worse. Seriously, use that EQ and focus on each track. Does your vocal/drum/guitar/even bass need all that low end?  Remember that the sound spectrum is finite and each track needs its own address along the block.

Man, compressors can be so confusing. I spent weeks taking courses (and have done this most of my life and I still feel like a beginner) on really understanding how to use compression ratios, types of compressors, etc to not truly squash the sound and get things loud enough to sound somewhat modern. Pain in the ass. I find myself going for crazy ratios like 20:1 (which doesn't even exist in ones like optical), so I am getting there but still alot I don't quite get. However, I am mostly getting there. I think.

Also, the stereo expander is a mind fuck. It goes like this. Turn it on and adjust your spectrum. Every time I go "Holy Shit!" when I hear how it seperates the bands across your head. So I bump it a little more. Then a little more, like an addict. Then it sounds like shit. And I have lost all sense of reference. So there's another hour and I am back to square one. If I had the money I'd hire some help.

Anyways, back to the mixes. Trying to keep my ears fresh.

Album Release - The basics. Recording and mixing. Finished!

After months of recording, all the performances are done.

Back when I first moved into my apartment, I noticed a side closet would provide the best sound booth I could get. I hung rugs and foam padding to dampen the sound and did my best to eliminate reflections. Again, this whole thing is DIY, so I'm never gonna get true pro quality. And that's fine, and part of the fun and pride in it.

My gear changed a bunch over the months. Generally, I stuck to 3 mics. A shure SM58 for the more "rock" vocals that had me pushing more air and dynamics, a shure 57 for micing my amp (more in a bit), and an MXL condenser mic for more naunced vocals, on say, less aggresive songs. These fed into a Steinberg CI1 input box for connecting to my DAW (Logic Pro X on a 2012 Mac air). Actually, first I should note I ran the mics through a TC Helicon Voice Live Touch for a bit of adaptive EQ and at times full on effects like gang shout vocals. The setup worked mostly well, but I will say there were takes across days that really sounded different and had to be corrected as best I could in post using EQ. Also, my mac air surely does tend to sputter on larger, effect heavy songs, Often times I would enter a delicate high wire act of freezing tracks (converting them to processed WAV files and eliminating real time processing) during playback to make sure I didn't get the dreaded "System overloaded" error. I will say though, don't listen to people who claim you need an insane mac pro or such to record. Unless you are tracking a band or a professional producer, it's just not true. As long as you are patient, it can work.

For my guitar, I play a Fender Roadworn Strat into a Blackstar HT-5, which I love. I always use the neck pickup, and for overdrive use a Timmy pedal, again, which to my ears is stellar. My final pedal in the tiny chain is a bit of tremolo from a Cool Cat.

So, tracks are recorded and I start mixing.

For this I use tons of plugins and such. Since I really wanted this album to have an overall cohesive sound, I selected a specific drummer and kit from the Logic Pro drummer utility, and tweaked everything around that kit.

With regards to effects. First off, Valhalla reverb is my reverb of choice. I use it as a bus effect, and run everything through it at around 15% usually to give it the appearance of being in the same room. I like stuff a little wet, so that's intentional.

For additional guitar effects I use Amplitube (and for bass in addition to the occasional midi and Logic's bass processors), and at times some of Logic' built in effects like tape delay, step filters, space designers, sweeps/etc. I am a huge fan of using midi guitars, so I process those through either Logic/Reason/or a Philharmonik processor. Vocals I take through iZotope Nectar 2 for de-essing/reverb/eq/modulation/compression, and then every track gets fed through T-Racks for compression/limiting/eq-ing. With this album I have become a huge fan of using a bit off center additional vox track with some saturation and overdrive to add some grit to the main vocals. Oh, and adding a very thinly eq'd, almost trashed delay. Gives everything a nice punky/grungy tint.

Less than 3 months out and I am still mixing. Scary.

Premiere of "Draw me a Box"

From 2013.

The founders of Little Prince Cafe (myself being one of them) wrote, filmed, and produced a short film about the concepts behind the community and event nights.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

Reunited and it feels so...well, you know

Ingrid Katauskas Amazing moment yesterday. Aside from my beautiful niece graduating 8th grade (congrats Kylie Mikunas), I re-united with my sister. First first time we have seen each other in 20+ years. So good to see you Ingy. Feels surreal. Paul, me, and Ingrid. I can't stop thinking about it.

Flabby Hoffman Show

Tune in this Saturday (I’m scheduled to close the show at 3:15) to the Richard Flabby Hoffman Radio Extravaganza on am 1680 (also web simulcast at http://www.que4.org) ! I’m going to be a guest on the show, maybe playing some live music or debuting one of the singles from my upcoming album. Call in to the show if you want at 312-985-7834! Also playing the Creative Expression showcase on July 9th, but more to come on that later. Next - I have to submit my final guest list for my Album Release Party, so please get your RSVP in ASAP if you have any chance of coming!

Danger Quest

Big day!

Max wrote his first program! Using KidsRuby (the Ruby language with the GOSU library, some other niceties), he first wrote a message alert dialog and drew lines using the cartesian coords. Then, we started on "Danger Quest", his own little 2D RPG thing.

Attached some of his concept art, and a video of the first game character running around. We got rudimentary animation using image rotation going, and soon we'll have some enemies, collision detections, etc.



 

2015 - Danger Quest from Mark Mikunas on Vimeo.

Master

Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart, he dreams himself your master.

SCHOOL OF ROCK

Maxie's first day at the \m/ CHICAGO SCHOOL OF ROCK \m/ !!!!

As much as I'd love vocals or guitar, he's seems drawn to the drums...He loved them, and I loved seeing the spark of magic as he played with others.

The experience was a bit "Kamp Krusty-esque" however, as Jack Black was no where to be seen...and I am starting to doubt if he will even make an appearance...

 

2015 - January Maxie First Day School Of Rock from Mark Mikunas on Vimeo.

The lesson

From 2014

A lesson in pleasure and pain. Our first completed quest on the left.

Maxie was so happy...

Then, the next quest a random encounter brought the wrath of Ashardalon...

there were no survivors...

For my Mom as she passes

From 2014 

My final Christmas gift to my Mom. Singing her favorite song, Willie Nelson's version of Always on my mind. I love you and miss you, it's just not the same.


 

  Always on my mind, for my Mom as she passes... from Mark Mikunas on Vimeo.

Occurance

From 2014

Odd day. Something happened in my 3 flat, still not sure what. Loud frightening noises. Then in the hallway. Felt the air between the door and wall. Feet vulnerable just then. Saw cops entering with guns drawn from the alley. Hold up a bit, and then downstairs. Still don't know what happened. Sounded like a struggle. Cops were, incredibly kind, but not forthcoming with details. Arrests were made? Front door smashed in. Gimme something good blasting now. When does life stop feeling like a dream.

This is Halloween

From 2013

Been working hard on my newest album, but in the spirit of the impending holiday I decided to side track and do something fun. Here is my take on the Danny Elfman masterpiece "This is Halloween"

So much fun doing character voices, odd harmonies, etc. Hear me do my screaming clown, witch, and more!

m0th3r r08d

From 2014

Proud to release my latest EP, “m0th3r r08d”, into the wild.

It’s a folk-style 4 song album inspired by a recent road trip down parts of route 66. I recorded it with a 4-track, guerrilla style, with the songs being improvised around a spontaneous melody. Therefore, it’s more about creating a style or mood, with things only coming into focus on occasion. There is no noise reduction, studio quality clarity, etc. I wanted something raw.

Special thanks to my son Maxwell Mikunas for his beautiful cover art he provided

Maxwell turns 6!

From 2014

My advice to Maxwell on his 6th birthday.

Never forget to appreciate each year of your life, as the grim spectre of 38 is always creeping right behind you...

Live at Phylis's Musical Inn

Untitled

From 2013

pain. context and ageist loss.

family. the fear, as someone i love is alone, mortality dripped out in retiring bold font...rythmic.
i may be a terrible person. the best i can say is i swear i want us to all be.

sitting in the dark, tragedy after another.

my son, warm against me. please, universe, god, whatever that demon is that brings that warm spring social.

i don't remember sleep.

Snow, exhaustion

From 2013 

The cold burnt branches wore captured little snowballs like diamond rings, swaying, while the wind moaned high and wide. Yellow, the sky dreamt of orange as heavy it closed it eyes.

Snow. We all saw it.

Yellow Snow


From 2013

So apparently I am starting a new tradition. I decided to record some Christmas songs in low fi fashion. Just me sitting in the apartment with a mic and a vinyl filter.

This is the third time I have ever played this song and I am well past a Bears game worth of drinks, and 2 more hours in kind, so mistakes are a-plenty. But, it is, I suppose, real.

'Tis the season, right, so what better way to embiggen the holidays than do stumble through some Elvis in a drunken, forced-heat heavy air living room?

Release of Assorted Bones


From 2013

I am so proud to share my new album, Assorted Bones, with everyone. This has been a labor of love that began over two years ago, and it captures the changes life has brought along the way for me.

I can't really tell you what it's overall style is, but I can tell you who inspired me during this period: Jeff Buckley, Mike Patton, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, The Exploding Hearts, The Smiths, The Mars Volta, Amos Lee, Afghan Whigs, Mel Torme, Michael Jackson,The White Stripes, The Cramps...

Here is the full album download: 

In the coming weeks, I will put the individual tracks up as well on various sites. Also, I will be donating this to children's cancer research, so if anyone likes it, please hold tight and support a worthy cause once the donation page is set up.

Built in Chicago Review

From 2013

We presented last night at BuiltInChicago. Thanks to everyone for your support!

Article on BuiltInChicago


Built in Chicago

From 2013

SerenadeMe Launch @ BuiltInChicago

BuiltInChicago Details.


SerenadeMe article at the Startup Voice

From 2013

Turning Your Passion Into Your Business

Note – This article was originally published at the StartupVoice in 2013, which has since shut down.

I, like countless others, at some point made the mistake of blindly accepting that work is merely something you do to make money. Having worked around Chicago at several high profile internet companies/start-ups, over time I slowly segmented my world between work and passion, and never the twain did meet. I simply had lost any ability to see how the things I spent my free time doing could translate into a business. Actually, I never even considered it.

My whole life though, I had spent all my free time in much more creative pursuits. Writing music, especially, was my primary passion, and a talent I knew I had that was fairly unique. Programming and software design I enjoyed because, like music, they allowed me to create.

Back in the working world however, often times creativity is replaced by pragmatism, or worse, the pursuit of soley profit. As much as we try to find meaning in our work, sometimes it is truly hard when the only real direction you have to take is laid out for you by others.

After a few major life events, it slowly occurred to me that I had more to offer. I, like many of us, had never even given thought to how I could use my side interest to make money. In the world today, so often the path we travel is so laid out we forget to question. I was a Computer Science major: What business do I have trying to sell custom music?

The best thing I can say is, don’t be bound by that line of thinking. Take the leap. But, wisely.

As I began the road to creating my business, I quickly realized I needed first to focus. It’s easy to imagine everything instantly. I needed baby steps. And the immediate issue to me, outside of the usual common startup concerns, was how was I going to translate something I only did as a hobby to a product – What did I need to change? What did I do well? Where did we need help?

For this article, I will discuss the way I approached making custom songs into a product.

1. Design is universal

I knew I could program well. I could design systems and think about things as discrete units and re-arrange them into objects. I realized this married perfectly to creating songs quickly. I applied the same techniques of breaking down logic into units as to the components of popular music, and well as song structure itself.

Programming teaches always refactoring your code. Meaning, don’t let software gather moss. Re-write it frequently, using modern tools and practices to always gain a higher ideal as you work in new features. We could apply this same mindset to custom music – Find simple, unobtrusive tools that are modern, easy to work with, and can be replaced quickly and painlessly. So, keep our recording process and song writing efficient. Don’t obsess and get bogged down by your tools. They are there as a means to an end. Don’t become dependent on them, or spend forever choosing them.

2. Take Notes and Tag

When you are dealing with your passions, often times you don’t apply the rigor of process that you would in other areas since it is often for your pleasure. When I used to write songs before, I would take time, throw aways sections, start over: No more. In the corporate world, I used the concept of code “snippets”. This “snippets” idea works perfectly as well for custom music. I never throw anything away now – any lick, melody, clever line – It all gets captured and tagged copiously using a searchable database. So, when we need a pop ballad, we have hundreds of little discrete chunks that can be searched and used as inspiration for someone’s perfect song.

3. Keep Focus

However, one hard lesson I did learn, was to always keep focus on what makes the business work. This is hard with your “dream job”. For example. With our initial release of the SerenadeMe site, I decided to build the website using Ruby on Rails and I approached scale, estimates, and architecture as if I was designing an airline reservation system. Meaning, we totally over-architected the whole thing and it cost us time to launch. Since I had been a programmer professionally for large applications, I applied that mindset to our initial launch, which was unnecessary. It quickly became apparent we built things we wouldn’t need for months. I learned that to be successful at fulfilling your business and passion, you need to be even more vigilant about your decisions, since it is easy to romanticize the simple fact that you are even doing it. It still needs to work.

Turning your passion into business is insanely rewarding. It really makes you think about how and why you enjoy what you do, and it truly tests, validates, and fulfills. It provides a level of satisfaction far beyond anything I have felt working in a large business. Finally, it lets you learn other aspects of business that you may not have had interest or opportunity to explore previously. The only thing to do is to always be mindful of the road you are on, especially since you are the one paving it.

Article published on Meant to be Seen 3D

From 2008

Had an article published at Meant to be Seen 3D. The article details setting up an active stereoscopic solution using a projector and shutter glasses.

Link to the article. Original publication date: December 2008.


Friday, December 25, 2015

I am done with cancer

From 2010

The fight is over.

It was six months of my life, at times a waking nightmare. What a horrible disease cancer is. But, my treatment has concluded.

Chemo effects are cumulative. I was aware of this going in, but really, I don't know how you could prepare for them academically. On the night of the first treatment, I remember Marina, Max and I took a walk to the park. I felt a bit off, but proud to be out and in the real world during treatment. This was day one.

There was so much I didn't know about why exactly chemo was dangerous beforehand. Chief amongst them being (as I was to learn about 8 days later) the destruction of white blood cells. The infection fighting cells. It was around 7 pm the Saturday night following the end of my first cycle that I started to feel warm. Now, it was hard to know what exactly I was feeling, as one of the main side effects for me was the disruption of internal/external temperature perception. I was always too hot or cold, skin was burning but toes frosty, maybe abdomen on fire internally, or maybe just mentally. That Saturday, it was a real fever, and my excellent oncologist, Dr. Karides, was very firm about heading straight to an emergency room. There is a period, about 7-14 days after a major week of chemo, that your body's immune system is comprised. So I was ushered quickly, with turquoise breathing mask trapping my hot breath against my cheeks, past the other emergency room clientele. I would spend 2 nights on heavy antibiotics and limited sleep reserves. Neutropenic fever is what I would get again after the next cycle as well, and again spend another few days in the hospital waiting as they tried to culture any infections I may be harboring. Luckily I was fine both times with no need to be quarantined. It took it's toll mentally though. Those were supposed to be my "chemo weekend" recovery periods. It was just a different flavor of hospital time.

Back into the second cycle, things started to get much rougher. For my regiment, a cycle of BEP chemo is an 8 hour / 5 day plan. It would begin to add up, the symptoms and toll it was taking on my body. The usual hair migration occurred (of which the eyebrows were sorely missed) and weight melted drastically. It seemed as time went on all I could bear to do was lay in my bed, fearing all things odorous. Car rides back and forth left me ill. Luckily my family and friends were amazingly supportive, as was employer, Page Foundry. I seriously owe some kind folks. But there was no time for that. Chemo was all consuming now. Things blurred slowly. I had to watch and feel everything.

At the end of the final cycle. The next four days were the hardest of my life. My bones felt like they were turning to hot sponge inside my skin. My skin in turn was leathery and red and felt stretched beyond comfort, and hot. When I would try to stand, all the blood would drain instantly and things would go dark/faint. I never did faint. And, as a seasoned drinker, I thought the nausea would be manageable given that I have woken a few times under a bender, but this was different. Some sort of hellish chemical hangover that introduced a new level of nausea. I started to hate looking at myself in the mirror. Not because of how I looked. Just because.

But, the chemo eventually concluded, and I had to get a scan to see if it worked. I was so nervous as we waited in the office for the results that somehow I knew I wasn't done just yet. And, I wasn't. The mass, initially 6.5 cm, had shrunk to 2.1 cm. It was encouraging, especially considering my blood markers were back to normal, but it was still a bit too suspicious to leave resident. I would have to have surgery. I nearly cried in the office.

Meeting with Dr. Brown, my urologist/surgeon, left me a wobbling mess of chemo burnt nerves. He is an excellent doctor with technique and bedside manner, but is also quite serious/direct, and he let me know that this could be a tricky operation. I had already had the RPLND surgery and it left behind scar tissue footprints, and chemo always gummed up one's internals. I was scared shitless.

Over the next few weeks, I had much preparation to do. Donating my blood autologously in the case of a blood transfusion, having various tests, bringing up iron levels, etc. When the day of surgery finally came, I was so tired on the drive in that I wasn't quite as nervous as I thought I may be. Everything was dark and quiet and early, Marina so comforting. Things went well. A painless IV insertion and soon I was waiting to enter the surgery area. I plead my case for early anesthesia and my wish was granted. I went under, and was awoken soon without hitch. Everything was well. Technically.

Damn surgery hurts. The next day, I awoke shocked by the pain, wondering how I ever got through the major surgery 6 years prior. Then it hit me. Narcotics.

The human body is incredibly resilient. Each day, I was amazed by how much better I would feel. And, I was inspired by my kindly 86 year old roommate who just had similar surgery and was quite spry (luckily without a chemo history) I went in on Wednesday, and I would be going home on Saturday afternoon.

When my doctors came to see me, they were flush with good news. I was done with treatment. The mass had shrunk even more since the scan, and what was left was a shell of dead tissue with a microscopic grouping of ensconced seminoma cells. Since everything was shelled in dead tissue and microscopic, there is no need for more treatment. I am done and need to recover. Ouch...

In memory of my old video arcade

From 2004

This is a quick video take of my old, homemade arcade cabinet.

I will add this to the programming page as well, as it did require flashing/programming the keyboard encoder grid for the button circuit connections, and I did write a front end in VB for game selection. Back then, I wanted to be able to cycle through console emulators as well as arcade games, and there wasn't a nice one size fits all launcher back then that played well without a true keyboard/mouse combo. You also get to see a bit of use at various parties, as it was located in my bedroom back in my Rogers Park days with Adam and Jay, and later, the dining room in Edison Park.
2000 - Arcade Cabinet Construction from Mark Mikunas on Vimeo

Thursday, December 24, 2015

To the end of the world

From 2007

The trip notice.

There is a feeling like a foreigner, and then there is feeling like a foreigner. So it goes. I learned this, not 12 hours after landing in Argentina. As well, I learned there is eating beef, and then there is eating beef. I learned a fair bit this trip, I must admit.

South America was not necessarily our first choice this year for our annual exotic trip. Truthfully, I was hoping for Africa, but a myriad of reasons kept us away from the Dark Continent. Last year we traveled throughout Iceland, and our checking account was still not completely replenished. And, well, the spiders. I will need a fair bit of therapy, or valium before I could co-exist peacefully with largish arachnids.

South America, specifically Argentina, came by way of a VIP FAM trip mail early one morning, care of Nancy, an Orbitz collegue. At that point, we were looking heavily at China. That is one long flight. This Patagonia trip, although not a stone's throw itself, piqued my interest.

I forwarded the mail to Marina, and received an instant message not one minute later. She was all capitals letters and exclamations, words like "TANGO" and "PATAGONIA!!" peppered the screen as quickly and she could hunt and peck. It would seem this was a likely avenue.

We were hoping, as usual, for a bit of anonymity when we first began the booking process. The trip, a pricey, yet discounted agent affair, was to hop around Argentina and Patagonia, supposedly requiring only a few brief hotel site inspections to justify the "fam" portion of the trip. It seemed a reasonable tradeoff. We got to travel to an exotic locale with accommodations and meals minded, and in turn we bartered a few hours of our trip to the hotels that would do their best to brand their names into our brains. The true value, though, was subjective.

We arrive

August 30th. After 15 hours of travel, we step foot on Argentinean soil. Wearily we shuffle through a surprisingly brief customs check, and scan the colorful sea of people for a sign scrawled with our names. I couldn't help feeling a bit like royalty. Like tired, economy class traveling royalty.

We spot a man, standing rigid and professional, flaunting our names for all to see. Big, felt marker font. This feels so formal. He is dressed quite smartly, in a black fitted suit and white shirt with a high collar, open, that screamed fashionable. He was courteous and charming. Then, quickly efficient.

"Hello, Mark, Marina". He addressed us each individually. Handshakes, the whole nine yards.

"I am Flavio. From the agency."

I nodded. I missed his name. Fabio? Fa.....Damn. I lost it. I assumed a professional air, and, after what was probably a bit excessive duration, began:

"I'm sorry, what was your name?"

"Flavio" he repeated.

"Wait in this cafe, please". He motioned behind us to a few open tables.

"I have to greet our other agent, Wally. She will arrive in the next 45 minutes". His English is nearly perfect.

Other agent? Odd, there was supposed to be a group of 12 of us. I was a bit worried. Anonymity doesn't work in small groups.

The airport was smallish, and the food court cut like a diamond at sharp, rough angles through the concourse. The Godfather theme played prominently through the speakers. The place felt smoky, yet there was no smoking allowed. We sat, and seized our first chance to fumble out our Spanish. Dusting off our conjugations and friendly forms, we ordered water from our guinea pig waitress. We sat there, nursing it for 45 minutes while the crowd ebbed and flowed around us. She didn't seem to mind.

We would hear the Godfather several more times this trip. Mostly through mono-speakers, crackling and ancient. Once whispered in an elegant restaurant, a strange rendition with vocals. Once we heard it in the lobby of a 5 star hotel, plucked daintily by a harpist.

Lifestyle of the rich and/or corporate

There was a rush throughout Buenos Aires that first day. The three of us, exhausted from endless travel, held our heads barely propped up against the bus seat as we sped through the streets of Buenos Aires. Flavio would stare out, then back into the bus, always flowing with information. Important dates, tied to avenues. The pink house. Evita. Paint made of blood. Promiscous, prolific national figures. Our heads spun. He saw it and smirked.

We arrived at our first hotel sighting and Marina and I pretended to care. The staff was all fancy hotel jargon and stiff posture and ridiculous suits. It was information and business centers. For my clients, they reminded me. The hotel was so generic and committee designed that I couldn't help but careless about how many people the conference center could accommodate. Not contain, or hold, or seat. As if it was, itself, entertaining.

"Really? That many?" I fumbled.

I think she knew. There was probably a much better way to feign interest.

We kept moving, popping in an out of rooms. Junior suite. Double, Executive double. Single with Junior. Suites and sours. Flavio was still speaking throughout.. For every dry detail dropped by the hotel manager, he managed to somehow rope in an amusing anecdote.

We stared out the glass windows at the Rio Plata river. It was a murky brown water, as far as I could see.

"Is it always that color?" Wally had a nice bluntness about her.

"Sure."

Flavio gave a nice detailed answer that I can't recall. I was barely awake. Marina scattered about the spa and walkways snapping beautifully artistic photos of non hotel related items. Apples. Cropped scenes of mirrors. Macro shots of flowers. Unrelated to anything that would help a travel agent. The staff took it in stride.

Back on the road, our driver, a short Argentinean with high cheekbones and no English pulled into traffic. We heard a smack. Flavio and he shared a quick glance. He looked out the window at the violated car and gave a marginally warm smirk. The car accepted it, we continued on. Pedestrians be warned.

At this point, I began to feel a bit self conscious about my wardrobe. Usually, I take pride in the little value I place on my dress, and occasionally I enjoy looking as unprofessional as possible. Kind of a juvenile rebellion thing I still haven't shook. As we walked into our hotel for the third time though, I became self conscious.

We walk in through big heavy, opulent doors, opened synchronously by absurdly well-dressed, bilingual doormen. The floors are all marble: There is gold and glass everywhere and people seem aloof in that confident, maybe condescending way. Everyone looks like the after photograph.

There is poverty not too far from this place, and they are aware, it seems of class distinction. My societal theories, and conscientious sloven-try, even with all its well meaning philosophy, may be lost here. Our liaison from the local travel agency walks in, our evening dinner companion. He visibly eyes me up and down. He was not impressed. Should I bring up Dostoevsky at this point?

Flying (Plummeting) towards Ushuaia

There are many cultural differences above and beyond the surface ones that even the most deluded trust fund travel agent could surmise. The plane rides were laughably(terrifyingly?) anachronistic. After departing from Buenos Aires on Aerolineas Argentinas, it was amazing to watch the pilots flutter about in the cockpit. I thought the door was broken. Nope, all flights in South America were just as orgiastic. They just don't close the cockpit door. Fair enough. On the flight to Ushuaia, one of the pilots slipped into the bathroom for a spell. After a few minutes, he emerged. One of our companions, anxious for the duration, snapped up the empty stall. A few minutes later, she came back, laughing -

"Our pilot had a cigarette in the bathroom"

It was a turbulent flight, I wouldn't fault him.

La Estancia

The second day found us sleepily winding outside of the city proper towards a working Gaucho ranch. Buenos Aires was getting warm, and we kept shuttering the windows of the bus with colorful carpet overhangs. We all tried to nap. Even Flavio seemed a bit lazy this morning. Maybe a bit relaxed.

On arrival, we were showered with meats and wine in paper cups. It was a wildly sunny day on a dusty ranch. We stopped to watch the horses before our time came to ride. They seemed to suffer from mild narcolepsy.

I turned to Flavio:

"Are you going to ride with us?"

"No". He laughed.

"It would be boring for me"

In his accent, this didn't sound quite so blunt.

I believe the horses felt the same way.

Marina and I hopped up on our horses. They seemed taller than I remember horses to be. Maybe it's all the beef they eat. We struggled a bit, and our large hiking boots barely fit in the stirrups. We quickly noticed the missing saddle. This was almost bareback, only a couple of layers of cloth. I could live with this, as long as my horse stopped trying to bite my leg. I don't know what I did to him.

The gauchos here were a bright, friendly people, led by a rotund cherub, who seemed to enjoy his celebrity, and cashed in his political capital as flirtations with the women. He coughed out words, children smiling, looking like a leathered, dusty santa claus. He shook our hands with hands that felt like hiking boots.

Our fearless leader.

Flavio must have no free time to himself. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all trivia travel related, deftly weaving stories about Argentinean history, cross referenced with American parallels, always retaining a sense of humanity and humor that seemed nation-less. It was calming traveling with him. It became a running joke of the agents that he was known by everyone in the country. Everywhere we went people shook his hand, offered favors. His cell phone ring was obviously the James Bond theme.

Tango show #1

Nightime in Buenos Aires owes royalties to Paris. The narrow, cobbled avenues slice and snake the scenery in tight, European fashion. Stores stand shoulder to shoulder, sometimes a bit crooked, and sidewalks buck the less deft pedestrians. Our trip held two tango shows, a few days apart, and tonite we approached the Cafe de Angelicos with tredipation. Even Flavio was a foreigner here, as the building had only opened recently after being rehabed.

We swayed through the early Hollywood styled decor, in bold maroon and deep slick black, towards our perched table. The audience, mostly Argentinians and Brazillians were smart stylish and perfectly reserved. Whence the show began, an impeccable dervish of whirling dancers, the room feel silent. The wine never slowed for a bit. These dancers moved in ways that I wouldn't bother trying to describe.

The end of the world

They have a saying in Ushuaia -

"Disfruta, es el fin del mundo", meaning, enjoy it, its the end of the world. Actually, I dont know if its a saying or a slogan. I read it on a cocktail napkin.

Our local guide, Euginia, quipped another remark, through her long flowing black hair, covering one eye.

"Some people say this is the end of the world. We like to think of it as"

"As the beginning", chimed in our new companion, a vocal, opinionated woman never to be shy or aware.

"Yes, the beginning", Euginia added, deflated.

I felt bad. That was her moment, her expression. We knew what she was going to say, and dammit, let her say it. She lives at the end of the world.

Ushuaia is aptly known as the end of the world. This fact, we would find, would be played to great effect. Everything is the "last" something in the world. The last lighthouse, train, even golf course. The course, we objserved one early morning through fog, is a bit lacking, but hey, its the last in the world. While most cities look like they carved the earth to fit their needs, Ushuaui seems to accomodate the land around it. If Antartica ever colonizes, this place will have an awful lot of rebranding on its hands.

Over dinner on our first night in Ushuaia, after a long walk through the charming, chilly night, a waiter casually mentioned through translation that many locals had never seen an American. This came after he served us the best King Crab and Black Hake (found only locally and in New Zealand) that we had collectively tasted. I hoped we made a good impression. Our ridiculous scene of Benny Hill-esque translation while placing a order belied our true elegance. Really.

The town was muddy and sullen, stepped and foggy, looking like a remote port town should. It cowered in the shadow of the Andes, and it remained silent and still. There were odd pairings of modernist hotels and moveable log cabin homes, propped up on chopped wood so people could relocate as the government deemed needed. It was poor and booming, ancient and fledgling, grey and vibrant. Skiing was becoming.

The last train, or 'el tren de fin del mundo'

The train at the end of the world moves much slower than you may think. We kept moving, chilled, through a vast field peppered with long dead tree stumps left by the "pioneering prisoners". Up the mountains and into the National Reserve.

After a brief hike near a beautiful, still lake, we had to abort our travels due to a downed bus in the road ahead. I glanced over at our vessel and wondered the odds our bus might stumble as well.

The valley was still and cool. We walked up to the edge of the lake, a perfect echo of the Chilean and Argentinian Andes. Marina and I knelt near the water and dipped in our hands. It was cold, but a different kind of cold. Clean, fresh cold.

Eugenia and Vanessa stood behind us. Eugenia smiled:

"You can drink it. It is clean."

She waited, eagerly.

We glanced at each other. It was tempting, to be sure, but I wasn't that desperate. We held a bottle of mineral water in our hands.

Free perks

Being a travel agent in a less traveled area is a bit like being a rock star. Everywhere we go, our entourage scurries ahead and consults with the staff, and soon we are embraced as family and showered with food and drink.

After our hike, we found ourselves engaging in another barbeque at Patagonia Mia, and again, the restaurant comped everything.

"Please, it is a gift from the restaurant" whispered the hostess, as she gently motioned my wallet away.

It was an absurd riches of beef and steak and sausages and lamb, and near the end I started to give up on breathing and focus on expanding my pants. By this point we had already been given wild statistics about how much beef Argentineans consume, and there was no hyperbole here.

In the airport

At the Buenos Aires airport, Flavio weaved us in and out of serpentine rows of still people. We made no eye contact. Soon, after chatting with an airline employee, a woman whisked from behind the counter and removed the velvet rope, paving a new line for us. We circumvented a good hour or two of line waiting. Also, we were being bumped up to first class.

Flavio, charming as usual, looked over his shoulder at us.

He grinned, "I don't like lines"

Neither do we.

El Calafate

Flying in Patagonia, specifically the Tierra del Fuego, is an unpleasant experinience. As we would learn from Cesar, our guide in Catafele, Patagonia is famous for it high winds. Secretly, I knew this.

As we approached Ushuaia, the plane slipped around in the air wildy. My Dramamine held furtive. I grabbed Marina's arm, sweat and all, and stared worriedly at our folding chair-esque plane seats. How old is this plane? It creaks, and the seat cloth is barely blue anymore through the mold and tears. We drop several feet abruptly. My stomach is higher at this point. Everyone breaks into applause when we finally land. I as well, am eternally grateful.

That night, we slept in our unfortunate separate beds. I awoke several times, in a full body sweat. Everyone in Patagonia seems to overcompensate wildly for the cold air outside, making the indoors unbearable. We opened our window, screen-less of course, and welcomed as much cool air as possible. Our hotel squatted at the top of a largish hill, and kept its distance from the occasional passing car. Silence.

Calafete is one of the most vexing and latent towns I have ever visited. It is a snake shedding its skin. It is small, yet modern and antiquated. Dogs run in packs like wild teenagers, weaving in and out of cars and people and streets and sidewalks in leaps and bounds. Marina was nervous, at first. Before long though, she seemed to pay as little mind to the dogs as they paid her. There are almost no paved roads here, yet many dirt paths lead to five star hotels. And horses walk the streets alongside children.

Mutiny

By day five, tensions were starting to rise. Our newest travel companion had managed to insult, offend, or isolate most everyone she came into contact with, and transitively, was making the lot of us look like jerks. We all did our best to co-exist, but any conversation had the potential to erupt. It kept us drinking much Quilmes, the obvious Argentinean beer.

As we crept across the dusty roads of Calafate, our Argentinean guides clearly sensed the latent mutiny. We began to tear through the hotel inspections, silent and beaten, while the staffs would look quizzically upon our erratic behavior. Occasionally they prodded us with standard questions, but the group at this point had lost most of the genial facade. It was mostly silence and half stretched smiles. This was a shame, as Calafate had some truly magnificent hotels, especially the Esperante, a beacon of modern design, with cavernous halls, shimmering glass ice sculptures, and arctic style.

So with our newfound angst, we separated for a stretch before our rote meat frenzy. I was beginning to loathe beef.

Ferry to Uruguay

We hopped on the ferry towards Uruguay at an unusually prompt 11:30 am. This trip was so welcome - unplanned and spontaneous, unlike the regimented past week. We knew nothing about this county, and it was nice. Refreshing.

Colonia, our port city of choice, was not a disappointment. It was asleep, without fanfare, when we all spilled out of the boat into the cobbled streets. At that point in the morning, the sun stretched a lovely orange tarp over all we could see. We quickly gained our bearings at a local tourist office and oriented ourselves towards the old town portion of the city.

This felt like what I had imagined Latin America to feel like. It was a time capsule in many ways. Streets wore cobblestone, with gaping gouges of bricks upturned and strewn in perfectly random fashion. The cars were all from eras bygone, cars that I couldn't imagine still functioned. Then there were misplaced tropical plants, silhouetted again smoky water, and buildings that seemed to have died ages ago and were now gently decomposing in public view.

The silence was profound. The river quietly touched the shoreline, and old American rock music played ever so lightly through dangling old speakers on many street corners. I had to remember that people lived here.

We walked up and down the streets, up narrow lighthouses with panoramas that made me dizzy, and through little trinket shops that seemed to sell whatever fell off a truck. Occasionally we stopped in little leather stores that sell amazing quality for amazing prices. Children played sports I didn't quite recognize. One field, or court, was hosting around fifteen teens playing what appeared to be a combination of basketball and soccer. I paused to take a few photos.

"Photo!" cried one of the larger boys.

All the players stop to look. Then, the crowd. Apparently I missed noticing the bleachers, where several more onlookers where enjoying the game. All necks crane towards us. I panic inside. Anxious awkwardness, quick, disarming smile. I know nothing about this country...Are the people friendly? Laughter erupts across the makeshift stadium. They now play a bit harder, perform. Innocent, like children. We smiled, but moved away a bit quicker than we had arrived.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Back in the day

From 1994ish

Checkmate at the Thirty Whale

On Iceland

From 2006

And there we were, standing in the world’s northernmost capital.

Iceland made my me feel fresh and relevant again. It felt like fair trade, mentally and physically. Our days were hard spent exploring a fledgling piece of land violently sprung from the bowels of the Earth's core, and then, our nights tapered by genuine pleasant exhaustion, organic food, and timeless inquisition.

I felt good. My mind felt sharp. No bullshit questions or dwindling grasps for my youthful artistic or philosophical meanderings. All my senses met me at this turbulent land. I was unknowingly inquisitive again, without restraint or inhibition, and with seeming global awareness. Everything was fascinating, and reachable. It bled natural reverence and quiet invitation with troll like rocks and hidden falls that played hide and seek with man. It felt truly good to feel trusting and connected to strangers again. We even escorted a hitchhiker for a hundred or so kilometers. No worries here.

So little paved road. Almost no billboards. Just 4 T.V. channels. Hours of solitude and silence, yet so much diverse terrain ; sometimes so violent. All my personal belongings distant.

---------//

We arrived in Reykjavik at about 9 am, Icelandic time, 4 am Chicago time. I quickly grabbed a cigarette in a dank little room just outside of customs inside Keflavik airport. The room was covered in soot, it's inhabitants blended well. A man sat with me briefly and attempted a few English words after unsuccessfully engaging me in his native tongue. I smiled and smoked the rest of my cigarette in peace. Soon, we emerged into eternal dusk.

The world outside was calm, and there was a constant flow of striped buses shoveling weary arrivals to their hotels. We hopped on our bus and peered out half eyed at the alien terrain at eighty kilometers an hour. For forty minutes I was confused about the world zipping by. Mostly green, pock marked with deep black volcanic rock and oddly arranged pillars of stones in areas I couldn't imagine held any humanly significance. It was a vast horizon, quiet, with mildly dirty clouds lounging just over the barren earth. The ride was quiet and efficient, and our driver had a good memory to create a route around Reykjavik and deposit each of us at our lodging.

Our hotel was unassuming at best, dingy in truth. At around 10:00 we found ourselves walking up some concrete stairs and being buzzed into an abandoned building. There was a humble waiting room draped in ancient carpet, oranges and reds, eastern bloc style. One short hallway slit the building in slyly molded tiles, but stood dark and vacant. We waited, occasionally venturing into an adjacent room, sheepishly calling out "hello". No one. I wandered up to the second floor, uneventfully, and finally hiked up into the attic, where a few eastern Europeans were eating a strangely Russian looking breakfast. Here, we learned, our room wasn't ready. They asked if we would head to the city for a few hours. Exhaustion was making me dizzy. Maybe motion sickness. The aging cheese slice and egg ring buffet wasn’t helping.

Our first contact with the third most expensive city in the world was rather bland. Rather bland. The town was asleep and hadn’t coughed off the morning fog. We wandered down towards the docks, back across select busy streets, and passed a few people that seemed to be walking with purpose. We were lost in the moments, not exactly sure where or what to do. Damn it, I was pissed our room wasn't ready. I needed sleep.

---------//

At night, the world looked much different. Light, yes, light at night. So many cosmopolitan dining options, costing so many kroners. The dollar is dying quickly. After hiking a bit through a now wildly stirred awake city, up shopping districts and through oddly familiar looking marketplaces we settled to dine at a three star fish buffet. Fish, right? Seems obvious, but ours was less than ideal. Maybe differences in culture, but everything seemed under-cooked, somewhere uneasy between sushi and lightly baked. Luckily though, we ate skyr, an nice Icelandic yogurt-like treat, that slowly coated the odd fish aftertaste. The place felt a bit stiff, and the older locals all ate uneasily with impeccable manners. Americans here were silhouetted against the locals, a rather unimpressive feat. After dinner, we used our travel agency provided passes to the "ice bar", and quickly downed shots of brenevin, the national alcoholic drink that tastes like anise, in 10 degree weather, wearing unsanitary bar issued parkas.

---------//

It was still early when we first hit route 1 in our little Toyota Yaris. At first, things felt familiar. Leaving Reykjavik, the world was still a billboard strewn, paved affair. An hour into the ride though, it starting feeling different. Civilization started to fall away into our rear view mirror, shrinking quickly out of sight. Soon, we could see so far in every direction, I started to get a bit nervous. Taken out of my urban cage.

We stopped at a roadside dugout, where their stood a bilingual map. These would quickly become habit. Stretching our legs, we breathed wildly fresh air. It was silent, crisp, and natural. There hadn’t been a car for a bit now, and to our east it seemed like we straddled a different era. Houses once painted in vibrant red or yellow paint, now stood like solitary, angular dissenters against an indifferent countryside. Maybe it was always this way. I started to realize where we were at this point, the isolation started to feel real. At this point, we hadn’t met anyone but the urban, worldly folk of Reykjavik. What would rural Icelanders think of us? What if the car had problems? Apparently, between 2001 and 2004 there were 121 fatal car crashes on Iceland’s unforgiving roads, and 8% were caused by tourists. These facts and questions started to weigh heavily, and somehow this vast landscape felt a bit more confining.

 After the first few hours, the roads started to get a bit more unforgiving. We were entering the Snaefellnes peninsula, and this ancient area started throwing dirt and gravel at our auto. Suddenly there was lava fields surrounding us, and the once flat land starting rising up around in a magnificent glacier. This was really starting to feel adventurous. We kept driving on, and it became apparent this road was at the mercy of terrain. There was green and moss looking growths, spiked with giant block rock, magnificent views that sometimes bent the road up high enough to give us a splendid peak around the coast.

On the road, pretty miraculous. By about the third day, things became more settled in my mind, and I began to appreciate the isolation. The car sputtered and coughed up mountains, sometimes in the wrong gear, winding up around fjords and clinging for life against the mountain shoulders. At times we drove with music, a random collection that seemed to focus at times on the Police, but quickly lost interest. Something about it felt right. Sometimes, heavy metal that would slowly pull Marina's hands to her forehead in little circular temple rubs. It helped me though, through the occasionally longer jaunts when my body still kept time with Chicago. There were small towns, sometimes with gas, and amiable people who spoke English as if it were a worn out novelty. It was comforting.

We hiked for miles each day, sometimes to waterfalls that forced what seemed like the entire country's water supply fell over their backs, sometimes through volcanic rock or steaming desert, sometimes in the presence of mammoth ice formations, and once up a volcanic crater. It was that which stands out most in my mind. That alien black mountain, silently humbling its few ambitious visitors. I still feel it, hiking, as we slowly parted with oxygen on an upward bent that shrunk terrestrial people to the size of flies. That morning was misty, and a small hat of fog hovered just above the rim, as we stood for eternities starting at a land we may not see again.

There was much more, so much more, and in my mind, a palpable personal change. Time will tell if any of this holds up. For now, this page is starting to feel like words, words that are a bit to relatable.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Migrating old info from the old site

Starting up a new blog.

Hopefully this is the one that sticks for a while, as I have gone back and forth over the years, coding sites myself in java, then rails, shoehorning into my music site, etc.

Decided to go the simple, Google route.

So, The first several posts are going to be from years gone by, albeit with a 2015 timestamp. Here is an old photo from my Taekwondo/Hapkido days.