Saturday, December 29, 2012

Manninen Bros Logo

Manninen Bros Logos designed for my uncles. They want a brand for their photo frames, which you can find at their website.  They have some really beautiful photographs from the Upper Peninsula.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Bridge Troll

Tenebral had been on the road for nearly two weeks and he was still nearly a week from Aacer Tue, at least according to his map.  All this for two books, he reflected bitterly. The abbey there was doing a little light housecleaning and the bookkeeper wanted to preserve a valuable ledger and their rulebook. So he had sent a call to the Great Library in Kinsbourne. The director then sent Tenebral walking four hundred miles for a rulebook. He lifted his satchel higher on his shoulder and sighed heavily. He hadn't been allowed to hire a riding buffalo--it was too expensive, even though it would cut the trip in half. Not for the first time, he reflected on that grim little fact: it cost less to employ him than a buffalo. He wondered if they might have just sent the buffalo.

Collections development had seemed so glamorous in school. Adventuring to the far corners of the continent, gathering copies of illuminated manuscripts from secluded scriptoria guarded by wise monks, recovering rare tomes from ancient ruins, maybe even collecting a valuable spellbook from a mage, high in mage tower. He had not realized that the reality of "adventuring" translated to sleeping in ditches for weeks at a time, drinking cheap tea and eating old biscuits. Ugh, the tea. He should have known better than to pay just four bronze for the bag; boiled dirt would have made a more sumptuous brew. All this suffering, for some mad abbot.

Tenebral paused. An abbot was a sort of head monk, right? He was probably a wizened little old teacher type of fellow. He probably appeared doddery and old, but he was secretly a powerful warrior. Maybe the ledger held secret combat techniques! Tenebral began to picture it in his mind. A huge book, certainly bound in leather. Gold leaf, yes, with a red silk bookmark. Full page illuminations with carefully-written instructions for hand-to-hand combat! He found himself nodding enthusiastically as he pictured the florid poetry that would surely accompany each form. Maybe the abbot was really sending this manual away to hide it from a traitorous pupil, who would use its teachings to take his place. Excitedly, Tenebral began to describe it out loud, spinning and slashing the air with his walking stick. Yes! The ledger contained an unstoppable technique that, once mastered, could be used to defeat the abbot! The traitor almost had it learned, but for the ledger being heroically whisked away by a librarian for safekeeping at the Library. Tenebral envisioned the fight to break the ledger out, ducking and dodging, swinging and fighting, until finally he swung his sword into a killing blow. Being made of wood and also a walking stick, it cracked in half and left a throbbing red mark against his palms. Back in reality, Tenebral dropped the partially-carved staff to take stock of the situation.

The road in front of him was walled off, blocked by a pile of uprooted trees. On his left, heading north, was a narrow strip of dirt, lumpy where it had been cleared by something immensely strong uprooting trees. The dirt had been swept and stomped down somewhat, although whether this was part of a conscious effort to make the new road look more road-like or a simple byproduct of something uprooting and dragging trees was not clear. Hanging from the pile of trees was a sign which read "Detour!". The exclamation mark was a nice flourish, Tenebral felt. Made the sign seem urgent. He peered down the dirt road detour. It was wide and clear, and the vegetation was well-trimmed. He stepped on it experimentally and found that it was spongy along the edges and packed in the middle. Actually, it was quite comfortable. He strolled along the road quietly for a while, pondering what he was detouring around. He had heard the road had been having some trouble lately. Perhaps ahead it had flooded and he was being directed around.

And then, without much warning, there was a bridge. Tenebral wondered why he may have needed the warning. It was a high arch, its underside forming a near-perfect half circle. Each step was carefully cut from a single piece of wood and flanked by magnificently sculpted handrails, painted with vibrant cinnabar. And there, flowing in gurgling rapids below, was nothing. The bridge was not really a bridge in the traditional sense, unless one might say that it connected one bank of dirt to another bank of dirt, each separated from the other by a river of suspiciously identical dirt.

Cautiously, Tenebral set one toe onto the lowest step. It creaked gently and he jerked it back. Tick, tick, tick. Nothing happened. Slowly, he raised his foot again. "Stop right there!" A basso voice interrupted his elaborate pantomime routine. A huge troll hustled through the underbrush and began to climb onto the bridge. Leaning his gut on the railing, he flailed his legs and wheezily tried to slide over. With a final burst of speed, he thoroughly failed to get over and simply leaned nonchalantly on the side of the bridge.

Panting, he held up a dirt-stained hand. "You can't cross the bridge until you pay the toll."
"The troll?"
"Him too."

More nonplussed than intimidated, Tenebral leaned sideways, to look at the perfectly ordinary dirt that did something other than flow under the bridge. "Fine, then. I'll go around."
"You can't go around, there's a river."
"No, there isn't."
“Sure there is. It’s over there.” The troll gestured back the way he’d come. Through the broken underbrush, Tenebral could see newly upturned earth lining a shallow ditch aimed (in haphazard fashion) towards a crescent sweep beneath the bridge. A shovel was stuck in a mound of broken sod, and a wheelbarrow had been turned on its side to form a makeshift table, where a delicious-smelling tea cooled. Beyond that, what appeared to be a rough dike separated the ditch from a small lake.

"You're digging a river to go under this bridge? Why didn't you just build the bridge over an existing river?" The troll opened his mouth, then closed it. This had apparently never occurred to him. He opened his mouth again, then placed a finger against pursed lips, thinking. He leaned heavily on the bridge, writing little proofs and figures on his palm with an outstretched finger. Finally, he broke into a huge, tusky smile so horrifying Tenebral considered calling for the police.

"There wasn't a river here before, now there is. Now that there's a river, there's a demand from YOU to cross it, which I can supply with this bridge. QED, I built a bridge. Problem solved."
"But you created the problem."
"And aren't you glad I solved it?"
“Well, I can’t very well go back on the path, it’s been barricaded.”
“Couldn’t be helped, I needed someplace to put all those trees I knocked down to build that barricade.”  The troll sounded so sure of himself that Tenebral began to worry that maybe this was sound logic.

“Alright then, what’s to stop me going around the barricade?”  At this, the troll began pretending to inspect his nailbeds, which might have been a jarring display of impatience had he not been in possession of nails that lived up to their name; his manicurist was presumably also a carpenter.

Tenebral crossed his arms over his chest. “Well?”
“The old path is flooded, too. The river burst its banks and swamped the whole road. You can go that way, but really I’m doing you a service!” The troll’s eyes lit up, as if he suddenly realized that it was the truth.

Tenebral frowned. “What’s the toll, then?”
“Seventy brass coins. No slugs or tokens.”
“Seventy? Do I look like I even have seven brass coins?” Tenebral seized his jacket and held it out dramatically; it did an excellent impression of a window. The he held out his satchel, empty except for the tin of tea, a wedge of sweating cheese and his last biscuit.
“Well, that’s the toll. Pay to troll his toll, and you can pass.”
Tenebral frowned. “Do you know about the tea trade?”
“Betrayed? Sure! I’ve betrayed lots of people.”
“What? No. Wrong letter. Tea trade. That you drink. Fellows made a crazy fortune at it across the Ocean. Raised a whole fleet of ships, practically their own army, too. Just by trading tea.”
The troll’s eyebrow had knit itself into a sweater, now.
“Oh, lots of things! Other tea. Land. Safe passage. But I’m sorry, I haven’t got the seventy brass. I guess I’ll just risk it in the swamp.” Tenebral turned around and began to walk away.
“Wait! They had land? Land they could build bridges on?” Tenebral swivelled back.
“Alright, tell you what. I’ll make you a deal. You give me all the tea you have on you, and I’ll let you take safe passage.”
Tenebral shook his head. “This tea? I’ll have you know I was going to give this to the Abbot at Aacer Tue.”
“He’ll have to do without, because you won’t cross this bridge unless you give me all your tea.” Tenebral stamped his foot. “That’s not a fair trade! No, at least give me a cup of your tea. Then it’ll be a fair trade, and at least I can make my excuses to the abbot.”
The troll nodded slowly.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


A bit grizzled and lonely, the Lumberjack clears forests to convert to farmland, pulls stumps, and produces valuable wood for fuel and shelter. The lumberjack is an anti-plant tank unit, fighting with axes and saws. Useful for chainsawing down stubborn defenses.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Weird Heroes: The Gnome Gnight

The Gnome Gnight is actually a party of five Gnomes, attempting to pass for a human warrior while traveling through the notoriously xenophobic Human Realms. Coron, the leader of the party, serves as the head--the most literate and boasting the deepest voice, he can comfortably pass as a human head.  Hale controls the left hand--bad tempered but loyal and obedient, he's in charge of swinging the sword. Hari is the right hand man, in the sense that he literally controls the right hand. Fez-wearing Fole drives the Left Extensible Boot, with his companion Fori drives the right. Inseparable comrades, they form one fork that might kick back.

While disguised as a human, a Gnome Gnight will always attempt to preserve their cover in combat. However, in desperate situations the Gnome Gnight may resort to throwing members of the party at attackers--although a dangerous maneuver,  they've yet to meet a foe who can rally when he's got a gnome on his face.

Part of the Weird Heroes series, the Gnome Gnight was inspired by the gnomes from Gravity Falls. I loved the idea of five little dudes working together to disguise themselves as a human, and I thought they might be fun as the protagonist of a story or a campaign. Obviously they'd need some rules drawn up about combat for them, but it'd be enjoyable to watch a player roleplay five gnomes, with the option to add or subtract as the situation warrants--it's a rare situation where you can fire your left leg, if you so choose.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Hood

As it turns out, the lost painting that had defeated me is actually saved, albeit in a bit of a dingy and banged-up form, with a lot of the undersketch showing through. Ah well! This is my progress so far. The whale skeleton is looking a bit sharper compared to last time, a little more dynamic, you know how it goes.

Now sure how I feel about replacing the Deer Skull throne with the new design, but I liked the axe, I think it's a nice touch. Let me know what you think, this is still a work in progress.

Original Digital Painting
Second Digital Painting

I did what I consider my "Final Run-Up" today, so presently this painting is on sale over on Deviantart. I don't really get a lot of money for it, but it's the novelty of the thing.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Accepting Requests

Last week I started on a third version of my favorite painting, The Hood, only this time carefully formulated so that it could be printed, in all its digital glory, over at deviantArt. Working on a 36" canvas was a new experience for me, especially because it meant I was zoomed out way more than I'm used to... but my lines look smoother. Way more opportunity for detail, and I'd changed some material details. Tried to get the whale skeleton to look more BA, add a dragon skeleton, that sort of thing.

Then, without thinking, I left my computer on overnight, with my fan off. The fan is a crucial component to my crotchety, busted-A rig, and without the fan the computer soon overheated and shut down. It was okay though, I'd saved a backup copy that, while it would probably lack transparency and take me hours to fix, would at least have all the work I'd done thus far.

Or so I thought. Anyway, I didn't actually make the save and right now I'm thinking that I don't want to try and draw that picture again, not for right now. I don't know who reads this, but if you've got an idea for something you want me to draw right now, well, I could use a little switch in my thinking.

Let me know!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

More Fisher Concept Art

So I'm thinking of changing the Fisher to the Angler, and some people have expressed discontent with the spider concept art. So I decided to gin up some new concept art, to see if anybody saw something they liked better.

Obviously, the new versions change some of the character behavior somewhat, but the core idea (hostile fishing mob) stays the same.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Fisher

The Fisher is a neutral mob that tends to spawn near water; like spiders, it is docile during the day, and may even be seen riding in a boat, fishing with its fishing rod. It fights by snagging you a fishing pole and dragging you towards it. Although not especially dangerous on its own, it can often prevent you from maneuvering while dealing with more salient threats. The Fisher will pull you constantly towards it at low speed, then suddenly jerking the line to pull you long distances. Dashing when they try to jerk the line will break it and deal the Fisher damage. Once it reels you in (gets you to within three blocks of it) it will begin to attack you with a melee attack.

There are four variant skin concepts for the mob. The idea was so broad I wasn't sure which one was the best fit for the concept.

The Fishing Spider
Drops: Spider Eye, String.  Probably my favorite skin option, because it adds value to the "Bane of Arthropods" enchantment and is also the cutest li'l guy. Look at him! D'aww, he's so cute.

Drops: Prismarine Shard. Prismarine Crystal (very rare), Glowstone Powder (very rare). I liked the idea of an Anglerfish that drops glowing compounds.

Drops: Ink sacs? Honestly I don't have a lot of ideas for super-valuable things for this guy to drop. If you do, let me know.

Drops: Bucket of milk, enchanted boots [depth strider], kitten [auto-named Fisher]. This is a really weird idea.

In theory, all variations may also drop: boats, enchanted fishing rods, or leashes.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Beastmaster II

The Beastmaster is back, now in full color. Let me know what you think of the old lady.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Minecraft Idea: Thanatomnicon

 So recently, I realized that Minecraft combat is basically like Fight Club. You choose your own level of involvement. The bosses are all totally optional and require quite a bit of work to even fight. Nearly half the "enemy" mobs in the game require aggression on the player's part to draw aggro, and once you've got a proper base established, realistic involvement with hostile mobs revolves entirely around the player's schedule.

So I thought it would be cool if we could take this a step further. First, players must craft the Thanatomnicon, the Minecraft Book of the Dead, from 3 Bones, 5 Rotten Flesh, and 1 Book, and perhaps enchanted it at an Enchanting Table.

This dread book might have some value as an expensive piece of equipment (I haven't decided whether it should do anything on its own yet), but right now it exists as the primary ingredient in the Thanatomnicon Podium, a tool block that can be used to summon Zombie Raids. Craft a Thanatomnicon Podium (1 Thanatomnicon, 3 nether brick, 3 soul sand) and incur the Curse of Thanatomnicon from the GUI.

The Thanatomnicon Podium basically behaves like a reverse bed: when all players on a server use it, it turns day to night and starts a zombie siege.

Not challenging enough? What if it also summoned a rainstorm, so that even if you survive the night, the zombies won't be killed by daybreak? Still not challenging enough? Well then! Rather than having the horde attack for a preset limit, the Thanatomnicon won't stop summoning new zombies (and skeletons, and witches) until it is placated! Enemies in the horde now drop Magic Words. Combine 9 magic words into the the Spell of Placation, and the Thanatomnicon will stop summoning enemies.

You want me to keep going? Okay, then rather than using the Spell of Placation on the original Thanatomnicon--the one you activated to start this whole mess--an Angry Spirit will be spawned within a 70 block radius (on the X/Y axis) of each activated Thanatomnicon, and you have to go find him and use the spell on him (fighting zombies on the way) to turn off the Raid.

If you want to contribute to the discussion, feel free to comment here, or on the Minecraft Forum Post available here.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Upper Parking

Yeah, I don't actually like the punchline because I'm not sure it quite communicates what I want it to. Anyone care to make a suggestion?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Plight of the Endermen

The Endermen are a tragic species. They hail exclusively from The End, and their origin of their arrival here is a mystery. I believe that the Old Deep Ones uncovered the secret to accessing that moonlit place where the Endermen are born, and upon piercing the veil between worlds tore it irreparably. We are mostly unharmed for the abuse of the Old Deep Ones, but the Endermen paid a dread penalty. For they are natural teleporters, capable of bridging vast distances with no apparent effort, capable of transmitting themselves through obstacles with disarming ease.

Teleportation is not without its dangers, and as a man might fall into a well from which he cannot escape, so too do the Endermen fall into our world. How strange and horrible it must be, to see the weird creatures who stride across our native soil. The creeper, the spider, the dead men reanimated for dread purpose. Our vast oceans of water, as dangerous to the Endermen as the noxious lava oceans in the Nether are to us. The poisonous rain that falls from the sky! The water vapor in the air must prickle their skin; it is little wonder that they prefer the cold, lonely deserts.

The Endermen are fearfully private creatures and many times I have fought one of the giant bastards when our eyes met over the windswept dunes. They leap fiercely into battle, their eyes flashing a violaceous light and they pursue me relentlessly. I am the better armed, of course, with my axe and my sword, but there is a twinge of regret every time one of the giant men finally collapses to the sand. I bear them no ill will; certainly I have done the same to every monster that ever gave me a cross glance. And to them... I am sure that I am the monster.

On the edges of this place, on the Plains of Mool,  I met with other survivors and we traded stories of the Endermen. One man, pirate and brigand, claimed that all the Endermen carry jewels on their person. Another, a man of abiding charity who provided me shelter on the Plains, claimed that there are strange strongholds in the world, buried by time or men which contain the Portals that the Old Deep Ones used to invade The End. I have seen a stronghold, mouldering beneath Swamp of Sung, infested with silverfish and Skeletons, although whether or not it contains such a portal I cannot say. The Butcherwoman claimed that the Endermen's jewels can activate the portals.

But I know that I have seen the Endermen on inscrutable errands in the night. Pawfuls of sand, dirt... to what end I do not know, but sometimes I suspect they're building something in the dark, dry heart of the desert. Is it a shelter from this cruel world? Are they trying to build a portal, so that they can return home?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bending I

I'm a huge Avatar: The Last Airbender fan. This is something that I'm not ashamed of and I'll gladly shout it from rooftops, provided they're very tall rooftops, preferably in remote locations. Seriously, though, I like AtLA. So I spend a lot of time thinking about the show, thinking about the sequel, thinking about the universe it exists in, and a lot of time anti-thinking about the movie. What movie? I didn't even know M. Night Shyamalan made movies.

Bending is naturally the biggest element of the show, the thing that tends to draw the audience in and give them something to latch onto. It has a certain quality that is difficult to define, that superheroic quality so typical of comic books, cartoons and video games. These carefully fleshed out abilities, these elaborately staged mechanics that set the stage for ever more elaborate and bizarre fights, and bending is born gloriously from it. But bending is different, too,  far removed from the explicitly combat-oriented abilities of, say, the Teen Titans' Starfire or Dragon Ball's Goku. Its genetic and cultural implications, the motion and form, it creates a world that feels organic.

 It's that departure from combat-optimization. Bending definitely lends itself to combat, but that's not all it is, and the show endeavors very hard to illustrate that. Waterbending, airbending, and earthbending are all introduced to the viewer in the first season of AtLA not with combat, but practical, everyday abilities. Airbending is almost completely about traveling and flight. Waterbending is first used to fish. Earthbending to open doors and deliver mail. Firebending, the art used by the show's villains, is used mostly for martial purposes for a long time, revealing its use as an everyday tool only as the show deepens the complexity of the Fire Nation and its portrayal of the Fire Nation. These of course aren't the only ways that bending is used in practical ways; the show constantly reminds us that these powers belong to people who exist to do more than just fight. If you can think of a way that a bending discipline is used aside from fighting, write it in the comments. 

In a way, it reminds me of Ben Grimm, aka The Thing, from the Fantastic Four. Creating interesting circumstances where powers are different from the standard "they are powers that exist basically to allow the creator to market the hero" sensibility makes for the best worlds, I think, although some of the X-Men did the "powers as curse" thing better. It just goes to show you the way that thinking about something that appears in an industry like comics or cartoons in a very serious way, and figuring out how to differentiate yourself, taking the metatextual route will probably be more rewarding than trying to get more creative in a content route.

Friday, October 12, 2012


The rough design for my Beast Master class. Although I want the old lady capable of controlling beasts in the way that is fashionable for Beastmasters, she (like all my classes, I guess) is multitalented, using summoning spells, buffs, and debuffs. In a proper game her abilities would be focused to give her a particular role, but I'm more interested in puns and such.

Active Abilities:

Mouser Tom
Summons a cat minion.
Raises the Beastmaster's defense
Stabby Cat
Improves attack power
Felis Ebonus
Improves magic stat
Ranged Healing Spell  
Poisons opponents
Thief of Breath
 Slows Opponents
Nine Lives
Auto-raises allies
Nine Tails
Deals damage based on cat buffs

Something Borrowed
Allows the Beastmaster to control a pest for a set number of turns, in the proud tradition of beastmaster classes across the RPG specturm. This is a single spell because I consider monster-specific spells to be unbelievably tedious and not particularly useful.

Passive Abilities:

Mother's Eyes
Allows the Beastmaster to perform other actions while borrowing enemies.

Cat spells become more effective the more are cast

The beastmaster won't take fall damage

Improves XP return 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Physical Therapy

Another drawing of Celie and the Kark. I'm still trying to get a grasp on exactly how to draw the Kark. Obviously big and beefy is a necessary character trait, but compared to the last picture of him I posted on here, this guy is pretty husky. So I'm still getting a grip on exactly how big the big guy should be.

The Kark hurt his back and he's about to square off with somebody in spite of the pain. Celie's supporting him and looking tough, but honestly she should probably tell him to back off. Don't worry, Kingsley is probably swinging to the rescue. Or hiding, who knows with that shifty little cyclops.

The irony of narrative is here: in a story with a doctor, characters get hurt to give the doctor something to do. Authors are not benevolent gods.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Heavy Weapons Guy

Foreshortening? I have literally no idea what that means, for a certain liberal definition of "literally".
Anyway, he's shooting a gun, god knows who at.

Late night warmup. If you're wondering where his bandolier is, it's in the "fidgety crap Amin hates drawing" pile, next to individual bricks, wood planks, and leaves.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

In The Hall of Human Experience

This one gets a little dark. So I was playing with the idea of memory and immortality, and I wanted a place where the people of Eb tried to get some of both. The Hall of Human Experience is the place where they stored as much as they could. The Eblinites believed that they could download their memories into an external brain, which would remember everything they did at the moment of their death and as such, live on when their physical brain stopped working.

The face of the machine, such as it is, is the Mannikin. By inhabiting the body, each resident is capable of acting alive, responding to questions or carrying out conversations, even gesturing and posturing they way they might have in life (within the limitations of the Mannikin's nonorganic, relatively inflexible body). To preserve the accuracy of the archived memories, input is not recorded.

Of course, it's all a show, really. The machines are regurgitating bits of conversation and pieces of memory. They're no more themselves than these words are me. Many memories are not stored, and the way the machine retrieves memories isn't quite an accurate representation of the way humans remember things. There aren't any emotions, no fluids or chemicals to muddy the signals. Some of these connections are marked in the files, but some aren't. It's unreliable.

The files, of course, needed to be archived. Copied, backed up, stored in remotely accessible locations, retrieved, shredded, coded, pieced back together, organized and filed, so as the people of the Eb left, they left some people behind. Even one hundred years after the fall of Eb, the ghouls remain, dutifully cataloging every last file, in order to share the whole, unfiltered and accurate truth about every experience recorded by every Eblinite who ever lived.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Dammed Mountains 2

The earlier picture of Celie at the Dam, painted. I think it looks okay but the sky and the shadows don't quite match up. The sky is generally yellow like that as the sun sets, meaning Celie should be casting long shadows behind her but she only casts a few.

As always, comment and tell me what you think! This is available as a print in my Print Store over on Deviantart. I wouldn't really recommend buying it because I have no idea what it would look like as a print, but it's over there.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Dammed Mountains

The Lake of Life is  result of a miraculously still functioning hydroelectric dam that provides power to the City of Eb, its water is provided mostly by snow and glacier melt from the major Anterior alps, draining through networks of mountain caves. As such, at its depths the water is believed to be saturated with heavy life gas. The effects were not well studied before the Eblonians went extinct but it generally has an interesting effect on wildlife in the area: many animals continue right on living after they've died.

Most curious of the high altitude freshwater lake is an unusual aquatic predator and prey: the inland Leopard Seal, and the aquatic sloth. Leopard seals are apex predators within the lake, weighing nearly half a ton and reaching three meters in length. Aquatic sloths (or thalassans) are large herbivores that eat grasses deep in the lake. Other animals in and near the lake include ghost deer, loons and a number of rodents, including squirrels, chipmunks and muskrats.

Another drawing of Celie where she looks too skinny. She's actually a bit posh, the dear girl, growing up amongst those medical types. It occurs to me that I tend to draw Celie for my blog way more than I draw her anywhere else. Here I dispensed with her normal togs, because I've been trying to get her into an outfit that more suits the environment and reminds me less of her fundamentally cribbed design overall. I like the gloves: taking them off creates for innocuous moments of intimacy and putting them back on makes her hands look huge and tough. Somewhat ironically for something that should by rights be doctors' gloves, they call to (my) mind individually articulated boxing gloves.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


After drawing the Apocalypt and realizing I'm really bad at delivering daily updates, I decided to draw my favorite character from OTSRPoD 3, Jim. Now, Jim is lucky because he's a cross section of two of my favorite things: skeletons, and disembodied heads. You might say I just really like skulls, but that doesn't quite capture it.

Jar, Pitcher, Beaker, Crockpot, Urn

On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 3 is actually a pretty fun game. Jerry Holkin's writing returns for another glorious game, full of cunning punning and sublime rhyme. I'm kidding, I actually just liked "cunning punning" and needed a second rhyme. The rhyming in OtRSPoD is pretty ordinary, you know, poetry about dead gods lapping at pools of blood.

Anyway, the :"game" aspect is a lot of fun. The various class pins allow you to customize your experience in a way the previous OTRSPoD didn't allow, but at the same time very carefully organized leveling means you never have to grind in order to compete with the latest boss.

My problem with the game was purely aesthetic: I didn't get to see a lot of the stuff I wanted to see, i.e. weapons, accessories or items. Stuff like Stone Ground Mustard Gas or even something as simple as the Twin Hoe were inexplicably compelling to me in a way that the new items weren't. The lack of in-game visuals for weapons, on the bright side, means I get to design them here.

The enemies were also... there were a lot of them and they were fun, but the first two games emphasized costumed humans (hobos, mimes, clowns, psych ward inmates) over monstrous enemies, and given the character's habit of reminding you that you were often murdering people in the street, it felt like a "thing". New Arcadia had monsters in the old game, but most of the enemies were humans. It felt like the truly weird stuff--the hat spiders and animate trash--were shoved in corners; they were genuinely paranormal, rather than being "six things you'd find in the everyday Arcadian home". Bah! I'm putting too much thought into this.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Corporate Headhunter

Another RED managerial type, this is the Corporate Headhunter. He's tasked with finding new recruits for the company. At a well-run company that wasn't competitive with a single, equally helpless competitor, he might get to fly jets, drive fancy cars, and take prospective employees to nice dinners, but RED isn't exactly aiming for the sharpest pieces of gravel in the pit. As such, he mostly hangs out at job fairs and bars, schmoozing gun enthusiasts, eccentrics, and people who won't be missed.

Editorial: Yes, I realize he looks exactly like the sniper, and there has to be a "business casual" look other than team-colored shirt and tie combo. Maybe a vest. As always, feel free to make suggestions, berate me or pull my hair in the comments section below.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Apocalypt

The Apocalypt is my favorite class from On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 3. A seer, he predicts an event. Every prediction he makes alters the effect of the final event: when he predicts locusts, the event will deal wind damage. When he predicts boils, it'll cause poison, and so on and so forth.

He's wearing a rough wool robe with an apron that's meant to evoke a doomsayer's sandwich board. Not really, but that would have been a good idea. He's actually wearing it because it's hard to make robes look suitably dynamic.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

In Which Nanjing Is Super Depressing

These are my May/June 2010 Journals, rewritten into a semi-coherent narrative of my trip through China with the UW Madison History group. It was a tremendously fun experience that I want to publicize a little bit, so I'll be posting these here.
Around China in 30 Days
In Which Nanjing is Super Depressing

Nanjing represents the pinnacle of exhaustion every member of our Creux felt. We left Hangzhou via bus and pounded pavement 277 kilometers, only stopping at a small rest joint to use the bathrooms and maybe buy some inedible chicken part snacks. This provided me the only story that regularly gets any response aside from "Oh yeah... wow" when I talk about China--I left the restroom at the rest-stop and saw a lady holding her young son over a garbagecan so he could do something he could have done into a device built specifically for that purpose just fifteen feet away. If that's too obtuse, he was pooping. Into a garbage can. Outside of a bathroom. In a series of bathroom-related cultural horror stories, this represented the pinnacle of unpleasantness.
This is just to cheer me up for what comes next
We arrived in Nanjing, and it was immediately depressing. We picked up our tour guide, who took us to a hotel in the middle of nowhere, and then we went to the Museum and Memorial to the Rape of Nanjing. One of greatest tragedies in the second Sino-Japanese War, Japan occupied Nanjing for several weeks, raping and murdering at their pleasure, to the tune of 300,000 dead civilians and over 250,000 rapes Japanese soldiers earned a reputation for cruelty in Nanjing, and the museum was well stocked with horror stories; mothers and sisters sexually assaulted, then murdered and their corpses left nude and defiled, men stood on the banks of the river and murdered with rifle and rapier. Disturbing photos lined the walls; one featured a decapitated head left on a fence post that resonated particularly with me. It was awful.
Then we went to dinner at a restaurant that offered no reprieve. We'd become quite efficient at perfunctorily dispatching whatever disappointing foodstuffs we were offered, and then finding sustenance elsewhere, but here we could hardly be bothered to touch the food. The desperate tourist attraction that served as its facade left us despirited; empty of anything essential, it felt like hollowed out hell.
Afterwards we went to a lecture, which was as fascinating as it should have been, offered in a private museum by its curator. Apparently unaware that we did not speak Chinese, he attempted to show us a an unsubtitled movie and it took nearly ten minutes to explain that we couldn't pay attention. He turned it off and delivered the quite excellent lecture--a fairly comprehensive overview of the Rape of Nanjing, although it was delivered to a soundtrack of explosions and gunfire as apparently our lecturer had simply turned off his projector without stopping the film or turning off the speakers.
We went into Nanjing itself, to one of these huge shopping centers, and stumbled across American food--a Papa John's, no less. Then, off in the distance, we spied a McDonald's! And a KFC! Tempted beyond all choice, most of the Creux left seeking comfortable, familiar American cuisine. How could we resist? With a little fortitude, you pansies. I'm kidding you guys, it had been a month, I don't blame you. A brave few kept with Dreux to seek out more authentic fare. The Chinese chain joint we ended up at was not comforting--in some ways, it reminded me of a long-forgotten Taco John's. While we ate, a homeless man attempted to enter. One of the servers noticed as he got to the door, and immediately seized it, trying to keep him out. Another server materialized behind her, and as the indigent managed to pry open the door, the second server grabbed a nearby ashtray and struck him full in the face. After some more shouting and mutual spitting, he left. It was like someone had lifted a veil, though: suddenly, Nanjing's poor were visible as though advertised with neon signs. Embarrassed and broke, I tried to keep away from them.
The next day we visited Sun-yatsen's presidential palace. Another museum of some regard, I was excited to see it but profoundly disappointed when I learned it had a vast rock-garden maze I'd totally missed because I'd been too busy mucking about in a completely different random section of the vast complex, and also buying a new hat.
Somewhere along the line we'd driven to an art museum. In a weird mood and feeling for some reason that I had ground my compatriot's nerves a little too enthusiastically, I spoke as little as possible while we were in the art museum. This might have been a rewarding tactic were my memory more sound. Unfortunately, without someone to bounce opinions off much of the art slipped my mind once I'd given myself ample time to forget it (at the time of writing this it is some eight weeks distant). The Mood affected me considerably and so I'll blame it for my forgetfulness, engrossed as I was with avoiding my cohort.
Then we went to Sun Yatsen's tomb, the ninth or so huge mountain Sean and I raced up. I was somewhat surprised when the first person to try and scale the mountain was not myself, or Sean, or Dreux, but Z. I was proud of him.
At some point in here Krista and I went to a nearby McDonald's, but I can't for the life of me remember when. We went to a grocery store, I bought some chocolate, and as I recall she yelled at me for some reasons.
Our final day in Nanjing was meant to be a sort of restive day, and a snafu with train tickets meant we had to spend literally the whole day in the city even though we had to check out of the hotel early. We were quickly ushered into some sort of museum on the Boxer Rebellion, but we were exhausted. Not physically, but temperamentally. In an effort to be as childish and stereotypically American as possible, we immediately ditched our tour guide to play tag. Once we discovered the museum was also a massive garden complex, I think we were pacified. Sherri and I explored a back yard area with several outcroppings over a pond containing koi and Chinese goldfish, and promptly got extremely lost attempting to return--at least twice we were turned away from offices we stumbled into by mistake looking for the exit.
After that, there was just enough time to go to a local Confucian temple, where I rang a bell (and discovered it cost two kuai to ring the bell), and spent what felt like an eternity wandering the shopping complexes which surrounded the temple. Most heartbreaking were the pet stores. We must have wandered past several thousand animals, most of whom were stuffed into cages so tight they could hardly move. Roomier cages had animals added until none of them were comfortable, and most of the food and water dishes were empty. I've never felt sympathy for turtles before (smug bastards that they are) and yet seeing a box stacked three to five turtles deep, I had to work very hard not to cause an international meeting of the foot. And ass. As in, my foot, kicking this guy's ass. After walking about a half mile through a PETA propagandist's wet dream, Krista and I retreated, our sorrow glands swollen and leaky. Then it was time for a movie, and more shopping, and food, and shopping, and when all that was done, there was still six hours until the stupid train would be leaving. Sick to death of shopping districts that felt like the Walmart Corporation having an eighteen story yard sale, I elected to go with Dreux and Rachel to our meeting place to wait for the dispersed members of the Creux.
It was only after buying a hand-cut steak/hambaobao and some kind of spiced shish kabob from a girl whose mother was flirting with me on her behalf that the hellish eighteen hour time sink in Nanjing was over and we were free to board the train. The train ride itself was unremarkable; a long ride consisting mostly of uncomfortable sleep and cranky companions. The only memorable part of the experience with the Nanjing train ride using the terminal bathroom and reading what appeared to be graffiti advertising homosexual prostitutes. That or "same sex" friendship--my ability to determine euphemisms in Chinese is considerably lacking.
Our final destination was our first one. We arrived in Beijing tired, pugnacious, and doggedly determined to do nothing for the rest of the day. But that's a story for another journal entry.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Around China in 30 Days--Hangzhou

These are my May/June 2010 Journals, rewritten into a semi-coherent narrative of my trip through China with the UW Madison History group. It was a tremendously fun experience that I want to publicize a little bit, so I'll be posting these here.
Around China in 30 Days

We arrived in Hangzhou and began our drive into the city, past the tall houses of the villagers. I was surprised; these villages consisted of colossal, five story houses of mismatched architectural style. They were profoundly ugly things, smacking of the American Suburbia in their uniformity, and they're hideously kitschy, armed with outlandish patterned paintjobs, minarets, and parapets.
In spite of their hideousness, I decided to be happy that an agrarian lifestyle could be so rewarding. Hangzhou itself was gorgeous, one of the greenest looking cities we stayed in. We arrived in our hotel--a comfortable affair which promised on demand movies. The hotel was greatly improved when I discovered my iPod nestled in the bottom of my backpack. A few hours before I'd decided to wear headphones until I found it, and it worked. I bet this is how cults are formed. Or it would be, but I threw the headphones away.
Arrived and settled in, we immediately left for a local landmark, the Lingyin Temple and nearby Feilai Feng. The temple itself was home to remarkable statuary although in our habit Sean and I immediately embarked on an upward tour of the temple, seeking its highest point (disappointingly, a barren wall below the mountain's peak). We traveled back down (discussing, as I recall, which of us was Lewis and which was Clark) and contrived to carve our names into bamboo. Lacking a carving implement, we continued our journey, slipping through gorgeous rock gardens and discovering the monk's basketball court. Feilai Feng was much more interesting, being something of a carved mountain, adorned with some three hundred images of the Buddha in various states of repose, along with long staircases and some caverns. As always, there was a race to the top, although I took a wrong turn and exhausted myself trying to make up the difference. Sean and Benny, then the rest of us, were coerced into photos at the top; a young couple was getting married and apparently sweaty American tourists are an ideal ingredient in any wedding photos.
I expressed some curiosity about the name. I had only heard the English translation of the name at this point, which sounded like Pig Flying From Afar. There was a story that a drunken monk had had a vision of the mountain would come flying and land on a local village and when unable to convince the villagers to leave, he kidnapped a local bride so the locals would give chase. As near as I could tell the story had nothing to do with pigs... why was it called that? Krista corrected my mistake--it was Peak Flying From Afar.
Leaving the Temple was perhaps the most jarring experience--because lined up in the vast, bus-laden parking lot was about a dozen Chinese indigents, each with a more horrifying disability than his predecessor. Facial burns, missing limb, melon-sized growth projecting out of the jaw, the cavalcade of misfortune really put things in perspective... for about twelve seconds, until we arrived at a restaurant and the fact that the food was bad became the greatest tragedy any of the Creux had ever experienced.
Returning to the hotel, we discovered an alley across the street stuffed with food, abating our hunger with delicious Hong Niu Rou Mian. As Sean, Tony, and Krista looked for bubble tea and other snacks, I contented myself with a delicious bottle of orange Fanta and immediately discovered the soda that would define the flavor of our last week. Delicious Fanta.
After food, we decided to go out to a nearby bar. It was next to the hotel, a weird little joint that had a western feeling and a cramped grotto for musicians. We looked up and saw some guys doing something that bridged the gap between rocking out and the international signal for "Help Help I am choking to death, possible on the funk." Sean, being the beatific guy that he is, nodded in approval. After a few drinks, we headed up to the second floor because the girls wanted to dance. When we arrived at the not-dancefloor, the girls headed down.
Sean and myself did not get the opportunity. As we headed back downstairs, we were seized by some Chinese guys-that was pretty shocking. They stuffed into their booth and plied us with booze and cigarettes. I managed to wave the cigarettes away (and explain Sean and I didn't smoke), but I couldn't dissuade them from pouring us drinks. Or arm wrestling Sean. And they destroyed him. Finally, we managed to sneak away, but that wasn't the end of it. Oh no, the girls were dancing downstairs, and when we joined them, the guys showed up again--this time, dancing behind Sean! Oh man.

The next day we saw a reconstructed pagoda, took a boat ride, and visited a village that grew tea. It was interesting, but in that amusing, quasi-academic way that doesn't produce horrifying culture shock memories. The woman who pitched to us about tea (and sold about 元1000 in Emperor's tea and tea cookies) laughingly said they sent their worst tea to Japan for sale. We knew the game and that the US was probably the victim of that same joke when the Japanese come calling, but we bought her filthy cookies anyway. They were delicious. The evening was met with more unspeakably edible street food (I stuck with niu rou mian, afraid as I am of trying new things once I know about safe, tasty snacks) and cards.
Hangzhou was a comfortable city, but somehow it failed to make a lasting impression. The food was good, but I got the distinct feeling that it was a stroke of bad luck we hadn't simply been indoctrinated into street food culture earlier.
Stay tuned for next time, when we travel to Nanjing, the most depressing city I visited in China, and not just because it's a city whose name is most closely associated with the word "rape".

Previously in Xiamen
Next in Nanjing

Monday, September 10, 2012

Around China in 30 Days--Xiamen and the Tu Lou

These are my May/June 2010 Journals, rewritten into a semi-coherent narrative of my trip through China with the UW Madison History group. It was a tremendously fun experience that I want to publicize a little bit, so I'll be posting these here.
 Around China in 30 Days
Xiamen and the Tu Lou 

The planes in China were nowhere near as terrifying as I'd expected, so the flight into Xiamen was marked only with an awful novel. A terrible, awful, really bad novel that deserves absolutely no further mention, not even a title. You'll know it if you read it, and you'll probably depressurize the cabin trying to be rid of it.
Xiamen was gorgeous and I liked it instantly. The blue sky, the ocean, the sandy beaches, the highways that inexplicably ruined miles of beachfront property... Xiamen was quite a sight. We passed a gorgeous island, and went onto a vast and beautiful campus. Not as big as Bei Da, but very nice.
Dreux spoke nostalgically of the town where he'd come as a student and studied, and so led Z and I on a tour. We went to the beach, which was quite beautiful if you ignored the huge tankers in the immediate foreground or the line of glass on the beach marking high tide. The palm trees and white sand made it easy, and Xiamen proved to be a reasonably comfortable place. The hotel was gorgeous, with beautifully appointed rooms and even a small deck. I finished the terrible book on the deck, swaddled in a blanket. But we hadn't even spent a day there when I felt some sickness move in me, and finally I couldn't fight it. I woke up exhausted and miserable, and we were herded onto a bus. I did my level best to sleep, curled up into a ball on the seat, my feet pressed against the windows, legs bent over my head. I finally closed my eyes, comfortably asleep, and the bus come to a stop. "Everybody off, we're going to eat horrible and terrifying food."
I got back on the bus and went back to sleep. As my eyes closed, the bus jerked to a stop again. Apparently we were wherever we were going. And we were walking! Oh boy, walking. I dragged myself after the group. Billy Crystal was yelling in my ear, assuring me that I was only mostly dead. Nothing like having the disembodied voice of a washed up actor yelling quotables in your ear to make you wish you were totally dead.

The Hakka Village was so beautiful that I immediately hated it. How dare it be the coolest thing we'd see while I was too tired to properly enjoy it? Massive trees, gorgeous rivers, architecture like it was completely constructed from my mental cobwebs. I began visualizing diseases and then violently converting them to atomic particles, and finally that aggression collapsed and I was just happy to be in the village. Also, I was terribly, terribly ill.
Look at this place.
Our night in the Tu Lou was fantastic. The hotel was very cool (even if everyone but me hated it and the showers were unreliable), and navigating the village gave me a very comfortable feeling. The villagers we spoke with were very interesting, and I finally managed to persuade one to talk about something supernatural as they plied me with tea. I felt my strength return slightly. The village had been founded in a fascinating way--a taoist

 I returned to the hotel and sat with Dreux and some Chinese tourists, drinking tea. They chattered away enthusiastically, and I sat quietly, doing my best to listen. There was talking and uproarious laughter, and it suddenly occurred to me that I was the topic of conversation, however briefly. Apparently (with Dreux's translation) I'd been called a "duck listening to thunder". I liked the appellation. Everything's coming up ducky, I guess.
Then we woke up, had some rice gruel for breakfast, and got back on the bus. Back to Xiamen! I don't remember the bus ride, which is weird for me. No wait! There were pipes involved. But then we were set up, back at the hotel (finally) so we packed up and headed to the island for a day of fun in the sun. Unfortunately, the sun had a prior appointment so we had to cancel and rebook. It was such short notice we could only get rain.
The island was actually great, with a huge and ugly statue that we got to see. There was a bird sanctuary/bird hell. And gondolas! I love gondolas. Not much else to report, there, until we went for massages. Krista really liked massages. I was still hurty, but the massage was a nice finish to our stay in Xiamen.
Xiamen was concluded, and I was sorry to go. Especially when we tried to get on the plane and they were confused as to whether my name was Ben or Benjamin. Apparently it was both, after some discussion.

Previously in Yenan
Next, Hangzhou

Friday, September 7, 2012

Around China in 30 Days--Dusty Communist Butts in Yenan

These are my May/June 2010 Journals, rewritten into a semi-coherent narrative of my trip through China with the UW Madison History group. It was a tremendously fun experience that I want to publicize a little bit, so I'll be posting these here.

Around China in 30 Days
 Dusty Communist Butts in Yenan 

After a week in China, my enthusiasm for the colossal nation was beginning to flag. I felt a tad under the weather, brought low by pollution and dust storms. I wasn't the only one; our evening on the train and the oppressive heat had altered our crew from gentle tour group to Chicago five minutes before the Cubs lose a bid for the World Series. Or something, look, I'm not that good at sports metaphors. Our new tour guide, Grace, fortunately, was understanding and full of empathy for the people of Xi'an and decided to shoulder our intense, laser-like hate on herself. As a way of introduction she explained that we were running late and rather than taking five minutes to shower and sort ourselves into something resembling humans we should hurry so that we could see a museum about Communists. Our rebellion was fast and victorious.

Once we'd been pacified with running hot water, we assented to be lead around Xian. There was an art museum which I thoroughly enjoyed, although it provided little in the way of entertaining stories. There was a pagoda to be enjoyed, although really the only story there was "Grace did not know what she was talking about", something that was cemented for me when she referred to Kwannon as "Shiva" in a Buddhist temple.

Then we were taken to Xian Daxue. It had by this point become simply matter-of-fact that bathrooms were going to be horrible places, but Xian Daxue went the extra mile by assuring you that nearly any building you entered would have a bathroom that could be detected from a hundred yards by scent alone. As if that weren't enough, someone had apparently decided that doors were a luxury students didn't need, and that same perverted sect devoted to ruining every public restroom in China revealed itself to be comprised primarily of anthropomorphic horses. It was at this time that I resolved to hug every janitor cleaning a bathroom that I met. The next three weeks in China would contain exactly zero hugs.

After we'd been allowed to think that we'd have some time to get comfortable in Xian (or I had hallucinated that) we leaped aboard a bus and made a pilgrimage to the Mecca of the CCP, Yenan. A small (China small, anyway), ugly little town arranged amongst a skulking crew of mountains, I liked it immediately. This fondness was immediately rewarded with a torrential downpour and a string of Revolutionary Museums. Originally there was a joke here about how boring revolutionary museums are, especially their fascination with dusty chairs and the famous asses they cradled, but after having been to DC as an adult, it seemed unnecessarily mean spirited.

Tony, Lenin, Sean
We visited a rotating restaurant, which had terrible food and, for some reason, a kitten under one of the tables. We stayed a local hotel, which was very nifty looking, designed to look like the caves where famous Communists had hidden during the Long March. I don't know that anyone got photographs. As we got on the bus after a night spent on the hotel, Helen announced she was sick and would be catching a ride back to Xian. Dreux relented and said we'd simply cancel our next night in Yenan and head back to Xian instead--a good decision, we decided, because there was a Panda Rescue Center/Zoo that, being Americans, we were desperate to visit. So we went to another house full of old chairs that Mao had graced, and several awful shirts and hats that made me look like a Communist. Tony decided from then on that jokes comparing me to Trotsky or Lenin were pure gold (okay, they were pretty funny) and so subjected me to them for the rest of the trip. Considering my high school resemblance to John Lennon, I guess the appellation should stick, and if you want to call me Lennin or Lenon or something I won't stop you. I love nicknames.

The return "home" had very little of interest except the opportunity to see the tallest bridge in Asia. It was very tall, but I'm lacking for other descriptors; perhaps they're unnecessary. Actually, here's a picture:
Now You Say: "Holy Crow That Is A Tall Bridge"
Our return to Xian brought us quite suddenly into the middle of the tourist whirlwind. We were taken to see the Terracotta Soldiers, an official Terracotta soldier museum (where they make the fakes they sell to tourists). The Terracotta Soldiers were surrounded by huge gates, and outside those gates was more evidence of mercenary mercantilism; it was especially depressing because you apparently cannot visit the Terracotta Soldiers without buying the pelt of a domestic animal. I guess you just can't claim to have lived until you've seen the skin of a German shepherd waved around by a Chinese septuagenarian while they yell incomprehensible gibberish. Before you get excited, I have it on good authority that even if you speak Chinese it's incomprehensible gibberish.

Somehow, seeing the Terracotta soldiers failed to impress me so much as seeing the Huaqing Hot Spring where Chiang Kai Shek fled his own generals. You see, back in the 30s Japan was invading Manchuria, but Chiang was so busy killing Communists he wouldn't even consider fighting the invasion until all the Commies were gone. When his generals got sick of their homeland getting colonized, they decided to make him talk about it. But old Generallisimo Chiang would rather climb a mountain, in his jammies, during winter, without his teeth than ever even discuss not killing Communists. In the spirit of the day I raced Sean up the mountain, and then back down, although by then the only way to challenge me to a race was to be in my immediate vicinity near any incline.

Chiang Kai Shek's hiding place was really high on the mountainside, up a cliff face that I could barely climb even with the courtesy chains they'd added to help encourage tourists to climb up there and die. I managed to make it, but I was immediately schooled by an elderly Chinese man who decided to climb the chain behind me while smoking a cigarette. Behind him, a woman in high heels had apparently decided that scaling a rock face shouldn't require her to take off her six inch heels.

Apparently, our tour guide Grace hadn't murdered our good nature thoroughly enough, so the next day we went to Xian's city wall and rode bikes. Riding rental bicycles atop a six hundred year old cobblestone wall (admittedly a cobblestone wall that's nearly 80 feet high) is a sensation similar to getting testicular massage from the Los Angeles Police Department. Every bike (this is true) was constructed by Mao himself in 1944 and everybody's afraid that fixing anything will disrespect his memory.

And lectures! Our alternative to exciting bikerides and mountain climbing was getting lectures, and if they could go until extremely late at night, causing us to miss dinner and eat at an (actually rather delicious) Chinese fast-food joints that was great. I sound facetious but I'm not; it was pretty fun.

Xian's Muslim quarter, our attraction for the next day, was actually a pretty cool place, full of strange and tasty foods, suspicious people selling cheap goods, and delicious tea. However, given the choice between wondering dumbstruck around a district full of gorgeous Ming-dynasty buildings and seeing an American movie for like five dollars, I elected to see the movie. Jake Gyllenhaal was not worth it, even in a movie that had the comedic value of pretending he was even the slightest bit Persian.

After a few hours regretting seeing a movie in place of centuries-old architecture, we hopped on the bus and headed out to a panda... holding place. Zoo? I mean, it filled me with a profound sense of regret, so I'm thinking it was a zoo. Either way, the pandas were sleeping and mooning us, so it was sort of a bust until we saw that three legged monkey. And the ablino  peacocks, I guess, but mostly that monkey. We left deflated in the way American tourists often are after being reminded that zoos fundamentally suck, and that in poorer places than the States they suck even worse.
Of course that makes you a Sad Panda. All Pandas are sad.
I felt better, however, when I saw that Daoist temple. Or rather, the stairs behind it. Sean took off at a mild clip, jogging, really. I kicked my flip-flops off and gave chase. After a few sprints, trying to get ahead, my lungs had had enough and gently suggested that I collapse face down on the ground. We only had an hour to make it to the top, so Sean urged me on and fighting for breath I hopped step after step, pausing only to stammer broken and incomprehensible Chinese at local tourists, trying to inquire the time and distance. Finally, someone said something that made sense: only 50 meters! Sweat dripping-dripping--from my brow, I launched myself up the stairs again, Sean following right behind with his customary one-step-at-a-time gait. I flopped down at the top of the steps, and in one of those perfectly-cinematic cue-crescendo fisheye lens moments, I saw another flight of stairs stretch off. I felt a little light headed, dots flashed before me eyes, and I heard voices.

"Ben!" I spun around, and it was Dreux. Somewhat out of breath, sweating, and visibly gripping an imaginary belt, he explained that he'd been chasing us the whole way. He said we had to go back, but we protested--we'd come from the bottom to the top in less than forty minutes, carrying thirty inch long incense sticks we intended to burn in tribute to Laozi. Dreux assented to allow us to continue our ascent. We flew up the final steps, feet hardly touching the ground, and we arrived at the incense burner. Sticks alight, Dreux appeared behind us "What the hell are you doing, get going?"

I didn't need any more telling. He was serious, and worst of all, we were late! I hate being late. So I began my formal descent, or, as anyone else might call it, falling. At one point I actually lost my balance and slipped down a path, narrowly missing a donkey and flying headfirst over a brief cliff. I missed a turn, though, and for a moment I jogged in place as Chinese tourists pointed in three different directions while each suggested in turn that he knew the way I intended to go. After a moment, I recovered myself and returned to the proper path, jogging gently down the slope at the foot of the mountain. Off in the distance was Dreux's trademark white hair, and with a final burst of speed I sprinted-still barefoot--and caught up to my creux. I'd descended 2 kilometers in about ten minutes--wearing flipflops. I was in a good, good mood. Until we got home to the lecture.

After a long, long stay in Xian, everyone seemed a little revitalized, as though staying in one place, even with a multitude of long bus trips, bicycle rides and the occasional (and under reported) giant squirrel-back tour, we were sorry to leave Xian, especially since our departure was to be by Chinese airplane.

Previously in Chengde
Next in Xiamen

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Around China in 30 Days: Come to Chengde in Summer

These are my May/June 2010 Journals, rewritten into a semi-coherent narrative of my trip through China with the UW Madison History group. It was a tremendously fun experience that I want to publicize a little bit, so I'll be posting these here.

Around China in 30 Days
Come to Chengde in Summer 
I don't recall falling asleep on the bus to Chengde, but I certainly recall awakening after an indeterminate period and being startled to discover that at some point since I'd closed my eyes, someone had meticulously replaced a hundred-odd square kilometers of buildings with mountains.

They were huge, ungainly things, like we'd suddenly stumbled into a pasture of thousand-foot-tall buffalo. My general sentiment was that mountains are huge and neat and that I desperately wanted to climb all of them, forever. Just let me off here, I joked, I have a lifetime to waste in the Chinese countryside.
Warning: Mountains May Be More Majestic in Real Life

So when we arrived in Chengde I was in a ood mood, taken as I was with the mountains and oblivious to anything else. We were herded without much explanation into a restaurant, given  meal, and without much circumstance introduced to our tour guides. Wang Laoshi, an old friend of Dreux's, was to coordinate our trip. An older Chinese man and former professor of Japanese at Beijing Daxue, he was to be our caretaker for the next month. He arranged the buses, the accommodations, and the food.  Our guide in Chengde was introduced as Peter, and the more said about him the better, because the man was a beautiful lunatic. He was apparently a professor at a local tour-guide college, and so devoted to his guide company that he'd run ahead of us at any opportunity with a video camera, eager to film this crew of Americans as he lead us around China's version of a rustic paradise (which is accurate in the sense that it was home to a mere 450 thousand people). He developed an immediate crush on Krista, and while organizing group photos always asked that room be left for him with the implication that it be left near her. On several occasions he materialized to thrust a camera at me and have his photograph taken with Krista. He would not be the first nor last person to be taken with Krista's good looks, but he was by far the most entertaining. You know, for me.

He also served as our translator during both our lecture and our visit to a local village, and both times our resident Chinese speakers (Helen, Z, and Tony) caught him editorializing like he was the Chengde Board of Commerce. In retrospect, he probably was. But the thing that made me realize truly what a terrific nut we'd gotten, after our lecture, he announced he wanted to recite some poetry he'd written about the local sights, and play the flute for us. The man was so crazy I can literally not think of something funny to say that he hasn't outshone merely by being him. Suffice to say, no other tour guide impressed me as much.

Sean, Me, Sherri--Photo by Sherri
He took us to the Bishu Shanzhuang, the largest park in China and something of a miniature map of the Qing emperor's realm. The complex itself was huge and served as the summer home to the final Chinese dynastic powers, but like so many of the buildings we would see it failed to impress upon me its age or majesty. It was awesome, yes, but we simply stood about, a bit indifferent, as we were given an impromptu lecture on the Qing dynasty and the life of crazy Empress Dowager Cixi. We wouldn't rustle up anything resembling enthusiasm until someone gave us tiny electric boats and encouraged us to boat around the miniature lake. I shared a boat with Sean, Benny, Sherri, and Tony, which we dubbed the "USS Capitalism". Being Men Of Action (even Sherri) we promptly sailed hard across three lakes, singing pirate shanties and generally having a blast.

Arriving back on land found us on what would be the first in a string of buses traveling at spine-shattering, toe-curling, voice-box-welding speed along things Webster would only call a road after a particularly persuasive savage beating. The sights we saw when the bus would come to a blessed halt were made all the more wondrous by the relief that we hadn't died, but then immediately eclipsed by the fear that we'd have to ride another bus to go back down. High in these mountains that represented China's mostly uninhabited and dry North was the place where the emperor would store concubines that displeased him. What an awful punishment! Imagine, forced to leave a harem to go enjoy some solitude in a comfortable cabin in the mountains.. We also visited the emperor's private library, now a bookstore.

The garden outside the bookstore was amusing in its own right, constructed of rock and flowers to provide dozens of little paths through which the discerning Emperor (or slackjawed American tourist) might stroll. It even had a tiny rock statue with a hole constructed in such a way that it cast what appeared to be a reflection of the crescent moon into a shallow pool.

Putuo Zongcheng

The next day we visited a pair of vast temples constructed to resemble those in Tibet; apparently the Qing emperor had gotten a visit from the Dalai Lama and upon converting had decided to build the holy sites to house him during future visits. Adorning the entrance to each was a tablet written in the five languages of China--Chinese, Mongol, Tibetan, Arabic, and Manchu. I mention them because Peter brought them up and delivered the same monologue them every time we saw them, important symbolic aspects of Qing architecture that they were. These temples provided a unique psychological landscape, with their steep staircases and juxtaposition of modern and ancient infrastructure. The first temple was gorgeous and hosted a massive seventy foot tall Buddha statue. Dozens of locks adorned fences and although their purpose was never adequately explained they were really cool. The second temple was really tall. Like... really tall.

Our final day in Chengde started out painfully dull, like a fourteenth century sword through the thorax. Between the violent wind and the militarist offerings in the museum, that could possibly have been arranged. It was standing in this temple and hearing that it had been established in the late 1700s that it suddenly occurred to me that I was standing in a building that was going through its awkward teenage years when my home country was still weighing the pros and cons of self-rule. I decided to spend the rest of the trip breathlessly reminding anyone in earshot that we were in the presence of things whose age I could only appreciate with hushed, aggravating whispers. At some point it became possible to shrug, unimpressed, because something was "merely a few hundred years old". I thought that it was crazy.

Which, you know, didn't make the actual temples any more interesting, and the subtle nuances of Buddhist devotional architecture aren't well appreciated by still-jetlagged American tourists who're steadily running low on childlike delight. Se we decided to mix things up and went to the Sledge Hammer Peak. Arrival was arranged via twenty minute gondola ride that delivered you  over some pretty rough terrain. Sometimes there'd be a hundred feet of air between you and the ground, and other times you'd get gravel in your shoes. The peak itself was gorgeous, offering a view for miles that really  hammered home the fact that twenty feet in any direction you had roughly thirty stories to fall to a screamy death. Fortunately, the locals had take security measures: they'd painted yellow lines along the edges of the rock face, so I was perfectly safe so long as there wasn't a stiff breeze and I didn't have a crippling bout of acrophobia. Never one to let a good opportunity go to waste, I succumbed to my vertigo and lay down on the rock face to adjust my perspective and distract myself from the prospect of a short life filled with falling.

After crabwalking back to safety, we were dismissed to visit a village, interview the locals and learn from them whatever we were interested in.  My area of study was supernatural events and local beliefs. They were extremely quick to point out that they had none. They didn't have any particularly interesting festivals, absolutely no stories to tell their children, no religion, not even any funerary rituals except "When people die, we put them in a box. Then we bury them, the end." With no supernatural beliefs, or even supernatural stories they told for fun, I was stymied; I immediately contributed this frustration to Party involvement with the village and fear of appearing to be superstitious by a people who rely heavily on tourism to fuel their economy.

Of course, my attempt to enter into a college discourse on the supernatural wouldn't have held water anywhere, especially if the questions were delivered via a game of telephone between a moron didn't know how to phrase them in English (that's me), a slightly embarrassed translator, and a Chinese fruit farmer. Finally in a panic I just pretended I didn't have any more questions left, closed my journal, and thought of England. The villagers had an interesting approach to life; appeared to want for nothing, and because they produced all their own food they had considerably easier lives than city folk. Standing on the road overlooking a valley and some mountains as clouds left dappled shadows on the countryside, I got the feeling that they weren't too far off base.

We dropped Peter off at a street corner and headed back to Beijing. We'd spend a couple hours there before boarding a sleeper train to Xi'An. In a Dairy Queen we met an American who taught English at orphanages in south China--the bastard made me feel like a jackass. The sleeper was interesting, because our group of sixteen was shared across four six-bed bunks, meaning four Americans and two Chinese strangers in every cabin. I was disappointed to find that I was on the ground floor, but the top was empty. Surreptitiously I climbed inside and snuggled down for the night. Naturally, I had just fallen asleep when we stopped and our resident Chinese stranger entered our cabin and tried climbing in next to me. A few hurried apologies I was silently hating him from the bottom bunk.

After eleven hours on a train, we pulled up to the Xi'an stop. We'd arrived in the city that was to be our home for the next four days (with one exception), and it was a hot, sweaty, polluted place. Even so, I was excited to enjoy this new and strange place.

Previously, In Beijing
Next Up: Xi'an and Yenan