Endless Halloween

Around 2:30am, I woke to the sound of rapid footsteps outside the tent. The forest was quiet for a moment, and then an anxious discussion began in one of the neighboring tents. Someone was sent out to investigate. My tentmates, Cady and Jacob, began speculating on the source of the noises. Cady said she’d heard something that sounded like dry rice. A freshman from the neighboring tent called out, asking if anyone else was awake and had heard the noises. She wanted to know what we should do about it. She was seeking comfort. I, charming person that I am, told her it was either a skunk, a serial killer, or a prankster from our own group. Regardless, there was little we could do.

Cady and Jacob are more softhearted and left the tent. On the picnic table in our campsite, they discovered a beer bottle, a pan filled with sautéed black rice and asparagus, and a watering can. Their description of these items made me curious enough to pry myself from my warm sleeping bag to join them. It reminded me of the riddle where there’s a naked man lying face down in sand with a straw in his hand, and you’re supposed to figure out what happened. I’ve always thought it kind of a dumb riddle since many things could have happened. The “correct” answer is only correct because the riddler says it’s so.

The near-freezing temperature outside the tent made me realize I needed to pee. Though I’d given the freshman a callous answer, I, too, was afraid. The beer bottle and sauté pan seemed to suggest that we were dealing with a human perpetrator rather than a skunk or a figment of our imaginations. I had no idea what to make of the watering can. The porta potty stood on the edge of the dark forest. I imagined it’d be a good hiding place for the culinary killer who’d run through our campsite before vanishing. As I opened the door to the porta potty, I half expected to be chopped into little pieces by someone holding a chef’s knife. I hoped Cady and Jacob, still standing over by the picnic tables, would come to my rescue (although I wouldn’t have blamed them for running the other way). Fortunately, the porta potty was empty.

Back at the campsite, the people who’d initially gone to investigate had returned. They’d encountered Marcus, a member of the climbing team who’d come up unexpectedly that night. It was Marcus who’d run through our campsite. He’d been my year at school until he took a semester off to climb. He had a reputation for being a skilled outdoorsman, a devout outdoor climber, who looked down on gym climbing and those who favored it. I hadn’t interacted with him much while we were in school together, but I’d gotten the sense that he thought little of the way I trained for indoor competitions (if, in fact, he thought anything of me at all). I’d heard he’d had some kind of mental health episode earlier in the fall. I didn’t know if his run through our campsite had anything to do with that, or if it’d just been a poorly timed prank. I’d climbed with him the week before, and he’d been his usual competent, opinionated self, inadvertently yet efficiently invalidating my existence as a climber. Mystery somewhat solved, we all returned to our sleeping bags.

In the morning, we learned that Marcus had gotten a ride up to the campground with Genevieve, a climber who’d graduated the year before. They’d arrived around midnight. Genevieve had gone to sleep. Marcus hadn’t. He’d made food and run through our campsite, and at 5am he’d woken up Genevieve and convinced her to go hiking. We met them as they were returning around 7:30am.

A whispered conversation among those in our 15-person group who knew enough about Marcus’s situation to be apprehensive led to the decision that he would spend the day hiking instead of climbing with the rest of us. We split up for the day.

Cady and I were climbing with Spencer, a boy who greets people with the enthusiasm of a young golden retriever, and a cheeky sophomore named Ben. Ben and I have a history of being somewhat competitive with each other after he bragged in a group email about beating me at speed climbing (though we do not actually compete in the same category since he is male). Though it should have been beneath me, I was looking forward to “beating” him at outdoor climbing with the skills I’d gained over the summer.

The day was short but fun. Ben and Spencer were new to outdoor climbing and each led a 5.8. Cady attempted her hardest outdoor lead ever, and I sent my first outdoor 5.11c, though I had to squash a ladybug to achieve this feat.

Cady, Ben, and I had plans to leave Rumney that afternoon around 3:15pm along with Jacob and Max, who’d spent the day hiking. When we arrived at the parking lot, our meet up point, they were nowhere to be found. Cady received a text that there was trouble regarding Marcus. Ben and I traded back massages while Cady tried to firm up a plan with Max and Jacob. At 4:30 we learned that they’d “found” Marcus and had stopped to feed him. After a short phone call with Jacob, Cady began making calls to other members of the group, trying to rearrange cars so that six people could leave Rumney that evening. Marcus would be departing with us.

Max and Jacob finally showed up at the parking lot two hours late with Marcus in tow. While Marcus paced around restlessly, we tried to work out in low voices what to do next. It was imperative that Marcus go back. He’d missed a dose of his medication that morning and had been in bad shape when Jacob and Max found him walking on the side of the road, an impressive 40 minute drive from the trailhead where he was supposed to have been picked up.

The easiest way to get six people back to New Haven in a five-person sedan was for one person to volunteer to stay in New Hampshire an extra day.  As often happens when someone is needed to rise to the occasion, no one did. I was traveling to NYC the next morning. Cady had to meet her mom in New Haven. Jacob had work the next day, plus we were driving back in his car. Ben had a lot of homework to attend to, and Max had been feeling ill the entire trip.

After a complicated game of phone tag with the people who were still out climbing, we arranged to drive a second car back to New Haven. We just needed to collect the keys from a runner they’d sent to the base of Rumney’s Main Cliff. Feeling restless, I volunteered to fetch the keys. I was about to head out at a brisk clip when Marcus declared that he, too, wished to go. My eyes met Jacob’s. I couldn’t tell if he thought this was a bad idea, and I couldn’t think of a polite way to tell Marcus that I’d prefer he didn’t come. I could sympathize with the urge to do something rather than stand around.

While I was eager to get out of Rumney as efficiently as possible, Marcus seemed content to saunter his way to the meeting point. He complained that the climbing team takes forever to turn thought into action; “They need to double check everything with phone calls and everybody just stands around.”

I ignored this comment and asked about his day. He started talking about Blackhawk helicopters. “They’re visual illusions.” He saw one on his hike, he said. It was flying right at him, but, thinking quickly, he grabbed some sticks and started waving at it the way the people with the orange wands do on the tarmac at airports. Apparently, this motion was enough to reassure the Blackhawk, and it left him alone. It was a terrifying experience, he said.

Now I was a little terrified. Marcus was imagining communications with likely fictional helicopters, and he was my responsibility. I had no idea how to respond.

“I killed a ladybug today,” I said after a pause. I explained about crushing the bug, which had been sitting on the exact spot I needed to place my hand on the hardest part of the route, and feeling bad because I’d decided the bug’s life was worth less than sending.

Marcus did not seem to feel that these were equivalent and went back to describing the Blackhawk. I realized we’d passed the turnoff for the trail to Main Cliff. Marcus kept walking, assuring me that we’d come to another turnoff that would take us to the same place. After another minute of walking, I again tried to insist that we head back. At this point, Marcus turned off the trail entirely and started walking uphill through the trees.

“Hey, let’s stick together,” I called out. “Marcus!”

He didn’t turn around. I weakly bleated his name again with the same result. Was I supposed to put my foot down and yell at him to come back? Tell him he had to the count of three to get back to the trail or what? No TV for a month? He was an adult, after all, even though his perception seemed somewhat out of touch with reality on this day.

I called his name a third time. He would soon crest the hill and be out of sight. I realized I had a choice with only bad options. I could either go back to the turnoff, which was guaranteed to take me to the keys but might or might not lead back to Marcus, or I could stay with Marcus and follow him up a hill, which might or might not lead to the keys. Losing Marcus would be a much harder problem to rectify, so I started after him, cursing myself for not being better at putting my foot down.

The wooded hillside gave way to a boulder field. “Oh my God, we’re free soloing. Oh no! Get down. We might get hurt,” Marcus said as we climbed over the rocks. His tone didn’t sound scared. If anything, he sounded amused, as though he were mocking what he perceived to be my thoughts. Galled, I considered telling him that I’d free soloed something early that summer and this 4th class scrambling did not scare me. But why was I trying to prove myself to a guy who was imagining helicopters? I think I wanted him to respect me which, helicopter or no helicopter, he clearly did not.

We hit the trail just to the left of Main Cliff. Marcus made a beeline for the base and began clambering on the rocks. Victoria, the car key runner, texted that she was camped out on the trail to the right of Main Cliff, which meant we had to backtrack to get to her. If we’d gone up using the trail, we would have run into her on the way.

I explained to Marcus that we needed to head back down the trail to meet Victoria. He said he felt he’d been manipulated. He’d been told we were meeting in one location, and now we were switching locations on him. I tried to explain that this was not manipulation but miscommunication.

After we got the keys from Victoria, Marcus seemed content to saunter his way back to the parking lot. I tried to signal that we should pick up the pace by walking faster, but I was just leaving him behind.

“Have you seen Dr. Strangelove?” Marcus asked. I told him I had. For Marcus, the film’s relevance seemed to have something to do with his Blackhawk sighting and a sense of feeling manipulated. I worried he’d think I didn’t get it, that I was a cog in the manipulation machine, or worse, a dull conversationalist. So I grasped at the only thing he’d said that made any sense to me, the idea that life is predetermined or “manipulated.” I told him that I sometimes have that feeling, but mostly I ignore it because, even if life is manipulated, there’s not much you can do about it.

“You do that with prescription drugs?” he guessed. I told him this was not the case.

Back at the parking lot, car groups had been drawn up while we were gone. Cady, Max, and Ben would take the rental whose keys we’d just retrieved. This left Jacob, Marcus, and me in the other car. It was now 5:30pm, which meant that the three of us could be back to New Haven by 9:30pm if everything went according to plan. I had little hope that this would happen.

Jacob said we needed to swing by the campground to pick up Marcus’s medication from Genevieve. A five minute detour. No problem.

We met Genevieve and proceeded to search Marcus’s belongings. For what would have been a two-night camping trip, he’d brought four backpacks of various sizes, a bin filled with climbing equipment, a round tub filled with miscellaneous objects, a large propane tank, an enormous burner, a cooler, a bag of food including a pineapple, a sleeping bag, a water jug, and two wooden chairs (not the folding kind). Somehow, Genevieve had fit all this in her SUV. We asked Marcus where he thought we’d find his medication. He selected one of the backpacks and dumped the contents on the grass. Warm layers, a camelback, a pair of climbing shoes, and a ripe avocado tumbled out. He searched the rest of his bags in a similar fashion, dumping the contents on the ground. Each bag contained at least one ripe avocado, but his pill case was nowhere to be found. I worked to stuff the contents back into the bags while Genevieve and Jacob brainstormed about where else the pills could be. Jacob had communicated with Marcus’s parents who’d said it was imperative that he get his evening dose.

We located a case of pills, but it was not the same one Genevieve remembered from their drive up to Rumney. That one had been green. Marcus offered no helpful insights about where this case might be. We were quickly moving past twilight into full-blown night, and the sky was a deep blue-green. Marcus wandered over to the picnic table with his laptop and started playing electronic dance music. He walked in slow circles, bouncing his arms and head to the beat. His pale skin and juddery movements conjured up images of ghosts and vampires.

Jacob said we should wait for Max, who might know more about the pill situation and who we believed was going to swing by the campsite before heading back to New Haven. By 6:30pm Max still hadn’t shown up. The other climbers were back for the day and starting to make dinner. I watched with envy.

“Hey Ceri,” Marcus called. He pulled out a little bottle of clear liquid and took a sip, smiling. It felt like he wanted me to react strongly to this, to tell him it was not okay to consume whatever that was. As I was working through a decision tree of whether or not to attempt to confiscate the material, and how uncool Marcus would think I was if I did, Jacob noticed the bottle.

“Hey, what is that?” Jacob asked evenly. Marcus grinned.

“Can I see that?” Jacob asked, extending his hand. Marcus handed it over reluctantly. Jacob questioned him, and we learned that it was some kind of liquor that Marcus had taken from someone else’s things (who remains a mystery). Jacob told a petulant Marcus that it probably wouldn’t mix well with his medication and asked me to keep an eye on Marcus while he went to call Marcus’s parents using the campground owners’ landline. What those people must have thought of us. First we’d locked ourselves out of the car and now we were experiencing yet another crisis. Marcus paced up the road that ran between campsites. I followed at a discreet distance, trying to keep him from suspecting that he was being followed or manipulated. Every now and then, he’d abruptly change direction and pace the other way.

Jacob finally succeeded in reaching Marcus’s mom. She told him which pills to substitute for Marcus’s regular dose. With that, Marcus, Jacob, and I (and a large number of Marcus’s bags and bins) piled into Jacob’s car and drove off into the night.

The ride back was long and dark. Marcus called shotgun and began playing electronic music at top volume. I was packed into the back next to his many things. I stared out the window at invisible trees and reflected on how trivial things like sending 5.11c, killing a ladybug, and forgetting your tent were compared to whatever Marcus was going through. Every now and then, I’d catch a few words of the conversation up front through the wall of music. At first, Marcus kept suggesting that we stop at Site 52, some mystical location that was supposedly nearby in New Hampshire. Jacob patiently explained that we needed to get back to New Haven.

“Every time I free solo, someone dies,” Marcus observed some minutes later. He then switched to criticizing the climbing team, saying he was going to quit. This seemed inadvisable since, without the safety net of the team, he’d likely be wandering down a rural New Hampshire road in the dark.

He expressed regret several times that we were headed back to New Haven. This, he said, was the most relaxed he’d ever felt in his entire life. He was finally figuring things out and getting done what he wanted to get done. He wanted to become a dirtbag. I wondered if this was the decision-making process that had led young men like Chris McCandless to wander into the woods without a map.

The Rand Corporation was mentioned along with the idea of creating music using static and random number generators. Jacob responded to Marcus in soothing tones. Marcus’s Blackhawk sighting came up again. Jacob had seen two Blackhawks and a military jet that day, suggesting the helicopter was not a figment of Marcus’s imagination. Jacob thought they must have been doing some kind of training exercise.

Marcus asked Jacob how he was so good at this, at staying calm in these situations. I listened intently but couldn’t hear Jacob’s response over the music. While I’d felt on the verge of exploding throughout this experience, Jacob had been unfailingly collected. In him I had yet to observe even the smallest trace of the anguish and despair I felt coursing through my body. I’d attributed this to a difference in temperament; Jacob is naturally calmer, more selfless, more mature than I am. Maybe if I’d heard his response, I would have learned some tips that would have set me on the path toward better-persondom. Then again, probably not.

“Is Halloween ever going to end?” Marcus wondered. It was October 20. I had no idea.

My mother’s brother Eric had his life shaped by mental health issues. I’ve never met him, and he’s not someone my family talks about much. There seems to be this tendency when it comes to mental health to insulate others through silence. From what I’ve gathered, he had some problems beginning in his early teens, but everything came to a head two weeks into his first year at Harvard. Eric dropped out. Since then, he’s been in and out of various facilities and prisons. He doesn’t seem to enjoy taking his medication. I reflected on what the future might hold for the Ivy League student in the car with me, who’d taught himself how to trad climb through books and practice.

In Vermont, we stopped at a McDonalds. The woman behind the counter could not locate the cappuccino option in the cash register and accidentally charged me twice for my BBQ bacon burger. Marcus played with an arcade game in the kids area while we waited for our food. My BBQ bacon burger looked nothing like the photo, but at least it tasted like something resembling food. The same could not be said for the coffee I’d ordered, which appeared to have been laced with rat poison. As we exited, Marcus observed that this was an excellent McDonalds, one he would return to in the future. He suggested we stop at the Vermont visitor’s center. Jacob reminded him that it was probably not open at 9pm.

It was my driving shift next. Marcus called shotgun after Jacob told him driving was not an option. Marcus alternated between placing phone calls to confused friends and begging to be allowed to change the music (I’d selected Graceland, my go-to crisis music, for my leg of the drive). Jacob told Marcus it was nice to let me choose the music since I was driving. I didn’t care about the music. I wanted Halloween to end. I wanted to scream, maybe rip the head off an unsuspecting stuffed animal. I wanted to be out of the car, back to the safety and relative order of New Haven where Marcus was someone else’s responsibility. I felt guilty and horrible for wishing that, for resenting what was a finite problem for me but likely a rest-of-your-life problem for Marcus.

I took a deep breath and told Jacob it was fine; Marcus could DJ if he wanted to.

White Lies

“Welcome to Vermont” read the friendly green sign on the side of the road. Cady snapped a picture so Jacob could send it to his girlfriend, Julia, a Vermont native. After two hours of driving, we’d finally reached the halfway point on our journey to Rumney, New Hampshire, a tiny town home to New England’s premier sport climbing crag. Spirits were high among the three of us in the car. We were together for the first time in five months. The weather was unseasonably warm and sunny. The famous New England fall foliage surrounded us on all sides. We were on schedule to reach the crag by 2pm and would have then next 3.5 days to climb.

The last time I’d been to Rumney, the previous May, was my second time sport climbing outside. I’d spent most of the trip panicking about taking lead falls and pumping out on 5.10s. After a summer of climbing, I was excited for a rematch with most of the routes I’d attempted the previous May and especially excited to try to send Flyin’ Hawaiian, an aesthetically stunning 5.11b. In May, I’d aided my way through the start of the climb because the bouldery beginning was too difficult and had flailed my way up the rest, hanging on the rope many times.

“I think I forgot the stove,” Jacob said in his calm, soft voice, tearing me from my Flyin’ Hawaiian daydreams.

“Are you sure it’s not in your bag?”

“It could be,” he said, politely humoring my delusion. We drove in silence for a moment.

“You packed the tent, though?”

“I thought Cady was bringing the tent.”

Neither one remembered packing a tent, each believing the other was taking care of it.

“Should we pull over?” Cady asked.

We debated the merits of resolving our Schrödinger’s tent and stove situation. On the one hand, the tent and stove were likely not in the trunk of the car. On the other hand, they could be, and we could continue to believe this until we pulled over and searched the trunk. Establishing that we were without stove and tent wouldn’t change our plans for the day; we’d still drive up to Rumney and climb. Establishing this sooner meant that we’d need to lose face sooner and ask the group of Yale climbers joining us in Rumney the following day to bring an extra tent and stove.

Neither the tent nor the stove magically appeared when we searched Jacob’s bags. Jacob apologized, saying he’d never leave packing until the hour before departure again. While Jacob was an easy target for blame, I couldn’t help but think back guiltily to that morning. I’d sat in the kitchen and chatted with Mico while Jacob packed in his room. I could have easily checked to make sure group gear made it into the trunk of the car. Throughout the planning phase of the trip, I’d taken on little responsibility, in part because I was traveling from Los Angeles, but in part out of laziness. I apologized to Jacob and Cady for being a woefully passive follower. Cady then apologized for not communicating effectively with Jacob about who was bringing the tent. At this point, we started laughing really hard. We’d thought of ourselves as experienced outdoors people, yet we’d managed to forget the two most critical pieces of camping gear. As a result, we would spend the night eating sandwich bread and sleeping outside with temperatures in the low 30s, and would have to ask people likely to make fun of us for help.

Jacob Bendicksen, the trip organizer for the Yalies coming up the next day, did not disappoint. His texts effectively conveyed his mocking disbelief through heavy use of all caps and punctuation marks.

“Please don’t tell anyone,” Cady texted in reply.

He promised he wouldn’t, and that he’d have a tent and stove for us when he arrived in New Hampshire. He texted one last LOL for good measure. I had little hope that this would remain a secret. Were the situation reversed, I would have few qualms about making it known to everyone that an outdoor orientation leader, a climbing team captain, and a girl who’d spent the summer car camping, had forgotten their tent and stove. Here was a facade of competence begging to be torn down.

At least, I consoled myself, things could only get better from here.

Entering Enfield, Cady noticed the first scarecrow outside a car dealership. Someone had mounted it on a motorcycle. Though we saw no people as we drove, every business in the small New Hampshire town had between 1 and 3 scarecrows on their front lawn. Scarecrows dressed as cowboys, scarecrows pushing baby carriages, scarecrow mailmen, scarecrow clowns. A solitary scarecrow in a field is quaint and picturesque. An entire town that seems to be populated by scarecrows rather than people is frightening. As we passed the sign on the edge of town that read “Come Back Soon,” we breathed a collective sign of relief. A moment longer in that place and the next people driving through town might have seen a trio of rock climber scarecrows belaying each other up a tree.

After an enjoyable half-day of climbing, we made our way to Mountain Pines, the private campground by the river notorious for its complete lack of cell service. Someone had the brilliant idea of buying firewood so we could heat up food. Twice we tried dousing logs with white gas in order to start a fire, and twice we were left with slightly charred logs once the gas had burned off. It dawned on us that white gas might not be a substitute for kindling. Cady and I doused a pile of twigs and leaves in white gas and had just succeeded in lighting our first log when Jacob approached.

“I think I locked the keys in the trunk,” he said. There was a moment of silence as we processed this information.

“You’re joking,” I said, getting ready to laugh. Jacob has a mischievous sense of humor, and his delivery had been unnaturally calm given the information he’d just imparted. Plus, there was no way we could forget the stove and tent, and get locked out of the car on the same day. This sort of thing does not happen to intelligent, competent people with good moral character.

“I’m not joking,” he said sadly.

“Yes, you are,” I said, unwilling to be fooled.

“The keys are in the trunk.” It was unlikely he would go on this long with a prank I was refusing to fall for. I remembered with horror that I was the one who, worried about the car battery, had asked Jacob to close the trunk.

If there had been a time to panic and turn ugly, it would have been in that moment. It was roughly 7:45pm and completely dark. We were cold, hungry, separated from all the gear and food we’d remembered to bring, and in the middle of nowhere without cell reception. Cady and Jacob remained calm and good humored throughout the ordeal. I endeavored to follow their example. Jacob borrowed the landline from the owner of the campground, a middle-aged man with a large handlebar mustache, and was able to call for roadside assistance.

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Cady kept the fire going (this and the fact that we were all wearing our warmest layers were the only things we had going for us). I ran messages back and forth between Cady and Jacob, and tried my best to keep the mood light by making dumb jokes.

Sometime between 9 and 9:30pm, as we huddled around the fire for warmth, a massive truck pulled into the campground. From the truck emerged a man wearing a Rumney Fire Department t-shirt. There was something strange about the way he moved, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Though he was in a t-shirt, he seemed unfazed by the cold. He had the skinniest arms I’d ever seen on an adult human being. He introduced himself as Rick but did not offer to shake hands. He took stock of the situation and pulled a tool kit from his truck. It was then I noticed his hands. They were curved towards his forearms like hooks. He could move his fingers but seemed unable to straighten his wrists. He twisted his body into strange positions to compensate for these frozen hooks.

“Is your tent inside?” Rick asked as he worked. We nodded, unwilling to reveal the true depths of our idiocy.

“I’ll try to make it quick, then.” He inserted a piece of rubber that looked much like a doorstop into the top of the driver’s door and pounded it in with the back of his hand. This created a gap through which he passed a hooked piece of wire.

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Rick warned us not to go “ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh” while he was unlocking the car. Apparently, some people turn their misfortune into a spectator sport, and this distracts Rick from his work. We watched quietly, and after a few attempts, Rick succeeded in using the wire to pull the handle on the inside of the door, unlocking the car. While the car alarm went off, Jacob popped the trunk, retrieved the keys, and silenced the car.

We thanked Rick and offered him a date from the bag of snack foods we’d pulled from the trunk. He’d never had one before. Examining his date closely, he observed that it looked like a bug. Despite its cockroach-like exterior, Rick thoroughly enjoyed the date.

“I’ll have to pick these up next time I’m at the store,” he said through a mouthful.

Cady and I roasted ours in the fire until the exteriors caramelized. We termed this delicacy “hot dates.” While we ate, Rick told us about the difficulty of unlocking a Tesla. The doorstop/wire method doesn’t work because the car is completely electronic. You need to call the company and have them unlock it remotely. Rick was once called to unlock a Tesla even though his presence was entirely unnecessary. The only thing he could do was keep the car owner company while they phoned Tesla customer service.

“You must be glad to get the tent out of the car,” Rick said as he climbed into his truck. We smiled and nodded, but his parting words made me wonder if he suspected the truth. I could just picture Rick, the next time he went to unlock a car, telling the story of the three kids, who’d not only locked themselves out of their car but had also forgotten every piece of camping equipment it was possible to forget.

Our lie was unnecessary, of course. We’d done it to save face in the eyes of a passing stranger. Though we’d had essentially nothing to lose, we’d done it without hesitation. We didn’t want him to get the wrong impression and think we were incompetent. There’s a fine line between behaving as though you’re incompetent and actually being incompetent, and we were not ready to admit to having crossed that line.

Once Rick’s truck had driven safely out of sight, we pulled our sleeping bags from the car and set them side-by-side on the ground. I slept in all my layers and curled into the blob that was Cady in her sleeping bag for added warmth. In the morning, I woke to the sound of Jacob hissing at a skunk and waited for the sun to melt the frost from my sleeping bag.

October 10: The Art of Winning

“Did I win?” the ten-year-old boy asked as I lowered him from a climb. Baron, a sandy haired kid with a bowl cut, was my charge for an hour-long private belay session and had just finished flailing his way up a 5.7 route. I had no idea how to answer this question which was asked without a trace of irony or self-mockery.

“Uh, yes?” My eyes involuntarily darted to his mother, who was reclining on the padded floor behind us, watching her son’s every move.

I’d been about to start my own workout when Von, the gym employee who wears a button down shirt, waistcoat, bow tie, and dress shoes without fail (the gym uniform is a black t-shirt with the gym name in white letters across the front), asked if I’d be willing to do a private.

“He’s climbed outside before. He’s very advanced,” Baron’s mother informed me within seconds of our introduction. I nodded politely. I have yet to find a West LA parent who inderestimates his or her kid’s climbing ability.

“When he was four, we wanted to take him outside. The guy who was guiding us wouldn’t work with kids that young. We begged him to take Baron. He said he’d do it, but don’t expect to get your money back if he cries. Afterwards, he was amazed and said he’d never seen a kid that young climb that high.”

“Wow,” I said, nodding.

“We went to that wall they used in the movie Planet of the Apes.” Though I hadn’t seen the movie, this was one of the few walls in the LA area I’d been to, so I nodded again.

After trying on 6 different pairs of shoes (we started with size 5, his alleged shoe size, and worked our way up to 7.5), Baron and I headed over to the slab wall. It’s a slightly less than vertical wall (the opposite of an overhang), which means that the climber does more of the work with his legs. This is the wall we start most beginners on. I asked Baron which route he wanted to climb.

“Which one’s the hardest?” He asked. I indicated a 5.11b consisting of tiny red crimps and credit card feet. This, of course, was the climb Baron wanted to do.

Baron’s feet never left the ground. Eventually, I suggested we try a different route, an orange 5.8 on the same section of wall, estimating that this was near the upper limit of what he’d be able to climb.

“Which one’s the second hardest?” he asked.

“He’s stubborn,” his mom called out from where she was observing. It sounded like this was a point of pride for her.

Baron proceeded to fall off the dark blue 5.10b repeatedly. Eventually, he decided he’d climb the 5.10b with the help of an unlimited number of additional holds from other routes. He wanted to know if this still counted as climbing 5.10b. I told him it did not.

I finally got Baron to try a 5.7, which he completed with some effort. We then moved to an overhung wall. I suggested a green 5.9, but yet again, he wanted to know which climb was the hardest. I indicated a 5.11c and prayed he wouldn’t try it. Showing some sense of his own limitations, Baron selected a 5.10a instead. After failing to get beyond the first move, he agreed to switch to the green 5.9.

Baron was clearly athletic and not afraid of heights, but his technique was poor. His lack of footwork and tendency to pull with his arms meant he tired fast on the overhung 5.9. As he alternated between climbing and resting, I tried to offer tips about using his feet and balancing his weight. My success was limited. His mom came up next to us and began telling him specifically where to move his hands and feet, offering suggestions every time he seemed to hesitate.

“Mom, I’m resting,” Baron said, clearly annoyed.

“He’s so stubborn,” his mom repeated, winking at me.

“He’s strong,” I said, uncertain whether I was allowed to agree that her son was stubborn or if that was a privilege reserved for parents.

“Oh yes. He’s got legs like his daddy, strong like oak trees. And crazy upper body strength. He gets that from his dad too.” I nodded, trying to remember if I’d ever heard the phrase “strong like an oak” used outside of books and movies.

“But he’s got my agility,” she added with a conspiratorial grin. I would not have pegged this woman as agile, but judging by her tone and expression, having her agility was a good thing.

“Wow, that’s a lucky combination,” I said. Baron’s mom returned to directing her son’s every move. I considered explaining to her that she was stunting his ability to develop the problem-solving skills necessary for climbing. What will Baron do when he has to try to figure out how to get up a wall without his mom?

“Am I good?” Baron asked when I lowered him from the climb.

“Yes. Of course!” I said after only a slight pause. “Most people your age can’t climb just one color.” This seemed to satisfy him. I wondered what would’ve have happened if I’d said “no.” Would he have quit climbing on the spot? Does he only enjoy the sport because he thinks he’s good at it? What happens when he gets more into it and reads about a dude named Alex Honnold? 

In 6th grade, my math teacher told our class that there was always going to be someone out there who was smarter, faster, stronger, better in every category than we were, and that was life; we had to deal with it. At the time, I’d struggled to wrap my head around this idea. What was the point of existing if someone else could do what you were doing only better?

When I first started rock climbing at the age of 9, I’d enjoyed being good for my age and the praise I’d received, but did little to ensure steady improvement. Eventually, someone came along who was younger and better. I stopped climbing when I entered high school so I’d have more time to pursue other sports, sports for which I still received praise. When I got to levels where I no longer received praise for those sports, I quit them as well. It took a two year stint as the worst player on Yale’s varsity softball team to realize I was selecting my “passions” based on what I was good at rather than what I actually enjoyed. I guess this is more or less the future I imagine for Baron unless his mentality changes (or he becomes the next Alex Honnold).

I’m still not sure I have an answer to what the point of existing is if someone else can do what you’re doing better, but I do know that it’s not a productive line of thought. I’ve interpreted it as license to do what makes you happy.

On her son’s last climb of the session, Baron’s mom resumed her narrative of their time at Planet of the Apes wall.

“He’s fearless; he climbed 600 feet in the air, and it didn’t scare him.” The Planet of the Apes wall is a top rope wall. A standard rope is at most 70 meters, which means on a top rope route, the climber isn’t getting more than 35 meters off the ground, 115 feet. I realized then that I was being incredibly petty. We all live with our own delusions (though they might seem reasonable enough to us). What did I care if Baron’s mom thought her son had been 60, 600, or 6,000 feet off the ground? My job was to make sure the kid had a good time climbing.

I lowered Baron for the last time. Back on the ground he turned to me. “Did I struggle less than other kids on that climb?”

I’m pretty sure this was the moment where I was supposed to give him a speech about how climbing is about competing with yourself, striving to be the best that you can be, etc., etc. But I’m also pretty sure any impassioned speech I could have given, no matter how poignant and filled with introspection, would have gone in one ear and out the other as it would have for me at that age. To this day, I’m not sure I fully subscribe to the “you’re only competing against yourself” philosophy. It’s the intellectually and morally superior philosophy, but if I’m being honest with myself, I only ever use it as a crutch in situations where I know I’m not going to win.

September 29: Shooting Stars

Located just about 100 miles north of Los Angeles and largely devoid of what Angelenos would describe as “sites of cultural significance,” Bakersfield is not the typical Friday night destination.

As we pulled into town at sunset, we passed windowless buildings, chainlink fences, and oil wells. The air was dry and filled with particulate matter. While it’s population makes it the 52nd largest city in America, in 2015, Bakersfield earned the distinction of being the 2nd most polluted city in the country. We parked along the side of the road to avoid paying and joined the throng of Bakersfieldians making their way toward the large ferris wheel silhouetted by orange sky. The sound of mariachi music and arcade games became increasingly loud, and the breeze began to smell of fried dough. After a 2.5 hour drive and a ten minute walk, we had arrived at The Kern County Fair.

How, you might be wondering, did three good-looking, intelligent millennials with a car end up in Bakersfield on a Friday night? While the rest of our peers were heading out to bars and movies and art museums (or staying home and pulling up The Office on their parents’ Netflix accounts), we were on our way to see Smash Mouth, the one-hit wonder whose song All Star had spawned countless Shrek-themed memes.

I’d had to select my companions for this adventure with great care. It’s not just anyone who will drop everything, duck out of work early, and spend hours commuting at rush hour to one of the least exciting cities in California in order to see a band they don’t care about. Jared and Katie were temperamentally well-suited for this idiotic mission–good-natured people who are routinely kind to those around them. Katie’s the kind of person who’s up for pretty much anything out of the ordinary and has a good time no matter what. Jared DJs in his spare time and engages with music as a craft. He’d been ready to turn down my invitation until he learned that the concert was free with the price of admission to the fair ($10). In particular, I worried he would regret the decision to come.

Unlike Jared and Katie, I am as close to an un-ironic lover of Smash Mouth as a millennial can be. In early September, when I heard the lead singer, Steve Harwell (a Guy Fieri look-alike), had suffered from some kind of heart episode and had had to cancel shows, I knew I needed to act fast or risk never seeing Smash Mouth perform live. While in the early 2000s, the zenith of the band’s popularity, they’d won a Kid’s Choice Award, featured prominently in the Shrek opening credits, and filled stadiums, in 2017, they were mostly performing at county and state fairs. The Kern County Fair was the only place they’d be performing in California during the month of September, so it was either make the pilgrimage to Bakersfield, or gamble on Steve’s heart lasting into October.

We had some time to kill before Smash Mouth was scheduled to perform at the Budweiser Pavilion, so we headed for the second most exciting entertainment option listed in the fair’s program, The Great American Duck Race.

Robert Duck (who claimed that this was his actual last name), served as MC. He introduced us to his ducks who have won The Great American Duck Race hosted annually in Deming, New Mexico twelve times. He selected volunteers from the audience to come up and hold the ducks. When the whistle blew, the lucky duck-holders would drop their ducks into channels with water (like lanes in a pool), and the ducks would swim to the other side. The person with the fastest duck would move on to the finals.

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No matter how many times I raised my hand, I was never chosen. This may have had something to do with the fact that I was competing with 6-year-olds for Robert’s attention. The first round of racing ducks had names like Michael Phelps, Simone Manuel, and Katie Le-ducky. The next heat was filled with ducks named after NASCAR drivers. The third heat was a Duck Dynasty round. I was very impressed by Robert’s ability to tell all the seemingly identical mallards apart (how could he distinguish Michael from Simone every time?), until he let each kid name their own duck in the finals and I realized they were randomly assigned jokes. In the finals, most of the competitors selected duck puns for names, except for the two littlest kids who named their ducks Lucy and Jake. After a short but intense race, Jake proved victorious, and his temporary owner was crowned with a duck mask. After the ceremony, Robert said he wished he could give everyone a chance to race the ducks, but there just wasn’t time. However, for only $5.00, we could buy the right to race a duck. This $5.00 purchase included a complementary duck whistle. A tempting offer, but Jared, Katie, and I had places to be.

After purchasing the most expensive, least satisfying burrito bowl of my life (for $9.50 it only included meat, rice, and beans. Everything beyond that was an “add-on,” including salsa), we got in line to enter the pavilion. Jared and Katie were shocked by how many people had come to see the has-been band. Nearly all of the pavilion’s 3,000 seats were full. There was even a VIP section cordoned off with rope. Who these VIPers were and what exactly they were hoping to get from this experience remains a mystery. The band was scheduled to go on at 8pm. When 8:30pm came and went, and there was still no sign of the performers, the audience began to chant “Smash Mouth.” Logan, the eight-year-old in front of us, informed Katie that Smash Mouth was a fake band that did not actually exist.

Just as I began to despair that Steve had actually suffered the fatal heart attack, the man himself walked on stage, red solo cup in hand. The band launched into their first song, “Can’t Get Enough of You, Baby,” and the crowd went nuts (several people were wearing Shrek masks). I’ve been to a number of concerts for bands I actually admit to liking, but this was the first concert where I knew the majority of songs on the setlist. I was embarrassed and proud at the same time. Up on stage, Steve didn’t seem to know how to interact with the audience. While he sang, he paced back and forth between the bassist and the guitarist. He’d encroach on their bubble of space, placing an arm on their shoulder and singing directly to them. At one point, he kicked the guitarist on the butt. I wondered if there were women out there who fantasized about being romantically involved with Steve.

Logan turned again to Katie and told her that the man on stage was not the real Steve Harwell. He pulled up images of Steve on his iPhone as evidence. It was hard to say from such a distance if the man on stage was really Steve. He’d lost weight since the band’s early years and was now bleached blond. He didn’t sound like the recordings, but then again, neither does Katy Perry.

As the performance wore on, the anticipation built. There was one song everyone there had come to hear, and it wasn’t Walkin’ on the Sun, Holiday in my Head, Pacific Coast Party, Road Man, or even their cover of I’m a Believer. The couple behind me started chanting “All Star” every time a song ended. What’s it like to be a band and know that the thing you’ve created far surpasses you in terms of significance?

All Star was the very last song of the night, and it was glorious. The people in the Shrek masks jumped up and down in time with the beat. The crowd lit up with cellphone screens as people recorded the moment for their Instagram accounts. 3,000 voices joined Steve’s for the chorus that has scored this milenium. The concert ended with Steve softly repeating, like a mantra or a prayer, the words “only shooting stars break the mold.”

“That was awesome,” Jared commented as we walked back to the car in the dark. Katie nodded in agreement. I felt inspired, rejuvenated, a part of something much larger than myself (like a generation or a social media platform or something). I looked up at the night sky, searching for a sign, maybe a shooting star. There were none to be found, of course. The air in the 2nd most polluted city in the USA does not lend itself to stargazing.

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September 25: Ants!

I’m half-awake and feel something tickling my face. I reach up to brush it off, and my index finger hits something small with many legs. My eyes are now open. The ant writhing between my thumb and forefinger comes into focus. I brush my face, checking for more ants. A sticky patch on my cheek tells me I’ve been drooling. Clustered around the watering hole of saliva on the edge of my pillow are five more ants. I jump out of bed and realize with horror that there’s something moving in my mouth. Reaching in, my fingers touch something small and alive. I pull out two very sodden ants who must have seen my mouth as an open invitation. How many more crawled in during the course of the night? Hundreds? I run to the bathroom and spend the next 10 minutes spitting real and imagined ants into the sink.

The worst part of an ant infestation is the paranoia. Once you find ants in your trashcan, your sink, your dishwasher, your bed, your mouth, you begin to imagine that they are everywhere. The feel of water evaporating from your skin is no longer a sensation you ignore. Instead, you search the area because even the slightest tickle on your skin could be an ant.

Ants begin to star in your dreams. Sometimes I wake up from dreaming there are ants in my bed to a reality where there are ants crawling on my legs under the covers. The distinction between the real and imagined begins to erode.

You learn things about ants you never wanted to know, dark secrets they left out of the sugar-coated Hollywood movie “A Bug’s Life,” like the fact that all ants can bite.

Over the course of the past 3 nights, I’ve slept in 3 different beds and 1 couch in an effort to escape them. After waking up with ants in my mouth, I moved out of my room. I spent the next night in my mother’s bed while she was out of town, but they found me there too. I woke to the now familiar sensation of an ant crawling across my face. It was early enough that I moved to the couch to continue sleeping. The third night, I slept in my sister’s bed. It was there that I finally found a sanctuary from the ants (though images of them still haunt me in my sleep).

During an ant infestation, you begin to ask yourself questions like “why now?”; “why me?”; and “what do they want?” It’s hard to imagine their motivation, but it starts to feel personal when, no matter how many times you spray them with vinegar and whatever other homeopathic extermination methods your mother researched on the internet, they keep coming back.

And maybe it is personal. After all, you don’t hesitate to end thousands of their lives in the name of a pristine sink.

 

For those who want visuals:

September 18: Boys and Girls

A troop of little boys in catholic school uniforms marched into the gym. I’m not someone who usually goes goo-goo for little kids or anything like that (if anything, I’m actually kind of afraid of them), but even I had to admit that these kids were pretty cute. They’d come straight from school to celebrate Patrick’s 9th birthday.

The party started off normally enough. I helped the first few kids into their harnesses and met my coworker, Colin the Lifeguard. I guessed Colin was somewhere in his 40s. He had the characteristic tan skin and bleach-blond hair of someone who’s spent a lot of time at the beach, and he wore a necklace with three fangs dangling from it (before Colin, these fangs had belonged to a sea lion).

Things went downhill when Colin asked everyone to listen up while he went over the safety rules for the gym. On cue, the adorable little boys began running, screaming, and attempting to strangle each other with balloons. Someone found the light switch and started flipping it on and off, creating a strobe effect. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a night club for catholic school-going demons. While Colin attempted to control the situation, the kids’ parents looked on with pleasant smiles, but did little to help restore order. It was at this moment that I realized why my mom had signed me up for activities in my youth. I’d always thought that she wanted me to get exercise, make some friends, and maybe learn how to dribble a ball around a field. Watching the chaos and the way it had become our responsibility to contain it, I realized the true purpose of activities like climbing, soccer, ballet, etc.: to give parents a reprieve from their children (with perhaps the distant secondary goal of getting their kids into an elite institution for higher learning). I had to admit that, were these my kids, I’d probably end up killing them if I didn’t have people like me to look after them a couple hours every day.

When the kids weren’t climbing with Colin or me, they were wrestling on the floor and climbing higher than they were allowed to without a rope. The worst offender in this category was Thor, Patrick’s older brother (I’m very interested in what changed for the parents between child 1 and child 2), who is on the non-competitive climbing team at the gym and thinks he’s god’s gift to the sport of climbing. He was unmoved by explanations that I would lose my job if he didn’t come down, and enjoyed striking provocative poses while on the wall.

At every opportunity, Patrick reminded us in his best outdoor voice that it was his birthday, which roughly translated to “I get to do whatever the f— I want.” One of the better behaved kids at the party, a kid with blond curly hair and glasses, informed me that he was a boy scout. As a boy scout, he took great interest in the knot I used to tie him in. He asked me to show him how it worked, after which, he insisted on tying himself in. This would have made my life easier had he actually been able to execute the knot. Untying was something he could manage on his own, a service he then insisted on providing to all his friends. Every time a kid came off the wall, the boy scout would rush over and start untying the kid’s knot, completely undeterred by his friend’s shoves.

Colin was, admirably, trying to teach the boys a string of commands to check safety systems before climbing. When this inevitably failed, he resorted to scare tactics, describing the importance of safety systems on a multipitch trad climb in Joshua Tree. The boys, entirely unfamiliar with the concepts of Joshua Tree, multipitch, and trad, remained unmoved. When they finally took a break for pizza and cake, Colin joked about putting cyanide in the pizza.

My second party that day, which I worked with a former parkour artist, was a birthday for 7-year-old girls. They were infinitely calmer and better at following directions than the boys. I vowed that, if I ended up having kids, they would all be girls.

After working a few birthdays, I’ve made some observations. One I call “the rule of birthdays,” which is that the birthday kid is almost always the best climber. Unlike most of their peers, they usually have some previous experience. The other kids fall into two categories: the ones that intuitively get it and the ones that don’t. Some kids, no matter how many times you remind them that the legs are stronger than the arms, and all they need to do is stand up to reach the next hold, just can’t internalize it. There’s actually a third fairly rare category, the kids who don’t want to climb at all. These kids usually spend most of the party glued to their parents’ sides. The party I was working had one girl in this category, Coco, a roundish blond with a mom in an all denim designer outfit and leopard print flats.

Periodically, Coco’s mom would bring her over to me, announcing that Coco was ready to climb. As soon as I approached her with the rope, Coco would begin to cry. At one point, we got as far as tying her in. Her mom led her over to the wall. Coco wanted to climb while holding her mom’s hand. Once the mother made it clear that she had no intention of going up the wall in her “fancy shoes,” Coco dissolved into tears again. Her mom knelt so their eyes were level and in a raised whisper said, “This is embarrassing. I don’t care if you climb or not, but we’re at someone else’s birthday party. You can’t just sit here crying.” Coco continued to cry. I stood there, reflecting on how I had no idea what the right answer was for this parenting dilemma. Do you let the kid walk away and give up, even though they’re fully capable of getting up the wall? Is that teaching them to throw in the towel too soon? Do you make them go up the wall while sobbing? That seems kind of cold. You want them to feel like you have their back.

 

As Coco’s mom continued to try to coax her daughter onto the wall, I looked at the two of them. They were a mismatched pair. While Coco was blond and a little chubby, her mom was a classic west Los Angeles mother–honey highlights in artificially straightened hair, skin bronzed to perfection, a huge diamond on a hand topped with black talons. Her face appeared hard rather than old. I glanced around the gym. All the party moms were thin, toned, and tan. Their little 7-year-old daughters were all different shapes and sizes, styled according to their imaginations rather than images they’d seen in TV and magazines. Looking at their moms, I saw what the future held for these girls. I wondered what each would have to do to her body to make it fit into the same mold as her mom’s.

Maybe I’d rather have boys. I’m not sure I could raise girls in west LA in good conscience.

September 12: Back to School

I couldn’t stop staring at the elaborately made up blond across the room. All the white women in the room, except for me, were elaborately made up blonds (most did not come by this blondness naturally, judging by their roots), so it wasn’t for these reasons that she stood out. The reason my eyes strayed to her whenever I thought no one else was looking was because of her arms and her lips. She had beautiful arms–toned, with large biceps and forearms. I watched enviously as they bulged whenever she reached up to play with her hair (she did this almost constantly). Her lips were also large, full beyond belief. In profile, it was hard to tell which jutted out farther, her lips or her nose. When she faced forward, I’d search her face for other signs of tampering, quickly averting my eyes whenever she felt my gaze on her.

It was day two of a semester-long class I’d signed up for at Santa Monica College (SMC). After swearing I was done with school forever, here I was, right back in it, taking a class called “Social Media Marketing.” I was inspired to do this by a job I’d interviewed for that was seeking someone with a background in social media campaigns. I didn’t get the job, lacking a background in both social media and environmental activism, but it’d gotten me to think about the world of media beyond film and television.

Someone at SMC, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that it made sense to hold this class in Malibu (45 minutes from SMC’s main campus) in order to attract a “different demographic.” When we went around the class on the first day and said where in LA we were living, the only people from Malibu were a trio of middle-aged women and a blond couple who looked to be about my age and used a shiny red convertible as their mode of transportation (the dude looked like Sean Penn’s character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High). If the demographic they were hoping to attract was white people with money, mission accomplished. SMC is still working on building its Malibu campus, so this class was held at Webster Elementary. Something I hadn’t considered before I showed up for the first day of class was how this would affect the size of the room’s furniture. My thighs were mashed against the underside of the desk. Every time I shifted position, one of the table legs would leave the ground, causing everything on the desk to slide.

Our professor had the physique of someone who goes to the gym a lot and focuses on the big muscle groups. He’s an Italian dude with a full head of silver-gray hair, and a smile that says “I was popular in high school.” On the first day of class, he wore jeans and a red collared shirt with the under armour logo. On the second day of class, he wore jeans and a navy blue collared shirt with the under armour logo. By the second day, I was beginning to sense a pattern.

On the first day, he gave us his professional life story over the course of an hour and a half. He went to business school in Vegas after moving there to spend time with his mother who, supposedly, wasn’t long for this world and needed to live in a dry climate (my mind immediately jumped to tuberculosis, but I think I was probably off base). After school, he started a business with his brother selling carts to casinos that allowed people to walk around making change for customers. These cart were rendered obsolete in 2000 by more advanced technology. At this point, his mom had lived many years past her alleged expiration date, so he moved back to Ventura, CA, where he’s originally from. He worked in marketing for a news paper until the iPhone came out, at which point he’d seen the future. He quit and started selling software. His biggest sale (which he’s mentioned at least once each class) was to Cisco. With that money (somewhere in the millions), he started a business selling ergonomically tailored chairs to large companies.

On the second day of class, we went through a powerpoint and learned a little bit more about our professor’s wife. Apparently, her idea of a night out is going to Pier 1 Imports followed by Starbucks. Our discussion then turned to Facebook. The professor pulled up the following chart:

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I was sitting at my little desk, trying to figure out what it would look like for a social media platform to know you as well as a spouse, when I heard the professor ask if anyone had any questions. He stopped pacing and stared directly at me. I guess I looked like I had a question.

Me: “Uh, what does that even look like? Like Facebook knows you as well as a spouse?”

This launched him into a scenario where the two of us were married and his mother, my mother-in-law, wanted to know what to get me for Christmas. In this scenario, I loved going to Olive Garden, so he suggested a gift card to that illustrious establishment. I was momentarily distracted by the thought that I needed to find a husband who knew me better. The big takeaway was that Facebook would also know this info about my spending habits. So I guess his mom, my mother-in-law, could have saved herself time and asked Facebook instead. The professor concluded with the idea that after 500 likes, Facebook knows you better than you know yourself, which is more or less equivalent to knowing what you’re going to do before you do it. I was starting to feel like we were living in a Christopher Nolan movie.

Our discussion of Facebook and its relationship to us ended when the professor asked me what my name was. I said, “Ceri.” This, of course, autocorrected in his brain to “Siri,” and a gray haired woman a few rows down started talking about the voice in her iPhone. At this point, I turned back to my fellow classmates for entertainment. Sean Penn was watching a video of someone surfing, dimming his screen every time the professor paced to our end of the room. On the first day, I’d pegged him as a surfer because of his long blond hair and tanned, stringy physique, so I felt somewhat vindicated. The elaborately made up blond on the other side of the room was running her fingers over her impossibly large lips. Maybe they were new.