Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Corn Dogs

It cost $5 to enter the SOMA StrEAT Food Park Corn Dog Festival, which included a 16- ounce can of PBR or a bottle of water. As soon as we passed the ticket booth and ID check, a large, bubbly woman with blue-and-pink dreadlocks fished a can from a giant cooler. Her fingernails—which were the size of guitar picks—were bright blue and studded with rhinestones. She pried the can’s tab up with one thumbnail and then slammed it back down with the nail on her pointer finger.

She tilted the sweating can towards me. “You want a beer?” she asked me, now that it was already open.

I nodded, maybe a little too eagerly because she burst out laughing as she handed it to me.

The day was chilly. A layer of clouds stubbornly refused to burn off, and there was the ever-present SOMA wind. But as soon as I stepped into the crowd, my mood was instantly warmed and brightened. The air was filled with laughter, music, and the smell of deep-fried batter. Gale-force winds would never stand a chance against the sybaritic scent of a good corn dog.

Nick and I took a quick lap around the park to see what the twelve food trucks, circled like covered wagons, had to offer. Since this was our nation’s biggest corn dog festival, even the trucks that were dog-free the other 364 days of the year, stepped up their game for the occasion. Odang Udon, the Japanese noodle truck, offered a tempura-battered corn dog. Curry Up Now topped their corn dogs, unsurprisingly, with curry. No No Burger, which specializes in organic, non-GMO soy protein, featured a vegan corn dog. (There was no line.) Sticks was one of only two food trucks that offered corn dogs on their regular menu. They sold the classic hand-dipped variety you tend to find on fairgrounds (a short distance from the spinning rides that coax the battered food into a comeback).

Halfway around the park we found the walkway completely blocked by the line for a particular food truck. The truck was spray painted with a giant corndog wearing white gloves and a backwards baseball cap that read “SF City.” He—it may be sexist to assume the corndog was male, but, c’mon—was blowing a giant pink gum bubble and brandishing a baseball bat. The chalkboard menu was hidden behind all the people waiting to order, but we got in line assuming that whatever was so popular had to be good. It took 15 minutes to reach the window. By then, we had learned this was Batter Up, and they served a kebab called the Triple Play. Skewered on one stick was of a chuck of a Lousiana hot link, a slab of cheddar cheese, a piece of chicken-apple-pepper-ingredient-that-(because-whoever-wrote-the-menu-ran-out-of-room)-was-abbreviated-to-a-set-of-letters-I-could-not-decipher bratwurst. All this high-caloric goodness was then dipped in batter and deep fried.

After ordering, it took another 15 minutes for our food to be ready. While waiting, I crowd-watched. Countless people were taking selfies with their food or arranging it on the wooden tables to Instagram. I had to duck between Batter Up and Bacon Bacon when a guy on a hoverboard zipped backwards through the crowd filming a trucking shot of the live band.

I couldn’t tell you exactly what reggae-infused songs The Stu Tails were playing that day, but I half-remembered most of them from the early 2000s, so they sent me spiraling into my past all afternoon. I was suddenly transported back to the safe and quiet streets of my neighborhood, where I knocked on friends’ doors, trying to muster a soccer game before the street lights came on.

Halfway through my PBR, still waiting for my corn-kebab, I thought about the first time I saw an ad for the original iPod on the back of a magazine addressed to my dad. The ad boasted that I could fit 1,000 songs in my pocket, a dizzying promise. I wondered if I even knew 1,000 songs to put on it.

While The Stu Tails’ bass player swayed beneath a short palm tree, a frond dipped in the wind and flicked up locks of his slicked back hair. They played song after song, pausing only to embarrass the couple who were eating pizza at the nation’s largest corn dog festival.

After finishing up our Triple Plays. We picked up bacon-wrapped corn dogs with jalapeno cream cheese dip, bacon macaroni and cheese corn dog balls, and deep-fried Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups from three different food trucks. We then went looking for a place to sit. There was cafeteria-styled seating under a barn-like awning, and we split a table with three college girls who had already been here for an hour.

The one seated next to Nick downed the last of her PBR before staring contemplatively at the empty can. “I don’t know if it’s because I worked out this morning or because of the beer, but I feel really good right now.” The tin bucket to her left was filled with five other empties. She reached across the table to tip up her friend’s can while she was drinking it, so the beer would pour out faster. Then she launched into telling no one in particular about how she developed breasts in the fourth grade, so every boy in her school was into her.

Entertaining though our neighbor was, Nick and I moved on because it was getting close to three, and I wanted to get a good view of the event I’d dragged Nick here to see: The Corn Dog Eating Championship.

Five men competed for the honor of being crowned King Corn Dog. The winner would also walk away with $50 cash and a stylish sash adorned with six pockets, each filled with a can of PBR. Every contestant was issued a paper tray of three corn dogs provided by Sticks. This was paired with a can of beer to lubricate their effort in whichever way they wished. There were only two rules: 1) finish all three corn dogs (and the beer), and 2) no puking. To lend an air of seriousness to the situation, The Stu Tails stopped playing, and the food park fell silent except for a few cheers when the contestants were introduced.

When the judge counted down from ten, the five men revealed their individual tactics. (Due to a pen malfunction, I missed all but one of the contestant introductions and can only refer to each competitor by what he was wearing.) The man on the farthest left wore patriotic sweatbands on his wrists and forehead. He pulled his corn dog off the stick and ripped it in half so that he could stuff both ends in his mouth at once. The guy in the black V-neck, the number two slot, peeled the batter off his corn dog and set to work eating the bare hot dog before moving on to shuck the next one. The next guy wore glasses and seemed to be in no hurry at all. He ate his corn dogs the way we spectators were eating them, stick still inserted and chewing thoroughly after each bite. He may have only signed up for the competition because three corn dogs and a beer was a bargain for the $10 entry fee. The last two guys immedately pulled the sticks out of all three corn dogs and set to stuffing their faces with gulps of beer to help it slide down. One of them was tall, had a shaved head, and wore a sky-blue shirt with a bicycle on it. The last was Miguel, who wore sunglasses, a backwards Dead Pool baseball hat with a matching Dead Pool hoodie. He insisted that his last name was “McLovin,” and, like V-neck, he also peeled his corn dog, but ate the hot dog and then the batter before moving on to the next.

He ate his corn dogs the way we spectators were eating them, stick still inserted and chewing thoroughly after each bite. He may have only signed up for the competition because three corn dogs and a beer was a bargain for the $10 entry fee."

Though this kind of speed-eating happens incredibly fast and requires a certain discipline (at least with regard to gag reflex) there is not much action to speak of. The contestants furiously work their way through their set, but in the end, an eating contest consists of watching people chew vigorously and gulp liquid.

Competitive eating is as ridiculous as pole sitting or planking. Yet, unlike those other attention-seeking ventures—speed eating continues to grow in popularity. There are ample opportunities to discover your personal gifts. While researching for this article, I came across contests for eating Peeps, boysenberry pie, pumpkin pie, meat pie, sweet corn, birthday cake, chili, crawfish, gyros, shrimp cocktails, burritos, silver dollar pancakes, gumbo, pepperoni rolls, salmon chowder, MoonPies, oysters, ribs, crab cakes, tater tots and tamales. I also managed to find an ice cream contest (a hands-free version), which I assume ends with every contestant clutching their skull and screaming that their head is going to explode. Some competitions have passed into legend. In 1919 Yankees outfielder Ping Bodie faced an ostrich named Percy in a spaghetti eating contest. The story goes that Bodie won by default when the ostrich passed out (or, in some versions, passed away) after his eleventh bowl.

Eating contests have been traced all the way back to a Norse myth in which Logi, the fire giant, was pitted against human-sized Loki, whom he had bullied because of his small size. Loki and Logi sat at opposite ends of a wooden trencher loaded with meat. At the King’s signal, both began eating from the outside in. Though they both reached the midpoint simultaneously, Loki had only eaten the meat, while Logi also consumed the bones and the wooden trencher itself.

According to Major League Eating, the world body that oversees all professional eating contests, the modern and much more regulated version of eating contests began in 1916. This is the year that Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker opened his legendary stand, Nathan’s Famous, after years of sleeping on the floor of the hot dog restaurant where he worked and saving his money. Using his wife’s family secret spice recipe from the old country, he sold his dogs for a nickel each. It is said that four immigrants stood around Nathan’s stand that Fourth of July arguing over who among them was most patriotic. It was decided that the best way to judge this incalculable trait was to see who could eat the most franks. Jim Mullen, an Irish immigrant, was declared winner after eating 13 hot dogs in 12 minutes. And thus, not only did a new American prove his steadfast love for his adopted country but a new pastime was born.

However, this did not signal the start of an annual contest. In fact, there is no evidence of such a contest prior to the early 70s. Even the Nathan’s Famous website only lists the eating competition winners from 1972 on. In 2010, Mortimer Matz, a Nathan’s spokesman, claims he helped make up the Jim Mullen patriot-eater story with Max Rosey to increase frank sales. The founder was unhappy that participants were not paying for the many hot dogs they ate, and wanted to limit the contest to 12 minutes.

Despite this documented confession, the 1916 legend still gets circulated regularly. And it’s a good story. It allows us to believe that eating contests weren’t created to drum up cheap publicity for a product, but because four immigrants loved their new home so much they had to take action. All this on top of Handwerker’s classic rags to riches story has made the whole yarn a paean to the American dream, where people from all over the world set down new roots in the land of opportunity, where there could be two frankfurters in every bun. Nathan’s hot dogs have become such an ingrained part of American culture that Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York once said “No man can hope to be elected in his state without being photographed eating a hot dog at Nathan’s Famous.” As the Nathan’s Famous website points out at the end of their extended history section: “Nathan’s is not just a hot dog, it has history and it is Americana.”

I’ve had the great fortune to spend a lot of time with a competitive eater who gallantly showed me the fastest way to eat a lot of deep-fried foods or anything served with a cup of melted butter. The fastest way to get the meat out of a lobster tail is to wrap one hand around the tail and the other hand around the torso, like you are about to give it an elementary-school friction burn during recess because you have a crush on it and don’t know how to deal with that. You twist the two sides in opposite directions, and the tail comes off. After that, you rip off the outer tail fins on the closed end. Once you are left with just a shell tube, the meat inside slides out with a few prods from those ridiculously tiny forks.

I met Anthony Chie-for in Milford, MA when he and Nick were both in a two-month long training course for their work. Like most competitive eaters, Anthony is a skinny guy, which means he doesn’t have a band of fat that prevents his stomach from expanding during competitions. He was eager to take Nick and me to an all-you-can-eat buffet so he could show off. The week before our trip to the Nordic Lodge in Rhode Island, Anthony ate as much as he could and guzzled down copious amounts of seltzer water to expand his stomach. On the day of our visit, he had a light breakfast and drank water throughout the day to keep his stomach stretched. I lost count after his fifth plate of lobsters and crab legs.

Anthony first got into competitive eating in a similar way to the jokester Loki. One of his wrestling buddies, a heavyweight, invited him to an all-you-can-eat sushi bar and decided to turn it into a friendly competition. Anthony wound up eating twice as much as his friend. He can now eat 108 pieces of Nigiri sushi in one sitting. He can also eat twenty-four dumplings in two minutes.

After that, Anthony started entering amateur contests, such as the Hooter’s Wing Eating Championship, when he realized how much free food he would get to shove down his gullet. Not that it’s such a great deal for him; he feels awful after a competition and frequently throws up a half hour later when his brain finally catches up with what he’s just done to his body.

I was surprised to learn from him how many different ways there are to speed eat. Some break apart their food. Some don’t chew at all and swallow everything whole, like a pelican gulping down herring. Though Anthony chews his food thoroughly and does what he can to stay in shape, his doctor is, unsurprisingly, not a fan of this hobby.

I asked Anthony why eating contests continue to be popular while other faddish stunts come and go. He argued that everyone eats, so it is easy to be truly impressed. Only someone who plays tennis can appreciate one of Serena Williams’ backhand passing shots. Only someone who boxes can really be amazed by Ali’s footwork. Everybody eats, so we all know how astonishing it is to watch someone choke down six pounds of baked beans in under two minutes.

The tipsy college girls from our table had heard there was a corn dog eating contest and materialized next to me, shaking each other’s shoulders and shouting. The camera guy on the hover board swayed back and forth in front of the contestant table to get a final shot as the end drew near. People everywhere screamed and hooted.

McLovin waggled a stripped hot dog in the face of black V-neck, who was trying to deal with the massive ball of batter created from all three corn dogs. He smooshed it together as tight as he could and took a giant bite. The people in the crowd shrieked in shock and disgust. The rest of the contestants seemed confused by his decision and stopped chewing to watch him with their cheeks puffed out.

With the final swig of beer, McLovin swallowed his last bite of batter and grinned. As this was an amateur contest, there was no official timekeeper, but the whole event was shorter than the Kentucky Derby.

McLovin raised both his arms, pumping the “rock-on” gesture. He ducked his head to don the beer-pocket sash. The other contenders grinned and applauded their new king. The guy with glasses attempted to clap while still eating his third corn dog.

When the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest was finally set to a standard 10-minute format in the 80s, the average number of hot dogs the winner disposed of was in the low teens. In recent years, the number has more than quadrupled and remains somewhere near the high 60s, topping out with the 70 Joey “Jaws” Chestnut ate in 2016. So much has changed during the last 30 years that not only has the number of ingested calories sky-rocketed, but the audience has exploded to over 35,000 visitors and millions of TV viewers.

Glancing around at the cheering crowd, everyone seemed to be filming with their iPhone 6s, paying each other back for food on Venmo, or ordering Uber rides home. I realized how different this future was from the one I was promised. I thought about the long-ago time when it felt like endless possibilities stretched before me. I felt a pang for the days before the internet and student loans, when dozens of games of MASH predicted that I would marry Jonathan Taylor Thomas, when entry-level jobs didn’t require three years of experience, and when the direst financial consequence I faced was a dollar fine if I didn’t return my Blockbuster videos on time.

I bit into the last piece of my bacon-wrapped corn dog and closed my eyes. Tomorrow, these trucks would be gone and replaced with the regularly-scheduled Very Vegan Sundays. But today, I was back on the fairgrounds of my childhood, where the American dream could be achieved by just showing up determined, because patriotism could be measured in hot dogs, a 44-year-old contest could celebrate its 100th anniversary, and defeating a god was as simple as eating a wooden plate.

Mind Capture: Coming of Age in Chico State

Where I come from, the noise the Chico State girls made just getting ready for the party would have made someone call the cops. I was sitting on the lap of a toffee-colored teddy bear that was larger than me. My host, who shall remain Nameless, brought me here for one of her BFF’s birthday parties. Since most of the invitees had just returned from their summer vacation trips, the excitement was high.

Nameless wobbled into the room on a pair of nude stilettos. The heels were so narrow, I couldn’t understand how they supported her weight without sinking into the wooden floor, nailing her in place. She had to yell over the noise of two showers, three hairdryers, and four loud girls playing Mario Karts.

“Who’s taking shots with me?” Nameless wanted to know. They weren’t leaving for the party for at least hour, and the hot air was so thick with hairspray I was beginning to see mirages.

All the girls screamed back that shots were a great idea. I spied one of Nameless’ neighbors try to coax her cat into taking a swig from his beer bottle.

When it was decided that everyone was properly drunk, we set out. The summer night was warm and humid, and we spent most of the walk flicking mosquitoes and flies away. We barely rounded the corner when someone noticed two police cars parked in front of the house we were heading to. The girls unceremoniously abandoned beer cans onto whichever lawn was closest.

Unlike my Alma Mater, Chico State’s campus has sorority and frat houses. They are quaint, two-story dwellings that might house respectable middle-aged couples in a 50s sitcom. Each had wooden cutout Greek letters posted alongside the highest window. On the porch of this particular sorority house, a very angry girl screamed into her iPhone while she waved her free hand in the air like she wanted some teacher to call on her. When we neared the police officers, Nameless suddenly began talking very loudly, pointing at the row of houses like she was giving a tour.

“This is the house I lived in freshman year,” she told everyone without looking back at us. The girl on the porch continued to cry-yell into her phone.

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One of Nameless’ roommates, Laura, apparently decided some kind of shoe-throwing contest might be fun but hadn’t fully understood the consequences until she couldn’t find her shoes in the underbrush. 

Though I am well over the legal drinking age, I slunk past the officers on the sidewalk, wondering if I would look more guilty ignoring them or giving them an overenthusiastic greeting. We later found out that a group of guys who weren’t invited to the party tried to gain entry. When they were rebuffed, they called the police and made up a story about a fight on the front lawn. When the police arrived, they dished out several MIPs, including one to iPhone girl.

Despite the night’s ominous beginning, Nameless was unfazed. She simply led us past the house and down the street to another party she knew about. I had already shared a bottle of coconut rum with a few people at this point, so my memories past this point are hazy.

Chico students poured out onto the stoop of the drooping house. They began taking off their shoes and throwing them in every direction. One of Nameless’ roommates, Laura, apparently decided some kind of shoe-throwing contest might be fun but hadn’t fully understood the consequences until she couldn’t find her shoes in the underbrush. Laura and I pulled out our cellphones and used their light to search the shrubbery, but she grew restless. She told me she loved me, and spent the rest of the night barefoot. Nick found a lone Converse on the dirt path in front of the house. He’d always wanted to throw a pair of shoes onto a power line, so he slipped into the house, found an unguarded Nike and struck another item off his bucket list.

Though I’d met these people only a few hours ago, about nine of them paused to tell me they really cared about me and that I should take care of Nick because they really cared about him too. A particularly drunk girl was trying to start a fight with a guy because he had four piercings in his ears. She had only two piercings. Since he had twice as many, she was fairly certain he was twice as girly and probably had breasts twice as big as hers. An hour later, she managed to find a squeezy-bear full of honey and smeared it on some guy’s face, just because she could.

An old, threadbare couch lay abandoned in the no-man’s-land between this house and its neighbor. Someone decided it would be witty to drag it out to the middle of the street. Another person decided it would be even droller to light it on fire. The whole sofa burst into flames and people danced around it like they were making sacrifices to the Patrón Silver gods. The bonfire lit up the street; I could feel the warmth from the sidewalk.

Within minutes, a choir of sirens started up, and the more sober among us made a run for it. When we made it to safety, Nameless assured me that this level of shenanigans didn’t typically happen. They usually waited until the cooler months of autumn before they lit furniture on fire. The party then got moved to Nameless’ house, but most people ended up passing out on her couch or in the lawn chairs out front. I showed a cell phone photo of the flaming couch to a fellow party guest. He was unimpressed because I didn’t get a shot when he was leaping over it.

The next morning, a group of us set out for Nameless’ favorite hangover place, a homey restaurant called Mom’s, where the walls are plastered with pictures of the Chico students’ mothers. More mom-shots were layered under the glass tabletops.

Nameless moved her glass of orange juice to one side and ran a finger over the glass. “I really want to put a picture of me and Mom here,” she said. “It would be so sweet.” At first, all the photos struck me as gimmicky. But then I thought about how glad these Moms would probably be that their children had lived to visit this morning hangover haunt.

The itinerary for today was to go tubing on the Sacramento River. By noon, tubers were already lounging in blown-up rafts and taking shots of Vodka on Nameless’ front lawn. Tubing, I learn, requires two cars. One will deliver us to the launching point and the other will be parked where we will climb out of the water. While waiting for those who had to park downriver, everyone passed the time by reminding each other how they were really, really drunk last night. They swapped war stories and reminisced about the flaming sofa. A few had been arrested. Other had been awarded MIPs.

When everyone finally arrived, those without footwear[1] sprinted across hot pavement to the water. Someone passed out cans of Rolling Rock, a few fifths of Stoli, and a single two-liter bottle of orange soda to be used as a chaser. We sat back and let the current take us.

At one point on our voyage, a log jutted out in the middle of the river. Nameless suggested we paddle around it. When no one moved, she told us that a few weeks ago someone got caught on the log and drowned. I laughed and thought about how drunk someone would have to be to die like that. Then I remembered who I was sailing with. I flopped onto my stomach and paddled vigorously.

Farther down we passed a cop boat that was patrolling the river’s edge. Everyone was pretty sure they never checked IDs, which was fortunate, since all our wallets were locked in the car. In the interest of science, one of us took an informal poll to see how many of us were actually over 21. Three of us made the cut.

At that moment it dawned on me that Nick and I were the oldest people present.

Molly lay back on her raft, basking in the sun, the company, and the vodka buzz. She propped herself up no her elbows to address the group. “Everyone!” she called out to us. “Mind-capture this fucking moment!”

I did.

It was an epiphany.

Yesterday I was a hard-working college grad, forging her way in the grownup world; I paid rent and filed taxes and changed my smoke alarm batteries. Today I was floating down a river in a borrowed bikini; I was drinking beer with a bunch of underage kids on a weekday afternoon. I was only a couple years out of college myself, but I felt as out of place as Margaret Thatcher on MTV.

Nick was our designated driver on our return to civilization. As he drove, he played 90s hits from his iPhone. Sister Hazel came up on the playlist. Tapping my fingers on the dashboard, I thought about how I’d seen them in concert when I was a kid. It was the first concert I’d ever been to, and my family sat on blankets up on the steep Irvine Meadows lawn, the cheapest seats available.           

Before the song was done, Breanne leaned forward and grabbed the iPhone. “I like this kind of old stuff,” she explained. “But not all the time.”

She searched on Pandora until she found a dubstep station and filled the car with that damn racket these youngsters call music.

[1] Their shoes may still have still been lost in the shrubbery or dangling from a power line. I can’t say for sure.

HEATHER BUCHANAN recommends asprin and lots of water.


At the seventh annual Loews’ Surf Dog Competition in Imperial Beach, more dogs are wearing sunglasses than are humans. The competition is held each year in Imperial Beach to raise money and awareness for the ASPCA, and it is no small event. News stations have camera crews on risers made of thin metal pipes, and each time a dog comes in from its heat, it is immediately swarmed by reporters. Spectators stand knee-deep in the Pacific to get good iPhone pictures. Many have given up trying to keep their clothes dry and don’t bother rolling up their pant legs. My clothes are soaked through too, but it’s mostly because a group of kids in the surf zone are running around, splashing everyone except the friend they are aiming at.

The competition is composed of three main heats. While human surfers are segregated by gender, age, and experience, with surfing pooches, it is all about size. The first heat is for small breeds; the second heat is for large breeds; and third is the tandem heat, which includes various combinations of dogs and humans.

Four panting dogs line up with their surfboards and owners in a roped off runway in front of the judge’s table. An announcer shouts that it’s time to surf. The dogs and humans sprint down to the water. The four contestants have 10 minutes to catch waves. When the humans get knee deep in the brine, they lay the surfboard down and the dog leaps aboard. The owners then tow their dogs to the breakers and launch them onto whatever swell they find promising.

I track down one of the judges, Brian Johnson, general manager of Loews Coronado Bay Resort, as he carries a box of fruit to his car. He tells me the dogs are scored based on everything from “technique, to time on the board, to overall wave to beach performance.” His navy blue polo shirt sports the Loews’ logo and his sandy hair pokes out from beneath his baseball cap. “I’m not a surfer,” he admits, “so I don’t know the lingo.” He pauses, as if considering his credentials and what I might think of them. “But I own a dog.” he adds.

Though the waves are short and choppy, most dogs manage to stay on the board until they reach the sand and leap off. In case they wipe out, they have little lifejackets equipped with a handle on the back so owners can yank them out of the water. Every time a dog wipes out, everyone on the beach openly panics until the dog resurfaces. The Bulldog wipeouts are the most amusing. While the other breeds kind of flop sideways into the water, Bulldogs, with their low-slung sturdy build, only get knocked off when the nose of the board catches under the edge of the water, and they are launched into the air like furry shot puts.

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Bulldogs, with their low-slung sturdy build, only get knocked off when the nose of the board catches under the edge of the water, and they are launched into the air like furry shot puts.

At this point, a woman inexplicably parks her toddler in a stroller next to me (and I should point out that I’m ankle-deep in water) and abruptly abandons it to take her Chocolate Lab to the water. I stare awkwardly at the little kid lying inside. Is it worse to leave a tot burning in direct sunlight or to get caught moving a child that isn’t mine? The mom suddenly runs up and tells me that her dog escaped his choke chain and asks if I could watch the tyke. Before I can answer, she sprints off.

The little girl has eyes the size of Frisbees. I ask her if she likes seeing all the doggies. She stares blankly at me, unblinking. I ask her what her name is, and she keeps staring. I go back to taking photos of the dogs.

When the mother returns, we have a brief conversation about how tough it is to raise kids with a large dog, and I leave before she can somehow stick me with watching her elderly father so she can get a better grip on her responsibilities.

Halfway through a heat, a bulldog turns around on her surfboard and rides to dry land backwards. I know it’s probably unintentional, but I can’t help myself; I start cheering wildly. The woman in front of me, apparently a stony dog-surfing veteran, is not impressed. She dismissively mutters, “Low center of gravity”—as if the bulldog’s build is an unfair advantage, like juicing before the homerun derby or blood doping for the Tour de France.

When I first discovered there was such a thing, I imagined dog surfing as a sport that would evoke the wrath of PETA. In my head, they were middle-aged people with empty nests stuffing their dogs into bikinis and tossing them into cold water. I am astounded at how many of these dogs actually enjoy surfing. Sure, there was one shaggy pooch that clearly wanted nothing more than to run back to the sand, but most of the dogs are so excited to go back on the waves that they immediately jump back onto the board before their owners can set it down.

I wander the beach, working up the courage to strike up a non-creepy conversation to use in this article. I am wishing one of the surfers’ humans would strike up a conversation with me—and that actually happens. A photographer with a press badge around his neck on a lanyard (probably one not hastily laminated at Kinko’s, like mine was) is taking a picture of a Golden Retriever wearing a lei and a pink lifejacket with white polka dots (the dog is wearing the lei, not the lensman). The dog won’t look in the right direction, so her owner suddenly shouts for me to get Missy’s attention. I wave my arms around in the air and call the dog’s name, like I’m trying to hail a taxi. When the man gets the shot and leaves, the owner and I sit in the sand and talk about how she got to the idea that she should put her retriever on a surfboard.

During this chat, Missy sits and lets Grace Vanderwaall Barnett fuss over her outfit. Surfing seems very taxing on dogs as Missy barely reacts when I scratch her behind the ear.

Grace didn’t set out to teach her dog to surf. She was part of a golden retriever group four years ago, when Missy was one. She heard about a surfing class and just showed up to see what would happen. Now they enter into two competitions a year. From Barnett I learn that most people don’t buy specialized dog surfboards. Missy uses a normal surfboard bought from Costco[1].

Before I leave, Grace rearranges Missy’s lei and tells me to make sure I get her medal in the photo.

I wander back to the shoreline, and an overexcited woman begins screaming ‘Ricochet’. When I dart a confused look in her direction, she launches into the tale of one of the greatest dogs in the History of the Universe.

Ricochet, a cinnamon colored Golden Retriever with a white tuft of fur on her chest that resembles a heart, was raised to become a service dog, but instead she became, according to her website, a “surfice” dog[2]. The woman somehow manages to tell me the dog’s life story without stopping to breathe. After a year of being trained as a service dog, Ricochet was suddenly pulled out of the program because she couldn’t stop chasing birds, which would obviously be very dangerous for a visually impaired owner. Trying to work on what Ricochet could do, her owner arranged for her to surf in a fundraiser for Patrick Ivison, a quadriplegic adaptive surfer. Ricochet was meant to surf on a separate surfboard, next to Ivison, but the dog leaped on Ivison’s board and rode in with him.

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Ricochet has an uncanny ability to balance a surfboard’s second occupant, so she has surfed with special needs children, disabled adults, and wounded warriors.

The woman removes her sunglasses to show how serious this next part of the story will be. “They raised enough money for him that he was able to walk across the stage at his high school graduation.” Ricochet has an uncanny ability to balance a surfboard’s second occupant, so she has surfed with special needs children, disabled adults, and wounded warriors. At the age of four, she’s raised over $200,000 for charities. “I have a friend[3] who drove all the way from Nevada to see her surf today,” the woman tells me. She cups her hands into a megaphone and screeched the dog’s name again. With that, I go on my way.

The Tandem Heat starts, and the owners splash out to enjoy a wave with their dogs. There’s a father-daughter combo (both human) who do poses which involve the daughter balancing on one leg on her father’s shoulders as their tiny pup clings to the nose of the board. A woman brings out three dogs all sporting stars and stripes life jackets. She waves a flag above their heads, and I’m not sure whether to salute or giggle. And one of my favorite moments happens when a man loses his balance and falls into the water, but the dog manages to stay aboard and only seems to realize he has lost his human when he gets back to the sand.

An announcer gathers all the contestants to announce the winners. Abbie Girl, an Australian Kelpie, takes the title for small breeds. Ricochet wins first place for the larger breeds; and Zoey, a Jack Russell Terrier, and her owners, Scott & Tyler Chandler, win for the Tandem Heat. Though there is supposed to be an ultimate showdown between all the winners to see which dog will be poster dog for Loews’ Hotel, I take five minutes to sit down and somehow miss it. No one I ask can give me a definite answer as to what happened in the showdown, which makes me suspect it might not have happened. There is an alarming lack of rigor in the world of dog surfing.

On the drive back home, I’m still scoffing over how ridiculous the whole event was. I mean, who does this? Who takes their pooch to the beach when they’re in the mood for surfing? Who dresses a dog up and invests in custom made life jackets? But sometimes it’s hard to leave something at home that loves you so much. My boyfriend’s sister once trained a service dog. After the dog went to its new owner, her family kept the training vest. They now put it on their own dog (a 14-year-old Chihuahua, who could use a service dog of his own) whenever they want to take him to the airport or the grocery store. And if I could find a way, I wouldn’t leave my dog anywhere either.

[1] Earlier in the day, a world record was broken for most dogs surfing with one human. I missed it, but it was filmed so footage could be sent to the Guinness Book of World Records. Scott Chandler, the human on board, built his own surfboard specifically for the stunt. But with a board that is 15’ long and43’’ wide, the resulting footage is actually very boring as it is basically 14 or 17 dogs (the number changes depending on who is reporting) aboard a ferry that floats forward a few feet on a swell that never breaks. (Also, how canI have missed the dog surfing section of the Guinness Book all these years?)

[2] This website also offers other great plays on words such as ‘talk about new doggie doors opening’, ‘my bio & ruff’sume’, ‘little surFUR girl’, “board’ meeting’, and ‘paw-abunga’.

[3] Right. A friend.

HEATHER BUCHANAN lives and writes in San Diego.

Bickering Bigfoot

Take a look at the Patterson-Gimlin film, if you haven’t watched it a hundred times already. This brief strip of 16mm film—alleged to show a female Sasquatch retreating through the Six Rivers National Forest in California—has been exhaustively debated among believers and debunkers. After the Zapruder Film, this particular footage (or Bigfootage, as I like to call it) is probably the most scrutinized scrap of film in US history. The 52-second Sasquatch cameo shows Patty[1] taking a leisurely stroll through a clearing, casually glancing over her right shoulder at the viewer before disappearing behind fallen, dead trees. This film is so iconic that even if you aren’t interested in Bigfoot, you’ll recognize frame 352, in which the creature stares straight at the camera, left arm bent and swinging up to chest level while the right stretches out behind[2].

Tragically, the Patterson-Gimlin Film’s veracity has become a wedge issue in the otherwise copacetic community of Bigfootology. There are those who want the world to finally admit that PGF provides conclusive evidence that Bigfoot exists. Then there are those who see the PGF advocates as gullible yahoos who give the scientifically rigorous field of Bigfootology a bad name.

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As you might expect, the open and fair exchange of ideas devolves quickly into trollery. Accusations of illiteracy and inbreeding follow quick on the heels of any new insight.

It’s amazing how convoluted the appraisals of this film go. Even when I make the Youtube video (HD version) full-screen, Patty is still no bigger than a pack of Winstons. Despite this, Bigfootologists debate details like muscle movement and an alleged rip on the fake-fur right sleeve. Greg Long[3], for example, claims you can see the sun glint the creature’s right eye.[4] (Bob Heironimus famously claimed to be the man in the Sasquatch suit, and his right eye was glass.) On the James Randi Educational Foundation forum, Dr. DRE posts that the creature does not have a “bilateral buttocks” and, therefore, has no place to defecate. User LAL immediately retorts, “What? The cleft is clearly visible in some frames, such as in frame 72.”

One memorable recent skirmish revolved around Patty’s flat-footed, stiff-assed walk, which some claim would be nearly impossible for a human to replicate. A Bigfoot aficionado named Ray suggested that to test this theory, people should simply walk around wearing flippers. In the interest of advancing Sasquatch science, user LAL takes him up on his observation and later reports: “Sorry I wasn't clearer in my statement. I was busy walking across the floor Groucho Marx style with my hands on my ‘arse’ and checking clenches and jiggles in the full-length mirror. Of course, while I'm a bipedal hominid, I don't have the same build as a Sasquatch, so I can only approximate.”

As you might expect, the open and fair exchange of ideas devolves quickly into trollery. Accusations of illiteracy and inbreeding follow quick on the heels of any new insight:

  • Actually, I'd take along Murphy's book with the color pictures since most people seem to be too dense to follow Krantz, and I'd have my tape and DVD of LMS for those who can’t read at all.
  • No, it is really not sad. This is only just evidence of the symptoms of your own mental disorder.
  • I hate to sink to the level of name-calling you and your buddies seem to revel in; I outgrew that stuff in grade school. But I can think of a few words right now I didn't learn in grade school.
  • Hey, I’m in LAL´s ignore list! Cool!
  • No your face is clearly chubby. It's not muscle at all. You look fat/overweight. You also look like an ugly bastard.

A friend lent me her DVDs of Stephen Fry in America, a television show in which the large and affable Stephen Fry travels through every US State. During the Oregon episode, Fry interviews Matt Johnson. Johnson’s driving ambition is to prove Sasquatch exists so it can be placed on the endangered species list and be assigned a protected habitat.

In the firelight, Johnson tells the story of his own Bigfoot encounter. While on a hike with his family, descending a large hill, they smell something peculiar.[5] Johnson describes the noises that followed the smell. Though he says that the sound is too low and guttural to imitate, he takes a stab at it and emits something like a trombonist being dipped in olive oil. The image on screen changes to night vision footage of the two men walking through the dark woods by the beams of two flashlights. The camera dollies slowly in on Johnson’s face as he tells Fry how he left his family on the trail so he could relieve himself. He walked about 80 feet into the woods when he spotted Bigfoot “walk from the pages of myth and legend and into reality.”[6] When Fry asks Johnson why he didn’t take a photo, his voice starts shaking and his eyes water. “I have my family there,” he says. “I’m not going to stop and risk losing my family.”

Stephen Fry’s face grows serious as his interviewee nearly bursts into tears. I can only assume that he is thinking what I am thinking: Why do you so love a creature you believed might kill everyone you care about?

Spend enough time on a website that’s dedicated to any human passion or belief and you will glimpse this same rapid devolution from unwary earnestness to brutishness. What this reveals about humanity eludes me. Now we are wholesome, but scroll down a bit and we become lumbering spiteful beasts. Somewhere on the web there should be an inviolable endangered-species habitat for our better angels.

With all this bickering, in the end, I am just reminded of one of the summers I worked for the YMCA. There were only two playground swings, and, with over 90 kids in the program, demand was pretty high. So high, in fact, that we had to create a lengthy set of rules to keep pandemonium at bay. One day, Danny ran up to tell me that Kelly wouldn’t get off the swing, even though he had counted aloud to 30. But when I spoke with Kelly, she had refused to give him the swing was because he tried to push her off. Danny countered that she had kicked him. Kelly said she only kicked him because he pushed her off the swing and when her legs whipped up into the air, her foot caught him on the chest.

I wasn’t there when all of this happened. I couldn’t trust either of their versions of the truth, but I knew that whatever half-truth they gave me was their full reality. All I could do was roll my eyes and say, “If you guys can’t share or play nice, then none of you can participate in water day.”

[1] So named after Patterson-Gimlin. (You might expect people who spend their time arguing cryptozoology to have a little more imagination.)

[2] In fact, when I brought up the idea of this article with the other writers for Morkan’s Horse, Graham pushed himself back on his barstool and struck the pose.

[3] Co-author of The Making of Bigfoot: The Inside Story, which, I’m guessing, is available in a few remote bookstores when you least expect to see it.

[4] The hotly debated Frame 346.

[5] At this point the background music takes on the hesitating, soft tinkling of high notes on a piano, as if being played by a small, possessed child.

[6] I’m guessing not literally.

HEATHER BUCHANAN is based on a true story.


Almost all the Highland Games’ events involve throwing things that should really be left alone. There’s the Hammer Throw, the Stone Putt, the Braemar Stone Putt (like the Stone Putt but with feet planted), the Weight Throw (a lead weight attached to a handle with a chain), the Weight Over the Bar (a small anvil thrown overhead) and the Sheaf Toss (a hay-stuffed burlap bag lofted with a pitchfork). Riveting as these events are in their way, I am only here at ScotsFest 2012 to witness the most idiosyncratic Scottish event of them all: the Caber Toss.

The Caber Toss, unlike the other highland throwing events, is a matter of accuracy, not of distance or height. The purpose of the toss is to accomplish a “turn.” According to the official rules sanctioned by Scottish-American Athletic Association, “A valid turn is when the small end of the caber passes through the vertical position and falls away from the competitor to land within the 180-degree radius, between 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock.”

In other words, the tosser—yes, that is the correct term—tries to up-end the log and have it then fall directly away from him. The goal is to score a nooner[1]: “The ‘clock face method’ of judging shall be used” the rules explain. “The caber in a perfect toss will pass through the vertical position and land with the small end pointing directly at 12 o’clock.”

The games have been going on for hours before I arrive, and the first tossers I watch compete are the novice class. As a group they seem like gym rat locals making good on a dare. They are generally top-heavy and broad waisted—a flock of Coach McGuirks milling about in kilts.[2] The judge chooses from among about 20 logs strewn on the grass. They range from 15 feet and 70 lbs to one labeled “THE FAT BASTARD,” which weighs in at 130 lbs and is 18’ 10” long.

A medium-sized caber is chosen, and each novice competitor makes his first of three tosses. In each case, two men carry the log to the tosser. With the narrow end wedged against the tosser’s foot, the two assistants lift the far end of the caber and walk their hands down, raising the log—picture Iwo Jima—until it is vertical and resting against the athlete’s shoulder. The tosser then works both hands under the bottom end, and lifts it the way he might boost someone over a wall, until the downward end is solar plexus high. With the log braced against his shoulder, the tosser staggers forward into a run, tips the log forward, and throws his end up into the air. The first-round caberis too much for the novices, and none manages a turn.

The next round, the judge gives them a much smaller log, but this one’s too easy, and everyone gets it to up-end and fall. Before the third and final round, the athletes congregate around the row of cabers until the judge selects a happy medium between the two logs they have already attempted. This one seems right; only two of the dozen competitors manage to make the turn.

The novices are a backslapping group—one tells me he’s here with his “power lifting club”—and the competition is all grins and glad-handing and mugging for friends. But when they clear the field, things turn serious. It’s the pros' turn, and there’s nothing less at stake this afternoon than the California State Caber Tossing title.[3] There is no dithering about this time: Without deliberation, the judge selects The Fat Bastard 

The Fat Bastard is spindly and serpentine, like the trunk of a scrawny eucalyptus. Two men lug it to the field, and the athletes begin their warm-ups, stretching and getting their focus. They take turns lifting the narrow end of the Fat Bastard and letting it drop, testing its weight and, I suppose, mastering the idea of it.

It is only when you get close to these tossers that you apprehend their immense size. As a homogeneous herd of men on a field, it is difficult to judge, but up close these are big men. They have blown right through the exceptional and entered the realm of the downright freakish. These are people who can’t walk into a Denny’s or a 7-Eleven and be uncommented upon.[4] I wonder, but don’t dare ask, if the competitors are tested for performance-enhancing substances.

Instead, I ask one how the different classes are chosen. How do you move up from Novice through light and C and B to Pro? The athlete I ask gives me a hazy answer about entering lots of games and getting better over time.

“But really?” I ask. “Professional? You actually make money at this?”

He grins. “We are battling it out for hundreds in prize money,” he tells me.

One of the more interesting facets of the Caber Toss is how, once the immense log is shouldered, the athlete has only a modicum of control over what happens next. At one point, I am talking to a competitor when he dashes off mid-sentence. The Fat Bastard thuds to the ground a few yards away from me, setting my pulse racing; it had gotten away from its tosser and tipped over backwards. On another try, the tosser zigzags across the field, trying to gain control over the log. As he sprints towards the audience at the far end of the field, a number of spectators abandon their camping chairs and flee.

Eventually, one of the competitors “pulls a nooner.” He’s silver-haired Ryan Vierra, five-time world champion. Vierra is 43 now and hasn’t been champion in six years. (He placed second in 2007 and third in 2008.) He’s been competing since 1987, but he’s still among the best.

One other competitor, though, in sheer poise and power, seems clearly the undisputed King of the Caber. Daniel McKim is 6’5” and weighs 285 pounds. He is pure strength and agility, and he tosses the Fat Bastard for two straight nooners. A kind of slackness overtakes the others by the end of the second round; they’re pretty much out of the running.

“I started out in college with shot put,” McKim tells me later when he’s back in the shade of the competitors’ awning and drinking a bottle of Powerade. “Then I saw this guy on ESPN.” He jerks his thumb in the direction of Vierra who is sitting nearby. “And I said, ‘I want to try that.’” McKim had to compete in five games before he turned his first caber—a fact he uses to encourage others.

As he talks, McKim works at the tape on his fingers, and I can’t help but notice how raw and pitted his palms look. “They get pretty torn up during the season,” he admits. While he’s a professional trainer in Kansas City, the highland games circuit takes a good chunk out of his free time. The season, he tells me, begins in April and runs into October. “I just got back from Bakersfield,” McKim says. “Washington is next.” He points over at Vierra again. “He’s heading to France next week.”

When McKim’s turn comes in the third round, the only question left is whether he will pull a triple-nooner—a highland hat trick. He gathers his hands under the tapered end of the log and lifts. He’s holding the caber by its bottom two feet, so the thing towers 15 feet above his head. His run is straight and his release is fluid. The log obediently tips up on end and then topples gracefully away from him at 12 o’clock, and I feel a sudden rush of triumph, like I have witnessed something noteworthy—even if I am the only one scribbling notes.

[1] As if a sport involving a giant pole isn’t suggestive enough.

[2] The rules require that every competitor wear a kilt. A rental kilt is available for five dollars.

[3] This title highlights the central paradox at work here: This sport is equal parts impressive and farcical. (I honestly wouldn’t be here if there weren’t an aspect of the absurd to these proceedings.) But these men are serious competitors, and this is a grueling sport. I see no reason to assume these tossers are any less disciplined or driven than the athletes who’ll march around the Olympic Stadium in July. But caber tossing is a passion that comes with little extrinsic recompense. Playing ping-pong can get you a gold medal, but flinging lumber has to be its own reward. Which conjures up all those questions about why we value what we do: If you’re California’s best shortstop you’ll likely be rich and famous; if you’re its best third-grade teacher you’ll likely drive a pre-owned Accord. So what, exactly, does it mean to be the Golden State’s foremost tosser?

[4] I once ended up behind America’s tallest man (George Bell/7’8”) going up and down the aisles of a Stater Bros. Every person he passed stopped to stare at him agape, and more than half sputtered the same sentence: “Whoa, how tall are you?” These tossers, I’m sure, elicit a similar kind of constant double takes. 

PAUL BUCHANAN works out occasionally.

These Hips Don’t Lie

The first thing I notice about the “Belly Dancer of the Universe” competition is how out of place I look. I enter the Long Beach Convention Center wearing sunglasses, a baseball cap, and a hooded sweater. I also have a beard, completing the overall Unabomber effect. I try flashing my Morkan’s Horse press pass to get in free, but the belly-dancing gatekeepers are not swayed—either by the pass or my attempts at charm, which (i.e. my attempts to charm) I realize have gotten me into shockingly few establishments. I resolve to look into this matter further when I get seriously enraptured by a kiosk selling scimitars.

Cursory Internet research tells me that belly dancing pre-dates Islam in Arabic countries, where it may have developed both to impress the men-folk and as an aid in childbirth. Go figure. Americans first got wide exposure to it at the Chicago World’s Fair. Men went to the midway in droves to ogle the dancers entertainment director Sol Bloom brought in from Arabic and African countries. This introduction came with the usual notoriety, outcry, and rising popularity that always accompany sexy things. Tommy Edison made films of belly dancers, and D.W. Griffith put one in Intolerance.

I arrive at the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition (BDUC) knowing very little. I expect to see drishti bhedas, which are the cool and elaborate eye movements I remembered from a World Music class I took seven years ago. None of the dancers do any drishti bhedas. (When I get home and look it up, it turns out the bhedas come from an Indian dance unrelated to belly dancing.) The point is I’m an utter novice in the field of dance. I haven’t even seen Black Swan.

But that’s not the whole truth: I’ve always had a dance prejudice, in that I secretly suspect that dance is the worst art form, “worst” meaning that it is the least likely to engender any feelings in the human soul, other than “Those sure are some unusual movements.” It’s not that I think dance is bad or unworthy; I just think every other art form is better and worthier. The BDUC will do a lot to both confirm and challenge that judgment.

Like many esoteric competitions, the BDUC suffers from a case of Short-Man Syndrome—as evidenced by the U. I find it suspect that all the belly dancers in the universe can fit into one medium-sized ballroom whose space is mainly occupied by audience, costumers, and assorted vendors. I cheekily wonder aloud when the Saturn contingent will arrive, and the woman sitting next to me responds by staring intently at her program, a move I will become familiar with[1].

I grab a seat in the only row that is almost empty. I am about thirty feet back the stage, which features a couple of fake Doric columns and two tinsel palm trees. The trees have gold tinsel for the trunks and black tinsel for the fronds, a pretty horrifying color scheme that may have been trying for exotic but to me seems nightmarish—like that Calvin & Hobbes strip where all the world’s colors turn photo-negative.

I have entered in the middle of a performance by a group of women who are positioned squarely on the eastern slope of the female-weight bell curve. Throughout the day, I notice that nearly all the women who dance at BDUC have at least some measure of B and many are downright ample. I had expected the opposite—that everyone would be trim lady-Adonises, and I am pleasantly surprised to see this is not the case. It is clear that these women are proud to show off their moves in a way that is refreshingly un-self-conscious. 

There is, however, no getting around the fact that belly dancing is probably the sexiest dance ever developed[2]. One of the express purposes behind its creation was male arousal, unlike, say, ballet, which I can only assume was invented to turn otherwise attractive humans into pipe-cleaner-people. The costumes and movements in belly dancing all showcase a woman’s body. The undulating movements, which are pleasing when performed by an adult woman, frankly terrified me during the all-ages showcase. I was briefly reminded of the TLC train wreck Toddlers and Tiaras, where our society’s tendency to sexualize girls at younger and younger ages is brought into crisp, horrifying focus[3].

The BDUC’s hosts, Tonya and Atlantis, are an exercise in weird contradictions. They are both rarely off-microphone, and yet are hardly ever on stage. Instead they address the audience from the no-man’s land between the judges and vendors. They seem intent on being professional (I don’t think they sit down once) and yet their desperate patter is reminiscent of an amateur comic at a bar mitzvah. E.g. Tonya or Atlantis (and no, I never figure out who is whom) mentions that we are all waiting for one of the judges to return from the bathroom, noting that: “They forgot to give them catheters this year.” At another point, one of them blurts out that one of the judges is pregnant, to confused applause. During a lull between performances, Tonlantis instructs the audience to introduce ourselves to the people around us, in a sort of peace-be-with-you Catholic Mass-type thing, during which I bury my nose in my notebook because I always hated Mass.

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There is, however, no getting around the fact that belly dancing is probably the sexiest dance ever developed. One of the express purposes behind its creation was male arousal, unlike, say, ballet, which I can only assume was invented to turn otherwise attractive humans into pipe-cleaner-people.

While the BDUC is held in a pretty nice ballroom in a very nice convention center (paid for no doubt by the $90 performers’ registration fees), it is not a very tightly run ship. This is partly because of the hosts’ washed-up comic vibe, but also due to some stage mishaps. During one of the large ensemble dances,[4] one of the Doric columns falls in slow motion onto one of the dancers. There are several gasps, but evidently the columns are made of something light, as the dancer is barely fazed. Rather than removing the felled column totally, a stagehand sets it back up after that troupe has finished. Of course, it and a few other stage decorations continue to fall during the course of the event—to the point where I begin to suspect poltergeists—but the dancers all bear it in good humor.

Ton-lantis are not the only ones worth watching. Up front, near the judges’ table, is a 10-year-old boy wearing a too-big red fedora and doing The Robot. In the corner closest to the stage is one of the BDUC’s sponsors. He has full costumes as well as props like canes and large candelabra.[5] His table features mannequin heads wearing various hats. One of the hat-mannequins has a glued-on mustache to signify that he had it designed for a man. During some numbers, the audience begins clapping along, only to sheepishly peter out after 20 bars or so, except for one woman, whom I mentally dub Ol’ Steadfast. As the day drags on, her claps drift farther and farther from the actual beat, betraying her fatigue. There is also a tall VIP who looks just like Yanni, and he is rocking a truly bitchin’ fez. Come to think of it, for all I know, he may very well have been Yanni.

Behind me, a woman walks up with a ridiculous poodle-ish dog in a baby stroller. It is the kind of dog who must frequent beauty salons because that’s the only explanation for its hairdo and manicure. The dog is wearing a vest. I get a closer look and see it’s a “Service Dog” vest, though it has to be as homemade as my Kinkos-coined press pass. I can’t decide if this woman is an idiot for thinking anyone believes her hamster-dog is a service animal or if I am in the presence of a comic genius. Either way, she wins because the dog is here in the ballroom.

During breaks, I scope out the vendors, thinking that if I were a belly dancer, I would be paranoid about navel lint.

Hundreds of DVDs and CDs are for sale in the ballroom, but, based on the music the performers have been dancing to, I elect to save my money. (It’s a shame that the practitioners of a thirteen-century-year-old dance have to work with the same mindless propulsive bass beat that infects every piece of world music that makes it to the US.) Elsewhere, finger-cymbals and saris are for sale. Inexplicably, the scimitar kiosk appears to be the least busy vending station in the room. I check out the prices, which strike me as reasonable. Finally, a woman comes over and picks up a sword. She doesn’t appraise its edge with a plucked hair or test its heft by swinging it through the air like a sensible person. Instead, she balances it on her head. This is a thing, apparently. I see several other dancers do it over the course of the day. It is at this point that I decide I do not understand belly dancing at all. 

It’s hard to say at which point I notice this,[6] but there is a pronounced lack of competition/performance anxiety that I remember being pervasive any time I competed in high school sports or performed in music school. It may be because I am not backstage to witness it or because some of these girls have already gone on and are now relaxing in the audience, but the atmosphere is genuinely fun. I see no shaky hands or nervous pacing or even worried looks[7] that were my métier when I was their age. If anything makes me re-think my dance prejudice, it is the fact that everyone here is having such a good time.

There is one thing, though. The last dancer I see, the final contestant of her division, does badly. Even I can tell she’s bombing. There’s something faulty with her timing, and she never recovers. For a few moments the audience sees through the cracks in her smile. We see a fellow human panicking, looking utterly helpless.

Everyone in the audience seems to share the surge of empathy I feel. This makes me think: everyone in the room is mentally beaming this poor woman goodwill, and yet, for her, the three minutes of her dance stretches on interminably and she must want nothing so badly as for the dance to be over. But, there is nothing she can do, and it feels like the end of the world. 

This is what I remember about performing—that shrinking of perspective that unbearably magnifies every mistake.

I wonder: If I had realized that everyone in the room was silently rooting for me, would it have made any difference to the eighteen-year old me, who flubbed magnificently in at least one serious guitar competition?

I guess it doesn’t matter now.

[1] When dancers take the stage, the hosts mention everybody’s state of origin. Strangely enough, roughly 90% of the dancers are from California, though there is a small Ukrainian contingent.

[2] That, you know, I’ve heard of.

[3] I should mention that the similarity between BDUC and T&T is fleeting at most, and the level of horror I felt watching the young girls at BDUC was nothing compared to the “I-don’t-want-to-live-on this-planet-anymore”-ness provoked by even passing glimpses of T&T.

[4] By the way, before the Internet, I would have had no idea how all these women found each other for such a seemingly esoteric hobby as belly dancing. There are a lot of large troupes present, one of them apparently a college club.

[5] Two hours into the competition, a woman walks over to the sponsor. She picks up a candelabrum and puts it on her head. Oh, man: it’s a goddamned hat.

[6] It might be when I notice three very pretty women happily shopping for clothing that is at least 50% sequins.

[7] Of course, when the girls and ladies dance on-stage, they all wear the singer/dancer rictus of glee, which makes me think of the countless hours they must have spent getting screamed at by coaches to smile, dammit.

GRAHAM TOWERS is a friend to man and beast alike, except for remoras, which give him the willies.

Full Steam Ahead: The first annual Steampunk symposium

Our room aboard the HMS Queen Mary had portholes that actually opened and a bed the size of Sussex. The bath taps offered hot water, cold water, hot saltwater, and cold saltwater. The saltwater taps are disconnected, but we had no time to wonder about the advantages of a hot, salty bath. We were already late for our first event at Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium, and I’d been sent to cover the event for Morkan’s Horse.

The schedule for the full four days was listed on a map the size of a cigar box. Only the names and locations of events were listed, and the cryptic titles were often misleading: The Invention Competition turned out to be a homemade card game (we finished last), the Steam-Powered Giraffe was a fairly awesome pantomime band, and the OMG Adults Only—well, we’ll get to that one.

That first day, I dragged Nick to the Fencing Lesson, which turned out to be a lesson in fencing. Fencing is a sport of nuance, grace, and courtesy—and I am happy to report that I kicked Nick’s ass. The instructor showed us how to walk forwards and backwards, lunge, and block, and then strapped us into jackets and masks.

While we fought, foolhardy passersby crowded past on the narrow walkway. I sweated profusely in a borrowed suit and tried to parry and thrust, while our instructor yelled helpful things like, “Why did you do that?” and “That’s your boyfriend. You probably shouldn’t hit him there.”

Our instructor had been fencing since she was 12 and used the word ‘swashbuckling’ more than necessary. She worked the Renaissance Faire circuit—which turned out to be common among the Symposium performers—but she preferred Steampunk, since it allowed a more historically flexible dress code. At Renaissance Faires she had to wear a “bodice with my boobs sticking out.” She lifted herself up on her toes and leered down at my chest. “There’s only so often you want to have guys doing this.”

Steampunk Villains was a Q&A session with nine people dressed as villains—but no one in the audience was allowed to ask a Q. The Qs were all pre-written and pretty easy to A. Among the panel was a Southern Belle, a Taxidermist, an Alchemist, a Pyrotechnic, a Dentist, and a few people who just had prop bombs strapped all over their outfits. Among the harder-hitting Qs were “What is your favorite word?” and “What turns you on?” (In case you’re wondering—favorite words: no, yes, extraordinary, kafuffle, nuclear, booze, play, and win. Turn ons: screams, money, cursing, libel, explosions, raw materials, and being nowhere near the other panelists).

Each villain had his or her own fake accent and constantly talked over the others. The dialogue was construction-grade pine, and the acting mostly involved eye rolling and turning dramatically away from one another. It was like watching a third-grade Halloween pageant: they were clearly having a lot of fun up there, so we, like wincing parents, stuck with it to the end and clapped with more enthusiasm than we felt.

When they were done, I approached the Moderator and flashed my official Morkan’s Horse Press Credential (Nick made it at Kinkos) and asked him why there were twice as many female villains as male. I held my digital voice recorder under his chin and waited.

I was hoping to hear something about the female empowerment Steampunk allows in its inclusive revision of history. I wanted to hear about pluralism and the upending of gender roles. The Moderator blinked at me a few times. “Basically,” he said, “I have more women in my group than men.”

Before I could ask a follow-up, the villainous Taxidermist pulled me aside to introduce me to her stuffed toy hamster, Hammy. (She spelled the name into my voice recorder in case I needed it for my article.)

I might have been taking this whole journalist thing a little too seriously. This, after all, was a shipload of people who liked to dress up and carry stuffed toys. Maybe I could lighten up.

In the Murder Mystery, Poor Prof. Farnsworthington was murdered in his study at the exact moment his prized Clockwork Ruby (which could render steam power useless) was stolen. Few clues were left behind: the door was locked, he was stabbed repeatedly in the legs, grape-shaped indents were found in the dirt outside his study window, and about 10 people passionately hated him.

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Before I could ask a follow-up, the villainous Taxidermist pulled me aside to introduce me to her stuffed toy hamster, Hammy. (She spelled the name into my voice recorder in case I needed it for my article.)

The suspects were mainly Villains from the previous event, and they spent most of the three-hours wandering the room, loudly proclaiming their hatred for Farnsworthington. They stood there with a 1,000-yard stare until those nearby either asked a question or felt awkward enough to leave.

It eventually became obvious that the Spiritualist who held leopard hunts inside his house had bought a number of tiny bronze robots from the Saloon Girl, and programmed them to kill Farnsworthington. We had no idea who stole the ruby, though, so we scribbled down the first name that came to mind and left.

Street Magic was held at one of the ship’s smaller venues. About a dozen people drank Amethyst Mist cocktails, while Dino Staats performed close-up feats of prestidigitation. His assistant Corryn had hair like brake lights in a rainstorm and was doing a surly teenager shtick. She would roll her eyes and drag her feet when Dino required her assistance. She also tossed back Amethyst Mists with the rest of us.

Dino showed us an American coin and a Chinese coin in a small, plastic booklet. He chose a volunteer and placed the American coin on the back of her hand. He slowly lowered the plastic booklet on top of the coin. When he lifted the booklet, the two coins had magically switched places. The volunteer laughed hysterically and made a bigger deal than anyone else in the room, despite the fact she was the only one not drinking.

I stirred my Amethyst Mist so the dry ice bubbled up clouds of smoke.

The Masquerade Ball was billed as the highlight of the evening. Nick and I grabbed a few more Amethyst Mists and found two seats at one of the tables near the dance floor. Unwoman played her cello on stage, while a lone barefoot woman in a cherry-red dress salsa danced.

Next up were three middle-aged belly dancers. They spun in slow circles, gently swaying their hips. During their two songs, I couldn’t help but feel good (though the Amethyst Mists may have had something to do with it). Here, after all, were three women—all probably empty-nest moms—but in this Steampunk world they were alluring sirens of dance.

The band, when it finally arrived, played metal, leaving a crowd of people in Victorian garb trying to figure out how to head-bang without breaking their goggles. Most gave up after the first song and sat back down, leaving a lot of room for the two go-go dancers in gold tops and black booty shorts who had arrived with the band.

While the band was on break, techno music started up over the PA system, and everyone hit the dance floor. But all too soon the Belly Dancers returned, and halfway through their second song Nick and I gave up and left.

Our last event of the evening was OMG Adults Only. I thought it would be some kind of racy skit, a good note to end the evening on. It turned out to be a woman reading (from her iPad) a segment of her “steamy” romance novel.

The audience comprised of Nick, me, and five strangers.

The author wore a short bustled dress and a choker. Her plot involved a married woman’s affair with a mechanic who designed a giant steam-powered adult toy. After being satisfied with this machine, the married woman leaves her husband and the mechanic and steals the machine’s design. The next scene has the woman teaching another woman how to use her new and improved version. It turned out the second woman’s husband was watching the entire time.

I was amazed how the author fit in autoeroticism, lesbianism and voyeurism (and quite a few other isms) into 30 minutes of reading.

But the awkward part was that the author really got into her reading. I mean, really got into it. The dialogue was punctuated with heaving breathing and orgasmic screams. I spent the half hour studying my bootlaces and trying not to notice what anyone else was doing. When she finished, no one seemed sure whether to applaud or slip her a few singles. 

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast served scrambled eggs and croissants. Archbishop Cody Goodfellow took the stage gingerly, since any misstep could have jostled off the string of paper tentacles wrapped loosely around his neck. A plastic octopus was glued to the front of his miter. Three attendants in black-hooded robes followed solemnly behind.

The sermon, read by the Archbishop’s from his iPhone, was about tolerance, but it mostly kept reminding us that we were “all just food bags.”

“One human’s god is another human’s garden gnome,” he said. “But when you found the one true garden gnome, the reflection in the mirror starts to look like a stranger challenging you to a teeth-brushing contest.”

Spontaneous bursts of “I’a!” rang through the crowd. “I see the darkness!”

Holding up his hand for silence, the Archbishop smirked slightly and continued. “For we know that the day will come when the great one will rise from his non-Euclidian crypt to crush the works of hateful humanity and snap its collective sanity like the dried belt in a cheap vacuum cleaner. Leaving the continents of the Earth burned and blackened and devoid of all bi-pedal life-forms and all the impudent infidel preachers who mocked our seemingly absurd modes of worship will be forced into same-sex domestic partnerships with the unspeakably fabulous spawn of the great abyss.” He paused thoughtfully and bowed his head. “Cthulhu, hasten that horrible day.” He looked back up at the audience. “Why if there were any humans today, I would tell them, ‘Enjoy the buffet, brother. I tolerate you.’”

He ended by reciting new lyrics to John Lennon’s, “Imagine.” His version invited us to imagine smoldering ruins, scorched earth, and a universe devoid of humans. As he read, choir members swayed their tentacles on PVC pipes. A man in a Cthulhu mask stood in the middle.

The Archbishop gave us a final benediction. “Try to enjoy your remaining moments.”

After church Nick and I happened upon the Raptor Show. The falconer, Kevin Gaines, wore a black top hat fronted by a white-feathered facemask. His assistant wore a raven mask.

We missed most of the show, and arrived just in time to meet Igor, the pesky but lovable Black Vulture. Gaines explained that Igor was essentially autistic. Though intelligent, he did not adapt well to change. Igor was trained to light on his perch, but since the perch now had a paper banner on it, the bird wouldn’t go near it. Instead, he spent his time hopping around and harassing those of us sitting on the deck. “Just try to look alive,” Gaines suggested.

Igor took to bullying the assistant; a man he knew would have food. He threw himself against the man’s shins, clawing him and nipping any part of his body he could reach.

When it was time for Igor to exit the stage, he remained obdurate. Gaines had to drop a chunk a raw chicken on the deck and wait for Igor to approach the bait. When he got within reach, Gaines grabbed him and slung him back into the cage.

After the show, Gaines told me about performing before a large group of kindergarteners. One of his hawks was circling when its instincts kicked in. It set upon a swan that was floating in the lake behind them, minding its own business. A mid-air dogfight ensued, feathers flying in every direction. The pair eventually spiraled down into the lake, and the swan dove beneath the surface. The hawk finally made it back to land amid thunderous applause. Gaines received enthusiastic letters from the children afterwards. A few included Crayola renderings of the epic battle.

Between educational jobs, Gaines uses his hawks for environmentally friendly bird abatement. Typically chemicals are used to keep bothersome pigeons and starlings from nesting in sensitive areas. But the chemicals, which are designed to irritate the birds’ feet, are toxic and remain on the site long after the birds have moved on. Gaines instead uses his hawks to scare the droppings out of unwanted birds, so they move elsewhere. At one of his recent jobs, for a warehouse overrun with pigeons, it took four days for Gaines and his birds to move the flock five blocks over, onto a banana emporium. (He didn’t mention what the banana people thought of this.)

Next, we made our way to Steam-Powered Toaster. It turned out to be a PowerPoint lecture, the two main points of which were (1) that if James Watt had not been such a dick, steam-powered technology would have advanced much farther, and (2) when some form of power comes into existence, men feel the need to strap it to a lawnmower. (He showed us a picture of a lawnmower attached to a giant copper boiler. “I said it could be done—I didn’t say it was legal.”)

Our lecturer outlined a few major historical advancements of steam-power. In 1770, Nicolas Joseph Cugnot built a steam-powered three-wheel tractor, which he immediately crashed into a wall because he’d neglected to create a way to steer it. In 1897, Charles Algernon Parsons put his steam turbine into the ship, Turbinia. Wanting witnesses, Parsons showed up at the Navy Review for Queen Victoria. He blew past all other ships, which displeased Her Majesty. She ordered that he be caught, but none of her ships could get close.

There was, however, no steam-powered toaster. When asked about it, the lecturer said, “It’s implied.” I have no idea what he meant.

The vendors at the Steampunk Symposium mostly sold jewelry or clothing, like feathery hats and gear-covered boots. Almost everything was bronze.

The man at the Got-Steam booth, who sold the most bitching goggles on the planet, was ridiculously upbeat. He once went to a Sci-Fi convention where the guest of honor was Buzz Aldrin. The former astronaut loved the goggles and bought a pair to wear riding his motorcycle. “If the goggles are good enough for Buzz Aldrin,” the Got-Steam man said, “they are good enough for us.” Sadly, I didn’t have the kind of money it takes to rock the style of a hog-riding astronaut.

At one vender’s booth we encountered the Queen and her entourage. The Queen’s mother tried to set Nick up with one of the princesses. I was too surprised to protest, but the Queen forced her mother to apologize for trying to marry my boyfriend off right in front of me. Nick told them his family was from Russia, and the Court got very excited. The Princess, it was decided, should travel there if all the men were as handsome as Nick. 

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Nobody wants to be the kill-joy who wanders the Faire-grounds wearing Abercrombie and yakking into her iPhone, but some of these people inhabit their fantasy personae in ways that seem borderline psychotic.

Before I could drag Nick away, the Queen eyed me imperiously and asked if I was of royal blood. I froze. What courtly etiquette applies to a “Queen”—even if she is, say, a licensed dental hygienist from Torrance wearing a crown she got from Costume Castle?

This is the thing that always terrified me about Renaissance Faires: I’m not sure how seriously I’m supposed to take things. There’s an implicit expectation that we all buy-in. Nobody wants to be the kill-joy who wanders the Faire-grounds wearing Abercrombie and yakking into her iPhone, but some of these people inhabit their fantasy personae in ways that seem borderline psychotic. I’m just never sure how far I’m expected—or willing—to go. I knew this queen couldn’t behead me or send me to the stocks, but there was a fairly high probability that she could yell at me and make me cry in public, which is almost as bad.

I shook my head, without making eye contact.

“Good,” she said and waved us off.

Still shaky from my encounter with the Queen, Nick and I headed to Magic and Science, a lecture by magician Dino Staats, historical conjurer Danny Schreiber, and writer David Lee Summers. The roundtable was about how magicians have used science to create illusions.

Schreiber brought a model of a Wimshurst Influence Machine, an early electrostatic generator, which he built himself. The machine, a mass of metal with crossbars and two rotating discs, generates high voltages that sparks the gap between two metal spheres. To demonstrate its power, Schreiber introduced a piece of paper to the contraption. Dino produced a piece of flash paper from a little box he carried in his pocket (a habit I soon plan on adopting). Schreiber clamped the paper to the end of a foot-long metal pole. He gently lowered the paper to the crackling electricity. It burst into a ball of blinding white flame.

Dino then demonstrated his own version of ‘The Block Head,’ a trick that involves hammering a foreign metal object up into one’s nostril. The stunt is typically done with a nail, but Dino used a 3.5mm crochet hook. He shoved the small blue needle into his nose. When it would go no deeper, he pulled a small ball peen hammer from a leather pouch and hammered the hook farther in.

His eyes watered, and his nose twitched. “If it looks like this hurts,” he said, in a voice that was (unsurprisingly) nasal, “it’s because it does.” When the hook was deep enough in, he explained that pulling it out was perilous because he had no way of knowing which way the hook was facing. Slowly twisting the hook, he gingerly inched it out.

He laughed at our worried expressions. This was not magic; it was science. Inside the human head is a large nasal cavity that perfectly fits a nail-shaped object. It was just a matter of anatomy. “Making people think you’re in danger,” he said, “that’s the real trick. 

Schreiber then explained the idea of “change blindness”: our minds can’t take in everything. They shut out everything that is not our focus. He held up a coin then bounced his hand up and down, as if he were going to toss it in the air.

“If you’re expecting it here…” His hand jerked up as he threw the coin.

I looked above his head, but all I saw was wallpaper.

He smiled and showed the coin still in his hand. “…You’re not looking anywhere else.”

While science has been used to advance illusions, the opposite has also been true. At one time nitrous oxide—commonly known as “laughing gas”—was pumped into theaters and circus tents to make audiences responsive and happy during performances. Horace Wells witnessed the gas’ effect and began experimenting with it as a way to make dentistry less painful. He thus became a pioneer in the field of anesthesiology.

After the Magic and Science lecture, Nick and I went to see the parts of the Raptor Show we had missed. We finally got to watch Gaines’ owls and falcon in action. A little boy kept imitating the owls by slipping his hands into his pockets and lifting the sides of his jacket. He made strange cawing sounds while repeatedly belly flopping against his parents.

When we got to the familiar part of the show, I was amazed at the way Gaines could repeat the exact same jokes with the exact same, apparently genuine, glee—especially considering he had seven shows scheduled that weekend.

Our last shipboard event was Victorian Parlor Magic, where Dino did close-up magic at a table. The room was nearly empty. After two straight days of Steampunking, a lot of our peers had abandoned ship.

Dino had been performing magic about nine years, when it hit him that he needed to catch the Steampunk wave. (I’m not really sure how (magic?) but by the end of the weekend, I had accumulated six of his business cards.) Dino, I think, gave me the best definition of Steampunk I heard that weekend. He told me about Charles Babbage and his “Difference Engine,” a mechanical calculator he designed in the 1820s, but never built. Around 1990, the London Science Museum built two versions of “Difference Engine No. 2” based on Babbage’s blueprints. These brass contraptions of gears and rods and rollers actually worked.

So, astonishingly, England could have built a rudimentary computer more than a century before it would eventually appear. “If England had gotten the computer that soon,” Dino said. “What would be different in the world?” 

For Dino, that imagined different world is what Steampunk is all about. It’s a world where visionaries are kings, where invention is sacred, and where the steam-powered imagination sparks the gap between Babbage’s workshop and the MacBook keyboard I’m typing on.

HEATHER BUCHANAN  studied writing at Chapman University with Steampunk pioneer James P Blaylock. She reports that Nick's wounds are healing nicely.

We Happy Few: Finding Manchester in Midlife

It’s coming up on four a.m. I’m on a nearly-empty freeway, driving through the dark toward Santa Ana—a city you’re not supposed to visit at four a.m. It’s the Saturday after Super Bowl XLVI. Alabama has been reigning BCS champs for more than a month. Football fans will soon wake to the pointlessness of a February weekend; it’s time for lawn care and rain-gutter maintenance.

But where I’m heading, football is still going full throttle—only it’s the English kind. Liverpool is playing Manchester United, and I’m headed to the Olde Ship on 17th Street at this ungodly hour because I can’t believe anyone will show up for a live soccer match set to start before the morning paper hits the driveway. This game is on ESPN, which means that anyone who wants to see it can do it sensibly—in bed. 

I tell myself I am going out of a writerly curiosity—an anthropologist who will study the natives—but deep down I know I’m also going because of my growing midlife suspicion that I’m Missing Out on Something. When I get to the pub, the dark lot is packed with SUVs and pickups. I’ve been coming to this pub for years—to hear live jazz or to play the pub quiz—but I’ve never seen the parking lot this crowded. I come in the back door and feel immediately conspicuous because I’m wearing Dockers and a cardigan, and I’m at least a couple of decades north of this crowd’s median age. A lot of the patrons wear Premiere League jerseys and long dangling scarves. The rest are in Nike and Adidas, like they might have reported directly from a beer-league softball practice.

There are a dozen televisions in the bar, all tuned to the same station. Every chair that has a view of a set is filled. There must be 50 or 60 people here, but exactly three of them are women. (One Asian woman in a red Man U jersey is sitting on the restaurant side, trying to sooth a crying baby.) The only empty seat I see is a barstool directly under one of the televisions. I try it out but can’t see anything, so I start a long circuit of the bar, bumping and apologizing, until I find an unmanned oak captain’s chair in the back corner, so far from the nearest television I might have been passing on the sidewalk out front.

I thought there would be more people like me here: Brit-born American’s in middle age motivated by a vague nostalgia. But I don’t hear a single accent that hints of anywhere east of Albuquerque.

It turns out I have chosen a good game to attend. I soon gather that Liverpool and Manchester are bitter rivals. Bad blood abounds. When the players take the field everyone gasps knowingly when one player refuses to shake another’s hand. I settle in. This might be more interesting than I’d expected.

In California, liquor can’t be sold between two and six a.m., so no one is behind the bar. The waitress brings me the black coffee I asked for, and I take a sip as the game begins. The camaraderie in the room is upbeat and palpable. It’s a less macho vibe than with US football fans; less Ken Burns-erudite than with baseball fans; and less urban-hip than a basketball crowd. It feels like a backyard barbecue to kick off a three-day weekend. Everyone is in good spirits and ready to have fun and waiting for the beer to arrive.

Unlike the AYSO games I witnessed as a father, the players on television don’t zigzag the field in a clump, chasing the ball and tripping over one another. They have clear roles and regions, and I begin to see a kind of beauty and synergy and breathtaking precision. Ten minutes in, I’m buoyed up by a rhythm of tension and release that comes in waves.

It’s riveting to watch, even though no one actually scores. So, yeah, it’s like they say: nothing happens. But for some reason all the building up and almost-happening keeps me mesmerized. There’s no downtime and no commercial breaks, so the tension doesn’t dissipate, and I’m surprised when halftime arrives because it didn’t feel like 45 minutes of play.

During the break, I try to be a good journalist; I try to find out who these people are and why they’ve come. I test out the theory that they grew up in the youth-soccer era—maybe even went on to play in college—but I can find only one guy who will admit to ever having played the sport. No one can plausibly explain why they are here; they just want to be.

One of the bar’s three couples is at the next table. He is wearing a Man U jersey, but she tells me she is a Chelsea fan. Everyone close enough to hear gasps—so I know this is a Bad Thing. She reassures us all that they are going to make the relationship work, despite such grave differences, and I’m tempted to ask in which faith they will raise their children.

The second half starts with a flurry of action—two Man U goals in the first four minutes, both scored by Wayne Rooney. He’s the only player on the field I actually recognize. (I know him from the 2006 World Cup, and only because he crotch-stomped a Portuguese player and got ejected.) Roony is a pugnacious garden-gnome of a man, sans beard.  He’s that scrappy runt you might see at the end of a bar who greets everyone by name and grins a lot—but you sense he’s going to take a swing at somebody before last call.

With the score two-nil, everyone leans back a little. At six o’clock the bartender announces that drinks are legal, so people around me order Smithwick’s and Guinness, and the Chelsea woman asks for a cider. I stick to black coffee. I’m here as a reporter, and I have to keep my wits about me.

With ten minutes left in the game, Liverpool scores (I think it’s the guy who wouldn’t shake hands, but I can’t be sure) and a fairly large, heretofore silent, Liverpudlian contingent roars to life at the tables to my left.

The game is within reach again, and everyone is on edge. The energy and tension is delicious, and the beer-for-breakfast crowd is getting vocal. It dawns on me that I’m on the edge of my seat and grinning. These fans’ passion is infectious, and I’m feeling a weird elation—but then I’m hit with a pang of envy: I can think of nothing that gives me the pure joy these men get from watching a game they have never played, in a land they may never visit. And I wonder what unholy inertia makes me choose to sleep in rather than rouse myself and seek some passion of my own.

The game ends (Liverpool 1/Man United 2), and I pay my tab. I slip out the back door and have to edge through a crowd of smokers to get to my car. As if it were written in the script, it’s slate-gray and raining now, but this fraternity of smokers—like a happy band of Englishmen—seems to take no notice.

PAUL BUCHANAN got his master's of professional writing from the University of Southern California. His piece about Annie Edson Taylor, the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, is forthcoming in History Magazine.