The Tippytoes Teapots

Shortly before a recent performance by The Black Keys, for which my wife and I had tickets, we became aware that a certain indie band named St. Vincent was slated to open. I had heard one song of theirs on the radio a couple of times, and was less than impressed, but was couldn’t remember any specifics about it and was determined not to let it color my opinion in either direction – seeing a band live has historically gone in both directions, negative and positive, regardless what my stance on them might have been going in.

It quickly became apparent that the impression carved out by this band in person was strong enough to put any notion of bias aside. To me, this band seems a clear example of someone having the preexisting idea of moving to New York City with the specific intent of making pretentious hipster art rock. And unfortunately for the rest of us,  critics and David Byrne apparently love the shtick.

The main problem I have with this outfit starts at its very foundation: there’s no discernible songwriting prowess to be found. Every song starts with some floaty keyboards, then the drummer drops in sort of jamming in space without any real connection to anything, followed by a guitar solo at the end. It’s almost a relief when the lead singer climbs up on this pink, wedding cake looking platform in back, and opens one song with some guitar strumming instead. Though otherwise it’s the same old tune, too.

She seems like she could have a good voice, the pipes are there, it’s just that she chooses to sing in an annoying and contrived fashion. Kind of like that guy you know who could be a good drummer but refuses to keep a steady beat, instead insists upon nonsensical splashes on the rivet cymbals and China boys, et cetera, all day long. And she keeps making these ridiculous, trying-too-hard-to-be-cool faces, also, looking bug eyed up at the ceiling with her mouth wide open as if spotting a ghost. I don’t begrudge anyone some genuine wacky inspiration, but this feels less like the muse calling than a calculated affectation. Like she’s been trying various kooky stage shenanigans for years and is now sticking with some that must have impressed certain important industry people.

“These people all look like they’re in their 50’s!” my wife, Erin, marvels of this foursome, then pulls up their Wikipedia page on their phone. After noting that the singer’s actually a year younger than she is (32), she turns that entry’s hilariously haggard main photo in my direction, one that finds the lead singer (okay, it seems she is St. Vincent, allegedly also her grandma’s middle name) rocking what I’m guessing must be the same ironically dyed grey hair she’s sporting today. “This is what drugs will do to ya, kid,” Erin announces, summarizing this fashion statement, accurately in my opinion, as “crazy meth head.”

Not that a band’s look ultimately matters much, or it shouldn’t, although it can lend you some indicative signposts, suggesting what these people think is cool and whether it’s likely you should waste your time as a result. Kind of like a coworker’s spouse met for the first time at an office party or something, the kind of jokes they tell and their religious or political viewpoints. Personally, I would spend less time rehearsing some of these surface trimmings and more time making the songwriting sharper.

On a positive note, the drummer is okay. Otherwise, the only thing I would even vaguely give a thumbs up to would be singer’s fade out guitar solos. On some songs she doesn’t play a single note until the solo, although these cuts often beg for more guitar, but whatever – these workouts are a somewhat memorable touch. They all seem to have the same distortion pedal sound, though, that of a teenage basement shredder, which makes her use of a hollow bodied guitar for exactly one of these solos baffling and amusing because it sounds identical. Yet the solos as a whole are decent.

But she and the Asian woman in front also perform these choreographed baby steps moves and “I’m a little teapot” gestures which ultimately undermine all of it, rendering them more novelty act than anything else by far. The two of them are on equal, eye to eye footing up front – with the drummer and other keyboardist in back – and the Asian girl does occasionally pull double duty a la The Edge from U2, where she’ll play the keys with a guitar strapped to her chest, sometimes alternating between the two during the same song. Other times, however, she steps away from the keyboard to rock out and this is where the synchronized moves come into play. Sometimes she and St. Vincent tippytoe together side by side to the back and then front of the stage, other times they alternate, passing one another mid route.

“Oh my god! This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen!” Erin gags, “it’s even worse than some shitty band from the Wienie Roast (summer Charlotte tradition, an all day fest with multiple acts on different stages) because there’s nowhere else to go! There’s no escaping!”

“What should they be called?” I wonder, “The Tippytoes? The Baby Steps?”

“The Tippytoes Teapots,” she immediately replies.

A girl I work with is also attending this show with her husband and arrives in time to see the last half of their final song. “You didn’t miss anything,” I will assure her later.

“I could tell they suck based on the crowd’s reaction,” she says, “usually even for the opening act they’re more enthusiastic. Instead it was (claps lightly), woo.”

Let this be a warning to you as well, dear reader. Support your local economy by sticking around for a couple more drinks at some bar near the arena, and save yourself the torture.

A Winston-Salem Primer

(Author’s Note: a travel magazine asked me to write this piece, then rejected it. They dictated the format, the title of the four sections, and so forth, all to no avail. “Notes From A Local” is literally me quoting a friend’s text message. I think this article turned out okay – not amazing, but okay – although I’m not quite sure what they were looking for)

A Winston-Salem Primer

Beer-Should-Not-Be-Chunky

Guide Section

NAME: Winston-Salem, North Carolina

SEASON: Late Spring/Early Summer

IDEAL CONDITIONS: Weekends, preferably

LODGING RECOMMENDATIONS: Summit Street Bed & Breakfast; a friend’s couch; your car

INGESTIBLES: coffee and gelato (Caffe Prada), shrimp and grits (Mozelle’s), beer, wine
While not nearly as well known as some other North Carolina cities, I would say I’ve had as much fun partying in Winston-Salem as anywhere. It was recently rated by Forbes magazine as the #2 downtown in all of America, which validates my theory that it’s a secret on the brink of exploding.

Naturally then, downtown is where you start. Foothills Brewery on 4th Street is the recommended point of entry. If in season, Sexual Chocolate is a noteworthy pint, although any of their 17 selections will impress, particularly Hoppyum IPA. I would suggest downing a few before dipping back for a peek behind the scenes, as brewmaster Jamie encourages folks to chat him up, and you can grab a 64oz growler to go.

Recreations Billiards, just up the street, has been around since 1947 with good reason. They offer an astounding 108 beer selections, and manage to feel part mobster hangout on ground level, part modern hipster dive in the basement. Plenty of felt here for the pool enthusiast, live music on weekends, and no shortage of eye candy.

Also on 4th, Imbibe magazine recently rated Tate’s craft cocktail lounge one of the South’s Top 100 Places To Drink. Enjoy a martini on the front patio, fashioned from their homemade sweet vermouth, or try a citrus-y signature drink whipped up from fresh fruit squeezed daily – no bottled syrups here – all at a price you’d pay elsewhere for unimaginative well mixes. Reaching further for that upscale, metropolitan feel, a divine appetizer platter, be it a signature cheese or antipasto, provides some substance to avoid collapsing in the street.

If it’s the 1st Friday of the month, then stagger your way through Gallery Hop, a district loop with plenty of wine handy to keep you squinting at artwork. Otherwise, fear not, for there’s always some festival revolving around slight variations of this theme. The Salute! Wine Celebration rocks downtown in early summer, with cooking demos, food pairings by local chefs, and plenty of vino, while the Twin City Taps Beer Fest brings local craft and home brewers out every August. In between, head to Tanglewood Park for NC Wine Fest, a weekend dedicated to live music and more than 30 region wineries, and, of course, should you feel the urge to tap your inner drunken hillbilly, Twin City Rib Fest awaits in the midst of such madness.

I could go on (Rock The Block, etc) but aside from stumbling up 4th Street and/or attending downtown festivals, other options abound:
– I briefly dated a girl from Winston. She was ultimately not a keeper, but the venue picked for our first night out, 6th And Vine, was worth filing under the brim. Intimate seating, of both indoors and courtyard variety, are serviced by extremely knowledgeable yet unpretentious staff who can pick out exactly what your vibe is from a huge wine menu.

-Rustle up a fistful of homies and rent a luxury suite at a Winston-Salem Dash game, the local minor league baseball affiliate. Good fun and a great change of pace for getting sloshed on a budget.

-Though requiring you know a membership packing native, either Break Time Billiards location broadcasts every sporting event known to man on wide screen televisions, has oceans of tables, darts, and a healthy brewskie selection

Notes From A Local

District Roof Top is a pretty cool place to eat and drink. Try Johnny And June’s Ultra Saloon (crazy ass country bar, foam party) or Single Brothers Whiskey Bar (name says it all). Old Winston Social Club has the best overall tavern feel. That’s my spot.

Firsthand Fiasco

Though generally sensible enough these days not to get thoroughly blasted, one evening awhile back I managed to personally derail an anniversary party with some out of character antics, in Winston-Salem.

The mix-n-match sixer I ingest before we even hit downtown, picked up earlier at a small market, doesn‘t hurt. Still daylight, we start at some quaint patio restaurant in a residential neighborhood near downtown. I remember scarfing down some amazing spinach n’ artichoke dip on an otherwise empty stomach as we kick off ceremonies here with a wine tasting.

Matters begin getting cloudy as we’re leaving, and our party piles into two vehicles bound for downtown. We pull into Silver Moon Saloon – this great, funky, standalone building I’ve frequented before – and find the fenced in back patio, grabbing a table. We order our first round, yet the instant it’s delivered, I pass out face down on said table.

Attempts at reviving me prove unsuccessful. Two buddies carry me to the Flex, where I’m thrown in back, and though it’s never explained to me why this spelled our festivities’ end, I’m forever held responsible for ruining this soiree. The guests of honor, sadly the two most sober, are forced to retrieve my car from the first spot. Everyone else piles into the Flex and heads home. I recall none of this, waking up the next morning in a spare bedroom. Ill tempers abound.

The Verdict

I’ve yet to find a great dance club, but Winston has everything else, cheaply and in close proximity. A fantastic party Mecca.

The Shadowy Subculture Of Geocaching

Shadowy-Subculture-Of-Geocaching

She lures me into an HH Gregg parking lot on the outskirts of town, with no mention of intent or what lies ahead. Frantically consulting a GPS device on her phone, she directs me to turn this way and that, as I progressively slow further and further down and she pinpoints our mysterious destination, apparently, to a single parking space behind the store. Before I’ve even had time to shut the engine off, she is out of the car and frantically running her hands along the backside of a guardrail separating us from this giant ravine.

And this, friends and neighbors, is my introduction into the shadowy subculture of geocaching.

Newly initiated but a quick study of the pastime herself, my wife, Erin, gives me a rapid-fire rundown as I assist in her search. The heady buzz of having descrambled a clue for her has already made me a receptive audience – the hint was “cintagem,” which I somehow instantly converted into “magnetic” – and eager to learn more. People the world over, it seems, are stashing tiny little boxes with a rolled up log sheet and a pen, leaving clues online and coordinates as to its whereabouts. Many of these containers contain little trinkets that past explorers have left behind, and the rules of the game are that you can leave one yourself, take one as a souvenir, or even move one onto the next location and post online where it has been. All fascinating, fascinating stuff, and the thought running through my head while we’re doing this is: how have I not heard of geocaching before?

As it turns out, we can indirectly thank President Clinton for this. Until May 1, 2000, GPS coordinates were considered classified information, blocked from civilians by the US Department of Defense. On that date, he announced that the scramblers would be shut off, and two days later the first geocache was laid. Dave Ulmer of Beavercreek, Oregon, is considered the game’s Abner Doubleday – or make that its James Naismith, as his invention has never been in doubt – setting that initial treasure into place and posting its coordinates online. A man named Mike Teague becomes its Sir Edmund Hillary, then, by extension, the first person to find it, and 2 million active geocaches later, here we are.

But many of you must be asking, what is a geocache? The best I have managed, in describing it to the uninitiated, is equating it to a digital scavenger hunt. Ullmer’s initial stash was a buried bucket filled with computer games, books, coins, a slingshot, and other random junk, yet I’m not sure that even a pilgrimage to this virtual Bethlehem (now designated with an Original Stash Tribute Plaque, as his historic black bucket is long since history) would necessarily fill in the blanks.

What’s the point? is the general skeptic’s cry, and to that I have no answer. You go online to one of the prominent geocaching sites, you find your current GPS coordinates. They reveal some vague clues about tiny plastic containers which are hidden in your vicinity, and your mission now becomes to find them without attracting the attention of or being noticed by the casual passerby. Simple enough. These containers you are seeking are mostly small, by necessity waterproof, and without question camouflaged in some fashion. At the very least, you sign your name on a scroll rolled up within the container – because otherwise, I agree, there is no point – and add another tally mark to your online alter ego’s running total.

Such are the basics, but, given the human capacity for endless invention – hinted at too by what Ullmer had in mind with his debut treasure – it was inevitable that variations and additions to the official rules would soon take root. A good half of the caches we have found are large enough to contain an assortment of bizarre yet essentially worthless trinkets, tradition being that you will take one item yourself, but only if leaving something of equal or greater value. One of my first logs, for instance, was underneath a foot bridge in the heart of Asheville, and I came away with someone’s white ribbon for finishing 3rd in a long ago swim meet; I don’t remember what we left, but it seems it might have been a sticker. Behind a car wash in Mooresville, after crawling through some thorny bushes – and being spotted by a fellow gamer, spraying off his truck, who knew what we were up to and signed the scroll himself – we came away with Jon Bon Jovi’s Blaze Of Glory CD, traded out for a disc of my home recordings. Fair enough, I say.

Other advancements over time have brought the inclusion of trackable objects, which is a terrific idea, but also virtual caches, an irredeemably dumb one. With virtual caches, there is nothing to find, the requirement is that you will find the GPS coordinates, then text the person who initially placed the cache with some sort of clue that proves you were there – call me a technophobe, but this smacks to me of trying too hard to give that which doesn’t need improving a hypermodern twist. On the flipside of the souvenir coin, trackables are tiny registered objects (often referred to as “hitchhikers”) which are placed pursuant of a specific purpose, for example, that whoever put it there wants it to end up in a particular country, to race another object to one particular cache a few states away, or some other goal along these lines. So your job is to scoop it up, log that item, and move it a little further along its route, dropping it at the next appropriate cache you find.

Multicaches ratchet the excitement up a notch or two. My wife and I spent an afternoon chasing one such find around Lake Norman State Park, all 1300 plus acres of it, an odyssey that involves being given only the beginning GPS coordinate for a whole series of them, as you are expected to piece together some clue that will lead you to the next, and the next, and the next, your prize of the log book and whatever other little treasures may await lying ahead somewhere at the final stage. Of course, a primary hazard that potentially looms before any intrepid geocacher, the fruitless quest toward a bounty that has been misplaced or stolen – to quote insiders’ jargon, the item has been “muggled” – becomes all the more painful should it occur at the end of a multicache as opposed to the more traditional. Though this fate fortunately did not befall us that day at Lake Norman, it is going to occur from time to time, which is why any seasoned veteran would recommend checking the date an object was last found before you disembark, and also why being surreptitious and aware of the casual onlooker is a must.

Which touches upon another finer point to be found with this sport, game, whatever you want to call it, the ability for aficionados to place caches themselves. Canisters, meant to be hidden in some capacity, range from, most commonly, vitamin bottles wrapped in camouflage, to more ambitious offerings such as the giant metal ammunition tub we found at one location. You might be surprised to learn that at virtually every Cracker Barrel restaurant in America, there is a magnetic key holder clipped outside the building with one of these trademark scrolls inside (note: places of business, in particular gigantic corporate conglomerations, tend to frown upon the presence of these, especially the already much reviled Wal-Mart). If you were to take a gander at one of the many websites specializing in geocache containers, you would encounter other like the assortment of fake rocks to be placed upon a forest floor, or a hollowed out bolt to shove inside some post, which further up the ante in making the hunter’s job all the more challenging. My wife and I, for instance, searched an eternity in the park behind our house until discovering our cash was hidden inside a phony piece of cork that had been jammed seamlessly into a fallen log. At the ridiculous end of the other extreme, there’s a jeep in the woods behind PNC Arena in Raleigh – where the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team plays – which is the geocache, and typically piled up with a mountain of goodies, there’s one you can scuba dive down to at the bottom of Lake Norman, even a cache hidden in Antarctica.

As perhaps best illustrated by that jeep in Raleigh, though, I do have concerns about what impact our pastime is having on the environment. Though in general I would consider this a perfectly harmless activity, and we even recently introduced our six year old daughter to this highly amusing diversion, and, true, that disabled vehicle had been deteriorating in the woods for eons before geocachers claimed it, to traipse through a forest behind the Iredell County History Museum, citing one actual experience of ours, through areas that ostensibly should appear undisturbed by man, it’s often disconcerting to find a Hansel and Gretel-esque trail of Mountain Dew cans and potato chip bags leading the way. But sadly enough, you could never encourage people to spend more time outdoors in any capacity without this being the case.

Some states such as South Carolina an Virginia have already introduced measures limiting or outlawing geocache activities. Law enforcement officials probably wish the fad would die off completely, for the canisters are occasionally mistaken, which the hilarious-in-retrospect evacuation of Disneyland has demonstrated, as explosive devices. I fear the noose may tighten further with heightened visibility (though initially attempting to maintain a wall of secrecy most sites now allow you to sync your finds with a Facebook profile), and wholeheartedly stand behind the “earth caching” or “Cache-In-Trash-Out” movements which encourage participants to clear up some litter, hopefully performing a little public relations repair in the process. It also happens to be a completely free activity, a not insignificant draw in these cash strapped times.

On balance, I would say that any activity which pulls us off our couches without harming anyone else is probably a good thing – get some fresh air, a little exercise, see parts of even our own hometowns that we otherwise wouldn’t. Just use your head out there, don’t throw candy wrappers or beer cans around, and circle the block once or twice, maybe, if you see any cops. And if you happen to bump into the knowing soul who indicates with a wink that he’s hip, just tell him “TFTC,” that you haven’t caught any “traveling bugs,” and that “xtforce” sent you.

Dynamite River

One summer our family piles into the car for an extended vacation with my Aunt Jackie and Uncle Rob, the most adventure seeking, outdoors oriented couple in our extended bloodline. Rob in particular is a complete maniac who, aside from more standard fare like taking us hiking up mountains, or boating and water skiing, had taught my brother and me how to snorkel dive – including a lesson on slipping underwater, that you block the tube with your tongue and then blow the water out upon surfacing – and the fine art of jumping from cliffs, though neither of us were as brave as the triple-backflip-from-thirty-feet-up type maneuvers that Rob routinely busted out.  He had also led all of us on a camping expedition deep into some native woods once, where our site was ravaged by bears in the middle of the night while we huddled inside our tents, listening with rapt attention, the adults occasionally risking a glance outside.

But by far the most notorious of our adventures with these two would be this hot August afternoon, when they decide to take us inner tubing down their favorite mountain river, a horseshoe shaped affair that ends not too far away from where it began. Jackie drops off five individuals and six tubes – the last having been saddled with a duct-taped cooler full of beer, stocked and modified by the two adult males in this party – as she then takes off in their SUV  to meet us at the rendezvous point. The sky is nearly cloudless and the water high, a perfect setting for this idyllic country ride.

You can probably guess what happens next. A freakish ocean of grey and then black sails into view overhead, blotting out the sun. A wind kicks up, the air perceptibly becomes much cooler and, worst of all, flashes of lightning and peals of thunder reveal themselves a little more closely than perhaps we would have preferred. Mom is freaking but Dad and Rob, who are both, it should be noted, pretty much half crocked at this point, remain nonplussed by this sudden rain and nature’s pyrotechnics. Later claiming they only said so to avoid a mass panic, these two are in fact telling us that in cases of lightning, “the water is the safest place to be.”

Mom isn’t buying this nonsense and climbs out of the river. She starts hopping alongside the bank barefoot, negotiating the rocks, briers, and general overgrowth which is, as a rule, not especially conducive to travelling sans shoes. Upon seeing this, I decide this seems like about the best idea  I have ever heard, and join her in navigating that shoreline. My little brother, meanwhile, appears torn, but apparently decides to trust that the men know what they’re talking about, and remains in the water with them.

After walking what feels like the distance of the Appalachian Trail and back, we eventually encounter a dilapidated shack of a house, where this disheveled old coot is sitting upon his back porch, which faces the water,  rocking in a chair. Frantic to exit this mountain pronto, we ask him if there’s any quicker way off of this river.

“Nooooooo,” he cackles, “not unless you got a stick a dyn-ee-mite!”

Needless to say, nobody thought to pack that in the cooler this morning. But just as suddenly as it blew in, the storm mysteriously passes, at last, without any casualties. By the time we arrive at the pick up spot to a waiting Jackie, the sky looks like it had when we first arrived, as though nothing ever happened – although we all have such a chill in our bones that upon arriving back at their house, we make Rob build a blazing fire just to dry us out.