Monday, November 24, 2008

You Have Been Warned

Good people of the Second City--lock up your sons and daughters, stock your bars, and prepare your offerings. Goodtime Charlie flies to Chicago tomorrow...

Repeat Offender

I watched Pier Paolo Pasolini's infamous Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom again, with a curious friend, and enjoyed it much more the second time around. It is pretty efficient storytelling, really working the audience's eyes, ears, and minds--especially for those who don't speak fluent Italian. I no longer wish it had a more-informative set-up; it has just the right amount, and Pasolini's unwillingness to pander to its audience is impressive.

Not that I was bothered by it the first time around, but I did notice that I was less distracted by the disgusting visuals this time around. Having already seen them, I concentrated instead on the philosophy behind the acts, and found the movie much more interesting as a result.

All this aside, I wonder how long it will take for me to go to the bathroom and not think of how disgusting it is that there are people out there who would want to eat/drink what I produce in there, as well as how disgusting it must taste. I think those thoughts will take a while to shake, although I hope I'm wrong.

One thing is for sure, after watching that movie, most other things that people find offensive, disgusting, or cruel seem quite tame; everything's relative.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Fight

A friend of mine is, in turn, friends with a guy named Gino. Not too long ago, Gino got dumped by his girlfriend and had to move out of her house, so he stayed with my friend, Vincent, for several months while he trained.

Gino is an ultimate fighter. Of his few possessions, unabashedly on display in the guest room Vincent provided for him, off the kitchen, from where I wandered in one day, none was as fascinating as his glittering championship belt.

Last week Gino put that belt up for grabs in a title-defense bout outside Fresno, California. Vincent, his friends Michael and Josh, and I drove up there from LA to see what it would be like to watch him in action.

We rolled up to the address Vincent had been given and we were in the middle of nowhere. Not Fresno, which would have been bad enough from what I hear, but some po-dunk small agricultural town in the outlying area. His GPS didn't even have a road on it. We were getting nervous. So much for hitting up a bar for some food and drink first.

Toward the end of the 3hr+ trek from LA, we drove through the quaintest little downtown I've ever seen--not a pretty one, mind you, but quaint all the same. Nothing but old, run-down shit-box buildings housing farm banks, tractor dealerships, abandoned gas stations (or did they close at 5pm?), etc. After a blink it was gone, and the farm fields returned. In the distance we saw a circle of bright lights. We braced ourselves for what we might find there.

A barn? A rodeo ring? A parking lot? This wasn't the UFC, after all--this was the minor leagues.

A much tamer, if almost stranger, fate awaited us. An Indian casino. "Dot, not feather," as somebody later joked, to my great offense. I'm 1/64th Native American, after all. And a proud man.

Living in LA, I am of course barraged with commercials, billboards, and other advertisements for local casinos, places in Las Vegas, places in between...I've never heard of this place. Perhaps appropriately, this was the minor leagues of Indian gaming. Once they get called up to 'the show,' I'll be annoyed by their come-ons, but for now I wasn't on the radar.

We parked and went inside, once again not quite sure what to expect.

The place was packed. It was Thursday night, around 7pm. We walked around a bit to get our bearings, find out where the fight was taking place, find the closest source of alcohol.

The fight was upstairs. In the bingo parlor.

There was only one bar in the entire casino. It was packed full of people I am well-aware of, yet like to pretend don't exist, much less rub elbows with. You are not allowed to bring alcohol outside of the bar, so we braved it, walked inside, and ordered up some whiskey and beer.

The air was thick with depression and every third set of eyes screamed fight. And I'm not referring to the ones going on in the bingo parlor. I tried not to look in any particular direction for too long, no matter my urge to read the fascinating t-shirts. In this company, my friends and I looked every inch the dandy and I don't think it would've taken much for somebody to want to come over and "ugly us up" just for kicks.

Some guy came over and said hey to Vincent. Turns out he has been shooting a documentary about Gino, which he will then try to sell to a Brazilian TV network. He took Vincent up to Gino's room, where he was resting before the fight and "not to be disturbed." Vincent returned with tickets and T-shirts.

It was probably greedy, especially in retrospect, but we all expected ringside seats. Especially after we put on the T-shirts Team Gino gave us to wear and realized Vincent's company sponsored him. That had to cost something; so what does he get in return, right?

When I looked at the ticket Vincent handed me, I noticed it said General Admission where a seat number should have been. Below that was printed "000000017" and even though I doubted it very much, I maintained a sliver of hope it was some sort of secret code for "Ringside."

The others all assumed this was so. They were pretty destroyed when an usher informed us that not only were we not ringside, but didn't even have seats at all. They stood against the wall in the back, irritated.

It's funny to think a room this big is used for bingo. It's also funny that a room this small is used for televised mixed-martial-art fights. This must be somewhat like boxing used to be during the Norman Mailer era--small venues, shitty production value, intimacy, rawness.

Between fights, a DJ blasted crappy music while two hoochie-mamas shook what they've got on little roped-off platforms on either side of him. During the fight, between rounds, skinnier hoochie-mamas paraded around holding up the numbers. They looked like this:

Sadly, the fights consisted of only 3 three-minute rounds. [Except for the title fight, which was limited at five three-minute rounds]

Gino's manager came over and asked us why we were standing in the back when we had seats. We told him. He took us over to an usher and demanded to know where our seats were. The usher told him the same thing she told us earlier. Ouch.

Since we couldn't get any closer, we watched a couple fights from afar, mostly on the video screens, so we might as well have been at home, watching it all on...the NASCAR channel? I don't know where you'd find that shit, but that's probably where I'd begin my search.

One of the fights was between two women, which was interesting for that reason alone. Otherwise, the fight itself was pretty boring.

Vincent had only been given one wristband, which allowed access to the makeshift locker/sparring room off the main "arena." He went in and out a few times, saying hello to Gino, getting noticed by the people guarding the door. Then, since he never actually secured the wristband in place but had held it together in his fist, he was able to hand it off to Josh. Vincent walked right past the guards, a known quantity at this point. Josh followed him inside.

A few minutes later, Vincent handed me the wristband and walked back inside. I held it together in my hand and flashed the wristband on my way in. Three for one special. Not bad.

Inside, there were numerous fighters--most surprisingly short--warming up, getting rubbed down, roughhousing with their sparring partners, etcetera. A member of somebody's pit crew was on a table getting sewn up by a doctor (or maybe he was just a hobbyist?) after, I presume, a mishap.

In the back of the room, there was a black curtain sectioning-off a private room. Unable to spot Vincent anywhere in the room, I held my breath, found a slit in the curtain, and stepped inside.

Sure enough, there were Vincent, Josh, Gino, and his crew; we had lost Michael at some point, which was fine with all of us. Michael is a dog breeder-- of pocket pit bulls--and can't stop talking about them.
"I got a good little bitch for you, a real beautiful bitch--you should see the face on this bitch. It's one of the best I ever made. Only $6000, which is a good deal for... No-no way, man--why would I trade her for one of yours? I don't need that blood--I got that blood all over my yard! Why would I do that? No, no--I don't do that shit..."
This is the same guy who had his prize-winning pooch poisoned by the Mafia--who are hugely into the dog market, there being much more money to be made there than in the horse world. When Michael refused to sell them his dog's semen, because he didn't like them, they threw a meatball soaked in antifreeze over the fence. He saw it on his security tapes. The dog was ultimately spared, but hasn't been the same since. Luckily, there was semen put away for a rainy day. Extremely expensive semen. Interested?

The one thing in life Michael seems most proud of is acquiring one of his enemy's dogs--through a third party hired for the task--and turning it into a prizewinner for his own operation. He got the best pup in the litter, I guess, and named it something like "Ha, ha! Fuck you--Checkmate" or "Checkmate," for short. After telling me this story, beaming, he then described, in detail, the shots he would like to have in a video he plans to create to advertise this dog as a stud. I guess he makes DVDs of all his dogs and sends them to prospective semen/dog buyers--mostly in the South, unsurprisingly. I really want to watch one of them some day.

Anyway, back to the fight.

Behind the black curtain, Gino was sparring with his partner as his trainer, manager, documentarian, and a couple other members of the posse watched. Everybody wore one of the two new t-shirt designs.

Gino was a giant--a giant chiseled out of rock, a giant who works out 5 hours a day--who couldn't stop smiling and joking around. I found out the day after the fight that he is 34 years old, but he didn't look a day over 20.

Ten seconds after this photo was taken, Gino farted and laughed. I moved elsewhere.

It was awkward to be back there, to say the least. I didn't have a wristband and could have been ejected at any point, all but Vincent were strangers to me--the fact that I had just spent three hours in a car with two of them didn't really count--and I was surrounded by trained fighters pounding guys wearing pads, guys in their underwear, guys who looked like they wanted to kill me because they thought I was spying on their boy, reporting back to his opponent about his moves and perceived weaknesses. As if that wasn't enough, almost everybody else in Gino's room was speaking Spanish. I mean, I can speak Spanish, but not like a native. It might as well have been Chinese.

And even if they had been speaking English, I still wouldn't have had much to say about anything. I hate chit-chat, I don't care about fighting, I was mildly afraid of uttering some sort of "break a leg" faux pas, and inspirational outbursts are hardly my stock in trade. The feeling was similar to the one I felt when I had to visit our guide's dying mother in a hospital in Moshi, Tanzania. I had never met her, I didn't want to be there, I didn't want to catch meningitis when somebody sneezed, and I didn't speak Swahili--but even if she had spoken English, I still wouldn't have known what to say to her.

After an awkward introduction to Gino and his crew, I retreated outside the tent. I didn't really want to go back out and watch from the standing section, but I didn't really want to be in here either. I compromised and escaped via the television, watching a couple bouts on the monitor hanging from the ceiling. They were some good fights, especially this one:

A lanky scrapper against a small strongman. Well-matched. Well-fought.

That's not his blood, but this guy definitely lost. They were both covered in it by the end, the result of an elbow to the Asian guy's head. As I watched it on TV, along with several guys in the business, one of them shook his head and said, "Gotta hope there's nothing in that blood..." Ditto. But I wouldn't want my life riding on it...

With a few fights left before the main event, I ducked back into the curtained room and there was no sign of Vincent or Josh. I went outside and wandered over to the corner where some girl told me they were selling alcohol. They only took cash.

I left and headed back down into the casino, looking for an ATM, or maybe just going to the bar. Vincent called and told me to meet him "under the cameras." I found him and Josh sitting ringside and joined them. We were sitting in the second row, right behind the media, so I kept my camera out and took a lot of pictures, hoping nobody would kick me out.

After a good bout with a "Kick Crusader" from Thailand, who performed an energetic Thai dance in the ring before his fight, Gino and his opponent--whom we'll call Hammerhead--took over the spotlight. A video played on the screens scattered throughout the bingo hall, introducing each fighter and playing a short clip of them talking about themselves.

Hammerhead was a fatty. He was the only guy with a body fat index over 4%. But he was also a former Greco-Roman wrestling champion. This fight with Gino was a rematch of one that ended when they both tumbled out of the ring, which I guess is not allowed.

The audience was firmly in Gino's corner, frequently addressing him as "Champ." Before the end of the first round, Hammerhead walloped their Champ in the nuts with his knee and sent him reeling in pain. The crowd booed wildly and shouted encouragement at Gino.

The moment of impact was replayed on the TV screens as Gino rolled around in agony, using four of the five allotted recovery minutes after an 'accidental foul.' Whether or not it's accidental is pretty hard to determine, since knees to the lower abdomen are a common move.

In case you're curious what a man's face looks like 3 minutes after he's been viciously kneed in the balls, tried to stand up, and sat back down in pain, here it is:

I can relate, having been viciously kicked in the balls when I was in junior high. I think I took longer than four minutes to get to my feet, cried more, and definitely didn't do anything strenuous afterwards. I wonder if Gino will find a telltale drop of dried blood in his underwear, like I did. I wonder if we'll be able to have kids.

Round 2 was somewhat of a stalemate. As with every fight tonight (save the one between two females), this one consisted mostly of two men hugging, trying to inflict pain from extremely close range, while also avoiding their opponents similar attempts. Both fighters try desperately to "pass the guard" of their opponent--ie, straddle them above the waist, in order to pound their face without having to worry about a foot to their own face. Whenever a fighter gets into this position, his opponent will tap-out to end the fight, unless he has a death wish.

During Round 3, Gino threw Hammerhead to the mat, using a Jiu-Jitsu move, and cracked his arm in several places. "I had to do it, you know, and so I did, and I heard 'pop-pop-pop.' " Immediately afterward, Gino jumped on him, 'passed his guard,' and began pounding Hammerhead's face. After a few devastating blows, Hammerhead tapped-out and Gino retained his belt, doubling his purse and securing his future in the big leagues. The crowd went nuts.

After the post-fight interviews were over--complete with a shout-out to Vincent's company, as well as the girlfriend he moved back in with--we joined Gino in the locker room.

As you might imagine, the mood was festive. Gino hugged everybody--even me--to thank them for their support. His manager sent somebody to go pick up the paycheck, which seemed funny to me for some reason (what, no direct deposit?), and I wondered how the money would be divided among the posse members.

After agreeing to get sushi with Gino sometime this week, the four of us began the slow retreat to Los Angeles, one t-shirt richer than we were when we arrived...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Can You Believe This Photo?

Legendary, Freaky Fashion Designer Valentino Garavani
(aka Valentino)

I sure can't!!!


Stop--Hummer Time!

At some point last night, this beast showed up outside the Governors' Global Climate Summit at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills.

Not sure how exactly it is street legal--or if it is. Maybe it was helicoptered in?

Whose is it? Where did it come from? Why does it have treads? What the hell is in the back...or whom? Aliens?

So many questions, no answers...but one thing is certain--this baby is biodiesel. So stop freakin' out and learn to love it!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mo-town Pirates Back Again...

(Photo courtesy New York Times)

Boy, those pirates are just endearingly incorrigible, aren't they?

This time, they hijacked a Saudi oil tanker THREE TIMES the size of an aircraft carrier. The crude oil onboard has a street value of $100 million.

How the hell can a ship be that big? I mean, I understand the physics of flotation, but where the fuck does that thing park? Where did they build it? And how can a crew of only 25 men run that beast? Amazing. I hope they have 25 more rooms in the hostage village... (FYI, the ship full of tanks, and the crew onboard, are STILL being held by the pirates. Do we need to send Arnold and his elite team in to solve this pesky problem, or what?)

Here is the full article, by the way, for those who still like to read the newspaper:

I hope some useless-as-a-bag-o-dicks Hollywood scribe is hurriedly writing a really overwrought movie about them.

"Sunset in Somalia"
A thinking-man's thriller, starring James Spader as a disenchanted former missionary gone mad (!) and Leonardo DiCaprio as the FBI agent who decides to shut him down--at any cost.

Paul Haggis doing anything these days? He could TOTALLY murder this one!
Oh, wait--he's too busy cashing paychecks.

How about John Grisham? That guy's GOTTA have some free time...

Monday, November 17, 2008

One Great Leap...

It struck me the other day--and not for the first time, I might add, since I'm so ahead of the game it would blow your mind--that terrorism is not that surprising an offspring of more 'conventional warfare'. For all its detractors, terrorism is but another notch carved into the scarce virgin territory of mankind's belt, a further honing of skill in that most loathsome of crafts--murder.

For your consideration:

476 A.D. -- The Roman Empire Falls. Long ago, before even unicorns were invented, the almighty Roman Empire was decimated* by hordes of barbarians from the Germanic tribal regions of Europe. The highly-organized, efficient, top-of-class Roman Army was no match for the raw, brutal tactics of the barbarians--kill/rape, pillage, burn, move on. No sharp uniforms, no fancy swordplay, no philosophers--yet.

1775 -- The American Revolutionary War. The finely-tuned war machinery of the then-alpha-male British Empire simply could not compete with the ill-trained, ill-equipped rapscallions hiding behind trees in the Colonies. Whatever happened to gentlemanliness in warfare? I mean, tut-tut--how can you have a good war if you don't all simply line up and walk towards each other--slowly--shooting at each other, in a match of 'which nation of pillagers can afford to have the most soldiers with guns?' It's clearly the only way to do battle...or, more properly, was.

1945 -- The Atomic Bomb. Who needs a fucking army? We'll just spend millions of dollars, rape the world's greatest scientific minds, and drop a goddamn instant-apocalypse on you. Easy. Done. We're smarter than you, so we win.

2001 -- September 11th. "Tell ya what--we're smart enough to know you're dumb enough to let us use your own icons of technological advancement against you. All we need are a handful of dudes with fucking box cutters and we will cripple your nation for the rest of its life. Better still, you will never be able to fight back--enemies have never been so clearly undefined. We are not a nation--we are a merely a people with a common interest. We are everywhere. We are dedicated. We win. Eat that."

Shit, man--what's next?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

New York Times Enters the Storied Realm of the Obvious

Apparently, and the evidence is--I must stress--technically unreliable at this point:

"A new study finds striking evidence that children who are obese or have high cholesterol show early warning signs of heart disease."

Fat kids with high cholesterol have an increased risk for heart disease? No shit...

For more fascinating facts, please read the article.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What is the Better Question?

Welcome to this year's edition of the annual contest--What is the Better Question?
Please study the photo below and then carefully examine the questions that follow:

a) Why is this boy sitting in the toilet with his pants on?
b) Why is his parents' bath tub filled with garbage?

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Profit Crunch

As one of the nation's newest--and foremost--economic experts, I would like to inform you all of the main problem with the corporate structure as it exists:

Profits from boom years are not retained to cover losses during bust years. They are instead distributed to investors and spent on ridiculous executive salaries, increased advertising budgets, corporate retreats, useless conferences, and dubious R & D, which mostly just concerns a redesign of packaging and a cheaper, more-dangerous ingredient list.

Therefore, unless the boom continues without end, there will always be a decline in profits, which decreases the stock price--since the stock price was already based on certain unmet sales expectations--and leaves the company scrambling for cash.

What are the first things that a company does in such a situation?

1. Raises the price of their product slightly, yet again, so that only penny-pinchers and super-observant people notice.

2. Cuts the salaries of all non-management employees.

3. Cuts benefits of all non-management employees--especially pricey things like health care and retirement payments--despite previous promises of lifelong care.

4. Replace all real-world ingredients with cheaper, similarly-flavored chemicals.

5. If this doesn't work, appeal to the government for help, since your industry is 'crucial' to the existence of the world as we know it.

Now, let's think of a few real-world examples:

1. Hostess. How long have the good people at Hostess been making, as David Foster Wallace once called them, "shadow snacks*?" Forever. Have the ingredients stayed the same over the years? No way! You know how expensive real sugar is? Real butter? Shit--if they can save $0.001 per cupcake by using some sort of experimental cancer-causing 'butter-like agent,' they will. They have. Had a cupcake recently? They taste like SHIT. So, as the price of their ingredients plummets, as the real wages of their employees likewise plummet, as benefits for said employees disappear...the price has gone steadily UP--outpacing inflation, outpacing increasing fuel costs. Why has it gone up? Because they need to feed the monkey, man! God forbid they were content with selling 50 billion cupcakes a year and making a mint. They had to get greedy--"what if we can find a way to sell 100 billion cupcakes a year! Yes! Let's do it! Let's sell ourself off to Interstate Baking Corporation (share price $0.04, btw) and turn our bakery into a money machine! Oink! Oink!"

2. General Motors. Formerly the World's Largest Automaker (title now belongs to Toyota, as of 2007, fyi), they have famously been hit by 'hard times' every single year of my life. Or so it seems. Laying off employees, eliminating health benefits, spending the pension fund...all to strip down, become leaner and meaner, to more-agilely continue the pursuit of their long-term goal--total self-destruction by an INCREASED reliance on gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. So let's see...a dinosaur has no idea what it takes to compete in the marketplace, can't even see into the past, much less one year into the future...we can't let this company go under! We must bail it out with taxpayer money! What would we do without its lack of foresight and gross inefficiency? It is America! If we all have to start driving around in Toyotas and Hondas and BMWs it would just be so...nice...

3. AIG. The biggest insurance company in the world--by far. Imagine if AIG had in its bank accounts the $5000 trillion dollars it has probably collected in insurance payments over the last...15 years. Now, being an insurance company that, like them all, thrives on the small print, they probably only paid out...$5 trillion dollars over the same period. Where, then, is the other $4995 trillion? Is it in the bank? Can they use it to bail themselves out of this 'disastrous predicament' that they brought on themselves by being greedy, short-sighted, and stupid? No. It has already been paid out to wealthy stockholders and executives. It has been spent on lavish executive washrooms with marble toilets and single-use silk toilet paper. It has been spent on pointless annual conferences in Las Vegas, Thailand, the Cayman Islands, Dubai--anywhere there's gambling, booze, and a bottomless supply of hookers. It has been spent to hire friends of friends to redundant positions, just to keep management fun, to spread around the bottomless money, to have enough guys onboard to play polo against Morgan Stanley over the weekend. It has been spent on mailing every house and apartment in America an unwanted pile of steaming junk mail every week. It has been spent on hiring expensive consultants to do the jobs of people on-staff who would rather not actually do their jobs. It has been spent buying up enormous amounts of questionable, risky, derivative securities that they didn't even fully understand. The list could go on indefinitely...

Don't even get me started on the banks--if they have proven to be incapable of managing money...why are we giving them more of it?

Which brings me to my main point:

Whatever happened to the beautiful, self-refining, social-Darwinistic side of market capitalism? Why are we not just letting the firms that did not make mistakes fill the void left by those that did? Isn't deregulation what they all wanted in the first place? Careful what you wish for, assholes!

*A 'shadow snack' is a food product that is desirable not because it is healthy, but because it is delightfully bad for you, an indulgence, which runs counter to the recent, general trend toward healthy foods.


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Notes on a Scandal

Does anybody else find it disturbing that we are now seeking advice as to how to solve our current financial crisis from the very same people who are so clueless they didn't even see it coming? Smart moves, Warshington--smart moves.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Notes from Tanzania: Kilimanjaro

9/23/08 - Uhuru Hostel, Moshi, Tanzania

My legs still ache from the climb. Or was it the descent? Probably both. Max and I are sitting at a table in the courtyard here, watching a 4.5'-tall maribou stork strut his stuff for the other birds as we write; when he landed, it sounded like a small airplane. A crazy man rants nearby.

Kakasii (our guide) dropped us off here yesterday afternoon, after picking us up from the Marangu Gate at Mt. Kilimanjaro--with three ice-cold Kilimanjaro beers standing by, as promised. It was our first drink in over a week. Not quite as impressive as Adolpho's streak (2 years, broken when we offered him one in Uswaa village), but probably a personal record for the three of us.

As usual, we all had to cram into a small vehicle--me, Max, and Clemence, six days overdue for a shower, wedged into the backseat--but at least all the windows were down and some charming Tanzanian music was blasting. Talk delightfully impossible, we all just enjoyed the scenery and tunes as Kakasii attempted to break his own land speed record.

It was hard not to think back on our recent trek. Day 5--Summit Day--which occurred on Sep.21, was one hell of a test, a true emotional yo-yo of a day, during which we experienced both the high and low points of our six-day trek.

Kibo Hut. 4750 meters. Our day began at midnight. After a few hours of sleep and a few hours of watching time pass in the moonlit darkness, without a clock, thinking about the day to come, breakfast arrived.

The porter with a red bandana--whose name we never got, since we were not allowed to mingle with the porters--brought in a plate of cookies. That was it. That was our sustenance for the longest, most intense leg of our climb. Cookies.

We suited up for the bitter cold (-15 Celsius?), filled Ralph's daypack with our self-purified bottles of water and some trail mix I had on hand, and waited outside for our guide.

Clemence was nowhere to be found--other groups were already departing for the summit, a string of headlamps in the distance, and our guide was AWOL.

Clemence finally showed up, we took a few photos, and headed out. Spirits were high for the first couple hours. As we plodded zig-zag up the endless gravel slope, passing all the players in this comedy, one by one, each briefly illuminated in the moonlit semi-darkness, I could not shake the feeling that we were in some sort of Fellini dream sequence.

First, there was the Spanish couple. She wasn't feeling ‘well in the head’ when we woke up, and the expression on her face now implied matters had only gotten worse. I said "Hola" and we chugged past. I hoped they would make it to the top, since I actually like them--which I couldn't say for most of the other climbers--but I didn't think it likely. [He made it; she didn't - Ed]

We passed the three annoying Polish people I thought were Russian, who kept us awake our first night on the mountain until I pounded on the wall of our hut and shouted “Shut the fuck up!” with conviction, the large group of Austrians...and others I can't remember. Our methodical, 'pole, pole,' style, with only a few short breaks, was proving successful. I was getting excited about being the first ones on top, owning the fabulous view for at least a few exhilarating minutes.

Then the sickness started. Nausea, accompanied by the nearly-overwhelming need to shit, followed by alternating cold/hot sweats, dogged me the rest of the way up. When it got unbearable, I would stop for a quick rest, then press on despite my desire to shoot myself in the face.

I took off my hood and the handkerchief covering my nose/mouth, and tried to breathe in the fresh cold air in giant gusts. I worried about frostbite, especially when my toes went numb and my hands seemed irretrievably frozen in my gloves, but wasn't sure what I could really do about it. I had to press on and I just hoped everything would turn out okay. I hoped I wouldn’t become the next Beck Weathers.

The endless gravel zig-zag finally ended and we were met by a similarly-endless, nearly-vertical pile of boulders. I couldn't believe it--this, too? Clemence started up, choosing his path as he went, and we followed. Slowly.

Our breaks became more frequent, our bodies completely exhausted, barren of energy. I staggered around like a drunk, only my desire to not fail keeping me upright. How do all these old people do this? How do all these overweight people do this? How the hell did Jimmy Carter do this in 2000, at age 76? Why are we struggling so much? When will this end? Should we give up? How can we give up? How can we not do this? We can do this!

By the time we got to Gilman’s Point--5685 meters, atop the crater rim--I was ready to fall over and die. Luckily, the view saved me. An eternity of red, ethereal clouds spread in every direction. As cheesy as it sounds, it really did seem as though all of Africa lay before us, that we were gods looking down on the human comedy. We watched the sun break the horizon. A vast bowl of volcanic dust and snow, topped by the striking profile of a glacier wrapping around the other side of the mountain, awaited us in the other direction. Stunning.

All the hard work, the misery, was redeemed. We sat down for a few minutes to soak it all in, then Clemence said we had to press on--it was still an hour and a half to the actual summit, along the crater rim. Ralph asked me if I thought we should stay there to watch the sun rise, and I said we’d probably be able to see it periodically along the way. I regret not staying there.

The slog from Gilman’s Point to Uhuru (the summit) was murder. Slow, painful, roasted-on-a-spit MURDER. Barely able to breathe in the thin air at 19,000 feet, our muscles in surrender mode, our heads swimming in oxygen-deprivation, our stomachs dangerously empty, teetering precipitously over the edge of the crater rim, the 1.5 hours felt like forever.

In the distance, we saw (and heard) countless people in matching orange jackets prancing around jubilantly. They must have come up a different route, since we were the first people up ours, and, from the looks of it, their route was a lot easier. Some of them were even running up and down the outside slope, burning off excess energy. Everybody was smiling, laughing, exuberant; we were miserable and, therefore, immediately hated them. There was no way I could have smiled; no way I could have run.

In fact, ever since we hit Gilman’s Point, I had become unable to stop sobbing uncontrollably. Happy, sad, exhausted, proud, whatever--I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t speak, since my voice would immediately crack into a sob, so I remained silent as much as possible. I thought about shooting a video when I got to the top, a simple one where I would tell Melissa I loved her, and the thought made me cry again. I didn’t think I would even be able to say “I love you” without crying. 'What is wrong with me?' I wondered...and cried...

The last stretch dragged on. I could occasionally see groups of climbers in the distance and their location destroyed me all over again each time. How could it still be that much farther? When will this end? I finally saw the top from a distance; an agonizing distance. I turned to Ralph:

“Don’t fucking tell me we have to go all the way over there. What the fuck?!”

We did have to go all the way over there. Extremely slowly. The incline was minimal, but unrelenting. Ralph seemed to be dealing with it okay, but Max and I could only go 20 meters or so before we would need to rest. We didn’t understand what the hell the rush was, but Clemence kept pushing us along.

People on their way down--full of life, energy, smiles, springs in their feet--made me sick, unfairly filled me with hatred for them. How could they have done this and not be on their deathbeds, as I felt. How?!

By the time we made it to the official summit (5,895 meters)-- a circus of activity dominated by middle-aged American assholes whining about lack of cell reception--I was so pissed off that I didn’t even care. Five days of hiking, five days of eager anticipation, months of planning, much money spent...and I didn’t even care that I was standing atop the roof of Africa.

We three sat on some rocks and rested, totally spaced out. It was 7:30am. Clemence pushed us to hurry over and take our pictures by the summit sign before more people arrived. I didn’t see the point of hurrying--there were already like a hundred people on top, a steady flow on the way up, so what did it matter? There would always be a line, so why couldn’t we just chill the fuck out for twenty minutes?

But we gave into our guide-cum-slave-driver, once again, and posed for two or three photos. Max held out the Terry Plumbing flag in all of them, which annoyed me when I realized it later. In all the commotion--picture bitchy suburban parents fighting about how long somebody’s kid has been sitting on Santa’s lap at a shopping mall, actually saying lines like this: “Oh, so now we’re taking two shots? Hmmph!”--Max and I both totally forgot to pose with the leopard he had been toting around since Zanzibar, expressly for this purpose, so we could give our niece and nephew a toy leopard that had climbed Kilimanjaro with us, along with photos taken along the way to prove it.

I also would have liked a solo photo, but didn’t feel like fighting to make it happen. All I wanted to do was leave this madness behind and sit down somewhere for a while, eat some trail mix, catch my breath, rest, improve my emotional state a bit before the inevitable, grueling descent to Kibo Hut.

But Clemence would have none of it. “We need to go now--the sun is too strong here.” All I could think was: 'What the fuck does it matter? It’s so damn cold I don’t even have any skin exposed!!! Does it burn through down jackets, you asshole?!'

But, once again, we pressed on as instructed. I think we were just too beaten down to argue. The trek back to Gilman’s Point was like a Trail of Tears. We demanded to stop there for a while to rest and eat something. By this point, Ralph, who earlier complained that he was falling asleep while walking, was so devoid of energy that he fell down TWICE while trying to sit on a large boulder.

Gilman’s Point was super crowded at this point, and everybody was in high spirits. They must have had more than a handful of cookies before/during the 20,000-calorie climb/descent. After a brief rest, we continued down, hoping to simply put all this behind us.

Down-climbing the boulder wall was difficult and time-consuming. Our legs were still weak from the climb up, our stamina waning due to continued lack of sustenance. Descending the eternity of gravel beyond the boulders was agonizing.

I literally skied down on my boots, using the walking poles like ski poles, slaloming around large boulders. It easily took over an hour or two--a hell of a ski run, and hell for the knees. After a slow start, Ralph took off and flew down the mountain, passing me at some point and not stopping until he got to Kibo Hut, where we were to rest and eat lunch before continuing another 12km down to Horombo Hut for the night.

What was it that filled his sails so suddenly, so vigorously? The overwhelming need to take a shit.

By the time I got down, Ralph was in bed. I borrowed his packet of diaper wipes and raced off to the pit toilets myself, having had to shit since we started the climb 13 hours ago...

Now, I have to tell you these pit toilets were disgusting. As I dirt-skied my way around the final bend, the scent riding the robust wind could have wilted a rainforest. It's no wonder there’s an alpine desert up here...

The unthinkable--using these pit toilets, which were literally just a hole in the ground, surrounded by piss, shit, dirt, and altitude-induced vomit--became reality out of pure, unadulterated necessity.

Nothing lowers standards quite like the need to go to the bathroom. When your choice is between filling your pants or using a disgusting bathroom, it is no longer even a choice. How many days does it take before a new prisoner shits on a filthy, seat-less toilet in the middle of his cell, in full view of his creepy, violent cellmate(s)? many days can the human body hold it in? It is but a matter of time--eventually, everyone gives in and performs.

In case you were wondering, it’s not easy to squat over a hole in the ground, trying to keep your pants clean, after a grueling 12-hour ascent/descent. My legs were quivering, ready to acquiesce to gravity at any second. My lungs frantically huffed and puffed, searching the polluted air for precious oxygen.

All went well, luckily, and I crashed out in my bed after changing into some dry clothes.

A couple hours later, I think--we never had any real concept of time--the porter with the red bandana woke us up for lunch. What do you give three starved mountain climbers after a soul-destroying, energy-sapping, 12-hour climb on a nearly-empty stomach?

Easy one--a plate of cold toast, old fruit, cold fried-eggplant patties, and horrible onion soup. That’s it. That’s the lunch our crew slaved over as we climbed. That was the fuel they thought we needed. I took a few bites and walked away; Max didn’t even touch it.

Clemence walked in shortly after lunch arrived, alarmed that we weren’t ready to leave for Horombo Hut yet. I wanted to punch him in the face so badly. Not only because of the slave-driving climb and the shitty food, but because he never even told us to be ready at a specific time, yet here he was yelling at us for being late.

We took our sweet time packing up and resumed our descent. Surprisingly, I was in a pretty good mood--partly because I had slept a bit, partly because Clemence decided to carry my pack, partly because the hike was relatively flat. I had some good conversation with my brother, as well as with Ralph. It was hard to believe we had stood atop Kilimanjaro not long ago--much like the machete mugging in Arusha, I felt a surreal detachment from the reality of the moment. Was I up there? Really? What did it feel like? I don’t really know...

But what I did know was that we were heading down, down, down--and that was a good thing. Off the mountain. Finish camping, ditch Clemence, move on.

After a shitty dinner of banana stew at Horombo Hut, crammed onto the end of a table full of Japanese climbers bitching in broken English about not having any boiling water, we hit the sack hard.

The next morning, we hiked 12km to Mandara Hut, most of which I did by myself, at a breakneck pace, rocking out to 24 LCD Soundsystem tracks, dodging porters going up and down, staring out into the crazy extraterrestrial landscapes.

At Mandara, we waited easily 45 minutes for our lunch--french-fry omelettes and steamed vegetables. Huh? I wolfed it down. We pumped some water from a nearby faucet and hit the trail again.

Clemence told us he would catch up. We couldn’t tell what he was doing when he said this--it looked like he was either shitting in a ditch or washing his ass or something. As it turned out, we think he was changing his clothes, awkwardly, in semi-public, since he was wearing different clothes when we saw him later on down the trail.

We flew down the last stretch--partly to stay ahead of/away from Clemence, partly to just finish this thing already.

Clemence tried to stop us occasionally to point out things, to make us think he deserved a better tip, due to his bottomless knowledge, and it reminded me of how he had seemed super intense during our first meeting, surprised that we had not prepared any questions about the local plants, as if he was some kind of insane nature expert. I don’t think he pointed out one fucking thing on the way up. We might as well have been led up the mountain by an auto mechanic. Yet, here he was:

“See that thing on that tree?”

Where? What tree? What thing? We’re in a fucking rainforest, Clemence! You can’t be that vague! Can you give me a color? A shape? An adjective? There is a veritable smorgasbord of vegetation here, for Christ’s sake... Oh? The bee’s nest made out of a log? Yeah, already know all about it, Clemence. They’re all over the place. Thanks for filling us in on some insider-secret. There’s an extra five cents in your tip jar, now leave me alone!

Even if his intentions were more innocent, we just didn’t care. We kept going, sweating our way toward those three ice-cold Kilimanjaro beers and a one-way ticket off the mountain.

Do I regret the adventure? No. It was an irreplaceable experience and the highs, if not more abundant than the lows, made it all worthwhile. Would I have done it differently? Hell yeah. Will I ever do it again? Hell no.