23 June, 2014

Deep Creek Lake Greatest Hits Tour

(With sincere apologies to everyone who couldn't have been there...)

My good friend and I went camping in a remote part of West Virginia this weekend. We had to cross over the tail fin of Maryland via Interstate 68 to get there. Without realizing it ahead of time, we skirted right past Deep Creek Lake (just under half an hour from the Interstate). Being the mecca of my childhood, and a treasured vacation spot I haven't visited in 12 years (!), we agreed to take a detour on our way home on Sunday. We didn't have a lot of time (or money) to spend, so I made a tour of the "greatest hits" spots I remember from my childhood (and could easily access from the main highway that cuts across the area). The nostalgia was palpable!

The Trading Post

The first and last stop on any trip to Deep Creek Lake! Of course, it's long since given up its reputation as the go-to "toys and trinkets" shop any kid would love. Nowadays - as "High Mountain Sports" - it specializes in hip clothing and lake-relevant sporting supplies.

The docks at Trader's Landing

These are the customer docks just across the street and down the hill from the (former) Trading Post. One of the most exciting aspects of lakeside shopping has, in my mind, always been the novel approach of being able to head to the store - not in a car, or by foot - but traveling by boat!

"across-the-way" mini-golf

Miniature Golf was a treasured pastime in my youth, and a way for my Grampap to impart his own love of golf to his grandchildren. This mini-golf course was just across the street from our most frequent lodgings, and therefore a course we played through often, and the one I remember the most fondly. It was a simple course, with "novelty" obstacles, but always great fun for a kid. Today, it's in a depressing state of disrepair, obviously not having been in operation for a number of years.

Alpine Village

We stayed at a number of different places over the years - including (most notably) the Will O' The Wisp and the Red Run - but Alpine Village (and especially the cottages hidden in the woods behind) were what I considered "home" at Deep Creek Lake. In spite of my family boycotting the place in solidarity when our friends got kicked out for partying too boisterously in the lodge one year, I have nothing but warm feelings for the place, and seeing it again is like watching a long forgotten dream come to life before my very eyes.

Now called "Inn at Deep Creek"

Behind the main building

Some things hardly change at all

Other things do...

The cottages behind Alpine Village have been completely redone, and are now larger and fancier than ever (which is decidedly an improvement - unless you appreciate the rustic atmosphere - though I wonder at the cost to rent them). The roads in the back are also different, with each cottage having a separate driveway coming off of the main road.

The dock and "beach" behind Alpine Village

Though it was only one week each summer, I feel like I grew up in this place.

Anyone for catching minnows?

The long and dreaded no wake zone

Silver Tree Marina

I had a lot of trouble finding the Harbor Bar. There have been a ton of new condominiums erected at Silver Tree, and I had to walk around the high-rises to even find the (possibly scaled back?) Harbor Bar, tucked almost uncomfortably between the newer buildings.

The Harbor Bar

Arrowhead Market

I'm happy to report that the Arrowhead Market has changed very little. It may be a bit spiffier, in keeping up to date with modern shopping standards, but it has the same bustling atmosphere that I remember. This was essentially our go-to grocery store while on vacation. The only thing missing is the magazine rack, from which we kids would often pick out comics for down-time reading.

Arrowhead Deli

The Boardwalk

It was 6 PM on a Sunday when we got to The Boardwalk, and they were just closing, so there wasn't much looking around we could do. It was, however, still apparent that The Boardwalk is a very happening place. I remember my Dad telling me that the Good Guys would drive down to Deep Creek to play shows, so I was much amused when I saw their name on the bar's advertising board!

View from "The Point"

However, I was very disappointed to discover that The Point View Inn was nowhere to be seen. I remember it being right next to The Boardwalk, but there was nothing there. Breakfasts at The Point were another one of the highlights of our weeks in Deep Creek. I was especially excited when we would get up early in the morning and travel across the lake by boat to get to breakfast. One year, it was so foggy, that we couldn't see ten feet in front of the boat. It was very scary, but also very thrilling, and a memory I'll never forget.

Frontier Mini-Golf

After the previous disappointment, I was relieved to discover that the miniature golf course at The Fort is still in operation, and very much as I remember it. So we decided to play through it in what was, for me, a walk down memory lane. My mini-golf skills, while nothing to scoff at, are somewhat out of practice, but I did finally manage a hole in one on the final hole. Unfortunately, the girl at the counter was not giving out wooden tokens for free games. The Fort remains a bustling activity zone, with even more amenities than I last remember it (when the laser tag and go carts were new additions). It appears to me that Deep Creek Lake itself continues to be a thriving vacation destination for families.

Pizzeria Uno

After golf, it was just starting to get dark, and we were getting hungry, so we hit up Uno's for dinner - the location that ignited my love affair for the restaurant. I'm afraid they don't serve Dumb Monkeys anymore - no different than any of their other locations. We were seated out on the balcony by request, with a lovely view of the lake, and the playground shared with the adjacent Honi-Honi Bar. To my great surprise, I saw yet another advertisement for the Good Guys in the back of the menu at Uno's!

The Honi-Honi Bar

The Honi-Honi Bear

The Pirate Ship

The Whale

 All of the equipment I remember - the elephant, the whale, and the newer pirate ship - were still present (although the elephant is not nearly as large as I remember it being, when I was much smaller), plus the bizarre addition of a pair of gigantic chairs closer to the lakefront. The popularity of the playground equipment for the kids matched - if not surpassed - the hive of activity buzzing around the popular Honi-Honi Bar. Which, in retrospect, seems perfect given that Deep Creek Lake is a family vacation hotspot, and the playground gives kids something to occupy themselves with while the adults are having a good time at the bar.

The Elephant

View from the shore

View from the edge of the dock

Remembering what it's like to have a boat...

The Lakeside Creamery

For dessert, I had a deliciously thick Peanut Butter Chocolate milkshake (because even though their Vanilla may win awards, it's just too plain for me :p) at the old Lakeside Creamery, which is still hoppin' all these years later. It's obviously a popular destination, as most ice cream parlors are, at the end of a beautiful summer day.

The dock below Lakeside Creamery

View of the thickest part of the lake,
with the Glendale Bridge in the background

As dusk began to settle in, it was high time we took to the highway and made the hour and a half journey back home. It was with a mixture of sadness at having to leave again so soon, yet also great joy at being able to see this place again after so long, and bringing so many memories back to life, that I left the lake to return home.

Thanks for joining me on this reminiscence - I wish you could have been there with me in person, to relive these great memories. It was truly a surreal and emotional experience revisiting this place that is filled with so much personal history, and so much meaning for me. It's sad that it took this long to get back there, even if just for a short time.

I will certainly be looking into the possibility of returning again soon, pending cost-effective planning strategies. If you're interested in joining me, you know how to contact me. Now's the time to begin negotiations! (Although I doubt a trip this summer would be feasible at this late stage for planning).

07 April, 2014

Tekko 2014

You should be familiar with this routine by now.

One of the many scenic views of downtown Pittsburgh as seen from the convention center.

This past weekend marked the 12th annual Tekkoshocon (which, as of this year, is shortening it's name to just Tekko), Pittsburgh's premiere (and only) convention dedicated to anime and Japanese culture (and related fandoms). It was the 7th consecutive Tekko I've attended, and this will be the 7th that I've reported on (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 for reference). The con continues its residence at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center downtown, with a setup comparable to last year (with the Dealer's Room and event panels on opposite sides of the rather large building), and still lots of room left to grow into. It's the third(!) time now that I've traveled to the con from out of state, and with a group consisting of four (including myself), and as many as five (with my brother tagging along) on Saturday. As much of a social recluse as I am, I still believe that cons are more fun to be experienced with friends in tow.

Our little group prefaced the weekend's extravaganza with a trip to Lulu's Noodles in Oakland on Thursday night. Lulu's is an Asian restaurant - and possibly the only one in Pittsburgh that includes ramen on the menu - that we actually learned about at Tekko four years ago from a panel on Japanese food. It's situated in the urban neighborhood that surrounds the University of Pittsburgh, so its customer base includes the young and passionate college crowd, which creates an intriguing atmosphere that I really enjoy. Aside from their noodles and other Asian dishes (which include Chinese and Japanese favorites), they also specialize in bubble teas. I've only been there a handful of times, but their food is good, even if the ramen isn't quite up to the best Japanese standards.

We were all up fairly early on Friday morning, not least because of recent work schedule changes within our group that are, I would say, less than optimal for late nights at an anime convention. Still, it did give us lots of time to get ready in the morning, even though we still didn't end up at the con until after noon. A lot of that was due to the slow service we encountered during brunch at Olive Garden. But I also had a little near-crisis in trying to put on my cosplay, as I am apparently outgrowing (or else it's shrinking) my beloved sailor fuku Japanese school uniform that I've been wearing to the con for the past four years in various incarnations (including with tentacles, and also as daytime Sailor Moon). I think that this year will, sadly, be my last with that particular outfit. At least you can't say I didn't get my money's worth from it.

I was going for the zettai ryouiki look, but the stockings
were too long and ended up looking like tights.

I was pretty happy with the Dealer's Room this year. The only real disappointment was that the Gacharic Spin (who I'll say more about later) booth didn't have a wider selection of the band's music, beyond their latest album, single, and DVD.

Gacharic Spin's latest album, Delicious

But I found an adorable Kyuubei plush for only $24! I had to snatch it up, since it's something I've been wanting to own ever since I watched Madoka Magica after last year's con. That is, by the way, a series I highly recommend. It does to the magical girl genre what Evangelion did to the mecha genre.

Kyuubei, the adorably creepy mascot who makes contracts with magical girls

I also found a lolitastic figure in a microscopic bikini that totally screamed out my name. It's tiny, but it was only $8, so I totally bought it. I believe it's a character from a series called A Certain Magical Index and/or A Certain Scientific Railgun that's been on my watchlist for far too long (who has the time?). 

A variation of this figure, on a smaller scale

Aside from viewing all the excellent cosplay on display (which is my favorite thing about the con, after all), I attended a fairly interesting discussion panel about the tsundere character trope (of which I am fond), as well as the annual EGL fashion show. I know that, despite my determination to dress lolita several years ago, I've kind of put that plan on the back burner due to costs and difficulty, but we're discussing maybe making it happen for next year. Of course, that could just be another empty promise, but it's still something I'm interested in doing (if a little bit intimidated by), and without my schoolgirl uniform, there's a cosplay opening... But, one of our group has decided to cosplay Guts (from Berserk, of course) next year, and so that gives me a good enough reason to make an effort to do the Griffith cosplay I've been wanting to do for so long. (Heh, it'll be a switch for me to cosplay a male character...).

On the subject of cosplay, there was a very clear concentration of Attack on Titan (also a series I recommend) cosplayers this year. I'm talking, like, the con was saturated with even more members of the Scout Regiment than I'm used to seeing Naruto-style ninjas in the past (or Homestuck trolls in recent years). It's a total boom. I don't know if it'll last, but it's very clearly the current obsession among the local fan community. I'm really glad I watched that series just within the last couple months, so I knew what it was all about and didn't feel lost. There were even a couple cosplayers made up like Titans, mostly in body paint, that looked fantastic. And a couple of the Scouts had razor swords, too, that looked really cool.

Rogue Titan cosplay

The climax of Friday at the con was the AMV contest, which I've made a point to attend the past few years. Honestly, the majority of the AMVs tend to be so-so, and there's a lot of them to sit through. But you have to do it to catch the occasional gem. This time, the highlights included Glorium, a video in the drama category on the subject of writing, and (in my interpretation) the effect that constructing fantasy has on a creator's perspective on the mundanity of the real world; and Married Life, a heartbreaking romance utilizing scenes from a series called Hotarubi no Mori e (Into The Forest of Fireflies' Light) between a girl as she grows up and a gentle but mysterious masked stranger. I was tempted to vote the latter for best in show, but I gave that vote instead to a video in the upbeat category, titled A Piece of Toast, set to various anime, that for me seemed to epitomize that flashy, cutesy aesthetic that's more eye candy than meaningful content. Gosh, it sounds so superficial when I put it that way...

For Saturday I dressed up as White Rock Shooter, the nemesis and big bad in the PSP video game iteration of the popular Black Rock Shooter character. She's basically a color palette-inversed version of Black Rock Shooter, and I picked her to cosplay because a) like Black Rock Shooter, she's hot and wears a really skimpy outfit, and b) I wouldn't have to die my hair black. One of the projected benefits, I imagined, was that although I've seen a lot of Black Rock Shooter cosplays, I've seen very few White Rock Shooters (and none, I think, in person), so I figured all the Black Rock Shooters would see me and want to get a picture with me! But then, I ended up seeing very few Black Rock Shooters this year, and nobody recognized my costume, I think, even though two people did take my picture. I'm not sure it was worth the soreness in my feet before the end of the day, although I feel in some twisted way that the blood on the heels I was wearing is proof of some kind of rite of passage for being a woman...

I chose winged eye makeup for the character's flaming eye,
but my application is amateur at best.

The lighting and backdrop were tricky to coordinate on the roof.

Nice for the sun to show, but it was very cold and windy up there.

The middle part of Saturday was kind of frustrating, as it took me forever to find a nice place to take some pictures of my own cosplay. Things started to shape up around dinner time, when the gang and I all headed back out to Oakland to a restaurant of some renown among one of us - a restaurant called Five Guys Burgers. True to the hype, the food was fantastic. I don't like burgers, but I ordered a hot dog, and it was the best hot dog I've ever had. The fries were really good, too. I can't wait to go back. Back at the con, the one panel all weekend that I was most excited about seeing - Octo Erotica - vanished into thin air. There must have been a schedule change, because it wasn't playing in the panel room where it was supposed to be playing, and it wasn't playing in any of the other panel rooms. Honestly, I feel duped, like somebody put that panel on the schedule just to mess with people, because really, a panel discussing tentacle rape? Way too good to be true. :-\

After that, though, was the concert. Two years ago I lamented that I never had much interest in the concerts invariably scheduled during the con, despite being a big music fan (though not necessarily well-versed in Japanese music). Last year, I checked out one of the bands, but was not impressed (mainly due to genre, not talent). Well, this year worked out perfectly because the premiere musical guest, Gacharic Spin, is a J-Rock girl group. There's nothing unusual about either of those qualifiers: after all, J-Rock is well represented on the con circuit, and girl groups are a dime a dozen in Japan. But they're usually J-Pop. A J-Rock girl group combines two of the things I love most - cute girls, and good music - instead of having just one or the other. So I totally got excited about seeing this group, and started listening to their music on YouTube as soon as I heard about them a couple months ago.

Japanese rock girl group Gacharic Spin

I strolled into the main events hall where the concert was taking place around the time Gacharic Spin were due to come on. Another band by the name of Lolita Dark was still in the process of finishing their set, and although I was significantly less impressed by what I had heard from them on YouTube, it's quite possible that, out of the whole night, both bands included, my favorite song overall was their final encore - a cover of Alice In Chains' Man in the Box. Despite not normally being an alternative/'90s rock guy, I have to admit that song rocks, and it's got a really crunchy riff, and it was really cool to hear a band play it live.

After that, Gacharic Spin was maybe a little bit too cutesy and not hard enough, but you can't deny their spirit, or their talent. It's almost like, in Japan, the usual Western social construction about women not being able to play instruments doesn't even factor in to the equation. The girls were having a lot of fun; I recall one antic where a keyboard was attached to the back of one of the girls, and she was periodically bent over by another band member so it could be played. I was hoping for maybe some more songs that I recognized - although, to be fair, I'm not that familiar with their material. But, though I can understand the rationale behind their cover of Rod Stewart's Do Ya Think I'm Sexy? - and I like that they're eager to play up rather than shy away from their sex appeal (evidence of an idol culture unspoiled by feminism perhaps?) - their own single Nudierhythm would have accomplished that at least as well, and, let's be honest, is a much better song besides...

In any case, I was largely distracted (in a good sense) during the entire concert by an occasionally barefoot girl dancing with a hula hoop to the side of the room, with seriously professional talent and legendary stamina (that even Naruto would be proud of). The way the hula hoop spun around her body and across her extremities was mesmerizing and not a little bit erotic. Speaking of which, throughout the con there was your usual abundance (which might be surprising for the uninitiated to discover at a geek convention) of pretty, young girls dressed in tantalizing cosplays, running the gamut from sweet and adorable to skimpy and seductive. I'm afraid I didn't get a lot of pictures this year, as my personality is really not cut out for the chase, although it consistently makes me rue my introverted nature and lack of confidence.

I suppose the blood makes it kind of creepy (I am a horror fan),
but this girl totally got my attention.

One of many cosplayers that caught my eye.
Too few of which I snapped pictures of.

I'm still not tired of Misty cosplays. :p
This was my favorite this year.
(Check out the cute shoes!)

This girl fashioned a Vegeta dress out of a DBZ shirt. Awesome.

And, also, there was Batman.

The last event of Saturday night was the much-anticipated (by me, at least) Extreme AMV Contest. This year there was a good 9 AMVs to vote on, exhibiting such extreme material as hardcore sex, gory violence, and pervasive foul language. The winner by popular vote was a humorous video set to a rant about Kingdom Hearts (with more foul language than sex or violence), but my personal favorite was an erotic video using scenes from B Gata H Kei (a.k.a. Yamada's First Time, about a high school girl whose dream is to become a slut - which is also on my watchlist), which was sexy without being vulgar and in-your-face like the majority of the other sex-related videos.

After the contest, there was some decent adult AMV programming for once (apparently out-sourced from a seasoned collater who works with other conventions), although watching them just drives home the point I've made before about how individualized people's sexual interests are. And being someone with rather particular interests, I was there pretty much to satisfy my curiosity and not to receive any kind of special thrill. To show that I did not get off entirely unscathed (even despite leaving before the programming was halfway finished), there was one particularly uncomfortable video that exceeded even the infamous (in its repulsiveness) Cool Devices AMV that my friends from college might recall (if they are not lucky enough to have scrubbed it from memory). But whether I like a given video or not isn't as important as the point that allowing them to be shown makes - regarding the freedom of speech. Though, the fact that there are still topics that are taboo seems to undermine that. But, the solution is radical tolerance, not merely a different regime of selective censorship.

Sunday at the con was subdued as is typical. I like getting my money's worth out of a con; even if there's not much going on on Sundays, it's still nice to be there amid the atmosphere. And some people do still cosplay, even though it's kind of a non-day. I wanted to check out the Dealer's Room again, although I didn't buy anything else - I was very satisfied with my Friday purchases. But I was happy to see a good selection of dakimakura on display, and not holed up in boxes like last year, after the previous backlash. There were some good ones, that I might even have considered buying, if it weren't for them being so expensive. Lots of great t-shirts, too, that I might have picked up if I were so inclined, and some cool posters/wall scrolls - I saw some really good Sailor Moon ones this year. But I've collected so much of that stuff, and it's just more money expended on the fandom. I think that I'd just as soon save that money for cosplay supplies these days.

There was one last panel I wanted to see on Sunday, about the history of Final Fantasy. I figured there would be an emphasis on the earlier Final Fantasy games - hence it would be up my alley, and particularly relevant given the early Final Fantasy-inspired RPG I'm currently working on developing - but the panelist actually admitted his favorite Final Fantasy was XIII (orz). The panel was stalled by technical difficulties, and even once it was underway, it proved to be pretty dull, with the panelist reading off of PowerPoint slides word for word, pages at a time. The presentation was ultimately revealed (in oblivious fashion) to be a cheap knockoff of a much more interesting professional video that the panelist actually started playing toward the end of the panel! He should have just played it from the start, as there wasn't even time to finish it. Better yet, I should have just watched it at home.

It's no secret that panels are largely hit or miss at a convention like this, especially one that doesn't have the size or prestige of an Otakon, for example, to attract a better breed of panelists. And though it can be very disappointing at times, it's something I expect, and I don't let it spoil my overall enjoyment of the con. However, it does repeatedly make me think that, if I were motivated, I could easily make a kickass panel that would surpass many of the lower-end panels that get accepted at Tekko. In fact, I was determined to do just that, after last year's con, and I expended a good bit of time and energy into producing a panel. But my progress ultimately stalled, due largely to the realization that Tekko would almost certainly reject it, not for lack of quality or sufficient content, but due to controversial subject matter. Can I help it that my most passionate interests run into the realm of the strange and, more poignantly, objectionable?

I wouldn't have quite as much to say, but maybe I could do a panel on crossplay. If nothing else, I would have some stories to tell, and I have the experience to back it up. I think, though, that it would be very lopsided without the female perspective - plus, adding a co-panelist would help pad out the panel. That could actually be doable, if only I could find/befriend a female who frequently crossplays, that would be willing to help me host such a panel. Tekko seems to have such a fractured fan community, though, and the forums see very little action, and only from a small subset of the convention's attendees. I'm not outgoing, and I don't even live in the city anymore, so making friends/connections is a huge hurdle. Ah, to think of all the things that could, but never will be...