Meetup with the dead
I am leaning against a concrete pillar because it makes me feel safe, like nothing can sneak up behind me. I feel like the unwilling bystander in a horror flick, the one that despite her better judgment is in a secluded canyon with a group of strangers. We are standing underneath the highway I-15 overpass in Scripps Ranch. The moon hangs overhead like the Cheshire Cat’s sideways smile. Tall eucalyptus trees and chaparral create eerie shadows.
Next to me is Sally Richards, creator and manager of the 123-member Meetup group named “Ghosts Happen.” Richards is holding an obvilus — a device akin to an electronic Ouija board that paranormal enthusiasts use in an attempt to contact spirits. She is asking the device questions. It is answering back in a spine-chilling robotic voice. It says words such as, “up...climb...buried...help.”
David Roesch, a lanky blond in his early 40s standing a few feet from me, says, “There is someone up there.” He points to the far west corner of the underpass. A man thick enough to be a nightclub bouncer shines a flashlight in that direction. I expect to see a sleeping homeless person. No one is there. It’s at that point I realize Roesch is talking about a ghost. Despite the fact that I don’t believe dead people inhabit underpasses or that we can commune with them, I have a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.
The Ghosts Happen Meetup group is the first in a series of four San Diego–based Meetup groups that I visit in a one-week period. The others are Bitcoin in San Diego, Zeitgeist on Tap, and San Diego Furries.
The managers of each group say the same thing — they created their group to find people with similar passions.
Richards has a strong bond with the members in her Meetup groups. “[Meetup] is great for when you don’t know where your community is — and you can’t seem to find ‘your people.’ You start a community of your own. So many of our [members] join us because they’re new in the area and are searching for like-minded people. There are a lot of lonely people out there. I think if it weren’t for Meetup there would be a lot more suicides.”
Before creating her own Meetup groups (she runs three of them — a writing group and two devoted to paranormal activity), Richards was a member.
“My first group, Go, Be, Write! used to be some kind of tantric writing group. I didn’t know what tantric writing was. The descriptions were always so mysterious and inspirational. Well, a few months [after joining] we got a note from the founder of the group saying she was [closing it] because the vice department came and shut them down. So, I took over that group. For 70 bucks or so you can take over an abandoned group. I changed the name of the group, let everyone know there wouldn’t be any tantric goings-on at my meetings, and set up some events. A lot of people dropped. I guess the sex part was a big part of their writing process. Now we have 200 something people and it’s a pretty strong group.”
Two days prior to attending Richards’s Ghosts Happen Meetup, she sent me the following instructions and warnings:
“Be prompt. No perfume, No swishy clothes, cell phones MUST remain entirely off — not just silent — the EMF from towers checking in with them messes with the equipment. Make sure to wear dark colors, we don’t want to draw any attention. We’ll be leaving from Chili’s shortly after 7, after everyone signs their releases. We will then hike down into the canyon behind the restaurant.”
The note goes on, “Please refrain from using alcohol, or drugs that may alter your ability to make decisions or observe. The event will be strange enough without partaking. I always tell my people not to carpool or go out with someone afterward unless they know them really well. People tend to think if someone is in a [Meetup] group, they’re safe with them, which is the furthest thing from the truth. Google Meetup + murder and you’ll find cases where someone was killed due to their proximity to someone else in a Meetup group. Am I paranoid? Sure. I mean, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there’s not some serial killer among you, right?”
I make the mistake of searching the internet for Meetup murders. As a result, I end up inviting my friend Laurie, who is six feet tall and built like a linebacker, to join me.
Two days later, we spend three hours in the woods with the group. Members are armed with modern-day ghost-buster gear — obviluses, expensive cameras, high-tech recording gear, and a device called a Mel Meter, which detects electromagnetic frequencies and ambient temperature changes in the environment. Most of the night is spent attempting conversations with the dead in desolate areas of the canyon.
According to Richards, the night was a ghost-hunting success. I spent most of the night terrified, so I agree with her assessment.
Going gaga for Bitcoin
Some Bitcoin miners dress like miners.
On a Tuesday evening in San Diego there are dozens of Meetups to choose from. Laugh Yoga is hosted in Carmel Valley; in Balboa Park, a juggling group gets together; a pinball club hosts a tournament at the High Dive in Bay Park; and the San Diego Lesbian Meetup group is having a spoken-word erotica night.
Instead of hitting up any of those groups, I end up discussing digital currency at the Bitcoin in San Diego Meetup at the Union Cowork space in North Park. There is so much buzz over the crypto-currency that my curiosity to learn more leads me to attend.
On the group’s Meetup site, tonight’s event is described as a mix and mingle. The description says:
“We can hangout and chat about what everyone is doing, our projects, potential partnership opportunities, and talk shop about Bitcoin technology.”
Upon my arrival at the Union, I scan the back room and find 20 or so male faces starring back at me. Nearly every person has a beer in their hand.
At least there is free booze, I think to myself as I bee-line to a cooler.
A study put out by market-research firm GfK found that 76 percent of Americans have no idea what Bitcoin is. In the simplest terms, Bitcoin is a digital currency. It is unique in that it is not controlled by any central bank or monetary agency. Consumers and retailers are not charged a fee for small purchases, unlike credit cards, PayPal, and other digital currency. One of its biggest draws is that it is noninflationary. Once 21 million Bitcoins are in circulation, no more Bitcoins will be produced. Bitcoin is run off a decentralized network much like BitTorrent and other file-sharing networks. Bitcoin has yet to become completely mainstream, thanks in part to a misguided reputation that it is used to facilitate illicit activity and has questionable security.
I make my way across the room and spark up a conversation with a scrappy-looking older gentleman wearing a Members Only jacket that is so retro it is back in style. He is carrying on a conversation with a 30-something whose chiseled chin gives him the appearance of someone that has just stepped out of an REI catalog. The pair is discussing how Bitcoin has solved the Byzantine General issue. The quizzical look on my face leads the old guy (who prefers that I not know his name) to explain.
“The Byzantine General Issue solves the conundrum where different parties have to simultaneously agree on something at the same time while being certain that within the group, no one can go behind the other’s back to gain an advantage over them. That’s a tough thing to do, but with a brilliant mathematical formula like Bitcoin, it can happen.” I am already bored but attempt to find something about this digital currency that interests me. I ask the REI model lookalike, whose name is Chris Groshong, if he regularly attends this Meetup group.
“I’m in a scuba-diving Meetup group and I thought to myself, I bet there is a Bitcoin group, too. Sure enough, I looked it up and found this group. This is my third time attending”
Groshong’s interest in Bitcoin peaked after a friend suggested he look into the digital currency back in 2012.
Says Groshong, “The friend that introduced me to Bitcoin is really into conspiracy theories. When he told me about Bitcoin, I was skeptical at first. He is one of those people that will say things like, ‘Watch out! Planet X is going to collide with the Earth soon!’ So, when he suggested I check out Bitcoin and said, ‘It’s this cool digital currency!’ I was, like, ‘Sure, buddy.’ But at the same time, I still like his crackpot theories because sometimes it’s fun to research them and let your mind just go.”
Groshong did some digging on Bitcoin and discovered that companies were creating specific machines to “mine” Bitcoin. Bitcoin mining is a process used to handle transactions for the Bitcoin network.
Groshong started looking into buying a machine for mining because the way he saw it, it was like getting free money. While looking at the price of the machines he noticed that from one day to the next the price was doubling. When he initially looked into purchasing a Bitcoin miner, the price was $650; three days later it was $1300.
“That’s when I realized there was some sort of phenomenon going on and that people were going gaga for Bitcoin,” Groshong says. “I felt I should learn about it in its infancy. The more research I did, the more I realized it was the way of the future. I have never been this close to something that may have the potential to have such a huge impact on society. So, last week my TerraMiner machine came. It’s being hosted at the facility in Washington State. They plug it in. They take care of it, and I don’t have to deal with it. I can check it on the internet. In seven days, it has made one Bitcoin.” One Bitcoin equals about $511.
At this point, the old guy’s interest is piqued. He interrupts, “So, you’re telling me you bought your machine for only $1300?”
“No, I ended up not buying it at that price, I waited until November 2013. It was six grand.... And I had to pay my hosting contract, so my overall total investment was $8500.”
“Oh, okay, so you’ll break even in about a year?”
“Well, in my first week, I have already mined one Bitcoin, so it could be as soon as 120 days,” concludes Groshong.
Groshong admits that he isn’t sure that he will ever break even.
“So, why invest in it?” I ask.
“Because I believe crypto-currency is the future. I wanted to get into the space,” he explains.
When Groshong and the old man start discussing the beauty of the mathematical concepts involved in the Bitcoin network, I excuse myself and make my way across the room.
I strike up a conversation with R.J. Ricasata, William Swanson, and Jacob Burrell.
“Our company, Airbitz is sponsoring this [Meetup]. We are working on a Bitcoin business-directory app and Bitcoin wallet. We already have over 14,000 listings,” Burrell explains.
Seventeen-year-old Burrell started volunteering at Airbitz after attending The Bitcoin in San Diego Meetup group. His Chula Vista high school mandates that students must have 30 hours of community service to graduate. Instead of working in a soup kitchen, Burrell followed his passion and volunteered his time at Airbitz. He now works there part-time.
“We rent our space here at the Union in Bitcoin. We use Bitcoin for, I think, 75 percent of our business expenses. All of us are paid in Bitcoin,” says Ricasata, pointing to his coworkers, “We are definitely one of the more known Bitcoin companies here in San Diego. There is also BitDazzle,” says the 28-year-old.
Up until recently, Ricasata was employed by a law-software company.
“I resigned and moved to Airbitz in February 2014. I bought my first Bitcoin back in 2012. I started Bitcoin mining. I built about five computers to do mining. I have made a decent amount of Bitcoins since early 2013. I’ve made more than 20 times my investment.”
When Paul Puey approaches, the group introduces me. “Paul is the head honcho, our CEO [at Airbitz],” William Swanson explains.
“I first heard about it from an anti–Wall Street blogger,” Puey explains. “He said he was going to buy some Bitcoin, so I started researching it. I did about two weeks of really deep, heavy, research. I listened to a lot of podcasts and I read a bunch of blogs on Bitcoin. That’s when I realized how the technology worked and that it was an insanely incredible invention. Just the invention of Bitcoin was fascinating. Then I started to connect the dots of what it could do to our economy and our society and how it could correct a lot of wrongs. That’s when I was sold. I went from thinking about putting a few dollars into it to sinking a decent amount into this currency and then using it to try and live in the economy of Bitcoin. I have 90 percent of my liquid assets in it,” Puey tells me.
I spend another half an hour amongst the Bitcoiners. Before I leave, Bob Faulis, a business man that is there to network, hands me his card. His company is about to launch Paycoin Wireless. “It will be the first Bitcoin-based wireless system in the U.S. Any business is smart to take Bitcoins. The loyalty of these people is just strange,” he pauses and lets out a laugh, “You know, I advertise with the Reader. Do you think they will start taking my advertisement payments in Bitcoin?”
Jedediah McCollister: “Once fear and the drive to get money is gone, there will be a void.... We can fill that void with inspiration and hope.”
Chris Carr, one of the organizers of the San Diego Zeitgeist Movement Meetup group, will not give me the exact address to his event. In a text message a couple of hours prior to the Meetup, he directs me to park in the La Jolla Strip Club parking lot.
“Call me when you arrive,” he instructs.
It sounds a tad suspect.
“Is that where you plan on murdering me?” I ask in jest.
“Lol,” Carr texts back, “Now that would be a story!”
To make matters worse, when I leave home, I type La Jolla Strip Club into my GPS. I receive directions to Cheetahs strip club instead of the La Jolla–based steak joint.
My only exposure to the Zeitgeist Movement came in early January. While sitting at Cosmos Coffee shop in La Mesa, I overheard a couple next to me discussing the Zeitgeist Movement. I was interested enough to watch a documentary on the movement. The general idea behind the Zeitgeist Movement is to shift our current societal focus to instead foster people’s needs and wants. They believe society should use available resources instead of cash. They are basically modern-day hippies.
Twenty minutes later, I pull into a sparsely lit parking lot across from a large apartment complex. I text Carr, like he instructed. Within minutes, a mousey guy in his 20s who introduces himself as Jedediah McCollister greets me at my car. He is accompanied by another man, Victor Kulish.
I follow the pair across the dark lot. Kulish opens a heavy glass door that leads into the apartment complex. Within minutes we are standing in Kulish’s living room. Eleven other people — three women, eight men — congregate among an array of instruments and mic stands. A baby grand, an upright piano, and a keyboard are stuffed into the small room.
I sit next to a man sporting a salt-and-pepper gray beard. He wears a black mock turtle neck shirt. He looks like he fell out of a Kerouac novel.
He shifts uneasily when I am introduced as a reporter.
A waifey-looking young woman with stick-straight brown hair sits barefoot on a nearby piano bench. She would prefer her name not to be printed, so we will call her Megan Jones. Jones was in the midst of a lengthy rant that my appearance interrupted. After I am seated comfortably, she launches into it again.
“We should just get a wad of cash, like, 20 million dollars and burn it all up in a bonfire on the beach and have people watch. ‘There it goes!’ we will tell them, ‘It is just paper!’ Maybe then people would finally get it. It’s meaningless,” she says in exasperation.
A guy across the room wearing athletic shorts lets out a subtle yawn. An older gray-haired woman nods energetically in agreement. Attached to her hair is a lone turquoise faux feather. She sits Indian style on the floor near my feet. She goes by the handle Donna Piranha. That was her stage name when she was in a punk band in the ’80s, she explains. She addresses the room, “Let me ask you Zeitgeist people something. What is your solution to money? I mean, what do you propose as a solution to a monetary-based system?”
Chris Carr turns to me and offers an explanation. “They are not part of our Zeitgeist Meetup. We met these two,” he motions toward Megan Jones and Donna Piranha, “in the parking lot this afternoon handing out fliers for an Occupy event. We invited them to join us. We normally have a discussion on The Zeitgeist Movement Defined that we are currently reading. Tonight’s a little different and that’s okay. Actually, it’s great.”
McCollister is quick to offer an answer to Donna Piranha’s question, “Well, what we advocate is resource-based, which is basically the efforts of human thought and ingenuity that goes toward what energy will sustain us in harmony. It’s very simple, really. Whatever is best available is figured out based on scientific, mathematical calculations.”
Donna Piranha nods her head slowly, she fidgets with an Occupy pin fastened to her matching avocado-green Occupy shirt before continuing, “I would like to know, in order to have a resource-based economy, what type of government would that require — or would a non-government system be something you would advocate?”
Carr pipes in, “Something I just learned at the Z-day event we had at the Joyce Beers Center is this: a gentleman spoke and talked about microcosms and macrocosms. He broke it down like this: let’s say I have a wife and child who live in a house. The houses that we build now are not technologically as great as they could be. We could build houses that produce their own energy, produce their own food, that have recycling centers, that have solar cells, natural lighting, etc. We could have all these things to live in a completely self-contained unit. We wouldn’t need anything from the outside —”
“Can I respond to that?” Jones interrupts. She doesn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “I am currently working on community-owned energy. I think being independent is great, but we need a greater community system. For instance, I have gardened my whole life, but you can’t garden by yourself. God forbid I get sick. My garden will die. That’s why we need community involvement.”
Carr interjects, “Absolutely. But it gives you an idea. You hear of these things that we can do, but it’s hard to put it in your brain on how we can transition from the system we use now. I am using one example. I am not saying this is the only way to do it. There are a million ways to do it. Some people want to be by themselves. Let those people be by themselves. Other people want to be in a community, so let them.”
McCollister adds, “The point is, don’t punish people for wanting to live the way they want to live. There are different ways to encourage people to live better lives. You can give them what they need to be a healthy and safe individual or you can put them in a world of scarcity and put the fear in them that if they don’t fit in or don’t work they are going to suffer. That is what governs people now. When you take that fear away, they will wake up in a world where their needs are taken care of — everyone’s needs are taken care of because that is what society is supposed to do. It’s proven scientifically that we can take care of every human being’s needs many times over. But, getting to that point is hard. It’s hard to say what people’s mindsets will be like when we get there because it’s a whole evolution, it’s a whole new species. I mean, rich people won’t have power anymore like they do now. The people in power will be the people that inspire and make others feel good. Once fear and the drive to get money is gone, there will be a void, and that void has to be filled with something. We can fill that void with inspiration and hope. People will get excited about what is possible and that will help people govern themselves. Does that answer your question?” Jedediah asks Donna Piranha.
She nods her head before adding, “What Occupy is doing right now, the reason you don’t see us in the streets getting beat up and pepper-sprayed right now is because all over the country we have co-ops. People are starting their own businesses, their own community gardens and places where people can come and learn. Pueblo, Colorado, has a place where 100 to 200 people can come and stay. There is a place called the Reservation up in New Hampshire. There are places in West Virginia now. People are setting up these huge places — communes, basically. Occupiers are going there to learn. You aren’t seeing Occupiers right now because we are teaching people how to grow food, teaching them how to barter and create community so they can get by in this economy. You don’t see it, maybe because you aren’t traveling in the same circles.”
I listen for the next hour as the group goes back and forth on subjects such as how the human genome suffers from a psychopathic gene that is fostered in our society and the United Nations’ “Agenda 21,” which is rumored to be a plan to decrease the world’s population by 90 percent.
The conversation is wrapped up for the night when one of the members checks the time on his cell phone. It’s already 10:30. I mill around for a bit before heading to my car. When I get outside, I find an Occupy flier underneath my windshield wiper.
“No one uses real fur. It’s too expensive, anyway. Besides, that would be a pain to upkeep.”
On a Saturday afternoon, Lake Murray is populated by the usual crowd. A group of moms in yoga pants push their babies around the lake in jogging strollers. A family of four unpacks their bicycles from a rack fastened to the back of their SUV. Prior to setting off around the lake, the dad bends down and tightens the chin strap on his daughter’s pastel-pink Barbie helmet and then kisses her on the cheek. A group of rowdy children, overseen by a grandmother, enthusiastically feed ducks large chunks of white bread. The smallest child among them flaps his arms and lets out loud squawks. An older child reprimands the little boy.
Standing near a picnic table close to the water’s edge in my floral sundress, I’m out of place among the costumed characters that join me. Despite the heat of the mid-afternoon sun, the men standing in a semi-circle around me wear fur costumes.
To my right is a white-and-gray raptor wearing an Eagle Scout uniform complete with a head piece and tail. To my left, a dapper-looking hipsteresque fox wears rust-colored skinny jeans paired with a polka-dot denim button-down. Next to the fox is a wide-eyed dragon in a neon-yellow T-shirt that reads, “Warning: you could go blind from my pure awesomeness.” His suit is outfitted with wings that pop out.
The mascots receive curious glances from other Lake Murray visitors. A few even approach and ask if they can pose with them for a photo.
The costumed men and a few women belong to the San Diego Furries Meetup group. The group is for adults that dress in custom-made fur costumes. Only, don’t call them costumes. One of the furries bristles when I use the term. He politely explains, “You don’t call it a costume; it’s a suit.”
I jot that down and underline it.
The San Diego Furries meet on Saturday afternoons once a month, sometimes twice, in various locations. Halon, one of the group’s organizers who is not in costume because his red-and-black fox suit is being repaired, tells me, “Sometimes we go to the mall and screw around. We get kicked out for wearing masks. Sometimes we run around the city. We like to go downtown and look into the windows of bars and watch everyone freak out when they see us.” He laughs.
Initially, today’s gathering was to take place at Kearny Mesa Bowl. The idea of watching folks dressed as their cartoon alter egos hurling heavy bowling balls down shiny lanes sounded like the bizarre alternative version of Disneyland to me, but at the last second the Furries changed the venue to Lake Murray.
Halon is offended when he overhears me mentioning Disneyland.
“Disneyland employees,” the ones who wear the stuffed suits, “are hacks. They are a bunch of posers!”
Halon explains further. “Unlike cosplayers, who are replicating a show or cartoon, our suits are typically originals. We don’t copy Disney or anything like that. Our costumes are our own creations. It’s an artistic avenue.”
Their custom-made costumes often come with hefty price tags.
Says Halon, “I got a really good deal on my suit. I only paid $870 for it, but usually they range between $1000 and $3000. Sometimes they are even more. We use high-quality fur.”
A man in a black-and-red wolf suit who goes by the furry name “Odie” interrupts — “Let me clarify: it’s not real fur, it’s fabric. Most furries will not hurt another animal because we like them too much,”
Adds Halon, “Yeah, PETA does frequent checks at our conventions. So, no one uses real fur. It’s too expensive, anyway. Besides, that would be a pain in the ass to upkeep.”
I learn from group members and through observation that when furries are in their suits, they often take on a specific persona.
Ghosts Happen meetup event
Members of the San Diego "Ghosts Happen" Meetup.com group gather next to a freeway and feel that the spirit of a deceased child is near, so they try to convince it to stand on a picnic table and knock things over.
Furries Meetup.com group
Several people who like to socialize while dressed in elaborate, cartoon-character costumes share their stories.
Bitcoin enthusiasts discuss the cryptocurrency
Operators of a San Diego-based Bitcoin business directory service talk about what Bitcoin is and consider its future and viability as an investment.
“For a lot of people, this is like amateur acting,” Halon explains. “The thing about the furry people is that everyone has their own little niche. Their connection [to their character] really varies. Some people are more serious; others, like me, like to run around like an idiot and just have fun.”
The hipster fox, whose furry name is Hemus, adds, “The thing about furries is, because there are, like, no rules, you get people that come in from all walks of life. You get everyone from military members, to the people that really believe they have an animal soul, to people who make costumes for different fandoms that end up liking fur suits and start making their own. We end up with this ball of undefinable stuff. It’s a fandom, but it’s not a theme like Star Wars. Everyone here has their own story.”
Paul, 36, will not disclose his last name. He is dressed as a raptor. “We are the creative version of cosplay,” he says. “Our suits are very customizable. People bring their own characters and personas to life. Most people [pick an animal to represent] for the symbolism of it. I like raptors because I like dinosaurs. They are cunning and they are hunters. They are fierce. I used to be an Egyptian jackal. I have moved on to a raptor now that I am an officer in the military.”
Halon explains that a large majority of furries are military men and women.
“I think it’s because a lot of people in the military are not in the most cheerful environment. This is going against what they are used to. There are a few guys that do this as a therapy for [post traumatic stress disorder.] They have seen some nasty stuff, so they do this to put their focus on something positive.”
Furries are often seen at charitable events. They have volunteered at children’s hospitals and worked at fundraising walks and runs. They try to behave responsibly, they tell me.
“We don’t drink alcohol at our gatherings because kids come up to us a lot. How would it look if they saw one of us drinking a beer? Because of that, we never have alcohol at our events. Sometimes when we have house parties we do, but not out in public.”
With the mention of impressions, I ask the group what their friends and family think of their fur hobby.
Says Odie, “I already had issues with my mother before I came out of the kennel. I said, ‘Mom, I am a furry. I love it. It’s not a phase.’ She hired a priest to come over and perform an exorcism on me. It really freaks her out. She is weird like that. My dad is totally accepting — I mean, I just wear this at social meets and on Mondays when I do stand-up at the Comedy Palace in Mira Mesa.”
Adds Halon: “When people find out that I am a furry, people freak out about it for about five minutes. Then they calm down. When I was in the military, everyone knew about it because my coworkers found pictures on my phone. I wasn’t trying to keep it a secret. Work is work, and this is something I do outside of that. It turned out okay. Nothing changed because of it. My family knows I do it. My mom really likes it. My dad just thinks I am still a college kid.”
I overhear the hipster fox use the term “yiff.”
Paul, the raptor, is annoyed that the word has been uttered. When asked for an explanation, he says, “With any subculture you are going to have lingo. ‘Yiff’ is the term for anything sexual.It’s almost kind of like teasing slang now, similar to the way furries refer to their hands as paws.”
Other fur slang words include: spoogy, pornographic fur art; furpile, a gathering similar to a cuddle party at which fully costumed participants roll around on the floor with each other; and furvert, which is exactly what it sounds like — a furry pervert.
Around 2 p.m., when the furries start discussing heading out to Denny’s for an early supper, I take my leave. Before driving off, I spot a little girl posing with a group of furries. Her mother holds out an iPhone and says, “1, 2, 3...smile” before snapping a photo. The toddler reaches up and hugs a costumed bear around the waist.