Killer whales, killer times: San Diego part II

It’s astonishing how pleasant and doable the weather was yesterday in Coronado, San Diego, what with hair-flustering breezes and temps hardly nicking 70. It’s nuts. I mad-love it, especially considering the 100-ish hell-wave I’ll be facing back on the East Coast. That’s nuts, too, but in a whole other way, the kind that makes you cussy and crazed. 

Weather’s the worst. It’s almost never perfect. Climatic sweet spots are as elusive as quicksilver. But these days are pretty swell. I can wear pants. I can wear shorts. I can slip on a light jacket. Or not. Actually, it could be a dash cooler — mid-to-low-60s would be Edenic — but I’m being positive. Sunshiny, if you will. 

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So. San Diego. I haven’t been here since a wild weekend at my brother’s dorm at San Diego State University, where he went for one semester before beating it the hell to Cal Berkeley. Yes, of course he took the 17-year-old me to Tijuana, and, natch, what happens in Tijuana stays in Tijuana. So quit asking. (Frankly, I don’t remember a thing.)

Now, with six other family members, I’m on vacation at a place I would never choose on my own. But majority rules. We did the vaunted San Diego Zoo, a lush green compound where the exhibited animals play a mean game of hide and seek with gullible human visitors craving a glimpse of (and desperate selfies with) those cuddly koalas. Peek-a-boo at the zoo. No one wins.

The other major attraction here is, of course, splashy, clamorous SeaWorld, where yowling seal barks and the wet slap of bellyflops by multi-ton orcas fill the salty air. 

Along with human screams.

That’s because the ocean park has perforce reduced its vulgar killer whale and dolphin shows after cries of demonstrable animal cruelty and have filled the entertainment void with, what else, rollercoasters and marine-themed thrill rides. 

Like the Tentacle Twirl, Tidal Twister, and the fearsome Electric Eel, the “tallest, fastest” rollercoaster in all of — hang on — greater San Diego. It’s a bit like saying a place has the best, zestiest tacos in Des Moines, Iowa. It’s all comically relative.

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The Electric Eel rollercoaster — a shocking surprise.

But my sarcasm falls flat because the Electric Eel is a stellar coaster. We rode it today, and each herk, jerk, corkscrew, twist, twirl, drop and fling came out of nowhere. Usually you sort of know the layout of a rollercoaster, how many loops it has and such. The Eel was sheer breathtaking surprise, fast, furious fun.

Waddling, nose-diving penguin colonies; bulbous ivory beluga whales; tubby, slothish walruses; greedy, hand-fed manta rays; bullet-like harbor seals; the inevitable killer whale show, which is now solely an educational experience without dopey trainers standing on the animals’ backs like they’re water skiing. Thanks to foot fatigue, missing on our expedition were dolphins, otters, polar bears, sharks and the almost mythical narwhal, the so-called unicorn of the sea that I would like to ride around the Arctic.

Like yesterday, the weather held today at a tolerable 72 degrees, which still staggers. (And still left me sunburned.) This SoCal trip winds down tonight with tacos and tequila at the poolside cantina, called fittingly enough The Cantina.

This was an accomplishment. I survived all the trappings of a semi-swanky beach resort, swaying palm trees, children splashing (and shrieking) in swimming pools, grown men in flip-flops and tank tops, quaint downtowns, extravagantly famous theme parks filled with captive creatures and $10 beers. I spent time with family and realized its uncanny resemblance to the macaque. I pet a dog at a restaurant that growled at me fiercely. I splurged on too many beverages. I didn’t go to the beach. I didn’t fish. I ate scallops. I didn’t eat ice cream. I had a blast.

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Nephew Nick, pondering the rays and fishies at SeaWorld.

Sun, sand and a menagerie of bashful animals

I don’t do sun and fun. Yet here I am in breezy, easy San Diego, Calif., for a shortish vacation with the extended family — mother, brother, nephew, et al. Seven of us total. 

Why do I shun the pool and the Pacific? I sure didn’t used to, particularly growing up in oceanside Santa Barbara, Calif. There I was like any splash-happy, wave-plunging kid, giddiest reverting to a primal state of fluidity, getting soaked, sandy and sun-baked.

I think I just grew out of it. By my teens, living in the temperate San Francisco Bay Area, I loathed the heat, anything over 75 degrees was excruciating. And it still is. I’m a 40s and 50s kind of guy. Fall and winter are my homies. Jeans, jacket, scarf — the ideal uniform. Shivering is my version of sweating. (Sweat is my kryptonite.) I aspire to be an Inuit.

Against my nature, but not my will, I’ve been cajoled to one of the beachiest places on the planet. Briny water everywhere. The profusion of palm trees — Christ. Boats and bikinis, flip-flops and fish, pink flesh and pervasive pastels. It’s Coronado Bay, San Diego.

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I actually sat poolside — in the shade, with shirt and sneakers firmly affixed — this afternoon and survived. I had a book (Peter Orner’s new, remarkable short stories “Maggie Brown & Others”) and the laptop (the resort, yes, resort, has spiffy wifi) and a beer and an al pastor taco, so it worked swimmingly, if you will. Then I repaired to my room for some AC time, even though the temps all week are in the mercifully mid-to-low 70s. 

I begged off the beach. The six of them headed out to sit on sand beneath yawning umbrellas and presumably tiptoe into the chilly sea. I had no business there, as much as I love sharks. But the chances of a shark sighting were as good as those of me not being bored out of my skull plopped on mushy sand under a giant parasol. (Instead, I’m writing this. I bet you wish I went to the beach.) 

When many of us think of San Diego, the mega-famous zoo (known as the world’s best) and SeaWorld spring to mind. In other words: creatures, critters, cetaceans, crustaceans. Now, those I can do. Captive animals crack my heart, but at least the respected zoo sustains “natural” habitats and breeds endangered species. And even the ethically iffy SeaWorld has banished its dubious in-park breeding and tawdry theatrical whale shows. (Shamu — rhymes with boo.)  

Today was San Diego Zoo day, and it was about as thrilling as watching a flock of pink, and a few juvenile gray, flamingos stand on one preternaturally long and spindly leg and snooze, or projectile shit, or, in the case of the gray downy youngsters, stumble and wash and act as adorable as can be. When flamingos are a highlight, well …

27845391521_03f8fb4be8_b.jpgBesides being reminded on a double-decker bus tour around the park that hippos are “the most dangerous animals in the world” (for some reason, I find that exhilarating) and that some wolves smell like seething skunk bud, mostly the day consisted of trying to locate animals in their enclosures. Craned necks and dashed hopes were major exertions. It was the land of the empty habitat. 

There’s one alpha gorilla sitting tall and proud, and there he goes, vanishing behind a rock. There’s a sole polar bear sleeping up on a hill, partially obscured. Ah, I spy a pygmy hippo — 90-percent submerged in a pond. And so on. Zoos might be the most exasperating animal experience available. Go to a mall pet shop to see more furry mammalian action. 

But the weather remained agreeable — low-70s — so things meteorologically were dreamy. And they sell beer all over the place. (Wait, $9 for a can of Corona — where are the hippos when I need them?)

I don’t want to complain. I saw frolicsome monkeys and fat pythons and some Chaplinesque penguins, not to mention a guy dressed in a ragtag rhinoceros costume posing for pictures who made legions of unsuspecting visitors uneasy.

But where, I direly wondered, were the real rhinos? And giraffes? And hyenas. And, come on, the platypuses? We spotted, nestled in thick foliage, a koala. It was like seeing a child’s stuffed animal stuck in a way-up tree. It wanted nothing to do with us, the cranky marsupial. That’s what happens when you sleep 22 hours a day.  

A leopard showed its spots — for about 34 seconds. Then there was the funky smelling wolf — a total no-show, just a nose show. The macaques — same. Empty habitats are like unfulfilled dreams, dollar bills set on fire. Enter the gift shop and suddenly the animals are fluffy, smiling, en masse, thriving. A simple magnet of a magnificent mountain lion or a whimsical t-shirt of a rhinoceros (“Save the Chubby Unicorns”) about makes it all OK.

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Japan by mouth

There’s a popular documentary from 2011 called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” As I plan a trip to Japan, I also dream of sushi. And ramen. And Sapporo. And yakitori. And sake. And squid. And Godzilla. 

If Jiro, a wispy 90-ish sushi master, merely dreams of sushi, I fully rhapsodize about sushi. (OK, I exaggerate. I only think about sushi, mm, twice a week. But it excites in ways other foods do not: Its silken, room-temperature raw-dacity; glistening, quivering slipperiness; palate-dancing umami-ness. Does that make me a sushi master? I think it does.) 

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Sushi swirls around the dreaming Jiro’s head. He dreams of sushi. He swims in it. He wonders: Why so much sushi? He dreams of retirement.

What I’m saying is I will ingest gobs and globs of raw fish during my 12-day fall journey, to the point of possibly getting mercury poisoning, which would be one hell of a souvenir. Sushi, that artisanal seafood delicacy, isn’t cheap, one reason why I eat it sparingly. Another reason is that where I live fine sushi is as rare as Rodan sightings. And mediocre sushi, like a half-ass steak, makes one ponder existence darkly. 

Therein lies the miraculous ingenuity of Japan’s conveyor-belt sushi (kaiten-sushi) — not amazing, not bad, but invariably cheap and gratifying seafood that winds through the restaurant on exactly that, a conveyor belt, like an assembly-line of deliciousness. Its brilliant utility blots out its majestic absurdity.

Round and round the little plates go, each saucer’s cargo a slab of prepared-before-your-eyes nigiri, circling a seeming mile on a tiny conveyor belt, waiting for you to snatch it at your desire as it rattles by. Each plate or piece costs about a buck-fifty or less, so a meal, for me at least, ranges a not-bad $10-$15.

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Conveyor-belt sushi, like a buzzing food factory.

But why not try Jiro’s sushi shrine, the tiny 10-seat Sushi Jiro, a Michelin three-star establishment/closet located in Tokyo’s Ginza subway station? For one, it’s $300-plus a meal, no exceptions. Two, it is nigh to impossible to net a reservation, though I did spot the so-called Jiro Dreams of Sushi Jiro Dinner & Luxury Tour at a fee of $1,500 per head. This one’s for Jiro cultists/completists and FOMOs only. Plus, men have to wear a blue or white shirt and a blazer and we know that’s not going to happen.

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Edo-style sushi

So I’ll go back to school. Namely Sushi University, a two-hour tutorial pig-out in which you learn while you nosh at a fine Tokyo sushi restaurant. The pitch:

“How would you like to sit at an authentic, Edo-style sushi counter, enjoying sophisticated conversation with the chef? Each excursion includes a skilled interpreter who joins you from start to finish, allowing you to experience the culture and history of sushi as well as learn about the chef’s specialties and style of the restaurant.”

(Smoking and the wearing of perfume are forbidden lest they corrupt the delicate fishy.)

If I’m not a sushi master by now — though I think we’ve established that indeed I am — then surely I will be one after graduating Sushi University. Hai!

On my two prior trips to Japan I was gastronomically rudderless, lost, quite pathetic. I just ambled about, making impromptu eating choices based on whatever looked yummy and inviting in the neon-soaked Shibuya and Shinjuku areas where I stayed. I’d duck into an inevitably minuscule and packed yakitori place or busy conveyor-belt sushi joint, or simply grab some street food. (I ate whale. So sue me.)  I must say, I did eat fine.

Structure is the operative word this time. And learning (see: Sushi University) is part of it. Hence the Sake Tasting and Lecture I’ve enrolled in, aka Signature Sake-Tasting Course, a 10-plus glass sake tasting including sake snacks (or tsunami) and a lecture in English. It’s conducted at one of the most famous members-only sake houses (izakayas) in Tokyo, or so they say. (It could be a bar owned by the instructor’s cousin Rocco.) I don’t even like sake. But I am going for liquid enlightenment, to open my buds and brain. By course end, I will be a sucker for sake, otherwise I will pound the table and demand a refund. And then I’ll probably get roughed up and tossed to the curb.

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My Tokyo hotel is smack in the thwumping heart of kinetic, cornea-cooking Shinjuku, famous for its oceanic bar scene, insomniac nightlife and seedy red-light district — and for sucking up half the world’s electricity in hyperactive signage. I want to dig in with a little help from my friends, so I’m taking the Tokyo Bar Hopping Tour in Shinjuku — Explore the Hidden Bars in Food Alleys. I beg it’s as bulging as that unwieldy title, as our small group weaves through itty six-seat pubs and sake houses of the Golden Gai for food and drink and, I hope, staggering wisdom. Keep your tawdry Love Hotels. I’m not playing around. I’m here for elucidation and libation. Now where in hell do I get a stiff whisky? 

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Shinjuku — batshit.

Capping my Tokyo culinary explorations is an obligatory trip to the famed Tsukiji Fish Market for an early morning, 3.5-hour “food and culture” walking tour at the outer part of the massive market. Here’s some copy that’s as canned as Chicken of the Sea:

Rub shoulders with Michelin-starred chefs as they shop for ingredients at this sprawling, 80-year-old market for all things aquatic. Investigate the various stalls selling fish, shellfish, and everything in between, and sample Japanese favorites such as sushi, dried bonito, fresh oysters, and sake. Eat and drink like a Japanese local.”

Exactly. I want to eat and drink like a local, not a western bobble-head boob. That’s the point of this Edo-education and sake schooling — to figure how it’s done and cultivate an experience of maximum authenticity. I’m more about learning the history and culture than the language, though I do know three words in Japanese. Maybe four. No. Three.

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Tsukiji Fish Market. Looks disgusting. Tastes great.

At this point, I’ll be full up to the gills in raw fish, sake and sundry seafoods. I will have relished a moveable feast, an embarrassment of fishes. I will have been transported, spirited away. Jiro, that old master chef, will have nothing on me. I will have dreamed of sushi, and worlds more. I will at last be sated, and ready to start all over again. After you …

Seeing SeaWorld with moral clarity

The last time I was at SeaWorld in San Diego, epochs ago, an elephantine walrus sprayed a vast and violent spume of water at my mom, soaking her in spit and salt water and leaving me half aghast, half in giggles. It was a splashy public display — a decent crowd circled the creature’s enclosure — and mom was not overjoyed. Harpoons danced in her head.

This was the revenge of the pinniped, a blubbery brown Jabba the Hutt that seemed to be broadcasting to us all, “Stop taunting, gawking and pointing at me and my helplessly oppressed prison mates. Enough! Sploosh.

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If only all the park’s captive marine animals — penguins, dolphins, seals, sea otters, orcas, sharks, florescent fishies — could speak so eloquently, so mean and to the point. Because these swimming, jumping, barking, glowing creatures are not happy campers. They are abductees, held against their natures, highly evolved wildlife reduced to playthings, ogled objects, effectively slaves. They should hold a hunger strike, or incite a riot, or at least sign petitions.  

I’m returning to SeaWorld this month with a hard gulp of guilt. First, there’s the raping of my wallet: the standard entry fee is a leap-off-a-bridge $92. Surely at that price I can ride a killer whale and feed a Great White and take home a baby otter. (But, uh-uh, I can’t.)

But more importantly I am guilty about all those animals, many of which have heartrending backstories. It mostly plays like this: The animals are snatched from their mothers on the open sea and dropped into a tiny, concrete, chemical-laden pool for a torturous eternity of crowd-pleasing antics, frozen fish food, disease and premature death. Did I note that the mothers from which they are snatched are often slaughtered? There’s that.

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Despite meager improvements — SeaWorld, under tremendous public pressure, ceased its orca shows in 2017 — the new documentary “Long Gone Wild” reveals a “wildlife trade that includes capturing orcas from the wild and selling them to the exploding marine theme park industry in China, and points to the hardships orcas experience in captivity, such as collapsed fins, broken teeth, and severe boredom and depression.”

I have little doubt the remaining killer whales at SeaWorld are borderline suicidal. 

And why did SeaWorld San Diego halt its theatrical killer whale shows? It’s thanks in large part to powerful agitprop, particularly the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which follows a performing killer whale’s cruel treatment in captivity and its resulting swath of destruction, killing several people while in captivity.

(As for swimming with dolphins, that exotic brand of blissful exploitation: also reprehensible. See HERE and HERE.)

So off to SeaWorld I go (it’s a family thing). I can bring money, I can bring empathy and sympathy and an overall spirit of goodwill. I can look a dolphin in the eye and whisper, “Dude, hang in there. You can do this.” I can tell a walrus to chill and enjoy his prison comrades, before he loogies in my face and tells me to go to hell.

I can’t free Willy, but I can instill in him and his sea-park pals dignity and self-worth. It won’t be easy — those flapping, clapping sea lions look thrilled to be there, despite yelping like they’re being run over by a Range Rover. Yet with rectitude, altruism and a soupçon of soul, the animals might know we’re out there, and that we give a damn.

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  • For more on the ethical iffiness and ickiness of SeaWorld, go HERE and HERE.

9 best films of 2019 (so far)

In no particular order, the movies I’m excited about at the year’s half-way point …

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“Climax”

Puckishly sadistic, Gaspar Noé and Lars von Trier remain cinema’s great pessimists, glib nihilists and gleeful provocateurs. Look, without flinching, at Noé’s masterwork “Irréversible” or von Trier’s “Antichrist” and you’ll see my point. With the head-spinning, hallucinogenic swirl of body (and camera) movement that is “Climax,” Noé takes his visual and thematic tics past the edge of woozy chaos. When an extraordinarily talented dance troupe’s party is ruined by a bowl of LSD-spiked punch, hell uncorks with fury. What was a glorious pageant of writhing bodies becomes a descent into a violent nightmare of screeching, thrashing individuals trying to relocate reality. The camera rides a liquid wave of neon hues, racing and corkscrewing down halls and weaving through rooms. Frequently indulgent and meandering, with no real characters or story, just sensation and electro-shock, the film is pure immersion, a sustained climax. I didn’t say it was pleasant. But it is novel, and queerly riveting. And purely Noé. Watch the trailer HERE.

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“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

At once arty, elegiac, poetic and tough-minded, this is a tale, a beautiful reverie, that strikes on topics of race and class and gentrification with sparks and lyricism and primary-color Spike Lee sizzle. It’s something singular, and it slowly intoxicates with its emotional and sociological depths. Following Jimmie Fails (played by the actor of the same name — he’s as charismatic as a young Don Cheadle) as he presses to reclaim the giant Victorian home of his grandfather, the film is both a call to honoring blood bonds and a plaintive hymn to a troubled city. Joe Talbot directs (and co-writes) with soaring vision and intense feeling. The result is dire, daring, dreamy. Trailer HERE.

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“Honeyland”

In this gorgeously observational documentary, weathered, middle-aged Hatidze lives in the rocky Macedonian mountains, where she cares for her ailing mother and tends to several beehives that produce honey for a tenuous livelihood. A large, rowdy family moves next door and decides to try beekeeping, but without expertise, they flail and almost comically get stung more than they harvest the sweet goo. Tensions arise between the neighbors, but this achingly humanistic look at an exotic if seriously impoverished way of life is mostly a portrait of Hatidze, a steely, lonely woman who has as much soul as those mountains can contain. The doc won a record three awards at Sundance 2019, including for its ravishing cinematography. Trailer HERE.

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“The Mustang”

Breaking a horse is a bitch. Triple the challenge if it’s a rearing, snorting wild desert mustang. That’s what Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is tasked with as a violent criminal in a Nevada prison program in which convicts break mustangs for auction, preparing them for work in law enforcement. “We’re not training these horses for little kids’ birthdays and pony rides,” growls Bruce Dern’s crusty bossman, who knows both man and horse require an especially prickly strain of tough-love. If Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature debut falls into a formulaic groove — the apex of the depiction of trust-building between human and wild horse remains Carroll Ballard’s 1979 “The Black Stallion” — the film doesn’t flinch from gritty, violent twists. The dangerous dance between Roman and his horse Marcus retains tension, as the two captives, both scrappy and obstinate, circle each other in a face-off that could end in injury and defeat, or mutual respect and friendship. Roman’s frustration boils — “Just fucking listen to me!” he snaps. “I’m not going to hurt you! You hear me, you stupid animal!” — and it’s no surprise the horse is listening. Trailer HERE.

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“Her Smell”

Elisabeth Moss’ performance in this shambolic punk-rock portrait is as athletically interior as it is exterior, spiked with physical fits and spasms like a lunatic child in a druggy tantrum. In my favorite performance of the year, Moss plays Becky, volatile front-woman of a female punk band she’s struggling to keep together between coke binges and flame-throwing hissy fits. The actress stirs up a cackling, hand-flinging cauldron of Courtney Love, Blanche DuBois, Charles Manson and Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” It’s all raw-nerve, and Moss commits to her anti-heroine in a self-immolating blaze. She’s as shattering as this ballsy, surprisingly sensitive film by writer-director Alex Ross Perry. Trailer HERE.

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“Booksmart”

Barreling forth with raunchy vigor and unbridled zest, this breakneck coming-of-age comedy, actress Olivia Wilde’s impressive directorial debut, screams fun. Almost literally: There’s a lot of screaming — in surprise, horror and explosive joy. An amplified spin on school-days greats — “Dazed and Confused,” John Hughes’ oeuvre and last year’s “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade” — “Booksmart” piles on twists with a sharp, knowing eye that zooms in on the timely and topical, from female power and LGBTQs, to bullying and the corrosive effects of cliques, and, duh, the liberating if daunting pull of sexual exploration. Starring a terrific Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as boundary-pushing besties, who learn, in a fleeting haze, that maybe bongs are as fun as books. Trailer HERE.

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“Gloria Bell”

A glowing Julianne Moore — is there a more radiant actress? — assumes the title role in this sweet, ebullient, slightly melancholic snapshot of a middle-aged divorced woman seeking love and connection in modern Los Angeles. A touching remake of the 2013 Chilean film “Gloria,” by the writer-director of that movie, Sebastián Lelio, the movie follows its wise, free-spirited character onto her favorite place, the dance floor, where she finds romance with a nice guy (a fine, empathetic John Turturro) and all the attendant delights, complications and disappointments of love. No matter how sore things get, Gloria’s joie de vivre stays infectious. Trailer HERE.

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“Non-Fiction”

French writer-director Olivier Assayas‘ dramedy is a tireless, tonic gabfest that had me speed-reading the flurry of subtitles more than drinking in the warm faces and colors of the bustling scenes. That’s no complaint. The profusion of words — intelligent, eloquent, biting — brim with ideas, humor, pain and pathos, for an enveloping artful experience. You want to know the fork-tongued characters, led by an enchanting Juliette Binoche, because of the literary, arty cosmos in which these writers, editors and actors orbit. It’s heady and human: They’re just people, with all of our people-ly problems, and it’s more exciting than you think. Part tart publishing-world satire, part feast of infidelity, part anatomy of midlife crises, “Non-Fiction” is light on plot, more enmeshed in ideas about love and life, loyalty between friends and lovers, and, in a topical concession, a pointed conversation about new media vs. the printed word. It’s like a Gallic Woody Allen comedy, without the tootling clarinet and stammering, gesticulating neuroses. Trailer HERE.

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“The Souvenir”

Not an easy film, Joanna Hogg‘s elusive, divisive relationship drama is boobytrapped with qualities that repel people from the arthouse. It’s glacial, elliptical, remote. It makes you work with loosely hanging scenes, a jagged structure and oblique characterizations. I broke a small sweat trying to solder the plot together, identify with the actors and figure out where Hogg was taking me. The entry point is young film student Julie, played with winsome diffidence by Honor Swinton Byrne. Julie’s lover Anthony (Tom Burke) is a heroin addict, a secret until it’s not, which inevitably snarls their relationship. The story is mostly scenes of the couple muddling through their unconventional, occasionally off-putting upper-middle-class affair. With drugs. And spats. And sex. And dinner parties. And the making of a student film. And an IRA bombing. Somehow, Hogg’s disparate elements crazily fall together. Trailer HERE.

Drumming up memories

I’m on seedy Broadway in San Francisco, on stage in a smoke-choked, beer-splashed nightclub called Mabuhay Gardens, aka The Mab, a DIY punk dive nestled amidst a blinking drag of vintage strip joints, including the storied Condor.

449098000000000-00-750x750I’m playing drums, a 7-piece Tama kit that exudes hard rock, in a band with an Aerosmith-y tang called Cheater. Long hair, striped pants and songs like “Knocking Down Your Door,” “Live for Today” and the inimitable “The Girl’s a Fish,” an infectious groove featuring double-bass kick pedals and cowbell. You heard that right.

This night was my second performance ever before a live audience. Prior to it, by mere weeks, I played a high-school talent show in a metal band named Enforcer. We covered Queensrÿche’s “Queen of the Reich” and Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” — the first song fast and filigreed and vocally demanding; the second a raw, elemental, melodic stomp that’s become a Metallica classic.

As a nervous introvert, playing before a crowd was no small feat. I could barely give a speech in English class. It was a social and psychological breakthrough, and a dream come true. Rock was my destiny, and I was living it. And having a blast.

That is until my first “professional” show at The Mab. During the second song in Cheater’s set, the nylon strap on my right-foot bass pedal snapped, cutting off all right-pedal action, which meant I had to play with my left-foot pedal. Big problem: the left-foot pedal was strictly for double-bass play; my left foot coordination was weak, only apt for chh-chh high-hat work. (Now, if I had had only one pedal that night, the show would’ve been over.)

I choked. Instead of finishing the song with my left foot, I stopped playing altogether, meaning the band stopped, too — a concert faux pas. It took a few minutes to figure out that I had to keep going with one pedal — the left one, with which, again, I had minimal coordination. I am not ambidextrous.

Mortified and furious, as I was, my bandmates glared at me, then went ahead with the next song, “The Girl’s a Fish,” which demanded heavy double-bass footwork. I faked it with the left pedal, as I did during the rest of the set. The result was passable. Yet, by concert’s end, I was so mad at myself, so totally disappointed, I kicked drums and tossed cymbals to the point that the rear-entry doorman told me to cool it. An auspicious beginning to my awesome rock ’n’ roll career. I went home alone and moped grievously. 

A year later, post-Cheater, my scrappy garage band again played the high-school talent show. For some reason, the vice-principal thought our group could sell tickets, so he asked me to organize a band for the show. This time we were called THC, and we were more ambitious and ready to show-off than the year before. We wanted to shock and awe, to all-caps ROCK. (Though we ditched the smoke bombs from before.)

2db9a1ec682ed21d9492c60b55bec05bThis time we covered Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” and Metallica’s “The Four Horsemen,” a seven-minute opus of relentless time changes and merciless riffs that amounts to about six songs in one. The songs proved ferocious, byzantine metal symphonies best left to virtuosos and masochists. I beat off more than I could chew, excuse the potentially repulsive pun.

And yet another mishap bedeviled me. This time my monitors konked out during an especially complex passage in “The Four Horsemen” and abruptly I couldn’t hear the rest of the band. I lost my place and had to stop playing for several seconds. It was humiliating. When the sound finally returned, the guitarists shrewdly cut to the song’s main riff and we finished with a flourish. Still, I was rattled instead of rocked.

Soon after, I sat in with a band called — wait for it — Mistress. The deal was I would record a demo tape with them and call it a day. I wound up doing that and a show at Mabuhay Gardens. With songs unironically titled “One Touch” and “We’ll Fight” — all heavier and more intricate than anything by Cheater — we played the San Francisco club without a hitch. Members of Cheater were in the crowd, cheering us on.

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Electronic Roland kit with double-bass pedals

It’s been some time since I drummed. My last kit was a five-piece Roland electronic rack, with one acoustic touch — an 8-inch Zildjian splash cymbal to furnish shimmery accents. I kept my DW double-bass pedal with the set, and stuck with Vic Firth American Classic drumsticks that were a cross between jazz and rock style. I played hard, reducing them to splinters.

I was never a great drummer, mostly competent, deftly intermediate, even though I took lessons from the eminent Jeff Campitelli, the most affable pro and unfailing mensch, who was teaching Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, at the same time. (A secret: It’s all in the wrists, not the arms.)

I love the instrument, and to this day when I hear a favorite song, I might just erupt into spontaneous air drums. Thing is, I’m kind of a better air drummer than an actual drummer (cue rim-shot).

I miss the crisp metallic thwack of the snare and thuddy boom of the kick drum; the brassy, splashy explosion of a crash cymbal and pingy, bell-like precision of a ride cymbal. I miss being a song’s pulse and heartbeat, of driving it with thrust, swing, exactitude, and occasional fury. Musicianship, I am certain, is an exquisite madness.

What’s in a name? Lots apparently

“When you’re a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman named LaKiesha, life can get complicated.” 

So begins an excellent CNN.com story that continues: “Strangers burst out laughing when you tell them your name. Puzzled white people ask what your parents were thinking. Black people wonder if you’re trying to play a bad joke.”

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LaKiesha Francis

The story’s headline is “What it’s like to be a white woman named LaKiesha,” and what follows by reporter John Blake is a probing, provocative account of life for a very white LaKiesha Francis in small-town Ohio because of her exotic birth name, and what it means when a white person has a “black” name and a black person has a “white” name. 

“We hear a lot about what are known as ‘black-sounding’ names these days,” Blake writes. “What LaKiesha has discovered is that the names of Americans are as segregated as many of their lives. There are names that seem traditionally reserved for whites only, such as Molly, Tanner and Connor. And names favored by black parents, such as Aliyah, DeShawn and Kiara. … But when you move through life with a name that violates those racial and ethnic boundaries, LaKiesha has found that people will often treat you as an imposter.”

unnamed-file.jpgFurther proof of name prejudice and name politics is this 2006 ABC report on “whitest” and “blackest” names:

“Studies of résumés found that people with black-sounding names are less likely to get callbacks. ABC put 22 pairs of names to the test, posting identical résumés except for the names at the top. The résumés with the white-sounding names were actually downloaded 17 percent more often by job recruiters than those with black-sounding names.”

Toxic and pernicious, let’s call this what it is: flagrant racism. Both of these articles are so powerful and troubling on their own — do click their links — that I have little of substance to add to them. My reactions are as visceral as intellectual, and putting them into words would likely be messy.

Yet I have my own modest story about appropriating a so-called black name. A long time ago I bought a white and ginger pet rat. I named her LaShonda for no greater reasons than I thought it was cute and cheeky. And fitting. Like her, it was adorable, full of spirit.

But then I started second-guessing the name. What would vets and their receptionists think when I brought in a white rodent named LaShonda? When I told friends her name the response was usually laughter. What had I done? Was I making fun of a black name? Or, as I believed, was I giving my pet the coolest name I could think of? (I thought of changing it, but LaShonda mysteriously died in her cage after only three weeks.)

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This is actually Tammy the rat, but she is practically a twin of the late LaShonda.

Would LaShonda have faced the same backlash LaKiesha Francis does? Would she have been treated as an imposter, her job applications put at the bottom of the pile because of her exotic moniker? Would she have been bullied by other rats? Would she have legally changed her name to Carol or Gertrude? Would she have resented me for putting so much social pressure on her?

“It can be exhausting constantly explaining yourself to white people, even though you’re white,” writes Blake. I believe it. LaKiesha and LaShonda “sound” black, but expectations are upended, confusion reigns and mockery and resentment are possible outcomes.  “A name isn’t just a name, according to history and social science,” Blake says. “Give someone the wrong name and it can become a burden.”