I’m doing fine, angst you very much

I’m a nervous guy, anxious about some things (social situations, small children, cancer, Tyler Perry movies) though calm about others (air travel, clowns, death), making my anxiety pool a kind of grab-bag, a Kellogg’s Cereals Fun Pak, if you will. 

Neuroses are a blast, a frothy enchantment of stomach pangs, irritable digestion, insomnia, jitters, fatigue, hypochondria, fatalism and an ambient unease that makes you want to switch skins with the nearest stable person, no matter if his name is Rupert.

Mornings are the worst. But as the day unfurls, the bad, the black, slowly burn off. By night I’m mostly calm, relaxed, hardly even thinking about brain tumors and leukemia. I assume that’s why I am steadfastly nocturnal, vampiric, stiff drink in hand.

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For instance, when I wake each morning, my upcoming Japan trip sounds like a terrible idea, an exorbitant blunder and colossal miscalculation. My stomach flips; I wince. Around midday, I warm to the thought and picture an experience of Michelin-star sushi, bullet trains and megalopolis madness. By dark, optimism flowing, I’m on the computer or flipping pages plotting my incontestably epic and mystical adventures in the Far East. 

They make pills for this, of course. But meds are at best serviceable. Too meager a dose scarcely soothes the nerves. Too much tends to narcotize. Things are lighter — aren’t they always when you’re napping? (Not really. My dream realm is an id-iotic hellscape of troubling memories, fraught encounters and anything that gnaws on my insecurities. Kafka would clutch his chin and nod.) Plus, you don’t know what’s what with some of those sedatives. A doctor once told me to chuck my Xanax. “That stuff is crack,” he scoffed. Oh.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a panic attack, unless that time browsing with my niece at the American Girl®  doll store counts. Though I have experienced shortness of breath, racing heart and a kind of overwhelming, generalized terror of being alive. I suppose that counts, even if I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a clinically defined panic attack and merely my reaction to deliriously unfunny ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s latest Netflix special.

Want to churn my anxiety? Make me speak in front of a group, crowd or microphone. I don’t do meetings, panels, town-halls, televised interviews or, for that matter, karaoke or charades (charades — parlor game of the dark arts). I kind of recoil singing “Happy Birthday” among friends. With pathological resistance, I avoid having my picture taken (keep your cameras to your selfie).

My low-frequency embarrassment, raking self-consciousness and broken self-esteem are congenital delights. In the words of Morrissey (indeed, Morrissey), I am infected with a ”shyness that is criminally vulgar.” None of it is fun or poignant. But what are you to do? Therapy, meditation, yoga, tequila shots, a fistful of Clonazepam. These have been tried. Futility reigns. Relief is fleeting, often downright illusory. 

And yet we soldier forth. We function in spite of the topsy-turvy tummy, mild paranoia, paper-thin skin, social squirming, hyperbolic pessimism, etc. Then I think: I’m going to Japan in three weeks. That’s something. During my extensive travels, my angst all but evaporates. I am unshackled, life’s daily detritus dispersed by an existential leaf blower. For this trip, I expect elation, moderate ecstasy, radical stimulation and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Nothing short of sublimity.

I am nervous as hell.

Quirky kiddie queries about death, dying and other fun stuff

As people grow up, they internalize this idea that wondering about death is ‘morbid’ or ‘weird.’ They grow scared, and criticize other people’s interest in the topic to keep from having to confront death themselves. … Most people in our culture are death illiterate, which makes them more afraid.”  —  Caitlin Doughty

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Children, meanwhile, fueled by unfettered curiosity and innate innocence, don’t always harbor silly adult fears of death. They’re allowed to, expected to, wonder about death and dying. It’s a learning process;  it’s not “morbid” or “weird.” It’s eye-opening, mind-inflating. Asking questions about it is a step closer to not being “death illiterate.”

The quote topping this post is from Caitlin Doughty’s new book, the funny and informative “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?,” whose subtitle is “Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death.” That means both wiggy and weighty queries from children about death, inquiries she routinely receives as a death-chick rock star: mortician, author, podcaster, “death activist” and “funeral industry rabble-rouser.” In the book Doughty answers 34 kid-friendly (well, kinda) questions about death and dying, and a bit beyond.

A total pro, her attitude is cheeky, frisky and upbeat, often with a wink. It’s hardly just kid’s stuff. She applies sweeping research and her own mortician’s know-how, a braid of science, craft, technology and, unavoidably, morbidity. It gets gleefully icky at times.

Doughty goes into gripping, grisly detail about livor mortis (“bluish color of death”), rigor mortis (“stiffness of death”), putrefaction, embalming, burial, cremation ovens, blood draining, organ donation, and, #1 on the hit parade, postmortem gas. 

And she does it with oozy, crunchy, gelatinous eloquence:

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  • “Welcome to putrefaction,” she writes. “This is when the famous green color of death comes into its own. It’s more of a greenish-brown, actually. With some turquoise. … The green colors appear first in the lower abdomen. That’s the bacteria from the colon breaking free and starting to take over. They are liquefying the cells of the organs, which means fluids are sloshing free. The stomach swells as gas starts to accumulate from the bacteria’s ‘digestive action’ (i.e., bacteria farts).”
  • “In the first ten minutes of cremation, the flames attack the body’s soft tissue — all the squishy parts, if you will. Muscles, skin, organs, and fat sizzle, shrink, and evaporate. The bones of the skull and ribs start to emerge. The top of the skull pops off and the blackened brain gets zapped away by the flames.”
  • “Oh, how to describe the smell of a decomposing human body — what poetry is needed!” Doughty gushes. “I get a sickly-sweet odor mixed with a strong rotting odor. Think: your grandma’s heavy sweet perfume sprayed over a rotting fish. Put them together in a sealed plastic bag and leave them in the blazing sun for a few days. Then open the bag and put your nose in for a big whiff.”

Now, on to questions, a sampling of the kids’ queries, which on average yield two- to three-page responses in Doughty’s book. In brief, inquiries include:

  • The jejune: Will I Poop When I Die? (“You might poop when you die. Fun, right?” Doughty giggles. True: It depends on how “full” you are when you croak. You don’t automatically doo-doo at death.)
  • The sentimental: Can I Keep My Parents’ Skulls After They Die? (No. No. And no. There are such things as “abuse of corpse” laws, our trusty authority tells us.)
  • The ludicrous: What Would Happen If You Swallowed a Bag of Popcorn Before You Died and Were Cremated? (What do you think would happen in 1,700-degree flames?)
  • The freaky: What If They Make a Mistake and Bury Me When I’m Just in a Coma? (Pretty impossible — a battery of medical tests are conducted to confirm brain death.)
  • The ghoulish: We Eat Dead Chickens, Why Not Dead People? (Guess what — some people do. They’re called cannibals. Next!) 
  • The metaphysical: Is It True People See a White Light As They’re Dying? (“Yes, they do. That glowing white light is a tunnel to angels in heaven. Thanks for your question!” the author ribs.)
  • And the vaguely vain: Will My Hair Keep Growing in My Coffin After I’m Buried? (Sorry, Rapunzel. That’s a big fat “death myth.”)

About the book’s titular question, “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?” — this refers to the dreaded scenario of you dying alone in your home, your corpse left for days and your unfed pet, well, getting hungry. Doughty relishes this one. 

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Caitlin Doughty

“No, your cat won’t eat your eyeballs,” she writes. “Not right away, at least.” 

That’s the short answer. 

The longish answer shivers with excitement:

“Cats tend to consume human parts that are soft and exposed, like the face and neck, with special focus on the mouth and nose. Don’t rule out some chomps on the eyeballs,” Doughty says, but more likely your feline friend will dig into the lips, eyelids and tongue.

And what about Pepi the peaceful poodle, human’s best friend, your cuddle buddy? 

“Your dog will totally eat you,” Doughty assures.

When Halloween gets lost in translation

Pretty much kaput, Halloween means just about nothing to me nowadays. The thrill is gone. The chill is gone. I’m not 7, dig. 

Yet something about Halloween sticks, hovering like a blanket of graveyard fog. Each year I gladly inhale the occasion’s residual festive fumes, pumped in like so much giddy-making nitrous oxide. Hey, unlike zombies, I have a pulse.

Though costumes are long — and forever — doffed and I’ve retired the habit of sneaking morsels from the communal candy bowl (It’s for the kids, dammit!), I remain devoted to this perverse, very North American celebration of the gross, grim and ghoulish. (And, yeah, I lied: the Reese’s cups are mine.) 

But I effectively don’t partake in the big-picture party, unless you count sometimes serving as the eve’s Doorbell Dork, doling out Snickers and Tootsie Pops, smiling like the village idiot on cue when a particular and rather mystifying catchphrase (starts with trick) is shrieked by decked-out kiddies (and a few shameless, straggling grown-ups who can only dream they’re getting a Kit-Kat from this finger-wagging candy dispenser).

It’s a festival of enforced flamboyance. Excess is enshrined. Generally sane people douse themselves in corn syrup blood. Sex is flaunted in racy micro-fashions: cats and maids and devils. It’s masks and makeup and Marvel; wigs, witches and wizards; Pokémon, pirates and pop stars (and, yes, Pop Tarts) — the palette is as infinite as it is infantilizing. The id comes out to romp. 

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Halloween in Sevilla, Spain, 2016 — amateur hour.

In placid suburbia, lawn dioramas have grown ambitiously disgusting. I love the sinew-chewing zombies (with staticky sound effects), life-size, yoga-posed skeletons and tombstone-cluttered cemeteries, gnarled limbs popping out of the ground. I beseech you: gross me out.

It’s a bacchanal of fantasy and horror, whimsy and steroidal imagination. It’s pop cinema — slashers to superheroes — sprung to life. And it’s uniquely, wildly American (and, I hear, Canadian). 

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Halloween, Beirut, 2008 — not cool.

I’ve done Halloween in London, Paris, Beirut, Ho Chi Minh City, Kathmandu and Sevilla. As the locals tried to summon the spirit, they invariably botched the holiday, blundering with gauche costumes (er, blackface in Beirut and Paris) and feebly attended parties — strictly amateur hour, training wheels required.

Except when they’re not. Except when the night has been co-opted with the verve and vision matching the western prototype. All eyes on … Japan. It’s said that Japan has only been practicing Halloween in earnest for five years. But amateurs? Hardly.

The Japanese were born pros, built for Halloween. Nothing is lost in translation. Dress up and cosplay are daily mainstream occurrences. Stroll anytime through Tokyo’s Harajuku district for teen fashion so high, so rococo, it passes as a perpetual street costume party.

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Harajuku teen, Tokyo, in April 2006.

Which should make this year’s Halloween something special. I land in Tokyo on October 30, giving me less than 24 hours to steel for whatever that hyper-charged city has in store in the way of a woozy wingding.  

Because there is no way I’m not wading into the most outrageous Halloween hotspots — like bustling, youthful Shibuya, where a million revelers are expected — to get the full Japanese treatment: anime and cosplay characters, J-horror ghosts and vampires, video-game avatars and the universal diet of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Power Rangers and other mega-brands. (Oddly, Where’s Waldo? seems to still be popular. I’ll look into it.) 

This is what I wanna see, Halloween with kick (I’ll return with a full, bloody report):

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Witches? Zombies? No idea but I’m thrilled. 
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Nerd, nerd, nerd, nerd and nerd. That’s five nerds. God bless them.
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Grisly Disney: zombie versions of famous cartoon characters, including Minnie Mouse and Snow White.
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A gaggle of zombie fast food (flesh food?) servers. Do you want fingers with that human hamburger?

And the best for last …

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Monkey see, monkey don’t

There’s a monkey on my back.

Several, actually. And they want my money. Every time I open a website, they are there, pawing at me.

The animals are macaques, with pomegranate faces and heads hooded in fuzzy Eskimo parkas rimming wise, frowning visages of grizzled monks or mystics. They are bathing and grooming and picking at each other in hot springs at the Jigokudani Wild Snow Monkey Park in Japan. They look to be suffering chronic mites and fleas.

-20121121232817-39B6918F7B8D4ED4BEC436470B0205E1.jpgThey are world-famous monkeys; you see them in every other wildlife documentary, steam rising around their half-submerged bodies. These simian superstars are chillaxing in a simmering jacuzzi nestled amid frosty mountains. And they pick and pick.

I, for one, can’t avoid their pink, pensive faces. They want me to come visit them, terribly. Ever since I began researching hotels, food tours and day trips in Japan, the insistent monkey pop-up ad, hectoring click-bait, has infiltrated all of my most visited sites, from The New York Times to Rotten Tomatoes. I can’t get the goddam monkeys out of my sight. Fortunately, they’re cute and furry. Unfortunately, they’re expensive. 

For about five seconds it’s tempting to actually take the ad up on its offer with a simple click: $146 for eight hours of touring, including one (one!) hour at the monkey sanctuary; time at the famed Zenko-ji temple; lunch; some sake sipping; and, really, not much else. Bullet train transportation is not included (rip!).

And can you believe this: “Guests are not permitted to touch, feed or bathe with the monkeys at any time.” I guess I won’t be bringing a towel and a bar of Dial.

So the deal effectively stinks, even if you do get a brief (dry) encounter with the enchanting, lightly parboiled macaques.  

Yet more caveats abound, and they are dire. I came across an alarming blog post titled “Why Seeing the Snow Monkeys in Japan Sucked” (read it in full HERE). A grisly excerpt:

“Instead of a snow-covered paradise, I was standing in what felt like a construction site full of rubble, with piles of rocks and exposed cables forming a backdrop against the commotion. I watched in dismay as staff at the Jigokudani Monkey Park threw food at the agitated macaques until they began to screech and fight on the damp mud. This was one of the worst animal encounters I’d ever experienced.”

No monkeys for me. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Click no evil.

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Tokyo visions

So I return to Japan in late October, my first time in several years, and the anticipation is giving me fits of insomnia. The capital, Tokyo, is one of my favorite and most indelible cities, part of a troika that includes Paris and Istanbul. I was skipping through some photos from past trips — people and places inside and outside of that teeming, gleaming metropolis: pagodas and Harajuku Girls; whale meat and cherry blossoms; lakes and a big, cool silver orb that, in its own odd way, sums up the reliable surreality of Tokyo.

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(Yes, I’m afraid this is a whale feast.)

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Dogma of the dog

I’m pretty sure Cubby the dog doesn’t believe in many things — God, playing dead for treats, how wonderful I am — though I’m convinced he believes in some things. Like meatballs and bully sticks and tummy massages and bedtime snuggles and brisk walks and peeing on the rug. He’s a good dog. And like most good dogs, he’s ridiculous. Neurotic, but nourishing. 

Rescued from a shelter, Cubby has, in the past year or so, learned how to act like a tried-and-true doggy, a small, curly-haired mutt with a pleading gaze and a tail that swoops up and over into a large Spaghetti-O. 

He now knows how to worry a bone, chomp stuffed toys, play tug of war with said toys, scurry after the bone when it’s tossed then make you chase him around in a game of try and get it, sucker. All this is heartening. He’s maturing. He’s getting sillier. 

But I think he’s deeper than all that stock dog stuff. Cubby is a wise old soul, beyond his four or five years, attuned to his lot in life, his place on the totem pole of existence, and, with a melancholy tinge, his impermanence.

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No, I don’t believe in God. Death, yes.

This struck me last summer, detailed in this blog post, where I observed: 

“The dog seeks the meaning of life, this is plain from his searching brown eyes, furrowed brows and the alarming way he wipes his butt across the carpet. Freud’s pleasure principle manifests itself in his frequent calls for belly rubs. Sartre’s existentialist theory, which states that our individual responsibility in defining our own lives is almost debilitating in its enormity, has the dog a little down. Knowledge of his own mortality is something of a buzz kill.”

Cubby may be a Buddhist. He is mindful and meditative, his solace arriving many hours each day. (Some call these naps; I call them rumination, deep cogitation, mini comas.) He is a passive soul. Barking he does sparingly, almost exclusively when the mail comes, then he claws the paint off the front door and cries like an aggrieved banshee. It is the yelp of an injured Indian spirit, whose dead have been gravely molested. Then he shuts down, curls up, and ponders the teachings of Siddhartha and the joys of a good tennis ball.

We wonder. What does this animal believe in? Tasty bones, yes. Death, alas. A vigorous rub behind the ears, certainly. Bacon Beggin’ Strips, no doubt.

Yet the question resounds: Can animals really believe?

Cats — pshaw; they believe in their own supercilious godliness. Forest dwellers — a humble group deeply in accord with nature’s bylaws, true believers. African wildlife — a hot mess, as seen on “Planet Earth,” strictly heathens and satanists that believe in ritualistic bloodletting and organized torture on the Serengeti.

None of that for Cubby. He’s a fuzzy little wiseman. He should be wearing beads and vestments and lighting incense. He is a philosophical creature; don’t let his crazed, leg-scratching greetings fool you. When you gaze into his small eyes, worlds are revealed. One’s heart softens and the soul cracks open. He is telling you something, and not just “Get the leash, I gotta poop.”

Was it Nietzsche who said “The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs”? Or was it Harpo Marx? No matter. This is an inversion of the master/slave equation, wherein the master (you) succumbs to the overpowering ardor and joy provided by the slave (doggy). That is this dog’s wisdom. He has our number. And he calls frequently. Collect.

Cubby’s beliefs are better than his bite. In his canine universe, he is disciplined, devout, enlightened. He has found meaning and purpose. The dog is, indeed, dogmatic, a mutt with a mind. And, uh, yes, that’s him over there, avidly licking his genitals.

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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 poop, 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 upend 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.