18 January 2020

I continue to struggle with finding what place, if any, this blog holds in my life anymore. Fleeting thoughts on current events make more sense to share on social media, as those will be seen more immediately and by way more people. Then as I mentioned recently, Facebook has taken the place of this blog in terms of me trying to record any semblance of a journal.

Side note… just thinking about that gives me anxiety, as you may have gathered I like to hold on to information. There are years of my thoughts and “social” interactions that only Facebook has a record of. My nature is to want my own copy of that in case anything ever happens to Facebook, but I can’t imagine what it would take to get a dump of all of one’s Facebook activity. But that’s a problem for another day.

I guess broader expositions about life in general still belong here at least? To that end, this is where I’d get into those big thoughts and major happenings. But here, too, Facebook complicates matters. In the last several years, we’ve all come to increasingly understand (and fear?) data privacy issues and the influence big data has on our politics, finances, and lives in general. Who among us has’t been unnerved by the prescience of an eerily-timed advertisement on our feed? I don’t imagine I’m alone then in being a little wary of what kind of personal information I share here (or anywhere). This may have changed since my early days of blogging, but I’m usually pretty careful about names and locations. I never talk about where I may or may not work.

Perhaps I’m being paranoid, but for those reasons, it also seems risky to talk openly about health stuff. So I guess for the time being, I’ll engage in what I believe the kids call “vaguebooking” in order to record something for posterity in lieu of a true journal. Suffice it to say it’s been a rough couple of months health-wise — physically, mentally, and emotionally. Possibly the worst of my life, and that’s not an exaggeration. The Universe, in its infinite wisdom, has really been piling it on lately. It’s led me to touch on rare (if not altogether new) depths of anxiety, depression, and even anger. But I have support, I’m fighting hard, and I’m surviving. For now, that’s gotta be enough. What choice is there? You endure… until you can’t.

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”

— Pema Chödrön

Memory: Halloween

31 October 2019

Continuing my spate of memory dumps, this month has me thinking about Halloween (duh). I do love it, though I won’t be that cliché who claims it’s their favorite holiday… not that I haven’t traditionally appreciated all those spooky girls who do. I think its resonance with me personally has more to do with memories of what I’ve spent it doing than it does decorating with cardboard bats from Target. It’s a nightlife holiday, and I think the freedom and energy in that has always appealed to me more than the sequestered family time of say Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Rated PG

Somewhere, there are pictures of me as a toddler on Halloween, I don’t know, dressed as a clown or something. My sister surely guided me and showed me the ropes, with mom and/or dad pulling me around in a wagon. But my first real memories of it all, not surprisingly, begin with the candy.

We always used pillowcases to go out trick-or-treating with. Durable, ecologically-friendly, economically-friendly. They really are as suited to this purpose as they are actually encasing pillows. Of course there was the anticipation of what each house will be giving out. Aside from the standards, there were also those (cheaper?) candies you never got any other time of the year. Not just candy corn, but things like Smarties, Bottle Caps, and those knockoff M&Ms that are balls instead of oblate spheroids. Every year, some variation of the legend of the house that gave out whole full-sized Snickers. Or, if you stayed out late enough to outlast your neighborhood residents, and if you went down the right street with low trick-or-treater traffic, you might find a house that just left a bucket of candy out and hoped for the best. I’d like to say that I had the ethics even then to respect the “please only take one” sign, but I couldn’t say for sure.

And holy shit, the smell of a bag of mixed candy. There’s something unique about that vast mélange of sweets that you’d never amass on any other day of the year. Once in a while, I’ll catch some faint trace of it in a grocery store aisle, but it’s not how I remember.

Preparation for the big night would start a few weeks earlier. It was going to McWhorter’s (a local stationery store I could write a whole separate set of memories about) and loving all their ghost and pumpkin decorations (including one of the most beloved tchotchkes of my youth, a 1985 Hallmark haunted house gift box). It was planning a costume and looking so forward to getting new toy swords and props that you were so sure you needed for your costume… but would invariably come to resent having to carry around all night. I guess I leaned toward the macabre as a kid. An executioner (with hood and axe) one year, a street punk (with mohawk bald cap and stuffed plush flail) another. Probably all from McWhorter’s. It was going to the pumpkin patch, and some years, even attempting the always-disappointing mess of trying to carve it.

Elementary school for Halloween was bliss. As I recall, there was some kind of Halloween day where there was like a fair and you got to wear your costume to school. I vaguely remember there being a cakewalk. Maybe we’d make those pictures where you water color an orange and magenta sunset, paint over the whole thing in black, then scratch out a silhouette of some barren autumn trees.

And around that time of year, there was always some sort of back-to-school night. In the October twilight, my parents and I got uncharacteristically dressed up and headed to the campus. Illuminated by burning orange lights, school buildings were a welcoming and exciting oasis in the middle of a dark campus surrounded by a darkening evening. Full of anticipation, the air of something special… school, where I spent my days with other kids was now a night with adults. Different rules applied. Anything could happen. While parents schmoozed with other parents, we kids would run around the same playground we spent every day on, made exotic by the night. Eventually, we’d huddle in a classroom, now set up for conferences or a presentation. Or maybe it’s the assembly room. Maybe we’re watching a play.

Rated PG-13

As I got older and childish wonder gave way to adolescent cynicism, Halloween changed, too. It was going to haunted houses. As I reached the end of my trick-or-treating years, it was having mobility to go to any neighborhood and to reach hundreds of houses. It was that one kid in my class that got jumped Halloween night. It was getting egged not one block from my own house. It was standing up to the creepy guy revving a chain-less chainsaw at the end of a cul-de-sac and scaring kids… and him whispering to me that if I couldn’t play along, I should leave. And me realizing he was right.

Towards the end of my teens, dad carves the infamous “Smartest Man Ever” face into pumpkin. In 1997, I spend Halloween night at home, learning HTML and building my first website. In 1998, I spend it in Southern California at a campus-wide college party, making out with my sweetheart, both of us dressed as the Blues Brothers.

Rated R

I guess at this point, we’re getting close to when I’d already started blogging, so it’s probably covered back in the archives. As an adult, I remember doing my first (and the second-to-last ever) Halloween in the Castro in 2005. The next year was when TCB played The Rockit Room, where the band dressed up like Droogs, and Sus and Shel dressed up like me. Not long after, I spent a Halloween at home with my girlfriend, catering to almost no trick-or-treaters and I believe spilling a ton of takeout ranch all over my kitchen. In 2010, I stayed home alone to watch the premiere of a new series called “Walking Dead.” In later years, I’d skip the costume and just go to nightclubs. Somewhere along the way, a nightclub character had her wedding on Halloween night at one of those clubs.

More recently, and during my hiatus from blogging, I spent a Halloween walking up and down Front Street in Maui. The next at a John Carpenter performance in L.A. Last year, it was Morrissey in Ventura. Tonight, it’s home to relax, write this blog, and eat candy meant for trick-or-treaters. Perhaps someday I’ll think back on past Halloweens again and think of this very moment. (Hi, future me!)

Sorry, these latter memories are more just a list and don’t have the same nostalgic energy the childhood ones do. Or I might just be running out of steam here. Or maybe it’s a candy coma.

Rated X

Oh, wouldn’t you like to know! Happy Halloween, everyone! And happy birthday, Johnny Marr!

Breathe deep the gathering gloom,
Watch lights fade from every room.
Bedsitter people look back and lament,
Another day’s useless energy spent.
Impassioned lovers wrestle as one,
Lonely man cries for love and has none.
New mother picks up and suckles her son,
Senior citizens wish they were young.
Cold hearted orb that rules the night,
Removes the colours from our sight.
Red is grey and yellow white.
But we decide which is right.
And which is an illusion.

— Graeme Edge, “Late Lament”

Memory: Back To School

30 September 2019

It’s September (at least for another few hours), and if you’re young or have kids that are, that means back to school. I don’t have to worry about that anymore myself, and yet I still find a way to. Though who among us doesn’t still have those occasional nightmares… the classic “showing up to school naked” or perhaps my personal fave “it’s finals day for a class you forgot to attend all semester.” We all still have those, right? No? Just me? Awesome.

A while back, I started gathering a mishmash of random memories from my school days that I wanted to put out there. Maybe not super relatable, but I don’t keep a diary, so it all goes here. Hope you enjoy. This will all be all your midterm.

Aesthetics Versus Athletics

School always felt somehow like enemy territory. I’m sure that’s mostly the anxiety I had about meeting obligations, but there was also something foreign about it. Large facilities that I only ever saw part of. Classrooms I never personally had classes in. Buildings I didn’t know the purpose of.

And then there was sports. Not that I wasn’t active as a kid. I remember that time of the early evening when the streetlights are about to come on. Playing outside, running in the cold till your gums hurt, itchy from rolling around in the grass. But I also remember passing by campus after school, looking at a jungle of fences and poles, a grass field and a labyrinth of athletics buildings and hallways and locker rooms I knew I’d never see. Shared equipment and rules and practices and competitions I didn’t understand. A club, a camaraderie I just didn’t “get.” Especially mystifying when it was for older kids. In elementary, it was the middles school. In middle school, it was the high school. In high school even, it was college. There was something exclusive about athletics. Jonah was always clued in, but not me. It wasn’t me, it wasn’t my family. And yet school spirit and uniforms and events and rallies all centered around this stuff. These were the heroes, the inner circle of the school. This is what mattered to some people, and to me it was so foreign that I just stayed away. Intimidated by that jungle, I guess. An outsider. That probably makes me sound bitter about wanting to fit in, but I don’t think I experienced it that way. At least not consciously. I got along with everyone, had friends, and generally had a reasonably trauma-free experience. I’m not going to pretend I was somehow above the desire for popularity, but I don’t think I specifically craved the approval or acceptance of people whose interests were so different from mine. (Like who cares if someone who likes shitty music thinks your music is shitty, right? Same idea.)

Anyway, I did eventually have my version of that camaraderie with martial arts in high school and later with bands, and I really appreciated it then.

Hitting The Books

In elementary school, the only books I cared about were at the Scholastic Book Fair. Reviewing each year’s catalog and negotiating a budget with mom was serious business. (That and the little “Santa’s Workshop” event where a bunch of cheap tchotchke booths were set up in the school library where you could Christmas shop for your loved ones. I vaguely remember wire-and-stone beetle jewelry and some kind of metallic angel. My first semi-independent exposure to consumerism.)

In high school, it was getting your issued textbooks each year and wondering what each one might portend for that class’ workload. The cold feel of weighted clay-coated pages. Worn covers with corny 70s city scapes on them, seeming mysterious because they predated my birth. The mandatory hassle of covering each one with a cut up grocery bag. And perhaps unofficially writing a few book reports based on Cliff’s Notes.

Then in college, the books were better — hell, I even kept a few of them. And you didn’t have to cover them. But you had to buy and sell them yourself, which sucks in its own way. I wonder if that’s any easier in today’s world with Amazon and e-books and Wikipedia and piracy?

Your Problems Aren’t Problems

Those JC days are fond memories. Living at home, balancing work and school, and still plenty of time for an active social life. Had some income but still a full course load. An easy commute with easy classes. Listened to a lot of music on the road (my own CDs as well as Alice and Live 105, though remember these were the dark days of post-grunge). Even a modicum of friendship with other commuter classmates. It was like having a second job that was less stressful. I suppose that might have been in part because this is when you start getting treated like an adult. Show up if and when you want. No one on your back. Sink or swim on your own schedule risking only your own neck. It’s how I work best.

And then the later days at Cal were great, too. I had no income since I couldn’t balance it with a real job. That sounds to me now like something that would have terrified me, so maybe I’m remembering it through rose-colored lenses, but I really think that other than the given stress of classes, I felt pretty free. Spending all day on campus, hanging out in libraries, watching movies in the film department to kill time, lunch on the quad and around town. The end was in sight, and I’d put all the pieces in place. There was nothing left to do but stay the course and wait for it to all come together at graduation. Which it mostly did, and I moved on to adult life.

As nice as I seem to remember it being, I can’t even imagine having to go through school in today’s world. More expensive and less valuable. More complex and stressful. I don’t miss that shit. You’d have to literally double my salary for me to even consider going back. I obviously don’t recall it being all that awful at the time, but trying to make room for it here and now, contending with real adult responsibilities? No thanks. Those carefree days are gone. Unless I win the lottery, I don’t see myself loafing around on a campus again. I’m much happier with a steady income and a nightlife. At least I think I am.

“Every beginning is a consequence — every beginning ends some thing.”

— Paul Valéry

The Call Of Hulu

27 September 2019

Television in San Francisco was just background noise. Comedy Central in the evenings while I was doing something in the other room. Not consciously, but I assume to make the place feel less lonely. Didn’t Palahniuk have something clever about that in Lullaby, about how we’re all scared of silence?

I thought that my lack of attention to television in those years while everyone else was fawning over “Lost” and “Orange Is The New Black” made me a better person. I was a musician. A creative. I didn’t have time for such pedestrian pursuits. But without a drive to keep going, I succumbed, and these days, television is the new band practice.

Oddly, it started in Hawaii. You can only spend so much time at the beach. And without much else to do there, I got turned onto Netflix, Amazon Prime, and later Hulu. And like all of you, I’ve now got lengthy queues in each that I’ll never get through. Shows have gotten better, but not enough that the ol’ boob tube doesn’t still feel like a pathetic recreation. I can’t shake the feeling I should be reading more and creating more. People used to say they had too many books to read or things to do or friends to catch up with. Now it’s they have too much in their queue and aren’t currently accepting any more recommendations.

And now Disney, NBC, CBS, and others are fleeing the big three and trying to start their own thing? Who wants the cost of more separate services and the hassle of maintaining more logins? I predict the upstart services will ultimately still get aggregated under a larger umbrella service for exactly that reason, which essentially amounts to the à la carte cable pricing people have wanted forever. Didn’t they used to say that model leaves less-popular content producers (e.g. educational programming) out in the cold?

I’m now reminded of something else from Lullaby, about how our constant attention to distracting screens withers our imagination. Johnny Marr said something similar on his book tour a couple years ago, about how he’s glad smart phones weren’t around when he was young. All that idle time waiting for a bus left his mind free to try to entertain itself, to create, to come up with the ideas that would become the music of The Smiths. That’s worth considering.

Anyway, on to the other kind of “show.” Live music, that is. I attended a couple of them recently that got me thinking. Giuda has a huge following and must be among the best on the planet at what they do. Jail Weddings is incredible live — as good as any band I’ve seen in a club setting. But here’s the thing… both were killer shows, but they were also relative ghost towns. Maybe I’ve been out of it too long. I’m trying to remember that things happen. Poor promotion, competing shows, bad luck. Could have just been flukes that I caught these shows back-to-back. But it left me uneasy with a harsh reality: being in a band these days ain’t gonna be like it was.

Maybe people have gotten more “virtual” even in just these last few years. I’ve heard my promoter friends complain that no one comes out anymore. They’d rather stay home and watch Netflix in their jammies (a pastime I’ve grown accustomed to myself, if I’m being honest). It’s just harder to get people out of their houses and away from their screens, I guess. I feel it, too.

And then consider that This Charming Band had a built-in tribute/80s/Moz audience. The Rumble Strippers had the built-in rockabilly scene. Not to at all minimize the hustling we did in both cases to get good shows and big crowds, but we had some clear advantages. People had reasons to attend beyond just us. So with all that in mind, not having a leg up like that but instead just forging your own path and doing your own thing? Well, good luck. I’d want my next music project to be more like that and free from the trappings of catty scenes, but that seems like assurance that it’ll be playing empty rooms on weeknights. That might be OK, but it’s not what I’m used to and certainly not something to look forward to. I’m not sure I have the same energy for it anymore, though I suppose my motivations are different now. Back then, I think I was more interested in impressing people. As I mentioned a while back, I feel like these days I have less to say and less interest in who hears it. Maybe that means I should get into the recording side of things rather than hustling to fill venues? More rumination needed.

On a side note, I failed to follow my own recent advice about watching openers, and I missed the chance to see Hammered Satin with Giuda. Next time, for sure! At least I got out of the house and showed up for these bands, though. It was good for them and good for me. But more of a feat than it used to be.

“What did we do before we made facial expressions with punctuation? Oh yeah, we played in the sun.”

— Unknown

On Changing Tastes

23 September 2019

I’m not sure what happened, but I think I suddenly like 70s-era Rolling Stones. Early 80s, too.

I never really responded to them in the past, other than the hits. They were just too “loose” sounding. Lots of good hooks, and every song was rooted in a good idea, but the execution was rough. It left me feeling like the songs were half-baked, whereas I gravitated more towards recordings that sounded pristine and ultra-polished. And I guess that summary of them hasn’t changed for me. But for some reason, these last couple months, that same loose sound is speaking to me. Friends have joked this is because I’m getting old, but I don’t think that’s far off the mark. Something about those recordings sound exhausted and almost desperate. That’s not exactly how I feel, but there is something relatable there vis-à-vis aging.

And if that weren’t enough, I took on Bob Dylan’s whole catalog as well. Another artist I’d been hits-only fan of. It wasn’t as revelatory as my Stones kick, but there were lots of gems, and it’s been fascinating to hear the songs I was familiar with in the context of their respective albums. Listening as his sound changed over the years, through his born-again period (what!?), and the on-and-off-boarding of collaborators like Mark Knopfler. Somewhere on the East Coast, my old friend (and Dylan enthusiast) Jen must be feeling vindicated.

So yeah, EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT! Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones are actually pretty good. You heard it here first.

In the past, when tackling bands like The Beatles for the first time, I’d keep tabs on which songs stood out as my favorites, what surprises I found, etc. I wish I’d done that for Dylan and the Stones. C’est la vie. (Though I will call out “Sway” as one I’d never heard and has stuck with me for weeks now.)

It’s harder to find new music these days (or perhaps at this age). New bands don’t speak to me as often as they did say ten years ago. I suppose that’s natural. In response to the usual groans and complaints from the older crowd about the Coachella lineup, Aaron Axelsen (who would know) pointed out that if he kept booking the nostalgia acts that we all want to see, 1) no new bands would get a chance to break through and 2) it’d be harder to attract new, young fans. Makes sense of course. The times, they are a-changin’, after all. Popscene isn’t for me anymore, at least not primarily.

In the last several years, there haven’t been many “new” bands that have really rocked my socks. I think my favorite discoveries of the past decade were probably Parenthetical Girls, The National, and The Drums. Speaking of The National, that reminds me… good advice that we should both take: watch opening bands. If you’re like me, you typically try to time it so you show up just in time for the headliner. I’ve been burned by this before, such as when I skipped a little opener called The National at an R.E.M. show back in 2008. Little did I know that five or six years later, they’d become one of my favorite bands. More recently, I’ve caught some openers in SoCal that moved me to buy a lot of their music. Some even eclipse the headliner. Jail Weddings blew me away… sort of Talking Heads meets girl group. (Their new album release party is tomorrow night, and I’ll be there!) Ed Schrader’s Music Beat was another unexpected winner. It would’ve been a shame if I’d missed these bands as I might never have run across them again.

So yeah, try to see opening bands. Just another of a million things older people have told me as I was coming up, which I did not believe, and which turned out to be 100% true.

That’s new bands… as for old bands, I’m in the process of going through and selling and donating even more books and CDs. I can’t remember if I did most of that after I stopped blogging before, but in any event, I’m cutting even deeper this time around. I find myself putting a lot of old Smiths and Morrissey books in the donate pile. These tomes I used to hoard and pore over for This Charming Band. Not that I don’t still love The Smiths and all, but I don’t feel the need to maintain an expertise there anymore. The other night at an Alain Whyte show, I saw some fans (among them a certain old rival tribute singer) flailing around and miming the words to the few Morrissey covers Alain did. I can remember a time when that felt like my community, but years on and from the outside now, that fanaticism struck me as sorta silly. In fairness, I am inordinately gruff as of late. Nonetheless, these changing tastes, I wish I could say it’s a categorical evolution or maturation, but I think it’s just different. Not better or worse. Just different.

“The things you love are as stupid as the things you hate and are easily interchangeable.”

Taxi Driver Wisdom

Wild Wild Life

4 September 2019

Ripping off my 2008 self ripping off David Byrne? An inauspicious beginning, to be sure.

Well, friends… you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d died, being that my last post was in 2013. But mostly dead is slightly alive! In fact, I was so alive that I could no longer find the time and interest to write about it. The occasional Facebook post has served as a sparse diary in the interim. Apologies for not leaving you a more formal goodbye here at the time.

It seems I’m back, at least for the moment. For a variety of reasons, I guess. A few things left unsaid. Maybe some new things to get off my chest. Lots has happened in the last six years, sure. Left San Francisco during its descent into tech bro madness. Moved to Hawaii. Moved to SoCal. Have lived with a significant other. It’s been a wild ride, and so much different than I could have foreseen back in 2013.

I truly don’t know how this will go. Do I even still have the same writing voice? Will I stick with it for a while or will this single entry simply supplant the last as the last? Do I have anything interesting to say? (Did I ever?) Tune in to find out! Or don’t. I realize commanding an audience on some random independent blog is a tall order these days. As before, I guess I’m doing this more for myself. More a journal than anything else. Record keeping. Chronicling.

I shudder to think what might be going through the mind of those few of you who’d “subscribed” to this blog as you read this latest entry nearly 10 years after you first joined up. I suspect the ol’ unsubscribe is soon to follow, but for what it’s worth: hello, and I hope you’re doing well this decade! No hard feelings. ❤

If I’m being honest, I’m already second-guessing this whole revival. In some ways, I’m a different person than I was years back. For instance, there was a time when I was super motivated to play music. I felt like I had a lot to say, and I wanted the world to hear it. But it’s not like that anymore. I feel like I don’t have much to say, and I don’t really give a shit who hears it. Nothing to prove, no one to impress. Less interested in changing the world. All standard aging stuff, I suppose. Older and wearier now, coming to grips with the fact that the body is beginning its decline. Over the hill, as it were. I’ve long taken for granted that all doors are open to me and that anything is possible. To whatever extent that may have been true in the past, there’s no denying that a turning point has been reached. Not that my cart is careening toward oblivion exactly, but I think it’s fair to say the best one can hope for is to slow it down. Gravity is not in our favor. Keep healthy, take care of yourself, and do your best to hold back the inevitable tide for as long as you can. Is that the full half or the empty half of the glass talking there? I’m not sure yet.

“Things fall apart… it’s scientific.”

¡Cuba Libre!

30 December 2013

Wow!  Looking at my last entry, I see it was the last day of 2012 — meaning I very nearly went all of 2013 without a post.  Clearly blogging has not been a priority for me lately, but I did want to take some time to document something worthwhile.  I recently returned from a trip to Cuba!  I cannot hope to capture all of my fond memories here, but as I’ve done for other big trips in years past, I’ll do my best to hit the highlights.

First, the obvious question: isn’t it illegal to travel to Cuba?  To which I answer: not so!  The seed for this trip was first planted by a coworker of mine who travels very extensively.  Just in the few years I’ve known her, she’s been to Antarctica, Afghanistan, Burma, Easter Island, and more.  If it’s remote and/or dangerous, she’s been there.  And she clued me in to the fact that under a “People To People” license issued by the U.S. government, in fact American citizens can travel to Cuba legally.  The catch is that you can’t go on your own and just lounge on the beach the whole time.  You have to go with one of a few licensed travel agencies (such as the one I used, Friendly Planet), and there is a curriculum of sorts that you must follow.  You need to participate in the cultural activities set forth in the agenda, but it’s not a hindrance at all!  Unlike the throngs of tourists from every other country but the U.S., we are given access to more of the real Cuba.  We saw behind the scenes and actually learned something!  We got to meet some fun people and make new friends.  Plus there was plenty of time to enjoy ourselves in the evenings.  I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

So without further ado…

Day 1 – Shel and I headed out to Miami, the plan being to get there a few days early to make full use of the weekend and explore a bit.  Coming from the brutal cold snap the Bay Area had been experiencing, the warm and humid night air as we stepped out of the airport was most welcome.  A hop, skip, and a jump over to our hotel, and we were settled in.  Tired as we were, we agreed to just walk across the street to a Cuban restaurant.  You know, get started with the cuisine early while still in the States.  Well, my vegetarian option was a grilled cheese sandwich with three or four times as much cheese as was sustainable by the bread.  Not to be recommended.  It was late.  We were pooped.

Day 2 – We grabbed a taxi down to the famous South Beach.  I was struck by the color of the place.  Seems like most everything in Miami is turquoise and peach, including the buildings.  And the hotels all look like they were built in the 60’s.  It’s flat out there, and I was reminded of having read recently that if the sea level rises, Miami is one of the first major cities to be S.O.L.  The “Miami Vice” connection is milked at every opportunity.  We got to ride on A1A (Beachfront Avenue!).  And Vanilla Ice wasn’t kidding.  The people watching out there is no joke.  If you can forgive the Jersey Shore feel of it all, people apparently really take care of themselves there.  Men and women, all in fantastic shape, tanned, bleached, and not wearing much in the way of a bathing suit.  All strutting up and down the strip, where maître d’s harass you like carnival barkers to get you into their open-air restaurants.  We chose one and had our first cocktails of the trip, along with an unexpectedly pricey lunch.  Afterwards, it was off to the beach!  I swam in the Atlantic for the first time, which was long overdue.  Clear water and hot weather.  We walked around a bit, had some tea, and then cabbed it back to the hotel.  On the way back, I noted the many mansions on the water and the yachts to go with them.  Fits with the Rolls-Royces and other fancy cars that abound in South Beach.

It was early evening, but the day wasn’t over yet.  We were determined to have a night out in Miami, but our research uncovered no appropriate venue.  There was a rockabilly event going on 40 minutes away in Ft. Lauderdale, but that’d be a steep cab ride.  Instead, we picked the only club that showed any promise of not being a douchey techno club.  We got gussied up and headed across town again to what would be perhaps the best meal of the trip.  City Hall had such delicious food that I was genuinely sad I didn’t have room to finish it all.  So while we couldn’t find a new wave club per se, we settled on the most promising option: The Vagabond.  It was a walk through a dodgy area of town.  Probably the most unsafe I felt on the whole trip, actually.  The Vagabond claimed to have burlesque that night, but it was cancelled.  The music was every bit the douchey stuff we were trying to avoid, not to mention freestyle rapping going on out in the patio area.  All reminiscent of San Francisco’s The End Up , if you’re familiar.  Anyway, it was a bust in all senses but for one odd thing.  They have a 10-foot portrait of Morrissey making a kissy face in the middle of their main room, which is a permanent fixture there as far as I could tell.  We each snapped a photo with it of course, and in our time before admitting defeat, I noticed may other girls snapping similar photos of them kissing Moz’s gigantic face.  I quizzed each that came along to see if they knew who he was, and of course no one did.  Only one girl claimed to be a Smiths fan, but did not recognize him.  Questionable.  So how incredibly strange that such a decoration would be in this club, or in Miami at all.  Were it in a San Francisco club, I imagine it would be famous in our circles.  It’s the face in the image below.  I suspect it’s exploited for its aesthetic appeal rather than the fact it’s Morrissey.  Though apparently, there is a monthly Smiths night there, and if we’d get along with anyone in Miami, it’d be whoever showed up there.  But the dates didn’t align, and it was not to be.  Later research revealed that there is a local Smiths tribute band called Ordinary Boys, which was due to play there the night we flew home.  Had we coordinated, who knows what might have been?  And not that you asked, but catching a cab home was terrifying.  We had to stand close to the bouncer to help ward off the street tweakers that descend on anyone who steps outside the club.

Day 3 – After brunch at the hotel, we headed to the mall so Shel could find a new suitcase.  I saw signs for something called Churromania.  I got on the horn with Sus to coordinate tickets for SF Sketchfest (thanks Sus!), and then returned to the hotel to lay out by the pool and watch the planes fly overhead.  We grabbed dinner across the street at the Cane Fire Grille, splitting several dishes.  At our own hotel, we met in a conference room for our Cuba trip orientation.  The group in total was 24 people, I believe.  We did basic introductions, made initial assessments of who would be friend or foe, got our questions and paperwork sorted out, and called it a night.

Day 4 – Finally, it was time to leave for Cuba!  There are a lot of rules and paperwork, but it all went pretty smoothly.  Out chartered flight was actually an American Airlines plane operated by an American Airlines crew.  The flight from Miami to Havana was only about 40 minutes.  After making it through passport control, we exited the terminal to a huge crowd.  In addition to having a welcoming party for arriving family members, there is something else going on too… since nothing can be bought directly from the U.S. (or even afforded in most cases), American relatives bring things like flat-screen T.V.s when they visit Cuba.  They bring whole palettes of stuff since it can’t be shipped.  Anyway, so we exit the terminal and enter the parking lot and get shock #1.  You’ve heard there are lots of old cars in Cuba, but you are not prepared.  There are something like 65,000 operational American cars on the roads of Cuba from before the embargo started in 1962 (not long after the revolution).  The parking lot was packed, and there were more classic cars from the 40’s and 50’s than not.

A Word About… Cars
Most of the classic cars or “Yank tanks” you see are taxis.  You constantly see them on the side of the road, hood up, and someone working on them.  It is said that everybody in Cuba is a mechanic (you have to be), and that Cubans are some of the most creative engineers around.  Parts are essentially impossible to come by, so the guts of these cars may be jury-rigged Toyota stuff or even diesel engines to make for cheaper fuel costs.  But the outsides are immaculate.  At any given intersection, you’ll see three or four of them, and that’s throughout the whole city of Havana.  We got to ride in a few of them.  All part of the charm.  We also learned that the ability to buy cars (since the State owns most of them) is restricted to people with special accomplishments, such as doctors who’ve worked overseas.  And even then, the cost can be astronomical.  We heard a used Hyundai minivan can fetch $80,000+!

The next thing you notice are the buildings.  It really is just like the pictures you’ve seen.  Beautiful pre-revolution decay.  Brightly painted in pastels, but fallen into disrepair and neglected for decades.  Salty sea air is harsh, and while the people take care of the insides of their homes, the outside is owned by the State and is generally left to crumble.  Dilapidated buildings are all there is there.  It’s everywhere.  We saw only a handful of buildings and parks in Havana that had been built since the revolution.  That’s the constant backdrop for our entire time in the city.  Another thing you can’t ignore: propaganda.  Images of Castro and Che, along with inspirational quotes… you see them as murals and bus stop benches everywhere the way you’d see McDonald’s ads around here.

After the bus trip to the center of town, we started off with a walking tour of some of the important buildings.  I’ll have to rely on Shel’s fancy pictures to capture the sights here.  The best I could do was camera phone.  We stopped for lunch, where I had the first of many so-so meals.  The consensus on the trip was that cuisine is not Cuba’s strong suit, and Shel confirmed that this is the case for other Central and South American places she’s visited.  My vegetarian needs probably didn’t help matters in that department, but I survived.  I got the usual yokel earful from the carnivores in the group, and Shel kept me from engaging in a debate and making some enemies early on.  Afterwards, we had a peek at one of the very few shopping opportunities of the trip: a used book market made up of vendors in a town square (Plaza de Armas).  We didn’t have any local currency yet, but we made plans to return on another day.  It was time to check in at the historic Hotel Nacional.  This place has been visited by celebrities of all kinds, both revered and reviled, from Winston Churchill to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hollywood royalty of the 30’s and beyond, and not a few pre-embargo mobsters (Meyer Lansky’s name comes up a lot).  We received our first “welcome drink” of the trip — in this case, a Cuba Libre (rum & Coke) using Cuba’s national Coke substitute “tuKola.”  (I say our first because apparently this is a thing in Cuba.  Each time we arrived at a hotel and many times when we arrived at restaurants, we were automatically issued a “welcome drink.”  With cocktails being free in some cases and only $3 or $4 in most others, I was unintentionally averaging about five a day.)  After a delayed check-in process and a quick dinner at the hotel buffet, we met up with some of our travel groupmates and made for El Polinesio, the ill-fated former Trader Vic’s tiki bar that was opened just months before the revolution.  Legend has it the original (American) manager was shot while running to catch one of the last flights out of Cuba!  The décor seemed mostly intact, but it was dead there and felt a bit rundown.  The drinks were tasty enough, and we spent some time getting to know each other.  From there, we visited a sports bar of sorts called El Conejito.  After a few more drinks, Shel and I turned in while the party animals continued on to yet more bars.

Day 5 – I awoke and washed my hair with communist shampoo.  We first toured one of Havana’s most famous cigar factories, watching and learning as workers expertly rolled three different kinds of tobacco leaves (based on shade) into the various sizes, shapes, and blends that make up their major brands like Cohiba and Monte Cristo.  We were not allowed to take pictures in there, but their quality control process was extensive.  Clearly they are deserving of their reputation as the world’s most expert cigar rollers.  There was a factory store built in where you could buy their official straight-from-the-factory products, but officially we were not to buy any, and certainly not allowed to bring them into the U.S.  So that’s all I’ll say about that.  The busy day continued as we toured an old folks home (where the elderly make crafts, socialize, and dance) as well as an elementary school where we were allowed to give the donations (officially “gifts”) that we’d brought them.  We learned about Havana’s city dogs, which are essentially State-owned dogs that roam the streets and are taken care of and fed, etc.  Like an institutionalize stray program.  These dogs are all over the city, usually sleeping in the middle of the street and accepting pettings from passersby.  We stopped for lunch at an Italian place (I had a pretty passable pizza), and then moved on to Callejón de Hamel, which is a colorful Afro-Cuban/Santeria art project consisting of an alley and the buildings around it, covered and filled with murals and sculptures.  We continued to Revolution Square (site of a tower dedicated to José Martí and government buildings bearing huge portraits of Che and Castro), and eventually to the vast and magnificent Colon Cemetery — one of the unexpected highlights of the trip.

A Word About… Water
In short, don’t drink the water.  Not from the tap, anyway.  You have to drink bottled water.  You have to brush your teeth with bottled water.  You have to make sure the ice in your cocktail was made with bottled/filtered water.  I mentioned communist shampoo, but the shower is no joke.  Don’t get the water in your mouth or you will die!  OK, not really.  But apparently, your “number 2’s” will turn into “number 3’s.”  Did I mention all the bottled water you get in Cuba was bottled in Cuba?  Hmmm…

We returned to the hotel for dinner and then attended a stellar lecture on the history of U.S.-Cuban relations.  There was too much to recount, but I feel like I walked away with a much better sense of the problem(s) and complexity therein.  For instance, Havana is old.  You walk on the same stones pirates and slave-traders and Russians and mobsters did.  Where else can you find a city that’s essentially been cut off and frozen for 50 years?  It’s crumbling all around them, and there isn’t money to fix any of it.  Now they could get money to fix it by further opening up tourism, but how long before there’s a Starbucks on every corner and Havana becomes another Cancun?  Another mini-U.S. like every other place on the planet?  It would absolutely ruin everything that makes Havana the gem that it is.  This is just one of the many problems Cuba faces, and it was explained well to us.  I feel so fortunate to have had a chance to see it before it all changes… because it will change.  It has to.

On a lighter note, after the lecture, it was a mad dash to get out to the local baseball stadium to see hometown heroes the Industriales play (for the towering cost of $3, which also got us into the only section tourists were allowed: the netted-in space behind home plate)!  I didn’t get to yell “¡jonrón!” as I’d desperately hoped to, but I must admit it was one of the most exciting sports events I’ve ever watched.  A real bottom-of-the-ninth nail-biter with a comedy of defensive errors.  Another comedy of errors took place outside the stadium after the game when — against my better judgment — we let one of the others in our group handle the taxi situation, leading us to stumble through the poorly-lit streets of Havana alone until we finally happened upon a cab about a mile out.  Still, Cuba is safe, and it seemed we were in no real danger.  For $1 a person, we were back at the hotel.

Day 6 – On our way to the first stop of the day, we passed Coppelia, described as “you’ve heard of an ice cream parlor… this is an ice cream cathedral!”  Our tour guide explained the concept of a “dollar date.”  It turns out that for about one dollar, you can have ice cream at Coppelia and see a movie nearby, so when you say you went on a “dollar date,” any young local will know what you did.  Incidentally, one dollar buys something like 20 scoops of ice cream or so we were told.

A Word About… Currency
Cuba uses two currencies.  There is the CUC, which is meant for tourists and visitors and roughly equates to a dollar.  Then there is the CUP, which is the currency of locals, and is worth about 1/20th or a dollar or five cents.  Locals are paid in CUP and can spend it in places visitors aren’t supposed to shop (such as subsidized stores for citizens only).  But CUCs are still highly valued considering many Cubans live on the equivalent of 20-30 CUCs a month.  This came up in unexpected ways during the trip, e.g. tour guides and taxi drivers making more than doctors simply because they have jobs that interface with tourists, giving them access to tips in CUC.  And you don’t have to worry about a maid going through your stuff, because none of them would risk their job which gives them similar access to CUCs.  Also worth noting is that American ATM cards and credit cards issued by U.S. banks don’t work in Cuba.  So you have to plan ahead and bring lots of cash.  For that matter, internet is slow and scarce, and U.S. phone providers are prohibited by law from operating in Cuba.  So no cell phone, no way, no how.

The tour continued through a neighborhood where aristocrats lived before the revolution, where the massive homes are now inhabited by embassy personnel, and where paradoxically simple Toyota sedans are parked in the driveways.  From there, it was off to our main destination: Las Terrazas national park.  We doused ourselves with bug spray, enjoyed a welcome drink, and ventured onto the trail.  We came across whole chicken families, visited the artist Lester Campa, and learned about the food rationing system and the rural medical clinic.  There was the park’s famous Café Maria, where we had the specialty: “Las Terrazas Coffee,” which tasted exactly like melted coffee ice cream.  We had a country-style lunch at a local farmhouse, chickens running around, and finished up touring the ruins of one of the many coffee plantations/haciendas.  It was interesting to see the layout of where they grew, dried, and milled the beans.  Also sobering to see the slave quarters.  Cuba’s main export was sugar, but its main import was slaves — outnumbering the U.S.

On the way back to the hotel, our final official stop was Fusterlandia, workshop of artist José Fuster, whose style falls somewhere between Gaudi and Picasso.  It was reminiscent of a McDonald’s playland made of trippy rounded architecture with every surface covered in colorful mosaic.

We hit the used book once more now that we had some money, and then returned to Hotel Nacional.  This was to be our big night out in Havana, including Shel’s long-overdue birthday dinner.  She and I dressed up and walked over to Café Laurent, a paladar in a 1950’s apartment building, with dining on the penthouse terrace.  It was the first broad selection of vegetarian food I’d found, so I pigged out.  Most of it was very good!  We caught a taxi over to Floridita for a daiquiri.  It was on our list as I’d read it was one of the top bars (worldwide) to visit before you die.  I guess it was a favorite hangout of Hemmingway, as images and sculptures of him abounded.  As luck would have it, two separate pairs of friends from our travel group walked in a while later.  Seems one of them had made friends with a local while playing chess earlier in the evening, and this local gentleman invited us all to a local spot.  We followed him for several dimly-lit blocks until we came to a building that looked dark and closed.  He knocked on the door, exchanged words with the doorman, and said he had to go talk to the boss.  He came back out a few minutes later and beckoned us in.  Turns out it was a locals-only hotel… a nice one at that!  And inside was a bar that was the most hoppin’ of any we saw in Havana.  Packed with young Cuban men and young and middle-aged Caucasian women tourists loving the attention.  All salsa dancing.  Exactly what you’d imagine when you think crazy Cuban salsa club.  Some of us danced with strangers, while others guarded purses.  Some of us were propositioned by working girls and/or their handlers.  Some of us danced with said working girls.  We gave our local connection five CUC for a round of drinks, and he kept the change — more of the CUC/CUP insanity.  We get a round of drinks for five bucks, and he makes money on the deal.  Anyway, when it came time to negotiate with the working girls, that’s when we decided to head back — much to the chagrin of one of our younger travelmates who was obliterated and miffed his dad blocked him.  We had a round a very late drinks on the back patio of Hotel Nacional and retired for the evening.

Day 7 – This was our day to leave Havana and head to Varadero.  We started out visiting the Morro Castle fort across the water from Havana.  We continued to the fishing village of Cojimar, inspiration for Hemmingway’s The Old Man And The Sea.  Then it was on to Hemmingway’s own estate: Finca Vigía.  It means “Lookout Farm,” and among other things (such as a pool and his boat) it includes a tower that looks out over the hillside.  It’s easy to imagine him being inspired to write with a view like that.  The drink offered here was a delicious daiquiri of pineapple and the juice from freshly-pressed sugar cane… which they do right in front of you with large cane stalks.   We stopped by Organoponicos, a large organic garden where residents grow their own food.  We got to wear stylish plastic bags on our shoes to protect them from mud.  In addition to puppies running wild, we got to see and try the “miracle crop” moringa and the noni fruit (which looks, smells, and allegedly tastes like blue cheese — I didn’t try that one).  We returned to Cojimar for lunch (and a honey-based daiquiri) and then hit the road towards Varadero.

On the way, we stopped at Cuba’s tallest bridge for some sightseeing and what is reported to be the best piña colada in the nation.  (Here, they pour the colada and leave the bottle of rum on the bar for you to complete it yourself, though I’m not sure if that’s what makes it the best.)  It’s a long drive to Varadero.  I napped on the bus some.  I think we all did.  One final stop before reaching our hotel was at a puppet museum in Matanzas.  Not really a museum I guess, as they still actively have performances.  I don’t know, but there were a lot of puppets.  Even “adult” puppets that flashed us.  Anway, on to the Meliá Varadero resort, where we were to spend our last two nights.  This is a big hotel for tourists, in an area for tourists, and it didn’t feel particularly “Cuban” to me.  It was very nice, but we could have been anywhere.  Our stay was all inclusive, meaning the entertainment, the restaurants, and the booze were all a mere show-of-the-wristband away.  We were given a welcome drink of course, but by this point in the trip, it was all a blur of sugary daiquiris, cuba libres, mojitos, and piña coladas.  Between having 5+ drinks a day and little in the way of protein, I was over it.  It was more buffet dinners, better than the Hotel Nacional’s but not much.  Afterwards, we met up with some travelmates, had some drinks, and explored the grounds.  There’s lots to do there… pool, activities, beaches, and romantic hideaways.  The “shows” ended up being strange dancing events, and after watching only a few minutes, we left.  We tried to get the giant game of Connect Four to work, but it was broken.  Instead, we played a game of giant chess, where some of us jumped on the board to replace and act as the pieces.  The outcome was an upset of our resident chess master.

Day 8 – This was our last day of real touring.  We drove by Elián González‘s house.  We visited an artist who makes award-winning tie-dyed textiles and is known for an incredible dress she put together with bicycle parts, including a parasol made of spokes.  She works using the sun on the roof while her husband crafts wooden humidors in the garage.  We visited another artist’s estate (Héctor Correa’s Coincidencia Farm) who also grows delicious fruit (like “apple bananas”).  We got a tour, but my favorite part was a small bamboo grove he had near a stream.  There were wild rabbits all around, and I thoroughly enjoyed a woman feeding their pet rabbit an apple banana.  I am easily entertained.  The final stop was a children’s community project where at-risk youth performed The Wizard Of Oz.  The wizard himself was an adult on stilts.  Each of the many children really had personality that came through in each role.  It was pretty adorable.

The rest of the day was open to us, and we chose to spend it enjoying the resort’s beach.  The conditions were just like Miami’s… hot enough to sunbathe and swim in the ocean.  Past the rocky part of the beach carved out of the cliff was smooth sand.  A hundred feet or so into the water was a sandbar which allowed you to stand and be only about knee deep.  Got some body surfing in.  As close as I live to the water in San Francisco, it’s so cold and murky that I never really get to take advantage of it.  So between Miami and Varadero, I wanted to milk it as long as I could.  As we drank our coladas in the sand, we noticed storm clouds in the distance.  Soon, we got a short and gentle sprinkle of rain, just long enough to give us the full (and nearly double) rainbow you see below (not Photoshopped… that’s a real picture).  When it cleared up, we walked to the next hotel over and watched an incredible sunset — our last in Cuba.  Back at our own hotel,  we planned to take a final dip in the hot tub, where we found a young Peruvian woman posing for bikini photos being taken by what appeared to be a security guard.  He walked away, and our group got in, one by one.  It was a small tub, and when the six(!) of us got in, it was ridiculous.  The water level reached the top when only four of us joined, so the last two pushed a ton of water overflowing all over the deck.  We were way up close and personal, legs all tangled.  If the Peruvian was freaked out (I would have been), she didn’t show it.  When the water started to cool, we exited, eventually leaving one of our guys behind to hit on the Peruvian.  Never mind the fact that when the rest of us exited, we left them in only about knee-deep water, jets sucking air.

After showering and dressing for the evening, it was another buffet dinner and drinks with travelmates.  By this last night, there was a clear divide in the group.  Factions, as it were.  There were some younger folks, but mostly older, and we had all had time to have run-ins with each other, good and bad.  We heard about how this couple was outraged at the rudeness of that couple, or about how that one lady had said something really offensive to so-and-so.  We’d all pretty much picked our sides, and so this last night, there were two separate tables.  Ours was the cool kids table.  The cocktail-drinkin’ and cigar-smokin’ one.  Your intuition might tell you differently, but if you know me then you can trust that ours were the easy-going folks who were not rude to the locals or each other.  We’d had enough of the wet blankets and the folks barking orders and taking pictures of locals like they were a zoo exhibit.  I will not miss them.  The tour guide did his best to spend time with both tables, and I did my best to drink and watch the lingerie fashion show taking place in the bar.  Eventually, Shel and I conked out, but I’m told the party animals stayed up quite a bit later.  There was karaoke and breakdancing, allegedly.

Day 9 – It was time to go home.  We got on the bus for the 2.5 hour drive back to the Havana airport.  Aside from the short pit stop at a roadside bar (where the picture below was snapped), it was a straight shot.  We went through the extensive process to get on the plane, including passport control, paying of exit fees, return of visa, etc.  While waiting to board, I got a real treat… I heard my name over the loud speaker in the crowded terminal.  It was hard to make out, but I distinctly heard my name and the word “customs.”  Naturally, I shit a gold brick, hastily explaining to Shel and others that I had to go, presumably to my death.  They took me into a small empty room, where my checked bag stood in the corner.  There were two uniformed officers who spoke no English.  I communicated as well as I could, and they motioned for me to put my bag on the table and open it.  I won’t tell you all the things that raced through my mind, but I was relieved(?) that they stopped at the first item they found: a bronze plaque I bought at the used book market.  They looked it over, then called in a third woman.  She was not uniformed, but had an air of authority and began examining the plaque closely with a jeweler’s loupe.  They exchanged Spanish a bit, and I only picked up “antiguo,” which I assumed was “antique.”  Turns out there are laws against exporting art or anything that looks old enough to be an antique without a special license, which of course I did not have.  They asked me where I got it and if I had a receipt.  I explained I had no receipt and that I bought it at the used libro market.  After some discussion, the woman waved me on, and I was allowed to repack my bag and keep the plaque.  Thankfully, they searched no further.

So after a short flight, we land in Miami.  All my travelmates sail right through customs and onto baggage claim… except me.  My printout has a big black “X” through it, and I have to stand in a slow-moving line where I am eventually interrogated by customs and asked face-to-face all the same questions on the customs form.  Though the agent was gruff, I was let through and finally out of the airport and free, back on U.S. soil.  The delay robbed me of the chance to say goodbye to the new friends I’d made travelling, but Shel didn’t, and I have contact info for them.  So after a long day of travel, and being detained by customs in both countries, I was ready to eat and then sleep forever in the Miami hotel.  We returned to the Cane Fire Grille, this time ordering all of the same food, but not splitting it… ordering all those same dishes each.  Uncomfortably full, but satisfied and relaxed, we hit the hay.

Day 10 – We had a late flight out of Miami, so we had time to kill.  We started off sunbathing by the pool, where — after getting no color the whole trip — I managed to get slightly burned in a very short time.  We walked down the street to see the new Hobbit movie.  Then we headed to the airport, got on a slightly-delayed flight, and landed in San Francisco after midnight.  And I was thrilled to be home.

What did I learn?  In addition to everything above, what miscellaneous findings did I take away from the whole experience?

  1. Cuba is safe and friendly.  Every time the bus rolled by a farmer on a tractor, or a child on the street, they’d wave at us and smile.  Shel noted that of all the Central and South American destinations she’s visited, Cuba felt like the safest by far.  And it’s not terribly expensive.  And Friendly Planet, based on this experience, is solid.  I’d highly recommend the trip if you can make it happen.  And do it soon before Cuba changes!
  2. Napkins and toilet paper are like gold in Cuba.  I don’t know why that is, but in some places they’re nigh impossible to come by.  And most public bathrooms have attendants that dole them out to you… for a price.  For as strong as the dollar is, I would have loved to just pay an up-front “unlimited toilet paper fee” so that I wouldn’t have to constantly worry about where I might get stuck with nothing to wipe with.
  3. My Spanish is better than I thought.  I pulled out some random vocab words and was able to understand most conversations.  I even had some rudimentary exchanges with out bus driver about his kids, and he spoke zero English.  Guess some of that stuff sticks with you after all!
  4. A lot of the weird regulations you’ve heard about, those ones that make you scratch your head on why our relationship with Cuba is so unnecessarily bizarre… well, they’re mostly true.  For instance, if someone tries to enter Cuba illegally by water… if they are caught in the water, the Coast Guard sends them back, but if they make land, they can stay permanently seeking political asylum.  Imagine now a Cuban who tries to visit the U.S. legally with a visa.  They apply and are often turned down by the U.S. as a flight risk.  That same Cuban can then make the easy trip to Mexico, walk right up to U.S. Border Patrol and say “I’m Cuban, and I want political asylum.”  Then we have to let them stay.  They have the option to become citizens.  They can still return to Cuba any time they want, and the Cuban government doesn’t care.  What sense does that make?  Just one example of many strange and contradictory policies we have.  After all these years, even the Russians and the Chinese are our allies now, and yet we hold this grudge against Cuba.  Unless I’m missing something, it sure seems pointless.  At least it’s purely between the governments.  The Cuban people seemed to love us, and they gave us no reason not to love them.
  5. Some places just have a charm all their own.  I will forever remember the feeling of cabbing through the late-night streets of Havana, crumbling but clean, and empty as a movie lot but for a few classic cars idling in this or that alleyway.  It was unreal.
  6. Cuba is not immune to the phenomenon I’ve noticed in other countries where English is not the native language.  People have shirts with English phrases on them that make no sense out of context.  Things like “Right on, brother!” and “Knock it off!”  I guess though maybe that’s the equivalent of when Americans get tattoos of Chinese and Japanese characters?

This was such an amazing and memorable trip.  I lost two combs, but I didn’t get Dengue Fever or the shits.  Big thanks to my favorite travelmates: Handcuffs, Jersey, Bobby Fischer, Mom, Indiandy, Andy’s Dad, the Chicago Two, and the Denver couple whom we did not nickname.  (My nickname was “Franklin.”)  And of course, Shel!  The trip would not have been the same without you!  Your friendship and tremendous help in planning were incredible from start to finish.  We travel great together!  Love ya!

(P.S.  I will not miss the Downer-Bickersons.)

The soundtrack of the trip:

  • Theme from “Miami Vice” – Jan Hammer
  • “Ice Ice Baby” – Vanilla Ice
  • “Santeria” – Sublime
  • “My Way” – Frank Sinatra
  • “Havana Moon” – Chuck Berry
  • “Guantanamera” – The Sandpipers
  • “Here I Go Again” – Whitesnake
  • “The Lazy Sunbathers” – Morrissey
  • “Badfish” – Sublime
  • “Come Monday” – Jimmy Buffett
  • “Smuggler’s Blues” – Glenn Frey

I don’t think Buddy Holly’s much of a waiter.

31 December 2012

You remember in 1994 when John Travolta appeared as hip gangster hitman “Vincent Vega” in Pulp Fiction?  Remember how it revitalized his career, bringing him back to the spotlight and letting us begin to believe him as something more than a pretty face who could dance?  Suddenly, he was able to pass as dark, quirky, and potentially even a badass in the right light (see Get Shorty, Face/Off, Michael, etc.).  It took something special though.  Not just the role, but the overall vibe of the movie.  It took the class and edge that directors like Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and the Coen Brothers bring to their features.  It’s not like Travolta didn’t have it in him all along — clearly he did.  But he needed the right opportunity.

Inspired by a conversation earlier this evening, I present my picks for actors that I believe deserve a John-Travolta-in-Pulp-Fiction style career resurgence.  Someone give these guys a chance to reinvent themselves and return to the spotlight!  I believe they’ve got it in them!

  1. Paul Hogan
    Yes, Crocodile Dundee himself.  I realize that maybe he was more of a 1980’s curiosity and one-trick pony, but he was charming as hell.  And though he must be way up there now (in his 70’s?), I feel like he’s got potential as a charming but menacing Bond villain or mob boss.  Someone get on that.  Time’s a-wastin’!
  2. Erik Estrada
    My love for Erik Estrada can be traced back to CHiPs and was in fact the subject of my very first blog post on MySpace many years ago.  I was briefly hopeful of a resurgence when he appeared in that great Butthole Surfers video in ’96.  Thought maybe he was getting hip again, but no such luck.  I just fucking love this guy.  He should be in every movie.
  3. Emilio Estevez
    Man, remember Breakfast Club and Young Guns?  This guy had just as much charisma as his brother or anyone else in the so-called “Brat Pack.”  There’s no reason Tom Cruise should be starring in these blockbusters year after year while we don’t hear a peep from Emilio.
  4.  Ralph Macchio
    Perhaps “quirky badass” isn’t the direction to go here, but still, there must be something more we could be doing with Ralph Macchio.  It’s not like all his mega-appeal just suddenly dried up after the Karate Kid trilogy.  Couldn’t he find a place in a mob story or something?
  5. Robyn Lively
    Well since we’re talking about Karate Kid, ever since part 3 I’ve wanted to see more of Robyn Lively.  That’s all.
  6. Michael Keaton
    After Batman and Beetlejuice and several others through the early 90’s, he was all over the place.  Since then, it’s been all small parts or at least he’s been off my radar.  He’s totally ripe for a comeback, and as a real psycho too.  He used to do that well, and I bet he’d make an excellent brooding villain, assassin, or something of that ilk.
  7. Tim Curry
    He seems to be doing fine, but I think he’s vastly underutilized.  Look at Legend or It or Rocky Horror.  Aside from being one of my favorite actors, he has a natural creepiness that could be put to such great use.  I feel he’s being wasted on kids stuff these days, though that may well be by choice.
  8.  Jeff Goldblum
    I know he’s been getting some work on television, and it’s not like Jurassic Park was that long ago, but still… Jeff Goldblum has a thing that only he does.  The same way Christopher Walken has a thing.  This thing Jeff’s got, well I’d like to see more of it.
  9. Clancy Brown
    Most memorable to me as the vicious Kurgan in The Highlander, his unusual look and sound have lent their talents to bit parts over the years, but I feel like he could really break out if given a central role — maybe paradoxically as an anti-hero — in a more serious film.  Why not?  The Highlander also introduced us to Chrisopher Lambert, who deserves honorable mention on this list.  Besides Highlander and Greystoke, I don’t really know his work.  But he was very entertaining in those.  Bring him back too, please!
  10. Tony Ganios
    I always relate to him as my first greaser role model through playing match-chewing “Perry” in The Wanderers, but he also appeared in the Porky’s movies and a few others.  I understand he’s retired from acting, and that’s too bad.  He had (and has?) more potential than we ever got to see him use.

Surely I’m forgetting some great actors and actresses, but these are the ones that occurred to me immediately.  Any other suggestions?

Benjamin: Doer Of Things!

28 December 2012

With the focus on my recent retreat last time, I neglected to get into general updates and current events.  As you may have noticed, I don’t use this blog as the detailed journal I used to.  The highlights though… my last TCB show happened at the end of September, and that was nice.  My favorite moment was the closure of getting to announce, “in our seven years together, we’ve performed 71 of The Smiths’ 72 songs” to some cheers… and then playing Golden Lights and getting to announce, “make that 72 of 72.”  So that’s a big chapter of my life behind me.  In the meantime, I’m on somewhat of a Smiths detox.

What else?  The Rumble Strippers spent a weekend (give or take) in the studio recording a half dozen songs.  For real this time.  Perhaps an EP in the near future?  And how about us getting a spot playing Viva Las Vegas 2013?  And signing with Tanoa at A-Town?  The hits just keep on coming!  Jared came to town for a few days, and it was so great to catch up with him and think about how life would be different if he lived here.  Oh and it’s December which must mean car trouble.  In the last couple years, it’s been drunk drivers, lightning strikes, and wild turkeys.  This year, it was me getting rear-ended and pushed into another car.  Sandwiched, if you will.  So it’s a rental for me for a while…

Recently I’ve been going out more, and all this going out has led me to explore the “spirit” world again.  Over the years, it’s often occurred to me that bartending seems like fun.  I guess I should probably confirm that with some of the bartenders I know.  I don’t see myself ever actually doing that for a living, but it couldn’t hurt to have those skills.  And maybe even fill in somewhere part-time just for fun?  The classes are more a time commitment than a significant monetary investment.  I’d like to know more about making drinks and what all the gadgets behind the counter are for.  I also have a minor fascination with the art of beer tap handles and of tiki mugs, though I don’t guess that would help me be better at the job.  And am I correct in assuming that serious bartenders generally aspire to have one of their own signature cocktails catch on nationwide?  I don’t know about taste, but in terms of pure cleverness, I’ve already got a couple up my sleeve.  First, the “Edwyn Collins,” which is similar to a Tom Collins, but also includes orange juice (get it?).  More recently, I had the idea for the “Ovaltini,” which would of course be a variation on the martini, but would include either Ovaltine, or maybe malt powder and some other creamy component… Bailey’s, Kahlúa, etc.  Maybe the malt flavor could even come from something malty like Guinness?  I’ll need to get into a bartending class and experiment.

UPDATE (December 2013): During my trip to Cuba, I had another great idea for a drink.  It’d be a shot.  A “Tetanus Shot,” which of course would have to be rust colored.  More research needed.

By the way, I just saw some interesting variations on my main drink: the White Russian.  Did you know there’s such a thing as a “White Mexican” made with horchata?  And a “White Cuban” with rum instead of vodka?  Yum!  Or that there’s actually a name for the White Russian variant I often end up with when bars don’t have cream?  It’s called a “Blind Russian,” and it involves substituting Bailey’s for cream.  Interesting…  I could see nerding out on this kinda stuff, but I’m guessing the local mixologists would just roll their eyes if you started throwing  terms like “White Cuban” around when ordering.

So anyway, as I said, I’ve been trying to get out more lately.  Throwing caution to the wind, and throwing myself to the wolves a bit.  And really just trying not to control every little aspect of my life.  Pushing myself to ignore the voice that always tries to shoot down new ideas, and then take it easier on myself when I fail.  Just cut myself some slack in general and let myself be imperfect and human.  A few very small experiments with this have taught me very quickly that life can drop some amazing things into your lap if you just let yourself be open to possibilities.  Putting myself in unusual or uncomfortable situations (at least for me) has paid off almost without exception each and every time I’ve tried it over the last few months.  Back-to-back days of back-to-back weekends of countless good times, new friends, and uncanny coincidences that would have never happened unless I loosened my grip on the reins a bit.  It’s incredible what’s out there waiting for you — all those possibilities — when you just take your damn hands off the wheel for a second.  It makes me think about all the opportunities I’ve wasted in life so far by being so rigid.

“For us, there is only the trying.  The rest is not our business.”

— T.S. Eliot

Yogi Bear returns from the forest.

16 December 2012

Well, I’m fresh back from my week-long meditation retreat as a Buddhist “yogi.”  The idea is that you go out into the forest with no cell phone and no internet.  You take a vow of silence and don’t even write notes to anyone.  You stay in a dorm-like closet, eat the food you’re given, have to do chores like vacuuming (chores! the very idea!), and meditate all day, every day.  Sound like fun?  That’s meditation, holmes.\r\rFirst off, it’s beautiful out there.  You’re out in the middle of the relative/moderate wilderness (at least compared to The City), and you get some of those benefits.  Some mornings, I would see a few wild turkeys walking through the grounds, or a family of deer.  Being able to get 15 feet from them or so without them running off.  Not exactly the typical San Francisco experience.  The night sky was incredible, just being able to see so many stars that are all but invisible to me where I live.  (I wonder how the night sky is in Maui?)  And then having to be up every morning at 6am to go sit and meditate means you get to see a lot of sunrises.  And beautiful sunny hilltops from a valley covered in fog.  Pretty spectacular.

I mentioned Hawaii, but the whole experience did somewhat remind me of Hawaii.  I didn’t wear socks or shoes this whole time.  I was barefoot or in slippers.  This life of rolling out of bed, throwing on some slippers and starting your day just as you are is akin to that carefree lifestyle of vacationing on Maui that I loved so much.  Wake up, throw on your shorts and walk barefoot to the beach.  I should mention the food too.  It’s all taken care of for you, all vegetarian, and mostly delicious.  My favorite was on the first night… a salad dressing called “Hollyhock” which basically consisted of tamari, sunflower oil, apple cider vinegar, and nutritional yeast.  Ever had it?  I hadn’t, but it was delish!

There were some interesting rules, side effects, and observations I wanted to mention:

  1. Nike has perfected the sweatpant.  I haven’t owned sweatpants in a very long time, but I had to get a few pair to prepare for this trip.  They have it down in a way they didn’t when I was a kid.  The drawstring is sewn in crisscrossed, so you don’t even have to do the first half of tying them.  You just pull them as they are and they cinch up.  Amazing!  Plus they are reinforced at that stitch in the crotch that used to be the first place you’d get a hole every time.  Color me impressed.
  2. Right Guard works.  The teachers stressed again and again not to use any scented products out of respect for some of the other sensitive retreaters.  They said “trust us, we’d much rather smell you.”  I thought, that cannot possibly be true.  But they learned, and so did I.  One shower a day with their scent-free soap and no Right Guard, man I was pungent.  I didn’t realize how hard Right Guard (and Irish Spring) work for me every day.
  3. I didn’t want to use the alternative scent-free hair products, so I went au natural the entire time.  Turns out after five days of no shampoo or conditioner, I don’t need pomade.  My hair will stay slicked down on its own, all day.
  4. When I say silent, I mean silent.  People generally don’t make eye contact even.  The whole time.  It drove me nuts because it is in my nature to say please, thank you, excuse me, etc.  But you just have to accept that no one is intentionally being rude, you just can’t talk.  But this means that all the meals (which are taken in the dining hall) are face to face with people you can’t talk to or even look at.  Luckily, this is something for which I have much practice already.  A whole meal in silence and no eye contact?  So if you’ve dated me and thought I was good at this before…
  5. I got to see what I might look like with facial hair.  I decided not to shave until the final day, and when I did, I checked out my look with a goatee and various flavors of moustache.  I am most partial to the Hulk Hogan style or maybe something bizarre like a mini Fu Manchu with a separation in the middle… and though part of me would like to know what I look like with facial hair before I die (is there an app for that?), the overwhelming hipster-ness of moustaches these days will keep me clean-shaven, at least for now.  At least I have my chops.

Oh, and I had the Radiohead song “Reckoner” in my head all week.

As far as what did I actually learn spiritually?  Well, I won’t go into that.  I don’t think it’s done with me yet.  But I will say that being in silence all that time with a bunch of people on the same general quest as you… you cultivate a certain gentle demeanor and a sort or universal good will.  I mean, I always try to be “nice” in my day to day life, or at least I thought I did.  Fair, polite, etc.  I didn’t realize what a change this environment really was because we sort of eased into it.  It’s a disposition that I’m going to carry with me for as long as I can, with the goal of making it part of my natural habit.  The teachers warned us before leaving that we might be a bit sensitive as we transition back to the “outside world.”  Like a lobster without a shell is the metaphor I think they used.  They suggested we consider delaying before jumping right back into the thick of things, checking all our email, and so on.  I thought to myself, hey, I wasn’t that moved.  I’ll be fine.

Well, I wish I’d listened.  When I stopped for lunch on the drive home, not a half hour out of the retreat, I’d powered up my phone and first thing checked CNN.  The top five stories were about a school shooting in Connecticut.  26 victims, including 20 kids ages 6 and 7.  I don’t know how I would have reacted to that news two weeks ago.  But today, I admit — it was too much.

“If only [people] could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

— Thomas Merton

Listening to: Radiohead – “In Rainbows

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