West Coastin’: Feeding the Animals

Giraffes!

Giraffes!

Our second port of call was San Diego.  Having heard of its charm, beauty, and the annual comic convention – which we missed this year but desperately hope to attend next summer if I can beguile . . . er, convince Dasad – we decided to scout out the city.  We stopped first at the zoo, since it was a bit of the inspiration for Critchon’s Jurassic Park and I was curious to see if it lived up to its reputation.

“This place is more like an amusement park,” Dasad said, gazing at the map, nearly the size of a Risk game board.  Various regions color-coded by continent or climate, divided the map into pieces; animal icons indicated species-specific paddocks.  We decided to invade the ‘Urban Jungle’ first, one of more intriguing lands with rhinos and anteaters and because it was also closest to the entrance.  Along the way, we halted our expedition to take pictures of some koalas and a capybara, the largest rodent on Earth, a fact indifferent to most tourists.

“Here come take a look at this big rat,” a red-faced man said picking up a small boy, who I assume was related in some way.  “If only I had my shotgun . . .”

The pair (father and son?) walked off to join a larger group – family I suppose – the man, shouting ‘Boom! Boom! Click!’ in his wake.  The unwitting ‘rats’ continued to scamper around the cage, blissfully ignorant and sleepy.

RT2_rhinoWe made our way to the elephant paddock then, a huge pen intermingled with other animals: vultures, lions, snakes, insects, and other modern day descendents of those swallowed by tar eons ago. The elephant compound could not have been larger had the zoo built it for dinosaurs.  Large open space sparingly furnished with trees and downed logs; a gated bridge joined the two enormous pens, allowing tourists to pass beneath.  Huge steel rails, nearly as thick as a mammoth’s thigh, circled the enclosure.  I had the passing image of a rampaging bull elephant ramming against the bars, trumpeting in rage, scattering frightened tourists.

Mom once warned us after noticing the heightened police presence at the mall that we should be careful, watchful for gangs and pickpockets.  Pat and I laughed then at the irony, but looking at the huge mammals stomp across the plain, I have a greater appreciation for what Mom meant.  Despite the impressive lodgings, the dung beetles garnered larger crowds than the mammals whose waste they depended on. We fought through the crowds for just a glimpse of three black bugs the size of quarter roll dung up a hill.  Amazing.

Sodomy2Passing through a tunnel beneath the paddock, Dasad spied a large four-foot statue of a condor or an eagle, silently surveying the nearby leopard pen.  Various statues and animal busts guarded several of the enclosure throughout the park, perhaps like fiberglass owls back home, to scare away local (and thus uninteresting) wildlife from the grounds.  Nonplussed my friend attempted to ride the stone bird, but stretching his legs across the bird’s back proved dangerous, awkward, and painful – unfortunately he halted the attempt before I managed to free my camera.  Feeling quite foolish, I suppose, amid the crowds, he instead stood behind the animal and humped it.

One of the zoo officials called out to him as I took the shot.

“Hey man!”  Somehow I felt that this exhibition would signify an immediate expulsion from the park and probably several PETA fines to boot.  The fact that the animal was actually made of stone and several times larger than its model seemed a moot point.

Thus I gaped while the official high-fived Dasad and yelled, “Some days man.  Some days, I wish I could get some too . . .”

What this signified about San Diego zoo employees, I could only guess, but Dasad reacted as if he had received a medal of honor.  Worse, he had discovered an audience, and if there’s one thing I learnt from reading Batman over the years, it’s that crazy people love an audience – which is why Freud created psychologists.  Garnering strength from his new fan base, my friend proceeded to pleasure several additional stone fauna before we managed to extricate ourselves from the park.

RT2_waterOn the way down to the Seaport Village, we passed the city’s monstrous convention hall, swarming little more than a week ago with geeks and fanboys for the 2009 ComiCon.  Of the city’s many pleasures, this stood out in my mind as I’ve been meaning to attend the convention for the last few years, only to arrive now several days late and a dollar short.

While Dasad and Jay argued over suitable dining for the evening (seafood or Mexican), I gazed with rapt attention at the sizable edifice, imagining the site next year: awash with costumes, movie stars, and fans from every corner of geekdom.  Aisles glazed in plastic inserts, polished art, and one-of-a-kind sketches.  Manga and graphic novels shimmering on the racks like unpolished gold, shrouding the magnificent stories deep within their leaves. Beautiful.  Next summer when we fly back to San Diego, we’ll need to bring extra bags for . . .

“Wait, hold on dude,” Dasad interrupted as we drove north under a multitude of cranes, arching above us like medieval cathedral.  One or two cargo ships in dock sleep patiently while the mechanical arms reached down and snatched at the crates nestled snugly in their holds.  “Who said anything about coming back for ComiCon?”

“Well, I did silly.  Thought it best to mention the trip now, so you can plan out the rest of your year.  Save the date, and all that.”

“We’re not going to ComiCon or at least I’m not.”

“Of course, WE are.  Did you not hear what I said about the comics, the movie stars, and the graphic novels like buried gold?  Beautiful stories buried beneath piles of obsequious merchandizing?  The metaphor might be too subtle.  Maybe an allusion  . . .”

“No way.  Do you know how much the tickets to fly to Anaheim cost?”

“About $400 dollars round trip?”  For both of us, and for the moment ignoring hotel expenses.  As I said, I’ve been considering rubbing elbows with geek-elite since New Years.

“Well, San Diego is probably more.  Just to see sweaty unbathed virgins pore over stories we can buy here with the airfare we save.”

“With the rising cost of gasoline that might not be true anymore . . .”

“I can live without it,” he grumbled. For someone horny enough to violate a cement eagle, he sure had difficulty sucking it up now and then.  I penciled him in as a definite maybe, and listening to my stomach growl, refocused my efforts on finding dinner.

RT2_westWe decided on Old Town, a collection of historical houses and shops much in way of Colonial Williamsburg, back home.  I tried picturing John Wayne or Clint Eastwood walking through the streets, kicking up dust and dried blood with their six-shooters as their sides, but the green lawns and ice cream parlors suggested more Ann of Green Gables than the Man with No Name.

The surrounding area about the antiquated buildings is devoted to small Mexican markets filled with trinkets and t-shirts and restaurants, bursting with the scent of refried beans and sizzling fajitas.  Here – at least according to Jay’s iPhone – the enchiladas and burritos were considered quite authentic, and being quite techno-savvy, as well as famished, we strode the three blocks without argument to the restaurant just outside Old Town’s Plaza del Pasado, a hotel that showcased live entertainment and open-air dining with fiery brick fireplaces.  The sun had sunk behind the architecture, and the warmth of the fires was inviting.  While Jay convened with Google, Dasad and I stopped to gaze at a sign just outside the plaza.

“Haunted tours, huh?”  Dasad read.  “Nine o’clock.  ‘We know where the ghosts are.’  Sounds interesting.”

“Might be fun to simply stand in the back and scream every now and then,” I said, “Just to keep things interesting.”

“Probably isn’t much though.  Hell, we could start our own tour.  Get a list of places, research the history, and then scare the tourists with flashlights and mirrors.  Easy.  We’d get plenty of screams just having you pop out from time to time.”

“Funny,” I muttered.

RT2_city“Here boys and girls,” he shouted in his best Barnum-voice, “We have the rare treat of encountering a single American otaku, look at his pale features and large gut.  Unemployed specimens like Murph here dwell in the dungeons and cellars of their ancestors, absorbed in painting miniatures and playing with themselves.  Watch out Miss, he has not known a woman’s touch in so long . . . He might become unpredictable when aroused.”

“Look, I wouldn’t . . .” I began.

“Ewww, Mommy make it go away.  Its pasty skin . . . like it’s dead.” Dasad continued, whining in a high-pitched voice.

“Don’t worry, son.  We’ll go to the gym tomorrow or spend the day outside.  It hates sunlight and physical labor.  Otaku can’t chase us even if we jog.”

In my case, this happens to be quite true.  In his current marathon-ready state, I could never hope to catch Dasad even if he skipped up the lane (which he does, ladies, more often than any grown man should).  I returned with a few pointed jabs at Trekkies, computer consultants, and assholes until I felt that we were even.  Together we laughed at the absurdity, creating several other skits before we reached the restaurant.  Jay followed silently – clearly the most mature of our group – holding his iPhone before him as if scanning the area for clues.

Now Mexican food is a treat for me, one reserved for road trips and the occasional movie night with Dasad.  The man loves his spicy food about as much as my family hates it: the hot sauce and spices do not mix well with their strict meat and potatoes diet.    Thus, I only manage to feast on enchiladas about twice a year (I refused to eat at Taco Bell with their $.99 tacos and brown bean parfait, sluiced through an old Slushee machine and sprinkled with week-old chedder.).

Thus, I had high hopes for Casa Guadalajara.

Inside we were met with an explosion of color: paper streamers of sun-burnt oranges, reds, and blues hung loosely from the ceiling; large vases overflowed with green leaves and bombastic flowers; and striped tablecloths like hand-woven shrouds dangled from long family-sized tables.  A mariachi band played in the corner and families chattered noisily in the corner.  Kids giggled, running and ducking beneath their parents legs.  The whole place reminded me so much of home, I nearly cried.

RT2_mexfoodOur waiter sat us down and gave us our menus.  One of the principal rules for dining – much like grocery shopping – is to never ever choose anything on an empty stomach.  This might at first appear a rather faulty paradox, seeing as you arrive at a restaurant to eat, and thus rather peckish.  Yet men oft order with their eyes, thinking little of the portions their hunger demands, and before you can consider otherwise, your appetizers spread out before you several portions larger than expected.  Like the surfer praying for a wave, and ending up with a tsunami.

Such was our case.  The appetizer in addition to the free chips and salsa nearly overwhelmed us; nevertheless we dived in, scooping out soft tacos, guacamole salsa, and cheese drenched chips.  Five minutes into our feast, we abandoned our pre-game meal to the doggy bag and loosened our belts.  Our burritos and enchiladas had yet to arrive, and short of storing the meal in my cheeks, most of our entrees would have to be taken home.

In the end, we waddled from the restaurant, our arms dangled with take-home bags, our guts hanging over our belts in complete and utter satisfaction.  After a walk around the shops and market – searching in vain for an authentic pancho for Dasad – we left to drive back to Anaheim.  Tomorrow we would set up the Pacific Coast Highway, on our road to Napa Valley and a truck full of wine.

Lost in Wonderland, 2008

Over the years since Dasad and I first attended Otakon, the East Coast anime convention, my fascination with anime and manga has risen to new heights (or sunk to deeper depths) such that I can only ponder (and shudder) at where my interests will lead me next year. Curiosity provided impetus for our first visit; the following year, my love for stories and all things weird beckoned me back, a fact that still astounds Dasad today:

"Wait, you want to go back?"

"Wait, you want to go back?"

“Wait, you want to go back?” he wrote, ostensibly astounded after I pre-purchased tickets. “Why in the world would want to go back? Anime conventions are like social quicksand. Do you WANT to die alone and unloved?”

A little dramatic perhaps but I understand his concerns. Still normality never appealed to me, and so despite my impending destiny, I bought tickets again this year. Recently a few new anime series had captivated my imagination, and thus compelled me to seek out new DVDs, posters, and art books. Yet the real reason, my honest intent was to purchase an anime figure.

Buying an anime figure in the otaku community is akin to primal man’s first successful hunt or a wide receiver’s first touchdown: a rite of passage as well as a point of no return. Some otaku collect hundreds of figures, which they entomb in little glass cases or scatter around their workstations like protective spirits. Yet while owning hordes of figurines is a mark of honor in the anime community, everywhere else collectors are stapled as “thirty-year-old guys who plays with dolls.” Social quicksand indeed, conventions are more like a social black hole.

Normality never really appealed to me . . .

Normality never really appealed to me . . .

Still normality never really appealed to me, and thus this year I convinced Dasad to join me yet again. As we stood in line, I think he still had trouble coping with this decision:

“Remind me again why I am here?”

Dasad and I stood at the end of a long line into the convention center. Dressed in normal street clothes, we actually felt outlandish among the various costumes, makeup, and hand-made wands donned by the rest of the conventioneers. The lady before us was applying copious layers of red face-paint on her boyfriend’s face and arms while adjusting her lank black wig and the sash of her red kimono. Hellboy and Hellgirl then sucked down a can of Red Bull and leaned against the building to cuddle. Dasad wrinkled his nose. The couple smelt of soggy gym socks.

We should have dressed up, I thought.

We should have dressed up.

We should have dressed up.

“Freaks,” Dasad muttered. “I mean, we just visited the anime convention last year. What purpose do we have in coming yet again?”

“Well,” I said, focusing my camera on a host of ninja piling from a nearby van. “Last year was a bit of a farce. Months of waiting which amounted to a measly four hours of convention time, hardly enough to catch music videos and browse the marketplace. This year, the family gave me the whole day off to geek out.”

“Fine for you maybe, but what am I doing here? Besides inhaling geek funk, oh terrific . . .” The couple apparently had kissed. When I saw the girl again, her face shined with smudged paint, like a lioness after dining on fresh zebra. Dasad and I changed lines.

“You’re here,” I said, snapping a few more photos of some tight-donned swordsmen, “Because you’re a good friend who rejoices in my happiness.”

“Nope,” Dasad mumbles as the swordsmen’s ten-foot carboard sword nearly skewers him. “Freak, get far away from me and take your freak-stick with you.”

“Ummm, let’s see . . . there is a chance that I might get assaulted and/or molested by freaks, and you would not be here to watch and/or laugh.” At this point, I realized that we were in the wrong line altogether. Pre-registered attendees could go right inside.

" . . . take your freak stick with you."

". . . and take your freak stick with you."

“As well as capture your humiliation for posterity,” Dasad considered. “Okay I can accept that. Your camera does take movies, right?”

“I think . . . it has that video camera switch. Hold on . . .” I snap a few photos of some greenish wizard holding a large gray bomb and hand the camera to Dasad. I have to give my friend credit; he possesses a true talent for taking quality shots, holding the camera like an expert marksman. Meanwhile I shoot on the run, like an 80’s action star. Almost one-hundred percent of the smeared and blurred shots I delete afterwards were my own.

“So what are you looking for today?” Dasad asks inspecting the camera. “What’s the agenda?”

“Um . . . well, last year we came home with lots of stuff. DVDs, box sets, posters . . .”

“Speak for yourself. I came home with a bad rash and five hours lost, which could have been better spent watching Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares.”

“Well, this year I wanted to maybe buy some artbooks and maybe, if it’s not too expensive . . . a figure.”

“A figure?” Dasad said, suddenly smiling a broad Cheshire grin.

I have always had a fascination with carven figures and models – not that I myself am much adept at the art. When I was a mere tyke, Mom would collect David Winter houses, intricately carved Old World cottages, houses, and ruined castles. Never allowed to touch – lest my PB&J-smeared hands desecrate the artwork – I would nonetheless stare at them from behind glass doors. Now anime figures are equally detailed, and unlike my mother’s other collections, the childish Hummel figurines, do more than push wheelbarrows, plant flowers, and stare dumbfounded into space. Meanwhile, anime and video game characters can wield swords, mount spells, and look cute in bathing suits, hair billowing with the summer breeze. Moreover the transition from the 2D realm into three-dimensional statues fascinates me, and I wanted to commemorate this convention by buying my first figure.

"A figure?  Which one?"

"A specific figure? Which series?"

Nonetheless, this further descent into geekdom frightened me a bit. I have always been a moderate fan at best, picking and choosing my shows based on good-storytelling and interesting plot-lines, always ready to keep my obsession in check. Thus, purchasing a figure scared me some. Dasad of course knew this, and in order to relieve me of my fears, mocked me openly.

“Any specific figure? Which series? A sexy one? You, pervert you . . .”

“Umm . . .” I muttered, my face reddening. “No specific one in mind. Maybe Fate/Stay Night or Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya . . . or anyone that looks good.” Despite my mortification, the quest for the perfect figure had an opposite affect on Dasad, who at once seemed excited, ready and willing to humiliate me as I shopped.

The industrial plaza and its maze of venders regrettably were closed until eleven. Thus, we change direction and head for the art gallery and AMV contest. Navigating around the convention center is like finding oneself a rat in a maze. If you refuse to jump through the right hoops, you might find yourself lost, electrocuted, and a fire hazard.

“Whoa, that fuzzy Pikachu just shocked me,” Dasad shouts as we make our way through the crowds to the lower lobby.

“Wow,” I admired. “That’s quite a costume then. What do you think of the pageantry so far?”

"I can't even recognize half these characters."

"I can't even recognize half these characters."

“I can’t even recognize half these characters. The Dragonball and Naruto guys, sure. But what about that guy with the blue hair . . .”

“Gurren Lagann,” I said, taking a hurried picture. “Awesome show, the plot spans several years and considers the ramifications of changing the world and having to live with those changes.”

“ ‘kay, what about that one: the green haired girl in the straitjacket?”

“Umm . . . Code Geass, I think. New show, I haven’t seen it yet, but I hear it’s very popular in Japan now. The DVDs just came out this week so I’ll probably pick them up later today,” I said, now scanning the hallways and atriums for characters. Many I recognized but failing fluency in Japanese could not pronounce their names. “The kid with the guitar over there might be FLCL or Beck, I’m not sure. And the bunnygirl over there in her mom’s S&M clothes, well, I’m not quite sure what that is . . .”

We passed a large couple stretched out on a black couch. The husband rested his head in his wife’s lap; she slouched down in the sofa, eyes blurred over a magazine. I stopped to photograph a few cosplayers posing near the outdoor veranda.

“It’s ten o’clock in the morning,” Dasad whispered to me. “The convention opened at nine. Are they already exhausted?”

"I'm not quite sure what that is."

. . . the crowd's reaction to specific scenes and anime amaze me.

“Parents,” I said. “They have a long day ahead of them.”

We strode down to the anime music videos (AMV) contest. In previous years, the AMV’s proved the highlight of the convention. Fans would combine technical artistry, fast-paced songs, and their favorite shows into a short four-minute music video. Very impressive all in all. Yet this year, most of the videos – particularly those categorized as romantic or sentimental – proved more soporific than sensational. I believe Dasad fell asleep through half the entries, which failed to maintain his interest – and mine.

Nonetheless, the crowd’s reaction to specific scenes and anime amaze me. In past years during a particularly intense or memorable moment the audience, the size of a small stadium, would shout, cheer and clap. I would smile, infected by the crowd’s energy and excitement. Even faced with a dull video, the love of the fans for the medium made the whole experience bearable and fun. At home my own excitement was often met with odd stares and rolled eyes; here I could love my hobby with abandon.

Moreover, I discovered that some songs even improve when coupled with a little animation:

Eventually the industry arena opened, and a tide of conventioneers slowly flooded the marketplace, settling to a steady current throughout the numerous stalls and booths. Anime markets are an example of chaos in bloom. Otaku love to buy things: figures, books, DVDs, posters, key chains, anything associated with their favorite series. As I mentioned they are fairly obsessive people, and as Dasad and I drifted through the stalls, we witnessed fans dancing, posing for pictures, congregating around videos, and some – shoplifters – escorted out by security.

Half-way into the arena we encountered a group of girls dancing, shifting their hips back and forth and flapping their hands near their heads like cat ears. Energetic synth music blared in the background.

“By all that is holy, what is that?” Dasad asks.

“Caramelldansen,” I said. “A Swedish song set to these two anime characters dancing . . . well, like these girls. It’s a very addictive song. If you listen once, you’ll never get tired of it.”

“I have no idea what is going on anymore.”

“Neither do I,” I laugh. “That’s all the fun.”

Nonetheless, despite the choreographed dancing and ensuing chaos, we found our way into a relatively unpopulated booth to begin our search.

“So what are we looking for?” Dasad asked, fingering a large robot I recognized from the series RahXephon.

“I’m not sure myself, but I have to display it at home with the kids so . . .”

“PG-13?”

“Nothing excessively graphic . . . oh and no robots. I hate giant robots.”

“Gotcha, how about this one? It says ‘Cast Off.’ Does it fire missiles or something?”

“No, that means her clothes come off.”

“Whoa, okay. So no.”

“No, I’m not into that stuff. And the family would never let me live it down if I bought it.”

“Fine, but I’m making note of it . . . just in case you change your mind. Oooh . . . this one is sexy. Hey Murphey, don’t you want a sexy figure? Why don’t we buy the one with the swimsuit?” Dasad has a wonderfully honest way of embarrassing me in public. Possessing no shame – but then who does at an anime convention – he will announce with great acumen what I am thinking but probably too embarrassed to speak aloud.

“Ooo . . . I like the one with the girl in the short school uniform. Hey dude, did you know you bend the box at just the right angle you can see up . . .”

“Let’s go over there,” I interrupt, my face as red as sunburn.

. . .  rising from the earth as if flying

. . . rising from the earth as if flying

After much searching, I finally find the figure I am seeking: a Belldandy figure from the anime “Oh My Goddess.” The statue is well-crafted, beautiful with flowing robes, hair, and ribbons, rising from the earth as if flying. Dasad simply shrugs and asks for my camera. He films my purchase, much to the concern of the old man behind the counter as if he fears my whole exchange will appear on Inside Edition later that night. His eyes dart from side to side, and anxiously he quickly slides my credit card while shoving the figure in my hands.

We walk off and I hurriedly stuff the figure into my backpack. “So I have less to carry,” I explained to Dasad.

“Sure, sure,” he said. “Don’t worry no one cares. Shove your shame into your backpack and let’s head out. I’m starving for burritos.”

We leave the industry arena, and hesitantly I look back. Given more time, I think I could have bought a bit more, but for the sake of my stomach, sanity, as well as my wallet, we depart. Until next year then . . . when I will try to convince Dasad to buy that schoolgirl figurine.

“Fat chance,” he said his mouth full of rice. Oh well, but then perhaps I have a good lead on Christmas gifts . . .