Tuesday, October 29, 2013

“Blackfish” and The Ethics of Family Fun

As a Seaworld season pass holder for several years now, I was naturally interested in seeing the much discussed documentary “Blackfish.” For those of you who are not aware of the film, it is a scathing look at 39 years of keeping orcas (killer whales) captive for human amusement. Seaworld also claims it is for education, research and conservation. I think there is truth to all of those reasons, but primarily it is because the orcas are the main attraction for a multi-million dollar industry.

Using the 2010 killing of trainer Dawn Brancheau by Tilikum the killer whale at the Orlando Seaworld park as its starting (and ending) point, the film then covers in detail the history, ethics and dangers of keeping the ocean’s apex predators (even higher on the food chain than Great White sharks) in concrete pools and teaching them to do tricks for food.

ABOVE: Tilikum

Some of this, I think, is common sense. Anyone somewhat sensitive to animal rights that visits one of Seaworld’s parks has to look at the size of these whales and where they are kept and see that there is something wrong. As much as I have enjoyed visiting Seaworld and I still am awed when I see the orcas up close, it has always bothered me. For a creature that can travel over 100 miles a day in the open ocean, these whales spend their entire lives in the equivalent of a one-bedroom apartment.

I can also see Seaworld’s argument. Although they did not participate in “Blackfish” (all of the trainers interviewed in the film are “former” trainers, so we do not know all of the bones they may have to pick with the company), Seaworld has since commented and presented their side of the issue in the face of the firestorm that has resulted from this pretty remarkable film. Seaworld does indeed promote education and they push their message of conservation hard and I believe that it is sincere. They also are active in many ocean rescue operations. Seaworld sends its specialists to coasts all over the country to assist in animal beaching incidents, animals in distress, etc. They do real and substantial work in these areas, and are responsible for the rehab and then re-release of hundreds of animals a year. They also display majestic creatures that have complex emotions and are highly intelligent in a way that can only be described as cruel and unethical.

There are some scenes that are really hard to watch. The toughest scenes deal with separating mother orcas from their babies. They interview this great, grizzled ocean adventurer who had been involved in the early cowboy days of the 70’s when Seaworld hired these guys to go out and capture the first batch of Seaworld whales on the open seas (now most of the new whales are born in captivity). They targeted the babies and took them from their mothers. This guy, who talked about participating in revolutions in Africa and South America and admitted to being involved in some “shady” things in those revolutions, said that the capturing of the baby whales was the worst thing he had ever done or witnessed. This grizzled mercenary is in tears talking about the cries from the whales in the water once the babies are captured and taken away to a life in the concrete pools of Seaworld.

ABOVE: Many captive orcas have a dorsal fin that is bent. It is very rare in the wild. There are various theories as to why this occurs, including having to swim in circles all their lives in relatively small pools. Seaworld claims that it is because they spend so much time above the waterline. BELOW is a typical orca fin in the wild.

The most emotional moments deal with the treatment of the whales themselves, not so much these fatal and near fatal incidents with trainers. The ex-trainers they interview seem to be smart people, yet they claim that they were surprised that the whales turned on them (also note that they have performed many times a day for decades, and there are only a handful of these attacks). As I stated at the beginning, these are apex predators. Have you ever seen footage of these whales attacking seals? How could it make sense to get in the water with them? And these are highly intelligent creatures. One of the saddest aspects about this is the intense boredom and lack of stimulation for the whales. That probably explains much of their abnormal and sometimes aggressive behavior.

I think the most fascinating sequence in the film dealt with a trainer who actually survived his ordeal. They have the footage, and this guy is a badass. The whale grabbed his foot and dragged him under. It took him all the way to the bottom of the deep pool, held him there, and then brought him back up to breathe. Then it brought him down again. And again. It knew how long it could keep him under. The trainer didn’t panic, talking to the whale and stroking it whenever they were on the surface. Eventually it let him go, and he swam like mad to the side. The whale turned around to chase and he barely got out.

They live about a third of the lifespan in captivity that they do in the wild. Tilikum, the male that they focus on for much of the film, has been involved with three human deaths so far. Two trainers and in a mysterious case, some mentally ill man who apparently hid in the park until after closing and got in the tank to commune with the whales. Tilikum is still performing in Orlando. After Brancheau’s death, OSHA filed a successful suit against Seaworld to keep the trainers separated by some sort of barrier from the whales. If you attended Seaworld pre-2010 vs. now, it is a very different show. Not nearly as exciting, but also a lot safer for the trainers. Seaworld is appealing to get the trainers back in the water to ride the whales. Tilikum’s value is mainly in breeding. They use him to make baby Shamus, and about half of the captive orcas in the world are related Tilikum.

ABOVE: If you go to a Seaworld park post-2010, you won’t see trainers in the water doing this kind of stuff anymore. Seaworld is appealing the decision.

It is an emotional and powerful film. The question arises, of course, do I still go to Seaworld? Do I still take my children there? Do I teach them it is the norm to keep these whales in captivity? My daughter loves it, and I have to admit from a selfish perspective, it is an experience to get so close to killer whales. But at what cost? Is this barbaric? Seaworld’s position is that the whales are happy and taken care of. At some level I am sure they believe it. But the evidence, and common sense, suggest otherwise. My daughter loves it there, I really enjoy it as well. Also, Seaworld is much more than killer whales and other sea creatures. It is an amusement park with roller coasters and rides and it is a huge waterpark. The last three or four times we have been, we haven’t even gone to see the killer whales. But is not going to the shows enough? We are still spending a lot of money at the park, funding their activities. I feel like in one respect I should be principled and not support their company, but it is also a fantastic entertainment product. And they also do some real good as well.

ABOVE: Seaworld makes a lot of money off of using their iconic killer whales as their unofficial mascot.

Funny enough, we were there this weekend. My college’s alumni organization put together a behind the scenes tour. They took us back to some restricted areas where they rehab animals. We got to get quite up close with some dolphins that seemed to be taking genuine delight in splashing us with water. The tour guide told us it was OK to take pictures back there, but asked us not to take pictures of animals through any gates (to be fair, there were only a few gates, most of the pools were open for the dolphins to swim freely). They didn’t want photos of dolphins with gates in front of them floating around. “You know, ‘Blackfish’ and all of that,” he said.

“Blackfish”: **** out of *****

Sunday, October 27, 2013

RIP Lou Reed, 1942-2013

Not really sure what to write on this one. I could give a straight obituary listing his accomplishments, but I'm not going to do that. Most of my readership knows why Lou matters. Why to a certain corner of the rock universe, Lou was Elvis. In a music that started out of rebellion and that was supposed to offer an alternative to the mainstream society, Lou and the Velvet Underground offered a more daring and darker alternative still to the alternative. One of the most impressive things about The Velvet Underground was that in the midst of Summer of Love and hippies, they were offering a realistic and gritty view from the streets. Yet they were also pretentious and Andy Warhol's band. But then they really weren't. I've always thought the Warhol tie was overblown. Beneath the howling avant garde experiments and seedy tales of junkies and low lifes was a pure foundation in great, classic rock and roll melodies. That was all Lou.

Obviously the Velvets' influence was immense. I've always loved the famous quote (sometimes attributed to Brian Eno) that they only sold 1000 copies of their first record, but everyone who heard it started a band. They actually did sell a bit more than that, but the sentiment is true. They were the ultimate cult band against which all other great bands who get that label are to be judged.

Lou's solo career was just as interesting (if not as earthshaking), and in some ways even more daring. He made some undisputably great music (Transformer), some savage (and glammy) rock and roll (Rock and Roll Animal), but also always stayed on the edge and daring to stretch that envelope. His biggest hit, "Walk On the Wild Side," managed to get substantial airplay for a song about transvestites and oral sex. Again, whatever subversive lyrics were at play, he could always anchor them with catchy music when he wanted to. Or, there was Metal Machine Music. The biggest "f*ck you" in all of popular music. A record of tape hiss and distortion. And it was a double. Even when he failed to reach his goals (like on Berlin), he still made very interesting music. The song "Street Hassle" may be his finest hour (or at least eleven minutes). An alternatively harrowing and humorous storysong that sort of takes Springsteen's epic street tales and drives them into the gutter. What is fantastic is that near the very end, Springsteen himself makes a brief uncredited cameo with a slurred, spoken word verse playing on his own "Born To Run": "Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to pay."

For some reason, a moment in time has stuck with me all of these years. In high school, my friend Johannes and I were taking drivers' ed together. I remember one day at the end of the lesson and we were driving back into the school, and Lou Reed's "Dirty Blvd." was on the radio. Johannes and I both were chatting up the friendly drivers' ed teacher in the parking lot, asking all kinds of driving questions, with the car still running and "Dirty Blvd." playing. As Johannes and I were leaving, he admitted to me that he was trying to extend the conversation for the sole purpose of getting to hear the song in its entirety. He just didn't want to get out of the car until the song was over. That was exactly what I was doing as well. What a great song.

RIP Lou Reed.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Pumpkin Patch

We have taken my oldest daughter to the same pumpkin patch each year of her life. Whereas I generally view the purpose of the trips as, I don't know, picking out pumpkins for Halloween, my wife sees them primarily as photo ops. More operation than opportunity. My daughter is three and a half, and she has now made four trips to this same pumpkin patch. It is interesting to see how she has grown up. Below are one picture each per trip...

Bonus pic. Below is my youngest daughter during her first visit to the same pumpkin patch...

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees and Predictions

It is that most exciting time of year for all of those watchers of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It takes a special breed to be this obsessed with something so meaningless, but that is really what GNABB is all about, right? Once again for review, bands are eligible 25 years after their first record or single release. The criteria is fairly vague, generally it is cited as "influence," "innovation" and "quality of work." There is a Nominating Committee of musicians, industry insiders and such who create the list of nominees (see many previous posts of mine regarding the inside politics of this body), and then about 500 voters (other musicians, industry insiders, critics and all inducted members) get to vote from that list and the inductees usually number 5-7 each year. This year, as last year, through the Rockhall website here, fans can vote for five and that poll will be tallied and entered as one "fan ballot" amongst the 500 or so. I like it, even though it gives the fans little real power, we can at least play a miniscule part in the whole process.

For the second year in a row, I am pleased with the 16 nominees. There are several who are getting first time nominations from my own personal snub list. Here are the nominees, and then I will give you my predictions, my wish list and some final thoughts.

The Nominees (in alphabetical order)...

1. Chic.
This is their record setting 8th nomination. Someone on the Committee really wants them in. I think this year is their best chance yet, partly due to attrition. But Nile Rodgers has had a big year, and I think that might push them over. While I really prefer some other candidates here, I do feel they deserve induction. Funk/dance pioneers.

2. Deep Purple. A no brainer and one of the biggest snubs on the outside looking in. Hard rock/metal is one of the more disrespected genres in the Hall, and Deep Purple is one of the true pioneers of the genre.

3. Peter Gabriel. Surprisingly, this is Peter's first nomination as a solo artist. I find that ridiculous. Although he is already in the Hall as a member of Genesis, he is probably even more deserving for his own work. Innovation? Check. His recordings broke a lot of ground, and he was one of the most important western artists to incorporate world music into pop. One of the biggest solo artists of the 80's, his influence is huge and he is very respected.

4. Hall & Oates. Also a first time nomination, it is about freakin' time. Often wrongly dismissed, Hall & Oates are one of the most successful recording duos of all time. The Rockhall is not supposed to consider commercial success, but come on. And the quality is there too. Perhaps a little light in the "innovation" department, but still a deserving act.

5. KISS. This is their second nomination, so I guess the longtime KISS ban imposed by Dave Marsh really has been lifted. Disrespected and disregarded by critics, KISS is the ultimate populist hard rock band. Influential on entire generations of hard rock/metal acts. While not musically innovative, I would say they were innovative as businessmen in the industry for sure. And in a popular music like rock and roll, that does mean something. Quality of work? Well. It's all just rock and roll in the end anyway, right? Clearly deserving in my book.

6. LL Cool J. Rap icon and has been nominated several times. But there is another rap nominee that has a better chance this year.

7. The Meters. No chance. Great New Orleans funk band, but I don't think they are really Hall worthy. I like them a lot, though.

8. Nirvana. The most sure thing the Hall has had in a long time. It is their first year of eligibility, and they are a shoo-in.

9. N.W.A. They will probably be rap's representative this year, and are deserving. More responsible for rap's attitude in the early years than probably anyone else.

10. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Somebody's pet project on the Committee, clearly. I like them, I respect their playing and innovation ("East/West"), but no chance this year.

11. The Replacements. Well, color me impressed. One of the Hall's most neglected periods is the 80's, and the Replacements were crucial in the alt-80's scene. Love them, doubt they will make it in this year, but the nomination is a small victory in itself.

12. Linda Ronstadt. Ugh. Yes there is too much sausage in the Rockhall, but please. Sympathy pick due to her recent illness. She'll probably get in too, because she doesn't have anyone here to split votes with, and the institution is sensitive to accusation of lacking diversity.

13. Cat Stevens. No problem with him being nominated. Won't make it though.

14. Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Finally! It is shameful how the Hall neglects certain genres or periods that the Committee members dislike, and Progressive Rock is one of the most neglected. Innovation, influence and quality are all there. How they could nominate for the first time after all of this time a band that should have been in for years is embarassing. Whether you like their music or not, a band that is a pioneer and consistent leader in a particular genre should be the definition of a Hall of Fame act. Come on.

15. Link Wray. Important, but I doubt he gets in. I think the door on 50's acts is already closed.

16. The Zombies. One of the few remaining 60's acts that I think still deserves to get in. Much bigger in England than stateside, they created some fantastic pop music. I am sure Little Steven was behind their nomination, and for once, I support his efforts.

So there you have it, this year's nominees. First my predictions...

Nirvana - duh.
Chic - 8 nominations and Nile Rodgers having a big year = induction
Deep Purple - too influential and important to be left out.
Peter Gabriel - maybe I'm being more hopeful than anything, I just think he is too respected not to make it.
Linda Ronstadt / NWA / Yes / The Zombies - If it is five nominees it will be one of these, if it is six then two of them, if seven then three of them.

My hopes? I know Nirvana deserves it objectively over everyone other than maybe Deep Purple or Yes, but these are my personal choices, so...

Peter Gabriel, Yes, The Replacements, Hall & Oates, KISS. If I get a 6th and 7th, then NWA and Zombies.

As usual with this yearly post, I will leave you with my snub list. Artists eligible but still not in the Hall that should be (not that I love all of these artists, but objectively, they have strong cases for induction): Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Cars, Duran Duran, The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Pixies, Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Kraftwerk, Judas Priest, Motorhead, King Crimson, Kool & the Gang, The Commodores, Dick Dale, Lou Reed, Big Star, Cheap Trick, Jimmy Buffett, The Monkees, Roxy Music, T. Rex...etc. etc. etc.

OK, your thoughts?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Head Games

ABOVE: This is a louse

This little bastard has been the bane of my existence for the past week or so. We got a phone call from my oldest daughter’s daycare informing us that she had lice and that we needed to pick her up. My wife immediately went into crisis mode, and it felt like we were trying to contain an outbreak of the next killer virus.

We have spent several hundred dollars so far on different remedies and special combs and brushes. Tomorrow my wife will meet with a "lice specialist" for a 98% guaranteed delousing. One website stated that the average family spends close to $800 to get rid of these f***ers. They are tiny little creatures, and leave little white eggs in your hair that resemble, to me, dandruff. My daughter had quite a few eggs. When we picked her up at daycare she cheerfully told us that she had “bugs and eggs” on her head. She had a little friend who had it too. I am sure that the little friend was the source.

So, at night we have been washing every towel, bed sheet, blanket or piece of clothing. I have vacuumed the entire house, sofa, chairs about three times. You have to get these fine combs and spend about an hour going over every inch of the infected head to pick out these eggs. Then you have to use radioactive chemicals in your hair to kill the lice. Got to hand it to the wife, though. I don’t think the UN was this organized in the Balkans in the 90’s.

The problem is that it is easy to reinfect. Someone gets clean, but then someone else in the house gets infected. Then they reinfect the cleaned person. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. My daughter, my wife and I all got them. They don’t really harm you, they just itch. Fortunately, my youngest daughter doesn’t have them because she has very little hair. Which brings me to…

Last night my wife instructed me that we should take me “out of the equation.” What that means, she calmly told me, was that I should shave my head. Like Mr. Clean. Like Telly Savalas. Like Yul Brenner. Because I’m a man, she explained, this is not a big deal.

ABOVE: Apparently my wife wouldn't mind being married to Kojak.

I told her I would go get a haircut, and she said that I at least needed to get a buzz cut, like I was some new recruit. I got a really short, but nice looking haircut and then returned home. This was not near enough. I was not helping the family, I was told. Why didn’t I care about helping the family?! So I went back out, but to a different barber, and asked for the real deal. I did not want to tell her it was for lice, so I made up a story about losing a bet on the recent Cowboys game. “You’re a Cowboys fan?” “Oh no. I bet that Denver would beat them by more than they did. I despise the Cowboys.” I made up an intricate story about gambling on football, explained spreads, betting haircuts, etc. She greatly admired me for keeping my word. So then I returned home for the second time that evening, with my second haircut and almost $50 later. I now have a buzz cut. I am now “out of the equation.” As I am sure she was instructed to do by her mother, my daughter said “Daddy, I like your new haircut.” Great, I don’t.

ABOVE: Did you know that buzz cuts were first used in the military to prevent lice?

My students were a bit stunned when I went to work today. I told them I was getting ready for summer. Anyway, I am told it takes about a month to completely delouse a household. Although, as of last night my daughter didn’t seem to have any. When I dropped her off at school this morning, her little lice-friend ran up to her and gave her a big hug. Awesome.