Bear vs. Bull illustration
Illustration by Molly Oleson

“Do you want to finish our drinks and go drink somewhere else for a while?” I asked Midori.

“Yes,” she said. “Or … could we just take our drinks out into the lobby?”

“Brilliant!” I said. We asked the bartender, and he said yes.

Physically, Bear vs. Bull, the bar in the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater, hasn’t changed at all since before the pandemic. Maybe it’s a little darker. That night, the music was definitely too loud. 

But, oh has the drink menu changed. Once, this was a pretty good cocktail bar with its own distinct taste. They had a whole section of boilermakers. But this? This menu was … boring. 

I mean, a small variant on an Old Fashioned? A mixed rum punch? Come on!

I was distressed. I was actually a little embarrassed that I was meeting Midori at Bear vs. Bull. I mean, it made sense: It was convenient, since we were going to see a late show of “Everything, Everywhere, All At Once.” But … she’s someone who I’d much rather bring to a bad bar than to a boring bar. You can still be adventurous in bad bars. Give Midori the slightest leeway and she’ll make something interesting happen. But boring bars give you nothing to work with. 

The only items on the Bear vs. Bull menu that had looked interesting to her were the boozy shakes, particularly the whiskey banana split shake. It didn’t sound like it should work, but either way, it would be interesting. She was going to go with the most adventurous thing on the menu. I love it when people do that. 

But no sooner had she decided to order it than the bartender said they weren’t available in the bar, only in the movie theater. 

Stymied, I ordered a boring rum drink and she ordered the beer that had the most interesting sounding name to her, a Pop Art Hazy, and we tried to talk over the music … until the music was suddenly replaced by a man on a microphone announcing that it was trivia night. It was time to go.

“Hey,” I asked the bartender as we left, “am I right that your menu has changed a lot?”

“Yeah,” he said. “During the pandemic … we were closed for a while, and there were staffing shortages, and what people ordered kind of changed … it just made sense to simplify our menu. We’re changing it back. It’s happening, just kind of slowly.”

“Got it, thanks.” I nodded, felt a little relieved, and we stepped out into the lobby. 

“Ooh, let’s sit on the couch!” Midori said, pointing, and we situated ourselves like it was a living room. We ordered a bottomless bowl of popcorn, put it between us, and started our conversation over again. 

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“WHAT have you been up to?” she asked. 

The week before, I’d done my first live show in more than three years. A combination cabaret and talk show in which I’d sung, I’d told stories, and had guests who I’d interviewed and then asked them to take a risk on stage: To do something with their expertise that they’d never tried before. 

“Oh, that sounds wonderful!” she said.

“It was. I’ll want you to be a guest if I do another one.”

“Of course! What did it feel like to do that?” she asked.

“It felt amazing,” I said. “Like so much energy had moved through me. It was great. I ended that show feeling gloriously high, actually, and not being functional at all.”

“From doing art? I’ve had that feeling.”

Those statements led us to each gently reveal something it turns out we have in common: Each of us, based on the kind of activities we lead and the kind of company we keep, is assumed to have a lot more drug experience than we really do. In fact, each of us has much, much, less of a drug history than one imagines of the average artsy San Franciscan.

It wasn’t a deliberate decision. I grew up in a part of the midwest that didn’t really have much of a drug culture. She grew up in a part of Japan where only drinking was the thing. By the time we were fully functioning adults, the habit of abstaining had been ingrained. 

Mostly, but not entirely.

We traded stories. I told her about a plan I’m developing with someone for an intense small group art experience that hopefully, if we do it right, mixes those things together.

“That’s interesting,” she said. “What will you do if someone in it breaks down?”

“That is part of the discussion we’re still having,” I admitted.

She told me about a time, not too long ago, that she was being stalked by a crazy ex, someone with a military combat background, who she took out a restraining order against after he showed up at her house.  

“I had a friend who told me that at least I was safe now, and I told her, ‘No; if anything, my realistic risk factors are higher now. But if he comes for me, I will finish him.’ And … my friend gave me a look, and it was clear that she was okay with my cowering in fear, but not with my standing up and defending myself. And, well, that’s not me.”

“For the next year, as I waited to see what happened,” she went on, “I was in a kind of warrior mode. I was more focused, more present, I slept better, I was more productive, because I was on high vigilance. Everything was at its peak, ready. I really enjoyed it, but I knew it couldn’t last.”  

To try to capture the mental state, she reached out to an artist friend and had him draw her warrior spirit as a Japanese oni ⁠— a kind of folkloric demon. He did, and she pulled the picture up on her phone to show me. It’s an astonishing image: fierce and sensual and potent.  

“I’m going to have a more complete version drawn on a scroll, so that I can open it up when I need to get back in that spirit,” she said, pantomiming unrolling a scroll. “But even on the screen, it actually kind of works. It’s very compelling.”

I took a breath. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to create art experiences with that kind of impact.”

“Tell me,” she said, “how have the experiences you’ve had with drugs compared to the experiences you’ve had with art and magic and kink?”

If our friendship has a thesis statement, it felt like she’d just circled it.

“Oh, it’s not even close,” I said. “The art magic experiences are so much better, when they work, in every way that matters to me.”

She nodded. “That’s my experience, too. Do you know where the art and kink ends and the magic begins?”

I shook my head. “No, honestly. I used to think there was a clear distinction. Now those distinctions are only clear if I’m doing it poorly, whereas the better at it I get, the less the categories hold.”

She took a breath. “I’ve reached the same conclusion.”

“Excuse me,” a voice said. Someone was standing by the couch. 

We turned. “Oh!” I said. “Hi!”

“Hello,” my friend “Susan” said. “I don’t mean to interrupt, I just saw you over here and thought I’d come say hello.”

“Well, hello,” I said. “I’m glad you did!”

“You, know it’s really interesting,” I told Susan, “I was just telling Midori about the experience we’re in the process of planning out …” I looked back at Midori. “This is the person I told you I was developing that with.”

“Oh, this is an interesting moment we’re having!” Midori said

We chatted for a little bit, then Susan went to catch her movie. It was almost time for ours, too, so Midori settled up at the bar as I picked up the tickets. 

It was strange, I thought as we walked into the theater, that this was the first time I’ve ever casually bumped into Susan in the wild, and it happened just after I’d talked about her. Moments like that don’t necessarily mean anything, but Midori and I are both dedicated to the proposition that they can mean a great deal, if you do them right. That there is a way of orienting to life that makes it more artful, and hence in some ways more purposeful. 

In the theater, we finally ordered the whiskey banana split shakes. They were delicious. The movie is bizarre but utterly masterful. A trip. It paired bizarrely well with this conversation, which we’d never have had if we’d stuck to the bar. 

Be discerning. Then make the adventurous choice. 

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