Snow job

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It looked like a pillow fight in a movie: downy feathers of snow twisting and drifting through the air, with little space between the fluttering flakes. A midday flurry making landfall in heaps and mounds. 

Yet it wasn’t too voluminous, this late-winter coating, and instead of pillowy tufts, the following day offers equal parts splash and crunch. Anything beautiful about the snow has thawed into a slurry swamp. Walking the dog, we slalomed around slush and brown puddles resembling polluted ponds. My sneakers got wet. 

Slush, rivers of slush.

I love winter. I like the cold. But I can do without snow, which wasn’t true during my salad days of skiing down vertiginous slopes, laughing all the way. Nowadays I’m too reserved to even toboggan, and I am not squatting in one of those saucer sleds for the certainty that I will break my collar bone in a spectacular face plant. 

Snow now means shoveling, one of the lowest forms of drudgery, right there with prisoners smashing quarry rocks in old-timey pictures like “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” No matter how frigid it is, I sweat piggishly when shoveling snow. I hate sweating. I hate heat. Did I mention I like winter?

But the season will soon cruelly vanish and shorts, a sartorial scandal, will be all the rage. It’s probable more snow will fall before that; March often gets dumped on without mercy. If there was a hill around here, I’d rent some skis. (And probably snap a femur.) 

So this is a premature farewell to the fair season, when we abide icy irritants for the relievedly short days, chilly breezes, hot toddies, fashionable outerwear (is anything hipper than a natty scarf?) and indiscriminate cuddling. (About outerwear: I never don gloves or hats in winter. My mammalian blood takes care of the extremities, ears too.)

When another snow day comes this season, I will gripe and groan. But I will also be grateful that it’s still winter. That I can wear a parka with impunity. That I don’t have to attend barbecues and eat outdoors. That bugs and sunshine won’t assail me. And that I can, joyfully, unabashedly, freeze my ass off.

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A few things revving me up

I’m having a tricky time getting jazzed about too much lately — only Socrates rivals my sage discernment and penetrating taste — yet I am alive, blood sluices through my veins. Some things I’m digging:

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Richard Serra sculptures at Dia: Beacon, New York

Caustically hilarious British TV series “Fleabag”; Sigrid Nunez’s quietly affecting novel “The Friend”; the reliably stirring Dia: Beacon museum, so serenely cluttered with minimalist and sculptural masterworks; poetic Polish romance (and Oscar nominee) “Cold War”; and Weezer’s “Teal Album,” featuring frighteningly faithful covers of Toto’s “Africa” to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” It’s a gas.

Mostly this entry is a sequel to my December year-end inventory of now-time enthusiasms, stuff getting my juices flowing. These are the current tops:

  • Jade Bird

Strumming an acoustic guitar, her long hair swinging, she sings in a hushed girlish voice before belting like a banshee, loosing a squall of blazing catharsis. She has pipes that purr, then roar, then come back. You sway to twangy folk, then rock with giddy fury. 

Intimate and Velcro-sticky, Bird’s music, performed acoustically or with a small band, circles Americana, punk and soulful indie pop. Country fans are drawn by her evocations of rocky, star-crossed relationships, and there’s country crunch in those folk-rock vocals. Her galloping cover of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” is a jam-session joy.

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In this 21-year-old Brit, the Dixie Chicks are at their fiercest, alongside a banging Liz Phair, Courtney Barnett, PJ Harvey and other steely indie royalty. Bird’s lyrics pop and sear. In the unreasonably rousing “I Get No Joy,” Bird sings with such speedy agility, she’s almost rapping:

“Psychotic, hypnotic, erotic, which box is your thing?/How many days a week, do you feel/Electric, connected, unexpectedly/Affected, what do you need?”

It’s a kind of sublime whiplash.

(Watch her HERE.)


  • “Capernaum”

His hair is a fluffy fiasco, a brown brushfire, his splotched face the seasoned mug of a gang member. He’s filthy and swears like a sailor. He’s homeless. He’s 12. 

In Nadine Labaki’s Beirut-set stunner, a nominee for the best foreign language Oscar, the boy, Zain, is a resourceful renegade in the scrappy mold of Huck Finn and Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows.” Fed up with his struggling parents and their feckless care of their many children, Zain takes them to court, accusing them of the crime of giving him life. It’s a preposterous idea, a satirical glance at the Lebanese judicial system.

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Zain (the extraordinary Zain al Rafeea) fast becomes a tough street urchin who finds a gig babysitting the gurgling infant of an illegal Ethiopian refugee, played by Yordanos Shiferaw. (The film’s devastating cast of non-professionals play versions of themselves.) When the young mother is arrested, Zain is stuck taking care of the baby on his own. In this harrowing situation — the movie is a tart indictment of Beirut’s corrupt state of child welfare — the fathomless despair can be unbearable to watch.

“Capernaum” — the title means “chaos” — owes much to the children-centric neorealism of ‘80s and ‘90s Iranian cinema, from “The White Balloon” to “The Color of Paradise” — heart-renders told in raw, wrenching lyricism that aren’t without political undercurrents. It’s a street tale alive with miscreants and thieves and few kind gestures. It’s so gritty and grubby the camera lens almost seems smudged. Redemption, however, is in the air.

(Trailer HERE.)


  •  “Asymmetry”

Beautifully written, radiantly spun and shot through with smashing intelligence, Lisa Halliday’s first novel “Asymmetry” bristles with humanity as it mingles conventional and unorthodox structures. It’s a literary feat kneading the fictional form like Play-Doh.

I’m only a third of the way through its brisk 271 pages, but I’m sold. (Being part-way in a book you’re relishing is where you want to be; there’s more on the way to savor.)

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The novel is chopped into three sections. I finished the first section, “Folly,” which traces the May-December romance between Alice, a 25-year-old aspiring writer, and Ezra Blazer, a famous author 40 years her senior. (If he rather resembles Philip Roth, it’s not chance: Halliday had a relationship with Roth while in her twenties.)

And so we get an old-fashioned affair of unpushy comedy and sweet asides set amidst Upper West Side means, with tender banter and the not uncomplicated theme of apprenticeship, much like a Woody Allen movie, without the deep-dish neuroses.

Alice has career issues, Ezra has health issues, and brewing in the background is the launch of the Iraq War. (The war plays a prominent role in the next section, “Madness.”) In this, one of The New York Times’ 10 best books of 2018 (and a favorite of Barack Obama), Halliday doesn’t flinch from the vagaries of love, including the sort, like Woody’s, peppered with literary chatter and throbbing with aching uncertainty.

The dialogue is unfailingly smart, wry, just right. Alice and Ezra conduct short, gem-cut conversations that bring a knowing grin:

“Is this relationship a little bit heartbreaking?” he said.

The glare off the harbor hurt her eyes. “I don’t think so. Maybe around the edges.”


  • “United Skates” 

In urban roller rinks across the country thousands of African-American roller-skaters are lacing up and getting down. Beneath rays of twirling disco balls an underground roller renaissance thrives among a force of skate buffs who throw after-dark rink parties and commit kinetic art on waxed wood floors: backflips and break-dances, tag-team acrobatics, backwards trains and other daredevilry. Many revelers simply trace ovoid loops in a kind of roller-boogie bliss.

With new and archival footage, much of it contagiously groovy, “United Skates” directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown chronicle the hip-hop-fueled scene with at once bracing and brooding electricity. They hopscotch the nation — Los Angeles to Baltimore — and capture the community-building soul of skating as well as the heartrending gentrification that’s swiftly shutting down classic rinks, dinosaurs of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Few will survive.

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Next to dwindling skate spaces, the film locates other troubles: the apparent profiling of black skaters at certain rinks that ban rap and the skinny wheels many black skaters prefer. When skaters organize “adult nights” — “Code for ‘black night,’” says one — police fill the parking lots and security is thick. No such hysterics are apparent on a typical “white” night. It’s a familiar microcosm of current race relations.

Yet the party rolls on. The subculture retains a die-hard exuberance not easily snuffed. The film’s final scenes are far from elegiac; against all odds they are tonically celebratory.

(Starting Feb. 18 on HBOTrailer HERE.)

When the pup popped pills

We OD’d the dog. 

Cubby the magic mutt was supposed to get one sedative pill before his visit to the vet yesterday. He’s a nervous guy, especially around the ominous sterility of the doctor’s office and creepy paper-sheathed exam table. So he pops a chill pill. (We should all be so lucky.) 

An hour before his appointment, I dipped a tablet in peanut butter, tricking him into swallowing the large pill. It’s an anti-anxiety med made for, get this, humans over age 25. It’s called Trazodone and it’s prescribed for any “stressful event.” I am seriously considering stealing a couple. 

Then this: Minutes later, my sister-in-law, unaware her dog was already medicated, gave him another Trazodone. Within a half hour, it was clear: Cubby was cooked. 

A smallish dog covered in gray curls, Cubby suddenly looked heartbreakingly lost, a Who-what-where am I? expression on his Ewok face. Dazed and confused, he started lurching and stumbling in slow-motion, like a wagon with a wobbly wheel, or Dean Martin.

His eyes little pinwheels, he looked like Joe Cocker on his first acid trip. He furrowed his brows and those eyes filled with vacant perplexity. 

He tottered up the stairs and onto the low bed, where he looked around wondering what was going on. His wet-noodle limbs did him no favors. He was a fuzzy stumblebum. He followed me into the bathroom and tried to leap atop the closed toilet but slipped and fell on his butt onto the floor, where he remained, shrugging, Whateva.

It was an unnerving spectacle. I felt at once bad for and envious of the doped dog. This was some drug. Trazodone is also an anti-depressant and off-label is used as “a hypnotic to initiate sleep.” (Seriously. I’m taking some. Shhh.)

And why did Cubby need this mega-med? He was going to the vet to get his nails clipped (really?) and to have his anal glands expressed,” or emptied (really!). You know it’s time for that undignified procedure when your animal starts scooting across the floor, sphincter in the carpet, sliding like he’s on wheels.

Cubby survived the vet visit. Of course, he was baked, so maybe he even enjoyed it. The doctor said it would take 12 hours for the pills to wear off and for his expression to stop resembling Cheech and Chong’s.

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Not actually Cubby, but this is exactly how he wound up that night.

By night, the dog wore a look of blissed bewilderment. He passed out. There he was, zonked on his back, legs sticking straight in the air like an overturned table. Gone. 

‘When writing is fun, it’s not very good.’

I’ve always found that when writing is fun, it’s not very good. If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light.”

— Russell Baker, journalist and two-time Pulitzer winner, who died in January

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There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” — Ernest Hemingway 

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Super Bowl? Super bored

It’s weird that I even know who’s playing in the Super Bowl this Sunday. Usually I’m hard-pressed to name the teams because frankly and emphatically I really, truly, rabidly don’t care. But, sure, Sunday’s face-off between the Cowboys and Dolphins should be something super neat-o. 

Yeah, I’m a riot — Rams vs. the Patriots, there we have it. And how that means absolutely nothing to me. Zip. It’s a gaping vacuum in my personal cosmos, a shrieking black hole of wild indifference. I won’t eat wings on Super Bowl Sunday. I won’t watch the inane commercials. Half-time band Maroon 5 makes me alternately apoplectic and very sad.  

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My antipathy to sports is long and legion. They never spoke to me — or is that grunted to me. I think of atavistic grunting when I think of sports, chiefly team sports, for which I reserve the most distaste.

Grunting, yelling and grab-ass — the team sports post-play repertoire. Players, those self-adulating egoists, shoot arms in Nixonian salutes, teeth bared. They thump their chests and leap onto the nearest teammate, bonking helmeted heads together. This is raw joy. Twisted, but still something recognizable as euphoria.

It’s a glee I do not share. I don’t care about that game-winning grand slam, swan-diving touchdown, three-point swoosh. Still, I am not wholly unmoved by athletic grace and skill. I know it when I see it, and I am often impressed. 

For instance, I recognize the poetry in a goal by Cristiano Ronaldo, a breathtaking feat of mathematical precision and almost tearjerking eloquence. I get it. I gasp.   

While athletics aren’t in my DNA, I enjoy the Olympics and I thrill watching individual competitors — track stars, skiers, surfers, gymnasts, cyclists — going for it, fueled by sheer will, determination and transcendent talent. 

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Though never a jock — I was more into rock — I played soccer for years, if pretty reluctantly. I kicked that habit for BMX and snow skiing — individual athletic expressions of reckless speed and airborne glory. Granted, I wasn’t terrific at either sport, but I had a blast. 

I’ve quoted author Roxane Gay before on this subject, and do so again: “As a child, I was uninterested in becoming athletic. I was not a team player. I was a dreamer, something of an oddball loner. I wanted to spend all my time with books.”

That was me. 

Bizarrely but not surprisingly, some sports fans can’t resist equating coming out as a non-fan to coming out out. “Gay” someone wrote on an online message board in response to a man who admitted he didn’t like sports. 

“Are you sure you’re a guy? When was the last time you checked?” wrote another genius. (Tony Hollowell’s book “I Have a Penis and I Hate Sports” is a rejoinder to such nincompoopery.)

This is what we’re dealing with. Homophobic taunts and pea-brained putdowns. Guys must love sports or they’re not entirely manly. Their virility is at stake. The jerry-rigged logic of that racks one’s head like blunt trauma.

Which brings me to what I really abhor about sports, besides the crushing tedium of the actual games: the fans and the culture. Yelling, all that yelling. The militaristic crowds that smack of the obscenely coarse rallies of a particular world leader. The mob mentality and animalistic tribalism that fosters brute behavior, not excluding the rare deadly riot. 

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And the yelling. The endless yelling.

A level-headed sports fanatic wrote online why he thinks some people hate sports: “Sports tend to create a very superficial culture. Athletes are popular for primarily their athletic abilities, not necessarily for their philanthropy, intelligence, personality, or any number of gauges we tend to look for in friends or other role models.”

That’s pretty perspicacious coming from a fan, and I agree with almost all of it. 

Not being a fan is like being excluded from a humungously happening party, and it’s not always the most comfortable spot to be in. It’s akin to not liking “Titanic” or “Avatar” (I find both movies laughably bad) — you become the party-pooper, the hater, the other.

But that’s OK. As long as I don’t have to watch those movies again — or sit through Sunday’s interminable football game, that gigantic neon advertisement for numbskull primitivism and frenzied jingoism — I’ll be fine.

I’m not eavesdropping, really …

Recently here I chatted up the new local cafe, the exquisitely hip, I’ve-been-to-India, dump-Trump joint with the jaunty name. I decided to pop into the other local cafe, that name-brand one that just reopened after long renovation. I’m there now — I write in cafes often, a living cliché — and I’m people-watching with a touch of eavesdropping. It’s not at all creepy.

I see a poised, pert, put-together brunette chirping quietly with her friend — hale, happy twentysomethings talking about job interviews and uproarious Facebook posts. She looks like she loves dinner parties and charades. She fancies a good daiquiri. Her favorite TV show is “This Is Us.” I’m just surmising, but I know I’m right.

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A hypothetical cafe scene. They look ecstatic.

Elsewhere overheard: “You know, Mary, I’m not comfortable making those calls.” 

Enter: a 60-ish gent in a baggy Bill Cosby sweater, with stubble that looks like powdered sugar sprinkled on his pink pate. “I begin my teaching tomorrow. Seventy students!” he tells his companion, a flute-thin young woman with lank auburn hair who, I’m certain, is a teacher’s assistant. 

The fellow is loud and a roaring bore. He gesticulates like a madman. She sips some coffee and it goes down the wrong pipe. The ensuing coughing fit is something to behold. Napkins fly. We sympathize.

“We’re getting off track here,” an elderly woman laughs. She’s talking to a slightly younger woman at a corner table about scheduling some sort of meeting at her home. “Should we do RSVPs?” the younger woman asks. 

I soon gather they’re organizing a book club. They are perusing a list of titles. The younger woman describes a book that’s “very well-written” that sounds like a kind of real estate thriller. The authors Andre Dubus III and Michael Frayn (“He’s British”) are mentioned. “The person who selects the book is the host of the meeting,” says the younger woman.

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I want to chime in and suggest the novel I just finished, “The Friend,” Sigrid Nunez’s brisk, deceptively simple yet profound meditation on the writer’s life and friendships between people and dogs and people and people. It won the 2018 National Book Award. It’s lovely.

I pick the book. I’ll be the host. I’ll serve baked Alaska.

Someone just said “hypothesize” in mixed company. 

I ask the barista what she’s reading these days — we often yack about books — and she flashes her copy of the novel “The Secret History,” Donna Tartt’s 1991 cult smash. I kind of wrinkle my nose while evincing interest, and tell her I tried and failed to read Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer-winning epic “The Goldfinch.” I read about half and put it down. The novel is divisive: You love it or loathe it.

She adores it. “What didn’t you like about it?” she asks. I thought it was cutesy, candied, implausible, whimsical and too redolent of Dickens. 

“It is Dickensian,” the barista says, and with that simple word my day is made.

Elephant adoption — it’s a real thing. Two ladies are talking about it. One explains that it costs $50 a year to adopt an African pachyderm and “each month they email you a picture and an update about your elephant.” She has an elephant. “I went to visit the orphanage in Nairobi,” she says. I suddenly want an elephant. 

“It’s my parents’ 43rd anniversary,” a 30-ish guy tells his friend. “That’s a long time to be sniffin’ someone else’s toots.” 

I missed most of the soliloquy, but a youngish man was rhapsodizing about coffee and espresso and the joys of sitting on his porch, and out of his mouth popped this phrase: “the waking beauty of life.”

Spectacular.

My compost-mortem

Sometime ago I wrote here about being cremated when I croak, and not being buried as a rotting or fluid-infused corpse in some kitschy coffin. I directed my family to roast me into fine powder and put me into salt and pepper shakers.

3-years-320x180.jpgThen I stumbled on another ashy option: the underwater reef ball, an eco-friendly, reef-building sphere of cement in which your ashes are placed and then sunk to the bottom of the sea. Sleep with the fishes — you bet. 

Why am I discussing this?

Because I’m cracked. As I described before: 

 “I think about this stuff with unseemly frequency. For as long as I remember, the specter of death has had its talons lanced into my gelatinous psyche. I read about it, watch movies about it, dream about it, haunt cemeteries all over the world to get close to it …

“I mull mortality, yours and mine, every single day. I’m a realist, but it’s a quivering reality. As mortician Caitlin Doughty writes, since childhood ‘sheer terror and morbid curiosity have been fighting for supremacy in my mind.’ Mine too is a bifurcated fascination, marbled and complex.”

So, yes. I have a dark streak. Onward!

Evidently there may soon be another legal option for the disposal of my exquisite corpse: human composting. A first in the nation, Washington State is considering allowing “human remains to be disposed of and reduced to soil through composting,” or what’s called recomposition, writes The New York Times. 

Decomposing bodies would crumble and decay into soil and be dispersed to help flowers and trees thrive. “It seems really gentle,” says a 71-year-old woman who yearns to be turned into fertilizer. “Comforting and natural.” Natural indeed: A body in the ground without embalming goop in it eventually becomes soil anyway.

This sounds fantastic. “There’s no coffin, no chemicals, none of the fossil fuels needed for cremation, and no expensive cemetery plot required,” says the Times. And composting is practically a bargain. It costs about $5,000 — much less than a traditional coffin burial, if a little more than cremation.

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How is it done, this conversion of a six-foot-long human body into palmfuls of coffee grounds? It doesn’t seem as simple as leaving a corpse out on the lawn to slowly putrefy in the elements like some horror show out of Lucio Fulci. (Please do click that last link.)  

No, it’s more scientific than worms and rot. There’s poetry to it. In a recent study, “six bodies were placed in a closed container, wrapped in organic materials like alfalfa, then bathed in a stream of air warmed by microbes, and periodically turned,” the Times says. “After about 30 days, the bodies essentially became soil.”

I want to become a stinking heap of soil. I want to nourish flowers and flora, be tossed in filthy fistfuls across the landscape. There go my corroded kidneys and bug-infested brain, in powder form. I’d need no coffin, no urn, no tombstone. Birds can nibble on me. Dogs can dig at me. Daisies and daffodils can bloom. Oaks, elms and pines can kiss the clouds. My new mate: mulch.

But as anyone can tell you, this is all rather counterintuitive, since I’m not an outdoorsy person by any definition. For one, I hate gardening. Pollen is my kryptonite. The sun and I are in divorce proceedings. Hiking is a personal Hades.

Yet I won’t be hiking when I’m in a wheelbarrow. I’ll be chilling. I’ll be a magic powder, literally fulfilling the biblical injunction of committing “this body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

But that’s mystical phooey. This is about getting your hands dirty, with earth-saving, Whole Foodsy gusto. It’s death as a kind of birth, like donating your organs to save another body. It’s one final good deed before it all goes poof.