A not-so-tall tale, in short

True story: A woman came into the cafe and she was so short, I thought she was a dwarf. On my third or fourth glance, I realized she was indeed not a dwarf, just spectacularly diminutive, stout and normally proportioned, yet Lilliputian.  

Is my vision that bad? Am I seeing things? Has my fascination with human anomalies and “very special people” warped my lens on the world so that normality contorts into the freakish? 

Upon entering, the child-size woman was immediately surrounded by cafe baristas crying her name in joy as though they had not seen her in many ages. This was a moment of celebration. Hugs were fulsomely exchanged, and every employee had to crouch considerably to administer an embrace that would not be too awkward. 

Who was this center of such lavish attention, this magical elf? From where does she hail? Was she treated so kindly out of pity? That seems entirely doubtful. Short, maybe, but also a human being, and one with many friends. 

Arriving later, a very rangy barista saw the woman and bent down dramatically to hug her, his body a folding, upright accordion. She asked him if he’d sprouted even taller since they last met. No, he laughed.

She also laughed, chuckling, “Maybe I just shrunk.”

Ambling across Amsterdam

Amsterdam prevails.

Weighing Budapest against Amsterdam for my next trip, the Netherlands won out ably after effortless contemplation that sprung to mind peerless European art, worldly cuisine, cobblestone, canals and cannabis. 

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Compared to the striking Hungarian capital, there’s more to see and do in one of Europe’s most bristling cradles of culture, a smallish, quintessentially Old World setting marbled with a pungent contemporary tang. (And naughtily dubbed Sin City for its legal prostitution and lax marijuana laws.)

Once, in the 1600s, it was the world’s richest city; port-centric commerce flourished. Now, it’s a reservoir of humanistic riches — art, food, style, architecture. Friends of mine are so taken with the city that they’re moving to Amsterdam from Manhattan ASAP.

It’s been years since I’ve visited Amsterdam, and those times had the brevity of stopovers. Budapest’s Gothic spikiness and post-Soviet chill can wait. My destination offers popping pastel charms, including an iconic fretwork of canals lined by trees and spindly, leaning houses that seem to be jostling for room on the banks. And now there’s a lot more time.

No tulips or bicycles for me (and, alas, no Anne Frank House: tickets are plum sold out during my stay, though I’ve been there twice before), but I’m all about the hazy gold and brown Rembrandts — a personal favorite — and cornea-sizzling Van Goghs gracing the majestic Rijksmuseum, the Rembrandt House and Van Gogh Museum, plus the spread of classic modern art — Haring to Kruger — at the recently reopened Stedelijk Museum. 

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Gourmet stuffed pancakes, Indonesian bites (of which Holland is a hotbed), Dutch dishes, frites with mayo, pickled herring, European lagers and gin, or, in Dutch, jenever — that’s my menu. Cafes, pubs, maybe a sooty “coffeeshop” — those are where I will recharge. 

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Museum Vrolik, grisly, glorious.

Out of touristic obligation I’ll trot the tawdry and corny Red Light District, which stings the nostrils with damage, despair and possibly disease, and get out fast to catch a 90-minute canal boat tour run by the cheeky Those Dam Boat Guys, who encourage you to bring whatever ingestible vice you’d like. “Bring all the wine you have,” they exclaim. “Sure, it thins the blood and will kill you quicker, but I’ll be damned if it don’t make you forget the nippiness. We’ll provide the best cheap, shitty, plastic cups not very much money can buy!”

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After that, a heady spin through the Heineken brewery seems mandatory, as does the Museum Vrolik, a shuddery repository of the “normal anatomy of humans, but also pathological anatomy and congenital malformations.” Meaning, contorted skeletons, chubby jarred fetuses, outlandish taxidermy and all things squishy and wrong. 

I blush at how this reads like a breathless brochure by a lackey at the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce. Part of the unseemly boosterism, the unbridled optimism, comes from the vim of nailing down a destination and the kick of anticipation. Of the simple notion of travel and gulping the exotic. Of being able to finally say: Amsterdam. Yes.

Siamese twins: Freaks? Marvels? No. Human.

“There is the 19th-century obsession with abnormality — that insatiable desire of humans looking at other humans as monsters.” — “Inseparable” by Yunte Huang

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Chang and Eng Bunker, the “original” Siamese twins

Siamese twins don’t keep me up at night, don’t chill my bones, not like Julia Pastrana, enshrined in her time as the Ugliest Woman in the World, or the appetite-suppressing Grace McDaniel, the Mule-Faced Woman, that poor, poor dear.

Freaks they may be, but Siamese, or conjoined, twins aren’t freaky enough for me. They are marvelous and reality-bending, sometimes shocking but usually just remarkably human and, despite wincing deformities, almost normal. They are not, as so many freak show stars are reduced to, depraved monsters.

Take Chang and Eng, the most famous of all conjoined twins. Whisked from their native Siam (present-day Thailand) as teenagers by Western opportunists who swore to bring them back to their aggrieved mother in five years time, the twins embarked on a journey that would take them to America and England as wildly celebrated sideshow attractions. They would never return home. 

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It was the early 1800s and the boys, who became forever known as the “original Siamese twins,” wowed spectators used to ogling human marvels, from the limbless to the scale-covered and, later, the extreme likes of the Elephant Man and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.

A London newspaper wrote, “Without being the least disgusting or unpleasant, like almost all monstrosities, these youths are certainly one of the most extraordinary freaks of nature that has ever been witnessed.”

That’s the start of the true story told in the sensitive new biography “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History” by writerly crack reporter Yunte Huang. It’s a strange tale, it’s a sad tale, one of courage, dignity, triumph and increasing oddness, yet one of naked humanity and crackling history, including illuminating nods to the Civil War, Herman Melville, Lincoln (who apparently liked cock fighting) and Mark Twain, who, transfixed, wrote a story based on the twins.

Conjoined twins have existed since at least recorded history, in royal courts (alongside impish dwarves and the cruelly deformed), Indian villages to brimming metropolises. “The occurrence is estimated to range from 1 in 49,000 births to 1 in 189,000 births, with a somewhat higher incidence in Southeast Asia and Africa. Approximately half are stillborn, and an additional one-third die within 24 hours,” notes a scientific journal.  a6667e8dffd824d02b052c8f2a63dba2

Those are abysmal survival odds. Indeed, the whole conjoined-twin phenomenon seems like a hateful prank played by a sadistic God. But somehow Chang and Eng made the best of it, despite inevitable exploitation on the sideshow circuit, invasive, humiliating medical examinations by gawking, prodding doctors, and of course racial prejudices of the era.

They were also comparatively lucky. Chang and Eng were joined by a mere cord of ligament at their sternum, as opposed to twins conjoined at their skulls or buttocks, sharing multiple organs, rendering them certifiably handicapped, facing heartbreaking physical hardships. (Bittersweet aside: If they were alive today, modern medicine could easily and safely separate Chang and Eng.)

They were bound for life by “the connecting band — the key to the twins’ mystery,” writes Huang. The band looks like a slab of rubber stretched to the brink, rather like an arm on Stretch Armstrong, bridging their stomachs. The twins did share a fused liver, an oversized organ on permanent display in a pan of liquid at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. (I’ve seen it, twice. It is disgustingly glorious.)

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Chang and Eng’s death cast at the Mutter Museum, Philadelphia

A single bellybutton was nestled in the center of the flesh tube, which actually grew with daily wear and tear. Once, “as Eng tried to stand up, he was pulled down by the fleshy string that had tied him to his brother,” says Huang. “Over the years, constant tugging had stretched the cord from its original four inches in length to five and a half, allowing a little more flexibility.” (Some Vaseline and a good masseuse might have done wonders.)

Here the story veers to, at minimum, vigorous eyebrow raising. After lucrative years on the exhibition circuit as “freaks of nature,” Chang and Eng moved to rural North Carolina where they bought land, owned 32 black slaves (!!) and married two white sisters and, spectacularly, sired 21 children. (They had separate genitalia.) In the book’s chapter “Foursome,” Huang explains how the twins had sex: gingerly. Tangled limbs, “Pardon me’s,” whispered apologies, averted eyes — one envisions a hot, or not so hot, mess.

During the Civil War, the Bunkers pledged allegiance to the Confederacy, which didn’t work out so well for the brothers financially. Soon they were on the freak circuit again to cover costs. They died of natural causes at age 62 in 1874.

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The remarkable cast of a 19th-century freak show.

“Freaks,” “marvels,” “wonders” — sideshow performers, trading in dubious self-exploitation, were labeled florid epithets to amplify their bizarre and exotic natures. It must have been a beating on their psyche and self-worth, robbing them of a portion of their soul, exposing themselves to dehumanizing gawking. It’s an ugly, despicable racket.

Chang and Eng might have, by virtue of their mostly normal appearances, been spared the worst of it, avoiding fainting audience members, brutish hecklers and degrading qualifiers, like “terrible” and “horrifying,” in their promotional material.

Yet nothing was ordinary for them. They were extraordinary, suffering under constant “otherness,” a state critic Leslie Fiedler so sharply dubbed “the tyranny of the normal.”

Still, they were in their own way normal. Wives, children, struggles, longevity, relative happiness. They were like the rest of us strivers and survivors — human, all too human.

Retro movie review: ‘Wendy and Lucy’

“Wendy and Lucy,” from 2009, is an unsung pearl of stripped-down indie filmmaking. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, it warrants a revisit by dint of its thematic relevance, stirring lead performance, and the soulful presence of an utterly endearing dog named Lucy. My review:

In the minimalist heartbreaker “Wendy and Lucy,” Michelle Williams plays Wendy with a premature perma-frown and a youthful spirit that’s been crumpled like a recycled can. Lucy is her faithful pup, a golden mutt with dark, serious eyes and the cool composure of Robert Mitchum.

She’s a good dog. Wendy’s striving to be good, too, but fate and circumstance have thrown up a gauntlet of bad luck with no room in which to budge. With impressive calm and fierce nonjudgment, the movie puts you in Wendy’s shabby sneakers and taps into our morbid economic moment when it can seem that a dog is all you have.

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Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to her scruffily lo-fi “Old Joy” is a desolate story told in miniature with almost forbidding quietude. It crackles on life’s lowest, most natural frequencies, banishing slash-cuts and musical cues, except for the singsongy, slightly eerie tune Wendy sometimes hums, and courts the rustle and flow of its woodsy Oregon setting. Such a threadbare aesthetic speaks of self-conscious formalism, yet form and function here are gracefully and expressively wed.

The story, what little there is, starts in mid-sentence, with Wendy and her steady companion stopping in a small Oregon town on their way to Alaska, where Wendy plans to get work in a cannery. “I hear they need people,” she tells an old parking lot security guard (an extremely un-actorly Walter Dalton) who becomes her angel in hard times.

Wendy has an exhausted voice for her age. It’s breathy and weary and assumes a pitch of exasperated despair as her troubles mount. Her car breaks down, she gets caught shoplifting dog food and, topping things off and setting the nonplot in motion, Lucy disappears.

Wendy searches for Lucy and, with no money, tries to get her car fixed. That’s it. But of course that’s not it. The movie’s a symposium in American poverty, about how people living on the brink of destitution can land there with a shift in the wind. It’s about how people respond to a woman whose only problem seems to be chronic bad breaks. It’s about how you and I respond to that dude and his dog with a cardboard sign at the intersection — our fellow citizens and brethren. Wendy becomes different things to different people: parasite, criminal, an everywoman in need. It’s about our state of affairs, right now.

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Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond, who displayed a similar fascination with the dispossessed and marginalized in “Old Joy,” purposely strip Wendy of backstory and even much personality, and this could challenge viewer empathy. Williams, sporting cut-offs, a tomboy shag and vacant eyes, recedes into the role, making Wendy a wraith in society, all but invisible. It’s an entrancing anti-performance.

You could say nothing happens in “Wendy and Lucy,” but if it were your life, everything happens. The movie doesn’t make it easy on pleasure-seeking viewers. It proudly basks in the quotidian now and lives in its exquisite details, be it Wendy washing and changing in a dingy gas station bathroom or walking past graffiti that simply says “Goner.”

In its stubborn airiness “Wendy and Lucy” grants you gaping spaces in which to wander with the protagonist and feel her metastasizing despair. Without melodrama or the clanking machinery of by-committee plotting, the movie engenders a sense of effortlessness that snares you in its lyrical spell.

It’s tempting to call this frowzy story a tone poem, but it’s not. It’s cold, naked prose, scratched in gravel with a stick.

A few things keeping me afloat

A glass half-empty sort of fellow, I maintain a suspect relationship with reality, an existential leeriness that has proven keenly unhelpful. Though I’ve fought it, I’m kind of stuck with it, a black and blue complexion not unlike a bruise. 

The world’s not helping — Trump, Syria, Israel, Bolton, the EPA, fires, flooding, shootings — but I’m still able to locate an array of things to be glad about. Small, but good.

I could mention the pleasures of last week’s birthday, my family’s sound health, my sister-in-law’s spiffy new car or the dog’s chewy glee over the pig’s ear I got him. I could mention my niece’s turquoise hair, my friend’s marriage or how the Stormy Daniels affair is closing in on the president like a vice. 

But I won’t, even though I just did. 

Here are a few other things currently leavening my oft-smudged outlook:

  • Last week saw the release of “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History,” a book this circus freak-show fanatic had to get, and did as a birthday present. Yunte Huang’s widely praised biography of famed conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker is a vast, panoramic narrative of the twins’ bizarre, unlikely life (wives, numerous children, slave ownership) in 19th-century America that deftly weaves details and personalities from U.S. history into a rich, fluttering tapestry. Elegant prose twins with magnificent detail.

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  • The giddy anticipation of mulling world travels is a reliable endorphin. I recently posted my dual urges to go to Budapest and Amsterdam — the former I’ve never been to, the latter I’ve visited in quick, couple-days spurts. Always looking ahead, with one eye on the calendar and one on the map, I get a jolt just thinking about strolling new streets, eating exotic cuisine, ogling art, architecture and people. It’s already April. Time to start some serious research. (Spoiler alert: I’m leaning toward Amsterdam.) 
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Amsterdam
  • I’m captivated by the film “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” by that doyen of documentarians, that genius of fly-on-the-wall observation, Frederick Wiseman (“High School,” “La Danse”). Released last year and running a whopping three and a half hours, the movie is a leisurely, painstaking amble through the hallowed marble halls, offices, shelves and auditoriums of the NYC institution. Wiseman’s eminent pointillist eye and febrile curiosity fashion an immersive experience inside everything from folios to fundraising, e-books to behind-the-scenes bureaucracy, programs to performances, community outreach to the organization’s pumping inner organs. Almost defiantly, “Ex Libris” is culturally kaleidoscopic. 

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  • Another birthday gift whacking the sweet spot is a squat, artisanally stylish bottle of Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin, a German, handcrafted, batch-distilled, 47-percent alcohol (94 proof) beverage that tastes like an Everlasting Gobstopper in liquid form, swirling and multi-chromatic — fragrant, aromatic, smooth, rich and tangy. My brother was scanning the gin shelves and three individuals, one who worked in the shop, voluntarily told him that Monkey 47 was the best gin they’ve had. Three random people. He was sold. Now we both are.

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