A step backward for Sophia

Hagia Sophia is one of my favorite structures in the world. A chunky, imposing cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-public-museum, flanked with four rocket-like minarets, a bulky beacon doused in faded hues of pink and salmon, the famous building shares the same lush Istanbul peninsula as the nearly-as-glorious Blue Mosque. Almost amazingly, the edifices sit directly across a palm-lined park from each other, a spiritual and architectural bonanza. 

So it’s with slack-jawed dismay that I read this about the treasure in today’s newspaper:

“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree ordering Hagia Sophia to be opened for Muslim prayers, an action likely to provoke international furor around a World Heritage Site cherished by Christians and Muslims alike for its religious significance, stunning structure and as a symbol of conquest.

“The presidential decree came minutes after a Turkish court announced that it had revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, which for the last 80 years had made it a monument of relative harmony and a symbol of the secularism that was part of the foundation of the modern Turkish state.”

Erdogan, on an Islamist tear, is, like another aspiring authoritarian, a crackpot. And today’s move on Hagia Sophia is culturally criminal. 

More from the article:

“Built in the sixth century as a cathedral, Hagia Sophia stands as the greatest example of Byzantine Christian architecture in the world. But it has been a source of Christian-Muslim rivalry, having stood at the center of Christendom for nearly a millennium and then, after being conquered, of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, when it was last used as a mosque.”

Below are some of my photographic memories of the holy site, aka Ayasofya, where you can see the exotic marriage of Islam and Christianity, including walls of crumbled majesty, their layers peeled back to reveal vibrant Christian frescoes and mosaics from 537 AD, as well as gigantic round panels emblazoned with Arabic script perched from atop the basilica. For years, it was the world’s largest interior space. It is spellbinding. 

We’ll always have Paris?

With a dash of relief, I’ve learned my cheap ticket to Paris for October remains valid, that United hasn’t deemed it necessary to cancel the trip — yet. Booked in early April, when the pandemic was mustering its full fury, the flight still does seem doomed, even four months away. The virus isn’t letting us off that easy.  

Hitches abound. Like the new edict by the European Union barring American visitors to the Continent. That’s a nifty start. Perhaps that will change by fall, if a particularly reckless, infantile and hysterically pathological world leader decides to do his job and quit frothing at the mouth. 

But what will Paris be like in four months? The city is gingerly reopening, taking wise baby steps. Cultural crown jewel the Louvre opens Monday with Covid guidelines and protocols. Only 70 percent of the museum will be accessible — most of the popular stuff — and masks will be mandatory for visitors aged 11 and up.

Cleaning up the Louvre for its July 6 reopening.

I’ve done the Mona Lisa to death, but for those who must, it will go like this, says a Louvre director: “Until now, people would crowd around the Mona Lisa. Now, visitors will stand in one of two lines for about 10 to 15 minutes. Then each person is guaranteed a chance to stand in front of the Mona Lisa and look at her from a distance of about 10 feet.”

I’ll politely pass.

The magnificent Musée d’Orsay opens July 23. Musée Picasso, a personal essential, opened June 22, as did Musée de l’Orangerie and citywide cinemas (I always see three or four classic movies when in Paris). Centre Pompidou opened three days ago, and the ghoulish Catacombs have been open since mid-June. Showing through January 2021 at Musée Jacquemart-André is “Turner: Paintings and Watercolours from the Tate” — nirvana.

That’s a tantalizing start. Or is it foolhardy, madness?

Parks and gardens are open, as are many shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. But that also signals a behavioral slalom course of masks, social distancing, crowd control, etc. Right now, I wouldn’t hazard it, even in my favorite city. Now isn’t the time to be there. Four months, fingers crossed.

This incorrigible planner has had a fully refundable hotel reservation since spring — Hôtel Jeanne d’Arc Le Marais, which has reopened — and slavering beads on at least three restaurants, including the peerless Frenchie and Michelin-star Le Chateaubriand. 

At six days and six nights, this is a short jaunt to Paris for me. If it happens. I have no doubt the pandemic could dash my plans, and that’s OK, because I’ve resigned myself to things not working out. In these epochal times, far more important things jut into high relief, the pandemic to the November election.    

We’ll always have Paris, sure. It’s just a matter of when.

Whenever. Whatever. 

In the grip of one-click commerce

It’s hardly an original phenomenon, that of the quarantined individual occupying some of his time — right, much of his time — transfixed by the latest goodie or gadget at an online store. Screen shopping (analogous to window shopping) or actual shopping (analogous to pulling out the plastic) are, at least for this laptop-leashed homebody, becoming a thing, and I’m sort of going broke. 

I’m “just looking,” gawping, craving, yearning and, oops, placing the cursor on the final button in the series that begins with “Items in Cart” and running through “Billing Information” and so on. These days, I’m all about the Place Order click. The little quiver it fires through my synapses triggers a delicious squirt of endorphins. 

That tiny physical gesture, which can amount to a giant fiscal gesture, is the point of no return. The order is in. The store has your digits, which will show on your card only when the product ships. (That is egregiously untrue. The moment I click, my card is invariably, simultaneously charged.)

Actually, it’s not the point of no return, because return policies are mostly generous and convenient. Indeed, I am the Cancellation King, the agitated avatar of buyer’s remorse. So often I will order something at night and the next morning, in a stomach-clenching panic, hastily cancel the order. I do this with ridiculous regularity. The folks at Amazon probably don’t even process my orders anymore until a good 48 hours have passed. 

I’m not just treating myself to stuff during this flirtation with errant shopaholism. Besides tons of books, the only “fun” purchase was a rather pricey electronic drum set, which is only frivolous if you think a lifelong hobby and creative discipline is frivolous, and I don’t. It’s fun, but it’s also enriching and therapeutic, even cathartic.

This week’s acquisitions from online retailers include: an iPhone stand for the drum kit (longish story), a comfy cushion for my rock-hard drum stool, a pair of my favorite drum sticks, and two boxes of V8 juice, eight big bottles in all. 

(I labor under the wholly unreasonable conceit that this vegetable juice is the secret elixir for humanity’s immortality. Which is nuts, because I don’t even want to live forever. Yet I do want to combat agonizing disease and retain glowing skin. And so: V8, voluminously.)

Some other recent orders: at least 20 books (separately); toothbrushes (which were so bad I got an instant refund); hair goop; bar soap; exfoliant; a pair of green shorts; three caps (emblazoned with logos: The New York Times, Metallica and, dear reader, Gnashing); and film t-shirts (Scorsese, “The Elephant Man,” Columbia Pictures, RKO Pictures, A24 Films).

A few things I cancelled: socks, batteries, floss, reading glasses, stacks more books. 

Most of my purchases are, to my mind, essentials. These aren’t reckless sprees; they’re well-considered Covid consumerism — even if I did finally cave and sign up for Amazon Prime, a dark and foreboding development that can only lead to incalculable folly.

Buying stuff is invigorating for about 20 minutes, like a drug, and then you come down and feel fried and deflated. But then the buzz returns: delivery day!

Or, if you’re me, you place an order, marinate some, then dash and click cancel, like it never even happened. Negation — sometimes that’s the best shopping experience of all.    

Doldrums on the drums

Playing hard rock drums in my longhaired youth was such an impassioned pursuit that I envisaged fans, flash bombs, spotlights, triumphant noise and righteous fury as a way of life. The kinetic absurdity of that dream isn’t lost on me, no. Today I think of it all as the Misbegotten Musings of a Muddled Metalhead. Rock.

Playing music has a way of getting into your marrow, and drumming up a drippy sweat is still a fervid pastime. But, first, rewind. I put down my sticks almost exactly 10 years ago, for good. Until, seemingly out of nowhere, the beat bit me again early this month. Faster than a John Bonham bass patter, I was online shopping for a new drum set to call my own and to pound holy hell out of. 

It couldn’t be a drooled-over acoustic — neighbors, sigh — so I pinned down a hot electronic deal made by superior e-brand Roland. The five-piece kit has a mesh snare and three mesh tom-toms, a bass pad, hi-hat, ride and crash cymbals. Bonuses: a Pearl bass pedal, a Pearl drum stool (that’s, alas, cement-hard), fine headphones and three pairs of sticks. I’ve already bought an extra crash cymbal: One crash makes an impoverished sound, and the physicality of playing with two is exponential. At least the way I play.

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The set is explosively on the money, better than expected, sturdy, loud, textured, complex — a fine wine. I’ve compiled a list of 62 songs to play with — tunes with thump and phwump — which is where the headphones come in. It’s like a greatest hits from my teens and twenties. Meaning: mortifying. 

Now for the downbeat. While the drums are exemplary, my actual performance is something else. Mildly, I am very rusty. My playing isn’t tearjerking, but distinctly arrested. It’s been a while. I’ve always been acutely, painfully, soaringly aware that I am not a great musician. I can keep a propulsive 4/4 beat and embroider it with a well-placed fill or frill, but I should be astounding by now, even considering how little I’ve played since high school.

I’m crisp, but sloppy. Swinging, but stilted. On-beat, but off-key. Sometimes I impress myself and nail a song; other times I’m pure Spinal Tap. (Who I’d like to be is the tentacular wunderkind in the exhilarating drum drama “Whiplash.”)

When I’m really stinking up the joint, the drumming is depressing instead of fun and therapeutic. The purchase then seems catastrophic, a harebrained waste. My long-ago drum teacher, the unfailingly affable Jeff Campitelli (who was teaching Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich at the same time as me), told me that, yeah, we all have bad days, and that my bad days are probably worse than his bad days. That’s self-evident — Jeff is a monster musician — but it sounded sage and philosophic at the time, and I still think about it. 

Bad days bite, but the beat goes on. I no longer dream of screaming fans and flammable stagecraft. I just want to play well. That’s good enough. It’s also harder than hell. There will be blood. But also, I’m pretty sure, joy. A couple years ago I wrote, “Musicianship, I am certain, is an exquisite madness.” I’m sticking by that.

Quote of the day

To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.”

 — “In a Lonely Place,” the classic noir novel by Dorothy B. Hughes

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Freud, meet Fido

And so the dog, small and fleecy, plops down for a nap on the couch, and he is out. Which means at any moment the show will commence, an alternately startling and amusing bugaloo of twitches and flinches, pop dancing by way of late Katharine Hepburn and robot street performers. Cubby, the peerless pup, is about to dream. And it’s a marvel. 

Behold, he’s off. Stubby legs kick and quiver. Furry eyebrows twitch. Lips tremble and emit muffled woofs and squeaky whines. As he hyperventilates, his rib cage rises and falls, a small basketball being pumped. It appears he is running in place. Outstanding.

Until, that is, I recall how traumatic dreams can be. Mine, at least, are nocturnal ordeals, dark and gnawing, filled with ragged memories and wraithlike faces from prior lives. They’re about 35% anodyne and 65% anguish. I typically awake from them with a small head throb, a daub of sweat, an aftertaste of dread: the dream hangover. I might as well have met Freddy Krueger.

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This is not Cubby, but you know he’s ecstatically dreaming.

So, no matter how entertaining his dream exhibitions are (oh, and they are), I worry about the substance of Cubby’s nap-time reveries. What’s he woofing at? Why the whine? Is he chasing, or being chased? Is he yawping at the postman, as in everyday life, or is he after an intruder? Is he playing with us, scampering off with his crazy bone?

Whatever is happening, he is assuredly dreaming. Anyone with a dog knows they do this. One doggie site says “dogs are similar to humans when it comes to sleep patterns and brain wave activity. Like humans, dogs enter a deep sleep stage during which their breathing becomes more irregular and they have rapid eye movements (REM).”

Bonus factoid: “Research suggests that small dogs dream more than larger dogs. A Toy Poodle may dream once every ten minutes while a Golden Retriever may only dream once every 90 minutes.” Meaning, compact Cubby is a dream machine. (“We infer that dogs can have nightmares, too,” adds the American Kennel Club, with worrying certitude.)

Sometimes Cubby’s slumbering exhalations sound heavy, husky, demonic. Is he having a nightmare, or is he being naughty and promiscuous? Maybe he’s rocking a death metal show. “The dream is the liberation of the spirit from the pressure of external nature, a detachment of the soul from the fetters of matter,” wrote Freud, the original cigar-sucking dream guru. He added: “Dreams are never concerned with trivia.”

So maybe Cubby isn’t just frolicking with a bone during his alarmingly kinetic dream states, which resemble nothing less than a buckling seizure or a zippy electrocution. I’ve said here that Cubs is a deep character, a wise old soul, vigorously seeking meaning in his transience, pawing to the bottom of the mysteries of the conundrum called life. Merely chasing cats is unworthy of his elevated subconscious; sniffing Bowzer’s butthole is extravagantly beneath him.

The id, that deep sea of sloshing neuroses, engenders the happy and the hellacious and everything in-between. In sleep, you might trip joyously in love — or you might be scorched to a pork rind by a weirdly random dragon. Closing eyes, placing head to pillow, is a fraught crap shoot. 

Cubby’s not dreaming about dragons, we’re certain of that. His purview is relatively minuscule. Despite his rich introspection, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what TikTok, J.Lo or The Rock are.

I’m also sure I will never know what populates the dog’s leg-twitching dreamscapes. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Yet with Freudian reflection, I will ponder these deep enigmas. Let me sleep on it.

Hats off to a birthday boy

The raging pimple on my nose couldn’t take away from the raucous ecstasy of my nephew’s modest — but laughy, giggly, shrieky, slangy, sing-songy (“Dancing Queen”!) — fifteenth birthday party among a half-dozen friends in my brother’s cozy backyard this very hot day. That damn zit — I’ll squeeze it till fluids flow. Be gone. Because there is bawdy jokes to be told, games to be played, junk food to be gorged, gossip to be spread. (What’s that? You have a boyfriend!)

And so it went. Two giant picnic umbrellas popped open like vast bat wings. Three fat coolers lined the deck. Tostitos — all over the place. Ice cream, cupcakes, cookies, Sprite, cheap plastic toys, bubbles. And, god, the laughter and the squawks of rare tropical birds. A blast was being had. 

I observed from afar, never getting close to these dangerous exotic animals. Instead: me, a mirror, a zit. Let’s go. (Gruesome details have been redacted by WordPress censors.)

In the mirror, I am reminded of the blooming, uncut hairdo I’m currently sporting. My last haircut was scheduled for April 3. It never happened thanks to quarantine. Do the math, they say, with a frat-boy sneer. I’ll do the math. The math says: shit. 

I noted here that I bought a New York Times baseball cap to tame my anarchic locks. It’s working out nicely, I think. But summer will be a Rapunzel-ready efflorescence, fluffy, uncontainable tresses, suitors scaling them to reach me in my dank, lonesome tower.

So I’ve ordered two more caps, one that will reveal a sliver of my cultural tastes, though I’ve mentioned Metallica before here.20170628_175149_7549_996230

The second hat is more personal, a custom-made lark, which I will wear with unwavering nerdiness:

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But this is really about my nephew’s big number 15. Not the pimple, not the hats. His birthday is actually tomorrow, June 7. To accommodate his besties, the party was thrown today. Plus, Saturday is always better than Sunday for a shindig.

In a rare aside, I asked my nephew how the get-together was going.

“Good,” he said, which is about the only answer he knows to feed lame adults who ask lame questions.

Good.

That will do. That will do good.

Now, Clearasil. Anyone?

Homebound, book-bound

The neighbors down the street have acquired a tiny spotted piglet and that means nothing, because that’s not what I’m here for. Just thought I’d mention it as a friendly neighborhood bulletin, despite its thoroughgoing irrelevance to anything on this page.

I’m here to talk books — books I’m gathering around me like a collective paper blanket during the sheltering in place (my least favorite term for the eternal quarantine). I have mentioned I’m ordering new and used books hungrily, and now the stacks are rising precariously. Somebody stop me. 

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Over time I’ve read three or four novels and story collections by the daring, queasily beguiling Ottessa Moshfegh, whose darkly defiant streak, which runs from addiction to murder, poop to pathologies, has never been as palpable as in her 2016 debut “Eileen.” I just gobbled up the slim novel and I’m savoring its bitter aftertaste. I wanted to be ready for Moshfegh’s much-anticipated novel “Death in Her Hands,” coming out in two weeks. Hardly a spoiler: It’s being called perverse and strange. Bring it on.  

In a snap of energetic laziness, I skipped the first two books in Elena Ferrante’s universally lauded series The Neapolitan Novels, which kicks off with “My Brilliant Friend,” opting instead to watch the first two parts in the epic HBO adaptations (luminous, devastating). Now I’m into the third book, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” and it makes me anxious: How much lush, moving prose did I miss by not reading the first two books? Yet another literary project materializes. 519LmMYfn-L._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_There’s a handful of hip, youngish, mostly male writers I avoid because of both their grating public images and callow, look-at-me writing (see ya, Dave Eggers). Journalist Chuck Klosterman, who specializes in rock and pop culture at large, has always made my belly twist at the teensy bit of his I’ve read in the likes of Spin magazine. He’s published loads of essay collections, like “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” and “Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas,” the latter of which I swallowed hard and purchased. Surprise — it’s damn good. With a mix of irreverence and shaggy erudition, humor and a swingingly unadorned style, the author asserts a penetrating, smarter-than-his-subjects but not condescending attitude on everyone from Britney Spears and Radiohead to Metallica and Robert Plant. A pop culture polymath, a smart-aleck with a laser-pointed pen, Klosterman is good company.

41N3Bj9x7IL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Also a delight are the words of the late David Carr, the New York Times media columnist who in 2015 dropped dead in the Times newsroom, a fact that might have tickled the celebrated super-journalist. “Final Draft,” a new collection of his writing from the past 25 years, reveals a passionate pro and consummate stylist at his best. We get reportage and ruminations on racism, personal addiction, media blowhards, personalities and the often checkered texture of journalism itself. Carr was a star. This book shows why. Unknown And now, the pig:

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Dog Splayed Afternoon

CubbyThis is Cubby, über-hound, chillaxing on the cool wood floor on a balmy late-spring day. Sprawled out in sharp symmetry, almost X-shaped, he looks like a doggie cookie-cutter, or the puppy piece in Monopoly, or a pendant dangling from the neck of a dog lover of strenuous devotion. In a word, he looks amazing. Like an artwork Jeff Koons could only dream of, or a taxidermist’s dampest fantasy. He would look stunning on a mantel, a small, regal canine, with a muzzle oh-so fluffily bearded.

Cubby knows none of this. If he had heard the above during his spread-out siesta, he’d be all, “Enough. Leave me alone. I am napping on the cool floor, dreaming of squirrels, fire hydrants, and fat kielbasas. You are a ridiculous man. Be gone … zzzzz.”

What we have here is a tableau titled, say, “Dog Day Afternoon.” Or “Dog Splayed Afternoon.” Some kind of post-modern still-life William Wegman could appreciate in all its unposed dogitude. (Although, of course, Wegman meticulously poses his long-suffering Weimaraners, what with their fancy clothes and anthropomorphic exertions.)

So what we have is less Wegman and more found art. Cubby, surely warm under that carpet of curls, located open range in the cool foyer, plopped down and stretched out from his head to his pom-pom tail. He exhaled and sighed: Goddam.

And this is how we found him, still as a statue, a statue of such accidental perfection it might be worth lots of money. Certainly, because his preternatural pose notwithstanding, Cubby, that cuddliest of canines, is worth a million bucks.

Buyers?

My freakish fixation

When am I not thinking about the Elephant Man? 

I’m not just talking about the shattering 1980 film by David Lynch (still one of my favorite movies — see my appreciation here). I also mean the actual, real-life Elephant Man, née Joseph Merrick, the hideously deformed young Brit who, with considerable luck and one doctor’s wayward compassion, went from the squalid, dehumanizing freak show circuit to become the toast of Victorian London before he died at age 28 in 1890.

Merrick has been on my mind since I was yay high. Call it odd, perverse or, well, freakish, but the creepy and offbeat have clutched me in their thrall since my youthful exposure to Universal Horror flicks, campfire myths like Bigfoot and the Moth Man, and the most enduring gift I received on my eighth birthday, the thick book “Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves, and Triumphs of Human Oddities” by Frederick Drimmer.  

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In the book, among the likes of Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy; Grace McDaniels the Mule-Faced Woman; the original Siamese twins; and Julia Pastrana, aka the Ugliest Woman in the World, was Merrick, perhaps the saddest story of them all. (Although Pastrana’s story is heartrending, bizarrely grotesque, and worth a look here.)

A speedy summary: In an unorthodox gesture of charity, Dr. Frederick Treves took in the incurable Merrick, who suffered from severe neurofibromatosis, at the Royal London Hospital, furnishing the sick, lost and abused sideshow veteran a dazzling new life of comfort, friends, celebrity visitors, room and board and more. Though his appearance still terrified the faint of heart, Merrick was embraced by mainstream society until his premature death. IMG_0581.JPG

(Merrick’s skeleton resides at the old Royal London Hospital, and a few years ago I visited hoping to see the bones. I was rebuffed, but I had the pleasure of the hospital’s special museum dedicated to Merrick’s life.) 

I know a lot about “The Terrible Elephant Man,” as he was billed on the road, not only from “Very Special People” and Lynch’s ravishing biopic, but from a slim paperback I bought in seventh grade, “The True History of the Elephant Man,” about which I wrote and presented a book report to my befuddled English class. 

What gets me about Merrick is his life story, one so rippled with tragedy and depravity, it curdles the soul as it breaks the heart. Living in a sooty black-and-white London of clanking, steaming machinery that ushered in the Industrial Revolution, Merrick’s old-timey milieu also enthralls (see the Lynch movie for a rattling immersion in time and place), and seems of a piece with his destitute, Dickensian plight. 

And the disease: The exotically gruesome, inconceivably savage affliction renders man into monster, whose corrupted flesh cannot conceal the gentle soul locked inside the twisted, tumored carapace.  

My fascination has become rather fanboy. (Elephant Man cosplay — I will have to pass.) Besides books about Merrick — including “Making ‘The Elephant Man’” by one of the film’s producers, which I just bought — I own the American, Turkish and Japanese posters of Lynch’s movie, as well as a coffee mug embossed with a period photo of Merrick looking dapper in a three-piece suit. 

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Around the time I got the making-of book, I ordered what I’ve wanted for a long time, a t-shirt of the “Elephant Man” movie. This one is a silkscreen of the film’s Japanese poster art, fusing my passion for all things Japanese with my strange Merrick mania. 

A tad zealous, perhaps. But consider that Michael Jackson famously tried to buy Merrick’s bones. He was flatly refused. I once thought that Jackson was overreaching, being the creepy eccentric he was.

Nowadays, not so much.