A sacred place. Even for heathens.

I last visited Notre-Dame just over three years ago, in fall 2015. When in Paris, I invariably duck into the grand Gothic cathedral several times, because it’s there, because it’s beautiful, because its draw is irresistible. It is Paris splendor epitomized.

I’ve been to Paris on five occasions, which means I’ve been to Notre-Dame at least 15 times. It never gets old. Rather, each visit rewards with something new and startling. Sometimes I just hang out on the plaza in front of Our Lady — the sprawling Place Jean-Paul II Square — sipping coffee, people-watching, marveling at the twin bell-tower facade and those maniacal, sniggering gargoyles perched way up high. 

A Catholic apostate and mid-level opponent of organized religion, I don’t worship in Notre-Dame, which went up in flames yesterday, mostly surviving the catastrophic blaze that had the world aghast. (Maybe there is a God.)

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Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames Monday in Paris

I don’t go for the holy experience, but the wholly experience — a soothing spiritual state of serenity and rumination, reflection and introspection, inspired by the vaulting, dimly lit sanctuary’s artwork, architecture, luminescent stained-glass and twinkling constellations of prayer candles. And that’s just the interior. 

Agnostic natives are with me, according to a piece in today’s NY Times: “France is one of the least religious countries in Europe. Urbane, intellectual Parisians often dismiss religion as archaic and unenlightened.”

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Notre-Dame facade, fall 2015

But like other transporting religious structures around the world — from the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi to the Wat Arun Buddhist temple in Bangkok — Notre-Dame is staggering to even this peevish secular humanist, with its gilded grandeur and gravity-defying architecture that toils so magnificently to transcend crude corporeality and reach for the heavens. In all her glory, Our Lady, I think, tickles the firmament.

(This goes for scores of religious sanctums I’ve traveled long and far to be dazzled by: the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St. Peter’s in Rome, Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and on and on. All instill dizzy awe, even if I’m not always buying what they’re peddling.) 

Even without the slightest religious propensity, I bewail the damage to Notre-Dame. Like most, I was sickened watching flames devour the cathedral, my old friend, on the news. More is there than a quaint, history-encrusted, 850-year-old church. It is the ineffable, the mystical, the irrefutably sacred.

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Standing tall, fall 2015.

The cathedral, with a wingspan from Joan of Arc to Victor Hugo to Disney, “is universal, Western, religious, literary and cultural, and that’s what makes it different from any other object,” says a French analyst in the Times. “It’s the whole spectrum from the trivial to the transcendent, the sacred to the profane.”

In other words, it is stubbornly irreplaceable. Its survival, by a hairbreadth, an act of God, divine intervention, is something I am loath to believe in: a naked miracle.

Whatever saved it, I think it was more the skill, action plans and water hoses of the Parisian fire fighters than, say, the conquest of virtue vs. evil. But it doesn’t matter. Notre-Dame didn’t collapse or burn to cinders. It is, they declare, structurally sound. No lives were lost. And for that, all of us should sigh a collective amen.

But do note, those devilish gargoyles survived the flames, and they are still sneering.

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Black hole bust

I can’t tell you how underwhelmed I am by the newly released photo of an honest to god galactic black hole — the first-ever snapshot of one of these largely invisible yet still whoa-awesome mega-vacuums.  

“It’s like the universe had a royal baby: That’s how excited everyone is for this first glimpse of a black hole,” writes Slate.

My interest in royal progeny or anything about the Royal Family is several notches below my interest in macramé and pulling weeds, so right there we have a faulty analogy.  

I like stars and planets, the sun and galaxies and Chewbacca, but I’m a solar system sourpuss on this one. I don’t frown upon astronomers finally clicking a picture of a black hole — “an abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it” — it’s just not emotional rocket fuel. It elicits a cosmic shrug. I was expecting explosions and ecstasy.

“The image is based on data from radio telescopes all over the world,” Slate says, “so it’s not technically even a picture of a black hole. It’s really confusing that everyone’s acting like we have a picture of one. This is actually a composite that shows the shadow of a black hole.” 

Here is the image, released today by astronomers:

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“A composite that shows the shadow of a black hole”? Maybe you can see why there’s disappointment amid the jazzed gawping. Not only is it not an actual black hole, but the photo really isn’t so hot. Blurry, amorphous, rather dull. Like a toddler accidentally took a picture of a lightbulb with his mom’s lame Android phone.

Some liken it to an orange donut, the bagel emoji, or a SpaghettiO — a junk-food fest. Others, like the New York Times, wax poetic, declaring the black hole, “55 million light-years away from Earth, resembling the Eye of Sauron, a reminder yet again of the implacable power of nature. It is a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.”

Deep. And quite lovely.

But really now, this is a black hole:

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This is the black hole of our dreams and nightmares, the yawning, all-devouring abyss of a crappy 1979 Disney fantasy titled, aptly, “The Black Hole,” the cosmos’ most grandiosely epic sucker-upper, a whirling, phosphorescent monster maw, God’s unblinking eye, or the fiery, furious, inflexibly unforgiving gateway to Hell. It is glorious and mad, beautiful on a mind-altering scale, a spinning top dancing on the lip of the great beyond.

But it is also just a NASA illustration, a dazzling graphic vibrating with the curiosity and imagination of good speculative sci-fi. No one knows what a black hole really looks like, even after the new fuzzy photo. I’d love to see a crisp, clear portrait of one of those galactic phenomena that sucks up everything in its path. Alas, today’s picture just sucks.

Monkeys Sea, monkeys do

Why is everyone so down on Sea-Monkeys? People scoff when I bring them up, which is pretty much never, and the novelty item’s star ratings are piddling to pathetic at Amazon. (2.7 stars? Wha?) 

Sea-Monkeys rule. If you’re 7. But really, I’ve owned them at least 10 times as a kid (and, all right, as an adult), those trippy, creepy, itsy-bitsy, dimly disappointing crustaceans that swirl around a small plastic tank on your nightstand before dying off, one by one, until all that’s left is greenish, brackish water that smells like the devil’s bing-hole. My freakish, fun-loving, easily-fooled brain adores them.

Instant Life

They come up because I recently watched Penny Lane’s 2016 short film “Just Add Water: The Story of the Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys.” (See all 16 mind-tweaking minutes of it here.) 

It jogged a zillion memories of my 9-year-old self hatching what are actually microscopic brine shrimp (which are used primarily as fish food), hoping, always hoping, for the anthropomorphic little families of so-called Sea-Monkeys to appear when I followed the directions to concoct a peculiar potion. 

The famous advertisements in comic books of the 1960s-‘70s depicted happy, three-pronged-crowned sea creatures, naked part-fish/part-people, hanging out, smiling, doing their whateva Sea-Monkey thang. And it showed human purchasers gazing at a bowl of them, grinning like fools. It was wonderful. And for a kid who thought Bigfoot and the Elephant Man were the dope, implacably seductive.

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So you order the Sea-Monkeys. Miniature plastic tank that you fill with tap water — check. Then add Packet #1, the water purifier, which, according to the short film, actually contains the Monkey eggs, “giving the Sea-Monkeys time to get big enough for you to see them” in a 24-hour period. Packet #2 is really blue dye that makes the day-old Monkeys even easier to observe. (There’s a small racket going on here.) The other packet, #3, is Growth Food. It smells like algae and fish guts.

No matter, what is happening is science. Namely, “cryptobiosis,” or instant life, meaning the Sea-Monkey eggs are dehydrated like NASA space food and pop to life with the addition of water. Think Cup O’Noodles or Taster’s Choice instant coffee, but with tiny monkeys. That aren’t actually monkeys.

Brine shrimp are what they are. At best, they grow about a half-inch long. They have spindly, monkey-like tails as adults and they swim with fluttering angel’s wings, flapping in circles around the tank, nose-diving, eating food at the bottom and, most curiously, latching onto one another in possible monkey coitus. Baby Sea-Monkeys do happen.

I’ve had a Sea-Monkey live about a year or more — a personal record. It was massive. When it died, my college dorm-mate and I burned it in a funeral pyre. I wish I was joking.

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Sea-Monkeys are a conflation of toy and pet, two of children’s favorite things. They are the brainchild of late eccentric inventor Harold von Braunhut, who created a “stage show, the illusion of instant life,” says the film.  

But the movie also reveals pure evil: Von Braunhut was an active and outspoken member of a major pro-Hitler white supremacist league. How to reconcile these two sides, the whimsical and the wicked?

“It’s the great mystery lurking behind the Sea-Monkey castle,” says Richard Pell of The Center for PostNatural History in the film. “How does the guy who invents all of these wonderful, playful fun things also promote such horrible ideas?”

I shake my head vigorously. I can’t answer this question. Some might even think Sea-Monkeys, those mutant, sci-fi creatures, are horrible ideas. Spawns of satan.

I then recall my own evil, sheer monkeyshines. As a kid, when I got bored with my tank-circling Sea-Monkeys, I once fed them to a trio of mail-order sea horses (who themselves croaked after about three days). Another time, I poured them into one of those hand-held water games of hoops or tic-tac-toe and swished them around like debris in a storm. Sea-Monkey sadist.

And yet here I am, decades onward, seriously considering buying for my birthday a Sea-Monkeys Ocean-Zoo for $12.98 from Amazon. I am so tempted I can hardly stand it.  

(For the Sea-Monkey completist — who isn’t? —  visit the official Sea-Monkey site here.)

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Actual Sea-Monkeys, aka brine shrimp, in captivity

Laughing so hard, you have to clap

The guy says something funny, clearly amusing himself.

He cracks up, throws his head back, mouth agape. 

And then he does it: He claps.

One big resounding slap of the hands, like some sort of madman, a yukking narcissist applauding his own magnificent sense of humor. (Briefly springing to mind: a comic-book villain, rubbing his hands together as he cackles malevolently.) 

What really is he and so many others who perform the laugh-clap doing? Something strikes you as funny and laughter peals forth. Got it. And then you do a thwacking clap, a percussive note accentuating your uncontainable delight. Add a snort to the mix and you’ve got a symphony.

The dreaded laugh-clap is cousin to the har-har knee-slap, which is rather outmoded, more of an uncle-in-overalls gesture. The foot stomp: same.

The laugh-clap, however, never goes out of style. I see — and hear — them all the time, and I cannot fathom their purpose or impetus. Where do they come from? The tipsy, the assertively gregarious, sports fans, frat boys, theater majors — it infects a cross-section of chortler. You’ve seen them, laughing, clapping, having a good old time while giving a round of applause to … something.

The most egregious high-profile offender is Jimmy Fallon, the cutesy, infantilized host of “The Tonight Show.” The guy will laugh at anything. He will chortle, titter, guffaw and giggle. Almost always he will clap. 

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There’s an actual online message board “Jimmy Fallon Laughing & Clapping.” It’s terribly unenlightening in its attempts at parsing what’s wrong with Laughing Boy — who knows what makes these characters tick? — but at least it exists, a sort of douche-o-meter.

Many posters call Fallon’s overreactions to even the featheriest of tickles “fake,” which is, we all know, high treason in comedy. (Watch a video compilation of Fallon laugh-clapping HERE. Beware: It may irritate you to death. Literally.)

“Did you ever see him on SNL? Every thing, at that moment, is the funniest thing ever and ol’ Jimmy just has to laugh,” notes one messenger.

Another one, who, while calling Fallon a “prepackaged predictable politically correct vanilla product,” seems to come to the host’s defense:

“You can only express so much excitement through a laugh — you have to add some other form of how funny something is.”

Adding a dimension to the old grizzled snigger, when boring, limited laughter isn’t good enough. They make it sound like an art form, say, a popular new dance, the Laugh-Clap.

Natch, this is nothing but a quibble, a Seinfeldian social moan that amounts to empty venting. I still don’t get the laugh-clap. I don’t like it. Yet one poster offers possibly the most clear-headed and charitable view that I’ll swallow for now:

“It’s an appreciation for joy.”

Tippling Dixie

Sure, I took a nip on my trip this week to Charleston, South Carolina, not on the basis of “When in Rome …,” though there was a bit of that. No, I just like a good cocktail or Scotch or beer, particularly in a nicer establishment, like a fine restaurant or stylish bar/saloon. (Or salon: Where I get my hair cut, they serve free Prosecco, a nice Kardashian flourish.)

And, as part of what became something of a foodie journey (see that part here), I hit a lot of those places. My slogan: No driving, no hangovers, no regrets.

Right before my three-day trip to Charleston, I blogged about the award-winning small-batch boutique distillery I had my sights on, High Wire Distilling Co., on bustling — one might say boozy — King Street.

I made it, and took the short tour — the place is fashionably cozy and drips with hip — and partook in the tasting flight. The tour was $5, as was the tasting. (I also bought a bottle of the Hat Trick Extraordinarily Fine Botanical Gin for a reasonable $27.)

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The High Wire tasting flight. Left to right: Hometown VodkaHat Trick Extraordinarily Fine Botanical GinHat Trick Barrel Rested Gin; and New Southern Revival Brand Rye Whiskey. Especially for how early in the day these were imbibed — noon shots on an empty stomach? — each libation exerted kick and fire and were exceptionally complex.

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At this upscale bistro I sipped the Nordic Witch — “bright and herbal, this witch is ready to head south for spring” — made of Old Tom Gin, Strega, Linie, Aquavit, Lime and Peychaud’s. It was superlative, swirly and tangy, but it was so small, I didn’t even take a picture of it. 

With dinner I had a Classic Whiskey Sour that hit the spot:

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Husk has one of the coolest, most coveted little bars in the city (big patio for you patio people), with potions to match. Waiting for a dinner table, I ordered a tasty Gin-Based Drink Special, whose name and ingredients I foolishly didn’t commit to memory.

But here it is:

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During dinner I got the toothsome and bracing Option Bee: Earl Grey-Infused Local Gin, Yellow Chartreuse, Honey, Lemon and Egg White. Below:

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My penchant for gin is glaring and at this classy, streamlined drinkery I stuck to my beloved botanicals with the assertive “Clover Club” — Hendrick’s Gin, Raspberry Preserves, Dry Vermouth, Lemon and Egg White — followed by the satisfactorily simple PGT (Proof Gin and Tonic)” — Hendrick’s Gin, Lemon Bitters, Cucumber.

Proof’s a neat place on crawling King Street, and I would have returned with more time.

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Slathered in ersatz grunge and lacking snarly attitude, The Griffon touts itself as the authentic dive bar in Charleston, and apparently a lot of people who haven’t been to Charleston’s The Recovery Room or Dirty Franks in Philly actually believe this. This bar is a poser dive if ever there was one, a faux dump made to look beaten and badass with floor-to-ceiling wallpaper compiled of signed $1 bills. It tries awfully hard, and it made me kind of sad. The Griffon is the Planet Hollywood of dives, a cosplay simulacrum, a movie set. Spotless bathrooms? Yep. Tourists only. I had a $4 bottle of Miller Lite. Then I skedaddled.

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  • Finally, for non-alcoholic, caffeinated elixirs I spent mornings at the sleek, slightly industrial, mid-century and mini-menu’d Revelator Coffee Company on — where else? — King Street. Fully recommended. Free WiFi, tip-top drinks, cheery baristas.

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Chewing through Charleston

I did it right, I nailed it. During my quick foodie tour through Charleston, South Carolina, I sidled up to the bars at five restaurants I urgently wanted to hit, the places that songs are written about, that journalists spill fragrant ink over, that Uber drivers gasp in amazement, “You got into (restaurant name here)?”

I researched and read. The internet was my friend. I watched Anthony Bourdain and “Chef’s Table” and “The Mind of a Chef.” I emailed eateries for the tricks and maneuvers that would guarantee I’d get in without a dinner reservation. (Simple: Arrive well before 5 p.m. Wait outside. When the doors open, nab a seat at the bar. Eat. Drink. Rejoice.)

Charleston is a powerhouse food destination, cutting-edge and farm fresh, and not one thing I ate was less than exemplary. Vittles vaulted me to that pleasure zone, a kind of palate paradise, where you sigh and go, Yeah.

Where and what I ate:

(Assume I loved every dish, passionately, and click the restaurant name for more info.)

  • HUSK, 76 Queen Street:

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Wood Fired White Stone Oysters, Green Garlic Butter, Lemon Vinegar, Fermented Chilies, served on a bed of rock salt

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Confit Duck “Cassoulet,” Heirloom Peas, Lowland Farms Brassicas, Pot Likker Broth, Pan Fried Farm Egg

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  • FIG, 232 Meeting Street:

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Ricotta Gnocchi alla Bolognese Parmesan, Mint

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A dazzling Chicken Confit with Brussels Sprouts and Fig (and lots of other complex goodness I can’t remember) over Polenta

A little about FIG: “The name is an acronym for ‘Food Is Good,'” writes Bon Appetite, “a simple epithet that doesn’t do justice to the level of cooking set forth by Mike Lata, the godfather of Charleston restaurants (he also owns The Ordinary).” 

Speaking of The Ordinary …

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A quartet of immaculate, sweet and salty raw oysters, hand-chosen by the suave server/bartender. The orange beverage to the right is the zesty House Daiquiri: Plantation Old-Fashioned Traditional Dark Rum, Plantation 5-year Rum, Cane, Lime.

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Crispy Oyster Slider with a whisper of jalapeño (unbelievable)

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New England Style Fish Chowder with Oyster Crackers — better than you think. A knockout loaded with generous chunks of white fish and potatoes.

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Spicy Two-Piece Dark Meat Fried Chicken with Cole Slaw: Buttermilk Dressing, Currants, Seeds 

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Second visit: Four Raw Oysters (only one shown here), Signature “Old School” Scalloped Potatoes (divine) and a Gin & Tonic

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The famous Tavern Burger, a 4-ounce Patty Topped with American Cheese, Tangy Tavern Sauce, Griddled Onion on a Sesame Bun, with House Salad. This glorious, glorified slider goes for a mean $15, and it’s worth it. So hypnotic I couldn’t even focus the camera. My eyes were crossed.