Far-flung human connection during enforced disconnection

A few days ago I received this brief email: 

Hi. 

Hope you and your family are staying safe in this pandemic. Keep prayerful.

— Kalpten

It was from a Turkish woman I met 10 years ago in Göreme, Turkey, in the magnificent region of Cappadocia — all fairy-tale spires, ancient cave churches and local stone dwellings. I was scribbling in a Moleskine journal at the whimsically named Flintstones Cave Bar, a glass of Efes beer at hand. I was mostly alone until about 9 p.m., when bodies suddenly filled the white-stone grotto, music began to pulse and about a dozen people danced by their glass-filled tables. 

A young woman, petite with dark pixieish hair, approached me, asked where I was from, and invited me to join her small party. I politely declined. About 10 minutes later, I decided what the hell and sat at their table and bought the group a round. The woman was Kalpten, whose name I still find distractedly unusual and pleasantly exotic. She danced with her friends, shyly, when I was there.

Kalpten explained how each weekend she and her friends made the hour drive from Kayseri, a city of nearly a million people in Central Turkey, where the airport which I flew into from Istanbul is located, to Flintstones Cave Bar for music, beer and boogie.

We hit it off, but eventually I ambled into the night, up the hill to my lovely cave hotel. As I was checking out the next morning, a message from Kalpten awaited. (In our flurry of small talk, she had asked the name of my hotel.) I called her back and she insisted on driving to Göreme, picking me up and taking me to the Kayseri airport. Yes, I said.    

P1030022

When we parted in the terminal she said she’d take a bus to see me in Istanbul at the end of the week. And she did. We spent a long, sunny day together, during which we broke up a vicious fist-fight between two young boys, sipped Efes beer, hung around the waterfront, strolled historic Sultanahmet and took a ferry to picturesque Princes Island.

And that was that. When I returned to the States, we exchanged several fond emails, then, inevitably, the flow trickled off, and a years-long silence followed.

Then the email at the top of this post came.  

I promptly wrote her back, five or six enthusiastic lines. Three days later, she responded, part of which read:

So much time has flown since we mailed each other. And now we both two as all other people experience the same troubles, feelings and thoughts, we are all passing through historical and tough times. 

Exactly. In these days of universal trauma and global grieving, our overdue reconnection takes on a slightly unreal complexion. It is strange, wonderful, serendipitous. Magic is not an idle player, I think. Yet tragedy is also part of the equation. 

Connection is important to me, yet not as important as it is to most. A loner at heart, I prefer people in small doses. Yet this reaching out by Kalpten struck me differently, poignantly. Of course there’s the nostalgia factor — long time, no see and the triggering of a dozen warm memories — but it’s more than that. She’s a distant friend I have only wondered and dreamt about, a phantom face I can visit in a few photographs.

And now she’s real all over again. It’s not necessarily a romantic thing; it’s a human thing. That’s about all we have in these fraught times, and in any time. 

Kalpten wrote: “It is really big pleasure to write you as always.”

Then she signed off.

How are you feeling?? Write me anything you want to write …

I’m going for now.

Take care

K.

Faces of India

The giggly, beatific smile on a bedraggled beggar girl on the steps of the Jama Masjid Mosque in Old Delhi. Three eager children bounding up to their cow for an impromptu snapshot in the backstreets of New Delhi. A red-eyed, dye-smudged wise man looking meaningfully into the distance in Udaipur.

They’re but a few of the images I snapped some years ago while traipsing about northern India, including Old and New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur. During the long days of corona cocooning, I recently flipped through travel albums and found a theme: wondrous, troubled India — and its magnificent people, so kind, polite, funny and alive. These are some I met:

p1010393.jpg
Beggar girl, Old Delhi
P1010469.jpeg
Women just outside of Taj Mahal, Agra
p1010325.jpg
Tough girl, New Delhi
p1010792.jpg
Religious man, Udaipur
p1010760.jpg
Random woman near orphanage, Jaipur
p1010372.jpg
Woman, Old Delhi
p1010782.jpg
Woman peddling water, Jaipur
p1010689.jpg
Kids and cow, New Dehli

Not much else to do but read (and read…)

Thanks to the collective corona cloistering, I’ve been ordering books online, greedily. With libraries and bookshops closed, I’m buying used books from third-party sellers on Amazon and new titles from New York indie institution McNally Jackson. 

Unquenchably, I’m ingesting words in the yawning vacuum of self-quarantine. Reading is nearly as nourishing as food. This is what’s on my literary plate. 

51j21ZQ+KHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

I met “Birds of America” author Lorrie Moore at a book signing for that acclaimed 1998 story collection, and she wasn’t the most jolly person in the room. She was frosty to her gathered admirers, but I don’t hold that against her. Moore’s edge informs her tart, smart fiction, which is also infused with emotional immediacy and pocked with laughs. With stories like the award-winning “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the book is a contemporary classic that hasn’t aged a whit. 

Death looms these grim days, though mortality is always on the mind of this moody Cassandra. Long ago I read the updated edition of “The American Way of Death,” Jessica Mitford’s definitive 1963 exposé of the funeral racket, and I’m back at it, if not for the dazzling reportage and head-shaking stats — upshot: funeral peddlers are exploitative swindlers — then for purely great writing that makes a dismal subject pop. The book is not only essential muckraking, but lavish literary satire, nipping at a venal industry with the toothy, pit bull wit of Pauline Kael. This tangy volume is one big reason I will be cremated and thrown to the wind.

71BFF821VTL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_.gif

51VIRgJYGcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_While rereading books like the above, I’m also rewatching some favorite flicks, including “Casablanca,” the evergreen masterpiece in which every element of fine filmmaking miraculously falls into place. I love a good movie book so I clicked on Noah Isenberg’s “We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie,” the gawky title of which tells you just what you’re delving into. I haven’t cracked it yet, but I’m hoping for historical Hollywood gold on par with the recent knockout “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood.”  

Dreaming about Paris, I tripped upon the site for fabled English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, that grand, musty emporium on the Left Bank, where I scrolled staff recommendations for Paris-set stories. Never mind its racy cover, I was lured to Elaine Dundy’s cult comic classic “The Dud Avocado,” a romp tracing the libertine escapades of a comely young American woman in the French capital who yearns to exist out loud. Called a “timeless portrait of a woman hell-bent on living,” the novel seems unlikely to disappoint this thwarted traveler pining for Paris.  41efY3TglbL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_On the note of cult classics, “Airships,” Barry Hannah’s award-winning collection, promises “20 wildly original, exuberant, often hilarious stories that celebrate the universal peculiarities of the new American South.” The book hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s highly anticipated after being called “one of the most revered short story collections of the past 50 years, remaining a vital text in the history of the American short story.” And this snippet from it makes me sort of love it already: “What a bog and labyrinth the human essence is … We are all over-brained and over-emotioned.”

51hhyhVwywLRaymond Chandler’s crackling and complex detective noir “The Big Sleep” scorches with style. The novel, a total delight, introduces private eye Philip Marlowe, literature’s great existential antihero, a shrugging loner with a gun, cigarettes and devastating wit. Chandler crams it with so many ravishing lines, images, similes, he elevates pulp to high literature. Marlowe, all slow-burn aplomb, speaks and thinks like the consummate smart-aleck tough: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners,” he grumbles. “They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.” Unknown.jpeg

“Death Comes for the Archbishop” is a western in priest’s clothing. Set in the mid-1800s, Willa Cather’s elegant epic about a gentle French bishop spreading Catholicism through Mexico and its southwest territories braids American history with lush spirituality and, at times, a mean Cormac McCarthy crunch. The title is a major spoiler, like Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” but Cather knew what she was doing, and the foregone conclusion hits hard — and beautifully. Her eloquence is breathtaking, and the glistening lyricism comes out of nowhere to stun. Here Cather describes two men running through the desert: “They coursed over the sand with the fleetness of young antelope, their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight.” 51qJIvsSX6L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

For introverts, self-quarantine isn’t so bad

Introverts tend to enjoy more time to themselves, are very aware of their internal thoughts and recharge more in solitude. Extroverts are just the opposite. Extroverts are more outspoken, outgoing and absolutely love being around other people. They’re talkative and like being the center of attention.”                                                   — Chelsea Connors, therapist

Extroverts chafe me. This certified introvert has spent most of his life avoiding them: the whooping jocks, chest-thumping frat boys, screechy sorority girls, cocky corporate management types, knee-slapping laughers, actors, garrulous social hambones who have to keep everyone rapt with hypnotic anecdotes and stories, the very loud and touchy.

These are the people who are having a hard time with “social distancing” during COVID-19. They’re on FaceTime and Zoom, keeping the party going electronically, lest life in self-quarantine shrivels them up into lonely nobodies. The outgoing who live to go out, hug and high-five and fist pump and kissy-kissy on both cheeks. And strangely cracking up, constantly.

friends_having_fun-1200x628-facebook.jpgIntroverts, on the other hand, are naturally adapting to the situation, even relishing it. This, pundits declare, is the year of the introvert, what with mandated social distancing during the pandemic, which demands people stay apart, social scenes closed or restricted, and families huddled in their homes. No sports events? Oh, darn it.

“Finally,” a tweeter rejoices, “something I’m good at: staying at home and avoiding people!”

Isn’t it great? 

In case I’m branded some sort of antisocial Hamlet or “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” I emphatically aver that I do (did) like to get out for a great dinner, good movie or a play, and some drinks. And my inveterate world travel is taking a heartrending hit. 

But it’s worth noting this shift in the social landscape: the meek shall inherit the earth, for a while. From the Twitter-sphere come these words of comfort for the eternally uncomfortable:

— “Any other socially awkward introverts out there feel oddly aroused anytime anyone mutters the phrase ‘social distancing?’ Asking for myself. Obviously.”

— “As single and an introvert, we’ve been social distancing since before it was popular.” 

— “Introverts have been doing this for years! Look who’s suddenly the cool kids at the party now!” 

— “Finally introverts experience a world that is suited to us. All events cancelled, we don’t even have to go thru the trouble of flaking. No one is making random small talk or physical contact. Everybody minding their own business.”

— “So ‘social distancing’ is gonna save us all from #CoronaVirusSeattle.YAY. INTROVERTS WILL SURVIVE AND RULE THE WORLD. Quietly, of course. But still.”

common-words-introverts-extroverts.jpg

Reckless randomness in scary times

Like many of you, we are grumblingly housebound during the seismic spread of the coronavirus, aka the Trump Pandemic, a little scared, a lot curious, shuffling clenched and downcast in a novel world of social paralyzation and dystopian edicts, woozy with the surreal and unthinkable. Enter: takeout, Amazon, streaming movies, books we should have read eons ago, board games, bottomless web surfing, asphyxiating boredom, idle nose picking, staring contests, etc.

The end is nigh. 

Or not. 

Yes, bars, restaurants and even Starbucks are shuttering, and it’s a cataclysmic cluster-boink. I can’t even get a haircut now, so by July I’m going to look like Weird Al Yankovic.

But if you have the gall, guts and lunacy, there are ways out. Like zooming to far-off lands that may well be (yes, they will be) infected. Peek yearningly at PlanMoreTrips, a new site that promises, with a pinch of perversity, to “Find the Best Corona Virus Flight Deals,” like: a $137 roundtrip from New York to Lima, Peru; a $43 roundtrip from Dallas to Las Vegas; or a $231 roundtrip from New York to Barcelona.

960x0-1.jpg
Lima, Peru

All of that makes me want to travel badly; I strain at my leash. But it’s a global crap-storm out there. I don’t want to go to Paris when the D’Orsay and the Louvre and Frenchie restaurant and my three favorite cinemas in the Latin Quarter are closed. (Though I still kinda really do.) And of course I don’t want to get ill or make anyone else sick. So we sit. We stew. We play Scrabble. Shit.

Now for some random, corona-free stuff (just what you were waiting for) … 

—  Cubby the hirsute hound finally got a haircut. In puppy parlance, he was groomed. While his body is shorn and tiny now, almost tubular, like a Pringles can, the Baron Munchausen beard and mustache remain, rather regally. And all that hair removal revealed something we always suspected was there, but never saw: a bright pink butthole. Sorry, but it’s true. And it’s strangely alarming, yet delightful too. He’s got one! He’s even less freakish than we thought! Good boy.  

  Spring dispirits for many reasons. Besides sunshine and heat and bugs and pollen, and everybody chirping about such delirious wonderfulness (they’re all wack), there are insane allergies some of us contend with. Actually, I combat them daily, through all climes, so I can’t blame the new season, as much as I detest it. (Did I mention swimming pools, barbecues and shorts?) Thing is, my allergy meds barely work, if at all. Runny nose, watery eyes are my main symptoms, and they could not vex me more. I’ve tried an array of meds. This week I’m moving on to Flonase. Can anyone vouch for this pricey nasal spray? (Gross, right?) 

  Timely thought: “Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.” — Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith”

—  Serious film fans know Werner Herzog — prolific auteur of mind-tweaking features (“Fitzcarraldo,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”) and consciousness-rattling documentaries (“Grizzly Man,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”) — as a brilliant iconoclast, Germanic chaser of “ecstatic truth,” and venerated pop culture polymath (he’s voiced himself on “The Simpsons” and plays a villain in the “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian”). This week, he’s interviewed in a New York Times Magazine Q&A under the unsurprisingly prickly headline “Werner Herzog has never thought a dog was cute.”It’s typically profound and brain-expanding. “How do we give meaning to our lives?” Herzog says. “That question has been lingering over my work and life. That’s what I’ve been pursuing for a very long time.” And from there, he’s off.29mag-talk-jumbo

—  The other day, Yahoo!, the oddly antiquated web server, rapped my knuckles with a stern warning to be a nice boy. An admonitory email landed in my rarely used Yahoo! mailbox, part of which reads: 

“It has come to our attention that you may have violated the terms of service on Yahoo! Please reread the terms and cease any use of your account that may violate them. If your use of your account is brought to our attention again, we may terminate it without further notice.” 

I’m shaking in my sneakers, big bad Yahoo! (Thank you for providing the exclamation point I otherwise would have furnished in that sentence.) My crime: replying to a couple of comments on a Trumpian news story on the site, which unaccountably attracts a large, semi-literate, far-right readership. The comments, dumb as dirt, borderline racist, the usual vile cant, set off my volcanically anti-Trump triggers and, helplessly, I typed some half-baked responses, teeth grit, smoke poofing from orifices.

Perhaps stooping to the commenters’ level, I called them ignorant hillbillies who should skitter back down the holes they crawled out of — or some such balderdash of which I am not proud. I used no curse words (wait, isn’t “hillbilly” an expletive?) and hardly drew outside the lines. Yahoo! is having none of it. I broke the rules. I upset some Neanderthals and a corporate legal department. To the corner I go. Such a bunch of … yahoos.

maxresdefault.jpg

Superman is dead.

For five good days, Superman was my pal. 

Tall and lanky, with raven-black hair and a swoopy cowlick, and of course that totemic red and blue spandex suit, flaming cape billowing aft, Superman hung out, drank and watched movies with me and my soul-buddy Shannon during the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2007. Superman was our Super-friend. 

Alas, kryptonite conquers. I just learned that Superman, née Christopher Dennis, died last November, a piteous death that HuffPost reports here:

“Christopher Dennis, the ‘Hollywood Superman’ who posed for thousands of photos with tourists outside the famed Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, has died. He was 52.

“Dennis, who was homeless, was found in a used clothing donation bin in Van Nuys, a neighborhood about 10 miles from the tourist district where he earned a living. Police said he was likely looking for something to wear and that no foul play was suspected.”

81nM64QV+BL._SX300_.jpg

Dennis was at the film festival promoting — alongside The Hulk, Batman and Wonder Woman — the ridiculously entertaining documentary “Confessions of a Superhero,” which profiles the costumed characters of the Hollywood Walk of Fame with heart and, yes, heroics. (See the trailer here.) He appeared numerous times on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

Dennis, a goofy guy with a crooked smile and sweet as a golden retriever, said he was inspired to put on the cape and tights because of his uncanny resemblance to Christopher Reeve, cinema’s most famous Superman. Some days he could make a bundle posing for photos; others, not so much. It was a rough life. HuffPost says that Dennis was once beaten with a golf club and robbed of his money and his Superman garb. He resorted to panhandling and drugs. Super drag.

Thirteen years after palling around with Superman, I frankly don’t remember fine details, just that we had a blast. Below is Dennis at the film festival, posing with Shannon and actor Paul Rudd, who’s now himself a screen superhero as Ant-Man. (Why is Shannon gasping? Rudd decided to grab her butt at exactly the right second. Superman looks on, wondering if he should save her. Nah.) 

Shannon___Paul_R._P1060628.jpeg