Sole searching

Sneaker shopping — it happened. And I’m sore. I have remorse. Yet it was exciting. Like a bar fight. 

About every other year I feel the need for new kicks, specifically sneakers, or, as we called them in California, tennis shoes. 

This year is the year for new ones, as I’ve been wearing out my Stan Smith Adidas (still gleaming white and criminally comfortable) and I put aside a pair of blue Nothing New sneakers, a wincing waste, despite their reasonable price tag and the fact they’re made of recycled materials. (Specifically, water bottles.) I’m just not feeling them.

So, I am lacking. I forgot to mention the retro Reeboks I wore for a year and finally got sick of (they are fugly). And the black Reeboks that sprouted a substantial and premature hole in the toe. So, really, I am, truly, lacking.

I don’t spend a lot on shoes. Until I do. But first: I don’t. For example, those Reeboks I got sick of? $45. The Stan Smiths? $70. The Nothing News? $98. 

When I start grazing $100 for shoes, I quiver. But, as clichés go, you get what you pay for. So I am, so to speak, stepping it up. I have help. One helper is my brother, a well-connected, dedicated, sort of fiendish shopaholic. He has taste. Sometimes expensive taste. But, looking at his feet, it pays off. 

I tried shopping on my own recently, and I tanked. I came this close to ordering a pair of Adidas Sambas, then a pair of Adidas Gazelles. I was being uber-retro, and uber-cheap. Worse, I actually ordered a pair of retro-style Asics sneakers, then promptly cancelled the order, red-faced, shame-faced. 

Then my brother pointed me to a spiffy pair of New Balance that I rather immediately fancied. So I bought them. They were pricey. Like double what I usually pay. But I dig them. (And so does my dentist, who gushed about them, and assumed I was a “sneaker-head,” which she professes herself to be. That almost makes it all worth it.)

I got the bug. A month or so later, my brother showed me some kicks by the Italian-made boutique brand Oliver Cabell — I’d never heard of them either. Scanning the shoes online, I noted several compelling pairs that were unique, unusual, slick, stylish. And queasily expensive. I ordered a pair anyway thinking that will be that for a couple years.

Ha. Once I shelved the Reeboks with the hole in them, I realized I no longer had a pair of basic black sneakers, my go-to style. And there, sitting regal and righteous, were a pair of black leather Oliver Cabells that made my heart race. Now. There. We. Go.

I bought them, but it was a struggle. My brain reeled with drama and guilt. My wallet wheezed. The price, too shameful to share, is stressing me out. The kicker: I ordered them a week ago and they won’t be ready for at least two more weeks. They are “currently being made” in Italy, I am told. A little suspense with my sneakers. I really need that. 

So, for me, shopping for sneakers is more than an act. It’s a procedure, prolonged and painstaking. Like surgery. And, lately, almost as costly. I need to find a better way. I am not waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Rewards of the return visit

Friends, those kooks, occasionally wonder why I often return to places I’ve already traveled to instead of going somewhere new and horizon-expanding. The answers are simple and numerous. One, obviously, is that I’ve fallen for a city or country and the days I visited were but a tantalizing taste. I want more. To really get under the skin of a place. So I go back.

(It should be said that last week I was enjoying my first journey to Buenos Aires — my first time in South America — so I still seek the exotic and uncharted.)

To return to a destination is also to refresh the original experiences that made it special and to caulk the holes of crumbling memory. Right now I’m considering a revisit to Madrid, Spain, where I went like 20 years ago. That trip is a fond haze.

Besides Picasso’s gobsmacking “Guernica” and the gems of the Prado Museum — I’m specially partial to the wackadoodle Bosch triptych — I remember only a convivial Irish pub where I met some fun locals and a whiplashing green rollercoaster on the city outskirts. It didn’t even seem to be part of an amusement park, just this stand-alone adrenaline machine amid the trees. Anyway, it was a blast. 

So I’m mulling Madrid for my fall trip, with a three-day excursion north to Bilbao, which is famous mainly for its warped and woozy Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim art museum but has, since the museum’s opening in 1997, blossomed with attractions and an arty, edgy personality all its own.

Guggenheim Bilbao

I’ve yearned to go to Bilbao for at least 15 years, but you don’t just go directly to the city, you typically go through a hub like Barcelona or Madrid then trek north by train to Spain’s autonomous and beautiful Basque Country.

Thus I’m piggybacking a new place with a place I’ve been before, but both should be rejuvenating and illuminating, since, as I said, my memories of Madrid are a scintillating smudge. 

This happens. I went to Rome in March and even though I had been there twice before, it was changed as much as I’d changed in the intervening years. Same with my January visit to Lisbon. I recognized much of the city, but it was also strikingly novel, a whole new world. It’s about layers: each visit peels back exciting ones, those you didn’t see or didn’t have time for the first go around. Discovery is fathomless.

And this is from someone who journals copiously and snaps photos like a paparazzo. But those mementos are static, mere documents, like a map or a postcard. Throbbing, breathing life is the aim, so, yeah, it’s time to go back.

Getting to the meat of Buenos Aires

I think I got swindled in the land of steaks. Here I am in Buenos Aires, which bulges with unrepentant carnivores who adore their burgers, steaks and sausages, and I thought I’d try the quintessential meat experience at legendary parrilla, or grill, Don Julio. No meat maven, I’ve only been to a steakhouse maybe twice in my life (that’s including the Sizzler). Perhaps I fell victim to culinary naïveté. 

The place and service were impeccable, if a bit frenzied, and I loved where they sat me and how I was treated in the classy, rustic setting. I ordered the basic ribeye, a side of mashed potatoes and one glass of Malbec wine. I swallowed it down. 

What I choked on was the check, which came to $155 US — for three items, pre-tip. It was my second night in Argentina and I hadn’t figured out the exchange rate and the check came in pesos, so I really couldn’t tell what I was paying until I examined my debit card statement back at the hotel. Was that a $125 steak, I keep wondering. Or a $50 glass of wine? Or, erg, $75 mashed potatoes? (Dummy that I am, I didn’t keep my receipt. I rarely do.)

Despite being slightly miffed — the meal wasn’t that great — I’m over it, and the mishap is but a faint bruise on a smashing trip. 

A metropolis of unvarnished beauty and unfailing hospitality, slathered in eye-popping street art and graffiti, teeming with leashed dogs that provide stereophonic barking and plagues of poop, Buenos Aires is a great cobblestoned colonial melange of Spanish, French and Italian — a splash of old New Orleans — that’s exhilarating in its swirling Euro-diversity. (For all that, I have to say how perplexing, and distressing, it is that in six days here I have literally seen only two Black people.)

There’s time left on the journey, but for now these are some snapshots, beginning with the offending but delicious $teak:

Doggedly loving Buenos Aires

My hotel’s neighborhood echoes with the piercing sound of dogs barking their heads off. These are happy hounds, some of the zillions scampering about Buenos Aires, a city smitten with its canines, as everyone enjoys telling this shameless dog lover who fawns over any pup that crosses his path.

And here, that path is peppered with poop. My leafy, boutiquey hood of Palermo challenges you with a minefield of feces, much of which bears the imprint of hapless sneakers. Dog walkers, and they are legion, are regular scat scofflaws, ignoring rules that you pick up your pooch’s poop. What is this, Paris?

But it’s OK. I’m just delighting in the dogs — so many, of such varied breeds! — that stroll in packs of five or more with professional dog walkers, a bona fide career in this metropolis of 15 million humans. It’s winter now in Argentina, and this week temperatures hover around 55 degrees F, so lots of the critters sport sweaters, making them even more charming, and dapper. 

Dog parks are everywhere it seems. Even on paid walking tours, I lag behind to watch packs of gamboling, barking, ball-chasing, humping and jumping mutts. (How is it such small yappy dogs are so brazen with their gigantic peers?)

I’ve been in the beautiful capital city three days, and already it’s a dog’s life.

Winkless at 35,000 feet

Right now it’s 104 degrees at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, which seems appropriate considering the facility’s infernal namesake. I have arrived from the East Coast, where it was 74 at 10 a.m. — it will hit 94 — and I am connecting to a flight that will take me to the land of 54 degrees, for it is winter in Buenos Aires, my latest destination on my quest to see as much of the world as I can before it blows up.

Hours later, I write this in the dark on a punishing nine-hour redeye during that weird interval when the pilot douses the cabin lights so his human cargo can go sleepy time. I’m a jet-plane insomniac so that trick ain’t working. Instead I atrophy in my seat, reading a bit, maybe watching a few minutes of a movie (or eavesdropping on what others are watching — almost uniform tripe), but mostly fiddling my brain’s thumbs and sneaking the occasional mini bottle of scotch that I smuggled aboard. (Contraband. I rule.)

Of course, as always, the guy next to me is comatose, swaddled in a blue airline blankie, a rivulet of drool squiggling down his chin — paradise. And there I’ll be when we disembark, sleep-deprived, pissed-off, testy, tetchy, impatient — and singing glory hallelujah I’m in South America, my first time on the continent! Bloodshot eyeballs, bewhiskered, frowzy hair — who cares. The miracle of modern aeronautics has delivered me someplace new and far, uncharted and exciting. I have no idea what I’m getting myself into.

And that’s the gist of it. No matter how physically miserable I am right now — there’s six hours left on the flight and I’ll be burning untold calories fidgeting, not to mention enduring fearsome temblors of turbulence — I still have much to look forward to, lots of which I’ll probably share here. 

Meanwhile, I have a funny novel to finish, some hooch to furtively sip and a few episodes of “Rick and Morty” to watch. Things could be a hell of a lot worse.

Argentina, here we come (gulp)

The plane is set to depart Sunday at 2:09 p.m. local time, and by 2:49 p.m. I plan to have a scotch resting on my drop-down tray next to my trusty laptop or a scintillating paperback, my carry-on tucked overhead, seat reclined and the fat, brushing butts and sharp, errant elbows of fellow fussing passengers over and done and in their seats, preferably nowhere near me.

Grrr.

Air travel, the great triathlon, the great grumble-thon. Packing, getting to the airport — in an Uber, no less, with those ubiquitous pine trees dangling from the rearview that reek of urinal cakes — boarding the plane sheep-like, the scrum of seating, and all the fun, head-imploding minutiae in between. (Security — fuck yeah!) As a blanket complaint, it couldn’t be more cliché. Deal.

I’m soaring from the East Coast to a layover in Houston, then off to Buenos Aires for nine days, which seems a little excessive but at this point I’m kind of stuck. (Note to self: check out Montevideo in nearby Uruguay, or ride a horsey with some dusty Argentinian gauchos. Eat steak. Mounds of it. I really don’t know.)

Dress appropriately. This one’s tricky. It will be 90 degrees at my departure and 53 degrees at my arrival in South America, where it is currently winter below the equator. I’ll wear jeans and a t-shirt and carry a mid-weight jacket on the plane. When I arrive in Buenos Aires I’ll figure out what to unpack and put on. A cinch.

I’m the fourth most neurotic traveler on the globe, and so of course I’m bitten with anxiety about what’s in store in a city, a country, a continent, I’ve never been to. Will I be dazzled? Will I have fun? Will my many plans pan out? Will I get robbed and beaten in a taxi cab?

My myriad trips always work out fine or better despite my weak-kneed worries. And of course I’m already scheming the trip after this, my annual late-October journey. I was leaning toward Budapest, where I’ve never been, and Krakow, where I have been and loved. Now I’m considering Madrid, where I’ve been, and Bilbao and San Sebastián in Basque Country, which are new to me.

But first things first. I have Buenos Aires to explore and get lost in yet. Museums and mausoleums; graffiti and galleries; tango and tours; all within sweeping European influence tangled with Latin passion and grandeur. A mad melange.

And before that, the flight. Oh, god, muzzle the chatterboxes, in my row or any row. Or the bewhiskered guy next to me who plays video games for 10 hours straight. Or, heaven forfend, the shrieking infant, diapered spawn of the devil. 

I can do this. I always do. Excuse me, flight attendant, I need a tall cocktail of one part gin, two parts exasperation, and a splash of fizzy rage. Gee, thanks. And I wash it all down with one big Xanax. And from there we’ll see how things go.

My bet: swimmingly. Absolutely swimmingly.

My current cultural playlist

1. Way behind on the cult British crime saga, I’m discovering the gritty and gruesome pleasures of “Peaky Blinders,” an uncompromising gangster epic bristling with politics, razor blades, gamblers, guns, and unvarnished thuggery. 

Set in Birmingham, England, just after World War I, the Netflix series is a fearsomely atmospheric blood opera starring a rogue’s gallery of dapper gangsters with deep family roots and a hunger to stay in power. It openly, inevitably recalls “The Godfather,” “The Sopranos” and, on a knife and knuckle street level, “Gangs of New York,” with perhaps more thematic tentacles.

The show is fronted by Cillian Murphy as crime boss Thomas Shelby, whose smoldering menace can burn a hole like a bullet. One website has voted him the Greatest TV Character of All Time, a testament to Murphy’s pit bull commitment and conviction. He unnerves every time he’s onscreen, makes you shift in your seat. Pepper the grimy period setting with tunes by Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and White Stripes and you get more than anachronistic friction; you get gang-banging with a boogie beat. 

2. Listening to Nirvana’s short, punchy songs, it struck me again why the band is so good and lasting: Almost lick for lick, Nirvana is as infectiously hooky as the Beatles.

And on the Beatles — my favorite band, and I’m not a hundred years old — I liked this line from “The Idiot,” Elif Batuman’s riotous novel of the head and heart: “The Beatles turned out to be one of the things you couldn’t avoid, like alcohol, or death.”

3. You also can’t avoid Marvel and its muddleheaded mayhem in the current cinema, a soul-battering bummer. But there do exist little oases floating past the aesthetic carnage, attractive indie films like the raunchy, uproarious “Zola” and my latest favorite, “The Worst Person in the World.” 

The grabby title is slyly misleading in this dark rom-com drama about a young woman who skitters between jobs and lovers while surfing life’s foibles. Joachim Trier’s prickly Norwegian charmer, ablaze with insinuating characters and sexy anecdote, is told in 12 fluid chapters, led by endearing star Renate Reinsve, who won best actress at Cannes for her intricate portrayal of a woman in flux. Hardly the worst person in the world, she’s a millennial supernova.

4. Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel “Lapvona” is grossing out reviewers with its blithe violence and panoramic depravity. (Is Moshfegh the worst person in the world?) The medieval fable, set in a village rife with plague and other misfortunes, is earning wildly mixed reviews, many of them lashing in their displeasure, even from fans of Moshfegh’s previous dark fictions (“Eileen,” “Homesick for Another World”). 

I’m a fan as well, and I’m steeling for a rough ride. I’m only on page nine, and here’s a verbal taste: “disemboweled” “heads of the dead,” “a bone sticking out through the flesh,” “animal excrement.” (Page nine.) The book, in all its gloppy mucus and viscera, came out this week — which makes it the perfect summer beach read. You heard it here first.

In praise of small pleasures

Stay away. We’re contagious. First my nephew caught Covid, then I did. Now my brother has it. Next up: the dog. 

This too shall pass, this rottenness, and I’m happy that the virus, for now, is behind me. It’s just one small blessing in muddled times, a jagged slab of flotsam to hug while the ship sinks.

There are other things. Like Elif Batuman’s new novel, “Either/Or,” which I’ve plugged here before briefly. It’s one of few passing pleasures right now, be it a startling observation about love or a suave turn of phrase that knocks me dizzy. 

Or a jab of insight glinting with wry misanthropy: 

“Of course, you couldn’t have a party without alcohol; I understood this now. I understood the reason. The reason was that people were intolerable.” 

Or any number of absurdist gems: 

“I hadn’t a clear mental picture of his new girlfriend, Lara, and realized that I had almost expected her to look blurry.”

But what’s a small delight to me may be imperceptible to you. 

Unless you’re traveling abroad and you’ve just learned that the U.S. has lifted its Covid testing requirements to return to the States — a major hassle deleted from an already stressful travel climate. I recently had to take the test in Portugal and Italy to get back home and the logistics were near-traumatic. 

So rejoice for that minor miracle. And why not the same for Monkey 47, a richly aromatic, botanically fierce, impishly named gin that I’ve rediscovered and is well worth the price. Even the gin-averse extol its ample virtues. It may be the best gin on the shelf, a smooth bracer for rough days.

What else is keeping me warm, now, when the skies are dark? The crack and screech of Brandi Carlile’s voice on her song “Broken Horses.” The zesty mazeman noodles at Ani Ramen House. Penélope Cruz’s febrile, heartrending performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s stirring melodrama “Parallel Mothers.” My unquenchable wanderlust. Bongos. That woman at the cafe. Books, mountains of them.

The dog. 

The dog. 

The dog.

Culture in the time of Covid

My Covid’s gone and I feel strong as an ox, even though I barely know what an ox is. A big cow? Paul Bunyan’s interspecies BFF? Actually, I just looked it up. An ox is a “castrated bull used as a draft animal.” So let’s scratch the whole ox analogy entirely. 

Point is, I’m back — non-contagious, symptom-free, fit as a fiddle. (I don’t know what that means either. Skip it.) It took about five days to vanquish the virus, and it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. It was like a mild cold, but without mucus violently erupting from my lungs. This was a dry cough, little hacks, as if an infant was smoking a cigarillo.

As hoped, I got a lot of reading done during my convalescence. I wrapped up “The Sportswriter,” Richard Ford’s extraordinary, bittersweet novel about life, love and letdowns, and started three more books, all highly acclaimed and released in the past few weeks.

Alas, two of them tanked. Those would be Ali Smith’s “Companion Piece” and Mieko Kawakami’s “All the Lovers in the Night.” 

I’m not sure what critics are going on about with Smith. They go bananas for her Seasonal Quartet novels — I failed miserably to warm up to two of them — and seem to regard the new book as the prosaic sublime. I read 175 pages of “Companion Piece” and surrendered with a mere 50 left. She’s a slog, oblique, flirting willfully with incoherence. I wasn’t having fun. I was having a migraine.

I enjoyed Japanese super-author Kawakami’s earlier novels, the shrewd and touching “Heaven” and “Breasts and Eggs,” which sounds like a particularly provocative breakfast dish. But her latest, though not totally displeasing, never takes off. It’s slow going … going nowhere.

But I hit pay dirt with “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s sequel to “The Idiot,” tracing the turbulent interior life of a female college student who’s trying to figure it all out. It’s at once wildly funny and erudite, catchy and sparkling, and that’s about all I can ask for in a book. Bonus: the author’s name is Elif.

For someone isolating with time to burn, I watched very little in the way of shows and movies. I did stay abreast of the series “Hacks” (hilarious), “Top Chef” (harrowing) and “Barry” (hilarious and harrowing). And I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into “Irma Vep,” the great Olivier Assayas’ dramedy about a vamp, vampires and the insanity of making movies.

Meanwhile, everybody and their easily-scared tweens are bingeing Netflix’s gimmicky genre mash “Stranger Things.” I preferred the show when it was called “Scooby-Doo.”

I also got to anticipate my July journey to Buenos Aires as I was spread out, aching and sniffling with dramatic moans of self-pity. It’s something to look forward to, and, from a piece I read recently, that’s not only a good thing, it’s a healthy thing: “Having something to look forward to boosts your mood and lowers your stress. It can increase motivation, optimism and patience and decrease irritability.” Huh.

Not quite a Covid cure, but it can’t hurt. So much so that I started looking forward to my annual October trip, leap-frogging the July trip I haven’t even taken yet.

I’m thinking Budapest, a European joint I have yet to visit. Or perhaps a return to Krakow. Or Berlin. I’ll have to see what Covid is up to in those places. I might be cured, but the tenacious bug, mean and mercurial, still has the world in its gooey grip. 

Is reading for sissies?

As a kid, from ages seven to 17, I had subscriptions to sheaves of magazines I eagerly awaited to hit my mailbox — Dynamite, Ranger Rick, Hit Parade, Modern Drummer, BMX Action, Omni, Heavy Metal, Movie Monsters and more.

Each title represented a discrete passion — showbiz, animals, rock, drums, science, bikes — and the glossy journals were bibles of my interests. I read them rapt, lapping up interviews, gossip, photos, front-of-the-book ephemera, often scissoring them to bits for bedroom wallpaper and school-locker decor. (Try that with an online subscription.)  

At about 17, I started reading the local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, with a new seriousness that went beyond comics “Bloom County” and “The Far Side.” I loved the stylish writing, current events, cranky columnists and clever critics. It was a daily feast, and each week I’d spend up to three hours poring over the overstuffed Sunday edition, an inky ritual I savored.   

I also read lots of books — “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to freak show biographies; “Slaughterhouse-Five” to Jim Morrison’s (dreadful) poetry — but that’s a given. When I was eight I read the fat paperback of Peter Benchley’s “Jaws,” and I’m still proud of it.

But is it normal, for a boy at least, to spend so much time with the written word, reading? Shouldn’t he be outside, say, throwing balls, or blowing things up?

While I hated most sports — except soccer, skiing and BMX — I was your average knee-scraping, war-playing, B.B.-gun-shooting, lizard-catching, fire-setting, doorbell-ditching, girl-crazy, grungy little scamp. 

Still, I adored words and what they imparted — ideas, information, whole worlds. I used to wade through our World Book encyclopedias and ginormous Mirriam-Webster dictionary just for fun. My best friend Gene and I wrote little books about devils, murder and other unspeakable mischiefs. We had a thing for horror.   

But did all that bibliophilia and word-love mean I was a giant wuss?

This week teacher and novelist Joanne Harris — bestselling author of “Chocolat” — said that reading is far more rare in boys than girls, for rather macho reasons:

“When I was teaching boys particularly, I found that not only boys did not read as much as girls but they were put under much more pressure by parents, largely fathers, to do something else as if reading was girly,” she said via LitHub. Boys, apparently, “ought to be out playing rugby and doing healthy boy things.”

And I reply: Can’t boys do both — reading and “healthy boy things” — like I did (and what’s a healthy boy thing, anyway)? 

Forbes reports that boys are way behind girls in reading comprehension and writing skills, because “reading and writing are stereotypically feminine endeavors, and boys tend to avoid anything that’s remotely feminine. In other words, it’s just not cool to read, because reading is for girls.”

This is clumsy and reductive (and offensive) reasoning, more fitting for the playground than a hard, rational study. Reading is for girls? You don’t say.

What then to make of all the wildly famous male writers overpopulating the literary canon who have (unjustly) eclipsed their female counterparts? Call Hemingway or Mailer a wuss and see where that lands you. 

I don’t doubt that girls read more than boys; I’ve seen it borne out. If it’s because boys are discouraged and intellectualism is deemed unmanly, then we have a real societal problem. I don’t have the answers — just my umbrage — but if you have any thoughts, please comment.  

I know many bibliophobes, people, almost all male, who would never think of strolling the living, fragrant stacks of a bookstore, or simply pick up a book for that matter. To me, they’re the wussies, un-evolved, willfully ignorant, with the vocabulary of third graders and the critical thinking skills of a hubcap. I don’t trust adults who don’t read. Philistinism is a cultural crime.  

World travel has largely usurped my juvenile need to start fires and catch lizards, but I still read at a mad clip and write as much as I can. Call me a sissy. I’m having a ball.