A brief winter reverie

A crisp Sunday morning and gaggles of children hoot, holler and gambol outside. It is the sound of chaos. (And, to these gentle ears, terror.) 

Temperatures are far higher than the last couple of freezing days. At 47 degrees, the sky is a glowing gray, sun struggling to burn through the haze. A fine winter day.

The children are out at last, released from the arctic prison imposed by the polar vortex, or whatever hit us with only a whisper of snow, for which we’re grateful. Snow is lovely, until it’s a big brown Slurpee. 

It will hit 60 later this week, an unwelcome augur of springtime. I’m all about the 40s and 50s. I have plans to go to Florence, Italy, in one week and the forecast says low 50s and I couldn’t be happier. I can see you frowning, and I don’t care.

But spring is a’coming. I had a dream last night that colorful leaves — red! green! yellow! — were blossoming on naked winter branches. A dream? More of a nightmare. 

So save for the one-day dusting, there’s been no snow this season. The children above — those huggable hellions — have been deprived of sledding and hurling balls and making snowmen, however virtuosically deformed the creatures invariably turn out.

It’s been a mostly mellow winter, a zigzag of 20s to 60s, so heat lovers and outliers like me can split the difference. That rotund rodent Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow a few days ago, ergo we are promised — blessed with — six more weeks of winter, they say.

Hang tight. All this brisk glory will soon be usurped by sun and sweat and pollen and long days and children screeching outside and the warbling tune of the ice cream truck and picnics and baseball and tank tops and flip-flops and other fashion misdemeanors. It’s going to be a massacre. For now, I’ll do what I can: just chill with the chill.

Sleep? In my dreams

Counting sheep is for chumps. When I can’t sleep I engage in fun activities:  tossing, turning, kicking, getting up, lying back down, pounding the pillow, cursing like a Tarantino badass. It’s almost aerobic and so I don’t feel quite as horrible that I didn’t fall asleep until 5:36 a.m.

Wrong. It’s always crummy. I’ve had so many sleepless nights, I’m ready to press a pistol to my groggy noggin. Then, then, perhaps I’ll catch a few winks. But with my luck, no.

Why is insomnia so vexing? Partly because it’s so seemingly controllable. For instance, I won’t touch caffeine after 1 p.m. and even then the sandman, that skulking rascal, that creepy home intruder, will fail me badly. 

I can yawn all day, reading and writing, taking a brisk walk, watching some Netflix, and still I’m like Linda Blair in her jumpy two-poster bed, bloodshot eyes glaring at the ceiling, arms spread Christlike, mouth a satanic rictus, steam billowing from that hideous maw. (OK, that last bit is slightly embellished.)

I am possessed, but not by the devil. I am bedeviled by churning thoughts, junk my brain can’t turn off, even when — and this is true — I’ve taken a full eight Benadryl antihistamine pills, which are famous for their soporific powers. I know people who can take half a Benadryl and sleep through the next three days. Yet the stuff won’t pierce my impervious wakefulness.

Occasionally a Clonazepam or two works wonders. That is rare. And when I do nod off, I’m haunted by uncomfortably vivid dreams quivering with cameos by my late parents, old co-workers, deadlines, writing, weird travel, ex-girlfriends and a random monstrosity, like Marjorie Taylor Greene. I can’t remember the last time I had a truly pleasant dream. In that case, maybe sleep-deprivation is a blessing, not a pillow-punching curse.

Nope. I’d trade a long night of exasperating insomnia — which entails a full bleary-eyed day of feeling like the cranky undead — for a good snooze with bad dreams. Insomnia, after all, is a waking nightmare.

What am I on about? I’ve been sleeping pretty soundly lately, though the other night required pills and pejoratives to achieve a solid snooze. At one point, I kicked the comforter off the bed, bolted up and tried to read, fuming. It was well past 3 a.m. I read two pages, doused the lights, tossed, turned, eventually falling asleep around 6:30. I was a positive joy to be around that day. 

I can’t sleep on trains or planes, a bad look for this inveterate traveler. Once upon a time, equipped with an eye mask, ear plugs and the occasional jacket thrown over my head, I could zonk out on a red-eye flight. No more. For reasons unknown, I’m now Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange,” eyelids cranked open with medieval clamps.

It’s all so tiresome, literally. I’d prefer eyes wide shut, to name-check another Kubrick film. For now it’s a battle, a nightly crap-shoot, will I snooze or lose? Let me sleep on it. Please.

Taffy, teeth, terror

I’m guessing that many of you aren’t familiar with Abba-Zaba. It’s an aggressively old-school candy, invented in 1922 and enjoying its height of popularity in the 1970s. It’s still around, available largely at specialty and retro candy shops. It’s a bar of white taffy filled with peanut butter. It’s delicious. It’s gooey. It’s lethal.

I loved them as a kid, when my mouth wasn’t a constellation of expensive dental work. And I got one in my Christmas stocking recently, either as a joyous surprise or a malicious joke. Either way, I was giddy. 

Still, considering the crowns in my mouth, I knew I was holding TNT. And yet, flinging caution to the wind, I unsheathed the sweet alchemy that is an Abba-Zaba, stripped it of its iconic checkered wrapper. I even paused to puzzle over the candy’s nonsense name: Abba-Zaba. Something about A to Z? Whatever. I took a bite.

I knew what I was doing. Or so I thought. I tried my best to keep the taffy away from my three crowns, sucking it and chewing mostly with my front teeth, almost rat-like. Peanut butter oozed and the sumptuous confection was kept under control, if you will. 

Evidently sustaining that exercise is next to impossible, because, pop, out went my rear right crown. I have to wonder what kind of glue they use on crowns — Elmer’s? 

I’m a numbskull. This is the second time a chewy candy has suctioned out a crown. Once a pink Starburst dislodged a crown with a swiftness that almost seemed spiteful. What just happened? I thought and then pulled out a gold beauty attached to a pink beast.

This time there it was, a silver crown, shiny, perplexed and despondent, all by its lonesome. It floated around my mouth before my tongue could catch it, frog-like. I cursed the Abba-Zaba, threw away the rest of it with a gulp of rue, a flash of ire, and sealed the crown in a plastic bag to bring to the inevitable dentist appointment. 

My dentist wasn’t familiar with Abba-Zaba until I educated her about its ravishing (ravaging?) delights. She confessed a mean proclivity for peanut butter. (Taffy, I presume, is anathema to dentists.) We both agreed I was a fool. Me to her: “I made the genius move of eating taffy.”

The good doctor, whose bedside manner is made of sprites and unicorns, glued it right back with a seamless dexterity that would make an orthodontist cry. (I almost cried, especially when I got the bill.) Pleased to report that weeks later my old crown is holding strong with the new adhesive, which I’ve been assured is not Elmer’s, rubber cement or school paste.

But my adventures at the dentist did not end there. Three weeks later — today — I had my biannual cleaning/check-up, something akin to a periodic colonoscopy, but, you know, about a thousand times better. The dentist mentioned to the hygienist that I had a crown reattached recently, but she mistakenly said it came out naturally.

And then, boom: “No, wait! He was eating taffy!” She chortled. And there I was, on my back, feet elevated part-way in the air, a paper baby-blue bib around my neck, smiling wanly and murmuring, “Yeah. It was an Abba-Zaba.”

It just dawned on me that the hygienist probably has no idea what in the world that is. 

A flaneur in Florence

The frivolities in my life are legion, but travel isn’t one of them, despite how trivial a far-flung journey might seem — or ultimately be. (Most trips soar. Some sink.) 

In three weeks I head to Florence, Italy. Though I’ve been there twice, the last visit was in the Paleolithic Age. I wanted something mellow, somewhat familiar, distinctly European, with lots of marble, museums, manicotti, and mustaches on both men and women.

The city is a cornucopia of artistic abundance: Michelangelo’s David; Donatello’s bittier David; the Uffizi, that Renaissance eruption of Botticelli to da Vinci; Ghiberti’s bronze doors; Brunelleschi’s dome; the locals’ luxuriant facial hair.

I was last in Italy in March 2022, ferrying between Rome and Naples, the latter a bracing revelation, rough-hewn and bristling with a singular urban snap. As novelties go — serpentine side streets, graffiti, killer Neapolitan pizza — it sort of kicked Rome’s ass. In July I swanned to beautiful Buenos Aires. In October, magical Madrid.

Florence seemed like a good middle-ground — encrusted in a glorious past but not overly exotic; grand but not overwhelmingly vast. It’s not like going to jostling Taipei, say, or sunbaked Algeria, which I hear is majestic. Yet Forbes did name Florence the most beautiful city in the world in 2010.

No, this would be a week luxuriating in western art, architecture, food, drink, scenery, inhaling the rarefied air of undiluted enchantment. I imagine me a self-styled flaneur, strolling the cobblestones, gilded walking stick in one hand, tipping my top hat to passersby with the other. And then I snap out of it and pinch the bridge of my nose.

Florence is not massive. So I’m making at least one day trip to Central Tuscany, namely Siena and San Gimignano, medieval towns cluttered with Gothic architecture and honeycombed with history. The region is also a wellspring of Chianti, and tippling some of the red elixir from the source is essential.

I have made five restaurant reservations in Florence, from a traditional trattoria to a Michelin-star bistro. I will eat pasta and pizza and exist — and subsist — a bit like Stanley Tucci, without the bald pate and skinny chinos (but with the dashing scarf). I might also employ a larger vocabulary of superlatives than just, “This is so good” when I taste something delicious.

And though Tucci meets up, and hams it up, with lots of local hosts, he makes it appear he is his own man, ambling the streets of Italy, the stylish flaneur (that word again), when really, of course, he’s accompanied by a small battalion of producers and technicians taping him all the way.  

If life were only like that. I travel solo most of the time, by choice. But once in a while it might be nice to have a crew of professional sycophants at your beck and call, filming you, powdering your nose, providing the background about everyone you’re about to meet and everywhere you’re about to go so you appear super smart and amply informed. 

I do what I can. I read books, watch Tucci and Bourdain, comb the net, view movies. In the end, I’m still alone, tramping about the glittering city, whose promise is assured. I think that’s pretty cool. And I think that’s quite enough.  

Getting fussy about fun

Talking on the phone with my Dad once in my early twenties, I used the word “funner” as an adjective and, stickler that he was, he busted me. 

“That’s not a word,” he intoned. 

Oh. I sat there chastened, my cheeks pink.

I was a burgeoning word freak but Dad was the authority, the maestro, a journalist and wordsmith for decades who loved dissecting language, adored puns (he was the worst!), and collected clichés with a far-flung dream of making a board game out of all the hoary, hackneyed maxims, platitudes and banalities he scribbled down on everything from receipts to cocktail napkins. 

Say something nakedly trite and he would call you out — ha! — scramble for a pencil and jot down the howling cliché you dared utter. Can you imagine what kind of game that would be? Either brilliant. Or inordinately annoying. Anyway, it never came to be.

Back to “funner.” Apparently that isn’t a real word. At least according to my father. And that has stuck ever since. I never say “funner.” Yesterday my brother used the word “funnest” and I pulled a Dad and said that’s not a word. My brother gave me the stink-eye and started making a voodoo doll of me.

But I was wrong. Sort of.

Here’s what the New Oxford American Dictionary says: “The comparative and superlative forms funner and funnest should only be used in very informal contexts, typically speech.”

That’s good news — informal contexts, typically speech. Just how I used funner.

However, an online teacher says this: “The next time students ask why they can’t say ‘funner,’ I say it’s because ‘fun’ was originally only a noun and the -er and -est forms are not commonly accepted. Stick to ‘more fun’ and ‘the most fun.’ ”

And another site avers: “There’s something funny about the word funner. It has the sound of a word twisted for the sake of a game of Scrabble, and any mention of it is liable to draw the response of, ‘Do you mean more fun?”

No! I mean funner! There, I said it, so many years later. Funner.

So, Dad, on this count you might have been off. I’m using funner as an adjective — better late than never. And with that phrase I’ve given you a moldy cliché for your board game, which would have surely been the funnest game of clichés ever.

Language is always evolving, especially between the formal and the colloquial. Take “over” vs. “more than,” for example. Both are now used to mean more than if used before a number or quantity, as in “This cost over four dollars.” That once was a stylistic no-no, but increasingly “over” is an acceptable substitute. 

I’m a word nerd. Love the language, love quips, innuendos, alliteration, even puns, which come tragically easy to me. I like big hairy words that have tentacles and teeth.

I do indeed find words fun. I find writing funner. I find finishing writing funnest of all. 

 

New Year’s Eve, or New Year’s Evil?

New Year’s Eve — long known as amateur night for all its novice partiers (the ones who puke in the backseat of the Uber) — is a sloppy spectacle charged with debauchery, douchebaggery and, on occasion, responsible revelry. 

It’s tailored to the same people who get all giddy and bug-eyed over the very idea of a celebration, be it Mardi Gras, spring break or a bachelorette party. It’s all about skin-deep decadence, dude! Now put your tongue back in your face.

I’ve done my share of Jim Morrisonian indulgence on New Year’s Eve, long time ago when a frilly party hat and chintzy noisemaker didn’t mortify me. Now even streamers and confetti make me blush and I really sink into a sulfurous funk when I see giant eyeglasses with frames spelling “2023” in glitter. Outsized and clownish, they look fit for an orca at SeaWorld. 

But I’m not allergic to a robust get-together with wine, folks and song, even though I shy away from them year by year. Hell, tonight I’m begging off a gathering of five for drinks in a living room. And it’s a pretty safe bet that I won’t be watching Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen get hilariously-slash-obnoxiously tipsy for the Times Square ball drop on CNN. (The dropping ball — what does it all mean?)

My last NYE soiree was pre-Covid, naturally, and it was fine, fun, chill. Maybe 10 of us, imbibing, blabbing, noshing, each one getting visibly more exhausted as midnight ticked-tocked to blast off. I get bored just thinking about it.

The rest of you tear it up, safely, sagely. Wear the dumb glasses, hurl confetti, drink up. But don’t bother anyone, rankle your fellow revelers. Especially the hardworking, don’t-want-to-deal-wth-drunks Uber drivers, who’d also really appreciate it if you didn’t barf in the backseat. I’ve talked to these people, and believe me, tonight they are dreading you. Don’t be that guy.

Spirited away

Yesterday I had the local liquor store — a florescent-splashed airplane hangar thronged with miles and miles of bottles — deliver some goodies to the house. One, because I’m lazy. And two, because I’m lazy. 

But really, the Amazonian efficiency of having port dropped on your porch or Stella on your steps is unbeatable. I’m all in my sweats and sockies and here’s Delivery Don, waving as he heads back to his van, leaving me a box of hooch that will make these polar evenings that much toastier. 

This was a Christmas score, because I was lucky enough to receive a $100 gift card for said booze emporium. So I splurged, spent the whole thing in one big gulp, all on gin. As a gin dilettante, I generally sip the low-shelf stuff at home and order a suave tipple like Hendrick’s, The Botanist or the mighty Monkey 47 at cocktail bars. 

With the gift card, I was going to kick it up a bit. I wanted to get three gins that I’d never tried before. Obviously they couldn’t be too pricey — I would have loved to get some Monkey 47, but a small bottle runs $75 — yet they could still be good, even exotic.

I poked around the web doing due research and soon found a trio of intriguing options. The first to hook me was the hot new Sông Cái, a dry Vietnamese gin “crafted from wild, hand-foraged mountain botanicals” that boasts a pleasant herbal burn and a strong cinnamon finish. For a gin and tonic, my go-to, the distillery suggests adding a pinch of salt. I did and it was deliciously alien and inarguably apt. A winner. (Check out Sông Cái.)

Second was on the gimmicky side, the Dorothy Parker New York Gin, distilled in Brooklyn and, yes, a tribute to the legendary wag, wit, writer and imbiber, who I happen to adore. You’d expect bite, pungency — Parker was the epitome of acid-tongued — but the drink exerts an old-fashioned smoothness. Botanicals are juniper, orange, lemon, grapefruit, cardamom, cinnamon, elderberry and dried hibiscus petals. It’s gently complex, richly satisfying. (And just under $30.)

Then there’s the elegant French gin Citadelle — Jardin d’Été, a strong, zesty bracer infused with melon, lemon, yuzu and orange, like a fruit garden, hence the name. Fancied as a fair-weather drink, it works anytime of the year, like now, in the shivery gloom, because it’s so refreshing yet muscular, especially if you add your own fruit garnishes. It rattles the icicles right off. 

While I’m a wine and whiskey guy, gin’s my main sin. I don’t know when I became so partial to the 500-year-old spirit (while watching too many “Thin Man” movies?), but I find it sophisticated, beguilingly herbal and neatly versatile. Though no martini fan, I will drink the more fragrant, flavorful gins sans mixer, on the rocks. Monkey 47 is good like that. So is the underrated Brockmans, an affordable dram singing with lively grape notes. 

It’s nice to splurge now and then on a top-shelf gin, say, Kinobi, or Monkey 47. But really, 30 bucks should get you an excellent bottle, and the selection in that range is huge. Shop around, do some homework. Better liquor stores have informative websites, with write-ups, reviews and trusty staff picks. One of my favorites is Astor Wines & Spirits in Manhattan. Take your time. Ask questions. Purchase. Pour. Go nuts.

No folly with Dolly

Some years ago my brother and I took a road trip through the Deep South, a six-day vacation doubling as a brush-up on American history and twangy regionalism. Civil rights, the Civil War, Graceland, Sun Records, the Lorraine Motel — we squeezed in a lot. Much of it moved us, spiritually, morally and musically. 

But there was one stop that did its own crazy thing. It awed, confounded and regaled. There were history, banjos and biscuits. There were rollercoasters, glass-blowers and fiddlin’ fools. There were fried catfish and frilly cowboy boots. There were lots of overalls. 

We had found ourselves deep in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee in a gilded wonderland made of corn dogs and mascara. We were at … Dollywood.

That is, of course, Dolly Parton’s personal theme park, 160 acres of thrill rides, country cooking, burly craftsmen, glitzy shows, nostalgic displays, Dolly shrines, all with a pinch of Christianity and patriotism. At opening hour, the National Anthem is blared before patrons, hands on hearts, can enter.

And there’s ole Dolly, her rhinestone-studded likeness beaming around every corner — that shiny blonde bouffant, dimply red-wax smile and those famous Frankenboobs — in all its campy resplendence. Luckily she’s in on the joke or the place would be unbearable in its lack of self-awareness. It would be a cruel punchline, not a family paradise.

But for us wiseacre city boys it was something else. Like an anthropological artifact unearthed in the soft southern soil to be puzzled over. It was our duty to stifle our snickers and suss out what makes this deeply red (politically), aggressively white (racially), boot-kicking (musically) environment tick. 

Well, we never did get to the bottom of it, not surprisingly. We got too swept up in the nine rollercoasters and the luxuriantly bearded dudes doing woodwork and the beans and brisket and the dewy video presentations about Dolly’s fabulous rags-to-riches life. 

Dolly’s no dip. Self-aggrandizement is her kryptonite; she never pulls a Kardashian, despite being something of a glam ham. She’s a giver, not a taker. Indeed, she pays full college tuition for all the park’s employees. That’s on top of her other well-documented, deep-pocket altruism.

Dollywood’s no joke, either. It’s the number one theme park in the country, according to TripAdvisor (really?). Along with the nine rollercoasters (nine!) there’s a water park, wads of wholesome live shows, 25 dining spots and a trillion shops (I bought a gaudy Dollywood coffee mug with my name on it). Go when the fall leaves turn in the scenic Smokies, or now when light snow falls. I’m starting to sound like a Parton pitchman. 

Condescension is too easy, and Dollywood is too big a target. Have your fun — we did — then surrender to the facile charms of another bombastically artificial playland that at least offers a different theme than the formulaic movie characters of Disneyland and Six Flags. It’s rustic, it’s corny, it’s unassuming. (A spokesman recently told The Times that they’re working on the park’s lack of diversity. So there’s that.) 

It’s not unlike Kenny Rogers Roasters (where we actually ate in Nashville), Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo (where I will never eat), Reba McEntire’s Reba’s Place or Billy Cyrus’ Car Wash and Detailing (now I’m making stuff up). Branding is hot, but Dolly — who smartly took a moment to invent a clever name for her venture — started Dollywood in the ‘80s. Ahead of the curve as always, working way more than 9 to 5. 

So there we were, part-way through our whirlwind tour of the American South. Dollywood was on our list. We made it. At first we chuckled, assuming the camp quotient would be too delicious. We weren’t Dolly diehards — I did like “Jolene,” “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5” — but our respect for the country icon was true. 

Hokum is what we sought. But we were wrong. The craftsmen stuff was mildly interesting — whoa, he just carved out a birdhouse in like five minutes! — the Dolly stuff was tasteful if sometimes maudlin, and the overall setting was handsome and top-tier.

I spotted one of the bigger, meaner rollercoasters and we ran for it. I noticed that water sprayed up on some of the turns and curves. I hate that. I don’t like getting drenched at theme parks, not even on those splashy log-ride thingies.

We got on. It was a corker, a great, rumbling ride. I was having a blast. Until the end, the final corkscrew. The goddam thing soaked me good. The joke, at last, was on me.

I own a Dollywood mug just like this gorgeous thing.

Have yourself a weary little Christmas

Lurching towards Christmas, I slowly fill with queasy dread. This is strictly an adult thing. As a child, I was crackpot for Christmas, weren’t we all. I even tolerated the Christmas Eve Mass jive to keep in the spirit of all things magical, moral and Mattel. It was ecstatic, intoxicating. My eyes were pinwheels. A messiah in the manger? I mused. More like Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots and a Huffy bike!

But now, not so much. It’s fine — my Grinchy shades of green flash only occasionally (like when a relative tried to make us all play kazoos on Christmas morning) — yet any magic is vanishingly rare. I have no kids (maybe there is a wish-making Santa Claus), but I have nephews I’ve watched for years do the woo-hoo reindeer dance, ripping open presents faster and faster, barely registering what the prior package was, just go go go. 

That’s how we were as kids, too, of course. It’s like a hot dog eating contest — inhale as much as you can as fast as you can, then raise a fist in triumph. Burp.

Still, as a wee one, I was transfixed by the legend, the myth, the psychotic balderdash of jolly St. Nick and his reindeer, an octet of forest dwellers that inevitably released droppings over the entire planet as they flew from continent to continent (er, rather incontinent). I bought it hook, line and sucker. 

When I was about seven I swore I spotted Santa in his sled, pulled by a team of reindeer. The vision was on a hilltop, thrillingly close to our house. I got piss-pants excited and my parents wisely scooted me off to bed so as not to scare Santa away — and so as not to vaporize the obvious mirage I was experiencing. (No, wait! I saw him. I did! To this day I will never know … )

I wish Santa was real. Without the tubby, ruddy one, it isn’t the same. And so the dread sets in. The kids are much older and they chuckle off memories of believing. The human circle near the fireplace is the same as it has been for a lifetime, but it’s smaller. We’ve lost key faces over the years. Presents are presented and unwrapped, but the frenzy is gone. Dull-eyed expectation eclipses the tinsel’s glittery glow.

About now I’m supposed to sum up with a heartwarming message, gushing how splendorous Christmas remains, how un-mechanical it feels, how suffused with blinding joy and world peace it is. You know I can’t do that. I don’t even think it’s legal. 

Christmas is good. At some point, after the little ones’ heads are done exploding in overwhelming rapture, you might have to lower your expectations. Santa still hovers, belly jiggling, though he’s probably playing a different tune. Ho-ho-hum, he mutters.