When the birthday is just an OK-day

“Death smells like birthday cake.” — Maggie Stiefvater 

My annual birthday plea goes something like this: Don’t get me a birthday cake. Please. And hold the balloons. God, hold the balloons. 

A scarcity of gifts is apt; a token thing (or two!) will do. Cash, books, booze — you’re getting warm. Otherwise, let’s dispense with festive rites, chirpy congrats and that piled frosted sugar loaf festooned with wax and flame. 

Tomorrow I sing the birthday blues with a warble and a plaint (and perhaps a banjo), a tragicomic melody pocked with twangy hiccups and gallows giggles. It’s not so much that I’m getting old. It’s just that I exist. Play in the key of D minor.

Don’t feel bad for me. Antisocial and anti-tradition, I luxuriate in birthday dread, meaning I get an antithetical kick from the “special day” than do normal people who clamor for attention, throw confetti-smattered parties, encourage conspicuous consumption and the lavishing of gifts.  

What then do I do on my birthday? I dwell on death and dying, the brevity of this vast charade, toe-curdling thoughts of cremation and the definitive absence of a higher power. (On that note, blow out the candles.) That’s part jest, but not really, because I reflect on all of that stuff daily. I wake up and see skulls. 

But the birthday is admittedly more frilly. Along with its black Grim Reaper robe, it arrives with cardboard cone hats, noise makers and other “fun” items I’d like to smoosh. It’s practically inescapable, the printed party napkins and peppy paper plates. Friend or family, someone’s going to get you.

I grew out of pointing the spotlight on me very early. As noted in the prior post, the last time I actually celebrated my birthday was on my 13th. It was a modest surprise party, featuring a new puppy, a motley gaggle of guy pals, and some very spirited doorbell ditch across the darkened neighborhood. 

It was fine, but I inexplicably never wanted to do it again. Going out for a drink or a good meal has since marked many a birthday, tiny gatherings all but foisted on me but that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s not like I slip under the car in the garage and hide on the big day. I’ve just never actively encouraged celebrations. I find them fussy and embarrassing.

People can be movingly kind and generous on my birthday, and I let them, of course. The attention is appreciated but unwanted and unwarranted, All this for little ole me?

It’s pleasant as long as we don’t go overboard. Like cake, which always seems such a waste. No one really finishes their teetering slice and most of the cake (especially the white kind) goes face down in the garbage. Talk about death.

And what’s this? Balloons. Once upon a time, they were blasts of helium hilarity, when anyone could suck and sound like a Munchkin, or Truman Capote. Now they bob in your face, buoyant environmental time bombs, all shimmery mylar and pretty poison.

I look at them, much like the day as a whole, and I think: No, really. Don’t. 

Easter not so easy

We rummage about the day, seeking a good book, ambient pleasures, deep meaning (why is that dog squatting so?), and a fine, frothy whiskey sour. The last first, please.

The days are long, the books are long — like the 600-page Mike Nichols biography I just polished, with joy — and the drinks are long, or, more precisely, tall. Either way, pour. Now. 

Temperatures are amping to the mid-60s, heralding spring’s ominous simmer and summer’s damp, gaseous inferno, both of which, I need not tell you, I abhor. (I only partly exaggerate when I say my favorite utterance is brrr. My second favorite: “I’ll get that.”) 

For some, who I will surely offend, today is all about the embarrassing folly of Easter (Jesus, the great escape artist — a Holy Houdini!), celebrating that boulder-rolling feat of celestial sorcery so magnificent it befits a children’s picture book, ages 2 to 5. And, somehow, the whole zany thing — the tomb, the missing body, the resurrection, the Holy Spirit (insert spit-take here) — boils down to Cadbury’s ooze, Peeps’ chews, synthetic grass and ham. 

What would Jesus do? Probably puke, like most of us.

So hallelujah. Now onto cursing: It’s a sunshiny Sunday, blue and bold and obnoxious, just what everybody delights in, because isn’t life one grand fairyland, dusted in gold, roofed with rainbows and burbling with birdies? 

Actually, it is pretty nice out, for now. I just dread when the sun-worshippers get greedy, Mother Nature listens, and everything gets hot and ruined. (Dear October: Step on it.) Look, get your unflattering beach garb, go to the tropics and leave the rest of us alone. 

Travel. Now? Right. I should be in Paris. But while I’m freshly vaccinated for Covid, France is redoubling its pandemic shutdown. The place is a festering contagion and no one’s going in or out. I bought a flight to Paris in March 2020 for an October trip, and we know how that ended. We sit. We wait. We read 600-page artist biographies. 

Or we read (and re-read) short story collections, like Joy Willliams’ delectably edgy “The Visiting Privilege,” Tobias Wolff’s comfort-foody “Our Story Begins” and the tough, granular realism of Richard Ford’s “Sorry for Your Trouble.”

Art saves. Sort of. I have a birthday coming up and no book of short stories will blunt the bite. Yes, I’m at the point when birthdays make you scrunch up your nose. I’ve been doing this for years; the last time I actively celebrated my birthday was age 13. I believe in getting older as much as I believe in Christ’s Penn and Teller routine in the desert. 

Started as a random riff, this is turning out to be my annual jeremiad about changing seasons, warming and wilting. This week I add a year, perhaps finally becoming an anachronistic artifact, shriveling like a vampire in slashing shafts of sunlight.

I need a flotation device in this sea of self-pity. More to the point, that whiskey sour is sounding pretty terribly perfect right about … now

Symptoms that flu away

Today I got my second Covid vaccine. I’m bracing for a world of agony.

This I know: My sister-in-law got both shots. The first was fine. The second flung her into a tailspin of flu-like symptoms — chills and aches, fever and mild nausea. She wished she had taken the next day off from work. Suddenly a knitted blankie was her BFF. It made a sweet, snuggly tableau.

Her first shot yielded the same aftershocks as my first shot: a wrathfully sore upper arm, like you were punched good and hard where the needle jabbed in. And then someone pinched the spot, with evil passion. 

It’s the second shot, my in-law warns, that will “knock you on your ass.” Cute. Can’t wait.

All this is expected. Docs and the CDC have sternly cautioned that these side effects are common. So this isn’t one of those cockamamie anti-vax screeds. I want the vaccine. I know it works. I think everyone should get it. I’m just a little whiny poo-poo baby.

In Vietnam, I was practically asking for some florid flu-like side effects. Take me to a good cobra restaurant, I hounded my hustler guide, who zipped me around Hanoi on a rust bucket moto-bike to see all, from Soviet-style architecture to a dirty dog-meat market.

He delivered me to a roadside snake farm/restaurant, where slithering caged cobras and other “wild animals” awaited the plate. After cutting out the snake’s still-beating heart and drizzling its bile into a glass of rice whisky — which I was expected to guzzle, and did — the servers dished up a 15-course cobra lunch dazzling in its breadth. The feast is not for the faint of heart. I barely finished my portions. A forkful of exoticism goes a long way.

That night, as a reprisal for my snake-killing gluttony, I was hit with unmistakable flu-y symptoms, including fatigue, body aches and a swimming head. I was told later this was likely from trace amounts of snake venom I ingested at lunchtime. So this, sorta, is what being bitten by a snake feels like? I wondered with weird relish. (What’s worse, swallowing a whole cobra heart or being bitten by said snake? Chat among yourselves.)

Cobra feast

Afternoon report: Four hours after today’s vaccine and I have zero symptoms, not even a sore arm. My sister-in-law strongly suggests I take three preemptive Advils and I do just that. I sit down, crack a book, and await the plague.

The needle wasn’t bad today, though it stung more than my first shot a month ago. Was the first needle smaller? The nurse today told me to take a deep breath when she pricked me, which wasn’t the case last time. On that occasion the needle lanced a stick of butter; today it jabbed raw chicken breast. Now that I’ve wrecked your dinner plans, let’s see if the vaccine is wrecking my evening plans. 

Evening report: It’s now eight hours since the shot. No chills, aches, stomach turmoil or brain tumors. And my arm is miraculously not sore. Am I getting off easy? Will I bolt up in bed at 3 a.m., drenched in sweat, racked with medieval pain? Oh, I did forget to mention this small side effect: My post-shot pee smells like a raging tire fire.

In about two weeks, after the vaccine has sluiced through my veins and cells, I will be immunized against the coronavirus. That’s the plan. If it works, and it will, it’s a miracle of science. Lab coats are sexy.

Late evening report: It’s now 10 hours since today’s needle. My upper arm is pretty sore, right where I was stabbed. This incurable hypochondriac will have none of it. I can see it now: every noxious flu symptom crashing down on me in the next 24 hours. Here’s what I need: fistfuls of Advil, heaps of pity, and a plush knitted blankie.

I’ll update things if developments warrant it. Just know, if I’m in the ICU, I probably won’t be able to type.

Not a team player

In a story in The New York Times Magazine titled “Sports Meant So Much to Me. Why Wouldn’t My Son Play?,” an exasperated father whose 5-year-old shows scant interest in ice hockey finally blurts, “Boys play sports! That’s what boys do!”

Really? Let’s hope not. If I had a boy I’d want him to play an instrument, not sports. I’d want him to draw, read books and watch great movies, maybe start a band or attend art school. A nightmare for me would be going to youth sports matches, sitting among baying, overwrought parents who take competition absurdly seriously, as if it actually matters. (Maybe it does. What do I know.) 

I understand my minority status on this issue, and I own it. Even when I played youth soccer for six years I felt this way. I was never a great player because I never had the passion for the game, the whole gung-ho enterprise. I am not a competitive person and I don’t get the competitive mindset. I don’t flex my muscles and growl much. Go team. 

Bluntly, I dislike sports, sports culture and, generally speaking, sports fans. There’s the sluggish, unbroken tedium of baseball and football; the slavering disciples, those chest-thumping, bellowing boors; the fanatical tribes with their ugly jingoism and clannish groupthink; and the players’ off-putting egomania and braggadocio that make me cringe. Plus, it’s all so barbarically LOUD. Put down the air horn, Jethro.

The madness of the mob

When I say sports I mean team sports, save for soccer, which I enjoy in small, low-scoring doses. Team sports are my cultural blind spot. I don’t follow them. I don’t know players, leagues or stats. I’m sure March Madness is a wild new cocktail. Body paint is laughable. There’s scarcely a sports strand in my DNA (which stands for Don’t Need Athletics). I’ve tried to get with it, but my brain promptly glazes over. I couldn’t be more bored or turned off. This isn’t anti-sports snobbery; it’s willful ignorance.

What I do go for are individual sports, which is why I prefer the Olympics, replete with solo athletes striving for personal bests. The gymnasts, snowboarders, sprinters, skaters and divers — they excel, they triumph, and do so without group hugs or embarrassing dog piles. It seems there’s a spiritual aspect to these fiercely focussed athletes — it’s them against the world, their minds and bodies zen-like weaponry — and I respect that.

Next to drumming, BMX and snow skiing were my passions as a tween and teen (politely ignore my hapless flirtation with skateboarding). The reckless freedom of flight propelled the joy of these sports. Taking a gnarly jump off a dirt mound on a tricked-out bike or tearing down a mogul-studded mountainside on spindly skis released me from gravity’s fetters — a singular high achieved without teamwork.

The freedom of flight

Team sports simply don’t align with the prickly contours of my personality. For the same reason I shun clubs and organized religion — the social Velcro, zealotry, conformity — I turn away from most sports. People want so desperately to belong. A classic introvert, I don’t siphon energy from others. I go to movies alone and travel the world solo. Reading and writing couldn’t be more solitary. I run with no pack. (And I never run.)

I’m the kid who dreaded gym class, if only because you had to mingle with damp, grunting meatheads who prized bulk over brains. Or so I viewed it then. And, to be clear, I’m not some obese, bespectacled, non-athletic cliché, although I really hate sweating. And jogging. And inflated balls. 

The virtues of team sports don’t escape me. I’m sure they’re salutary. Perhaps only in the Marine Corps are character-building lessons of discipline, perseverance and cooperation more thoroughly drilled into its members. In that, sports is a fine influence on our youth (unless BMX and Black Sabbath are your thing).

I’ll pass. Give me a good book or movie, my drums or a ticket to Spain and I’m thrilled. I’d rather walk the dog than endure the hysterical hyperbole of the Super Bowl. For all its aggressive theatrics, hockey is a powerful soporific. Basketball — pass the remote.

“Boys play sports! That’s what boys do!” exclaims the dad in the magazine article, who, to be fair, quickly recognizes the lameness of his outburst. Google the subject and you get musings like, “Is it OK for guys to not like sports?” The sheer naïveté of that question has me despairing. It’s hopelessly outmoded, fit for 1921, not 2021.

While women’s sports have been making lengthy strides, male athletics seem mired in Neanderthal notions of manhood. Which will lead some to call me a wuss, pansy, pick your pejorative. It’s exactly that kind of attitude — snarling machismo, musclebound showboaters — that makes me abhor sports culture, to write it off as sordid, violent and monstrous. And with that gesture, like a deliberate kick in the shins, I’m pretty sure I’ve been ejected from the game. For good. So good.

A matter of taste, bud

My tastebuds are in crazy revolt. Food that’s typically delicious is suddenly too strong, too rich, overabundant and on the attack. I’m having to rely on mild pastas, soups and salads — food I often eat anyway — for my primary sustenance. Savory sauces, meats and cheeses gag me with their power, and are for now banished. Alas, I can’t even taste the brine of my teardrops.

I know Covid erases one’s sense of taste (and smell), but I’ve never had the virus. My doctor says it’s likely some meds I’m on and recommends, get this, that I suck on sour candy before meals to stimulate the tastebuds. I’ve been eating lemon sours fiendishly, but they aren’t doing much, besides turning my tongue a ravishing shade of urine.   

Speaking of sucking, this predicament sucks. Gustatory delights are a big deal — pizza to pesto, sushi to scotch — and I feel crippled and swindled every time I chomp into a thick, leaky burger, anticipating mad scrumptiousness, but instead getting a big bite of blech.

My tongue feels a smidge numb, upping the awful factor. And it’s slightly whiter than usual, like I just licked a wedding cake. I tend to think I have a handsome, healthy tongue, cuter than, but not longer than, Gene Simmons’ mouth serpent. For now, the pink muscular organ has betrayed me, even compromising the indisputable delectability of the onion rings I nosh while I write this. 

You know what tastes good? Chicken noodle soup. Tea. Mac and cheese. Toast. Fish. Beans. Ice cream. Water. Sounds like the menu at a nursing home. 

I’ll just have to suck it up, though I’d much rather lick it up. This is minor stuff in the big picture, and I can live with it temporarily, no matter how obnoxious, even if it means my main appetizer is a tangy lemon sour. I should plate the little translucent lozenge.

These onion rings are excellent, a good sign. Yet I’m wary. I’m worried. And I’m starving. 

Fur, feathers, and folderol

On the About page of this blog, I caution that my writings here are “forever random and rambling.” Rarely has that been so true than right now … 

*  *  *

The Tao of Cubby 

Cubby, the über-mensch of mutts, scurries across the wood floor, his nails recalling the tip-tap of a typewriter. (If only he could actually type. That would save me tremendous carpal tunnel distress.) 

He is fleet, balletic. Though he resembles a gray Oscar the Grouch — bodily bedhead, articulate brows — the dog is chipper and civil, venting frenzied yaps only when evolutionarily expected (read: Amazon). 

Cubby is also mindful and meditative. He follows the flow of the universe and the whiff of tacos. Part Chinese sage, part Scooby-Doo, he adheres to the Taoist tenets of simplicity, patience, compassion, and the canine tenet of raw sirloin. 

Spiritual but godless, Cubby finds solace in Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” — self-deception! free will! — but not in Scripture. He likes to quote Socrates: “I am the wisest dog alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

For Cubby, things just are. Why this, why now? As Cubs might say, Because. Just because.

*  *  *

In anticipation of Easter, a short tale featuring baby chicks

When I was five, we had a pair of baby chickens, a female (yellow) and a male (black). They scuttled around our backyard and slept in a wood and wire coop, also in the backyard. The birds were strictly decorative. We had no intention of consuming their flesh.

One night a possum tried to get the chicks. Hearing the ruckus, my Dad went outside and our black Lab followed, charging and half-killing the hissing marsupial. Distressed by the injured animal — drama in suburbia — Dad tried to put it out of its misery using a broomstick (why not a spatula, or a straw?). 

He failed, unsurprisingly. The possum was either unconscious or playing dead. Because the next morning the creature was still moving in the garbage can in which it was placed. A man sans a plan, Dad left it there to die on its own, to the collective horror of his family. 

Soon after, we gave the chicks to a cousin who cared for them on his sprawling farm. I’m sure they were delicious. 

*  *  *

Speaking of chickens …

Braided with wisdom, wit and woe, Jackie Polzin’s “Brood” is a deceptively slight novel about a woman caring for a small brood of chickens as she copes with the personal tragedy of a miscarriage. 

Not sold? Be, because Polzin’s debut is sublime. It’s steely, and gentle as a breeze.

The chickens are both main characters and peripheral walk-ons in this compact book, so don’t fear a poultry-centric story. In fact, there’s not much of a story at all. Deeply contemplative and minutely observed — à la Jenny Offill (“Weather”) and Marilynne Robinson (“Gilead”) — Polzin limns her nameless narrator’s life with by turns clinical realism and dazzling impressionism. There is much to learn about chickens, and life.

The precision of the prose, so nipped, tucked yet vital, is a marvel. Even the chicken passages, with their homely brown eggs, scratch feed and scaly feet, are poetic reveries. A human- and chicken-scale miniature, “Brood” loses none of its emotional texture next to its lo-fi humor. It’s one of the most lulling and pleasant books I’ve read in a spell. 

*  *  *

The larger worth of small talk

Strolling down the sidewalk, you run into an acquaintance — someone you know only faintly, yet well enough for a stop and chat; say, your mechanic or a few-houses-down neighbor — and you find yourself beaming hello, how are you, and before you know it things have devolved into vapid chitchat, the dreaded small talk.

Small talk eats the soul — the empty jawing about weather, work, kids, traffic, assorted gossip and platitudinous pleasantries. Defined as “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters,” small talk reeks of the banal, the trivial, the sort of airy transactions saved for your Uber driver, that guy you went to high school with and haven’t seen in years, or the faux-cheery barista you encounter each morning. 

Still, while it can be painful, what with the groaning predictability of the exchanges, small talk serves a purpose: it fills the dead space we all fear. It’s a buffer, prosaic padding, a time-killer of minor moments that would otherwise be awkward, excruciating, or both.

Words. They will save us. No matter how crudely utilitarian.

A terrible year for giraffes. (Yes, giraffes.)

So bear with me. This is about ill-fated giraffes and me tumbling down the rabbit hole of giraffe-y headlines — news, lots of news, most of it rotten. Weird, I know.

I have no special interest in giraffes, though I’m attuned to animal happenings, especially awful ones, like the fact that two giraffes died yesterday in a barn fire at a Virginia zoo. (Not heartbreaking enough? One of them was named Waffles.) 

A little shattered, I recalled another recent giraffe calamity involving a calf and its mother. That triggered another one, and another, before I went down the hole, doing research that snowballed into a litany of tragedies befalling the vertically endowed beast. 

While no giraffe aficionado, I happen to think the elongated animals are fascinating. With their noodly necks, liquid lope, crazy-quilt patterns, nubby horns and serpentine tongues, giraffes make an irresistibly bizarre creature possibly slapped together by aliens. They’re both equine and avian, a kind of lurching mammalian ostrich. 

And they have cruddy luck, at least lately. There was yesterday’s zoo blaze — I shudder — and so much more: 

  • In January a newborn giraffe at the Nashville Zoo was accidentally stepped on by its mother and died. It happened just hours after the zoo shared news of the calf’s birth to the public. The cause was “trauma to the neck.”
  • Five days ago at the Maryland Zoo, an 8-year-old giraffe named Anuli died unexpectedly. The animal had suffered stomach ailments.  
  • Hasina the giraffe died a week ago at the Los Angeles Zoo following an anesthetized procedure to remove her calf, which was in an “abnormal breech position within the womb.”
  • Three rare giraffes were electrocuted in February when they walked into low-hanging power lines within a conservation area in western Kenya. All three died.
  • Two extremely rare all-white giraffes were killed by poachers in Kenya. (This happened a year ago today.)
  • Last month a trophy hunter posted several gruesome photographs on Facebook showing her posing with the body of a 17-year-old bull giraffe she had shot and killed in a South African game park. The hunter is seen smiling while she hugs the giraffe’s corpse and poses next to his dead body. In one photo, she holds up the big bloody heart of the animal, smiling like a slavering psychopath.  

But with death springs renewal. Just this year four zoos — in Tennessee, Texas, California and South Carolina — welcomed newborn giraffes to their menageries. It’s so very “Lion King,” the circle of life and what have you. 

But what of all that magnificent doom, packed into such a snug stretch of time? How did the zany giraffe — a creature that exists and looks as if it doesn’t, a sage notes — so earn the wrath of the cosmos? It can’t be the way it contorts into a nimble tripod when it drinks from a pool. Or how this vegetarian swirls its 27-inch-long tongue around sky-scraping leaves and branches.

Can’t be all that, since these are things of beauty and wonder. The gracefully gangly giraffe, that evolutionary whatsit, is apparently just having a terrifically bad year. I hope it tapers off, because the more time I’ve spent with the animals the more my affection has grown. They’re goofy, gentle, surreal and almost mythical. Wrote a poet: “The man who believes in giraffes would swallow anything.” That sound you hear is me gulping.

Hounding the strays of Istanbul

With a camera trained at butthole level, the street dogs of Istanbul bustle across the city, romp in parks, negotiate congested thoroughfares, brawl, chase cats, gambol, loiter and partake in public humping. 

This is a day in the life of the Turkish city’s derelict dogs in the patient, panting documentary “Stray,” released today. The film is a quiet, lolling chronicle of both canine and human behavior — the mutual respect and tolerance is moving — done minus narration. With few dramatic accents, though alive with built-in pathos, “Stray” is almost uninflected — unvarnished life through a studiously objective lens. What is spoken comes from the pups’ playful pantomime.

I’m on good terms with the stray dogs of Istanbul, having befriended, pet and fed several during my four trips to Turkey. The hounds are plentiful in the rolling, seaside city and are protected under a no-kill, no-capture policy. Each dog is registered, one of their ears pierced with an official tag. One of my favorite canine pals wore a red tag on her floppy left ear, leading me, with a poverty of imagination, to call her Red Tag.

They get you like that, these streetwise mongrels. Locals are mostly kind to the wandering, well-behaved dogs, leaving out bones and food and, when annoyed by them, gently shooing them away from storefronts and doorways. It helps if you have a soft spot for animals. My mushy affection led me to feed and pamper the friendly hounds, which I happily photographed. More than just memories, the animals were also sweet, licky mood-enhancers, a pack of therapy pups just for me.

Here’s where to watch “Stray,” and here are some of my street-dog snapshots.

My good pal Red Tag
I fed them cans of tuna.
Red Tag, again

Skulls, scales, piranhas and penises

Once I was strolling down the sidewalk in a small leafy city when I almost stepped on a dead baby bird. Gruesome and heartbreaking, about the size of a toddler’s palm, the chick bore hues of hot pink and bruised blue. Its livid, bulging eyelids were sealed, its featherless body as smooth as a plum. It was impressively intact. 

After a flush of shock and pity, I did what any sane person would do. I wrapped the freshly hatched corpse in a handkerchief, stuck it in my pocket, and took it home. 

I knew exactly what to do with the sad songbird that would never sing. I took a small, squat jar and dropped the creature in. Then I filled the jar with rubbing alcohol as a cheap formaldehyde substitute to preserve the bird. It looked like the baby floating in space at the end of “2001.”

“You’re nuts,” a friend said, grimacing at my latest specimen.

“If by nuts you mean genius, then you are correct, amigo,” I replied. 

Those were the days when I maintained a kind of ghoulish cabinet of curiosities, an array of animal bits and pieces that you might see in a really good, icky museum, like the Mütter in Philadelphia or the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, Russia. 

Jarred birth defect, Kunstkamera Museum, 2017

A minor collector of the morbid and marvelous, I was proud of my little spread on the mantel. It featured a perfect gopher skull I found in a forest that I boiled to get it ivory white; a shark jaw bought in Tijuana; a desiccated sea horse; an artfully mounted dried piranha; a skinny, three-inch coyote penis bone picked up at the wondrous Evolution Store in Manhattan; and, of course, the pièce de résistance, the newly jarred baby bird. 

All I needed were the famous bones of the Elephant Man to make my mini-museum world-class. Instead I had a penis bone. Of a coyote.

Coyote penis bones

My interest in this kind of fleshly ephemera goes back to when as kids we hunted lizards and snakes, captured frogs, tadpoles and the occasional crawfish. At the beach, we collected sand crabs, starfish and washed-up egg sacks from sharks.

It wasn’t callow mischief guiding us, but a dogged fascination with the slimy, squirmy world, our first real engagement with the natural sciences and coexistent creatures. Back then our main educational outlet for these things was TV’s “Wild Kingdom,” a show that pales woefully next to today’s über-slick “Planet Earth.” Yet it was good, eye-opening.

Even now, none of this bores me. Though I’ve since discarded my assortment of animal oddities, I love roaming the aisles and perusing the glass cases at the Mütter and the Evolution Store, gaping at furry and scaly taxidermy, jarred sharks, pickled human organs, and skulls of all species.

I’m not alone. The Mütter and Evolution are bustling tourist magnets, irresistible emporiums of the morbid and mortal, stocked with shocking notions and terrible beauty. (I just recalled I own t-shirts from the Mütter and Evolution. How could I forget?)

Meanwhile, my birthday is coming up. Here’s what you can get me, from Evolution:

Jaws in a jar. Beat that.

Optimistically pessimistic

Recently while I was reading Jim Crace’s extraordinary novel “Being Dead,” a friend of mine passed by and glanced at the cover. 

“Oh, that’s uplifting,” she sniffed.

“Actually, it is,” I replied. “And anyway, life’s not all lollipops and teddy bears.”

That stuff kills me, that kind of blithe, brainless inanity. This is the same person who once offered me some blueberry muffin and, when I declined, huffed, “Oh, come on, have some fun in your life,” and clomped off in a mist of unaccountable umbrage.

I’ve never thought fun resides in a muffin, or any baked good for that matter (especially macaroons). But there you have it: the intrusive fatuity of the aggressively upbeat. 

Afraid of life’s moody side — squeamish, square, and excitable — these individuals are all strenuous sunshine and shellacked smiley faces. Lame humor is a font of ready giggles, birthdays a cause for sloppy exuberance. Willful ignorance is worn like a shield. They ironically bask in the light while being firmly in the dark. 

Call me a cynic, I don’t mind. The first defense of the pessimist is to brand himself a realist, someone wise and sensitive enough to embrace life’s gloomy aspects, its inescapable horrors, from dentists to death, and realize we’re all kinda screwed. The key is to carry on through the muck without seething too much.

While I bend toward the pessimistic, I’m not quite the full-throated morose, misanthropic fatalist some see me as. I grouse more than your average person, and my glasses are more smoky than rosy. But I’m also surprisingly empathetic and possess a squishy sentimental streak. I like puppies and “La La Land.”  

What I don’t like is the arrogance of the chronically positive, that whiff of  superiority that clings to them like a cloying cologne. “Why aren’t you more like me, like normal people?” they seem to always ask. As if “normal” — selfies and singalongs, charades and Champagne — is something to aspire to. Some of us like to brood a bit, reflect and go deep and dark. Self-awareness is kryptonite to the slaphappy extrovert.  

I’m not a morning person; I thrive at night. So first thing in the morning please don’t ask me “Are you pert and perky?” with a blinding smile. I know someone who made a habit of this. The optimist’s chirp — why are they so gregarious, so chatty, so loud? — chafes like a chainsaw. 

I’m sounding curmudgeonly indeed, grumbly instead of gushy, but that’s sort of the point. It’s a matchup: the pessimistic vs. the Pollyannaish, the easily disappointed vs. the easily amused. I am of course employing coarse, sweeping generalities to illustrate a common dichotomy — the glass half-empty or the glass half-full. 

Me, I’m pretty content where I stand, shadows and all. Though I’m no apple-cheeked optimist, I’ve constructed a complete life without skimping. My glass? It runneth over.