Happiness is relative

Every once in a while a writer says something that has you nodding like a madman in unalloyed agreement. I’ve been reading essays by Meghan Daum, and much of what she writes strikes a mean, piercing chord. Far from negative, Daum trades in an admirable candor, some of which is rimmed with bile but is mostly benign and boldly human.

Take this paragraph from her collection “The Unspeakable.” It could have — should have — been written by me at my most exposed. And though it makes her sound morose and malcontent, she is not. She’s merely describing how some people see her — including, sometimes, herself.

“Clearly, I am a killjoy. Clearly, I have problems with pleasure, with letting go. Surely, I am an unhappy person. I do not enjoy most activities that are commonly labeled ‘fun.’ Moreover, I’m weary of ‘happiness,’ both as a word and a concept.”

Daum grazes dysphoria (a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life) and hints at anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure). But, like me (mostly), this isn’t quite accurate. Daum lives big and loud and gulps life, in all its pitiless unpredictability. She’s a humanist, not a pessimist, even if unhappiness creeps in with unsettling frequency.

Ta-ta, Tarantino

It’s safe to say Quentin Tarantino doesn’t like me. We enjoyed several years of mutual respect, perhaps even admiration. But some time ago we lost that loving feeling.

I’m not entirely sure what happened. Was it the fact that I pretty much loathe his movies, except for ‘90s masterworks “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” and that, as a film critic, I got to say that and more in wide-circulation print? Probably. 

The last interaction I had with the hopped-up hipster helmer was when he cancelled our interview mere minutes before the appointed time. No official word why — the publicist was at a loss — but I was still oddly flattered, even thrilled. QT had cut me off. Shucks. Cool. 

And things were so good! I’ve sat down with and interviewed Tarantino at least four times, and watched many classic grindhouse flicks with him during his annual QT Film Festival in Austin. I wrote an effusive article about the festival that he told me he loved and went on and on about. I’ve been at several parties for him. I once honked and waved when I saw him walking down the street. He waved back.

Yet he’s always been thorny and brusque, too, like when he sat behind me during Richard Lester’s 1973 swashbuckling comedy “The Three Musketeers” and I left early to chat with someone in the lobby.

After the movie, back in my seat, I turned to him and told him how much I loved the movie as a kid. “That doesn’t mean shit if you weren’t watching it now,” he snipped. I turned back around, chastened, a whipped mutt.

Being berated by a major talent isn’t so bad. It’s kind of exhilarating. For two seconds they’re lavishing undivided attention on you. You feel a tiny bit important, even if you’re wincing. 

Mouthy and explosively passionate, Tarantino gives great interview. The man can gab, and he has plenty to say. Intense, garrulous, profane and scary-smart, his encyclopedic film knowledge rivals Scorsese’s, if the elder director was obsessed with biker schlock and zombie-cheerleader exploitation. His tireless hands make wild semaphores and he accents thoughts with assertive “All rights?” — a rhetorical flourish that he’s almost trademarked. I liked this whorl of energy quite a bit. 

He still makes garbage. Accomplished garbage, but garbage nonetheless. People often ask me why I find QT’s movies almost unbearable. The short answer is that they’re sophomoric, shamelessly derivative, self-satisfied, indulgent, juvenile, unfunny and, worse, brutally tedious. The fetishized violence is exasperating and the three-hour run times denote an egomaniac’s lack of discipline. The films, from the asinine “Inglourious Basterds” to the odious “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” are baggy and boring.  

I never told him he made crap. I did write a negative review of the first “Kill Bill” and I may have talked up my aversion to nonsense like “Death Proof” to fellow film folk. The Austin movie scene, in which Tarantino often hung, is insular and gossipy. 

One of my last QT encounters was at the party for “Grindhouse,” a double feature that includes the rotten “Death Proof.” I conducted a quick stand-up interview with Tarantino before he joined friends and colleagues. 

Later, my friend got a free poster of the movie and asked Tarantino to sign it — a searing faux pas. Tarantino was livid. “This isn’t some Target opening and I’m not Ronald McDonald greeting the kiddies,” he told my friend. “This is just me hanging out with my friends at a party. So, no, I won’t sign it.”

He was genuinely miffed, gesticulating, that iconic jaw jutting. The group of guys sitting around him passed around a joint and cracked up. I was mortified, my friend devastated.

But that’s QT. I don’t begrudge him that emasculating dressing-down. In fact, he sharply cautions fans not to approach him for autographs at his festivals and parties. Come talk about the movies, great, but no panting fanboy b.s. (A paradox, since Tarantino is the biggest fanboy of all.) 

My autograph-hound friend: guilty. Off to movie jail.

Which is where I feel I am after Tarantino fired me as a journalist and an acquaintance. I’ve been upbraided by other disenchanted celebs — Sandra Bullock, Bud Cort, Ethan Hawke, Mike White — but this felt personal. We had a years-long rapport, bumpy but true. Quentin Tarantino doesn’t have to like me, and I don’t have to like his movies. 

God bless him: He has sworn he is done making films, that he would quit “at the top of my game” (in which I ask: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is the top of your game?). And I’m done with panning films (well, mostly). 

I suddenly picture Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi pointing guns at each other in “Reservoir Dogs,” two killers gripped in a dangerous truce. QT and me, after a fashion. 

Bird balm

My good friend Tiva just bought her young daughter a pet parakeet. It’s blue-green with a sloped yellow head and small enough to perch on the girl’s slight shoulder. Tiva texted a photo:

“You see a cute birdie,” I texted back. “I see dinner.”

This sentiment is more pressing when she tells me the tweetie thingy’s name: Pickles Billabong. (Pickles Billabong!) Naturally, I demanded to know who cursed the poor creature with this name, which is straight out of Dickens or Dr. Seuss at their most baroque, or most high. Her daughter, of course, is the culprit. 

“She came up with the name by looking at a list of bodies of water (river, brook, etc.) because the bird is a kind of aquamarine color and a billabong is a pond that is created when a river changes course. Pickles is because the bird is shaped like a pickle,” Tiva explains. I am impressed. 

“The bird is her best friend,” she adds, and I don’t know if I should smile or sob. 

She goes on to say that the daughter and her twin sister are having a turbulent time during Covid — they’re not sick, just bored and longing — and so Pickles serves as a kind of therapy animal. It’s the Prozac parakeet. 

Birds. Indeed. They’re the one pet, besides a rhino and a manatee, I never had growing up. I stuck to dogs, rats and cats, with the occasional fish, salamander and turtle thrown into the mix. 

No birds, and I can only guess we skipped them because our friends had parakeets and they were awful. They didn’t really do anything that’s anthropomorphically charming, like dogs, which are half-human anyway. There was no fetch or leg humping. I mean, really.

The birds seemed stuck in a poo-encrusted cage, bopping around, whistling occasionally, cocking their robotic heads. When they got out they flew all over the house, perching high up on the curtains to avoid human clutches, and were generally an avian pain in the ass. I desperately wanted to open a window and watch them flap away.

Not so now. I hope Pickles Billabong thrives as a bright, animated companion, although, according to experts, parakeets can live 10 to 20 years. On that note, I immediately start thinking about the best sauce for a tiny, braised bird. And what are the best sides — carrots, potatoes, pet rabbit? 

But this is somewhat serious. The girls are in a needy space. Covid has cut a hole in so many lives, and kids especially are confused and adrift. They wanted a friend, exotic, potentially chatty, therapeutic — some thera-keet. The bird then is a balm, sweet, attentive, pretty, and other things I’m sure. They do have a dog, but it’s more Tiva’s baby than the children’s. We’ll see how this whole thing flies.

Meanwhile, I wonder: Does the dog look up at old Pickles and go, “Yum, yum”? Good dog. 

I plan for Paris. Covid laughs.

Last fall, Paris went kaput. That is, my planned trip to my favorite city was scrapped with a muscular assist from the pandemic. Covid, that magnificent killjoy, effectively squelched the October vacation, along with so many of your precious plans to get out and live life freely and safely. 

Woe is me. I know this is a first-world, big-baby complaint, but actually I’m not complaining. The trip was doomed from the start, founded on chutzpah and delusion. The pandemic would pass by October. Right. What a dope.

But I couldn’t resist the $430 round-trip flight bought last spring and the airline’s policy of crediting the ticket if trips were cancelled by Covid. Considering how grim everything was, it was sort of win-win.

I used that credit yesterday when I decided, rather rashly as usual, to take another shot at Paris in the fall. It cost a little more money, but the price was still right. Eight days in mid-October, starting where I left off during my last visit in fall 2015. 

Paris is slowly stirring from its Covid coma, when life was hamstrung by onerous rules and restrictions that made visiting pointless, if you could even get into Europe. I’m banking on more normalcy in the next few months as cafes, museums and bistros cautiously unlock their doors. (Alas, Notre Dame remains closed to worshippers and tourists after the blaze of 2019.)

Notre Dame, fall 2015

Must-dos: Musée d’Orsay; Musée Picasso (essential); Musée de l’Orangerie; citywide cinemas (I always see three or four classic movies in Paris); Centre Pompidou; and the skull-crammed Catacombs.

This time, my sixth in Paris, I will skip my beloved cemeteries: the lushly rococo Père Lachaise and the more classical Montmartre and Montparnasse cemeteries, which together house the graves of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, François Truffaut, Susan Sontag, Edith Piaf, Chopin, Balzac, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (Why visit cemeteries? Because they’re haunting and beautiful and, in Paris, they’re like strolling walks of fame for artists and intellectuals.)

Centre Pompidou, 2015

The Parisian foodie experience is paramount, and I have several places in my crosshairs: the peerless Frenchie; Michelin-star Le Chateaubriand; Buvette; and famed falafel joint L’As Du Fallafel in the Marais. For cocktails, it’s the vaunted Little Red Door — named one of the world’s 50 best bars for seven consecutive years — also in the Marais.

This all sounds super on paper, like most vacations do. The planning, the reservations, the advanced tickets, the accommodations (Hôtel Jeanne d’Arc Le Marais), the raw, giddy anticipation. But it’s a crap shoot.

I’m all in. I’m ready to split this burgh for a few days, sip wine on the Seine, see an old Eric Rohmer film, walk the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens, skip the Mona Lisa, and be blown away by the city’s exuberant beauty. Again.  

I don’t know if I’ll actually get there. But I’m making a bid for it. For Paris, and for life. 

Summer’s roar and pour

The sounds of summer: little girls shrieking in the park; the ice cream truck’s old-timey jingle-jangle; the living room fan’s sighing thrum; the glassy clank of the ice dispenser; the dog’s whistling nostrils as he naps to cool off.

Meanwhile, the sky is about to explode. 

Cool Whip clouds froth and darken, snuffing the sun with enveloping shadow. Then: thunder snaps and growls like splitting wood, and plump raindrops slap hard surfaces. 

It’s 90 degrees and, like that, it’s pouring and roaring. The sounds of summer. 

Only an hour ago I was walking in woolly humidity — the kind of goop that makes the small of your back immediately pool with sweat — under partly cloudy skies, typical summer climes on the East Coast. Which means, wear smart shoes and pack an umbrella.

No one cares that it kissed 100 degrees yesterday. Cloudbursts and thunderstorms are coming — have arrived — and while climate change is partly to blame, this is rather normal atmospheric behavior here and now.

I am so happy. Rain douses the heat, and temperatures can drop 20 degrees in less than an hour. Summer, foiled again! Lightning, so dazzling a sight, rakes bleak skies, and thunder makes Wagnerian drama.  

But they’re fickle, these wet, boisterous storms, with fitful, stop-start rhythms. Fooled into thinking one has passed, I jump at the chance to walk the dog.  

It’s hot as hell. The sun blazes — until it doesn’t. Shade suddenly blankets everything. Rumbles and cracks, those sounds of summer, augur trouble.

We get soaked. 

All dolled up

When I was 8, I picked out a stuffed seal from the gift shop at SeaWorld in San Diego. He was gray, firm and fuzzy, and I promptly named him Salty using all the imagination my tiny head could muster. (Seals live in the ocean. The ocean is salty. Voilà!) 

I owned a sprawling menagerie of stuffed animals, including Bugs Bunny, Snoopy and this cruddy sawdust snake I won at a carnival, but Salty immediately became my favorite. When I accidentally spilt milk on him, I erupted in tears. I liked him that much.

A handsome fella with a minimalist design — nubby flippers, dark glass eyes, a few canine whiskers — Salty beat out Bugs and a hand-me-down teddy bear as my preferred plush, realigning the delicate balance of the toy hierarchy. Indeed, during my last move, I donated all of my stuffed animals except Salty, who even now sits out, visible to all. He radiates pinniped pride.

Salty on the left (stern as always); Bugs; and the ancient, loved teddy bear I was given

Salty had it easy. His job was to be an object of cuddle-osity and little more. I never drafted him for elaborate games or humiliating role-playing frolics. He has an almost comically serious face, and I could tell he would brook no foolishness. 

I left that to my, huh-hum, KISS dolls, creatures that were all about foolishness. Infected with the KISS bug before I turned 10, I greedily got my hands on the original dolls of Gene, Ace, Paul and Peter and was thrilled. I built them a big stage trimmed with Christmas lights. I never used it.

Because what does a non-collector — the dolls’ valuable packaging went straight into the garbage — do with plastic figures of rock stars, who also happen to be comic book heroes? Well, you play dolls, naturally.

The original KISS dolls

This is where I look sillier than usual. My next-door neighbor Joanie, a year older than me, owned the requisite Barbie and Ken dolls. I brought over the KISS guys and we dreamt up a scenario of Ken secretly being Gene Simmons without make-up, and then, when his superhero powers were conjured, I’d pull out the Gene doll. 

And there you have the presto-chango transformation from a blonde beefcake Republican to a hairy, tongue-wagging Neanderthal who belches blood and exhales fire. 

Lest you think I only played with a stoic seal and kabuki-faced clowns, my brother and I also wrung creative mileage from a caped Evel Knievel action figure (including a small motorcycle); a doll of sensible chimp Cornelius from “The Planet of the Apes”; and, of course, a kung-fu grip G.I. Joe, whose buzzcut fell out when we put him in the bathtub. 

I also liked the thick rubber dude called Stretch Armstrong — he was very stretchy, pull, and that was it — who met a grisly demise when, out of pure boredom, I sliced him open and synthetic pink jelly oozed out. (I think my plastic Army men found a gnarlier fate: I lit them on fire and watched them melt into gooey puddles.)

Only Salty survives. His plush playmates are somewhere in the Salvation Army ether, hopefully finding good homes, many, like that pitiful carnival snake, probably sacrificed to the incinerator. The KISS dolls are somewhere, packed away. I think. I don’t really know. And I kind of don’t care. I don’t exactly have any friends who’d want to play dolls with me anymore.

Perched in the open like a noble sphinx, Salty is none the worse for wear (the milk didn’t stain him; my tears might have). His whiskers are slightly bent out of joint, and he could maybe use a dusting. 

Otherwise, that stuffed stalwart hasn’t aged a bit. In so many ways, neither have I.

‘Girls Gone Wild,’ stripped to its essence

Back when I was a roving cultural reporter and movie critic for a Texas newspaper, I was assigned the dubious task of covering the arrival in town of the “Girls Gone Wild” crew at a local dance club. Pointing a throng of cameras at a small stage, the “GGW” crew cajoled local women to partake in a strip contest with cash and travel awards. No matter your morals — it’s complicated — I viewed this as a curious sociological excursion.

This is how the night went down, and how I put it into words …   

Lauren is not getting naked. 

Somehow, the bleached blonde with a toffee tan thinks that a girl can get wild without really getting wild. That in this day and age a girl can attain most righteous wildness by spurning the fundamental step of giving the public a peek. 

What gumdrop world is she living in? 

When the video cameras from “Girls Gone Wild” come to your town — and they came to Austin the other night — there are certain expectations, and every single one of them has to do with bare skin. The “GGW” cameras do odd things to young women. Naughty things. Namely, they inspire women to lift their tops and expose themselves, often while their tongues hang out sloppily. This is called wild. 

Not, says Lauren. 

“I will not be showing (anything). Absolutely not. No way. It’s called ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ not ‘Girls Gone Naked,’ ” says Lauren, who, like many in this story, withheld her last name. The 21-year-old with a leonine mane of yellow hair and jeans low enough to reveal lots of red silk thong works at a bar and is studying to get her real estate certification. 

“I don’t look down on any girls who are wild enough to do that. To each her own,” she says. “But that’s just not my style. You’ve got to leave room for the imagination, you know.” 

Thirty minutes later, Lauren was taking it off. 

There she was, on stage at country-dance warehouse Midnight Rodeo in South Austin, gleefully lifting her Girls Gone Wild mini-tank top for about 700 howling, whooping, screaming, yelling, barking, caterwauling young men, who were apparently seeing their first bare breasts. 

Writhing with professional panache and shooting a carnal glare at the boys, Lauren’s soft-spoken modesty melted, then hardened into Elizabeth Berkley in “Showgirls.” 

Woooo-yeeahh-owww! went the men. 

Ha! went the dozen women on stage. 

The women, ages 18 to 23, were competing in a “Girls Gone Wild” talent contest (is lap dancing a talent?), the winner of which will appear on a “GGW” pay-per-view event. 

The direct-order video company’s Austin stop was part of a 31-city tour that’s brought camera crews to San Diego, Philadelphia, Dallas and Lubbock. First prize this night was $100 cash and an all-expenses paid trip to Panama City, Fla., where the winner will take part in another “GGW” contest. 

It’s a common perception that in party, aka college towns, Mardi Gras has become a kind of open-air flash ’n’ flesh bazaar. Grunting young men proffer tacky plastic beads to greedy women, who gladly, if drunkenly, haul their tops over their chests and under their chins for impromptu peekaboos. The boys go wild. 

Joe Francis, the young multimillionaire who created “Girls Gone Wild,” decided several years ago to bring video cameras to these and similar spring breaky gatherings. Give the girls beads, make them go wild, tape it and sell it. 

“GGW” boasted more than $90 million in direct-response orders last year and the brand has become shorthand for “drunken-girl antics.” “GGW” trades in “normal people” and avoids pros and strippers, Francis says. 

Any young woman will lift her top for the low price of guaranteed male attention, he says. “You’d be surprised, man,” says Francis by phone from his L.A. office. “Every time I go out, I see a girl who I thought would never do it.” 

Joe, meet Lauren. 

“I know, I know,” says Lauren, holding her forehead like a kid who’s been caught breaking a promise. She’s backstage, being escorted by the “GGW” crew to the winner’s circle. Lauren won the contest. 

“It was the heat of the moment,” she explains. 

Sociology of a shirt lift 

“I’m not drunk enough,” says Crystal W., a bespectacled blonde in a white tank top. 

Tonight, she’s leaving the stripping to her peers. “I encourage them. If you have a beautiful body, why can’t you share it with everyone else?” 

Crystal’s friends have been wheedling her to do it all night. “Why do I have to go on stage to do it? I can do it for you myself. I don’t need that extra push. I do it for my friends all the time.” 

Crystal is a good friend. 

On the other side of the rambling, neon-splashed dance hall — where bar servers sling Day-Glo shots in test tubes and a guy named Robert is coaxing his girlfriend Stephanie to get on stage — giggle Amanda Brown and Melissa Dotson, 19-year-old University of Texas students. 

The brunettes are dressed in tight, slight outfits that would pass for loincloths in some cultures. They rushed to Midnight Rodeo when they heard about the event on the radio. 

“We’re lookin’ to be famous,” Melissa says. 

“We get off on it,” Amanda says. 

“We’re not doing it against our will in any way. Not everybody has to like it,” says Melissa. “We’re not porn stars. We’re 19, we’re experimenting, we’re having fun. We’re out there.” 

On stage, Amanda and Melissa gyrate, kiss each other and lift up each other’s shirts. (They eventually take second and third place.) 

The boys hoot with stadium-rock abandon. They slaver and yell obscenities. Their eyes bulge like bloodshot moons. The overall expression on their faces is something like this: !!!!!!!! 

Wes Parnell, a slightly slurring 22-year-old UT student, assumes the role of resident sociologist and human behaviorist. He speaks waveringly, but with confidence. He spies two young women registering for the contest. 

“Oh, they’re going to take it off,” Wes assures us. “They don’t have a choice. When they get up on stage and start drinking alcohol, they start doing things that they don’t know they’re doing. They love it, they absolutely love it. Girls start seeing what the guys think and the guys trick them into doing more.” 

There’s a study of what makes girls go wild waiting to be vetted for psychological illumination. We can listen to Wes, or we can drag in an expert in feminist media studies. 

That would be Mary Kearney, assistant professor of radio-television-film at UT, who explains, “There’s some recognition when you’re a woman in your late teens and early 20s that sexuality is a form of power for you. And for a lot of younger women, it’s the only form of power they have. They are told on a daily basis that their primary goal in life is to get male attention. So if they’re getting it by lifting up their top, so be it.” 

Especially for middle-class white women, Kearney says, “This might be a chance for them to feel sexy in the moment, for girls to be wild. It’s sluttish behavior, and girls might be pushing the boundaries for themselves, to be like, ‘Ooo, I’m wild and crazy!’ Of course, they don’t really understand that it’s a pretty conventional climate for girls and women to be rebellious.” 

We return to the wisdom of Wes. “Girls have such low self-esteem, they need guys to cheer ’em on,” he insists. 

“I don’t have low self-esteem. I just don’t feel like being a slut.” That’s a brunette named Chanbra, who’s been encircled by several boys begging her to join the contest. One of them thrusts a cocktail into her hand. 

“It’s just for fun, just for fun,” says a guy. 

“I know . . .” Chanbra sounds breathless and confused. 

“Just do it. Please,” says another guy. 

“This is the third time I’ve been told to do it, and I’m not doing it. Sorry, y’all,” Chanbra says, and leaves. 

“Well, lost cause.” 

The call of the ‘Wild’ 

A petite young woman named Joanna bolts off the crowded stage mid-show and beats a hasty retreat backstage. She pulls off her cowboy hat and sighs with what sounds like relief. She was fleeing. 

“I couldn’t do that to myself,” Joanna says. “I’m not like that. I think it’s trashy. Looking at the crowd, I decided I’m not putting myself out there as a piece of meat. I’m shaking I’m so nervous.” 

Why was she up there then? 

She was egged on by friends, despite her protests. “I thought it was fun being part of the scene, and then it just got too far.” 

Away from male taunts and chants of “Show your . . .,” Crystal W. looks exhilarated. She wound up on stage flashing the crowd after all.

“I was naked! I don’t know why,” she gasps. “I can’t believe I did that because I come here a lot and I know everyone. Oh, my God.” 

Woodworth was persuaded by her friends, including Kimberly Hyde, who joined her on stage. 

“I’m just crazy like that,” Kimberly says. “It was a blast.”

It’s nothing new for her. She flashes her guy friends upon request. 

“Wanna see?” she asks.

Philip Roth, ranked

Good, bad, worshipful, scandalous — writer Philip Roth is making boldfaced headlines again, four years after his death. His largely acclaimed new biography and its author Blake Bailey are under fire, while publications like The New York Times are issuing fresh appraisals of his almost 30 novels and memoirs, like this and this.

This longtime Roth fan joins the chorus. I haven’t tackled all of his books but I have read his most celebrated titles, from “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959) to “Nemesis” (2010) and many in between. What follows are my five favorite Roth novels, with an obligatory postscript about a glaring omission.

 1. “American Pastoral” (1997) — Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winner may be the best novel I’ve ever read. It’s deep, thorny, complex, timely and so rich with perception and wisdom — communicated in ferocious, passionate prose — that you’re stuffed after each sitting. But it’s not difficult. Tracing the life of one Swede Levov and his daughter’s radical political terrorism in 1968, “Pastoral” gradually becomes an epic tragedy about recent American history and our hero’s inevitable descent. A biting, indelible masterpiece.  

2. “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995) — Raunchy, stylized, rip-snortingly funny and  aggressively profane, this cathartic gush of undiluted id is Roth at his sweatiest and most swinging, a big bite of eros that “shows off his linguistic verve and his unparalleled ability to stare unblinkingly into the psyche of a depraved scoundrel,” raves one critic. Winner of the National Book Award, this feverish, in-your-face opus isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be. What it is: crudely sublime. 

 3. “The Human Stain” (2000) — A dean of a college faculty is ousted after he makes a loaded, if ultimately benign, remark interpreted as racist. He holds a shocking life-long secret close to his vest in this, “one of Roth’s most complex moral conundrums,” which came out during similar dramas unfolding in academia and beyond. The book bristles with Roth’s fanged moralism; the writing is poignant, alive, uncompromising. 

4. “Operation Shylock” (1993) — What could have flopped as an elaborate literary stunt winds up one of Roth’s richest masterworks. “His best use of autobiography and his most incisive use of meta-techniques,” a critic writes, “the novel pits Philip Roth against an imposter, a man going around using Roth’s name and identity to proselytize about the necessity for Jews to return to Europe.” Crazy, but that’s its brilliance. Roth’s facility with form proves, again, formidable, his wit and playful intelligence on dazzling display.

 5. “Everyman” (2006)— A meditation on “one man’s lifelong skirmish with mortality,” this slim book, part of a quartet of late shortish novels, marks Roth’s return to the profoundly personal following the speculative politics of “The Plot Against America.” Haunted by death, the protagonist looks back on his life, from childhood, marriage and divorce, to old age and sickness, all the while reflecting on the inevitable — his own impending demise. Bracingly elegiac.

P.S. About that other famous book everyone so adores, the one in which the hero masturbates with a piece of liver: Don’t overestimate the frenzied gimmickry of “Portnoy’s Complaint,a worthy early volume (1969) whose onanistic perversities, both smug and farcical, fuel the novel’s shrill pitch. I like this ribald coming-of-age comedy well enough, but it’s more exhausting than exhilarating, minor Roth at its most breathlessly attention-hailing. It made him a literary star. 

Flipping out for a photo

As I mentioned in a recent photo-centric post, I love taking pictures of kids I meet in my world travels. That’s because, I wrote, “They’re eager, giddy and attention-hungry, all the while laughing and bursting with curiosity, asking questions (‘Where you from?’) and grabbing at the camera with often sticky hands.”

I’ve taken plenty of pictures of Istanbul’s children, a panoply of poses, pouts and play.

Sometimes they’re happy, eager subjects:

Sometimes they’re playful:

Sometimes they’re artfully posed:

And sometimes they’re fledgling rebels, with a wee message for the dope with a camera:

This rapscallion is my kind of kid. There I am, popping my head out of my second-floor hotel room, presumptuously pointing the camera, and getting what I deserve — a little birdie telling me to go fly away, to take a flying f***. Brilliant.

Cryonics — a miracle, or just another coffin?

You’re alive. You die. Your body is then submerged in an icy bath of liquid nitrogen, clouds of frosty fog billowing down the sides of the tank in which you now float in suspended animation. 

The lid is sealed. And there it is: instead of being buried or cremated, you are being cryonically preserved, your body — or, in some cases, just your severed head — enshrined for eternity.  

If you’re lucky — say, the procedure actually works, or the planet doesn’t blow itself up while you’re in deep freeze — you will stir to life again, a muddle-headed Rip Van Winkle, yawning and stretching, wiping decades of goo from your eyes, and, oh, do hurry, brushing intractable halitosis from your maw with cases of Colgate. 

You can hear a delirious Dr. Victor Frankenstein baying, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” The excitement is electric. You’ve been dead — no, you’ve been a “patient,” say the scientists, who spurn the term “dead” — for 25 years. But now, in a miracle out of the most outlandish science fiction, you are, yes, alive. Indeed, re-animated. Forget the cancer. Forget the car wreck. You’re back in business.

Never happen. This is science fiction of the most cynical kind, a laughable, despicable scam convincing the gullible that there is life after death, as long as you freeze your body first. And as long as you cough up (cough, hack) $250,000 for your whole body or $80,000 for just your head. Costs only mount.

These sums come from the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a major cryonics company in Arizona “built on the spectacular wager that it can rescue its patients from natural post-mortem deterioration until a distant time when cellular regeneration, nanotechnology, cloning or some other science can restart their lives,” writes the Times

Alcor insists it can stop the dying process with cryonics, which it calls — and I kind of love this — “an ambulance to the future.” The company promises “future restoration of good health and reintegration into society for all patients.” 

Alcor has 182 frozen patients and 1,353 members, or living people who give Alcor cash as a sort of pre-freeze down payment. I hear a cuckoo clock in the distance.

This — death — is right up my morbid alley. I think about dying with unhealthy frequency, and, as I get older, the bleak thoughts strike with increasing ferocity. But I am not a life freak. I don’t pine to extend this predicament. I understand it’s all miserably finite. Plainly: I do not want to live forever. Freeze me if you like, but only if I’m placed in the TV dinner aisle. 

And so cryonics seems like so much quackery — misguided, wasteful and patently impossible. It reminds me of “Re-Animator,” Stuart Gordon’s 1985 horror classic in which a crackpot scientist is obsessed with resurrecting dead bodies, with splattery results. The movie was smart, playing the premise for gory laughs. 

I don’t think anyone is laughing — except to the bank — at Alcor and other cryonics outfits. They seem to really believe this twaddle. They believe a disembodied head can bob in freezing fluid and later be reattached to a torso and come to life. This happens in dazzling fashion in “Re-Animator,” but I’ll bet my life (ha) this will not happen to any real person. Ever.  

What if it did? What then? “I don’t want to do it because it might work and I don’t want to come back as a carnival act,” cracked actor Walter Matthau. I’m with the guy who coached the Bad News Bears. What kind of zombie-ish life can a thawed corpse lead after decades levitating in faux amniotic fluids? Are they immortal, or can they die again? Now I’m thinking of another horror movie: “Dawn of the Dead.” 

Yet freezing a corpse and jumper-cabling it back to life will never occur, and never has. Cryonics boasts no success stories. There is no Lazarus in its impoverished narrative. Peddling unabashed pseudoscience, cryonics advocates, and especially those who sell it, are no better than psychics, mediums and tarot card hucksters, ethical, religious and legal issues be damned.   

And who knows what nefarious schemes cryonic patients have cooked up before they died. As with anything, there are surely some bad people swimming in those tanks. Like disgraced, sex-trafficking financier Jeffrey Epstein, who wanted to have his head and penis frozen after death so that he could “seed the human race with his DNA.” 

Ick. 

When I think what I would do if my life was extended cryonically, I first see a long, leisurely trip to France, one of the most gorgeously alive places I know. If friends, family and doggies were still living — remember, I could be floating in a tank for decades before scientists figure this thing out — I would reunite with them with big, stiff-limbed hugs (I also see extensive and excruciating physical therapy after years of immobility).

Everything would have changed. My nephews might be old men — older than me when I died — making for some acute interpersonal awkwardness. The whole thing sounds messy, difficult and expensive. And, fortunately, utterly hopeless.

And yet proponents have faith. Says Alcor company honcho Tanya Jones, “If we can prove this works, everybody will know about us.”

Sorry, Ms. Jones: brace for obscurity. 

Baseball legend Ted Williams’ head cryonically preserved … ew, no.