Monkeys Sea, monkeys do

Why is everyone so down on Sea-Monkeys? People scoff when I bring them up, which is pretty much never, and the novelty item’s star ratings are piddling to pathetic at Amazon. (2.7 stars? Wha?) 

Sea-Monkeys rule. If you’re 7. But really, I’ve owned them at least 10 times as a kid (and, all right, as an adult), those trippy, creepy, itsy-bitsy, dimly disappointing crustaceans that swirl around a small plastic tank on your nightstand before dying off, one by one, until all that’s left is greenish, brackish water that smells like the devil’s bing-hole. My freakish, fun-loving, easily-fooled brain adores them.

Instant Life

They come up because I recently watched Penny Lane’s 2016 short film “Just Add Water: The Story of the Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys.” (See all 16 mind-tweaking minutes of it here.) 

It jogged a zillion memories of my 9-year-old self hatching what are actually microscopic brine shrimp (which are used primarily as fish food), hoping, always hoping, for the anthropomorphic little families of so-called Sea-Monkeys to appear when I followed the directions to concoct a peculiar potion. 

The famous advertisements in comic books of the 1960s-‘70s depicted happy, three-pronged-crowned sea creatures, naked part-fish/part-people, hanging out, smiling, doing their whateva Sea-Monkey thang. And it showed human purchasers gazing at a bowl of them, grinning like fools. It was wonderful. And for a kid who thought Bigfoot and the Elephant Man were the dope, implacably seductive.

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So you order the Sea-Monkeys. Miniature plastic tank that you fill with tap water — check. Then add Packet #1, the water purifier, which, according to the short film, actually contains the Monkey eggs, “giving the Sea-Monkeys time to get big enough for you to see them” in a 24-hour period. Packet #2 is really blue dye that makes the day-old Monkeys even easier to observe. (There’s a small racket going on here.) The other packet, #3, is Growth Food. It smells like algae and fish guts.

No matter, what is happening is science. Namely, “cryptobiosis,” or instant life, meaning the Sea-Monkey eggs are dehydrated like NASA space food and pop to life with the addition of water. Think Cup O’Noodles or Taster’s Choice instant coffee, but with tiny monkeys. That aren’t actually monkeys.

Brine shrimp are what they are. At best, they grow about a half-inch long. They have spindly, monkey-like tails as adults and they swim with fluttering angel’s wings, flapping in circles around the tank, nose-diving, eating food at the bottom and, most curiously, latching onto one another in possible monkey coitus. Baby Sea-Monkeys do happen.

I’ve had a Sea-Monkey live about a year or more — a personal record. It was massive. When it died, my college dorm-mate and I burned it in a funeral pyre. I wish I was joking.

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Sea-Monkeys are a conflation of toy and pet, two of children’s favorite things. They are the brainchild of late eccentric inventor Harold von Braunhut, who created a “stage show, the illusion of instant life,” says the film.  

But the movie also reveals pure evil: Von Braunhut was an active and outspoken member of a major pro-Hitler white supremacist league. How to reconcile these two sides, the whimsical and the wicked?

“It’s the great mystery lurking behind the Sea-Monkey castle,” says Richard Pell of The Center for PostNatural History in the film. “How does the guy who invents all of these wonderful, playful fun things also promote such horrible ideas?”

I shake my head vigorously. I can’t answer this question. Some might even think Sea-Monkeys, those mutant, sci-fi creatures, are horrible ideas. Spawns of satan.

I then recall my own evil, sheer monkeyshines. As a kid, when I got bored with my tank-circling Sea-Monkeys, I once fed them to a trio of mail-order sea horses (who themselves croaked after about three days). Another time, I poured them into one of those hand-held water games of hoops or tic-tac-toe and swished them around like debris in a storm. Sea-Monkey sadist.

And yet here I am, decades onward, seriously considering buying for my birthday a Sea-Monkeys Ocean-Zoo for $12.98 from Amazon. I am so tempted I can hardly stand it.  

(For the Sea-Monkey completist — who isn’t? —  visit the official Sea-Monkey site here.)

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Actual Sea-Monkeys, aka brine shrimp, in captivity

View of the day, wistfully

IMG_1286.jpgMy laptop, a tall drink and a fairy tale vista — about all I need in my travels.

This was the perch on the rooftop terrace of my Istanbul hotel in November. I went up there a lot for the trusty Wi-Fi; cool fall breezes; Efes Pilsener, the cheap local brew that hits the spot despite its unflagging mediocrity; and, of course, the pristine views of the fabled Blue Mosque and yawning Bosphorus strait. 

At night the mosque lights up like a jeweled crown. The water shimmers. I sip my drink and tip-tap on the keyboard, writing nothing of consequence, most of it rot. Istanbul is paradisiacal, keenly removed from normal life, so transporting you sigh with an operatic flutter. It’s Paris of the East, a storybook nirvana.

I miss the mosques, the street food (döner kebabs, simits, etc.), unduly charming people, sweet stray dogs and cats, and ancient rococo scenery. It is where I want to be, right now.

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Blue Mosque, November 2018

Dog-doo afternoon

Warning: This post discusses poop. Specifically dog poop.

The dog’s poop is marbled with blood. (I told you.) He relieved himself on the basement’s honey-hued carpet, which now bears permanent crimson splotches, some of them in the shape of small nations and rural flyover states. It’s a fecal atlas. 

Flippancy aside, recall: poo, blood, dog. This is eyebrow-raising on one hand, panic-time on the other. Bloody dookie is nothing to snicker, or snarl, at. It’s a call-the-vet-pronto affair, especially when said doggie, Cubby, is also behaving strangely and doing this regurgitation thing in which he chews and swallows whatever he’s just hacked up. It’s coming from both ends. It’s abnormal. We fear for the furball.

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Cubby in healthier days.

Should I worry if my dog’s stool has blood or mucus? That’s an actual question posted at Pet Health Network, a, well, pet health network that will either assuage your nerves or trigger the trots. 

If you, like me, are a hypochondriac, then you shouldn’t even be visiting sites like this or the human version, WebMD, where I often go to learn that my tennis elbow is likely an inoperable tumor and my heartburn is assuredly a minor stroke.

(Doctors hate sites like WebMD for spawning a nation of needlessly freaked out patients. I used to carry a sheaf of so-called diagnoses that I printed from the internet when I visited my doctor. He wanted to strangle me.)

The answer to the “my dog’s stool” query has several answers, making for something of a rollercoaster ride. Causes might be: an upset stomach from eating bad food (whew); inflammation of the colon (also, probably, whew); internal parasites (some antibiotics and we’re good, right?); cancer (Jesus!); allergies (we can deal); autoimmune disorders (egads). 

Cubby the über-hound is at the vet as I type. (No matter the diagnosis, I won’t let him read this.) The sun is dipping, kicking up skies of charcoal and embers. It’s 35-degrees out, just right, and somebody has to clean up the basement carpet. If Cubby’s OK, he can do it. 

And now a text arrives from Cubby’s mom at the vet: The doc can’t tell what the problem is but the bill, counting all manner of exams, including a stomach X-ray, is a soul-shriveling $901. Almost a thousand dollars in less than an hour. I’m gobsmacked until I remember how I once spent roughly $500 on an ailing pet rat. Animals will do that — break your heart while breaking the bank.

So it appears to be wait and see for schlubby Cubby, despite the red-streaked poop, which is actually the least of the vet’s concerns. The dog has a fever of 103, says the vet, who gave Cubs an antibiotic, anti-nausea meds and fluids for dehydration. The tummy X-ray was sent to a specialist, even though the vet saw nothing unusual in it like, say, a toothbrush or an iPhone.

This non-vet will tell you the animal has been unusually lethargic, and has picked up some odd habits over the days (he’s suddenly fond of karaoke and mojitos) and has dramatically altered his cravings (he wants nachos and Popeye’s). He isn’t chewing his beloved bully stick, which is, literally, a dried bull penis. He canceled his subscription to People and has gone to watching the dreadful third season of “True Detective.”

He’s one sick pup.

When the pup popped pills

We OD’d the dog. 

Cubby the magic mutt was supposed to get one sedative pill before his visit to the vet yesterday. He’s a nervous guy, especially around the ominous sterility of the doctor’s office and creepy paper-sheathed exam table. So he pops a chill pill. (We should all be so lucky.) 

An hour before his appointment, I dipped a tablet in peanut butter, tricking him into swallowing the large pill. It’s an anti-anxiety med made for, get this, humans over age 25. It’s called Trazodone and it’s prescribed for any “stressful event.” I am seriously considering stealing a couple. 

Then this: Minutes later, my sister-in-law, unaware her dog was already medicated, gave him another Trazodone. Within a half hour, it was clear: Cubby was cooked. 

A smallish dog covered in gray curls, Cubby suddenly looked heartbreakingly lost, a Who-what-where am I? expression on his Ewok face. Dazed and confused, he started lurching and stumbling in slow-motion, like a wagon with a wobbly wheel, or Dean Martin.

His eyes little pinwheels, he looked like Joe Cocker on his first acid trip. He furrowed his brows and those eyes filled with vacant perplexity. 

He tottered up the stairs and onto the low bed, where he looked around wondering what was going on. His wet-noodle limbs did him no favors. He was a fuzzy stumblebum. He followed me into the bathroom and tried to leap atop the closed toilet but slipped and fell on his butt onto the floor, where he remained, shrugging, Whateva.

It was an unnerving spectacle. I felt at once bad for and envious of the doped dog. This was some drug. Trazodone is also an anti-depressant and off-label is used as “a hypnotic to initiate sleep.” (Seriously. I’m taking some. Shhh.)

And why did Cubby need this mega-med? He was going to the vet to get his nails clipped (really?) and to have his anal glands expressed,” or emptied (really!). You know it’s time for that undignified procedure when your animal starts scooting across the floor, sphincter in the carpet, sliding like he’s on wheels.

Cubby survived the vet visit. Of course, he was baked, so maybe he even enjoyed it. The doctor said it would take 12 hours for the pills to wear off and for his expression to stop resembling Cheech and Chong’s.

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Not actually Cubby, but this is exactly how he wound up that night.

By night, the dog wore a look of blissed bewilderment. He passed out. There he was, zonked on his back, legs sticking straight in the air like an overturned table. Gone. 

I’m not eavesdropping, really …

Recently here I chatted up the new local cafe, the exquisitely hip, I’ve-been-to-India, dump-Trump joint with the jaunty name. I decided to pop into the other local cafe, that name-brand one that just reopened after long renovation. I’m there now — I write in cafes often, a living cliché — and I’m people-watching with a touch of eavesdropping. It’s not at all creepy.

I see a poised, pert, put-together brunette chirping quietly with her friend — hale, happy twentysomethings talking about job interviews and uproarious Facebook posts. She looks like she loves dinner parties and charades. She fancies a good daiquiri. Her favorite TV show is “This Is Us.” I’m just surmising, but I know I’m right.

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A hypothetical cafe scene. They look ecstatic.

Elsewhere overheard: “You know, Mary, I’m not comfortable making those calls.” 

Enter: a 60-ish gent in a baggy Bill Cosby sweater, with stubble that looks like powdered sugar sprinkled on his pink pate. “I begin my teaching tomorrow. Seventy students!” he tells his companion, a flute-thin young woman with lank auburn hair who, I’m certain, is a teacher’s assistant. 

The fellow is loud and a roaring bore. He gesticulates like a madman. She sips some coffee and it goes down the wrong pipe. The ensuing coughing fit is something to behold. Napkins fly. We sympathize.

“We’re getting off track here,” an elderly woman laughs. She’s talking to a slightly younger woman at a corner table about scheduling some sort of meeting at her home. “Should we do RSVPs?” the younger woman asks. 

I soon gather they’re organizing a book club. They are perusing a list of titles. The younger woman describes a book that’s “very well-written” that sounds like a kind of real estate thriller. The authors Andre Dubus III and Michael Frayn (“He’s British”) are mentioned. “The person who selects the book is the host of the meeting,” says the younger woman.

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I want to chime in and suggest the novel I just finished, “The Friend,” Sigrid Nunez’s brisk, deceptively simple yet profound meditation on the writer’s life and friendships between people and dogs and people and people. It won the 2018 National Book Award. It’s lovely.

I pick the book. I’ll be the host. I’ll serve baked Alaska.

Someone just said “hypothesize” in mixed company. 

I ask the barista what she’s reading these days — we often yack about books — and she flashes her copy of the novel “The Secret History,” Donna Tartt’s 1991 cult smash. I kind of wrinkle my nose while evincing interest, and tell her I tried and failed to read Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer-winning epic “The Goldfinch.” I read about half and put it down. The novel is divisive: You love it or loathe it.

She adores it. “What didn’t you like about it?” she asks. I thought it was cutesy, candied, implausible, whimsical and too redolent of Dickens. 

“It is Dickensian,” the barista says, and with that simple word my day is made.

Elephant adoption — it’s a real thing. Two ladies are talking about it. One explains that it costs $50 a year to adopt an African pachyderm and “each month they email you a picture and an update about your elephant.” She has an elephant. “I went to visit the orphanage in Nairobi,” she says. I suddenly want an elephant. 

“It’s my parents’ 43rd anniversary,” a 30-ish guy tells his friend. “That’s a long time to be sniffin’ someone else’s toots.” 

I missed most of the soliloquy, but a youngish man was rhapsodizing about coffee and espresso and the joys of sitting on his porch, and out of his mouth popped this phrase: “the waking beauty of life.”

Spectacular.

Goosing perceptions of a certain fowl

The goose is loose, the geese unleashed. They waddle from the nearby park into the residential hinterland of manicured landscapes, Christmas lawn ornaments and porches peppered with boxes from Amazon and UPS. A suburban snow globe. 

Remarkably noisy, honking their own holiday songs (worlds out of tune), the geese are like plumed seasonal interlopers that just want to say hi to their human neighbors. And poop all over. And occasionally whip up a nest and lay eggs in your front yard (that happened, true). And spread disease. And … we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  

You know they’re coming from their squawky honks (squawnks?). Those bestial blasts are something else — the primitive, tortured horns on a 1912 Ford Model T. Nasally and blustery and violent. Atonal, discordant, foul (fowl?). 

The geese are here — it’s winter. The plump poultry galumph, don’t fly, south for the winter, a whopping three blocks south, the lazy bums. The park creek is frozen and perhaps food is scarce. They move in small gaggles of two to four, really just giggles. 

And for the number of dogs in the neighborhood, they are a bold lot. Strut they do, chests thrust, hooting and blaring. They are so cocky that they can be mean, and they’re known to attack humans if “provoked.”

Exhibit A:

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Experts at Rutgers University call this “Nuisance Behavior.” I’d say. “When protecting nests and goslings, geese can become aggressive. Attacks are rare, but they can cause injury to small children and pets.” That looks like a full-fledged adult to me, in full-blown duck and cover. Take note.

The Rutgerians explain that Canada goose flocks, which are what these are, head for places of “recreational purposes, such as parks, athletic fields, and shorelines.” (“Recreational purposes” — love that. Maybe geese enjoy hoops and the monkey bars.)

Next to knocking you to the ground, the geese bring all sorts of wonderful. “Accumulation of feces potentially creates a foul odor and slippery conditions, and these areas quickly become unattractive to people,” notes the panel with exceptional acuity.

We like, if do not love, the geese. Animals will be animals. Dookie is what they doo-doo. Yet the academics present a bona fide dark side: “Canada geese are carriers of bacteria and parasites that may be pathogenic to humans,” the most common being E. coli.

Rule No. 1: Do not pet the geese. Play it safe and don’t even look at them. They’ll probably give you the stink-eye anyway. No. 2: Wipe your shoes with a kind of horror-movie panic.

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Jesus.

The more I learn about these geese the more they unnerve me. The more I want to purchase a crossbow. They are ornery, incontinent, complaining, belligerent and noxious. Plus, they’re homely devils.

Not long ago a story ran at thedodo.com with the headline “Why Are Geese Such Assholes?” The piece describes geese attacking humans, but implicates ducks, chickens and turkeys, too, as being “over the top,” says a woman.

“But as it turns out,” writes the author, “it’s actually for a very sweet reason. ‘The moms protect their eggs and young. The dads protect their families — their flock,’ ” says the same woman.

A few of my year-end enthusiasms

People, places and culture — little consolations — that are turning me on (saving me?) in the waning days of a sometimes unbearably tumultuous year …

  • Courtney Barnett — Guitar rock lives. Or so we can dream, a reverie persuasively advanced by grungy guitar-slinger Barnett, a pop-punk pixie who’s making some of the crunchiest, catchiest, folky-fuzzy rock around, music that sounds improbably lasting. A devout DIYer with a Grammy nod and fervent following, Barnett traces the raw, minimalist contours of Nirvana and the Pixies, with squalling distortion and a voice so uninflected that her Australian accent claws right through. That voice echoes the talk-singing and slightly nasal tones of Liz Phair, Patti Smith and The Hold Steady. Wincingly intimate, her jagged, jangly songs are shot through with personal drama and cutting irony. Often they’re downright hilarious. Choice cuts: “Pedestrian at Best,” “Debbie Downer,” “Avant Gardener,” “City Looks Pretty.” Watch her in concert HERE. And visit her squiggly world HERE.

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  • “Night Train”: New and Selected Stories by Thom Jones I didn’t even know Jones died two years ago. He’s one of my favorite short fiction writers and I kept wondering where in the hell he went, when he would publish again. I was alerted to his fate by this posthumous assemblage, plucked from Jones’ classic ’90s collections “The Pugilist at Rest,” “Cold Snap” and “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine,” each worth owning, and cherishing. But with this chubby tome, featuring seven new stories, including the typically mordant title tale and spanning the biting, semi-autobiographical Vietnam War epic “The Pugilist at Rest” to the absurdist vermin mayhem of “Mouses,” Jones’ spare, sinewy, mean and bust-up funny realism comes into exhilarating focus. Fueled by grit, violence and the tough tenets of his hero Arthur Schopenhauer, this is essential contemporary fiction.

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  • Gin and tonic at Angel’s Share  Last month I drank a gin and tonic with a Japanese gin I criminally did not get the name of at Angel’s Share, the dark, elbow-jabbing speakeasy in New York’s East Village. It was the smoothest, lightest, tastiest G&T I’ve ever sipped, spritzed with a gorgeously un-cloying tonic that was gently fizzy, not nose-tickingly fizzy. The drink was a perfect alchemical mingling of alcohol and mixer, a frosty masterpiece. (If only I could afford the $17 elixir more than once a year.) 

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  • “I Am Dynamite!” by Sue Prideaux — Penetrating and punchy, with an attractively light touch for the weighty subject, Prideaux’s new biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my dearest great dead thinkers — atheism! nihilism! iconoclasm! self-invention! and more furrowed-brow brilliance — is like literary windshield wipers, a slashing text of clarification and demystification. Despite the luxuriously daunting walrus mustache and monumental scowl worthy of a grumpus Mount Rushmore, the German polymath — yes: a prickly, willful malcontent — wasn’t the poisonous philosophical force we’ve been warned of. (For one, he abhorred antisemitism.) Reason reigned, until it crumbled amidst the famous crack-up that would kill him at age 56. Dead: first God, then him. 

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  • Istanbul — First come the post-vacation blues: the immediate despondency felt when you return home from a great trip. Crap, it’s over. And then there’s the afterglow: the crazy satisfaction and rapture you feel when the depression burns off. Damn, that was the best trip ever! I got back from Turkey last month and I’m basking in the afterglow. I was mostly in Istanbul, one of few cities that can hurl me into a dream state that’s as wondrous as it is ineffable, an otherworldly stupor of sights, sounds and flavors, pocked by the lovable multitude of stray dogs and cats and the unfailingly caring and splendid people. I still savor my Istanbul lodgings, the über-charming boutique Hotel Ibrahim Pasha and, in Cappadocia in Central Turkey, the Pumpkin Göreme Restaurant and Art Gallery, where the cheap and divine fixed menu delivers the allure of Turkey on many plates. If I sound a little intoxicated by it all, I am. 
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Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
  • “Skate Kitchen” — The young women of this scruffy 2018 skateboard drama are hell on wheels — or is that Chanel on wheels? No way. The tribe of shredding female street teens are all about the clacking and scraping of boards on New York concrete, smoking spliffs and coupling with the opposite (or same) sex. The star here is bespectacled Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a taciturn 18-year-old from Long Island who defies her mother for the skate parks and subways of Manhattan, where she’s promptly absorbed into a rowdy posse of all-girl skaters. The film is predictably sincere about teen rebellion equating to freedom and addressing, softly, teen politics and gender politics. Yet it works; it has kick. Crystal Moselle (2015’s hit documentary “The Wolfpack”) shoots with a meandering vérité camera, the city captured with gritty love and bloodied-knee realism, and music to match. The movie is on DVD and streaming. The trailer’s HERE.

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  • Cubby the Wonder Dog — The perennially pampered pup, huge heart, small bladder, gives as good as he gets — hugs and snuggles, mutual adoration, tricks and treats, ribald chit-chat over Scotch and cigars. We love the mutt with our lives, no matter if he begs, bedevils the cats or poops and pees on occasion and off the Wee-Wee Pad. Spiritual creatures, dogs are fuzzy founts of friendship, besting humans, I’m afraid. I’m rotten when I wake up, until I see that damn dog wagging his curled tail and things fall into place. Mused author Thom Jones (see above): “Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have.”
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Cubby