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. 

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.

Stuff this

The taxidermist was having none of it. 

On assignment for a midsize city newspaper, I was interviewing the local taxidermist, a Mr. Martinez, stuffer of critters, asking him about his life’s calling: 

How did you arrive at upholstering bobcats and mounting them in hissing, menacing postures? 

What’s the taxidermy process? Do you only use the animal’s skin?

Is it bloody? Does it stink? 

That kind of crap.

Growing bored by Martinez’s predictable answers and feeling stifled in his stuffy workshop — a matchbox cluttered with mounts, models, skins and dead, static animals in dubious attitudes — my mind drifted.

Though I knew the answer, I asked Martinez if he could taxidermy my long-passed pet rat Phoebe. Sure, he said without a blink, though with a wink, as if a common eight-inch rodent would present any challenge.

Then, scanning the room’s carpentry, tanning and painting gear, I waxed inspired. Could you, I asked, stuff my best friend Ian and mount him in a fearsome pose, like an agitated grizzly? Martinez smirked, but he hadn’t heard my full pitch.

My friend is still alive, I told him. Is that a deal-breaker? Martinez snorted, shook his head and pondered how his lab’s chemical fumes had affected me. Surely he thought I was delirious. Or just dumb as a mounted wildebeest head.

But I really did wonder if he could taxidermy my dear pal Ian, a generous fellow with good skin and, hairy as a chimp, would look splendid posed in a loincloth, hunting a saber-toothed tiger in the Neolithic period. I picture this scene amid a Serengeti landscape in a diorama in a musty natural history museum. That, I think, is where Ian belongs. You’re welcome, bud. 

No and no, said Martinez, squashing the dreams of this faithful friend. Adds award-winning taxidermist Katie Innamorato: “It’s illegal to taxidermy or mount a human being in the U.S. While I’m sure it’s possible, the end result doesn’t seem worth the trouble. Human skin discolors greatly after the preservation process and stretches a lot more than animal skin.”

Gross.

You want gross? Ogle this:

That’s from the site Bad Taxidermy, a cheeky celebration of botched stuff-and-mount jobs, from the whimsically warped (a kitty fastened with giant angel wings, dangling from the ceiling, its face a mask of open-mouth terror) to the near-blasphemous (a quacking duck head popping out of the butt of a surprised baby lamb).

As Bad Taxidermy and its competing site Crappy Taxidermy illustrate, it’s simple. 

There’s good taxidermy:

And there’s grotty taxidermy:

From macho hunter displays to Victorian curiosity cabinets, taxidermy rarely goes out of fashion. Two books — “Crap Taxidermy” and “Taxidermy Gone Wrong: The Funniest, Freakiest (and Outright Creepiest) Beastly Vignettes” — are taxonomies of the mutilated and misbegotten, the bungles and blunders. Horrible hilarity ensues.

What is taxidermy, exactly? Real fur, jagged antlers, feral poses, glassy doll eyes and wholesale creepiness come to mind. (Also: reprehensible game hunters and their appetite for machismo-fueled slaughter.)

Essentially, says an expert, “taxidermy is a mix of many disciplines — sculpting, woodworking, sewing, painting, carpentry and tanning, to name a few.”

It’s a grisly craft. “The animal is first skinned in a process similar to removing the skin from a chicken prior to cooking. Depending on the type of skin, preserving chemicals are applied or the skin is tanned. It is then either mounted on a mannequin made from wood, wool and wire, or a polyurethane form.”

I’m of two minds: I absolutely hate the idea of killing creatures for egomaniacal trophies. The other part of my brain revels in the freakish Frankenstein concoctions sprung from twisted artistic souls, Gothy individualists in black, with scads of tats and a penchant for playing Bauhaus while making taxidermy scenes of iguana tea parties.

My pal Mr. Martinez is a more traditional practitioner of the taxidermy arts. As his workshop attests, he goes for big cats, woodland animals, spindly deer, exotic game and other heartbreaking visions. 

So he won’t stuff my friend, got it. Maybe if I modify my specifications so Ian could still be prepped and mounted without breaking any laws. Maybe if Martinez does something less human and more on the hybrid side — a hint of Dr. Moreau, say.

Maybe, just maybe, we can settle on this:

Camera vs. camera

Confessions of a caveman: I’ve only been using my iPhone as a full-fledged camera for the past five years. Moreover: I’ve only had a mobile phone since 2010. Before that: strictly land lines. Living in the Pleistocene epoch is terrifically underrated.

I never thought I’d need a cell phone (raucous laughter), especially one with a camera. Since 2006, I’ve owned a perfectly snazzy, distressingly pricey digital camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2, acquired for my world travels. 

With its professional Leica lens — as thick and round as a small stack of poker chips, not one of those budget pinholes — the camera separates itself from most Best Buy point-and-shoots. It also boasts manual capabilities, a 4x optical zoom, 10.2 megapixels and a 16:9 widescreen, among other visual gymnastics. It fits in my palm. It’s a good camera.

On a whim, I recently took the Lumix out of storage — that’s how resoundingly my iPhone camera had dethroned the fancier shooter: it was in storage. I had an itch to take more pro-grade photos and reacquaint myself with my trusty travel companion and its battery of bells and whistles.

Before I knew it, I was the greedy shutterbug I once was, seeking beauty and the bizarre, fascinating faces, stunning architecture, and getting in the crouch-and-shoot stance demanded of dogs and children.

First, I made portraiture of Cubby, a study in nappy nobility:

The cat, sleek and skittish, was next:

Outside I snapped this, whose boldface signage is probably telling me something:

Now some iPhone shots, taken in Tokyo, Paris and Istanbul:

OK, so the little Queen of Hearts-sized iPhone appears to beat the pants off the Lumix in this demonstration. And my phone is ancient — a good five years old, perhaps a model 7. But the comparison isn’t quite fair. I’ve walked about six blocks over a few days with the Lumix taking pictures, while I traveled many years and thousands of miles with the iPhone, capturing exotic, iconic locations. Of course I have a similar stash of fine Lumix photos snapped in Japan, India, Texas and beyond, like these shots taken in Nepal, Beirut and Turkey, respectively:

There’s really no contest. Both contraptions take quality pictures. I prefer the Lumix as my main device — it feels like a real camera, for one. iPhones do not. They feel like Kit Kats. I find them unwieldy, tricky to aim, and the shoot button elusive and unreliable. Still, they produce knockout shots that get increasingly superior with each new model. And they handily fit in your pants pockets. 

The Lumix, comparatively, is a Land Rover to the iPhone’s Prius. But it’s not all that bulky. Like I said, I can grasp it in one palm and jam it in a coat pocket like a pack of cigarettes. It’s eminently portable. 

I’ll keep using both shooters for different occasions, the iPhone when I’m traveling ultra-light, the Lumix when I have more room and want more pictorial effects. Not sure which one wins, but it appears the race between cameras is the very picture of a photo finish.

Dogs with blogs

This actually happened. From 2012 to 2015, the Disney Channel aired a sitcom called “Dog with a Blog,” which was about the loopy shenanigans of a cookie-cutter suburban family whose dog just so happens to talk. 

And type. And write. So good is the dog, Stan, at writing that when everyone’s in bed, he slinks off to the glow of the family computer and authors a blog entry, reflecting on the day’s events, affairs and lessons. He does it in a wry voiceover mash of Steven Wright and Woody Allen (furnished by comedian Stephen Full). 

In the TV-spotless house of five, only the kids know Stan can talk. Of course the parents, big dopey grownups, have no clue the mutt can mutter. A show description: “The children learn of Stan’s talking ability and agree to keep it a secret from their parents, fearing if the world finds out that Stan can talk, he will be taken away for experimentation.”

(Experimentation?)

I watched “Dog with a Blog” with my pre-tween nephews, and it was one of the few kid’s shows I survived (the essential, wackadoodle “Adventure Time” is another). It’s actually very funny; not excessively clever, but wreathed with Stan’s dry, sardonic quips, which have a soft adult edge. 

Now, my dog, Cubby the Incandescent, also happens to blog. He’s followed my lead and decided he needed a forum for his daily observations and deep contemplations, things the world should know. Blogs: the great dumping grounds.

I’ve got Gnashing and, Cubby, as a canine, aptly has Gnawing. He’s quite adept at navigating the laptop keyboard, even if he occasionally hits the wrong key. As Stan says on the show, “Delete. Well, that couldn’t be clearer. Or more hurtful.” (Dear doggies, man isn’t your best friend; Command Z is.)

Though the kids know Stan talks, no one on the sitcom is aware Stan blogs. I sort of wish no one knew I blogged, and in fact, most of my closest friends are oblivious. If they find this place, great. I just don’t feel like advertising it. 

Why? Plain shyness. Writing is partly a private act, I think, though obviously I want to get some of it out there. It’s complicated. (Notice I post no recent photos of myself or my last name on this site. I’m the stealth blogger.) 

Cubby is more of a hambone. (Stan, I don’t know. It’s never clear who his readership is, if anyone.) Cubby will carry on about chasing the cats away from his bone, like a big hero. He’ll crow about yelping maniacally at the FedEx guy, as if the FedEx guy gives one goddam. He’ll lament the trauma of getting groomed (even though he takes sedatives before his haircuts). And somehow he wrings material from napping 16 hours a day. I’m pretty sure that’s where he cooked up the entry about hunting dik-diks on the Serengeti.

Me, I go for the absurd, offbeat, anecdotal and reminiscent, with some straight-up travel dispatches and lots of made up phooey. Unless you’re hawking a service — all those preening fashion, workout and health sites — the point of a blog, I think, is to entertain, elicit a laugh, enlighten with fun facts and regale with good photography. It’s to get personal, reveal who you are, and sometimes wrap it all in old-fashioned folderol. 

Like this whole post. Purely asinine. Though it goes to show the variety of blogs and bloggers out there doing hard work for their respective audience. We’re a motley crew. 

Stan’s a dog with a blog. 

Cubby’s a dog with a blog. 

And me? I’m a dawg with a blog.

Cubby gazing perplexedly at his own photo on the computer. He’s working on his next blog entry. More navel-gazing.

Animal magnetism

There’s a pet pig on our block that makes everyone who sees it do swiney swoons. 

Trixie, the pink lady with black spots, who’s shaped like an overinflated football or a throw pillow, clicks down the sidewalk, nibbling grass, snout and low-slung belly to the ground, attended by three canine pals of various proportions. 

It’s quite the gaggle, and neighbors can’t resist snapping photos, giggling and petting, as if Miss Piggy and Babe had shown up in the hood, snorting for truffles. (Watch the pig and her posse HERE.) 

You don’t often see people with squirrel monkeys wearing tiny doll diapers anymore — animal abuse is finally unfashionable — but you do see the random exotic critter with its human comrades, like Trixie, who will grunt chunky oinks to amuse the masses. 

George Clooney and Miley Cyrus have famously made happy house pets of pigs, and if they can do it … well, not so fast. Some fancy Google footwork will tell you pet pigs are very expensive to acquire and maintain. And they’re space-hoggers, tending to get ginormous and push you out of your bed and eat all your Froot Loops, despite contradictory claims by Wilbur and Piglet.  

I admit I know little about our local piggy, except that she’s a trendy potbellied or “teacup” pig, a pink porker with evolved social skills and an impressive tolerance of dogs and piping children. She’s housebroken and uses a litter box. Also: she doesn’t like carrots. 

But she appears to like people, probably because they lavish her with, say, corn cobs and tequila — and because they don’t eat her for breakfast. Trixie basks in the human attention. Like a baby panda, she’s a star, a crowd-pleaser, eliciting oohs, aahs and ha’s. Pig as people-puller.

Which brings me to an acquaintance I knew in Texas, an esteemed novelist and journalist, whose new book happened to earn a rave in this weekend’s New York Times. Actually, it brings me to his dog, specifically his sweet blonde Lab puppy, whose name escapes me. It’s been a while.

We were at a backyard party — my then-girlfriend Laura and I, the above writer, and a slew of good friends — and the writer brought his attention-starved puppy (with his attention-starved self). My girlfriend sprung to the dog, talked to it and stroked it. (This is the girlfriend who once dumped a beer on me. On purpose. Because she’s a genius.)

Writer guy watches Laura, and says this about his special new puppy: “He’s a real pussy magnet.” The writer beams a smutty smile. Laura’s cooing turns to booing. She looks like she bit into a lemon. I’m near enough to hear, but say nothing to writer fella, a burly chainsmoker, disheveled in look and manner. I don’t like broken thumbs. 

This digression about the magnetic puppy is to show how animals can reduce people to marshmallows, and make others crack profane for a wan laugh. (Is the dog also a penis magnet? Har-har.) It’s to show how human and beast forge singular bonds, be it pup or pig, because we all possess big, needy hearts, and everyone likes to be pet. And licked. 

I once had a crazy, lick-your-entire-face puppy that I would call an everybody magnet. Everybody loved her and she loved everybody and there was no stopping the mutual gush of adoration. She was in a perpetual frenzy that caused her to lick your tongue if you weren’t careful. A French kiss, Fido-style. (Was she a tongue magnet?)

It’s hard to picture Trixie, she of the stripper’s name and porcine puss, kissing anything that isn’t slathered in ranch dressing. There she is, flat snout fluttering, hoofs tap-dancing on the concrete in bountiful suburbia, surrounded by fawning people (the fans) and curious dogs (the flummoxed), and showered with organic love. I don’t know about my neighbors, but I think this humble pig is nothing short of a me magnet.

Ten great indies you may have missed

So my movie-watching in this Covid cocoon is drastically spotty — I have yet to see Korean-American family drama “Minari” or Anthony Hopkins as “The Father,” both Oscar winners — and I find myself returning to favorite films, classics new (“John Wick”) and old (“The Thin Man”). 

What’s stuck with me of late is a passel of small newish movies, from “The Rider” to “Eighth Grade,” that could easily be missed by casual viewers, despite the pictures’ celebrated exceptionalism. 

I’ve culled 10 semi-obscure indie pearls from the past several years, 2013 to 2020, a few of which I’ve gushed about before, and many coincidentally released by A24, the hot independent distributor that’s crushing the competition with curatorial savvy. 

I’ve seen the following titles at least twice, except for “Uncut Gems,” whose mad, relentless intensity has, two years later, left me spent. It’s a bruiser. And a winner.

Onward. These are 10 great indie films highly worth your time, in order of release:

  • “Locke” (2013) — A desperate everyman (the brilliantly intense Tom Hardy) is in the driver’s seat, literally, for the movie’s entire 85 minutes. Yes, he’s driving the whole time. The camera never leaves him as he negotiates via smart phone personal tumults on the winding highway of life. It sounds grueling, claustrophobic and static. It’s not. It’s gripping, hypnotic, and exhilarating.
  • “The Witch” (2015) — The smartest, creepiest, most stylish horror picture in years, Robert Eggers’ frightfully immersive period chiller lands us in woodsy 1630 New England, where a family is torn apart by the disappearance of one of its children. Suspicions target eldest daughter Thomasin (wide-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Queen’s Gambit”), who may have flirted with the dark arts. Then there’s that menacing dancing goat, who’s not quickly shaken. Beware Black Phillip
  • “Tangerine” (2015) — Oh, is she pissed. When transgender hooker Sin Dee hears that her boyfriend and pimp cheated on her while she was in jail, she pops with glorious fury, tracking down him and his new lover and exacting a kind of sassy L.A. revenge that includes an inordinate amount of hair pulling. Move over, she’s stomping the sidewalk in teetering heels, cracking wise and hunting heedlessly. Sean Baker shot this scruffy, no-fi, Day-Glo gem on an iPhone, with stunning results. Raunchy and hilarious, it shimmers like a smoggy SoCal sunset.  
  • “Good Time” (2017) — With flickers of the young Pacino and De Niro, Robert Pattinson is revelatory as a scrappy, dangerous two-bit criminal who’s on the lam after a comically/tragically botched bank robbery. The feisty film, by the gifted Safdie brothers, pulls you on a rousing run-for-your-life tumble through nocturnal Queens that’s at once loose-limbed and sweatily taut. A raw portrait of redemption and ruin, pocked with ground-level authenticity, it thrills as it harrows.
  • “The Rider” (2017) — Chloé Zhao’s understated drama moves at the painstaking clip of everyday life, much like her recent Oscar-winner “Nomadland.” But little is everyday here: Brady (non-actor Brady Jandreau) is a rock star of rodeo bronc riding, until an accident in the ring leaves him slightly brain damaged. He’s forced to give up the only life he knows, outside of breaking colts, which he does with a calm, tough-love Jedi mastery. The film is a fine-grained portrait of the pains of getting back on your feet after life-altering disappointment, about rebuilding your spirit after it’s been body-slammed and shattered. Easily the most moving film of 2017, “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie.
  • “Eighth Grade” (2018) — Her chin and forehead dappled with islands of acne, 13-year-old Kayla is stuck in the excruciating pangs of adolescent metamorphoses. A smidge pudgy, she is awkwardly pretty, a butterfly half-jammed in her chrysalis, squirming to soar. Her two front teeth, jumbly and bucky, will break your heart. Played by the perfect Elsie Fisher, Kayla is the magnetic lead in Bo Burnham’s indie wonder. She’s an arpeggio of teen neuroses, a raw nerve that keeps getting pinged. It’s about today’s kids, glued to their phones, glazed in technology, and forging one’s individuality amid willful clones who gussy up their insecurities in narcotizing conformity. Kayla, a hero for the times, lives by her words, the dictums she professes on the videos she so bravely records on her phone. It doesn’t always work out, but watch her grow mightier upon each posting.
  • “Los Reyes” (2019) — In this inadvertently poetic, profoundly affecting doc from Chile, the camera veers from the skateboarding youth who cruise sinuous bowls to examine the laidback lives of BFFs (best furballs forever): Football, the elder, creaky-jointed cur, and Chola, the frisky female chocolate Lab mix that occasionally tries to hump a large pillow. Dispensing with anthropomorphic cutes, this astonishingly patient film relies on the dogs’ alternately mirthful and mournful antics, quizzical gazes, the way they doze unfazed among the rackety-clackety skaters, or a simple shot of Chola standing statue-still in the rain, getting soaked with the patience of a penitent.
  • “Uncut Gems” (2019) — Adam Sandler is off the hook, and it’s enthralling, like a buzzsaw to the head. In full serio-comic mode — he’s funny and foredoomed — Sandler plays a blingy, dingy New York jeweler who sees dollar signs even when there aren’t any. When he makes a reckless, big bucks bet that could set him up for life, he gets ensnared in a web of business buds, family and foes who all want a piece. Writers-directors the Safdie brothers (of the above “Good Time”) sustain such a frenetic frenzy in this chamber dramedy, you may feel wrecked.  
  • “My Octopus Teacher” (2020) — The octopus cautiously unfurls a tentacle like a flower blooming in a time-lapse photo to the human hand before her. It glances the hand then suddenly sucks it, gently pulling it toward her. The moment carries the pitter-patter of courtship. Could this be love? “That’s when you know there’s full trust,” says the owner of the suction-cupped hand, free diver and filmmaker Craig Foster, in his rare doc. A viral smash, the film won this year’s best documentary Oscar. It’s something else: a simple tale about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery cephalopod in the swaying kelp forests of South Africa. Quietly instructive, it goes from lush nature doc to poignant octo-poetry.
  • “Saint Maud” (2020) — Poor innocent Maud. A reclusive nurse seeking Christian devotion after a vague trauma, she becomes the caretaker of an aging dancer dying of cancer. Detecting weakness, and death, Maud (a pretty, pallid Morfydd Clark) kicks into high gear, striving to save her ward’s soul from hellfire with an eerie resolve straddling the sacred and profane. Supernatural phenomena unfurl with a tang of Christian creepiness. Nothing is obvious in Rose Glass’ weird spiritual thriller, especially an amazing climax that will leave you snickering in squirmy, baffled awe.

The pleasures and perils of reading outside

Reading outdoors is an ambiguous business. I’m an outdoor-reading veteran, a pastime that unites something I adore — reading — with something I barely tolerate — the outdoors. 

Yet occasionally a switch of scenery is required and I’ll dust off a patio chair at a spiffy sidewalk cafe and do the old curl-up with a crisp new paperback. Way back when, I’d try to read old-school newspapers while lounging on the beach, furiously fighting the wispy pages to stay put in the seaside gales. Without fail, a page corner would poke me in the eye and a full page would slap my cheeks. Repeatedly.

That’s how reading outdoors can be ambiguous. I was reminded of this today, a partly cloudy, 64-degree afternoon, when I fancied a book and a breeze would be a peachy idea. I grabbed my reading and hit the backyard deck thinking what a clever boy I am. 

After recently tearing through two new novels — “Whereabouts” by Jhumpa Lahiri and “Second Place” by Rachel Cusk, both ethereal, psychologically astute gems — I’m onto the Ralph Ellison classic “Invisible Man,” which even in its early pages is searing. Propulsive, savage, uncompromising — perfect for a glimmering spring day.

I lasted about 25 minutes out there. The clouds kept stubbornly shifting, sealing off the sky for jacket-ready cool, then opening to a sunscreen-ready radiance. Hopscotching moods, it was atmospheric ADD. 

I sniffled as puffs of wind released flurries of pollen over me, and my bookmark fluttered into the fresh, fragrant mulch. The chilly breezes, swaying shrubs and twisting trees, sent me back inside with grumbling memories of beach vs. newspaper. 

Mother Nature was playing with me, smudging the border between winter and spring, which had its calendrical kick-off March 20. (Summer — insufferable with its perplexing pleasures — arrives June 21, an annual day of mourning.) How else do you explain today’s crazy, veering temperatures? Nature knows how to confound. Watch how she drives meteorologists bat shit.

And she knows how to boomerang me back inside, onto the cushy Eames chair, body gently reclined, feet up, “Invisible Man” in hand, and not a mote of dusty golden pollen to spur the sneeze and wheeze.

This tiff with the elements isn’t over, and its history is rich. Just last week I was reading the Rachel Cusk novel on the deck in fine balmy air, the only irritant a black hairy bumblebee the size of a condor that decided it wanted my friendship. It buzzed and bothered; I swung and swatted. The encounter was a truce.  

I coulda been killed out there. What next while I’m reading amidst flora and fauna, burly bumblebees and erratic skies? Rabid chipmunks? A biblical hail storm? The next-door neighbor trying small talk over the fence? (I’ll take rabid woodland animals over that.)

Summer’s thermal terrors are fast coming and I will spend most of the hot months indoors, hands on the latest talked-up book or dog-eared classic. Inside it’s dark and dank, the only breeze wafting from A/C vents, the only deluge the torrent of words I’m reading, the only vicious creature a scruffy terrier mix named Cubby, who can be effectively disarmed with a hearty belly rub or a good Jack Reacher thriller. Much like me.

Wildlife, suburban style

Baby animals freak me out, startle me, and break my heart. They don’t even have to do anything — stop peering at me with those gigantic moist eyeballs; put down those adorable outsize paws — and they get me. 

The mini-critters make me kind of sad, what with their dewy vulnerability, peach-fuzzy squishiness, frantic suckling and flappy, floppy helplessness. (Human babies don’t have this effect on me. They have iPads and Elmo and rarely become roadkill.)

So I was walking through the big, bright, flora-flung idyll of my emphatically suburban neighborhood (Ward Cleaver, meet Ozzie Nelson), when I spotted a pair of bitty lost creatures on someone’s front lawn. I heard a faint squeak and took in a scene that could only lance my soul: two baby raccoons, blinking in the sunlight, gazing up a nearby tree, wondering, it seemed, where their mama was.

Oh, no, was my first (and second and third) impression: One of the infants looked semi-dead, and I promptly thought I’d stumbled upon guinea pig-sized baby possums, hoping the still one was only playing dead. But no, Lone Ranger markings and all, these were scrawny, handsome raccoons, both very much alive. Desperate and scared, but animate.

Awash with relief, I kicked into mammal emergency mode. But just as I was about to dial animal control, it struck me to ask the home’s owner if they knew about the orphan raccoons on their grass and if anything was happening to rescue them. 

I rang the bell on the big blue porch and a voice on an intercom wheezed, “Yes?” I told the woman my concerns — cute animals are squirming on your lawn, perilously — and she assured me she knew about the hapless wildlife. 

OK, I thought. She’ll take care of it. So I moved on with a twinge of anguish and the haunting notion that my raccoon pals were doomed. Why? Because people are cruddy.

Not me, not when it comes to poor, innocent animals, be it a mangy street cur in Kathmandu or an extravagantly spoiled pet rat named Becky, who drank beer and snarfed, well, everything. 

Or the orphaned baby squirrel I nursed to health with an eyedropper after it fell out of a tree some time ago. A cat almost got that tiny fella, but I snatched it and nestled it in a towel-stuffed basket until a crew of thick-gloved pros took it to a chirpy, scampering squirrel sanctuary. 

Yesterday, the day after my raccoon encounter, I passed the same blue house. Morbidly curious, I scoped out the lawn area where I first saw the stray, ring-tailed souls. They were gone. I envisaged cat-on-raccoon carnage, until I was distracted.

A man was washing his car on the street. “Can I help you?” he said, unsmiling. I asked about the raccoons. “You were here yesterday?” he said, water spluttering from a hose he pointed aimlessly. “You talked to my wife.” Right, I said. 

The raccoons are gone, the man said. Animal control? I asked. Yes, he said. I gave him a thumbs up — something I’ve done approximately six times in my life — and thanked him. He nodded, turned, sprayed.

Oddly, I didn’t feel as good about it as I thought I should. Just picturing those precious siblings, sprawled in the sun, sniffing the air for their parents’ scent, did a number on me. There’s closure, but there’s not.

Somewhere nearby a mother raccoon is looking for her babies.

The raccoons look just like this little guy.

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 … 

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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.

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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. 

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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.