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. 

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. 

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.

Dead heads

When I die, give me head.

Scratch that. What I mean is: put me in a head. Specifically as ashes, poured into a ceramic simulacrum of my noggin, mug and all, including hair and rockin’ Don Johnson stubble.

This active seeker of novel burial techniques has found a new one, the ultimate head trip. It’s an urn by the company Cremation Solutions and it’s as ambitious as it is ghoulish: 

“Customers send in a photo of their face, and the company scans it, creates a 3-D model and then 3-D-prints an 11-inch polymer head (with an optional wig) and mounts it on a hollowed-out marble base. Cost: from $600 to $2,600.”

In a grody Hannibal-esque touch, you pop off the crown of the fake head, rather like a cookie jar, and deposit the ashes inside the plaster brain pan, which is naturally empty, much like the brain pans of some people I know.  

“Death masks are so eighteenth century,” quips one reviewer of the disembodied domes, adding that they can “stand looking less lobotomized.”

Yes, that glassy, dead-eyed gaze begs improvement — sunglasses perhaps? — as does the wax-museum luster of the fake flesh. While these 3-D computer models may console mourners, they ick me out more than comfort me.  

I wonder how many times someone yelps and clutches his heart when he catches a glimpse of one of those mannequin-meets-Marie Antoinette heads in his home office. I could see myself, in a frightened start, backhanding a loved one’s waxy head, sending it flying in shards and puffs of ash, because it’s so unrelentingly eerie. (The facial expressions are all about serene neutrality. I see a glazed embalming job instead.) 

In vintage corporate-speak, Cremation Solutions pitches this bizarre selling point: “You will never again have to worry that you might forget what your loved one looked like when you invest in one of these custom made, very lifelike cremation urns.” 

Curious, considering that forgetting what your loved one looked like hasn’t been an issue since the invention of the photograph 200 years ago.

Who really wants to see a macabre doll head staring at the wall every time they enter the room — a startling bust that could be mistaken for a fancy penny bank, or a decapitated midget? According to Cremation Solutions owner Jeff Staab, demand is low. 

“They look so real that they actually creep people out,” Staab tells Newsweek, with impressive candor. “Most people write what a stupid idea they are. But we do sell ’em. There are some weird people out there who want Grandma’s head on the mantel, looking at them all the time.”  

Or Obama’s head. Puzzlingly (suspiciously?), the company uses a fake head of the 44th President as a sample urn, pissing off some and pleasing others.

Staab says the Obama noggin was a “practical joke … I get shit all the time, people saying how dare you have an urn made out of the president’s head,” he says. “But it wasn’t even my idea. I’d rather have a George Clooney head.” 

The Obama head a “practical joke”? Couldn’t you say the whole enterprise is exactly that?

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:

When the birthday is just an OK-day

“Death smells like birthday cake.” — Maggie Stiefvater 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skulls, scales, piranhas and penises

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jarred birth defect, Kunstkamera Museum, 2017

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

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

Coyote penis bones

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

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

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

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

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

Jaws in a jar. Beat that.

Dreams to die for

When I died in a dream last night, which I did, it was so weirdly serene and surreal that everything sort of meshed into a dark, enveloping calm and, refusing Dylan Thomas’ famous appeal, I went gentle into that good night. I died, and it was exhilarating. 

But is this right? Isn’t actually dying in your dreams against the rules of reverie? Doesn’t the dreamer have to live in order to carry on as the dream’s first-person protagonist and spin the id’s nonsensical narrative? Isn’t the musty lore true, that dying in a dream means you die in real life? 

Well, I died and lived to tell about it.

In last night’s dream — a nocturne of murky black and white, with wisps of color — I contracted an illness that I voluntarily succumbed to after rejecting treatment, hence, of course, my demise. As a kind of perverse medical suicide, it was anything but a violent death, lacking a crashing plane, alligator mauling or the classic tumble off a cliff and the interminable, gasping fall. 

Though I perished, I don’t consider the dream a nightmare — close, but not. It was freaky and unsettling, yet it transcended the sort of fright-scape that claws the subconscious, jolting you awake clammy and stricken. I instead slipped into a peaceful, hugging blackness, poof, gone. That’s the way to go, I thought, even as I vaporized. 

Sleep specialists wouldn’t be surprised at this cushioned departure, noting that dying dreams are anti-climactic, even strangely euphoric. “The most striking and consistent characteristic of dying dreams is their overwhelmingly pleasant content,” says one. 

As counterintuitive as this sounds, dream interpreters, who, face it, are about as credible as psychics and senators, claim dying in one’s dream signifies rebirth and life, new beginnings and personal growth. It’s like the Death card in the equally eye-rolling Tarot deck, which doesn’t symbolize death at all, but renewal and life change. 

I call bullshit. I don’t think for a second my dream death points to anything but my own compulsive morbidity. At most it denotes a longed-for escape hatch, a kind of permanent vacation, no matter if it is in Hades. 

And it obviously doesn’t denote real-life expiry, unless I’m an industrious wraith with pretty good typing skills. Dying in your dream does not equal actual death. (Then again, if you’re cast in “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” you’re screwed.)

I croaked and the show rolled on. That’s different from previous nocturnal ruptures I’ve had, which could be called near-death experiences. Those are the ones where I incur a fatal blow, jab or smash and, instead of vanishing, I spring back to life and complete the dream as a vital character, shaken but stirring. Death gets the middle finger. 

I like the other kind better. As the sleep experts attest, my dream death was tinged with quiet euphoria and surprising OK-ness. It was otherworldly, a little spooky and, somehow, exquisite. There was finality, until there wasn’t. Sometimes RIP is just REM.

An EKG? WTF?!

So I tell my doctor that I think my heart is fluttering, murmuring, skipping a beat or doing something wiggy that makes me worry I’m about to have a heart attack. I like my heart to beat to a steady 4/4 tempo — your basic rock beat — and not do paradiddles and drum solos. I want Ringo Starr keeping time, not Keith Moon. 

The doctor raises an eyebrow but is distinctly untroubled and prescribes me an EKG, or electrocardiogram, which goes like this: “An EKG measures the electrical activity of the heart. It tracks these beats and electrical impulses and tells how the heart is functioning.”

An EKG? I frown. But what did I expect? I whine about my impending cardiac arrest and suddenly I’m hooked up to an octopus of cables. Did I think the doctor would just check my blood pressure and stethoscope things away? (Yeah, a little.)

Like any sane person, I loathe medical procedures. They’re intrusive, worrisome, expensive, and they smell funny. But I quickly learn that an EKG is rudimentary health stuff, like a blood test, or a digital rectal exam (sorry). Of course I do it. 

This is what the whole thing looks like (that isn’t me, and that certainly isn’t my nurse):

The procedure is so fast and easy — 10 minutes tops — that I’d barely call it a procedure. More like a way to have some chest hair ripped out. 

Just doing it makes me feel healthier. I’m unaccountably certain the results will be peachy and I can go on living a questionable lifestyle. 

Later, the doc summons me. Things are suddenly not so glowing. Irregularities appeared on the EKG. She wants me to get an echocardiogram, which is: “a test that uses ultrasound to make pictures of your heart.” It’s what they do on a pregnant woman’s belly to see the fetus, but on your ticker.   

Terrific. Now I’m not just stressed, I’m nearly beside myself. 

And for good reason. The echocardiogram I eventually get bears unsettling news. Apparently my heart is in distress: I have a dilated aorta and a “bundle branch block” on the left side. The doctor tells me to see a cardiologist and gives me the name of one. 

I sigh, hard. What’s wrong? the doctor asks. Well, I say, you just gave me a pile of shitty news. She tries to soften the blow: At most, he’ll examine you and tell you to come back in a year, she says. I sigh again. I’m a big sigher. 

Convinced I’ll soon be getting a triple bypass, or a baboon heart, I nervously see the cardiologist, a man bald of pate and kind of soul. Why are you here? he asks right off the bat. Well, I was told I was about to die, I say, if not in those exact words.

Not even close, he says. The abnormalities that appeared are actually totally normal, nothing to worry about, now get the hell out of here and live your life. 

Amazing! I’m free! I’m healthy! My chest will not explode in the next six months! This is a huge turnaround. A new lease on life. I almost kick up my heels like a leprechaun.

And then a dark curtain drops and it occurs to me that good health is fleeting. We are all decaying, breaking down, each breath the beginning of the end. The cardiologist’s warm, mellifluous words become so much empty prattle. Sigh.

But I am undeterred. I will seize the good news and slap the heavens with a high-five. I will take it day by day, adopt a zen perspective, stay calm, reside in the moment. The proverbial bus may smoosh me, or I’ll die a shriveled twig under hospice care, age 101. Really, I don’t know what’s next, how this life thing will play out.

I know only one thing: I kinda don’t want my heart to stop. Hit it, Ringo …

A needling issue

At long last, I got my first flu shot. The transaction — their needle, my flesh and humility — happened in a grubby drug store pharmacy. The prick was quick and slick, and I didn’t even pass out. Nice work, Maggie. 

Peg me a shiftless procrastinator, a craven needle-phobe or simply irresponsible, but I was never motivated to get a flu shot. I figured as I never get the flu, why volunteer for a small agony. This, in hindsight, was naked folly. The new nature of viral contagions changed my mind lickety-split, and almost happily I rolled up my sleeve, squinched my eyes and turned my head as the pharmacist harpooned me.

Of course when I first saw the syringe, I made an exaggerated ack sound, like I was horrified of needles, which, well, I kind of am. To wit: When I was 12, I contracted mononucleosis, which is referred to as the kissing disease by hormonal middle-school gossips. Much blood was drawn from my arm, and more than once the nurse had to pull out smelling salts before my drooping body slunk to the floor. (Smelling salts are fantastic. They’ll snap you out of a coma.)

Finishing the mono bit, news of my illness spread across campus, initially as fodder for racy rumors but ultimately becoming a badge of honor. Not only was I out of school for six weeks — a scholastic triumph — I returned a sort of hero, a tween Don Juan who not only got, but conquered, the mythic kissing disease. Thank you.

Today the flu vaccination is coursing through my body, a shield against aches and fevers and coughs and sneezes. But that’s only partly true. Because Covid-19 still lurks with no vaccine in plausible sight, no matter the president’s flatulent lies. And Covid is not just the seasonal flu, as our genius in chief crows. Remember this doozy? “When it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” (I need a large crowbar.) Or this, about the U.S. death toll so far: “It is what it is.” What a fella.

And now he’s pressuring his administration to approve a coronavirus vaccine ahead of the November election, before they have proof that it is safe and effective, reports, well, everyone. “The faster, the better,” Trump spouts.

It’s the stick-it-in-your-arms race: Trump rushes to produce a politicized vaccine while Russia does the same in order to burnish its standing in the nationalistic spotlight. Who can do it first? (Me first!) Are Trump and Putin kindergartners? Yes. Yes, they are.  

I’ll take a Covid immunization — when it’s thoroughly tested and certified by doctors and experts who do not kowtow to venal politicians. A hurried, premature Covid vaccine got a volunteer very sick this week. Yeah, I can wait. 

It’s been two days since my comparably inane flu shot, and I think I have the slightest sore spot where the needle poked me. Boo-hoo. This is serious stuff. I’ll be glad to get another flu jab next year, and I look forward to a safe Covid shot. I’ll be there, rolling up my sleeve, squeezing shut my eyes and turning my head in the other direction. Smelling salts optional. The shot itself: mandatory.