My freakish fixation

When am I not thinking about the Elephant Man? 

I’m not just talking about the shattering 1980 film by David Lynch (still one of my favorite movies — see my appreciation here). I also mean the actual, real-life Elephant Man, née Joseph Merrick, the hideously deformed young Brit who, with considerable luck and one doctor’s wayward compassion, went from the squalid, dehumanizing freak show circuit to become the toast of Victorian London before he died at age 28 in 1890.

Merrick has been on my mind since I was yay high. Call it odd, perverse or, well, freakish, but the creepy and offbeat have clutched me in their thrall since my youthful exposure to Universal Horror flicks, campfire myths like Bigfoot and the Moth Man, and the most enduring gift I received on my eighth birthday, the thick book “Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves, and Triumphs of Human Oddities” by Frederick Drimmer.  

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In the book, among the likes of Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy; Grace McDaniels the Mule-Faced Woman; the original Siamese twins; and Julia Pastrana, aka the Ugliest Woman in the World, was Merrick, perhaps the saddest story of them all. (Although Pastrana’s story is heartrending, bizarrely grotesque, and worth a look here.)

A speedy summary: In an unorthodox gesture of charity, Dr. Frederick Treves took in the incurable Merrick, who suffered from severe neurofibromatosis, at the Royal London Hospital, furnishing the sick, lost and abused sideshow veteran a dazzling new life of comfort, friends, celebrity visitors, room and board and more. Though his appearance still terrified the faint of heart, Merrick was embraced by mainstream society until his premature death. IMG_0581.JPG

(Merrick’s skeleton resides at the old Royal London Hospital, and a few years ago I visited hoping to see the bones. I was rebuffed, but I had the pleasure of the hospital’s special museum dedicated to Merrick’s life.) 

I know a lot about “The Terrible Elephant Man,” as he was billed on the road, not only from “Very Special People” and Lynch’s ravishing biopic, but from a slim paperback I bought in seventh grade, “The True History of the Elephant Man,” about which I wrote and presented a book report to my befuddled English class. 

What gets me about Merrick is his life story, one so rippled with tragedy and depravity, it curdles the soul as it breaks the heart. Living in a sooty black-and-white London of clanking, steaming machinery that ushered in the Industrial Revolution, Merrick’s old-timey milieu also enthralls (see the Lynch movie for a rattling immersion in time and place), and seems of a piece with his destitute, Dickensian plight. 

And the disease: The exotically gruesome, inconceivably savage affliction renders man into monster, whose corrupted flesh cannot conceal the gentle soul locked inside the twisted, tumored carapace.  

My fascination has become rather fanboy. (Elephant Man cosplay — I will have to pass.) Besides books about Merrick — including “Making ‘The Elephant Man’” by one of the film’s producers, which I just bought — I own the American, Turkish and Japanese posters of Lynch’s movie, as well as a coffee mug embossed with a period photo of Merrick looking dapper in a three-piece suit. 

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Around the time I got the making-of book, I ordered what I’ve wanted for a long time, a t-shirt of the “Elephant Man” movie. This one is a silkscreen of the film’s Japanese poster art, fusing my passion for all things Japanese with my strange Merrick mania. 

A tad zealous, perhaps. But consider that Michael Jackson famously tried to buy Merrick’s bones. He was flatly refused. I once thought that Jackson was overreaching, being the creepy eccentric he was.

Nowadays, not so much.

Quit moaning. This is how it’s going to be.

Booked on a calculated whim, the trip to Paris set for mid-October looks more and more like a comic blunder, a fool’s pipe-dream, a rash impulse buy. (The flight was so cheap, I practically had to get it.) The whole idea shrivels before my eyes as the pandemic spreads with no end in sight. Covid cases explode, fatalities rise, economies crater and global cities are in enforced lockdown — a fall Paris sojourn is, I am certain, très peu probable.

So the trip is pretty much DOA, as I suspected in a previous post, and we’ll be homebound for more months than ever imagined and stir-craziness is its own pandemic and who cares? People are dying and I could be next and I’m moping about not getting to dine on Michelin-star cuisine and missing the Christo show at the Centre Pompidou and forgoing the serial heart attacks Parisian women unfailingly give me.

There is so much more to mope about, of course, and I am an Olympian moper. Give me a large pimple, computer glitches, long hold times, an exorbitant phone bill, cruddy customer service, a mean paper cut and you will see sulking in all its ravishing splendor. It’s like out of a Bergman film.  

Now is not the time to complain and temperamentally crumble, but it seems like our entrenched culture of complaint is in full grousing, shouting swing. Everybody’s bitching about something: quarantines, Trump, lack of this and that, government overreach, face masks, being barred from the nachos plate at Chili’s. It’s a big boo-hoo carnival. I refuse to partake.

How? By keeping my über-fluffy head on straight (no haircuts! Mope!), not sweating the small stuff (I’m working on it), doing my best to ignore the White House, and trying not to weep myself to sleep about the surely dashed Paris trip.

Whining about so much picayune stuff is a luxury these days. (Paris is itself a luxury, the very definition of an obscene luxury, so buck up, crybaby.) There’s sure to be much more about which to complain, cry and caterwaul, and few of us will go untouched. As the more trusted experts are saying, this is going to get exponentially worse. So snap on your face mask, hang tight, and shush.  

It’s time to recalibrate and sacrifice. To adjust expectations and know that we’re pretty screwed. In this bonkers new world, it’s time to realize we can’t always get what we want. And we won’t.

Paris? Ha.

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Yeah. I don’t think so.

Bedlam in the belly

I either have colossal gas or appendicitis. I am enduring fantastic abominable distress right where my appendix sits with, frankly, blatant purposelessness. (The medical world still hasn’t figured out the function of the troublesome caterpillar-shaped organ. It’s the platypus of human anatomy.)

Of course I’m a tad concerned. Now is not the time to rush to an urgent care center for surgery. A certain pandemic has priority over my sword-in-the-belly pains, even if appendicitis can, in rare cases these days, be fatal. Plus, you never know about what insurance will cover and, besides, hospitals make me woozy with multi-pronged dread. All I can see in my predicament is a hot mess, but in more profane language than that. 

Getting nervous as I seized my stomach, I phoned a doctor friend, whom I hoped would ease the angst. He sort of did, sort of didn’t. Ending the call, my face bore the glacial, expressionless visage of Michael Myers’ rubber mask. The good doc said the cramps and pain could be caused by constipation. Whew. Then he added that I might require a CT scan to identify the culprit. Oof. If the pain spreads I should worry, he said; if it decreases, I’m probably in the clear. 

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That is not me. I don’t have a goatee, and I’m not quite at the pillow-hugging stage.

Good signs: I have no fever. While deep breaths hurt, I can walk with minimal discomfort. And, after chewing Gas-X and popping Advil, I woke today with far less pain than the excruciating night before.

But I’m not out of the woods, and there’s this reminder from one of those frightening medical sites: If you don’t get treatment for an inflamed appendix quickly, “it can rupture and release dangerous bacteria into your abdomen.”

So I remain in a wait and feel pattern. It’s a delight.

Déjà vu has smuggled itself into this picture. As a kid, I had unreasonable hypochondria, leading to near hysteria when, at 7, I felt a sharp pain in my left side that I swiftly self-diagnosed as appendicitis. For hours I curled up tearfully in my parents’ empty bed and envisioned horrors of surgery and gloom and, naturally, death. (Never mind the appendix is on the right side.)

This is different. This bears signs of something moderately serious. It’s painful and fraught with the unknown. I’m not sure where the symptoms point to: hospital, surgery, gastrointestinal earthquakes, the all-clear thumbs up? As I type this, pangs besiege my belly. Something must be done.

* Update: On Easter Sunday, I elected to go to urgent care and get a CT scan at the urging of the doctor friend. After blood tests, a urine sample and the fairly harrowing CT scan (aka CAT scan, all whizzing machinery and sci-fi shivers), it was discovered I indeed have minor, early-stage appendicitis. This normally requires in-and-out surgery, but the surgeon suggested I stay away from COVID-slammed hospitals and prescribed an oral antibiotic regimen, two pills a day for a week or so. The non-surgical treatment is increasingly common for appendicitis, he and my doctor told me, and quite effective.

I grinned widely. Hell, yes, I thought. Hell, yes.

The blessing of boredom

Get outside.

The experts speak this as an imperative. The words throb with anxious urgency.

GET. OUT. SIDE.

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They urge us to recess from in-house isolation, get fresh air and do brisk exercise near home. It is health-smart, holistic and good for the body, mind and, if possible, social maintenance, though the latter is rife with rules: keep a six-foot spread between bodies; no physical contact; wear a face mask (we all look ridiculous, like third-rate bandits); spray hissing mists of Lysol® all around, including on your friends, who will thank you later. Or not.  

About all that’s left in outside activity, besides risky trips to the store, is a lone jog, a bike ride or a walk with a fellow homebound relative through the apocalyptically empty neighborhoods of Coronaville, whose population, once robust, plunges by the day.

So there I am, taking a stroll about our idyllic, all-American hood, which is suddenly shrink-wrapped in dread. It’s a breezy 60-something degrees with hazy, semi-blinding sunshine. Blooms and petals swirl everywhere, polka-dotting streets and sidewalks, celebratory confetti for spring’s arrival.

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I wear burgundy track pants and a burgundy hoodie, looking like a tall glass of pinot noir, something I wish I had with me to offset the tedium of aimless ambling. But Cubby the unflappable fur ball is with me (pandemic, shandemic, he woofs) and we walk up the hill, to the thriving rose gardens, him stopping, sniffing and tinkling every two feet, doing the one-leg-in-the-air thing, a kind of yoga that instills both wonder and winces. (Is this Downward Dog?)

We are not alone. I count six other mutts and their masters walking about, puttering and peeing, shouting across the way to waving friends who are well over the prescriptive six feet apart. The gist: Be well, take care, say hello to so and so! Oddly, I hear no one say, This sucks! Spirits are high. We are the healthy ones, strolling in the sunshine. For now.

Despite the fine weather — I strain to call it that, for spring is my second least favorite season — it’s time to go back inside and resume being a stolid, musty homebody who reads, writes, sees movies and does a bit of what you’re looking at. As boredom overtakes outside, it’s time for a new brand of boredom inside, one filled with sighs and gripes and yawns and, in those precious moments of clarity, a reasoned muttering: Thank heaven.

Not much else to do but read (and read…)

Thanks to the collective corona cloistering, I’ve been ordering books online, greedily. With libraries and bookshops closed, I’m buying used books from third-party sellers on Amazon and new titles from New York indie institution McNally Jackson. 

Unquenchably, I’m ingesting words in the yawning vacuum of self-quarantine. Reading is nearly as nourishing as food. This is what’s on my literary plate. 

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I met “Birds of America” author Lorrie Moore at a book signing for that acclaimed 1998 story collection, and she wasn’t the most jolly person in the room. She was frosty to her gathered admirers, but I don’t hold that against her. Moore’s edge informs her tart, smart fiction, which is also infused with emotional immediacy and pocked with laughs. With stories like the award-winning “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the book is a contemporary classic that hasn’t aged a whit. 

Death looms these grim days, though mortality is always on the mind of this moody Cassandra. Long ago I read the updated edition of “The American Way of Death,” Jessica Mitford’s definitive 1963 exposé of the funeral racket, and I’m back at it, if not for the dazzling reportage and head-shaking stats — upshot: funeral peddlers are exploitative swindlers — then for purely great writing that makes a dismal subject pop. The book is not only essential muckraking, but lavish literary satire, nipping at a venal industry with the toothy, pit bull wit of Pauline Kael. This tangy volume is one big reason I will be cremated and thrown to the wind.

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51VIRgJYGcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_While rereading books like the above, I’m also rewatching some favorite flicks, including “Casablanca,” the evergreen masterpiece in which every element of fine filmmaking miraculously falls into place. I love a good movie book so I clicked on Noah Isenberg’s “We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie,” the gawky title of which tells you just what you’re delving into. I haven’t cracked it yet, but I’m hoping for historical Hollywood gold on par with the recent knockout “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood.”  

Dreaming about Paris, I tripped upon the site for fabled English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, that grand, musty emporium on the Left Bank, where I scrolled staff recommendations for Paris-set stories. Never mind its racy cover, I was lured to Elaine Dundy’s cult comic classic “The Dud Avocado,” a romp tracing the libertine escapades of a comely young American woman in the French capital who yearns to exist out loud. Called a “timeless portrait of a woman hell-bent on living,” the novel seems unlikely to disappoint this thwarted traveler pining for Paris.  41efY3TglbL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_On the note of cult classics, “Airships,” Barry Hannah’s award-winning collection, promises “20 wildly original, exuberant, often hilarious stories that celebrate the universal peculiarities of the new American South.” The book hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s highly anticipated after being called “one of the most revered short story collections of the past 50 years, remaining a vital text in the history of the American short story.” And this snippet from it makes me sort of love it already: “What a bog and labyrinth the human essence is … We are all over-brained and over-emotioned.”

51hhyhVwywLRaymond Chandler’s crackling and complex detective noir “The Big Sleep” scorches with style. The novel, a total delight, introduces private eye Philip Marlowe, literature’s great existential antihero, a shrugging loner with a gun, cigarettes and devastating wit. Chandler crams it with so many ravishing lines, images, similes, he elevates pulp to high literature. Marlowe, all slow-burn aplomb, speaks and thinks like the consummate smart-aleck tough: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners,” he grumbles. “They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.” Unknown.jpeg

“Death Comes for the Archbishop” is a western in priest’s clothing. Set in the mid-1800s, Willa Cather’s elegant epic about a gentle French bishop spreading Catholicism through Mexico and its southwest territories braids American history with lush spirituality and, at times, a mean Cormac McCarthy crunch. The title is a major spoiler, like Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” but Cather knew what she was doing, and the foregone conclusion hits hard — and beautifully. Her eloquence is breathtaking, and the glistening lyricism comes out of nowhere to stun. Here Cather describes two men running through the desert: “They coursed over the sand with the fleetness of young antelope, their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight.” 51qJIvsSX6L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

Reckless randomness in scary times

Like many of you, we are grumblingly housebound during the seismic spread of the coronavirus, aka the Trump Pandemic, a little scared, a lot curious, shuffling clenched and downcast in a novel world of social paralyzation and dystopian edicts, woozy with the surreal and unthinkable. Enter: takeout, Amazon, streaming movies, books we should have read eons ago, board games, bottomless web surfing, asphyxiating boredom, idle nose picking, staring contests, etc.

The end is nigh. 

Or not. 

Yes, bars, restaurants and even Starbucks are shuttering, and it’s a cataclysmic cluster-boink. I can’t even get a haircut now, so by July I’m going to look like Weird Al Yankovic.

But if you have the gall, guts and lunacy, there are ways out. Like zooming to far-off lands that may well be (yes, they will be) infected. Peek yearningly at PlanMoreTrips, a new site that promises, with a pinch of perversity, to “Find the Best Corona Virus Flight Deals,” like: a $137 roundtrip from New York to Lima, Peru; a $43 roundtrip from Dallas to Las Vegas; or a $231 roundtrip from New York to Barcelona.

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Lima, Peru

All of that makes me want to travel badly; I strain at my leash. But it’s a global crap-storm out there. I don’t want to go to Paris when the D’Orsay and the Louvre and Frenchie restaurant and my three favorite cinemas in the Latin Quarter are closed. (Though I still kinda really do.) And of course I don’t want to get ill or make anyone else sick. So we sit. We stew. We play Scrabble. Shit.

Now for some random, corona-free stuff (just what you were waiting for) … 

—  Cubby the hirsute hound finally got a haircut. In puppy parlance, he was groomed. While his body is shorn and tiny now, almost tubular, like a Pringles can, the Baron Munchausen beard and mustache remain, rather regally. And all that hair removal revealed something we always suspected was there, but never saw: a bright pink butthole. Sorry, but it’s true. And it’s strangely alarming, yet delightful too. He’s got one! He’s even less freakish than we thought! Good boy.  

  Spring dispirits for many reasons. Besides sunshine and heat and bugs and pollen, and everybody chirping about such delirious wonderfulness (they’re all wack), there are insane allergies some of us contend with. Actually, I combat them daily, through all climes, so I can’t blame the new season, as much as I detest it. (Did I mention swimming pools, barbecues and shorts?) Thing is, my allergy meds barely work, if at all. Runny nose, watery eyes are my main symptoms, and they could not vex me more. I’ve tried an array of meds. This week I’m moving on to Flonase. Can anyone vouch for this pricey nasal spray? (Gross, right?) 

  Timely thought: “Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.” — Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith”

—  Serious film fans know Werner Herzog — prolific auteur of mind-tweaking features (“Fitzcarraldo,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”) and consciousness-rattling documentaries (“Grizzly Man,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”) — as a brilliant iconoclast, Germanic chaser of “ecstatic truth,” and venerated pop culture polymath (he’s voiced himself on “The Simpsons” and plays a villain in the “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian”). This week, he’s interviewed in a New York Times Magazine Q&A under the unsurprisingly prickly headline “Werner Herzog has never thought a dog was cute.”It’s typically profound and brain-expanding. “How do we give meaning to our lives?” Herzog says. “That question has been lingering over my work and life. That’s what I’ve been pursuing for a very long time.” And from there, he’s off.29mag-talk-jumbo

—  The other day, Yahoo!, the oddly antiquated web server, rapped my knuckles with a stern warning to be a nice boy. An admonitory email landed in my rarely used Yahoo! mailbox, part of which reads: 

“It has come to our attention that you may have violated the terms of service on Yahoo! Please reread the terms and cease any use of your account that may violate them. If your use of your account is brought to our attention again, we may terminate it without further notice.” 

I’m shaking in my sneakers, big bad Yahoo! (Thank you for providing the exclamation point I otherwise would have furnished in that sentence.) My crime: replying to a couple of comments on a Trumpian news story on the site, which unaccountably attracts a large, semi-literate, far-right readership. The comments, dumb as dirt, borderline racist, the usual vile cant, set off my volcanically anti-Trump triggers and, helplessly, I typed some half-baked responses, teeth grit, smoke poofing from orifices.

Perhaps stooping to the commenters’ level, I called them ignorant hillbillies who should skitter back down the holes they crawled out of — or some such balderdash of which I am not proud. I used no curse words (wait, isn’t “hillbilly” an expletive?) and hardly drew outside the lines. Yahoo! is having none of it. I broke the rules. I upset some Neanderthals and a corporate legal department. To the corner I go. Such a bunch of … yahoos.

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Superman is dead.

For five good days, Superman was my pal. 

Tall and lanky, with raven-black hair and a swoopy cowlick, and of course that totemic red and blue spandex suit, flaming cape billowing aft, Superman hung out, drank and watched movies with me and my soul-buddy Shannon during the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2007. Superman was our Super-friend. 

Alas, kryptonite conquers. I just learned that Superman, née Christopher Dennis, died last November, a piteous death that HuffPost reports here:

“Christopher Dennis, the ‘Hollywood Superman’ who posed for thousands of photos with tourists outside the famed Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, has died. He was 52.

“Dennis, who was homeless, was found in a used clothing donation bin in Van Nuys, a neighborhood about 10 miles from the tourist district where he earned a living. Police said he was likely looking for something to wear and that no foul play was suspected.”

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Dennis was at the film festival promoting — alongside The Hulk, Batman and Wonder Woman — the ridiculously entertaining documentary “Confessions of a Superhero,” which profiles the costumed characters of the Hollywood Walk of Fame with heart and, yes, heroics. (See the trailer here.) He appeared numerous times on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

Dennis, a goofy guy with a crooked smile and sweet as a golden retriever, said he was inspired to put on the cape and tights because of his uncanny resemblance to Christopher Reeve, cinema’s most famous Superman. Some days he could make a bundle posing for photos; others, not so much. It was a rough life. HuffPost says that Dennis was once beaten with a golf club and robbed of his money and his Superman garb. He resorted to panhandling and drugs. Super drag.

Thirteen years after palling around with Superman, I frankly don’t remember fine details, just that we had a blast. Below is Dennis at the film festival, posing with Shannon and actor Paul Rudd, who’s now himself a screen superhero as Ant-Man. (Why is Shannon gasping? Rudd decided to grab her butt at exactly the right second. Superman looks on, wondering if he should save her. Nah.) 

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