The raging pimple on my nose couldn’t take away from the raucous ecstasy of my nephew’s modest — but laughy, giggly, shrieky, slangy, sing-songy (“Dancing Queen”!) — fifteenth birthday party among a half-dozen friends in my brother’s cozy backyard this very hot day. That damn zit — I’ll squeeze it till fluids flow. Be gone. Because there is bawdy jokes to be told, games to be played, junk food to be gorged, gossip to be spread. (What’s that? You have a boyfriend!)
And so it went. Two giant picnic umbrellas popped open like vast bat wings. Three fat coolers lined the deck. Tostitos — all over the place. Ice cream, cupcakes, cookies, Sprite, cheap plastic toys, bubbles. And, god, the laughter and the squawks of rare tropical birds. A blast was being had.
I observed from afar, never getting close to these dangerous exotic animals. Instead: me, a mirror, a zit. Let’s go. (Gruesome details have been redacted by WordPress censors.)
In the mirror, I am reminded of the blooming, uncut hairdo I’m currently sporting. My last haircut was scheduled for April 3. It never happened thanks to quarantine. Do the math, they say, with a frat-boy sneer. I’ll do the math. The math says: shit.
I noted here that I bought a New York Times baseball cap to tame my anarchic locks. It’s working out nicely, I think. But summer will be a Rapunzel-ready efflorescence, fluffy, uncontainable tresses, suitors scaling them to reach me in my dank, lonesome tower.
So I’ve ordered two more caps, one that will reveal a sliver of my cultural tastes, though I’ve mentioned Metallica before here.
The second hat is more personal, a custom-made lark, which I will wear with unwavering nerdiness:
But this is really about my nephew’s big number 15. Not the pimple, not the hats. His birthday is actually tomorrow, June 7. To accommodate his besties, the party was thrown today. Plus, Saturday is always better than Sunday for a shindig.
In a rare aside, I asked my nephew how the get-together was going.
“Good,” he said, which is about the only answer he knows to feed lame adults who ask lame questions.
Like many people’s hair during these epic days of cyber-hibernation (cybernation?), when electronics provide disproportionate company, mine is doing its growing thing, filling out, fluffing, turning unruly and cruel and comical. It is mutating, rising like a very fine soufflé whipped up by a Michelin-star chef crossed with Vidal Sassoon.
A follicular brushfire is what we are on the verge of, and it needs to be extinguished before I’m mistaken for Angela Davis circa 1971. Obviously I cannot make a rendezvous with my hair technician — I do not reside in Georgia, thankfully — who I see once a month or so. I realize now in this moment of unsupervised hair — it plays in the street and gambols across the meadows without a leash — I could probably go longer between appointments without scaring the neighbor kids.
I worry. We are going to be locked up for a long time, indefinitely. Yet some facts. One: very few people will see me. Two: I’ll be able to join a Led Zeppelin tribute band.
A home cut is out of the question. Just see what we’ve done to the dog. Unfortunate home-cut stories on the web give me mental razor burn. I could do the simple buzzcut, but just typing that makes me quiver. It smacks of capitulation, semper fi, and Velcro.
There used to be an extraordinarily smart and funny satirical magazine called Spy. It published for 12 years in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I liked it so much I bought a Spy baseball cap, black with a yellow Spy logo. I wore that thing all the time, especially on bad hair days or lazy hair days.
And so, the cap. A lightbulb dinged above my haystack of hair and I started hunting for a quality, stylish baseball cap to conceal the coming tonsorial torrent. No actual baseball team or any sports-themed cap would do. If they made writer caps — I’d kill for a Philip Roth topper — I’d be in hat heaven.
Then I thought of publications I read devoutly, namely The New York Times and The New Yorker. Journalism merch is my catnip. I wore-out a vintage San Francisco Examiner t-shirt and, over some years, broke a set of Chicago Tribune tumblers. I still own a collection of newspaper coffee mugs, from the Philadelphia Inquirer to the San Francisco Chronicle.
While noncommittally surfing the New York Times store the other day, mulling over handsome sweatshirts and t-shirts (all of them free advertising for the newspaper, I’m aware), I hit upon the black and grey logo baseball cap. A plush twill, it’s not exactly cheap; the price made me blink twice, hard. But I went for it.
‘Cause I’m going to need it. The hair, growing like bamboo with no machete in sight, will be its own entity by June. It’s already talking back to me, acting up, not doing its chores. The modest cap should do wonders to muffle, tame and smoosh the mutinous tumble.
Then of course a whole other nuisance will blossom: a little thing called hat head.
We all have embarrassing lists of things we once thought were beautiful, whatever they are, like Monet haystacks or Kieslowski films.”
— Megan O’Grady
Confession: Once upon a time, I was entranced by the poetry of Jim Morrison. Well, entranced is pushing it. I was interested in it, I liked it, I thought it was … neat-o.
At 17, I was spongey and vulnerable, easy prey for a bad poet with good hair who’d whisper sweet nothings (and I do mean nothings), like:
Did you have a good world when you died?/Enough to base a movie on?/I’m getting out of here./Where are you going?/To the other side of morning.
At a friend’s urging, I had just finished the cathartically lurid biography of Morrison, “No One Here Gets Out Alive” (a sensational read, I’m telling you). It’s a thick mass market paperback and, as a budding rock ’n’ roller (I drummed for years, had hair down to here), I snarfed up Morrison’s simultaneously literary/glittery exploits, his Nietzschean excesses and his laughable self-crowning as the “Lizard King.” And of course his rockstar antics on- and offstage as the Dionysian frontman of The Doors. (Dead at 27. Long live the King!)
In retrospect, Jim Morrison was a ridiculous, even dangerous cultural icon, despite that nimbus of curls and his body’s perfect synergy with tight leather pants. He was heedless, abusive, narcissistic, a drug addict, pure outsize ego and unshackled id. I thought he was cool. I hung a poster of him in my college dorm room. Until I put away childish things — in the dumpster.
As journalist Megan O’Grady points out at the top of this post, “We all have embarrassing lists of things we once thought were beautiful, whatever they are.” And what are they? They run from the sentimental and the tacky to the precious and pretentious. It’s stuff we grow out of, intellectually and aesthetically, as we mature or plainly change.
(Such things are not to be confused with guilty pleasures, those so-bad-they’re-good objects: “a film, a television program or a piece of music, that one enjoys despite understanding that it is not generally held in high regard,” explains Wikipedia, that handy font of clickable sagacity. Did someone mention the 1965 schlockfest “Village of the Giants”? So delectably awful, so crazily unimpeachable.)
Some other things I’ve changed my mind about or sloughed off like so much dead skin:
— In my late teens and early 20s the paintings of Salvador Dalí mesmerized me — all that trippy dream razzle-dazzle, latticed beauty, gimcrack grandeur and overblown symbolism. Yet Dalí the man, P.T. Barnum with an easel and vaudeville villain’s mustache, was a showoff, charlatan and prankster — not the king of Surrealism, but its preening court jester. With cartoonish Freud-meets-frenzy, he sabotaged his art, which was ultimately hollow and self-aggrandizing and so often silly.
— As stated, I fell for Jim Morrison’s sophomoric poetry — and, almost as tragic, his band The Doors, which couldn’t afford a bass player so let Ray Manzarek fill the role with his corny, carnivalesque “keyboard bass.” I wish, like Morrison, I could blame whiskey and psychedelics for this troublesome stretch. Addled adolescence takes the rap.
— Oh, ’80s-era stone-washed jeans (before they inevitably got hip again). Whoever thought these were a good look (um, me) probably digs denim shorts. They scream John Hughes, “Dirty Dancing” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.” More a shriek than a scream really.
— Early in my dubious hard rock heyday, I fell briefly under the spell of metal hair bands Ratt, Mötley Crüe and W.A.S.P. They were loud. They were flamboyant. They were L.A. bad boys. They spritzed gallons of Aqua Net on voluminous tresses. In the case of W.A.S.P., the singer drooled fake blood. (Gene Simmons should sue.) I can only snicker now, with a sour wince. I blush a mean shade of fake blood.
— How this happened, the cosmos will never tell, but during its bestselling peak I actually enjoyed Robert James Waller’s saccharine rural romance “The Bridges of Madison County” (I know). I eagerly recommended it to my mom. I think she finally decided not to strangle me in about 2011.
— It was adorable the first time, candied, cooing and so très French. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s twee 2001 romantic comic fantasy “Amélie“ is a juicy smooch of primary-color whimsy, lush style and steroidal art direction. Its star Audrey Tautou is a human gumdrop. When I watched the film again, all of these descriptives became detractions. It grated and cloyed. It was unfunny and charmless, smitten with its own labored cutes. And Tautou’s mincing protagonist was someone to be throttled, not adored. The pixie was now poison.
As I sit here, speeding through Tokyo on the bullet train (or shinkansen), I gobble an egg salad sandwich, as simple as it sounds, bought at a ubiquitous FamilyMartconvenience store. I have no idea why the abundant convenience stores here — be it 7-Eleven or Lawson — make such famously tasty little sandwiches, so humble and dainty even the crust is removed. America, lick and learn.
Day Five in electrifying Tokyo, I’m now on the train to this jovially mad city’s near polar opposite, ancient, placid Kyoto, a major urban center flavored with temples, shrines, gardens and the fading tradition of the rosy-cheeked geisha. I envision relative quietude, and mounds of soba noodles and many yakitori skewers. (For now, I’ve had my fill of sushi, though more is assured later. In fact, once in Kyoto, I was quick to mark a conveyor-belt sushi joint next to my hotel.)
Tokyo, as American kids would say, is lit. And lit (well, lighted, blindingly) it is, vibrating with a friendly freneticism, thrumming with courteous, controlled chaos. It lacks New York’s pavement-pounding determinism and San Francisco’s self-satisfied beauty and bohemianism. Order reigns and rules are followed — you’ll never see a jaywalker and there is absolutely no litter, not even a stray cigarette butt, bizarre for a city totally bereft of sidewalk garbage bins — but it’s not the slightest iota oppressive or authoritarian.
Far from it. This is a city filled with laughter, a robust nightlife (several nightlifes, as the many neighborhoods, from Roppongi to Shibuya, boast their own partying personalities) and a staggering overall kindness and politesse. The locals are approachable and often approaching, just to see where you’re from or if you need anything, and also to practice their English. They are unfailingly accommodating and vigorously helpful. People don’t yell, don’t argue in public, hoot or holler. Truly, the only vocal noise to break the sound barrier I’ve experienced is laughter.
Now, a couple days later in Kyoto, I find, unsurprisingly, the same congeniality and penchant to oblige, but in a far more compact if still bustling setting. As with Turkey, it’s the people who make the deepest impression here. I’ve been pegged a misanthrope (who me?), a bit inaccurately, but whatever. People just make me nervous. I blame my own ample timidity, baseless anxieties, feeble fears that rattle the mind and inflame the stomach. The point is I find the people here wonderful, even wondrous, comforting; cool, models of affable composure to be emulated.
There’s lots to write about this trip — the food, the drink, the stores, the temples, the shrines, all that electric overkill — but I’m vacating, so I’ll let pictures do the blabbing.
Pretty much kaput, Halloween means just about nothing to me nowadays. The thrill is gone. The chill is gone. I’m not 7, dig.
Yet something about Halloween sticks, hovering like a blanket of graveyard fog. Each year I gladly inhale the occasion’s residual festive fumes, pumped in like so much giddy-making nitrous oxide. Hey, unlike zombies, I have a pulse.
Though costumes are long — and forever — doffed and I’ve retired the habit of sneaking morsels from the communal candy bowl (It’s for the kids, dammit!), I remain devoted to this perverse, very North American celebration of the gross, grim and ghoulish. (And, yeah, I lied: the Reese’s cups are mine.)
But I effectively don’t partake in the big-picture party, unless you count sometimes serving as the eve’s Doorbell Dork, doling out Snickers and Tootsie Pops, smiling like the village idiot on cue when a particular and rather mystifying catchphrase (starts with trick) is shrieked by decked-out kiddies (and a few shameless, straggling grown-ups who can only dream they’re getting a Kit-Kat from this finger-wagging candy dispenser).
It’s a festival of enforced flamboyance. Excess is enshrined. Generally sane people douse themselves in corn syrup blood. Sex is flaunted in racy micro-fashions: cats and maids and devils. It’s masks and makeup and Marvel; wigs, witches and wizards; Pokémon, pirates and pop stars (and, yes, Pop Tarts) — the palette is as infinite as it is infantilizing. The id comes out to romp.
In placid suburbia, lawn dioramas have grown ambitiously disgusting. I love the sinew-chewing zombies (with staticky sound effects), life-size, yoga-posed skeletons and tombstone-cluttered cemeteries, gnarled limbs popping out of the ground. I beseech you: gross me out.
It’s a bacchanal of fantasy and horror, whimsy and steroidal imagination. It’s pop cinema — slashers to superheroes — sprung to life. And it’s uniquely, wildly American (and, I hear, Canadian).
I’ve done Halloween in London, Paris, Beirut, Ho Chi Minh City, Kathmandu and Sevilla. As the locals tried to summon the spirit, they invariably botched the holiday, blundering with gauche costumes (er, blackface in Beirut and Paris) and feebly attended parties — strictly amateur hour, training wheels required.
Except when they’re not. Except when the night has been co-opted with the verve and vision matching the western prototype. All eyes on … Japan. It’s said that Japan has only been practicing Halloween in earnest for five years. But amateurs? Hardly.
The Japanese were born pros, built for Halloween. Nothing is lost in translation. Dress up and cosplay are daily mainstream occurrences. Stroll anytime through Tokyo’s Harajuku district for teen fashion so high, so rococo, it passes as a perpetual street costume party.
Which should make this year’s Halloween something special. I land in Tokyo on October 30, giving me less than 24 hours to steel for whatever that hyper-charged city has in store in the way of a woozy wingding.
Because there is no way I’m not wading into the most outrageous Halloween hotspots — like bustling, youthful Shibuya, where a million revelers are expected — to get the full Japanese treatment: anime and cosplay characters, J-horror ghosts and vampires, video-game avatars and the universal diet of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Power Rangers and other mega-brands. (Oddly, Where’s Waldo? seems to still be popular. I’ll look into it.)
This is what I wanna see, Halloween with kick (I’ll return with a full, bloody report):
So I return to Japan in late October, my first time in several years, and the anticipation is giving me fits of insomnia. The capital, Tokyo, is one of my favorite and most indelible cities, part of a troika that includes Paris and Istanbul. I was skipping through some photos from past trips — people and places inside and outside of that teeming, gleaming metropolis: pagodas and Harajuku Girls; whale meat and cherry blossoms; lakes and a big, cool silver orb that, in its own odd way, sums up the reliable surreality of Tokyo.
It looked like a pillow fight in a movie: downy feathers of snow twisting and drifting through the air, with little space between the fluttering flakes. A midday flurry making landfall in heaps and mounds.
Yet it wasn’t too voluminous, this late-winter coating, and instead of pillowy tufts, the following day offers equal parts splash and crunch. Anything beautiful about the snow has thawed into a slurry swamp. Walking the dog, we slalomed around slush and brown puddles resembling polluted ponds. My sneakers got wet.
I love winter. I like the cold. But I can do without snow, which wasn’t true during my salad days of skiing down vertiginous slopes, laughing all the way. Nowadays I’m too reserved to even toboggan, and I am not squatting in one of those saucer sleds for the certainty that I will break my collar bone in a spectacular face plant.
Snow now means shoveling, one of the lowest forms of drudgery, right there with prisoners smashing quarry rocks in old-timey pictures like “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” No matter how frigid it is, I sweat piggishly when shoveling snow. I hate sweating. I hate heat. Did I mention I like winter?
But the season will soon cruelly vanish and shorts, a sartorial scandal, will be all the rage. It’s probable more snow will fall before that; March often gets dumped on without mercy. If there was a hill around here, I’d rent some skis. (And probably snap a femur.)
So this is a premature farewell to the fair season, when we abide icy irritants for the relievedly short days, chilly breezes, hot toddies, fashionable outerwear (is anything hipper than a natty scarf?) and indiscriminate cuddling. (About outerwear: I never don gloves or hats in winter. My mammalian blood takes care of the extremities, ears too.)
When another snow day comes this season, I will gripe and groan. But I will also be grateful that it’s still winter. That I can wear a parka with impunity. That I don’t have to attend barbecues and eat outdoors. That bugs and sunshine won’t assail me. And that I can, joyfully, unabashedly, freeze my ass off.
It was like a solar event radiating from her head, explosive yellow curlicues twirling and boinging into the stratosphere. Flaring, flaming, the bleached helixes formed a magnificent afro that any ethnicity could pull of with high-fashion finesse. It was positively Kaepernickian.
This vision appeared today in a cafe and I oddly did not see the woman’s face, just the back and side of her head. It was plainly a woman, but I have no idea if she was white, black, brown or what. I stared at the flaxen shrubbery from behind. Its corona of frizz entangles you, startles, transfixes.
It’s so loud, so brash, it’s like a bulletin, a manifesto, a mission statement. Hair, like clothes, is like that: It’s an articulate communicator, revealing much about a person, like the choice of your car or your dog does. It says This is me, and quite a bit more.
What this gigantic yellow afro says is: YES DAMMIT!
If you want a piece of that, you can buy the big ‘do for $19 from Amazon:
But that tilts toward offensive, never mind the repugnant artificiality of it.
I like what I saw, the real deal, the brazen authenticity and screw-you audacity.I like the sheer follicular electricity, all zap and fire.