Culture in the time of Covid

My Covid’s gone and I feel strong as an ox, even though I barely know what an ox is. A big cow? Paul Bunyan’s interspecies BFF? Actually, I just looked it up. An ox is a “castrated bull used as a draft animal.” So let’s scratch the whole ox analogy entirely. 

Point is, I’m back — non-contagious, symptom-free, fit as a fiddle. (I don’t know what that means either. Skip it.) It took about five days to vanquish the virus, and it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. It was like a mild cold, but without mucus violently erupting from my lungs. This was a dry cough, little hacks, as if an infant was smoking a cigarillo.

As hoped, I got a lot of reading done during my convalescence. I wrapped up “The Sportswriter,” Richard Ford’s extraordinary, bittersweet novel about life, love and letdowns, and started three more books, all highly acclaimed and released in the past few weeks.

Alas, two of them tanked. Those would be Ali Smith’s “Companion Piece” and Mieko Kawakami’s “All the Lovers in the Night.” 

I’m not sure what critics are going on about with Smith. They go bananas for her Seasonal Quartet novels — I failed miserably to warm up to two of them — and seem to regard the new book as the prosaic sublime. I read 175 pages of “Companion Piece” and surrendered with a mere 50 left. She’s a slog, oblique, flirting willfully with incoherence. I wasn’t having fun. I was having a migraine.

I enjoyed Japanese super-author Kawakami’s earlier novels, the shrewd and touching “Heaven” and “Breasts and Eggs,” which sounds like a particularly provocative breakfast dish. But her latest, though not totally displeasing, never takes off. It’s slow going … going nowhere.

But I hit pay dirt with “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s sequel to “The Idiot,” tracing the turbulent interior life of a female college student who’s trying to figure it all out. It’s at once wildly funny and erudite, catchy and sparkling, and that’s about all I can ask for in a book. Bonus: the author’s name is Elif.

For someone isolating with time to burn, I watched very little in the way of shows and movies. I did stay abreast of the series “Hacks” (hilarious), “Top Chef” (harrowing) and “Barry” (hilarious and harrowing). And I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into “Irma Vep,” the great Olivier Assayas’ dramedy about a vamp, vampires and the insanity of making movies.

Meanwhile, everybody and their easily-scared tweens are bingeing Netflix’s gimmicky genre mash “Stranger Things.” I preferred the show when it was called “Scooby-Doo.”

I also got to anticipate my July journey to Buenos Aires as I was spread out, aching and sniffling with dramatic moans of self-pity. It’s something to look forward to, and, from a piece I read recently, that’s not only a good thing, it’s a healthy thing: “Having something to look forward to boosts your mood and lowers your stress. It can increase motivation, optimism and patience and decrease irritability.” Huh.

Not quite a Covid cure, but it can’t hurt. So much so that I started looking forward to my annual October trip, leap-frogging the July trip I haven’t even taken yet.

I’m thinking Budapest, a European joint I have yet to visit. Or perhaps a return to Krakow. Or Berlin. I’ll have to see what Covid is up to in those places. I might be cured, but the tenacious bug, mean and mercurial, still has the world in its gooey grip. 

Covid chronicles, part 2

I’m in the clutches of Covid, as I wrote upon my discovery two days ago, and my symptoms, from a light wheeze to a drippy schnoz, are getting cute on me. Just when it feels like they are receding, they jack-in-the-box back up, all flailing arms and googly eyes, heckling me with a mighty, Ha!  

So I thought it wise that I ordered a two-pack of DayQuil and NyQuil “liquicaps” for cold and flu stuff, from headaches to sneezing. It arrived yesterday and I promptly popped some DayQuil, which doesn’t contain the depressant effect of the sleepy NyQuil caps, I’m guessing.

Ha! again, because the DayQuil failed me like a two-bit placebo. My chest is still heavy, head thrums, throat sizzles, sinuses swell. This is why I rarely bother with so-called cold medicines, those blister packs of impotence, those doses of disappointment.

Compounding things, I look beastly. I’m brushing the Mickey Rourke phase. I’m sallow, splotchy, puffy. My eyes are poached eggs. And I have a zit on my cheek that could pass for a siamese twin.

I’m at home, isolating for at least a few more days. It’s a lonely spot, a kind of plush solitary confinement where complaining has no place, because, for one, no one can hear me. The pharmaceuticals might not work, but life continues mostly uninterrupted. I have my books, TV, computer, phone, food and a reservoir of self-pity. The dog looks at me and just shakes his head.

Being sick is never a Disney pleasure cruise. It’s more like “The Exorcist.” Since I started this post, I took the NyQuil half of the gel caps — it’s now past midnight — and the result seems preordained. I feel no better. I feel the same shade of blech. And I had high hopes for this one, with its shimmery emerald hue suggesting a soothing shot of absinthe. 

But no. The absinthe is absent. The NyQuil hasn’t made me drowsy and for some reason my ears feel like they’re stuffed with gauze, which means I have a brand-new symptom: deafness. 

Three more days of this, but of course it could drag on. I’ve quit the ‘Quils and will coast on bladder-bulging volumes of water and isn’t that the oldest home remedy in the book when you’re sick — fluids, more fluids. I think I saw that on “Little House on the Prairie” when Pa or a tween Laura Ingalls Wilder caught a chill. They drank like whale sharks. 

For now, that’s me. Bound for bloat on the good ship Covid. Glub, glub.

Sick daze

Well, I got it. Or it got me. Whatever. It’s my turn. For Covid, that is. 

Some crabby cold symptoms — the usual gunk: light cough, wet nose, swimmy head, a generalized ick — proved to be the real deal today. A test said so. My achy-breaky body bears it out.

Now what?, I wonder. First, I’ll be isolating for five days. Then I’ll take another test. Meantime, lots of fluids, rest, crushing boredom, gratitude that I haven’t lost my taste or smell (yet!), and some reflecting on how foolish I was to think I was impervious to the virus, as I took all the precautions — two rounds of shots plus a booster, regular mask-wearing, mega doses of arrogance, etc. Small irony: I was slated to get my second booster this afternoon. 

They say most of us will get Covid, so I don’t feel completely singled out and picked on (mmm, yes I do). Still, it’s a drag. I’ve had to rearrange my schedule, cancel appointments, and, sorely, I will miss a public reading of one of my brother’s stellar plays. Plus, I have a wee dry cough that sounds like a choking Munchkin.

Reading. I’ll catch up on some reading. I’m already waist-deep into a re-read of Richard Ford’s beautifully observed 1986 novel “The Sportswriter.” A piercing slice of contemporary realism, the book is tinged with rue and humor and grit, and profoundly meditative about the everyday struggle. It’s oddly comforting, despite the sting. 

On deck is “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s brand-new sequel to her hit novel “The Idiot.” Like its predecessor, critics adore it (“This novel wins you over in a million micro-observations” — NYT) and the way it sweeps you into a bright young woman’s woolly world of self-discovery. (That’s all I got. I haven’t read it yet.)

I can get all philosophical about contracting the virus, or not. It’s plain as day, and because it’s physical, intellectualizing it, cataloging the myriad ways the body betrays us, is just so much wheel-spinning. So far, the malady feels like a mild head cold — every so often I wonder if I really even have it — and I’m banking on it staying that way. 

Covid can kill you, but so can the flu, or a drive to the pharmacy. I know lots of people who’ve had it and each one pulled through famously. So I’m not too tangled up about it. Everything will be just fine … right?

As the lead in “The Sportswriter” says, “Sometimes I’m afraid … It’s natural to the breed.”

Crumbling teeth

Recently I went to the dentist for the first time since “The Simpsons” was actually funny and the good doc noted that one of my top front teeth is chipped. She asked why. I could provide no good explanation. I could only theorize, and it went like this: I chew holy hell out of my fingernails, then I file them on the ridges of my front teeth. It’s a foul habit, but it saves me a bundle at the nail salon, where I occasionally get my toes done. (I wish I could nibble those things off, too.)

To my surprise she chuckled and admitted that she also bites her fingernails. Yes, but do you file your nails on your teeth?, I thought but didn’t bother to ask. I doubt she does. She seems prim and proper and she’s a dentist, after all. (Then again, she was wearing a mask, so maybe her mouth is as pugilistic as my battered pie hole.)  

Seriously, I never really noticed the chip in the tooth until she mentioned it. I sort of vaguely recalled it when she did, but it seemed simultaneously new and foreign and exciting. I suddenly felt like Mike Tyson, or that kid Jason who face-planted off the monkey bars in third grade.

I examined it when I got home and it was both less and more than I imagined it would be. Sort of “Fight Club”-y and meth-heady and pitifully prosaic at the same time, like I absently bit too hard on a piece of ice in my drink while doing Wordle.

And where did this chip off the old toothy block go? Did I swallow it? Spit it out? Ugh. I’d love to see it. From what I can tell, it would be about the size of a tiny fingernail shard — nothing dramatic, but substantial enough to react to (which in my case would be: “cool”). I can feel the vacated groove with my tongue and I definitely see it now that it’s been highlighted.

For all its aesthetic possibilities — gnarly or character-making? — the chipped tooth doesn’t have much use. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t make me money. It has not upset the space-time continuum. Yet one thing is sure: It files fingernails fantastically. 

This isn’t totally new for me. A long while ago, I was eating something hard  and a splinter of enamel from a bottom tooth shaved off and landed on my tongue. I spit it into a napkin, its demise anonymous and ignominious, and for that I lament. 

As far as I know, that was my first tooth chip. It was novel and neat. It was painless, almost imperceptible. What I kinda perversely like: It certainly won’t be my last. 

Teeth are ever-evolving, generally for the worst, be it cavities or wayward wisdoms. The mouth is a monster, filthy, festering, fragrant. And despite it signifying that one’s teeth are slowly disintegrating, a little chip here and there is nothing to spaz about, as even my dentist showed. She simply pointed mine out as if it was a birthmark or a cute little dimple. Yeah, it’s just like that.

Oral apprehensions

In a feat of magnificent self-control, the dental hygienist did not flinch. There she was, peering into my gaping maw, inspecting, poking and scraping teeth and gums, and miraculously she didn’t throw up.

Pro that she is, you wouldn’t think she would. But my mouth hasn’t been examined by anyone with “dental” or “dentist” in their job description since the Obama administration for a plethora of reasons, none of them interesting, credible or justifiable. “Massacre” is the word I figured would spring to her mind as she toiled in my mossy abyss.

I’m a mad brusher and flosser, but I dumbly dropped the ball on getting my choppers checked, and after a while I just let it slide, perhaps the least responsible thing I’ve done since paying good money to see that Spin Doctors tribute band.  

Going into the eons-belated dental appointment, I braced for catastrophe. I entertained Dantesque visions of cavities, gingivitis, cracked crowns, mouth cancer, hairy tongue syndrome, or worse. I imagined my teeth encrusted with piles of plaque, towers of tartar. Dentist? Get me an archeologist.

Dentistry isn’t gorgeous. It’s violent, invasive, queasy, medieval. Still, dentists don’t scare me much. I’m not one of those characters who whines and quivers over the periodic oral exam. My mouth has been through a lot, including braces, a few crowns, scads of fillings and wisdom teeth extraction (all four). 

When I was 14, a dental surgeon propped up a few of my receding gums by slicing strips of skin from the roof of my mouth and using the flesh to support the sliding gums. That happened.

I’ve rode merry clouds of nitrous oxide and been jabbed with novocaine needles the length and girth of bratwursts. I’ve seen my own blood smeared on the minty-green dental bib. What else can they do? I’m pretty much ready for anything. 

And so I went to the dentist this week, steeled, as I said, for that scene in “Marathon Man.” I pictured drills and pliers, sandblasters and buzzsaws.

Instead, I got teddy bears and lollipops. The hygienist couldn’t have been more pert and welcoming, a living bubble machine. (Not only that, but the ceiling television was set to “The View”!) 

She proceeded to do the poke-and-prod routine with hooky metal utensils and rather than recoil at my neglected mouthful, she actually complimented the super job I’ve been doing maintaining my oral health. Clearly, she said, I take my toothsome hygiene seriously. I would have smiled if seven of her fingers weren’t jammed in my mouth. 

And so I won Round One in the dentist ordeal. Of course I had more in store, the big stuff: the x-rays and the photos and the exam by the capital-D Dentist. This gig wasn’t over by a long shot, and with my luck I’d be getting some kind of shot with the longest needle available. 

I was ushered into a new room, where the official dentist’s chair spread before me, the full-length recliner straight out of Torquemada. Once you lie back in this chair, it’s over. Once you open your mouth, you’re doomed. Rinse, spit, repeat, scream.

As it’s been 135 years since I last saw a dentist, the young doctor who eventually entered, after a pair of technicians took x-rays and photos, was of course new to me. And to my delight, she was just as chirpy, enthusiastic and calming as the angelic hygienist — a human puff of nitrous oxide. 

But she was serious, too, and got down to business. The upshot: I am a fastidious cleaner, but I grind my teeth and need a tooth guard for sleep; I have two slightly cracked molars that will eventually require crowns; and I have one “baby” cavity that did not concern the good doc a bit. 

In fact, she practically laughed it off. And at long last, relieved, disabused of my festering fears, and with no fingers and pokers clogging my mouth, so did I.

Setting my sights on new specs

At long last I need prescription eyeglasses. I figured it, the doctor confirmed it. I am the most olden and wizened man on Earth. 

And yet I am not devastated. I am hardly ruffled, didn’t even blink. I’ve been wearing reading specs for some time now, used namely for books, food labels and computer stuff, and without which I couldn’t type these words and how that would break your heart. 

I can see people, cars, trees, raccoons and the general environment with spectacular clarity. No one appears fuzzy like a gelatinous apparition or a melting snowman. In fact, I’d reckon my vision is at least 80 percent normal and healthy. 

Yet, as I have just learned, I am clinically far-sighted: objects at a distance are clear but those up close, like book pages, laptop screens and microwave buttons, are distressing smudges. They look like amoebas, or roadkill.

So this week I elected to get a fancy, full-blown eye exam, my first in about 15 years (and my second ever). I pictured, blurrily, a speedy, comfortable procedure featuring paper eye charts and other quaint peepers paraphernalia. 

Instead, for almost an hour, I was subjected to a harrowing battery of high-tech tests featuring Kubrickian contraptions, yellow-dye eyedrops, blinding photos of my wide-open eyeballs, all while being ushered in and out of apparatus-cluttered rooms by two assistants and a doctor who maintained a scary, chirpy detachment. The lab coat, an unsettling touch.

Eventually, I was done. I blinked about 585 times, wiped the gooey yellow dye from my lashes, examined, with the trio, disconcerting snapshots of my bulging, bloodshot orbs, and listened to the dilated diagnosis. I am going blind. 

No, but a prescription was prescribed: progressives. These are glasses, or specifically lenses, or, as I snatched off the web: “a type of prescription eyeglasses that let you see your whole field of vision without switching between multiple pairs of glasses.” That’s a bit reductive, but it makes the point.

The upshot: I need real glasses.

At least I sort of know what having glasses is like, what with my onerous readers and all. Those I have to fetch and fumble for, be it at home or in the tahini aisle at Whole Foods, or at the ATM, etc. (and that’s a very long etcetera). 

The new glasses I ordered will be glued to my face with utmost convenience and questionable aesthetics. I wanted dark blue, even cobalt, frames, and I selected a blue-blackish pair from the sterile racks and rows of spiffy eyewear. The frames run pricey, the lenses even more. Discounts are involved, so the damage isn’t blinding. Still, the money might be spent more festively on my approaching voyage to Portugal, on, say, museums, or octopus platters. 

Color me excited. Blurs be gone. The whole world crystalline. Granny glasses, the cursed readers, in the dustbin. I foresee all of this, and I haven’t even tried on the new glasses. I envision a brighter future. I call this far-sightedness.

Symptoms that flu away

Today I got my second Covid vaccine. I’m bracing for a world of agony.

This I know: My sister-in-law got both shots. The first was fine. The second flung her into a tailspin of flu-like symptoms — chills and aches, fever and mild nausea. She wished she had taken the next day off from work. Suddenly a knitted blankie was her BFF. It made a sweet, snuggly tableau.

Her first shot yielded the same aftershocks as my first shot: a wrathfully sore upper arm, like you were punched good and hard where the needle jabbed in. And then someone pinched the spot, with evil passion. 

It’s the second shot, my in-law warns, that will “knock you on your ass.” Cute. Can’t wait.

All this is expected. Docs and the CDC have sternly cautioned that these side effects are common. So this isn’t one of those cockamamie anti-vax screeds. I want the vaccine. I know it works. I think everyone should get it. I’m just a little whiny poo-poo baby.

In Vietnam, I was practically asking for some florid flu-like side effects. Take me to a good cobra restaurant, I hounded my hustler guide, who zipped me around Hanoi on a rust bucket moto-bike to see all, from Soviet-style architecture to a dirty dog-meat market.

He delivered me to a roadside snake farm/restaurant, where slithering caged cobras and other “wild animals” awaited the plate. After cutting out the snake’s still-beating heart and drizzling its bile into a glass of rice whisky — which I was expected to guzzle, and did — the servers dished up a 15-course cobra lunch dazzling in its breadth. The feast is not for the faint of heart. I barely finished my portions. A forkful of exoticism goes a long way.

That night, as a reprisal for my snake-killing gluttony, I was hit with unmistakable flu-y symptoms, including fatigue, body aches and a swimming head. I was told later this was likely from trace amounts of snake venom I ingested at lunchtime. So this, sorta, is what being bitten by a snake feels like? I wondered with weird relish. (What’s worse, swallowing a whole cobra heart or being bitten by said snake? Chat among yourselves.)

Cobra feast

Afternoon report: Four hours after today’s vaccine and I have zero symptoms, not even a sore arm. My sister-in-law strongly suggests I take three preemptive Advils and I do just that. I sit down, crack a book, and await the plague.

The needle wasn’t bad today, though it stung more than my first shot a month ago. Was the first needle smaller? The nurse today told me to take a deep breath when she pricked me, which wasn’t the case last time. On that occasion the needle lanced a stick of butter; today it jabbed raw chicken breast. Now that I’ve wrecked your dinner plans, let’s see if the vaccine is wrecking my evening plans. 

Evening report: It’s now eight hours since the shot. No chills, aches, stomach turmoil or brain tumors. And my arm is miraculously not sore. Am I getting off easy? Will I bolt up in bed at 3 a.m., drenched in sweat, racked with medieval pain? Oh, I did forget to mention this small side effect: My post-shot pee smells like a raging tire fire.

In about two weeks, after the vaccine has sluiced through my veins and cells, I will be immunized against the coronavirus. That’s the plan. If it works, and it will, it’s a miracle of science. Lab coats are sexy.

Late evening report: It’s now 10 hours since today’s needle. My upper arm is pretty sore, right where I was stabbed. This incurable hypochondriac will have none of it. I can see it now: every noxious flu symptom crashing down on me in the next 24 hours. Here’s what I need: fistfuls of Advil, heaps of pity, and a plush knitted blankie.

I’ll update things if developments warrant it. Just know, if I’m in the ICU, I probably won’t be able to type.