Rating life, and everything else

Once a former colleague and I were talking about how overrated most movies are. We were actually astonished and pretty disheartened. (“Avatar”? Christ.)

Then I took a big leap and mused that life is overrated, and I wasn’t really kidding. My pal nodded, even softly repeating my words. We traded wry grins that belied a deep sadness. We went back to work.

Funny thing is, even that sadness was overrated. Because it wasn’t quite sadness so much as bluish resignation, a minuscule sigh. Life, overrated as it may be, goes on.

Isn’t everything sorta, kinda overrated? All right, not everything. There’s family, romantic love, learning, travel, dogs, bourbon, art, Billy Wilder, anything concerning Doritos.

Still, the very question is unnerving. It’s not the most joyous thing to realize I can think of a kajillion things that are overrated, yet I’m sure you can, too. Let’s go for it. I’m totally just spitballing here:

  • empanadas
  • “The Wire”
  • Johnny Depp
  • most rap
  • “The Queen’s Gambit”
  • Sofia Coppola
  • dinner parties
  • all things Harry Potter
  • “Twin Peaks”
  • sports
  • music festivals
  • celebrity/celebrities
  • chicken breast
  • fake breasts
  • almost every Netflix comedy special
  • Twitter
  • zombies
  • Quentin Tarantino
  • road trips
  • “The Office”
  • late Red Hot Chili Peppers, including “Californication” (but not “My Friends”)
  • giant Ferris wheels in major cities
  • “Fargo” (the 1996 movie)
  • Brazilian waxing
  • Dave Eggers
  • Prague
  • politicians
  • “Vertigo”
  • year-round warm weather
  • Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Nickel Boys”
  • David Sedaris 
  • convertibles
  • “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
  • video installations

Excuse the haphazard tally; I was just getting started. I could have tossed in podcasts and pork rinds. Hell, I think I’m overrated. Put me in the top slot.

The thing with overrating stuff is how impossibly subjective it is. I can say life — or, for that matter, “Titanic” — is overestimated and there’s a 90-plus percentage you’ll disagree. Surely one of you thinks David Bowie is overrated, but I’d argue he is not, to my grave.  

But subjectivity is part of the pleasure. Sports fans (grossly overrated) forever gauge teams and players in heated arguments of gladiatorially subjective rating games. 

And it is a game. In Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy rattle off members of their own “Academy of the Overrated,” including Vincent van Gogh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce and Ingmar Bergman, formidable figures that seem name-checked just to piss off a breed of urban intellectual. (Woody himself goes apoplectic listening to them.)

As a game, cataloging one’s personal overrated (movie, food, person, book) is a cathartic kick. The characters in “Manhattan” are having a giggling ball airing their pointedly curated Academy. Tossing together my list above was fun and purgative, despite its sloppy incompleteness. (Though I did self-edit as I went. I felt some inclusions would offend sensitive readers. Like God, and jellybeans.) 

Is life really overrated? Sometimes, especially when you consider sickness, loss, debt, all those Tyler Perry movies. But it’s underrated, too — getting lost in a European city, succulent bone marrow in a good restaurant, fond memories, Al Pacino roaring his way through “Heat.”

Maybe it’s an even split. Maybe life and all its facets, good and not-so good, are what make things interesting. Maybe Coldplay (overrated) and cold weather (underrated) can coexist. And maybe, really, overrating things is itself overrated.

Retreat of the Jedi

When I was 9, “Stars Wars” was the shit. That movie and “Jaws,” two years earlier, jounced my cinematic world off its axis and into, well, outer space. (This of course happened to 95.9 percent of every kid of a certain age, so I’m sort of stating the obvious.)

I devoured “Star Wars” action figures, posters, a cool TIE fighter model, even bed sheets that were blue like the cosmos. “Jaws” — same. I was shark-crazed for about five years. I owned a real shark jaw from Tijuana, a “Jaws” t-shirt (see my About page), many shark books, and a dorky “Jaws” game, where you tried to fish junk out of a plastic shark’s mouth without his toothy smile chomping down on your pole. I sucked at it.

My grade-school teachers grew concerned about my constant drawings of sharks munching the limbs off hapless swimmers in blood-filled waters. Thing is, I’m still a bit batty about the misunderstood ocean predators, which are perfectly evolved, hyper-efficient killing machines, much like the creature in “Alien.”

But my starry-eyed view of “Star Wars” dimmed at a dramatic clip — almost light speed, let’s say. I only half-heartedly went to see 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” a movie that inspired no more expenditures on franchise merch. (By then it was a cultural arm wrestle between “Star Wars” and KISS — George Lucas vs. Gene Simmons. The latter spit blood. He won.) 

Jedi jaded as I quickly became — the Force was now farce — I never did get around to 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” I wasn’t interested. I didn’t care. Hard rock and girls had hijacked any alliance to “Star Wars,” and, besides, I was obsessing over more interesting movies like “An American Werewolf in London,” “The Elephant Man,” “Alien,” “The Dead Zone,” “The Fly” and, dare I say it, Woody Allen’s entire oeuvre. 

But a third “Star Wars” installment, no matter how disappointing its description, was still news — if not a cultural earthquake, then a rippling aftershock. Crowds flocked and you couldn’t help being exposed to trailers, photos and fan regurgitations of the episode in which Darth Vader famously croaks.  

Furry bundle of unrelenting embarrassment

And what I saw was repellent: frenzied Muppet creatures; the unforgivable Ewoks (tiny, fuzzy Jar Jar Binkses); the grinning ghosts of Yoda, Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker (together at last!); and the coda’s mortifying Ewok celebration, featuring gibberish music and creature dancing (Chewbacca boogies!). And I vowed I would never watch “Jedi.” Ever. 

Until I did.

This is where I admit that I watched “Return of the Jedi,” a full 27 years after it was released. It was an impulse rental, done under a cynical cloud of camp: “This is going to be so gorgeously godawful,” I thought, “that it will furnish a galaxy of perverse pleasures. I will howl with laughter at the Razzie-worthy writing and titter at the labored excesses of puppet pandemonium, including the hopelessly lame Jabba the Hutt, who reminds me of a big burp.”

My plan, alas, backfired. 

The movie completely surpassed its build up of rank horrendousness. But the experience wasn’t fun or funny. In fact, the sheer naked badness of “Jedi” served as a bludgeon that beat me into one of my darkest post-movie depressions ever. I actually felt physically ill watching it, and by that satanic climax of dancing Ewoks and high-fiving heroes I had died a few deaths. To this day, I consider “Return of the Jedi” one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. (Yes, worse than “Jaws 4: The Revenge.”)

At least critic Chuck Klosterman puts a humorous spin on it: “‘Return of the Jedi’ is quite possibly the least-watchable major film of the last 25 years. I knew a girl who claimed to have a recurring dream about a polar bear that mauled Ewoks; it made me love her.” 

And yet at the ever-vexing Rotten Tomatoes, the movie boasts an astonishing 82% approval rating. Opines the Denver Post: “It’s everything it ought to be — glorious, exhilarating, exciting, absorbing, technically wondrous.”

No, no, no, no and no. The movie is absolutely none of those things. Just watch this scene and try not to vomit. 

Jabba the Hutt, looking like an unspeakable bodily excretion.

It’s true that I’ve way outgrown the whole “Star Wars” dweeb-o-sphere, much as the Marvel universe is to me so much sophomoric hubbub. I’m not watching the latest “Star Wars” spinoff, “The Mandalorian,” and I have a terrible urge to squish baby Yoda’s head. 

That pretty much disqualifies me from the Way-Out World George Lucas Built, and that’s fine. Who needs Ewoks and Wookiees, Jabbas and Jedis, CGI and C-3PO, third-rate mysticism and fourth-grade mythology?

And yet “Jaws,” my other grade-school movie crush, remains one of my favorite pictures ever. Its arresting grainy realism is still fully convincing. Its adult’s-eye view of human frailty and interpersonal politics makes no concessions to the popcorn crowd. So finely orchestrated are its grisly thrills, you can allow yourself to be terrorized by a 25-foot plastic mechanical shark that’s as supple as a redwood.

It helps that Spielberg is 5,000 times the filmmaker Lucas is (OK, “American Graffiti” is pretty great). But it also helps that “Jaws” is Muppet-free and doesn’t traffic in cockamamie mythos. It helps that its only creature is sincerely menacing with very high stakes, and that all of “Jedi’s” itty Ewoks would make so much tasty shark chum.

Turning the page, in literature and life

These days, I seem to only get high on the fumes — the thick, inebriating perfume — of words. I just read a fine passage in my current book and it brushed the orgasmic. To write like that, to make literary music, is the best thing, the very best thing. It matches, maybe surpasses, love.

Too much? Too loopy? Probably. But great art does that — it makes you dizzy. During the pandemic captivity, I’m reading with fiendish greed, in oceanic gulps. I’m buying with crazy zeal. And you probably can’t get that book you want at the library because I already checked it out. Terribly sorry.

More than ever, I grab the written word for solace, inspiration and spiritual nutrition. Yet while I crack mounds of books, I don’t always finish them. I am a notorious book-slammer, shunting aside titles that don’t rivet me by page 50 or so. Mediocrity won’t cut it. I’ve had enough meh, oof and blah. Especially this year.

These are grim days — both of my parents died in the past year; the Covid terror seethes; the Trump shit-show blunders on; some personal turmoil has body-slammed me; pick your catastrophe — and lots of us look to art for escape, empathy and temporary amnesia. 

Art extends beyond the written word, of course, so I’m still listening to music, watching films and TV shows and streaming all manner of streamy abundance. 

Stuff that stands out: the wise, tartly funny Pamela Adlon comedy “Better Things,” in which Adlon plays a frazzled single mother of three offbeat daughters and simply tries to, well, cope; the bizzaro “Pen15,” a cringe comedy starring two 30-something women playing seventh graders with boggling juvenile verisimilitude; and “The Crown,” that tea-time telenovela about British royalty that entrances, despite me caring less about the real Royals than I do about carbuncles.

“Pen15” (yes, these ‘girls’ are really in their thirties)

I always have to nitpick at year’s end, too. Always. If the just-fine though room temperature chess drama “The Queen’s Gambit” missed the sublime, it ably outclassed other hot streamers, like the broad, shrill “Schitt’s Creek” and the animated “BoJack Horseman,” whose mordant mopiness was mistaken for hip profundity. (Speaking of adult animation, does anybody still watch “Archer,” the subversive, devilishly clever cartoon on FX? Join me.)  

Thanks to Covid-contorted release formats, I’m behind on new movies, especially presumptive Oscar contenders. I did try to watch David Fincher’s tediously diffuse “Mank” but couldn’t finish it, and, yes, I can tick-off all of its esoteric Hollywood references. I’m skipping Spike Lee’s Vietnam fantasia “Da 5 Bloods” for two reasons: It doesn’t look very good and Lee’s track record of great films is plain disheartening. (I will also be skipping “Wonder Woman 1984,” grumbled grandpa.)

This is what kind of year it’s been: Mere weeks ago I watched and can recall almost nothing about the admired indie “First Cow” by Kelly Reichardt, one of my favorite minimalist filmmakers, except that some guys make yummy biscuits. I’m renting the scruffy period piece again to see what I’m blanking on.

Movies I’m looking forward to include the adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” (by the director of 2017’s extraordinary “The Rider”); the viral documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery mollusk; and Frederick Wiseman’s typically sprawling doc “City Hall.”

“My Octopus Teacher”

And yet for all that — let’s swoop back to the start of this entry — books are my sweet spot right now. In the past few tumultuous months I’ve savored “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the ravishing third novel in Elena Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan series; Jess Walter’s jaunty period saga “The Cold Millions”; and “Leave the World Behind,” Rumaan Alam’s quiet thriller about race, class, marriage and other thorny things.

But what’s providing the most satisfying literary kicks are titles from the New York Review Books Classics series, an eclectic spread of fiction and nonfiction from the past, each book a minimally designed paperback that bespeaks worldly elegance. Called “discoveries” by the publisher, the books are “established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected and unheard of.”

I now own 13 terrific novels from the series, with another  — Leonard Gardner’s gritty boxing drama “Fat City” — on the way. Today I’m reading the noirish “Nightmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham (midgets, mediums, mendacity). Before that was the twisty, eerily timely crime thriller “The Expendable Man” by Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote cult classic “In a Lonely Place,” part of the series I also devoured. 

My NYRB Classics collection

What’s getting me is the power of words, the emotional and psychic heft, the sheer salve of art, and the attendant awe. I’ve always loved books and any words on paper (and screen), but I seem to love them more in the rotten times, a stretch so shitty, I haven’t touched this blog in over three months. I hadn’t the urge nor the heart. Fall, my favorite season, gone wasted. 

Maybe I’m uncoiling from a prolonged flinch. I don’t know. But this, now, during some of the very bleakest days, is where I’m at. Turning the page in another chapter.

Random stuff, summer edition

I’m always jazzed when I discover a great new writer — or at least new to me — and that’s the case with American pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman. I’m not sure why, but I’ve avoided his work for a full decade (jealousy?). Then I recently read a description of one his anthologies that snared my interest. (It was surely the fact that KISS and Metallica were two of his topics.) Growing up a metalhead in the Midwest in the ‘80s, Klosterman was weaned on the likes of Guns N’ Roses, Cinderella, Mötley Crüe, and KISS (still his favorite band, which I find outstanding). He declares KISS “the second-most influential rock band of all time,” after the Beatles. Chew on that. 

Today he writes with breathtaking omnivorousness about culture at large, from TV to Chicken McNuggets. (He also writes a lot about sports. I skip all that.) He pens novels, memoirs and big thinky pieces. He’s breezy, never ponderous or pretentious — he’s pretty much anti-pretentious — penetrating, smart as hell and equally as funny. This summer I’ve read his collections “IV” and “X.” I’m now on the memoir of his early hair-metal fandom, “Fargo Rock City.” The book is about much more than his little life worshipping bands like Poison. It’s expansive, ecstatic, packed with big ideas and witty perceptions. With Klosterman, it always is. 

I slipped in a sweaty drum session last night, pounded away for about 30 minutes to an array of vintage rock, most of which would make you blush. I performed pretty well, but not A-plus. I was thinking too much. When I think about what I’m playing, about what move I’m going to make next, I throw myself off and lose the beat. Same goes when I think about life things while I play — it derails the groove and mistakes are made, sticks are dropped. As a metal madman once screeched, “C’mon feel the noise!” Meaning, don’t think it.

It’s been years since I watched the 1996 cult comedy “Waiting for Guffman,” the Christopher Guest mockumentary that, with sardonic sweetness, lampoons community theater culture and the talentless goofs who inhabit it. On a whim, I rewatched it. I cringed at what I once adored. Gags are broad, the jokes are fizzless, the parody punchless. It feels facile and off-key. That said, my love for Guest, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara remains undying. (Forget “Schitt’s Creek.” I’ll take classic “SCTV” any day.)

I got my first haircut in more than four months the other day. (A new national holiday should be declared.) It was a new place, a new barber, a guy I quickly cottoned to. We gabbed almost entirely about world travel — Turkey, Morocco, Japan, India and, natch, Paris, since that’s where I’m booked to go in October. I expressed my concern that even in the fall the world won’t be ready for regular tourist travel. He demurred. His prediction, stated with blithe confidence: All this pandemic mess will be done with in — get this — six weeks. September, he averred, and things will be back to normal, and I will easily get to fly to an all-open Paris. Maybe he was just making me feel better. Maybe he doesn’t read the papers. Maybe he’s been huffing the Aqua Net.   

I’ve rediscovered the kaleidoscopically inspired Cartoon Network show “Adventure Time,” whose title doesn’t begin to convey what’s in store for the kiddies (and rabid adults) who tune in. I can’t either. Squirting diarrhea, rainbow unicorns, a talking piñata, a verbal, shape-shifting dog and so much stuff that qualifies as unapologetically batshit that I can’t possibly smoosh it into this space. Now airing on HBO Max, each 11-minute episode — any longer and your eyes might bleed — is a heady, unhinged phantasmagoria of the surreal, psychedelic and wildly non sequitur. It’s also positive, uproarious, sad, thoughtful and weirdly timely. And it’s a damn cartoon.

Adventure_time.rpg_-696x522.jpg

We’ll always have Paris?

With a dash of relief, I’ve learned my cheap ticket to Paris for October remains valid, that United hasn’t deemed it necessary to cancel the trip — yet. Booked in early April, when the pandemic was mustering its full fury, the flight still does seem doomed, even four months away. The virus isn’t letting us off that easy.  

Hitches abound. Like the new edict by the European Union barring American visitors to the Continent. That’s a nifty start. Perhaps that will change by fall, if a particularly reckless, infantile and hysterically pathological world leader decides to do his job and quit frothing at the mouth. 

But what will Paris be like in four months? The city is gingerly reopening, taking wise baby steps. Cultural crown jewel the Louvre opens Monday with Covid guidelines and protocols. Only 70 percent of the museum will be accessible — most of the popular stuff — and masks will be mandatory for visitors aged 11 and up.

Cleaning up the Louvre for its July 6 reopening.

I’ve done the Mona Lisa to death, but for those who must, it will go like this, says a Louvre director: “Until now, people would crowd around the Mona Lisa. Now, visitors will stand in one of two lines for about 10 to 15 minutes. Then each person is guaranteed a chance to stand in front of the Mona Lisa and look at her from a distance of about 10 feet.”

I’ll politely pass.

The magnificent Musée d’Orsay opens July 23. Musée Picasso, a personal essential, opened June 22, as did Musée de l’Orangerie and citywide cinemas (I always see three or four classic movies when in Paris). Centre Pompidou opened three days ago, and the ghoulish Catacombs have been open since mid-June. Showing through January 2021 at Musée Jacquemart-André is “Turner: Paintings and Watercolours from the Tate” — nirvana.

That’s a tantalizing start. Or is it foolhardy, madness?

Parks and gardens are open, as are many shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. But that also signals a behavioral slalom course of masks, social distancing, crowd control, etc. Right now, I wouldn’t hazard it, even in my favorite city. Now isn’t the time to be there. Four months, fingers crossed.

This incorrigible planner has had a fully refundable hotel reservation since spring — Hôtel Jeanne d’Arc Le Marais, which has reopened — and slavering beads on at least three restaurants, including the peerless Frenchie and Michelin-star Le Chateaubriand. 

At six days and six nights, this is a short jaunt to Paris for me. If it happens. I have no doubt the pandemic could dash my plans, and that’s OK, because I’ve resigned myself to things not working out. In these epochal times, far more important things jut into high relief, the pandemic to the November election.    

We’ll always have Paris, sure. It’s just a matter of when.

Whenever. Whatever. 

Doldrums on the drums

Playing hard rock drums in my longhaired youth was such an impassioned pursuit that I envisaged fans, flash bombs, spotlights, triumphant noise and righteous fury as a way of life. The kinetic absurdity of that dream isn’t lost on me, no. Today I think of it all as the Misbegotten Musings of a Muddled Metalhead. Rock.

Playing music has a way of getting into your marrow, and drumming up a drippy sweat is still a fervid pastime. But, first, rewind. I put down my sticks almost exactly 10 years ago, for good. Until, seemingly out of nowhere, the beat bit me again early this month. Faster than a John Bonham bass patter, I was online shopping for a new drum set to call my own and to pound holy hell out of. 

It couldn’t be a drooled-over acoustic — neighbors, sigh — so I pinned down a hot electronic deal made by superior e-brand Roland. The five-piece kit has a mesh snare and three mesh tom-toms, a bass pad, hi-hat, ride and crash cymbals. Bonuses: a Pearl bass pedal, a Pearl drum stool (that’s, alas, cement-hard), fine headphones and three pairs of sticks. I’ve already bought an extra crash cymbal: One crash makes an impoverished sound, and the physicality of playing with two is exponential. At least the way I play.

rol-td1dmkde_1.jpg

The set is explosively on the money, better than expected, sturdy, loud, textured, complex — a fine wine. I’ve compiled a list of 62 songs to play with — tunes with thump and phwump — which is where the headphones come in. It’s like a greatest hits from my teens and twenties. Meaning: mortifying. 

Now for the downbeat. While the drums are exemplary, my actual performance is something else. Mildly, I am very rusty. My playing isn’t tearjerking, but distinctly arrested. It’s been a while. I’ve always been acutely, painfully, soaringly aware that I am not a great musician. I can keep a propulsive 4/4 beat and embroider it with a well-placed fill or frill, but I should be astounding by now, even considering how little I’ve played since high school.

I’m crisp, but sloppy. Swinging, but stilted. On-beat, but off-key. Sometimes I impress myself and nail a song; other times I’m pure Spinal Tap. (Who I’d like to be is the tentacular wunderkind in the exhilarating drum drama “Whiplash.”)

When I’m really stinking up the joint, the drumming is depressing instead of fun and therapeutic. The purchase then seems catastrophic, a harebrained waste. My long-ago drum teacher, the unfailingly affable Jeff Campitelli (who was teaching Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich at the same time as me), told me that, yeah, we all have bad days, and that my bad days are probably worse than his bad days. That’s self-evident — Jeff is a monster musician — but it sounded sage and philosophic at the time, and I still think about it. 

Bad days bite, but the beat goes on. I no longer dream of screaming fans and flammable stagecraft. I just want to play well. That’s good enough. It’s also harder than hell. There will be blood. But also, I’m pretty sure, joy. A couple years ago I wrote, “Musicianship, I am certain, is an exquisite madness.” I’m sticking by that.

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.  

Josephmerrick1889

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. 

the-elephant-man-japanese-movie-poster

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.

High school highs, and lows

High school was hell, but Eve Babitz makes me envious of those four ego-scarring years with her descriptions of life on campus at prestigious performing arts school Hollywood High, which is famed as much for its glitzy alumni as for its cameos in films like, uh, Jon Favreau’s “Made.” (Anyone?)

Babitz mentions her days/daze at Hollywood High School in “I Used to Be Charming,” a plump collection of essays and magazine articles by the cool, acerbic chronicler of LA’s kaleidoscopic contours which I happen to be reading. It’s the early 1960s and she “used to watch them, those guys in their maroon and white sweaters at Hollywood High, their handsome faces and their invincibility and the way they smiled and said Hi.”

Right, that sounds like many a teenage girl mooning over the jock block. But Hollywood High is different, a sort of Harvard of the arts, a Juilliard transplanted to the sunny, mountain-fringed SoCal coast. It’s where the likes of Judy Garland, Cher, Laurence Fishburne, Carol Burnett, Selena, Bruce Lee, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lana Turner, John Huston and a wad of other luminaries graduated from. 

For mere mortals, it makes you think: Well, crap.

My California high school was a miasma of mediocrity: Clorox-white, suburban, middle-class, filled with dullards and philistines and animated by cliquey teen clichés — jocks, stoners, nerds, punks, cheerleaders, et al. “The Breakfast Club” writ eye-rollingly real. 

This callow pimple-verse was of course dominated by the chest-thumping jocks, those entitled, vainglorious meatheads, who actually believed they were special and that anyone but them gave one goddam about a Friday night football game. In four years, I attended one pep rally. I’ve never been so mortified in my life.

I can’t imagine the boho Babitz — artist, writer, rock- and art-scene groupie — stooping to the synthetic glee of a pep rally. But who knows. She was a wild one, slurping up life’s rich cocktail, no matter how corny or queasy. Her eyes were wide open, and rimmed with an agreeable cynicism that gave her writing a feral pop.

51qpHkS8hyLThe trope goes that high school is misery for anyone who’s even partially cognizant. It’s political, hierarchical, mean, rife with crappy beer, unshackled lust and timorous gropes. It leaves burn marks.

Not so for Babitz. Beautiful and busty — “When I was fifteen years old, I bought and filled my first 36DD bra,” she writes — and talented to boot, Babitz cultivated hot style with her precocious female cronies, described as “preternatural high schoolers,” which groomed her for a young adulthood of exotic artsy adventures, including a famous dalliance with Jim Morrison. 

One observer writes:

“It’s very likely Eve Babitz’s high school experience bore little resemblance to her readers’, then or now. A graduate of Hollywood High, the LA-based writer and artist moved in a circle of young women who enjoyed the company of older men. They smoked with abandon, casually popped pills, made out with the boyfriends of famous actresses, and occasionally made it to class. Many of Babitz’s peers were achingly beautiful; more than a few became famous because of it.”

I had more fun in high school than I let on — a dash of Babitz’s decadence and a lot of standard teen tomfoolery, as well as the predictable sturm und drang (angst for the memories) and a streak of bleeding heartache. 

Despite my tight quartet of high school friends being creative, thoughtful and music-obsessed, we were no Algonquin Round Table, nothing as chic, daring and ambitious as Babitz’s band of pretty bright things. 

We felt we were treading water in a sea of douchebaggery, believing, as deluded teens will, that we had an edge on most of our classmates, that someday our low-key cool would be appreciated. We were most assuredly wrong. 

So, these many years later, I pine for richer high school days, ones more artistically rarefied and socially sophisticated; grittier, glammier, sexier and slambangier. Pathetic? So be it. If I’m viewing it all through a gauze of romanticism, turning the rearview mirror into a funhouse mirror, I blame Babitz, that bard of badassness, queen of cool and cynosure of sex appeal.

If only.

Typing instead of griping

The natty new baseball cap I ordered from The New York Times arrived the other day, and it’s a solid accessory/hair-hider. Though gaspingly overpriced, the black cap embossed with a gothic Times logo is as plush as a teddy bear and slips on with snuggly élan. (Now where’s the New Yorker tote promised with my subscription? Does anybody actually use totes?) 

The cap came speedily, an anomalous on-time arrival. The mail’s a mess. Of seven books I’ve ordered, three have gotten lost in transit and the rest have taken up to a month to come. I’ve received four refunds. The pandemic’s to blame, and The New Yorker was civil enough to apologize for the tote delay, citing the crisis. (I so don’t need a tote.)

The crisis. Damn. We’re whipped and we never had a fighting chance. Stuffed indoors, grounded from going out to play, we are occasionally embalmed in boredom. But there are things to be done. Typing beats griping. Thumb wrestling: a reliable time-passer.

This whole topic is as tired as we are, a cliché looking for a new angle, a brand-new nag. What am I going to do, write about the dog again? Regale you with what I ate for lunch? Chat about the movies I’ve been watching? 

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    The Marx Brothers: comic chaos

Done. I’ve rewatched some Marx Brothers, riotous rapscallions of Dada-esque anarchy, and the peerless noir “The Big Sleep,” in which Bogart’s smooth, smoke-wreathed private eye falls dangerously hard for the dangerously young Lauren Bacall while on a gnarled murder case. Howard Hawks crisply directs William Faulkner’s script, which is based on Raymond Chandler’s pungent detective classic. The movie sits in my personal pantheon of bests. Likewise the Marx Brothers masterpiece “Duck Soup.” (Speaking of soup, that’s what I ate for lunch.)

Outside, children shriek and gambol — my shriek and gambol days ended at 35 — their exuberant simian antics echoing through the streets and the trees and surely breaking social distancing guidelines. So what! They’re young and invincible! Barring them indoors is like corking a volcano. It’s gonna blow.

Children are not my tribe. I have none, and I’m grateful for that. I do not feel bereft in the least. Parents do not arouse envy in me. (In fact, I consider it this way: bullet dodged.) My nephews are terrific and as close to parenthood as I ever want to get. The only creature that calls me Poppa is the dog, which affirms twin beliefs that I’m part canine and he is made of magic.

After reading and a walk, it’s back to the keyboard, one of my few comfort zones. Warmth is not a comfort zone. Temperatures are rising, summer’s rottenness creeping in. People love this stuff — heat, sweat, sun — another popular phenomenon I spurn, like dinner parties, reggae and the American version of “The Office.” (I’m typing and griping.)

Which means summer hibernation will come naturally. I love A/C, loathe UV. But really, will there even be a summer, or will it just be streaming? Will people sit in wide, loose circles on patios, sliding down face masks to sip rosé and eat guac? The annual September block party — will that too be nixed? Maybe not. Eighty households can Zoom together at once, right? Surely. Hot dogs and deviled eggs, those are your responsibility.

Finding form in shapeless times

Following an acute infection diagnosed on Easter, my appendix is just super. A regimen of antibiotics, a pill as chunky as a grave adult multi-vitamin, has snuffed the appendicitis, vaporized the pain and eased worries. But not all worries. No, of course not.

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The surgeon who’s my supervising physician cheered my improvement but cautioned that the infection could return in three weeks, three months, a year, who knows. He’s suggested preventative surgery relatively soon to snip out that hateful organ. 

Such dreamy thoughts for the quarantine — just what I or anybody needs right now. Boy, when this all blows over, I get to have belly surgery! 

Surgery sucks and so does house arrest, but distractions are plenty. Sort of. Not really. I toggle between reading and writing and watching the occasional movie (“Little Women,” “The Lighthouse,” “La Collectionneuse”). I spit words into my journal, take a brisk walk, shop for books online, practice my French (lie!), donate money to animal causes and ponder the meaning of life, this stuffy, neutered, unmoored version of it. 

Chat with friends on FaceTime, you say. I don’t do FaceTime, yet I had to with my doctor a few times to discuss my ailment — his idea. It was my first time, my iPhone deflowering, if you will, and I cannot say I wasn’t mortified. It went swell. 

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The appendix episode has lightly anchored this adrift vessel for now, furnished a focus, given me something to gnaw on, something to be more anguished about.

My journal jots reflect some of the days’ monotony, some of the dread of what’s out there (COVID-19, a maniacal leader) and what’s inside me: “I’m cured. I am not cured. This thing, I fear, will return like a cancer,” I wrote yesterday about my pesky malady. I muse about the pets with withering boredom: “The gray cat’s eyes weep and glisten with viscous slop that congeals into a tar-like goop.” And I note time’s quarantine creak: “Grinding forth, the day leaves skid marks.” One entry reads simply: “Blech.”

Chalky-gray is the new black. Specificity has fled. Vagueness as an existential condition is unsettling. Stasis lurks. We waft, not run. Atrophy, hovering near, sees its chance.

Where are we headed? That’s the burning question, one I’m not sure I want answered.