A few of my year-end enthusiasms

People, places and culture — little consolations — that are turning me on (saving me?) in the waning days of a sometimes unbearably tumultuous year …

  • Courtney Barnett — Guitar rock lives. Or so we can dream, a reverie persuasively advanced by grungy guitar-slinger Barnett, a pop-punk pixie who’s making some of the crunchiest, catchiest, folky-fuzzy rock around, music that sounds improbably lasting. A devout DIYer with a Grammy nod and fervent following, Barnett traces the raw, minimalist contours of Nirvana and the Pixies, with squalling distortion and a voice so uninflected that her Australian accent claws right through. That voice echoes the talk-singing and slightly nasal tones of Liz Phair, Patti Smith and The Hold Steady. Wincingly intimate, her jagged, jangly songs are shot through with personal drama and cutting irony. Often they’re downright hilarious. Choice cuts: “Pedestrian at Best,” “Debbie Downer,” “Avant Gardener,” “City Looks Pretty.” Watch her in concert HERE. And visit her squiggly world HERE.

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  • “Night Train”: New and Selected Stories by Thom Jones I didn’t even know Jones died two years ago. He’s one of my favorite short fiction writers and I kept wondering where in the hell he went, when he would publish again. I was alerted to his fate by this posthumous assemblage, plucked from Jones’ classic ’90s collections “The Pugilist at Rest,” “Cold Snap” and “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine,” each worth owning, and cherishing. But with this chubby tome, featuring seven new stories, including the typically mordant title tale and spanning the biting, semi-autobiographical Vietnam War epic “The Pugilist at Rest” to the absurdist vermin mayhem of “Mouses,” Jones’ spare, sinewy, mean and bust-up funny realism comes into exhilarating focus. Fueled by grit, violence and the tough tenets of his hero Arthur Schopenhauer, this is essential contemporary fiction.

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  • Gin and tonic at Angel’s Share  Last month I drank a gin and tonic with a Japanese gin I criminally did not get the name of at Angel’s Share, the dark, elbow-jabbing speakeasy in New York’s East Village. It was the smoothest, lightest, tastiest G&T I’ve ever sipped, spritzed with a gorgeously un-cloying tonic that was gently fizzy, not nose-tickingly fizzy. The drink was a perfect alchemical mingling of alcohol and mixer, a frosty masterpiece. (If only I could afford the $17 elixir more than once a year.) 

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  • “I Am Dynamite!” by Sue Prideaux — Penetrating and punchy, with an attractively light touch for the weighty subject, Prideaux’s new biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my dearest great dead thinkers — atheism! nihilism! iconoclasm! self-invention! and more furrowed-brow brilliance — is like literary windshield wipers, a slashing text of clarification and demystification. Despite the luxuriously daunting walrus mustache and monumental scowl worthy of a grumpus Mount Rushmore, the German polymath — yes: a prickly, willful malcontent — wasn’t the poisonous philosophical force we’ve been warned of. (For one, he abhorred antisemitism.) Reason reigned, until it crumbled amidst the famous crack-up that would kill him at age 56. Dead: first God, then him. 

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  • Istanbul — First come the post-vacation blues: the immediate despondency felt when you return home from a great trip. Crap, it’s over. And then there’s the afterglow: the crazy satisfaction and rapture you feel when the depression burns off. Damn, that was the best trip ever! I got back from Turkey last month and I’m basking in the afterglow. I was mostly in Istanbul, one of few cities that can hurl me into a dream state that’s as wondrous as it is ineffable, an otherworldly stupor of sights, sounds and flavors, pocked by the lovable multitude of stray dogs and cats and the unfailingly caring and splendid people. I still savor my Istanbul lodgings, the über-charming boutique Hotel Ibrahim Pasha and, in Cappadocia in Central Turkey, the Pumpkin Göreme Restaurant and Art Gallery, where the cheap and divine fixed menu delivers the allure of Turkey on many plates. If I sound a little intoxicated by it all, I am. 
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Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
  • “Skate Kitchen” — The young women of this scruffy 2018 skateboard drama are hell on wheels — or is that Chanel on wheels? No way. The tribe of shredding female street teens are all about the clacking and scraping of boards on New York concrete, smoking spliffs and coupling with the opposite (or same) sex. The star here is bespectacled Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a taciturn 18-year-old from Long Island who defies her mother for the skate parks and subways of Manhattan, where she’s promptly absorbed into a rowdy posse of all-girl skaters. The film is predictably sincere about teen rebellion equating to freedom and addressing, softly, teen politics and gender politics. Yet it works; it has kick. Crystal Moselle (2015’s hit documentary “The Wolfpack”) shoots with a meandering vérité camera, the city captured with gritty love and bloodied-knee realism, and music to match. The movie is on DVD and streaming. The trailer’s HERE.

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  • Cubby the Wonder Dog — The perennially pampered pup, huge heart, small bladder, gives as good as he gets — hugs and snuggles, mutual adoration, tricks and treats, ribald chit-chat over Scotch and cigars. We love the mutt with our lives, no matter if he begs, bedevils the cats or poops and pees on occasion and off the Wee-Wee Pad. Spiritual creatures, dogs are fuzzy founts of friendship, besting humans, I’m afraid. I’m rotten when I wake up, until I see that damn dog wagging his curled tail and things fall into place. Mused author Thom Jones (see above): “Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have.”
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My best fiend: remembering a childhood pal

My best friend between ages 5 and 10 was a freckled scamp named Gene, who even at that age seemed to conduct life on the razor’s edge, courting trouble with a highly evolved sense of mischief and the occasional snap of malice.

Always cooking something up for us to perpetrate, be it leaving dog poop on someone’s porch then doorbell ditching or setting small fires with gun powder in his bedroom, Gene earned the nickname “Gene the Machine” from my dad, who didn’t know the half of it.

Small and short — he sat on a tall step stool at the dinner table — Gene provided my unsentimental education. He taught me every cuss word I know. When he blurted “Go to hell!” at a girl in our fourth-grade class, I was too overcome with snickers to be shocked. He introduced me to nudie magazines, some of which he buried in plastic bags in his backyard. He sold me on the rock band Kiss and the dubious pleasures of pyromania. 

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Matches and firecrackers were always on hand. We scorched many things, including, by accident, ourselves. At our mildest we would torment plastic army men, igniting them and watching them melt, black, acrid smoke curling up. Eventually Gene, with another pal, burned down a large field. (That misbegotten episode attracted the authorities.)

Something of a holy terror when he was in form — like the time he tortured to death two frogs he found under a rock — Gene also exposed me to twin thrills: the breathtaking delights of high-impact rollercoasters and the gnarly waves at our Southern California beaches. To this day, a mean, uncompromising rollercoaster is a peerless high.  

And then he’d do something reckless, like toss shotgun shells into a bonfire or pour rubbing alcohol on the garage floor in a circle, light it and stand in the middle of it as if performing some kind of pipsqueak pagan ritual.

We were young and he made me laugh harder than anyone. Yet this incorrigible gremlin exposed me to dangers and things wrong and taboo, even illegal. (Where were our parents amid the devilry?) Once he convinced me to throw rocks off a cliff into dense traffic. A man, enraged, saw us and we ran like hell.

Even Gene’s jokes were warped, naturally. He told me that he was going to stick a firecracker in the neighbor poodle’s butt and light it. Seeing my horror, he admitted he was kidding. Thing was, I didn’t put it past him. (Then again, he was a bleeding heart animal lover, lavishing cooing affection on his dog and pet rat.)

After I moved, at 10, from Santa Barbara to the San Francisco Bay Area, Gene and I kept in touch, seeing each other twice a year to hit the next rollercoaster, smoke cigarettes on the railroad tracks and listen to heavy metal as our teenage years blossomed.

Gene picked up the guitar and played metal like a madman — he was good at whatever he tried, from surfing to skiing — and I continued playing the drums I started as a kid. We jammed, copying riffs we heard on vinyl by the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Metal Church and Metallica.

And then Gene’s heedless path took him down bum detours, drug addiction being the worst of it. We saw less and less of each other as we hit our 20s — college, jobs. He struggled mightily with his demons, and lost. At 26 he was dead from an overdose. I was a pallbearer at his funeral with a few other guys I’d never met before.

I still have dreams of Gene — impish, funny, alive. He made an enormous imprint on me, shaping and influencing me in ways to live (loud, with a scrap of healthy risk) and not to live (like a kamikaze). Age has tempered, filtered and refined all that. I’m (arguably) well-adjusted, considering the Gene factor.

In the end, Gene was just a neat kid, scrappy and irrepressible, taking a bite out of life with enviable gusto if too little restraint and a sometimes shaky moral code. I facetiously call him that devil child. But, thing is, I don’t think he’s anywhere near hell.

Fourth of July: slightly better than you think

So they do the big community fireworks show in our exurb the night before the Fourth of July — that is, today, the third — presumably so they don’t have to compete with the real fireworks shows, the mega-extravaganzas detonated by the nearby big cities. Makes sense. Can you imagine if every town and city shot off their arsenals at the same time on the same night? The skies would be pyro pandemonium. (Would that be so bad?)

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For our country-fair version of neon-blooms and sky-borne booms we’re granted largish park space, hot dog and churros stands and only slightly embarrassing cover bands with names like The Rolling Clones doing their best not to asphyxiate classics by CCR, the Beatles, Journey, Foreigner and scads of other woolly ‘60s-‘70s supergroups. The music and fireworks are free. The hot dogs are not. Parking is combat. There is no alcohol. 

This is not a recipe for delight. The Fourth is kind of a dead-end holiday to begin with. Perfunctory plastic flag-waving and high-school-band parades aside, I don’t think many Americans are actually reflecting on the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. You might be, but really you aren’t. It’s all very patriotic, in a face-painty kind of way.  

th-1.jpegThat said, it’s a good summer holiday, sort of the kickoff to the season (which happens to be my least favorite season, just saying), that is strangely rife with hot dogs. They’re all over the joint.

A good holiday, but not the best. That honor goes to, well, just about every other American holiday. Easter, with its gobs of chocolate, is almost better than July Fourth. Thanksgiving is better. Certainly lawless Halloween and the gift-bloated Christmas surpass it. Hell, even my birthday beats out Independence Day, which is kind of like the special little brother of holidays. Sacrilege? Sorry.

But we settle. The Fourth has its fun. Fireworks, especially from the stance of this recovered pyromaniac, are glorious. Even the rinky-dink version in the ‘burbs, with rampant children, grassy blankets, hot dogs, snow-cones and long-in-the-tooth bands belting out “Don’t Stop Believin’” casts a pleasant spell — and gundpowdery smell.

Away from the park, beer flows and barbecues flame. Small gatherings happen in backyards. Kids squeal and peal and dogs slalom around bare legs and sandaled feet. (Those dogs want … hot dogs.) The occasional dancing sparkler is unveiled to the astonished eyes of youngsters.

I have indelible memories of the holiday as a kid on the beaches of Southern California. It was magic: illegal firecrackers, smoke bombs and Roman candles, lit from inside huge sand pits we dug that sat four or five friends. We were there all day until the city’s big fireworks show unfurled in the night sky, over the ocean, popping, bursting, crackling, streaming. And there we were, watching below, aglow in a thousand sizzling colors.

* Update: The local fireworks shebang was rained out on July 3. They rescheduled the big party for, get this, July 13 — a wee late. And it’s Friday the 13th. Isn’t that its own wild holiday?

A catty catalog of cultural irritants

So many affronts, so little space. Ergo I will call out only six middle-brow cultural irritants that make me ponder the arc of civilization. Expect a sequel. For now, this:

th-2.jpegDavid Sedaris — Snicker-worthy at his very best, Sedaris, an author and humor essayist for The New Yorker, has made a cottage industry out of wan, admittedly embellished autobiography, droll pieces about his family, his lover and his privileged moves to the French and English countrysides. Turning life into literature, he is frank, irreverent, sassy, yet sensitive, as any good writer should be. And he is a good writer, even if his language is surprisingly prosaic, stylistically flat-footed. Overrated, with thousands flocking to theater-sized readings to hear his nasally, high-pitched deadpan, he’s not exceptionally funny or insightful, though he taps a reservoir of honest empathy. He’s a queer, urban Erma Bombeck, flattering a particular strain of hipster and sophisticate with teeny tee-hees.

U2-2014U2 — Because Coldplay is too obvious and Wilco too irrelevant, I’m picking on the most deserving of all bloated, self-important, grandstanding white-people bands. As much as I appreciate the group off-stage — humble, bleeding-heart humanitarians, endlessly concerned with leftie causes and global injustice — as a rock band they represent bombastic blandness. Recycled guitar riffs, repetitive drum beats (if Larry Mullen isn’t rock’s most boring drummer, I don’t know who is), Bono’s predictable pleas for world wonderfulness, and stadium shows of gargantuan gaudiness that exemplify the elephantine excess U2 so vocally rails against. They are an enigma, and forever annoying.

th-1.jpegWes Anderson — Once upon a time the promising filmmaker was so good — inventive, with witty stylistic flourishes and a big, boyish heart: “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” But amid and after those gems, the dandy-as-director became the worst: a manic, preening showoff. Fussy, hyper-designed, mannered, cloying and overwritten — I’m looking at you, “Grand Budapest Hotel” — his movies are like stuffing fistfuls of pure cane sugar into a mouth filled with painful cavities. Cinematic sadism.

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Jimmy Fallon — Television’s embodiment of cutesy, mugging, please-love-me sycophancy. Dancing, playing charades, lip-syncing, giggling like a tipsy toddler, pitching guests marshmallow questions while fawning over them with googly eyes and panting tongue — “You’re so awesome!” — he’s the only TV personality I know of who looks like he’s going to piss his pants at any moment.

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Outdoor Music FestivalsMy nightmare epitomized. I’ve survived many of these, from Pearl Jam at San Francisco’s Polo Field to numerous Lollapaloozas and Days on the Green, to al fresco jazz festivals. Terrible, all of them. Acoustics meant to reach 100,000 people are stretched to gauzy echoes — bands have never sounded worse. Bare, sweaty, whooping flesh is crammed together in slick seas, unbudging, except for girls wiggling on their boyfriends’ shoulders blocking the view of miniature musicians on stage (thank god for JumboTron). Crushing summer heat. Rip-off food and drink booths. Hemp and beeswax candle vendors. Misting tents. Fragrant porta-potties with show-missing lines. Two more words: tie-dye.

bendahlhausofficial-neat-formal-man-bun-e1491414734529.jpgMan buns — This is simply inexcusable. Enough has been made about how embarrassingly stupid these pseudo-samurai top-knots are and yet men, mostly young, insist on sporting them (invariably with metrosexual beards, no less). Begging, wheedling, outright shaming, nothing can stop them. It’s a mass delusion — they honestly think they look cool and that these baleful hairballs are not the ultimate caricature of hipsterism run amok. I’ve actually seen seemingly sensible women with their arms around man-bunners. Yes! True! I have! Shoot me now.

Big hopes from a tiny guitar-like thingy

My niece wants a ukulele for her 13th birthday. When I first heard this I started, did a double-take, and glanced to the heavens. Then I thought: Wait, awesome. A ukulele. And I proceeded to volunteer to be the acquisitor of said micro-guitar, which is actually in the lute, not guitar, family, I now know.

Ukuleles are, of course, ridiculous musical instruments, hollow, fretted, fearlessly tiny objects with four nylon strings. One helplessly conjures Tiny Tim plinking a ukulele while bleating “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in a fluttering falsetto in the late 1960s. Once heard, the song is hard to delete. Therein lies the tragedy. 

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Israel Kamakawiwoʻole

Inordinately better, we cleave to what is regarded the most popular song on the ukulele, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” as performed by late Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. He was a massive man, with a massive heart and a massive talent. Though his doughy arms swallowed the instrument, his touch on the strings was caressing, the lilt in his high, quavering voice heartrending. Listen to his take on the “Wizard of Oz” classic here. It will destroy you.

Back to yuk-uleles — er, ukuleles. These lute-like things are a Hawaiian adaptation of an instrument from the Portuguese Azores called a machete, which gained wide popularity in the U.S. and spread internationally.

And then spread to my niece, a precocious green-haired gamine. This could be wonderful (Hawaii!), or calamitous (instant boredom, or worse, Tiny Tim). My niece and I share a heritage that goes back to the Portuguese Azores, so there is hope for her aptitude. She is a dexterous creature. She might be a born ukulelean. And the tiny guitar (lute!) that I’m getting her comes with a tuner and beginner’s songbook, plus a case. Extra promising: many of her friends play the Lilliputian lyre (lute!).  

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Tiny Tim. Help us all.

Yet I can’t help shake the instrument as somehow clownish, witnessed in circuses, bad stand-up and “Gilligan’s Island.” Perhaps I’m wrong. Just a few celebs who played or at least dabbled with the ukulele: Elvis, Marlon Brando, Adam Sandler, Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Greta Garbo, Steve Martin, Taylor Swift, Elvis Costello, Pink, Barack Obama, and on it goes.

So there’s hope. And dignity. Even if the instrument is a mere 21 inches long with only four strings, like a guitar left in the dryer too long. I expect mighty sounds from my niece. One of her favorite bands is Twenty One Pilots, which at times deploys this mini-lute. I’m not a fan of the band, but I’m a fan of her, and that gives me confidence that this ukulele experiment, this dip into plinky-dinky ditties, will sing.

Retro movie review: ‘The Darjeeling Limited’

“The Darjeeling Limited,” from 2007, is minor Wes Anderson but, as always, colorful and interesting, frantic and funny. I bring it up because of Anderson’s new “Isle of Dogs.” Wildly stylized, a bit melancholy, “Darjeeling” holds up better than many think. My review upon its release:

From “Rushmore” to “The Darjeeling Limited,” Wes Anderson inserts us into lush and artificial places, heady imaginary worlds slathered in sizzling primary colors and soundtracked to infectious ’60s rock that courts a light-headed buzz. His ornate sets and surgical compositions are like dioramas made of gumdrops and lollipops. Be sure: They will cause toothaches.

Anderson is a showman — a show-off — with a dandy’s sensibility for design and décor, a little bit of Pedro Almódovar swished with Richard Lester, lovely but spasmodic. That aesthetic hit its mark in “Rushmore,” one of Anderson’s comic masterstrokes (the other is “Bottle Rocket”), but got out of hand in the cloying “Royal Tenenbaums” and the meandering “Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” cutesy confections that strained to delight the Anderson cult with rampant quirks.

Anderson’s a hipster nebbish, the self-conscious artist as a youngish man still locating a workable balance of personal voice and cinematic immortality.

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Perhaps chastened by the pallid response to “Life Aquatic,” Anderson pulls back in “Darjeeling” for something sweetly inviting. Co-written by Roman Coppola and one of the film’s stars, Jason Schwartzman — both of whom trace bloodlines to the Coppola dynasty — this yeasty picaresque about three troubled brothers on a bumbling train journey across India shows Anderson in fair control of his material. Excess gives way to highly stylized understatement, grounded by an unmistakable thrum of melancholy.

In fact, the affair is so mild that Anderson’s ideas about reconciliation and healing amid a dysfunctional family (abiding themes in all his movies) don’t quite jell. When the rural Indian dust settles, it’s not clear what the characters actually accomplished in their distinctly un-mythic quest.

Still, it’s a fun ride. Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody make an amusing trio whose passive-aggressive deadpan is relieved by fits of brotherly scrapping. Yet we never get caught up in their professed spiritual journey or the small adventures into which they shamble.

Anderson tames the dirty, dizzying India of reality and other India-set films. He brightens it up with that free-flowing electric pallete and organizes the chaos to fit his fussy sensibilities. From all reports, he even gets the smell of the country wrong. (“I love the way this country smells,” Brody’s character says. “It’s kind of spicy.”)

Anderson has no interest in the heaving Indian miasma. He fails even to contrast our goofy heroes’ monied, white upper-middle classness with the local penury. Everything is beautiful: Their titular train is all luxury coaches, and when they enter a far-flung village, the light falls perfectly, the colors mesh and flowers abound.

That village sequence, by the way, centers around a sudden tragedy midway through the 90-minute film. It’s a thing of sadness, but Anderson mishandles its impact on the story. The incident not only shuts down and sobers up the boys, who have been clownish entertainers until now, it throws a pall over the rest of the show.

A blowzy charmer, Wilson mostly reprises his Dignan character from “Bottle Rocket,” playing the bossy, control-freak brother with an iron plan. He’s brought a travel assistant with a PC and printer to be cumbersomely schlepped around.

Eerie to some, par for the celebrity course to others, Wilson’s character sports a mummy’s worth of facial bandages through the film, thanks to a failed suicide attempt, which recalls the actor’s recent real-life suicide attempt.

All three brothers bear wounds. Schwartzman, who mysteriously goes barefoot the entire trip, looking like Paul McCartney on the “Abbey Road” album, is nursing a broken heart, and Brody’s stuck in a moribund marriage. The trip, ring-led by Wilson, is also a way to bring the brothers together after a year of silence following their father’s death.

Slight as it is, “The Darjeeling Limited” is of a piece in the Anderson oeuvre. Ferrying between poles of enchantment — happy levity to wistful sorrow — it tenderly limns shattered family dynamics, and does so with panache. Anderson’s visual tics are in full flower: the swift, information-packed pans; long horizontal tracking shots; lyrical slow-motion. (And, hey, there’s Bill Murray!)

Some will call this mellow picture minor Wes Anderson, which would be reductive. I call it growth.

A scoop of nostalgia returns in its seasonal glory

Day-five of spring, it’s 50 degrees out and there it is (no, not already): the tinkly, telltale tune of the ice cream man and his ramshackle, rainbow-colored truck, plastered with cartoons and photos of the products he’s pulled up to peddle.

He’s making the rounds, up and down streets and avenues, Pied-Pipering children to chase his truck until he stops, the chugging engine idling in the middle of the road and kids, some on tippy-toes, pressing at the sliding glass window, jostling for a sweet treat.

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This is tradition in action. Didn’t we all have an ice cream man tooling around in a boxy little mail truck or van, delivering Drumsticks, Push Ups, Choco Tacos, Fudgsicles and snow cones? One assumes it all started with the folkloric Good Humor Man in the 1930s, but who really knows.

And who cares when sprinkles-dipped delectations await? (Even if they do average a swindler’s $3 to $4 each. In my day …) At the window today is a globe-shaped man with a ruddy face and hairy arms. He’s as nice as can be without being creepy.

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But back to that tootling, anodyne jingle we all know and loathe. That unmistakable melody that, in some grade schools, has become the innocent singalong “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” (Another popular truck song is Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” aka the theme to the classic film “The Sting.”)

Here’s where things get ugly. That song, the one our local confectionary vehicle and thousands nationwide blare as a Pavlovian call to calories, is actually a 100-year-old minstrel ditty that’s aggressively racist. I don’t want to plunge into that swamp here, but you can read all about its malignant history at NPR. It’s shocking; the story even comes with a reader caution.

So if lawn mowers aren’t quite buzzing yet — last week’s season-flouting snow is still busy melting — other sounds are filling the air, those of yelping children by turns asking for money from tall people and chirping orders for Bomb Pops, as well as some questionable earworms swirling out of megaphones atop Skittles-hued trucks and vans.

It’s a bi-seasonal symphony — just wait for the clamor come summer — that I’m a bit old to partake in. (The last thing I bought from an ice cream truck was a Diet Coke.) Still, the view from afar is fine. One delights in forbidden treats vicariously, observes the joy of mass satisfaction, and maybe takes a sweet nostalgic journey all the while.