Oh my god(lessness)

So I’m watching the Democratic primary debate last night on CNN, and amid the candidates’ kerfuffles and catty crossfire, a moment of clarity sprung up during a commercial break. In a 30-second ad, a pouchy-eyed man, self-possessed and wearing the teensiest smirk, spoke animatedly to the camera. The man happens to be President Ronald Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan, and this, in its entirety, is what he said:

“Hi, I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed at the intrusions of religion into our secular government. That’s why I’m asking you to support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep church and state separate, just like our Founding Fathers intended. Please support the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I’m Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”

This remarkable bulletin at first registers as a jape, a mock commercial on “SNL,” especially with that wonderfully puckish parting shot. (Watch the ad HERE.)

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But, thank heaven, it’s no joke. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is an honest to god (ha) society devoted to “promoting non-theism and defending the constitutional separation between religion and government,” says its website. “With more than 30,000 members, FFRF, a non-prophet non-profit, works as an effective state/church watchdog and voice for free thought (atheism, agnosticism, skepticism).”

Refused by ABC during the Sept. 12 Democratic debate, the ad last night was a hit. “Ron Reagan” was the top trending Google search after it aired. Twitter twits tweetle-deed with abandon. Though Reagan “wasn’t among the 12 candidates on the stage in Ohio, his appearance in a commercial promoting atheism clearly caught folks off guard,” said one news outlet. It was his sign-off about not fearing “burning in hell” that had people reeling, or, like me, laughing.

Speaking of hell, it’s the devil-may-care defiance, brazen irreverence and arch humor of the godless (heathens! pagans!) that endears them to skeptics and agnostics. Their highly evolved strain of enlightenment certainly doesn’t hurt the cause. These are savvy individuals who’ve weighed their stance with logic, philosophy, empirical evidence and bullet-proof common sense. Biblical fairy tales have only sowed their doubt and disgust. 

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Satanic Temple protesters

There are myriad groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation — the muscular American Atheists and the mischievous Satanic Temple, profiled in the provocative new documentary “Hail, Satan,” come to mind — and FFRF is one of the largest. I appreciate what they’re doing, these Constitutionally correct freedom fighters. And if this brief blog post sounds like one big ad for them, well, that’s all right by me. Perhaps I am going to hell. I kind of don’t care.

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I’m doing fine, angst you very much

I’m a nervous guy, anxious about some things (social situations, small children, cancer, Tyler Perry movies) though calm about others (air travel, clowns, death), making my anxiety pool a kind of grab-bag, a Kellogg’s Cereals Fun Pak, if you will. 

Neuroses are a blast, a frothy enchantment of stomach pangs, irritable digestion, insomnia, jitters, fatigue, hypochondria, fatalism and an ambient unease that makes you want to switch skins with the nearest stable person, no matter if his name is Rupert.

Mornings are the worst. But as the day unfurls, the bad, the black, slowly burn off. By night I’m mostly calm, relaxed, hardly even thinking about brain tumors and leukemia. I assume that’s why I am steadfastly nocturnal, vampiric, stiff drink in hand.

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For instance, when I wake each morning, my upcoming Japan trip sounds like a terrible idea, an exorbitant blunder and colossal miscalculation. My stomach flips; I wince. Around midday, I warm to the thought and picture an experience of Michelin-star sushi, bullet trains and megalopolis madness. By dark, optimism flowing, I’m on the computer or flipping pages plotting my incontestably epic and mystical adventures in the Far East. 

They make pills for this, of course. But meds are at best serviceable. Too meager a dose scarcely soothes the nerves. Too much tends to narcotize. Things are lighter — aren’t they always when you’re napping? (Not really. My dream realm is an id-iotic hellscape of troubling memories, fraught encounters and anything that gnaws on my insecurities. Kafka would clutch his chin and nod.) Plus, you don’t know what’s what with some of those sedatives. A doctor once told me to chuck my Xanax. “That stuff is crack,” he scoffed. Oh.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a panic attack, unless that time browsing with my niece at the American Girl®  doll store counts. Though I have experienced shortness of breath, racing heart and a kind of overwhelming, generalized terror of being alive. I suppose that counts, even if I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a clinically defined panic attack and merely my reaction to deliriously unfunny ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s latest Netflix special.

Want to churn my anxiety? Make me speak in front of a group, crowd or microphone. I don’t do meetings, panels, town-halls, televised interviews or, for that matter, karaoke or charades (charades — parlor game of the dark arts). I kind of recoil singing “Happy Birthday” among friends. With pathological resistance, I avoid having my picture taken (keep your cameras to your selfie).

My low-frequency embarrassment, raking self-consciousness and broken self-esteem are congenital delights. In the words of Morrissey (indeed, Morrissey), I am infected with a ”shyness that is criminally vulgar.” None of it is fun or poignant. But what are you to do? Therapy, meditation, yoga, tequila shots, a fistful of Clonazepam. These have been tried. Futility reigns. Relief is fleeting, often downright illusory. 

And yet we soldier forth. We function in spite of the topsy-turvy tummy, mild paranoia, paper-thin skin, social squirming, hyperbolic pessimism, etc. Then I think: I’m going to Japan in three weeks. That’s something. During my extensive travels, my angst all but evaporates. I am unshackled, life’s daily detritus dispersed by an existential leaf blower. For this trip, I expect elation, moderate ecstasy, radical stimulation and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Nothing short of sublimity.

I am nervous as hell.

Quirky kiddie queries about death, dying and other fun stuff

As people grow up, they internalize this idea that wondering about death is ‘morbid’ or ‘weird.’ They grow scared, and criticize other people’s interest in the topic to keep from having to confront death themselves. … Most people in our culture are death illiterate, which makes them more afraid.”  —  Caitlin Doughty

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Children, meanwhile, fueled by unfettered curiosity and innate innocence, don’t always harbor silly adult fears of death. They’re allowed to, expected to, wonder about death and dying. It’s a learning process;  it’s not “morbid” or “weird.” It’s eye-opening, mind-inflating. Asking questions about it is a step closer to not being “death illiterate.”

The quote topping this post is from Caitlin Doughty’s new book, the funny and informative “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?,” whose subtitle is “Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death.” That means both wiggy and weighty queries from children about death, inquiries she routinely receives as a death-chick rock star: mortician, author, podcaster, “death activist” and “funeral industry rabble-rouser.” In the book Doughty answers 34 kid-friendly (well, kinda) questions about death and dying, and a bit beyond.

A total pro, her attitude is cheeky, frisky and upbeat, often with a wink. It’s hardly just kid’s stuff. She applies sweeping research and her own mortician’s know-how, a braid of science, craft, technology and, unavoidably, morbidity. It gets gleefully icky at times.

Doughty goes into gripping, grisly detail about livor mortis (“bluish color of death”), rigor mortis (“stiffness of death”), putrefaction, embalming, burial, cremation ovens, blood draining, organ donation, and, #1 on the hit parade, postmortem gas. 

And she does it with oozy, crunchy, gelatinous eloquence:

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  • “Welcome to putrefaction,” she writes. “This is when the famous green color of death comes into its own. It’s more of a greenish-brown, actually. With some turquoise. … The green colors appear first in the lower abdomen. That’s the bacteria from the colon breaking free and starting to take over. They are liquefying the cells of the organs, which means fluids are sloshing free. The stomach swells as gas starts to accumulate from the bacteria’s ‘digestive action’ (i.e., bacteria farts).”
  • “In the first ten minutes of cremation, the flames attack the body’s soft tissue — all the squishy parts, if you will. Muscles, skin, organs, and fat sizzle, shrink, and evaporate. The bones of the skull and ribs start to emerge. The top of the skull pops off and the blackened brain gets zapped away by the flames.”
  • “Oh, how to describe the smell of a decomposing human body — what poetry is needed!” Doughty gushes. “I get a sickly-sweet odor mixed with a strong rotting odor. Think: your grandma’s heavy sweet perfume sprayed over a rotting fish. Put them together in a sealed plastic bag and leave them in the blazing sun for a few days. Then open the bag and put your nose in for a big whiff.”

Now, on to questions, a sampling of the kids’ queries, which on average yield two- to three-page responses in Doughty’s book. In brief, inquiries include:

  • The jejune: Will I Poop When I Die? (“You might poop when you die. Fun, right?” Doughty giggles. True: It depends on how “full” you are when you croak. You don’t automatically doo-doo at death.)
  • The sentimental: Can I Keep My Parents’ Skulls After They Die? (No. No. And no. There are such things as “abuse of corpse” laws, our trusty authority tells us.)
  • The ludicrous: What Would Happen If You Swallowed a Bag of Popcorn Before You Died and Were Cremated? (What do you think would happen in 1,700-degree flames?)
  • The freaky: What If They Make a Mistake and Bury Me When I’m Just in a Coma? (Pretty impossible — a battery of medical tests are conducted to confirm brain death.)
  • The ghoulish: We Eat Dead Chickens, Why Not Dead People? (Guess what — some people do. They’re called cannibals. Next!) 
  • The metaphysical: Is It True People See a White Light As They’re Dying? (“Yes, they do. That glowing white light is a tunnel to angels in heaven. Thanks for your question!” the author ribs.)
  • And the vaguely vain: Will My Hair Keep Growing in My Coffin After I’m Buried? (Sorry, Rapunzel. That’s a big fat “death myth.”)

About the book’s titular question, “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?” — this refers to the dreaded scenario of you dying alone in your home, your corpse left for days and your unfed pet, well, getting hungry. Doughty relishes this one. 

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Caitlin Doughty

“No, your cat won’t eat your eyeballs,” she writes. “Not right away, at least.” 

That’s the short answer. 

The longish answer shivers with excitement:

“Cats tend to consume human parts that are soft and exposed, like the face and neck, with special focus on the mouth and nose. Don’t rule out some chomps on the eyeballs,” Doughty says, but more likely your feline friend will dig into the lips, eyelids and tongue.

And what about Pepi the peaceful poodle, human’s best friend, your cuddle buddy? 

“Your dog will totally eat you,” Doughty assures.

When Halloween gets lost in translation

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. 

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Halloween in Sevilla, Spain, 2016 — amateur hour.

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). 

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Halloween, Beirut, 2008 — not cool.

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.

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Harajuku teen, Tokyo, in April 2006.

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):

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Witches? Zombies? No idea but I’m thrilled. 
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Nerd, nerd, nerd, nerd and nerd. That’s five nerds. God bless them.
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Grisly Disney: zombie versions of famous cartoon characters, including Minnie Mouse and Snow White.
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A gaggle of zombie fast food (flesh food?) servers. Do you want fingers with that human hamburger?

And the best for last …

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Monkey see, monkey don’t

There’s a monkey on my back.

Several, actually. And they want my money. Every time I open a website, they are there, pawing at me.

The animals are macaques, with pomegranate faces and heads hooded in fuzzy Eskimo parkas rimming wise, frowning visages of grizzled monks or mystics. They are bathing and grooming and picking at each other in hot springs at the Jigokudani Wild Snow Monkey Park in Japan. They look to be suffering chronic mites and fleas.

-20121121232817-39B6918F7B8D4ED4BEC436470B0205E1.jpgThey are world-famous monkeys; you see them in every other wildlife documentary, steam rising around their half-submerged bodies. These simian superstars are chillaxing in a simmering jacuzzi nestled amid frosty mountains. And they pick and pick.

I, for one, can’t avoid their pink, pensive faces. They want me to come visit them, terribly. Ever since I began researching hotels, food tours and day trips in Japan, the insistent monkey pop-up ad, hectoring click-bait, has infiltrated all of my most visited sites, from The New York Times to Rotten Tomatoes. I can’t get the goddam monkeys out of my sight. Fortunately, they’re cute and furry. Unfortunately, they’re expensive. 

For about five seconds it’s tempting to actually take the ad up on its offer with a simple click: $146 for eight hours of touring, including one (one!) hour at the monkey sanctuary; time at the famed Zenko-ji temple; lunch; some sake sipping; and, really, not much else. Bullet train transportation is not included (rip!).

And can you believe this: “Guests are not permitted to touch, feed or bathe with the monkeys at any time.” I guess I won’t be bringing a towel and a bar of Dial.

So the deal effectively stinks, even if you do get a brief (dry) encounter with the enchanting, lightly parboiled macaques.  

Yet more caveats abound, and they are dire. I came across an alarming blog post titled “Why Seeing the Snow Monkeys in Japan Sucked” (read it in full HERE). A grisly excerpt:

“Instead of a snow-covered paradise, I was standing in what felt like a construction site full of rubble, with piles of rocks and exposed cables forming a backdrop against the commotion. I watched in dismay as staff at the Jigokudani Monkey Park threw food at the agitated macaques until they began to screech and fight on the damp mud. This was one of the worst animal encounters I’d ever experienced.”

No monkeys for me. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Click no evil.

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Tokyo visions

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.

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(Yes, I’m afraid this is a whale feast.)

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Dogma of the dog

I’m pretty sure Cubby the dog doesn’t believe in many things — God, playing dead for treats, how wonderful I am — though I’m convinced he believes in some things. Like meatballs and bully sticks and tummy massages and bedtime snuggles and brisk walks and peeing on the rug. He’s a good dog. And like most good dogs, he’s ridiculous. Neurotic, but nourishing. 

Rescued from a shelter, Cubby has, in the past year or so, learned how to act like a tried-and-true doggy, a small, curly-haired mutt with a pleading gaze and a tail that swoops up and over into a large Spaghetti-O. 

He now knows how to worry a bone, chomp stuffed toys, play tug of war with said toys, scurry after the bone when it’s tossed then make you chase him around in a game of try and get it, sucker. All this is heartening. He’s maturing. He’s getting sillier. 

But I think he’s deeper than all that stock dog stuff. Cubby is a wise old soul, beyond his four or five years, attuned to his lot in life, his place on the totem pole of existence, and, with a melancholy tinge, his impermanence.

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No, I don’t believe in God. Death, yes.

This struck me last summer, detailed in this blog post, where I observed: 

“The dog seeks the meaning of life, this is plain from his searching brown eyes, furrowed brows and the alarming way he wipes his butt across the carpet. Freud’s pleasure principle manifests itself in his frequent calls for belly rubs. Sartre’s existentialist theory, which states that our individual responsibility in defining our own lives is almost debilitating in its enormity, has the dog a little down. Knowledge of his own mortality is something of a buzz kill.”

Cubby may be a Buddhist. He is mindful and meditative, his solace arriving many hours each day. (Some call these naps; I call them rumination, deep cogitation, mini comas.) He is a passive soul. Barking he does sparingly, almost exclusively when the mail comes, then he claws the paint off the front door and cries like an aggrieved banshee. It is the yelp of an injured Indian spirit, whose dead have been gravely molested. Then he shuts down, curls up, and ponders the teachings of Siddhartha and the joys of a good tennis ball.

We wonder. What does this animal believe in? Tasty bones, yes. Death, alas. A vigorous rub behind the ears, certainly. Bacon Beggin’ Strips, no doubt.

Yet the question resounds: Can animals really believe?

Cats — pshaw; they believe in their own supercilious godliness. Forest dwellers — a humble group deeply in accord with nature’s bylaws, true believers. African wildlife — a hot mess, as seen on “Planet Earth,” strictly heathens and satanists that believe in ritualistic bloodletting and organized torture on the Serengeti.

None of that for Cubby. He’s a fuzzy little wiseman. He should be wearing beads and vestments and lighting incense. He is a philosophical creature; don’t let his crazed, leg-scratching greetings fool you. When you gaze into his small eyes, worlds are revealed. One’s heart softens and the soul cracks open. He is telling you something, and not just “Get the leash, I gotta poop.”

Was it Nietzsche who said “The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs”? Or was it Harpo Marx? No matter. This is an inversion of the master/slave equation, wherein the master (you) succumbs to the overpowering ardor and joy provided by the slave (doggy). That is this dog’s wisdom. He has our number. And he calls frequently. Collect.

Cubby’s beliefs are better than his bite. In his canine universe, he is disciplined, devout, enlightened. He has found meaning and purpose. The dog is, indeed, dogmatic, a mutt with a mind. And, uh, yes, that’s him over there, avidly licking his genitals.

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