In space, no one can hear you woof

Sometimes I want to shoot the dog into outer space. Suit him up, slide on a big round helmet, and strap him into a tin-can capsule, ready go, boom

Really, I want to keep old Cubby on terra firma, safely earthbound, away from martians and pesky space debris. Still, when he barks and wails and scratches the paint off the door when visitors knock, I think: Jupiter, yes. Jupiter would be a fine place for a dog park.

Such was the fate of Laika the space dog, a small, blameless pup who was hurled into orbit for the Soviet space program in 1957. A stray street mongrel with a skittish gaze, Laika was really three animals in one: a dog, guinea pig, and sacrificial lamb. 

Laika the cosmic canine

Many critters had flown to space before Laika — monkeys, mice, mutts — but she was set to be the first to orbit Earth. Probably quaking with terror, surrounded by lab-coated apparatchiks, Laika was loaded into the satellite Sputnik 2 for an experimental flight to prove that a living passenger could survive a launch into orbit and weightlessness. 

It was a suicide mission, or more accurately, murder. Laika was never expected to survive; once they sealed the capsule, the Soviets knew she was toast. 

And toast is practically what she became. Within hours of her spectacular orbit, Laika died from overheating and panic. Even the Soviets were mortified: the true cause of her death was not made public until 2002. They initially said she was euthanized with poisoned food before her oxygen ran out, a classic, blundering cover-up. The dead dog floated around up there for six months. She was incinerated when Sputnik re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

The world mourned the pioneer pooch. She’s gone down in lore as an unwitting hero, nicknamed Muttnick, and honored with commemorative stamps, dolls and children’s books. A monument to Laika was erected in Moscow in 2008.

Muttnick. I like that. Maybe, with a nod to David Bowie, she’s Major Dog. Or Apawlo 13. Or Chewbarka. Never mind. What matters is that Laika lived as a Moscow street hound and died for Soviet sins. A would-be martyr — Joan of Bark — she’s a helpless symbol of the sketchy side of science and progress.

Cubby should be so symbolic. But he’s of a different breed, and an entirely different kind of nobility. And though he wouldn’t last as long as brave Laika in space — I give him two, three hours tops — he’s ready for lift-off and would do NASA proud.

I could see him as a stowaway on the Mars rover (did you say Rover?) Perseverance, which is up there sniffing for signs of ancient Martian life. Or he might hitch a ride to the Moon on one of Elon Musk’s radical SpaceX rockets, joining other civilians who are nutsballs enough to pay millions to pierce the wild blue yonder. That would be fitting, because the dog is definitely daft, a total and irrevocable space cadet. (Fun facts: Laika means “bark” in Russian. Cubby means “preposterous” in any language.)

I’m glad Cubs is still on Earth to provide happiness and headaches, and I hope he sticks around before zipping off to Andromeda. Laika, well. She did the impossible for all mankind. She gave us enlightenment. She cracked opened scientific universes. She kissed the stars and the heavens, where she now eternally resides.

Laika’s monument

You are getting sleepy. Not.

The other night I couldn’t sleep, so I took a dog sedative. 

That will do it, I thought. That will put me down like a tranquilized caribou. The Benadryl isn’t working, the Xanax has flopped. It’s 3 a.m. and time for the big guns, even though the dog, Cubby, weighs about as much as a couple of gallons of milk.

So how much doggie dope to take? I haven’t the foggiest. I don’t want a measly Cubby dose. Well, this chunky pill looks about right for an adult human. Gulp.

And it worked. A little before 4 a.m., the tossing, turning and cursing ceased. I was out, and it was good. I woke up with paws and a tail, but it was worth it.

My accursed insomnia comes in waves. I’ll have a few months of it, then it clears up and I sleep like a normal person, six to eight hours if I’m lucky. But those sleepless stretches are agony. So I medicate, with reckless abandon. 

And it rarely works. I’ve tried Ambien, melatonin, Benadryl, booze, Xanax and Clonazepam, sometimes all at once. Maybe they’re cancelling each other out.

Everyone sings the drowsy praises of Benadryl, a common over the counter antihistamine. I know people who can’t even wake up the next day if they take one and a half pills. That’s insane. I’ve taken up to eight Benadryl in one night and got zero winks. I think I need a shot of sodium Pentothal.

I don’t like how many drugs I ingest, everything from Pristiq and Benadryl, to Zyrtec and Xanax, to Clonazepam and Advil. My blood must be a sludgy brown, or a nuclear green. It can’t be good.

In college, the pharmacist at the student health center told me he puts nothing in his body medicinally, not even aspirin. I mulled if that was even humanly possible. I wonder where he is now. Probably a heroin addict. 

Last summer was especially slumber-free. When insomnia strikes, the mind reeling in futile spin cycles, I typically get up and try to make myself tired by doing stuff. I write, read, plan trips, watch videos, get a head start on the day’s online news. Once I went ahead and shaved in the middle of the night, an existential triumph of baby-soft smoothosity. And I rarely neglect my journal, like this bit from August:

“2:40 a.m. I cannot sleep and I’ve taken two Clonazepam, a Xanax, three Benadryl and three more just now, making that six Benadryl. I am tense and restless, bored. Went downstairs at 1 a.m. to read and sip a splash of rosé and still nothing. I’m so damn antsy. … 5 a.m. Cannot get to sleep. Two more Benadryl and whole body cramping and restless. No sleep whatsoever. Zonked in the head yet my body wants to run a 5K.”

Those are the tedious musings of a fatally bored, somewhat drugged individual. Where’s the dog pill when I need it?

About that pill: Turns out the sedative given Cubby to calm him before vet visits is an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication for humans, so it’s not like I was eating dog food or committing a creepy interspecies caper. The pill is Trazodone, which in 2017 was the 30th most commonly prescribed medication in America. So I’m in good company.

Sleep shouldn’t be so elusive. While it’s a precious and pleasant commodity — cuddling, dreaming, flipping the pillow over to the cold side, snoring with roof-rattling gusto — snoozing is also mandatory. I for one become a deep-fried ogre without sleep. Just as scary: some reports say up to 50 percent of adults suffer chronic insomnia.

That’s a rotten figure, yet one that makes you think. Those hours swiped of sleep, when you’re desperately, hopelessly awake, can be surprisingly fertile. I can’t tell you how much world-travel mapping I’ve accomplished in the wee morning gloom of sleep deprivation.

Sure, I’d rather be unconscious and under the covers, but maybe some good can be wrung from the midnight malady. Maybe in the restless hush books can be read, letters written and Tokyo hotels booked. Maybe we can commune with ourselves with a kind of meditative calm and aloneness. Maybe, after all, sleep is for suckers.

An EKG? WTF?!

So I tell my doctor that I think my heart is fluttering, murmuring, skipping a beat or doing something wiggy that makes me worry I’m about to have a heart attack. I like my heart to beat to a steady 4/4 tempo — your basic rock beat — and not do paradiddles and drum solos. I want Ringo Starr keeping time, not Keith Moon. 

The doctor raises an eyebrow but is distinctly untroubled and prescribes me an EKG, or electrocardiogram, which goes like this: “An EKG measures the electrical activity of the heart. It tracks these beats and electrical impulses and tells how the heart is functioning.”

An EKG? I frown. But what did I expect? I whine about my impending cardiac arrest and suddenly I’m hooked up to an octopus of cables. Did I think the doctor would just check my blood pressure and stethoscope things away? (Yeah, a little.)

Like any sane person, I loathe medical procedures. They’re intrusive, worrisome, expensive, and they smell funny. But I quickly learn that an EKG is rudimentary health stuff, like a blood test, or a digital rectal exam (sorry). Of course I do it. 

This is what the whole thing looks like (that isn’t me, and that certainly isn’t my nurse):

The procedure is so fast and easy — 10 minutes tops — that I’d barely call it a procedure. More like a way to have some chest hair ripped out. 

Just doing it makes me feel healthier. I’m unaccountably certain the results will be peachy and I can go on living a questionable lifestyle. 

Later, the doc summons me. Things are suddenly not so glowing. Irregularities appeared on the EKG. She wants me to get an echocardiogram, which is: “a test that uses ultrasound to make pictures of your heart.” It’s what they do on a pregnant woman’s belly to see the fetus, but on your ticker.   

Terrific. Now I’m not just stressed, I’m nearly beside myself. 

And for good reason. The echocardiogram I eventually get bears unsettling news. Apparently my heart is in distress: I have a dilated aorta and a “bundle branch block” on the left side. The doctor tells me to see a cardiologist and gives me the name of one. 

I sigh, hard. What’s wrong? the doctor asks. Well, I say, you just gave me a pile of shitty news. She tries to soften the blow: At most, he’ll examine you and tell you to come back in a year, she says. I sigh again. I’m a big sigher. 

Convinced I’ll soon be getting a triple bypass, or a baboon heart, I nervously see the cardiologist, a man bald of pate and kind of soul. Why are you here? he asks right off the bat. Well, I was told I was about to die, I say, if not in those exact words.

Not even close, he says. The abnormalities that appeared are actually totally normal, nothing to worry about, now get the hell out of here and live your life. 

Amazing! I’m free! I’m healthy! My chest will not explode in the next six months! This is a huge turnaround. A new lease on life. I almost kick up my heels like a leprechaun.

And then a dark curtain drops and it occurs to me that good health is fleeting. We are all decaying, breaking down, each breath the beginning of the end. The cardiologist’s warm, mellifluous words become so much empty prattle. Sigh.

But I am undeterred. I will seize the good news and slap the heavens with a high-five. I will take it day by day, adopt a zen perspective, stay calm, reside in the moment. The proverbial bus may smoosh me, or I’ll die a shriveled twig under hospice care, age 101. Really, I don’t know what’s next, how this life thing will play out.

I know only one thing: I kinda don’t want my heart to stop. Hit it, Ringo …

Royal pain

Exactly one week after Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris, in 1997, I stumbled upon a sprawling ad hoc memorial for her just above the Pont de l’Alma tunnel, where the catastrophe occurred. My arrival was strictly serendipitous; I don’t even remember why I was in that part of Paris at that particular time. I was just a gawking tourist ambling along, probably whistling like an idiot. 

Yet there it was, an ocean of bouquets, effusive notes and photographs placed by milling mourners paying their respects. It was September 6, the very day of Diana’s funeral, which was held at Westminster Abbey in London and finished at her resting place in Althorp Park, the Spencer family home. 

Diana’s makeshift shrine in Paris, September 6, 1997

My reaction to the spectacle was a rush of surprise tinged with ambiguous sorrow. Not for a moment had I ever thought about Princess Diana — or any of the Royals — before this chance encounter. I found their soap opera travails — marriages, divorces, deaths, births and betrayals — perversely overplayed and monumentally tedious. (Only the recent season of “The Crown,” featuring a star-crossed Diana, came close to holding my attention to royal hooey, and raptly at that.) Yet I was dimly moved, despite myself.

The Royals live their own fractured fairy tale, without the court jester (or is that Philip?). Drama, oodles of drama. The latest swirls around Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s self-exile to shiny California and if I cared a whit I’d rewind to juicy bits about Fergie, Philip, Charles, even poor Diana, who was groomed for sainthood by an adoring public.

Why the undying interest in the Royal Family? Who are these people? They’re obscenely rich, for one, leading charmed if crushingly idle lives in monstrous palaces fit for, well, a king. Yet they’re only human, pitifully so. Their crises are legendary, fed to the public in a manner fitting congenital spotlight whores. Their reign serves no discernible purpose, rendering them privileged waxworks, oxidized totems of antiquity that just sort of sit there, performing the robotic “royal wave” to the glazed masses when not shooting skeet.

It’s a twisted phenomenon, the whole royal-watching rigamarole. And it’s hardly trifling. Google “royal watching” and you’ll get some 613,000,000 results. Compare that to a search of “Barack Obama,” who I’d argue is far more interesting and consequential, and you get a paltry 132,000,000 results. Then again, the British monarchy has been around since the 10th century. But still.

The American analogue is JFK and Jackie’s self-styled Camelot, that dreamy, idealized, media-genic Arcadia that spawned a (rather jinxed) political dynasty. Kennedy’s 1,000-day presidency in no way compares to the Royals’ 1,000-year run, at least in duration, but both are subject to fawning scrutiny by lovers and haters alike. The glamor and intrigue, triumphs and tribulations! It’s a tea-time telenovela, with two cubes of schadenfreude.  

I guess that’s what gets us: human frailty played out on the public stage. It’s Shakespearean, irresistible, satisfying yet not so much. They’re our heroes and our villains; we spit-shine them with a loogie. Such empty-calorie ogling has been a pop-culture sport through the ages, whispered in gossip, screamed in tabloids. And it doesn’t require a king’s (or princess’) ransom. Talk, after all, is cheap — and royally seductive.

***

Speaking of stumbling on monarchy malarkey: In 2004 I chanced upon the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace in London, an irony-free shuffle of hollow pomp and frivolous circumstance. Since I just sort of materialized without a plan, I wound up unmoored on the street instead of obediently queued on the sidewalk. As you can see, the glaring horseback bobby was having none of it. Maybe he sensed my royal revulsion.

Buckingham Palace, 2004

The piano man: a musical meditation

It is dusk and the piano man slides onto his bench and begins playing in the vast hotel lobby, which is arranged with socially distanced dining tables and bar seats for a pop-up piano lounge vibe. 

A sad smattering of customers eat and drink and, shhh, the piano man is tinkling his heart out, swaying ever so gently to his own one-man band. He presides over the shiny black baby grand with quiet authority, as much groovy gravitas as one can muster in a chain hotel that’s trying really hard. 

What am I doing here, listening to the piano man on a frigid Tuesday evening? That’s a short, spectacularly uninteresting story, reader, so we move onto the lonely man tickling plaintive keys, which are surely moist with his falling tears.

The piano man performs sans face mask but with a natty blue scarf round his neck,  evoking a Lake Tahoe lodge feel (the fireplace crackles). He should be wearing a face mask because he is not a singing piano man. He performs instrumentals of dubiously hip pop standards — “As Time Goes By,” “Moondance” — frilling the tunes with jazzy tinsel and rococo flourishes, the filigreed doodles of the creatively restive.

Without singing, this piano man (lower case) is unlike Billy Joel’s iconic Piano Man (upper case), who is implored to: Sing us a song you’re the piano man/Sing us a song tonight/Well we’re all in the mood for a melody/And you’ve got us feelin’ alright.

That’s not quite the scene in the hotel lobby bar this night. No one is making requests. No one is tossing five-spots at the resident artiste. (Where, oh piano man, is your tip jar tonight?) No one is “in the mood for a melody.” Alas, no one is listening.

He’s playing “Tiny Dancer.” He ponders his life as he does.

I am transfixed. The piano man is good. The euphony, the dexterity! Those gliding hands are mad-nuts, and he doesn’t even glance at them. He scans the near-empty room, eyes half-mast, perhaps in a self-induced fugue state. What is the piano man thinking?

I took piano lessons as a wee one. I learned exactly one song. It was 12 seconds long and had these lyrics: “Here we go, up a road, to a birthday party.” Fact: It’s the easiest piano tune ever, making “Chopsticks” seem like Chopin. I mangled it every time.

I figure if I have one more cocktail I’ll sidle up to the piano and join our hero in a duet of “MacArthur Park,” he on the keys, me out of key.

The piano man is an island, no tipsy admirers warbling along with the tunes, patrons shuffling past without so much as a knowing smile or polite nod. He is a rock of existential solitude, abandoned by rotten weather, Covid, the Tuesday night blues. He’s a street busker in a ghost town. The misunderstood genius, honored only after his tragic, Mozartian death. 

The piano man as metaphor. I think we’ve heard that song before, played to the tune of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

The piano man’s shiny black berth, the day after his show.

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.

Love, laughs, loss

Girlfriends are great. I adore them, madly, with smashing intensity. They like me too (yo, it takes two to tango), even if they have to slalom around my prickly edges, indigo moods, slashing humor and periodic bouts of suicidal solitude. But really, no joke, I’m a blast.

Just ask some past survivors — er, lovers. One said I was “brooding and negative” (aw, thanks, honey). Another called me a “tortured artist.” And, more to the point, I was told I’m an “s.o.b.” and, shucks, an “asshole.”

Ah, romance. All flowers and firebombs.

Those Hallmark sentiments, spouted in rare snaps of high dudgeon, are the exception not the rule. I’m a good, if challenging, partner, as my exes will attest. Almost all of them remain tight friends, and at least two are undying soulmates, exceptional individuals with whom I’ve never laughed harder, shared harder, and created quirky little worlds together.

I bring this up after watching two of my favorite fractured romances, movies that either rip me up or crack me up before sending me off blubbering like an Italian widow. 

In 1961’s “Splendor in the Grass,” Natalie Wood plays a sexually repressed teenager who falls for Warren Beattie’s high school jock and, in short, goes crazy. As they go their separate ways, Wood’s psychosis intensifies. Later, supposedly cured, she visits her ex, who is now married. The ending will kick your guts out.  

Freighted with neuroses, Woody Allen courts a young, insecure Diane Keaton in 1977’s “Annie Hall,” the quintessential Allen love story, whose tagline is the very apt “a nervous romance.” With Allen’s overbearing hangups and egotism and Keaton’s skittish fragility, the couple’s frequently hilarious affair doesn’t stand a chance. Friendship will have to do. The last, lingering shot is almost unbearably wistful.

My relationships have bits of both films — possessiveness, craziness, big laughs, deep-dish neuroses, breakups and friendship. They have no boozy “Fool for Love” abuse, or bat-shit “Fatal Attraction” obsession. They are earthbound, boring to some; glorious fireworks spectaculars to those involved. 

I’m lucky to have dodged real drama, yet love isn’t always pretty. An otherwise sweet, sane woman shattered a glass on my bedroom floor in blind fury. (I told her I wouldn’t have dinner with her family on Christmas — smash!). Another one dumped her beer on me with extreme prejudice. But these are aberrant episodes in my relationship history, teensy scars I can look back on lightly. What’s a soaked, sudsy shirt between sweethearts?

I don’t want to date a deranged Natalie Wood from “Splendor in the Grass,” and I have dated a Diane Keaton from “Annie Hall,” who yielded almost too much fun to describe. But life isn’t the movies and love isn’t easy. Just ask my exes. They’ll tell you. Believe it all.

Shits and giggles

Warning: This post contains content about caca. Yes, poo. Seriously.

So I’m a bit sick — my stomach rumbles and grumbles — but I’m not coughing and I can taste and smell (bah, Covid!). I will survive.

Of course sickness is all around, both mighty and minute. To wit: A friend recently texted that she had a little accident. She had, reader, sharted. “It was unreal!” she exclaims, as if she’d been visited by an impish spirit or heard her dog speak Urdu. “And I couldn’t tell if I shit through my underwear into my jammies and onto the sofa!” (She’s suffering minor diarrhea, the dear. Aren’t we all?)

Why I find this hilarious, I really don’t know. A big part is the source. This comes from my most gentle, compassionate, God-fearing friend, the apotheosis of angelic. The idea that she even poos is incongruous to her purity. But as the popular childrens’ book declares, “Everyone Poops.” Still.

Poop is funny. Farts are funny. Sharts are hysterical. Sometime ago, my brother gave me as a gag gift (he was only half-joking) “The Encyclopedia of Poo,” a handsome photo book of “one of ‘civilized’ society’s last taboos,” which presents doo-doo from a cross section of creatures, a delectation of defecation. We had a good laugh. (Fun fact: Wild animal dookie is weaved with grass and bone bits.)

Beyond that scat-tacular tome lie infinite examples of fecal fun: Jeff Daniels’ volcanic sphincter in “Dumb and Dumber”; the fart ’n’ beans scene around the fire in “Blazing Saddles”; the photo site RateMyPoo.com; Nicholson Baker’s protagonist cutting “a loud, curt fart like the rap of a bongo drum” in the miraculous novel “The Mezzanine”; my brother, as a child, crapping in the bathtub while I was in it with him (thanks!). Like a case of trickling incontinence, it doesn’t stop. 

Yes, it’s kids’ stuff, shamefully immature, tsk-tsk, bippity-boppity-boo. Yet I can still snicker, even when it pertains to me. My friend can, too. The texts about her fecal fountain came with the emoji that’s laughing to tears: 🤣

As I hinted in the start of this post, I’m also enduring some seismic abdominal activity. It’s really not that hilarious when you’re the victim, so I empathize. I do not want to be the poster child of poo, and neither does my gal pal. 

We are for the moment comrades in caca. And she is the unwitting co-star in what is possibly my least genteel blog post. I apologize to her and to anyone who got this far. Normalcy will return. Guts will stop gurgling. Giggles, however, will certainly not.

A needling issue

At long last, I got my first flu shot. The transaction — their needle, my flesh and humility — happened in a grubby drug store pharmacy. The prick was quick and slick, and I didn’t even pass out. Nice work, Maggie. 

Peg me a shiftless procrastinator, a craven needle-phobe or simply irresponsible, but I was never motivated to get a flu shot. I figured as I never get the flu, why volunteer for a small agony. This, in hindsight, was naked folly. The new nature of viral contagions changed my mind lickety-split, and almost happily I rolled up my sleeve, squinched my eyes and turned my head as the pharmacist harpooned me.

Of course when I first saw the syringe, I made an exaggerated ack sound, like I was horrified of needles, which, well, I kind of am. To wit: When I was 12, I contracted mononucleosis, which is referred to as the kissing disease by hormonal middle-school gossips. Much blood was drawn from my arm, and more than once the nurse had to pull out smelling salts before my drooping body slunk to the floor. (Smelling salts are fantastic. They’ll snap you out of a coma.)

Finishing the mono bit, news of my illness spread across campus, initially as fodder for racy rumors but ultimately becoming a badge of honor. Not only was I out of school for six weeks — a scholastic triumph — I returned a sort of hero, a tween Don Juan who not only got, but conquered, the mythic kissing disease. Thank you.

Today the flu vaccination is coursing through my body, a shield against aches and fevers and coughs and sneezes. But that’s only partly true. Because Covid-19 still lurks with no vaccine in plausible sight, no matter the president’s flatulent lies. And Covid is not just the seasonal flu, as our genius in chief crows. Remember this doozy? “When it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” (I need a large crowbar.) Or this, about the U.S. death toll so far: “It is what it is.” What a fella.

And now he’s pressuring his administration to approve a coronavirus vaccine ahead of the November election, before they have proof that it is safe and effective, reports, well, everyone. “The faster, the better,” Trump spouts.

It’s the stick-it-in-your-arms race: Trump rushes to produce a politicized vaccine while Russia does the same in order to burnish its standing in the nationalistic spotlight. Who can do it first? (Me first!) Are Trump and Putin kindergartners? Yes. Yes, they are.  

I’ll take a Covid immunization — when it’s thoroughly tested and certified by doctors and experts who do not kowtow to venal politicians. A hurried, premature Covid vaccine got a volunteer very sick this week. Yeah, I can wait. 

It’s been two days since my comparably inane flu shot, and I think I have the slightest sore spot where the needle poked me. Boo-hoo. This is serious stuff. I’ll be glad to get another flu jab next year, and I look forward to a safe Covid shot. I’ll be there, rolling up my sleeve, squeezing shut my eyes and turning my head in the other direction. Smelling salts optional. The shot itself: mandatory.

Melting ice cream dreams

I feel bad for the old ice cream truck fella, an icon of hearty Americana who once, back in “Leave it to Beaver” times, was known as the Good Humor Man, and who now is definitely not in a good humor.

Yet here he is, making the rounds at 3:30 each afternoon without fail, rumbling through the neighborhood, tinny tunes jangling from a rusted rooftop megaphone, the Pied Piper of Popsicles. Are those tear stains on his cheeks?  

These are mournful times and, unsurprisingly, the traveling ice cream business is way down, what with parks closed, or only slowly reopening, and the pandemic pandemonium roiling unabated. I hear the music and look out to see two or three tykes clamoring at the truck window instead of the bevy that used to get all Wonka-Bar crazy for the latest frozen thingamajig. 

It’s almost painful watching the face-masked driver handing out melty treats to the wan crowd. What once took a frantic 15 minutes or more is now a few-moments pause, a hiccup with the motor running. (Melting? Maybe my heart.)

Better days for the ice cream man.

What I also notice is how the truck’s musical tootling has changed over the summer. Going from upbeat circusy music, this might be the only ice cream truck whose jingle is by Beethoven, namely “Für Elise,” a strangely moody tune to play from a Day-Glo magnet for giddy children.

I suspect our fraught racial climes have affected the ice cream man’s tune. He used to play the hokey folk song “Turkey in the Straw,” which goes like this. Some argue that the song, which confectionary vehicles nationwide blare as a Pavlovian call to calories, is actually a 100-year-old minstrel ditty that’s grossly racist. Revisionists refute that. 

Not Wu-Tang’s badass RZA, who’s updating “Turkey in the Straw” with a hip-hop twist. CNN reports: “RZA came up with a new ice cream truck jingle because the old one was used in minstrel shows.” Last month, Good Humor even ordered all ice cream truck drivers to stop playing the outmoded number because of its sullied history. 

As if the nameless driver doesn’t have enough woes without the cursed and forever corny “Turkey in the Straw.” The children disperse wearing ice cream lipstick, scampering back to homebound quarantines or kicking balls in the street. I picture our quiet hero despondent, driving off with his forehead resting on the steering wheel, enduring the same few bars of Beethoven’s old melody played over and over on something between a strangled street organ and a broken music box, with that creepy carnivalesque tang.

The music echoes down the block and through the trees, an earworm for the dwindling masses, calling out: eat me