‘Tis the season to chillax

2020 bit, hard. Somehow 2021 was just as rotten. 2022 looms — turn the page and all that. Don’t hold your breath. It’s going to be another shit show.

What’s been on the menu of wonderfulness? In short: family deaths, illness, Covid and its spawn-of-Satan variants, political/racial/social outrages, chronic insomnia, that gnarly pimple on my forehead last summer — the usual maelstrom. 

Complaining about, even inventorying, these things is by now beyond trite. So we saunter ahead and seek purpose and palliatives, things that distract and dull the pain. 

Like … hell, I don’t know. A stiff drink? (Yep.) Christmas carols? (Bah!) How about just a mindset adjustment, a way of looking at the world in a soft-focus haze rather than the cold, klieg-light glare we’re currently deploying? 

Things are pretty bad, but for most of us, most of the time, they’re not catastrophically bad, are they? Maybe they are. I’ve had my share of catastrophes in these gloomy times — some bad, some badder — and yet I’ve still found resilience, wisps of hope.

It’s a matter of focus and self-possession. If at all possible, we need to mellow. Take a deep breath wrapped in a sigh. We’re starting to hit the I’m-over-this-shit button, yet we’re in for more bone-cracking cold. Hang tight. But not too tight.

Maybe this is a call for self-improvement. For our quirks and foibles — our hideous flaws — to get tweaked and kneaded into something softer and more accepting. And more helpful.   

Me, for instance. I own a roiling anger that springs from fighting life, resisting and pushing, sparking off it, flint-like. I strain and recoil, writhe and seethe. It isn’t helping. I need to cork it. Clonazepam does only so much. 

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions — hardly a novel stance — but if I did one it would be to ride the next wave with the mettle and determination of that young surfer who got her arm bit off by a shark but keeps on shredding half-pipes like nothing ever happened. Limbs are missing. Still, we carry on.

Setting my sights on new specs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The upshot: I need real glasses.

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

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

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

Thankin’ about Thanksgiving

I have a cold, all the pumpkin pie is gone, and my pants are dirty. Still, Thanksgiving was fine, just grand, as we did all the gathering, eating and digesting (Macy’s has the floats, we have the bloat) called for on this most misunderstood and head-smacking of holidays, in which hysterical myth supersedes historical fact.

Massacres, disease, the galling absence of quality cranberry sauce — I won’t get into the lowlights of the so-called First Thanksgiving. Think rather turkey, stuffing and pie obtained in an annual pilgrimage to Whole Foods, pun most sincerely intended. 

It’s a whitewashed affair, with thoughts totally not on the brutal realities of 1621 and more on unabashed gluttony, soggy family movies and, for the yahoos, grunts from the gridiron. Put the guy carving the turkey in suspenders and a bow tie and you’ve got a Norman Rockwell painting. 

Sounds unbearably wholesome. More like ho-hum-some. Which is how I like it. Give me low-key and low-pressure — you know, Covid-sized shindigs — over the flustered festivities of my childhood. That’s when long-lost relatives converged in fragrant farm towns for queasy parties featuring a veritable rogue’s gallery of relations, from fawning, darling grandparents to scofflaw second cousins. (I’m looking at you, Billy, the toothless terror.)

Those were the days, until they weren’t, and I am glad. Though I’m not pleased about the pesky cold I somehow caught out of thin, albeit chilly, air. I’m all snot and snorts, hacks and honks. It’s hardly incapacitating — if someone said let’s hit the slopes or jet to Spain, I’d pack in five minutes flat — but it is annoying. Waking each morning I feel mummified, rising from a death slumber, swaddled in phlegm. 

Thanksgiving has always been entrée to the big kahuna of holidays, Christmas, much as, say, Harry Potter’s been a gateway drug to genre realms for an entire generation (and for many stunted adults), be it to fantasy, sci-fi, Marvel or manga.

But I digress. Thanksgiving kicks open the wreathy door for the even more brazen fantasies of Christmas, which has also lost its historical meaning, drowned in an ocean of twinkly, tinseled fabulism animated by sardonic elves and sexless singing snowmen. Look closely, waaay in the background, and you might spot a slight bearded fellow whose birthday this supposedly is. He’s the one waving meekly.

The power of myth prevails on some of our biggest holidays. (Easter. Sigh.) But that’s what we’re there for — entertainment, merriment, community, ritual (not the deep, religious kind, but the fun, Chardonnay kind), and the weird random fairy tale that will keep the kiddies hyperactively interested. 

But here’s the truth: there is no Santa Claus, there is no Easter Bunny, there is no Great Pumpkin and there is no utopian First Thanksgiving sit-down. We all know this. Nobody cares. 

What we do care about isn’t trivial, it’s familial. It’s a little indulgent and, well, a lot ignorant. Yet it’s merry and nourishing. And, no matter a cold and some carping, it counts.

One memory launches a hundred more

There was the one-legged kid with the giant mouth who sold us homemade firecrackers for 25 cents a pop on the playground. That was Clayton, grade four, with a wooden leg and a broad freckly face topped by a shaggy pageboy. I still don’t know why Clayton had one leg. But he got along, though with a strenuous limp that made him look like a lurching scarecrow.

Those were some times, grade school in Santa Barbara, Ca., when John Travolta, John Ritter and Jonathan Livingston Seagull soared. When skateboarding became a bowl-swooping craze and the Boogie Board vaulted bodysurfing to radical crests. And when Pong and Space Invaders rocked high-tech recreation with bleeps (and, face it, creaks). 

Jim Jones and “The Devil in Miss Jones.” Darth Vader and “Dancing Queen.” The time machine churns and Clayton, poor Clayton, is probably selling TNT to demolitionists in Arizona these days. Light the fuse …

Boom! That’s KISS, circa 1978. All fire and folderol. And, for a fourth grader, everything alluring wrapped in one blinding bundle: sex, rock ’n’ roll, explosions, noise, mayhem, tongue-flinging personas in makeup and costumes.

Not a good look. Things rarely age well, unless it’s wine, or Cheryl Ladd.

Some things last. Queen and the Ramones. “Annie Hall” and “Apocalypse Now.” Bowie and Belushi. Richard Pryor and Richie Cunningham. Didion and De Niro. Rodney Allen Rippy and priggish Charmin pitchman Mr. Whipple. And yes: “Maude.”

What we’re getting at is memory and endurance, how they’re braided, and the randomness of it all. It started with Clayton’s cheap firecrackers — painted silver, with the fuse strangely in the middle, not the top — a fond memory from when I wore Keds sneakers and Sears Toughskins and had hair like Adam Rich. 

Apparently out of nowhere I had a flash of Clayton, always with that enveloping smile, his disability be damned, and everything came rushing back in mere seconds, and with it the world.

The charming, alarming gluttony of the pet rat

Once long ago, I was plopped on the sofa watching TV’s campy “Battlestar Galactica” — the one with Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict that face-planted as a “Star Wars” wannabe — crosslegged in my bedtime uniform of briefs and oversized T, when my pet rat Rhonda scampered over and bit me on the scrotum. 

I yowled like a wounded caribou dying in the wilderness. Tears welled. My brother folded over laughing. He guffawed. Indeed, he chortled.

Rhonda, a sleek black and white beauty, just sat there amid the commotion, blinking, wondering: What in the blankety-blank is this all about? Her boyfriend, the big brown bristly Ralph the rat, with the pendulous pink gonads, was probably cowering behind the bookcase, thinking: me next? 

With blind curiosity and razor-sharp incisors, rats will bite anything — computer cords to concrete, earrings to ear lobes — so the question of why she did this is not up for discussion. She’s a rat. She came. She saw. She chomped.

Still: Did it look delicious? Was stuff hanging out of my underwear? No, the rodent bit straight through the cotton fabric to nip my nards. Excuse the unseemly imagery. Hey, I was, like, 10.

That’s what rats do. I once tried to kiss a later pet rat, Becky, on the head and she took a piece out of my upper lip. Like Great White sharks, rats bite first just to see if it’s edible and ask questions later. My nether regions apparently weren’t tasty; Rocky Mountain oysters were not on the menu this evening. I was both offended and relieved.  

So, yes, anything. Rats will bite it, if not necessarily eat it. My many pet rats over time have enjoyed such delicacies as: shirts, expensive jeans, shoes, books, fingers, pens, a tube of Super Glue (which was miraculously empty), drum sticks, plumbing (thanks, Tammy, for the kitchen flood), plants, watches, cockroaches, geckos, toothbrushes, remote controls, and so on. 

Food-wise, they will eat everything, from broccoli and beer to garbanzos and garden snails. The rat’s promiscuous palate is boundless. They have the diet of the gods, or Elvis.

Does this make rats demonic? Or just ravenous? Or really dumb? I say all three, particularly when I recall how Becky bit into the Super Glue tube, which again was somehow empty. (If not, it would have killed her quickly, yet with maximum agony.)

And still my adoration for pet rats — so-called fancy rats, or Rattus norvegicus domestica — is limitless. Despite the odd attack on my innocent childhood flesh and their unsettling Darwinian rapacity, pet rats are cuddly love bugs — clean, clever, clingy and sociable. They eat like Caligula, but still. 

Long ago I wrote a gushy paean to the pet rat, noting how: “They play and wrestle, come when called, chill on your shoulder, groom with OCD avidity, swim, delight in belly rubs lying on their back.”

It’s all true, though I skimmed the creature’s staggering insatiability. Here I include a photo of Becky sharing pizza with my pal Nicole. She is clearly trying to carry off the entire wedge.

The rat had free rein, skittering right up Nicole’s leg and onto her shoulder for a big bite of pie. Rats are fun like that, looping about the house, exploring, finding mysteries and mischief, always returning to you for warm companionship. Just be sure to rinse any chicken grease from your fingers, unless you want a nasty manicure. And gents — well, you know.

I can’t do karma

I was just thinking about the childlike knuckleheadism of karma, that form of magical thinking summed up as “what comes around goes around” that’s as easily dismissed as so much mystical poppycock.

What triggered this thought was how some unpleasant things have happened to me recently with little rhyme or reason and how some people, using karma as lazy shorthand, might reduce my miseries to retribution for some naughty past behaviors. 

Was it the time I shoplifted records when I was 14? Or when I flipped off a fellow driver who cut me off ? Could it be that I ghosted a girl I was dating because she didn’t read books? I doubt it, on all counts. I just don’t think the universe works that way.

Karma is synonymous with cause and effect, destiny and fate. It’s a measure of the luck one deserves and an incentive to do good deeds: you helped starving children, now you will be rewarded with a wish-granting genie! And it’s a deterrent from wrongdoing: you probably got in that fender bender because you never call your mother, you selfish wretch.

It’s not about getting a wicked hangover because you drank too much. That’s not karma; that’s ill judgement. Nor is it getting a promotion for a job well done; that’s hard-won exceptionalism.

No, karma is about the intangible, rooted in coincidence. It’s a strenuous leap of faith. A bit of chance. It’s not unlike the gauzy fictions of astrology or palm reading, though it’s probably less harmful and deceitful. 

In college, a furry Grateful Dead fanatic — a bona fide Deadhead — chided me for talking about scalping some Dead tickets at inflated prices. “Oh, dude, that’s bad karma, man,” he whined. I ignored him. I sold the tickets. The only adverse effect was the wad of cash I gleefully made.

But maybe karma was at work there. Had my hippie friend refrained from calling me dude, I might not have sold the tickets. Peace would shine upon the land and a few less Deadheads would noodle in druggy bliss to inexplicably horrible music. Then again, nah.  

The term karma is from the Sanskrit for “action, effect, fate,” and it echoes the biblical notion of reaping what you sow, not to mention such needlepoint philosophy as: “Life is a boomerang. What you give, you get.”

I don’t buy it. While I believe you are the author of your life, that your choices navigate where, to an extent, things will take you, I also think most of it is out of your hands. There are no messages in the universe, no cosmic justice. There is, however, striking coincidence, dumb luck, chance. Life as the Lotto.

Karma, ergo, is a cockamamie crutch. It’s got woo-woo written all over it. It’s as plausible as Santy Claus, spirits, or my friend Tom picking up a check at lunch.  

And now that I’ve spouted off here, with snark and a smirk, you just know something is going to get me.

All dolled up

When I was 8, I picked out a stuffed seal from the gift shop at SeaWorld in San Diego. He was gray, firm and fuzzy, and I promptly named him Salty using all the imagination my tiny head could muster. (Seals live in the ocean. The ocean is salty. Voilà!) 

I owned a sprawling menagerie of stuffed animals, including Bugs Bunny, Snoopy and this cruddy sawdust snake I won at a carnival, but Salty immediately became my favorite. When I accidentally spilt milk on him, I erupted in tears. I liked him that much.

A handsome fella with a minimalist design — nubby flippers, dark glass eyes, a few canine whiskers — Salty beat out Bugs and a hand-me-down teddy bear as my preferred plush, realigning the delicate balance of the toy hierarchy. Indeed, during my last move, I donated all of my stuffed animals except Salty, who even now sits out, visible to all. He radiates pinniped pride.

Salty on the left (stern as always); Bugs; and the ancient, loved teddy bear I was given

Salty had it easy. His job was to be an object of cuddle-osity and little more. I never drafted him for elaborate games or humiliating role-playing frolics. He has an almost comically serious face, and I could tell he would brook no foolishness. 

I left that to my, huh-hum, KISS dolls, creatures that were all about foolishness. Infected with the KISS bug before I turned 10, I greedily got my hands on the original dolls of Gene, Ace, Paul and Peter and was thrilled. I built them a big stage trimmed with Christmas lights. I never used it.

Because what does a non-collector — the dolls’ valuable packaging went straight into the garbage — do with plastic figures of rock stars, who also happen to be comic book heroes? Well, you play dolls, naturally.

The original KISS dolls

This is where I look sillier than usual. My next-door neighbor Joanie, a year older than me, owned the requisite Barbie and Ken dolls. I brought over the KISS guys and we dreamt up a scenario of Ken secretly being Gene Simmons without make-up, and then, when his superhero powers were conjured, I’d pull out the Gene doll. 

And there you have the presto-chango transformation from a blonde beefcake Republican to a hairy, tongue-wagging Neanderthal who belches blood and exhales fire. 

Lest you think I only played with a stoic seal and kabuki-faced clowns, my brother and I also wrung creative mileage from a caped Evel Knievel action figure (including a small motorcycle); a doll of sensible chimp Cornelius from “The Planet of the Apes”; and, of course, a kung-fu grip G.I. Joe, whose buzzcut fell out when we put him in the bathtub. 

I also liked the thick rubber dude called Stretch Armstrong — he was very stretchy, pull, and that was it — who met a grisly demise when, out of pure boredom, I sliced him open and synthetic pink jelly oozed out. (I think my plastic Army men found a gnarlier fate: I lit them on fire and watched them melt into gooey puddles.)

Only Salty survives. His plush playmates are somewhere in the Salvation Army ether, hopefully finding good homes, many, like that pitiful carnival snake, probably sacrificed to the incinerator. The KISS dolls are somewhere, packed away. I think. I don’t really know. And I kind of don’t care. I don’t exactly have any friends who’d want to play dolls with me anymore.

Perched in the open like a noble sphinx, Salty is none the worse for wear (the milk didn’t stain him; my tears might have). His whiskers are slightly bent out of joint, and he could maybe use a dusting. 

Otherwise, that stuffed stalwart hasn’t aged a bit. In so many ways, neither have I.

‘Girls Gone Wild,’ stripped to its essence

Back when I was a roving cultural reporter and movie critic for a Texas newspaper, I was assigned the dubious task of covering the arrival in town of the “Girls Gone Wild” crew at a local dance club. Pointing a throng of cameras at a small stage, the “GGW” crew cajoled local women to partake in a strip contest with cash and travel awards. No matter your morals — it’s complicated — I viewed this as a curious sociological excursion.

This is how the night went down, and how I put it into words …   

Lauren is not getting naked. 

Somehow, the bleached blonde with a toffee tan thinks that a girl can get wild without really getting wild. That in this day and age a girl can attain most righteous wildness by spurning the fundamental step of giving the public a peek. 

What gumdrop world is she living in? 

When the video cameras from “Girls Gone Wild” come to your town — and they came to Austin the other night — there are certain expectations, and every single one of them has to do with bare skin. The “GGW” cameras do odd things to young women. Naughty things. Namely, they inspire women to lift their tops and expose themselves, often while their tongues hang out sloppily. This is called wild. 

Not, says Lauren. 

“I will not be showing (anything). Absolutely not. No way. It’s called ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ not ‘Girls Gone Naked,’ ” says Lauren, who, like many in this story, withheld her last name. The 21-year-old with a leonine mane of yellow hair and jeans low enough to reveal lots of red silk thong works at a bar and is studying to get her real estate certification. 

“I don’t look down on any girls who are wild enough to do that. To each her own,” she says. “But that’s just not my style. You’ve got to leave room for the imagination, you know.” 

Thirty minutes later, Lauren was taking it off. 

There she was, on stage at country-dance warehouse Midnight Rodeo in South Austin, gleefully lifting her Girls Gone Wild mini-tank top for about 700 howling, whooping, screaming, yelling, barking, caterwauling young men, who were apparently seeing their first bare breasts. 

Writhing with professional panache and shooting a carnal glare at the boys, Lauren’s soft-spoken modesty melted, then hardened into Elizabeth Berkley in “Showgirls.” 

Woooo-yeeahh-owww! went the men. 

Ha! went the dozen women on stage. 

The women, ages 18 to 23, were competing in a “Girls Gone Wild” talent contest (is lap dancing a talent?), the winner of which will appear on a “GGW” pay-per-view event. 

The direct-order video company’s Austin stop was part of a 31-city tour that’s brought camera crews to San Diego, Philadelphia, Dallas and Lubbock. First prize this night was $100 cash and an all-expenses paid trip to Panama City, Fla., where the winner will take part in another “GGW” contest. 

It’s a common perception that in party, aka college towns, Mardi Gras has become a kind of open-air flash ’n’ flesh bazaar. Grunting young men proffer tacky plastic beads to greedy women, who gladly, if drunkenly, haul their tops over their chests and under their chins for impromptu peekaboos. The boys go wild. 

Joe Francis, the young multimillionaire who created “Girls Gone Wild,” decided several years ago to bring video cameras to these and similar spring breaky gatherings. Give the girls beads, make them go wild, tape it and sell it. 

“GGW” boasted more than $90 million in direct-response orders last year and the brand has become shorthand for “drunken-girl antics.” “GGW” trades in “normal people” and avoids pros and strippers, Francis says. 

Any young woman will lift her top for the low price of guaranteed male attention, he says. “You’d be surprised, man,” says Francis by phone from his L.A. office. “Every time I go out, I see a girl who I thought would never do it.” 

Joe, meet Lauren. 

“I know, I know,” says Lauren, holding her forehead like a kid who’s been caught breaking a promise. She’s backstage, being escorted by the “GGW” crew to the winner’s circle. Lauren won the contest. 

“It was the heat of the moment,” she explains. 

Sociology of a shirt lift 

“I’m not drunk enough,” says Crystal W., a bespectacled blonde in a white tank top. 

Tonight, she’s leaving the stripping to her peers. “I encourage them. If you have a beautiful body, why can’t you share it with everyone else?” 

Crystal’s friends have been wheedling her to do it all night. “Why do I have to go on stage to do it? I can do it for you myself. I don’t need that extra push. I do it for my friends all the time.” 

Crystal is a good friend. 

On the other side of the rambling, neon-splashed dance hall — where bar servers sling Day-Glo shots in test tubes and a guy named Robert is coaxing his girlfriend Stephanie to get on stage — giggle Amanda Brown and Melissa Dotson, 19-year-old University of Texas students. 

The brunettes are dressed in tight, slight outfits that would pass for loincloths in some cultures. They rushed to Midnight Rodeo when they heard about the event on the radio. 

“We’re lookin’ to be famous,” Melissa says. 

“We get off on it,” Amanda says. 

“We’re not doing it against our will in any way. Not everybody has to like it,” says Melissa. “We’re not porn stars. We’re 19, we’re experimenting, we’re having fun. We’re out there.” 

On stage, Amanda and Melissa gyrate, kiss each other and lift up each other’s shirts. (They eventually take second and third place.) 

The boys hoot with stadium-rock abandon. They slaver and yell obscenities. Their eyes bulge like bloodshot moons. The overall expression on their faces is something like this: !!!!!!!! 

Wes Parnell, a slightly slurring 22-year-old UT student, assumes the role of resident sociologist and human behaviorist. He speaks waveringly, but with confidence. He spies two young women registering for the contest. 

“Oh, they’re going to take it off,” Wes assures us. “They don’t have a choice. When they get up on stage and start drinking alcohol, they start doing things that they don’t know they’re doing. They love it, they absolutely love it. Girls start seeing what the guys think and the guys trick them into doing more.” 

There’s a study of what makes girls go wild waiting to be vetted for psychological illumination. We can listen to Wes, or we can drag in an expert in feminist media studies. 

That would be Mary Kearney, assistant professor of radio-television-film at UT, who explains, “There’s some recognition when you’re a woman in your late teens and early 20s that sexuality is a form of power for you. And for a lot of younger women, it’s the only form of power they have. They are told on a daily basis that their primary goal in life is to get male attention. So if they’re getting it by lifting up their top, so be it.” 

Especially for middle-class white women, Kearney says, “This might be a chance for them to feel sexy in the moment, for girls to be wild. It’s sluttish behavior, and girls might be pushing the boundaries for themselves, to be like, ‘Ooo, I’m wild and crazy!’ Of course, they don’t really understand that it’s a pretty conventional climate for girls and women to be rebellious.” 

We return to the wisdom of Wes. “Girls have such low self-esteem, they need guys to cheer ’em on,” he insists. 

“I don’t have low self-esteem. I just don’t feel like being a slut.” That’s a brunette named Chanbra, who’s been encircled by several boys begging her to join the contest. One of them thrusts a cocktail into her hand. 

“It’s just for fun, just for fun,” says a guy. 

“I know . . .” Chanbra sounds breathless and confused. 

“Just do it. Please,” says another guy. 

“This is the third time I’ve been told to do it, and I’m not doing it. Sorry, y’all,” Chanbra says, and leaves. 

“Well, lost cause.” 

The call of the ‘Wild’ 

A petite young woman named Joanna bolts off the crowded stage mid-show and beats a hasty retreat backstage. She pulls off her cowboy hat and sighs with what sounds like relief. She was fleeing. 

“I couldn’t do that to myself,” Joanna says. “I’m not like that. I think it’s trashy. Looking at the crowd, I decided I’m not putting myself out there as a piece of meat. I’m shaking I’m so nervous.” 

Why was she up there then? 

She was egged on by friends, despite her protests. “I thought it was fun being part of the scene, and then it just got too far.” 

Away from male taunts and chants of “Show your . . .,” Crystal W. looks exhilarated. She wound up on stage flashing the crowd after all.

“I was naked! I don’t know why,” she gasps. “I can’t believe I did that because I come here a lot and I know everyone. Oh, my God.” 

Woodworth was persuaded by her friends, including Kimberly Hyde, who joined her on stage. 

“I’m just crazy like that,” Kimberly says. “It was a blast.”

It’s nothing new for her. She flashes her guy friends upon request. 

“Wanna see?” she asks.

Cryonics — a miracle, or just another coffin?

You’re alive. You die. Your body is then submerged in an icy bath of liquid nitrogen, clouds of frosty fog billowing down the sides of the tank in which you now float in suspended animation. 

The lid is sealed. And there it is: instead of being buried or cremated, you are being cryonically preserved, your body — or, in some cases, just your severed head — enshrined for eternity.  

If you’re lucky — say, the procedure actually works, or the planet doesn’t blow itself up while you’re in deep freeze — you will stir to life again, a muddle-headed Rip Van Winkle, yawning and stretching, wiping decades of goo from your eyes, and, oh, do hurry, brushing intractable halitosis from your maw with cases of Colgate. 

You can hear a delirious Dr. Victor Frankenstein baying, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” The excitement is electric. You’ve been dead — no, you’ve been a “patient,” say the scientists, who spurn the term “dead” — for 25 years. But now, in a miracle out of the most outlandish science fiction, you are, yes, alive. Indeed, re-animated. Forget the cancer. Forget the car wreck. You’re back in business.

Never happen. This is science fiction of the most cynical kind, a laughable, despicable scam convincing the gullible that there is life after death, as long as you freeze your body first. And as long as you cough up (cough, hack) $250,000 for your whole body or $80,000 for just your head. Costs only mount.

These sums come from the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a major cryonics company in Arizona “built on the spectacular wager that it can rescue its patients from natural post-mortem deterioration until a distant time when cellular regeneration, nanotechnology, cloning or some other science can restart their lives,” writes the Times

Alcor insists it can stop the dying process with cryonics, which it calls — and I kind of love this — “an ambulance to the future.” The company promises “future restoration of good health and reintegration into society for all patients.” 

Alcor has 182 frozen patients and 1,353 members, or living people who give Alcor cash as a sort of pre-freeze down payment. I hear a cuckoo clock in the distance.

This — death — is right up my morbid alley. I think about dying with unhealthy frequency, and, as I get older, the bleak thoughts strike with increasing ferocity. But I am not a life freak. I don’t pine to extend this predicament. I understand it’s all miserably finite. Plainly: I do not want to live forever. Freeze me if you like, but only if I’m placed in the TV dinner aisle. 

And so cryonics seems like so much quackery — misguided, wasteful and patently impossible. It reminds me of “Re-Animator,” Stuart Gordon’s 1985 horror classic in which a crackpot scientist is obsessed with resurrecting dead bodies, with splattery results. The movie was smart, playing the premise for gory laughs. 

I don’t think anyone is laughing — except to the bank — at Alcor and other cryonics outfits. They seem to really believe this twaddle. They believe a disembodied head can bob in freezing fluid and later be reattached to a torso and come to life. This happens in dazzling fashion in “Re-Animator,” but I’ll bet my life (ha) this will not happen to any real person. Ever.  

What if it did? What then? “I don’t want to do it because it might work and I don’t want to come back as a carnival act,” cracked actor Walter Matthau. I’m with the guy who coached the Bad News Bears. What kind of zombie-ish life can a thawed corpse lead after decades levitating in faux amniotic fluids? Are they immortal, or can they die again? Now I’m thinking of another horror movie: “Dawn of the Dead.” 

Yet freezing a corpse and jumper-cabling it back to life will never occur, and never has. Cryonics boasts no success stories. There is no Lazarus in its impoverished narrative. Peddling unabashed pseudoscience, cryonics advocates, and especially those who sell it, are no better than psychics, mediums and tarot card hucksters, ethical, religious and legal issues be damned.   

And who knows what nefarious schemes cryonic patients have cooked up before they died. As with anything, there are surely some bad people swimming in those tanks. Like disgraced, sex-trafficking financier Jeffrey Epstein, who wanted to have his head and penis frozen after death so that he could “seed the human race with his DNA.” 

Ick. 

When I think what I would do if my life was extended cryonically, I first see a long, leisurely trip to France, one of the most gorgeously alive places I know. If friends, family and doggies were still living — remember, I could be floating in a tank for decades before scientists figure this thing out — I would reunite with them with big, stiff-limbed hugs (I also see extensive and excruciating physical therapy after years of immobility).

Everything would have changed. My nephews might be old men — older than me when I died — making for some acute interpersonal awkwardness. The whole thing sounds messy, difficult and expensive. And, fortunately, utterly hopeless.

And yet proponents have faith. Says Alcor company honcho Tanya Jones, “If we can prove this works, everybody will know about us.”

Sorry, Ms. Jones: brace for obscurity. 

Baseball legend Ted Williams’ head cryonically preserved … ew, no.

The naked truth about a job I had

Slash was bored. The iconic shredder from Guns N’ Roses, famed as much for his seething guitar licks as his Niagara of dark curls, surly sneer and non-ironic top hat, paced the film projection booth at the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre as he waited for the strip club’s notoriously hard-partying co-owner Artie Mitchell. 

A magnet for lustful and plain curious celebrities, including on this night the freshly famous bandmates of Guns N’ Roses, the upscale flesh emporium in San Francisco, home to some 100 dancers, was anointed the “Carnegie Hall of sex in America” by none other than gonzo journalist and Mitchell Brothers confidant Hunter S. Thompson. 

Famous and infamous, classy but trashy, a spotless venue filled with dirty deeds, the O’Farrell was where I worked for three months when I was 19. It was novel. It was exciting. It was a droning bore.

So there was Slash in my workplace, a quintessential rocker I didn’t recognize. Guns N’ Roses was relatively new, despite having just sold two million albums, and was in town shooting a scene for Clint Eastwood’s latest Dirty Harry movie, “The Dead Pool.” The group’s hit “Welcome to the Jungle” revs the film’s soundtrack.

A fellow longhair, I shot the breeze with Slash, who explained that, no, he was not a member of Bay Area metal band Exodus (my bad), and that his actual group, GNR, wears its influences on its sleeve, from the Stones to Aerosmith. I still didn’t know who the hell they were. 

Enter Artie. “You look tired. Let’s chop one,” he tells Slash.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal later that night:

“Slash’s eyes glow and a malicious grin cuts across his sagging mug. We’re in the projection room and they go to the counter and Artie begins to nonchalantly cut a fine white powder and shape lines. And he slurs, ‘Let’s make the first rock ’n’ roll porn film!’ They howl with laughter.”

The job was surreal that way. 

A callow journalism student at San Francisco State, I was lured to this unusual gig at “one of the most infamous and oldest erotic dance clubs in the country” by rumors that Hunter S. Thompson, an ink-stained hero, was working at the club as night manager to write a book. (He did work there for a bit in 1985. The book never materialized.)

When the place closed last fall due to Covid-19, right after its 51st anniversary — it opened on July 4, 1969 — many appraisals appeared about the O’Farrell Theatre’s checkered history. 

For instance: the Mitchell Brothers, Artie and Jim, were the defendants in over 200 court cases involving obscenity or related charges. (They were never convicted.) In 1991, Jim fatally shot Artie and was sentenced to six years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. (Jim died in 2007 of a heart attack.) In 2000, their story was dramatized in the movie “Rated X” starring real-life brothers Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez as Artie and Jim.

The postmortems are expectedly zesty. Yet I haven’t read a better physical snapshot of the den of debauchery than this one from SFGate.com:

“Like most strip clubs, the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre is a plush, disorienting palace. Upon entry, the walls are smattered with headshots of dancers and pornographic memorabilia. The walls are mirrored; the curtains are velvet. For decades, beneath the scintillating glow of disco balls and red rotating lights, the carpeted kingdom has provided anything from nude lap dances to ‘flashlight shows’ for San Francisco’s ‘weirdo’ strip club clientele.”

The writer does neglect to mention the hallways lined with gurgling aquariums, the Green Door Room (three women and a working shower), the glass case stocked with pink sex toys, and that those flashlight shows were far more gynecological than titillating. (The writer also wouldn’t know what my manager told me on my first day: “Don’t touch the girls. It’s like fucking the boss’ wife.”)

To some, my job sounds breathlessly, unimaginably sexy, each shift an hours-long orgasm of totally unclothed ladies with frisky stage names — Bambi, Trixie, Roxie — doing things with and to each other many people couldn’t (or wouldn’t) conceive.

But a job it was — fun, alive, yet often grinding. I not only ran the old-school film projectors, I also DJ’d live shows, did floor “security” and made beer runs for the brothers and their guests. (Because the women were all-nude, no alcohol was sold in the club, and the brothers confined their partying to the upstairs offices and, in Artie’s case, the projection booth. I eventually split a DosXX with Slash there.) 

Besides the random celebrity client — GNR, Aerosmith, Billy Idol, in my day; Trevor Noah and Justin Bieber more recently — the famous folks who dropped in were usually working girls. These would be “golden age” strippers and porn stars, from Marilyn Chambers and Nina Hartley, to Hyapatia Lee (who generously lactated on the audience) and a geriatric Tempest Storm (who, dubbed “The Queen of Exotic Dancers,” died in April at age 93).

Backstage with two of my coworkers (photo not by me)

Call it an education. Chatting with male patrons, I learned what made them tick and why they kept coming back week after week or more. Chatting with female coworkers, I learned what leads one to strip and, in many cases, perform XXX acts in public. 

Rarely I got hit on by a dancer (“Anytime you want some excitement, let me know,” offered Sasha), or even a male customer (“Are you sure you wouldn’t take a tip to be touched somewhere?”). I learned how mundane the human body really is (and isn’t) and the contortionist lengths we’ll go to be turned on by it.

My stint at the O’Farrell was meant to be a life experience and, truly, fodder for my own writing. That implies I was enchanted and starry-eyed the whole time. I wasn’t. After my very first shift, I was effectively inured to the supposedly sexy spectacles. A fantasy for some, there’s little fantastic about it. It’s nude ladies. It’s horny men with rolls of cash. It’s a dubious lap-dancy, pelvic-thrusty, semen-stained subculture. It’s a job. 

Says one of the theater’s longtime (jaded?) DJs: “Being a male-bodied man in your 20s and being around naked women, it’s the shit, but after a while you’re desensitized, and they’re your sisters.”

Exactly. And that’s not so bad, is it?

The O’Farrell’s famous backside mural