Snow job

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It looked like a pillow fight in a movie: downy feathers of snow twisting and drifting through the air, with little space between the fluttering flakes. A midday flurry making landfall in heaps and mounds. 

Yet it wasn’t too voluminous, this late-winter coating, and instead of pillowy tufts, the following day offers equal parts splash and crunch. Anything beautiful about the snow has thawed into a slurry swamp. Walking the dog, we slalomed around slush and brown puddles resembling polluted ponds. My sneakers got wet. 

Slush, rivers of slush.

I love winter. I like the cold. But I can do without snow, which wasn’t true during my salad days of skiing down vertiginous slopes, laughing all the way. Nowadays I’m too reserved to even toboggan, and I am not squatting in one of those saucer sleds for the certainty that I will break my collar bone in a spectacular face plant. 

Snow now means shoveling, one of the lowest forms of drudgery, right there with prisoners smashing quarry rocks in old-timey pictures like “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” No matter how frigid it is, I sweat piggishly when shoveling snow. I hate sweating. I hate heat. Did I mention I like winter?

But the season will soon cruelly vanish and shorts, a sartorial scandal, will be all the rage. It’s probable more snow will fall before that; March often gets dumped on without mercy. If there was a hill around here, I’d rent some skis. (And probably snap a femur.) 

So this is a premature farewell to the fair season, when we abide icy irritants for the relievedly short days, chilly breezes, hot toddies, fashionable outerwear (is anything hipper than a natty scarf?) and indiscriminate cuddling. (About outerwear: I never don gloves or hats in winter. My mammalian blood takes care of the extremities, ears too.)

When another snow day comes this season, I will gripe and groan. But I will also be grateful that it’s still winter. That I can wear a parka with impunity. That I don’t have to attend barbecues and eat outdoors. That bugs and sunshine won’t assail me. And that I can, joyfully, unabashedly, freeze my ass off.

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I’m not eavesdropping, really …

Recently here I chatted up the new local cafe, the exquisitely hip, I’ve-been-to-India, dump-Trump joint with the jaunty name. I decided to pop into the other local cafe, that name-brand one that just reopened after long renovation. I’m there now — I write in cafes often, a living cliché — and I’m people-watching with a touch of eavesdropping. It’s not at all creepy.

I see a poised, pert, put-together brunette chirping quietly with her friend — hale, happy twentysomethings talking about job interviews and uproarious Facebook posts. She looks like she loves dinner parties and charades. She fancies a good daiquiri. Her favorite TV show is “This Is Us.” I’m just surmising, but I know I’m right.

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A hypothetical cafe scene. They look ecstatic.

Elsewhere overheard: “You know, Mary, I’m not comfortable making those calls.” 

Enter: a 60-ish gent in a baggy Bill Cosby sweater, with stubble that looks like powdered sugar sprinkled on his pink pate. “I begin my teaching tomorrow. Seventy students!” he tells his companion, a flute-thin young woman with lank auburn hair who, I’m certain, is a teacher’s assistant. 

The fellow is loud and a roaring bore. He gesticulates like a madman. She sips some coffee and it goes down the wrong pipe. The ensuing coughing fit is something to behold. Napkins fly. We sympathize.

“We’re getting off track here,” an elderly woman laughs. She’s talking to a slightly younger woman at a corner table about scheduling some sort of meeting at her home. “Should we do RSVPs?” the younger woman asks. 

I soon gather they’re organizing a book club. They are perusing a list of titles. The younger woman describes a book that’s “very well-written” that sounds like a kind of real estate thriller. The authors Andre Dubus III and Michael Frayn (“He’s British”) are mentioned. “The person who selects the book is the host of the meeting,” says the younger woman.

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I want to chime in and suggest the novel I just finished, “The Friend,” Sigrid Nunez’s brisk, deceptively simple yet profound meditation on the writer’s life and friendships between people and dogs and people and people. It won the 2018 National Book Award. It’s lovely.

I pick the book. I’ll be the host. I’ll serve baked Alaska.

Someone just said “hypothesize” in mixed company. 

I ask the barista what she’s reading these days — we often yack about books — and she flashes her copy of the novel “The Secret History,” Donna Tartt’s 1991 cult smash. I kind of wrinkle my nose while evincing interest, and tell her I tried and failed to read Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer-winning epic “The Goldfinch.” I read about half and put it down. The novel is divisive: You love it or loathe it.

She adores it. “What didn’t you like about it?” she asks. I thought it was cutesy, candied, implausible, whimsical and too redolent of Dickens. 

“It is Dickensian,” the barista says, and with that simple word my day is made.

Elephant adoption — it’s a real thing. Two ladies are talking about it. One explains that it costs $50 a year to adopt an African pachyderm and “each month they email you a picture and an update about your elephant.” She has an elephant. “I went to visit the orphanage in Nairobi,” she says. I suddenly want an elephant. 

“It’s my parents’ 43rd anniversary,” a 30-ish guy tells his friend. “That’s a long time to be sniffin’ someone else’s toots.” 

I missed most of the soliloquy, but a youngish man was rhapsodizing about coffee and espresso and the joys of sitting on his porch, and out of his mouth popped this phrase: “the waking beauty of life.”

Spectacular.

My compost-mortem

Sometime ago I wrote here about being cremated when I croak, and not being buried as a rotting or fluid-infused corpse in some kitschy coffin. I directed my family to roast me into fine powder and put me into salt and pepper shakers.

3-years-320x180.jpgThen I stumbled on another ashy option: the underwater reef ball, an eco-friendly, reef-building sphere of cement in which your ashes are placed and then sunk to the bottom of the sea. Sleep with the fishes — you bet. 

Why am I discussing this?

Because I’m cracked. As I described before: 

 “I think about this stuff with unseemly frequency. For as long as I remember, the specter of death has had its talons lanced into my gelatinous psyche. I read about it, watch movies about it, dream about it, haunt cemeteries all over the world to get close to it …

“I mull mortality, yours and mine, every single day. I’m a realist, but it’s a quivering reality. As mortician Caitlin Doughty writes, since childhood ‘sheer terror and morbid curiosity have been fighting for supremacy in my mind.’ Mine too is a bifurcated fascination, marbled and complex.”

So, yes. I have a dark streak. Onward!

Evidently there may soon be another legal option for the disposal of my exquisite corpse: human composting. A first in the nation, Washington State is considering allowing “human remains to be disposed of and reduced to soil through composting,” or what’s called recomposition, writes The New York Times. 

Decomposing bodies would crumble and decay into soil and be dispersed to help flowers and trees thrive. “It seems really gentle,” says a 71-year-old woman who yearns to be turned into fertilizer. “Comforting and natural.” Natural indeed: A body in the ground without embalming goop in it eventually becomes soil anyway.

This sounds fantastic. “There’s no coffin, no chemicals, none of the fossil fuels needed for cremation, and no expensive cemetery plot required,” says the Times. And composting is practically a bargain. It costs about $5,000 — much less than a traditional coffin burial, if a little more than cremation.

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How is it done, this conversion of a six-foot-long human body into palmfuls of coffee grounds? It doesn’t seem as simple as leaving a corpse out on the lawn to slowly putrefy in the elements like some horror show out of Lucio Fulci. (Please do click that last link.)  

No, it’s more scientific than worms and rot. There’s poetry to it. In a recent study, “six bodies were placed in a closed container, wrapped in organic materials like alfalfa, then bathed in a stream of air warmed by microbes, and periodically turned,” the Times says. “After about 30 days, the bodies essentially became soil.”

I want to become a stinking heap of soil. I want to nourish flowers and flora, be tossed in filthy fistfuls across the landscape. There go my corroded kidneys and bug-infested brain, in powder form. I’d need no coffin, no urn, no tombstone. Birds can nibble on me. Dogs can dig at me. Daisies and daffodils can bloom. Oaks, elms and pines can kiss the clouds. My new mate: mulch.

But as anyone can tell you, this is all rather counterintuitive, since I’m not an outdoorsy person by any definition. For one, I hate gardening. Pollen is my kryptonite. The sun and I are in divorce proceedings. Hiking is a personal Hades.

Yet I won’t be hiking when I’m in a wheelbarrow. I’ll be chilling. I’ll be a magic powder, literally fulfilling the biblical injunction of committing “this body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

But that’s mystical phooey. This is about getting your hands dirty, with earth-saving, Whole Foodsy gusto. It’s death as a kind of birth, like donating your organs to save another body. It’s one final good deed before it all goes poof.

She’s depraved, debauched, despicable — and so lovable

One of the piquant pleasures of the British TV comedy series “Fleabag” is how its protagonist, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, insistently pokes through the fourth wall with the impish gall and smug impetuosity of a naughty little girl. She winks, crinkles her nose, smirks, grimaces, makes snide comments, all of it right at the camera, meaning right at us.  

She wants us to be a part of her latest escapade, her latest squirmy moment, lest this young woman has to go it alone in her flailing, full-frontally narcissistic existence. As she says in the first episode, she has “a horrible feeling” she’s “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”

Well. Now. Really. She’s not that bad. How could we love her so much, empathize with her so fully, if she was such a steaming heap of debasement? Even her self-anointed sobriquet, Fleabag, is more fitting for a scuzzy homeless tramp than the bitingly charming London cafe owner she is.

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Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), breaking the fourth wall with an uneasy reaction to the audience

Season one of Fleabag,” which premiered in 2016, is streaming on Amazon, with season two on the way. From online posts, viewers either adore or abhor Waller-Bridge’s character, which she created from her play of the same name. (Waller-Bridge stars in and writes all of the TV episodes.) “Hate the protagonist … She has no redeeming qualities and is totally unlikeable,” someone groused, and that’s enough of that.

So she’s divisive. Aren’t some of the most interesting women multifaceted? Don’t they chafe while they charm, pepper smarm with snark, own a bit of Mother Teresa mixed with, say, Sarah Silverman? “Fleabag may seem oversexed, emotionally unfiltered and self-obsessed, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” say notes from the “Fleabag” play.

With her floppy pageboy fit for a ’30s Hollywood starlet, natty outfits and Skittles-red lipstick, our anti-heroine exudes a glamor incongruous to her unsavory descriptives. Though she’s too surly to be screwball, she often recalls the great comedians of yore with kaleidoscopic facial expressions that match her shifting moods. Waller-Bridge plays light and dark with equal dexterity. She is a scintillating performer.

Fleabag has been called “an angry, confused young woman attempting to navigate life in London,” which is about right. Yet you can’t ignore her Olympian sex life, a tragicomic pastime that ends as these things do, with a droplet of satisfaction and a river of rue. 

With a rich, unsmiling sister, a fun, like-minded bestie and a mostly off-again boyfriend, Fleabag, who’s on the cusp of 30, is still working things out. She’s painted as a classic self-absorbed millennial, playing the field and playing out with scant regard for the collateral damage. Ever-so slowly we watch her crumble, perhaps implode. The show slyly builds to a dramatic pitch that’s truly poignant and confirms that there is little superficial about it.

“Fleabag” is TV’s best comedy, better than my other tops: the cinematic if shrilly hyperactive “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the near-perfect “Catastrophe,” the wry, wondrous “SMILF” and madly inventive “Atlanta.” (“High Maintenance” — you’ve slipped.) 

Super news: Waller-Bridge is bringing the stage version of “Fleabag” to the SoHo Playhouse in New York City for five weeks, Feb. 28 through April 7. Waller-Bridge wrote and stars, and I have a ticket.

As a one-woman show, she’ll be addressing the audience face-to-face, the fourth wall totally disassembled, the rubble kicked to the side. It should be tartly hilarious, cheeky and racy, and fantastically uncomfortable — just like the staggering series. 

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A booze for we the bamboozled

A popular bumper sticker circulating when George W. Bush was president read “Bush is a Punk-Ass Chump” — a masterpiece of anti-dipshit propaganda that I proudly displayed. 

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(I was in Texas Bush-country at the time, so I didn’t dare slap it on my car, lest an overzealous cop pulled me over for some imaginary misdeed. The sticker found pride of place on my fridge.)   

I’m reminded of the rascally decal by a new bottle of booze that just hit online shelves and is already sold out, dammit. It’s made by Empirical Spirits and it is called — squeamish eyes avert now — Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall. This surely zesty libation is a “habanero spirit based on barley koji, pilsner malt and Belgian saison yeast.” I don’t know what in the hell that is, but I want it.

But, like I said, the 50cl bottles, at $68.51, are plumb sold out. You can sign up for email alerts when it’s back in stock here. 

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As I haven’t tried the drink, here’s more about it from Uncrate, an elegant site for the highly selective male shopper (gander at its galaxy of dizzyingly unaffordable goods here):

“It could end tomorrow, or we could be in for six more years. Either way, spirits like this bluntly-named one from Empirical might help make it all slightly more tolerable. Distilled in Copenhagen, this clear spirit is based on barley koji, pilsner malt, and Belgian saison yeast. A habanero vinegar is used to rectify the spirit, but the final product is free of a spicy kick in the face — unlike the current political reality we face each and every day.”

Cheers to that. Gulp your beverage of choice accordingly. Drink responsibly. Or in this case, go nuts. We are rather thirsty for change.

Though the FTHSFW spirit is gone for now, you still can get a T-shirt embossed with the bottle’s clinically-plain label here. You owe it to your country. Clink.

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God or godless. Either way, you’re wrong

Though I’ve only made a wee dent in the book I got today — “Seven Types of Atheism” by philosopher John Gray — I am already bitten and beguiled. On page 33 of the 170-page manifesto, I find myself putting it down often to copy a tart line or provocative passage.

Gray, without airs but with erudition, places in his crosshairs the arm wrestle between religion and atheism, that eternal, irreconcilable chasm of belief, God and godlessness. He is acridly and relentlessly critical of both.

Dense but light on its feet, slim but chubby with fact, philosophy and opinion, the book reveals a bracing entertainer who hardly balks at taking intellectual swipes at celebrity atheists slash rational humanists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and other crusaders. 

Gray, says The Guardian, “is a card-carrying misanthrope for whom human life has no unique importance, and for whom history has been little more than the sound of hacking and gouging.”

That’s my kind of guy, though Gray takes things a little further than I do when it comes to faith, history and humanism. Still, his book, from 2018, is studded with eyebrow-cocking history lessons, slashing judgments and pleasing iconoclasm. A few nuggets from my early reading:

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“There is no such thing as ‘the atheist worldview.’ Atheism simply excludes the idea that the world is the work of a creator-god, which is not found in most religions. … Nowhere does Buddhism speak of a Supreme Being, and it is in fact an atheist religion.”

“Many versions of Jesus and his life can be supported on the basis of existing evidence. Among the least plausible are those that have been presented as fact by Christian churches.”

“Christian thinkers have interpreted the rise of their religion as a sign of Jesus’ divine nature. Among the many prophets teaching at the time, why should he alone have inspired a religion that spread to the last corner of the earth? Unless you think that human events unfold under some sort of divine guidance, the metamorphosis of Jesus’ teaching into a universal faith can only have been the result of a succession of accidents. … The Christian religion is a creation of chance.”

“A free-thinking atheism would begin by questioning its prevailing faith in humanity. But there is little prospect of contemporary atheists giving up their reverence for this phantom. Without the faith that they stand at the head of an advancing species, they could hardly go on. Only by immersing themselves in such nonsense can they make sense of their lives. Without it, they face panic and despair.”

McConaughey, the mensch

Meeting celebrities is easy. Interviewing them is a breeze. They are generally polished to a professional sheen. They know how to play the game, which is patently transactional. Some are harder than others (I’m squinting at you, Paul Thomas Anderson). Matthew McConaughey? He’s a cinch.

A good ol’ boy from East Texas, with a boingy twang, squinchy blue eyes, and bounding with bonhomie, McConaughey is much like what he seems: a smart, friendly dude you might want to shoot a shot with. He’s a charismatic lava lamp, alive and aglow.

To a journalist like me in 1998 — young, a smidge green — he was the most caring, amicable guy around. I was having a face-to-face interview with the actor in a Beverly Hills hotel room during a junket for “The Newton Boys,” Richard Linkater’s ill-fated western-comedy. A Texas guy, McConaughey was fascinated that I’d recently relocated from California to Austin for a newspaper job as a film critic. 

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He seemed genuinely interested, and we talked all things Austin and Texas, acting and movies. And from the room balcony he pointed out the groovy ‘70s-style van in the parking lot that he was driving cross-country for the hell of it. He was 27. We bonded enough that he’d remember me for years afterward. 

Like when he was walking the red carpet at the premiere of his 1999 comedy “Edtv” and he spotted me, grabbed my hand, pulled me aside and asked me how I was enjoying my new Texas hometown. He was sincere and serious, with laser eye-contact, shutting out the bustle around him. Then he smiled wide, cheeks caving into dimples, before moving on down the line. 

He didn’t have to do that. He could have said hi, answered my softball questions and walked on. But he was cool, concerned, a gentleman. He had class. 

Months later, when I ran into him at a Wendy’s on the University of Texas campus before a rare screening of Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 “Some Came Running,” McConaughey seemed a little out of his element, a tad awkward, though he still made a point of making me feel welcome and an equal. He spoke in a hushed drawl. He barely smiled. He kept things low-key. I introduced him to my girlfriend. He bought a large Coke. He sat in the middle row, we sat in the back.

The relationship between journalist and subject/source is a dicey one. They are rarely seamless. There’s a give and take, a perilous reciprocity that often leaves one party feeling burned. And so there’s this:

McConaughey was working the red carpet for the local premiere of Kevin Costner’s 1999 baseball melodrama “For the Love of the Game” at UT. He was beaming, strutting out of a black limo, in all white and all alone.  

He isn’t in the movie, he was just a celeb guest at the gala. And he was chomping a hunk of gum like cud. He approached me affably, answered two questions, then sauntered into the auditorium, chased by hearty cheers. 

I report details. I like what’s called “color” in my stories. So in my piece about the screening I prefaced McConaughey’s quotes with: “He was conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum.” Readers want to know each iota of their beloved celebrities’ behavior. This, I thought, was a telling detail — innocuous but revealing. Or so I thought.

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Matthew, gum, chew.

In 2003, four years after this gum-chewing reportage, the Austin Film Society threw a 10-year anniversary bash for the release of Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age masterwork “Dazed and Confused,” which was made in Austin and co-starred a cocky, hilarious young newcomer named Matthew McConaughey. 

A red carpet press-line was formed. Here comes McConaughey, who I haven’t seen in four years. He is arm-in-arm with two young women, and chewing gum. I hurl him a question. He stops on a dime before me, and says, pointing to his mouth, “Tell them that I was ‘conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum,’ you got that?” Dimples flashed, this time with a shit-eating grin, and he brusquely walked away with an up-yours swagger. 

Perhaps, just maybe, I had pissed him off.

Forward five years, to 2008. I hadn’t seen People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (2005) since the “Dazed and Confused” screening and I was a little nervous as I was scheduled to interview him for the micro-indie comedy “Surfer, Dude” in Austin.  

He was there, in shorts and sandals, hair mussed and shaggy, mood ebullient. He greeted me with glowing teeth and cavernous dimples. He was almost ecstatic. He loved this movie. He was back. 

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McConaughey during our “Surfer, Dude” interview

At the end of a very friendly chat, I screwed up the nerve to ask him about that day when he repeated back to me, “Tell them that I was ‘conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum,’ you got that?”

He laughed heartily. “I didn’t like the use of the adverb ‘conspicuously,’” he told me, practically slapping my knee. “If you hadn’t used that word I wouldn’t have cared!” He was over it. We cracked up.

The intricate dance of writer and subject is a fragile one. Like that, it can topple in misunderstanding. It can snap on the perceived power of one simple word. But people, even movie stars with eggshell egos, are resilient, forgiving and, sometimes, like McConaughey, true mensches.