In my time as a film critic, I often brought along my own pocket camera to interviews with celebrities, either because I wanted to or the newsroom was simply understaffed that day. I was recently sifting through some of the resulting photos — glorified snapshots, really — and plucked a few that don’t totally suck. You might recognize some of these distinguished folks.
Hagia Sophia is one of my favorite structures in the world. A chunky, imposing cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-public-museum, flanked with four rocket-like minarets, a bulky beacon doused in faded hues of pink and salmon, the famous building shares the same lush Istanbul peninsula as the nearly-as-glorious Blue Mosque. Almost amazingly, the edifices sit directly across a palm-lined park from each other, a spiritual and architectural bonanza.
So it’s with slack-jawed dismay that I read this about the treasure in today’s newspaper:
“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree ordering Hagia Sophia to be opened for Muslim prayers, an action likely to provoke international furor around a World Heritage Site cherished by Christians and Muslims alike for its religious significance, stunning structure and as a symbol of conquest.
“The presidential decree came minutes after a Turkish court announced that it had revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, which for the last 80 years had made it a monument of relative harmony and a symbol of the secularism that was part of the foundation of the modern Turkish state.”
Erdogan, on an Islamist tear, is, like another aspiring authoritarian, a crackpot. And today’s move on Hagia Sophia is culturally criminal.
More from the article:
“Built in the sixth century as a cathedral, Hagia Sophia stands as the greatest example of Byzantine Christian architecture in the world. But it has been a source of Christian-Muslim rivalry, having stood at the center of Christendom for nearly a millennium and then, after being conquered, of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, when it was last used as a mosque.”
Below are some of my photographic memories of the holy site, aka Ayasofya, where you can see the exotic marriage of Islam and Christianity, including walls of crumbled majesty, their layers peeled back to reveal vibrant Christian frescoes and mosaics from 537 AD, as well as gigantic round panels emblazoned with Arabic script perched from atop the basilica. For years, it was the world’s largest interior space. It is spellbinding.
This is Cubby, über-hound, chillaxing on the cool wood floor on a balmy late-spring day. Sprawled out in sharp symmetry, almost X-shaped, he looks like a doggie cookie-cutter, or the puppy piece in Monopoly, or a pendant dangling from the neck of a dog lover of strenuous devotion. In a word, he looks amazing. Like an artwork Jeff Koons could only dream of, or a taxidermist’s dampest fantasy. He would look stunning on a mantel, a small, regal canine, with a muzzle oh-so fluffily bearded.
Cubby knows none of this. If he had heard the above during his spread-out siesta, he’d be all, “Enough. Leave me alone. I am napping on the cool floor, dreaming of squirrels, fire hydrants, and fat kielbasas. You are a ridiculous man. Be gone … zzzzz.”
What we have here is a tableau titled, say, “Dog Day Afternoon.” Or “Dog Splayed Afternoon.” Some kind of post-modern still-life William Wegman could appreciate in all its unposed dogitude. (Although, of course, Wegman meticulously poses his long-suffering Weimaraners, what with their fancy clothes and anthropomorphic exertions.)
So what we have is less Wegman and more found art. Cubby, surely warm under that carpet of curls, located open range in the cool foyer, plopped down and stretched out from his head to his pom-pom tail. He exhaled and sighed: Goddam.
And this is how we found him, still as a statue, a statue of such accidental perfection it might be worth lots of money. Certainly, because his preternatural pose notwithstanding, Cubby, that cuddliest of canines, is worth a million bucks.
The giggly, beatific smile on a bedraggled beggar girl on the steps of the Jama Masjid Mosque in Old Delhi. Three eager children bounding up to their cow for an impromptu snapshot in the backstreets of New Delhi. A red-eyed, dye-smudged wise man looking meaningfully into the distance in Udaipur.
They’re but a few of the images I snapped some years ago while traipsing about northern India, including Old and New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur. During the long days of corona cocooning, I recently flipped through travel albums and found a theme: wondrous, troubled India — and its magnificent people, so kind, polite, funny and alive. These are some I met:
As I sit here, speeding through Tokyo on the bullet train (or shinkansen), I gobble an egg salad sandwich, as simple as it sounds, bought at a ubiquitous FamilyMart convenience store. I have no idea why the abundant convenience stores here — be it 7-Eleven or Lawson — make such famously tasty little sandwiches, so humble and dainty even the crust is removed. America, lick and learn.
Day Five in electrifying Tokyo, I’m now on the train to this jovially mad city’s near polar opposite, ancient, placid Kyoto, a major urban center flavored with temples, shrines, gardens and the fading tradition of the rosy-cheeked geisha. I envision relative quietude, and mounds of soba noodles and many yakitori skewers. (For now, I’ve had my fill of sushi, though more is assured later. In fact, once in Kyoto, I was quick to mark a conveyor-belt sushi joint next to my hotel.)
Tokyo, as American kids would say, is lit. And lit (well, lighted, blindingly) it is, vibrating with a friendly freneticism, thrumming with courteous, controlled chaos. It lacks New York’s pavement-pounding determinism and San Francisco’s self-satisfied beauty and bohemianism. Order reigns and rules are followed — you’ll never see a jaywalker and there is absolutely no litter, not even a stray cigarette butt, bizarre for a city totally bereft of sidewalk garbage bins — but it’s not the slightest iota oppressive or authoritarian.
Far from it. This is a city filled with laughter, a robust nightlife (several nightlifes, as the many neighborhoods, from Roppongi to Shibuya, boast their own partying personalities) and a staggering overall kindness and politesse. The locals are approachable and often approaching, just to see where you’re from or if you need anything, and also to practice their English. They are unfailingly accommodating and vigorously helpful. People don’t yell, don’t argue in public, hoot or holler. Truly, the only vocal noise to break the sound barrier I’ve experienced is laughter.
Now, a couple days later in Kyoto, I find, unsurprisingly, the same congeniality and penchant to oblige, but in a far more compact if still bustling setting. As with Turkey, it’s the people who make the deepest impression here. I’ve been pegged a misanthrope (who me?), a bit inaccurately, but whatever. People just make me nervous. I blame my own ample timidity, baseless anxieties, feeble fears that rattle the mind and inflame the stomach. The point is I find the people here wonderful, even wondrous, comforting; cool, models of affable composure to be emulated.
There’s lots to write about this trip — the food, the drink, the stores, the temples, the shrines, all that electric overkill — but I’m vacating, so I’ll let pictures do the blabbing.
So I return to Japan in late October, my first time in several years, and the anticipation is giving me fits of insomnia. The capital, Tokyo, is one of my favorite and most indelible cities, part of a troika that includes Paris and Istanbul. I was skipping through some photos from past trips — people and places inside and outside of that teeming, gleaming metropolis: pagodas and Harajuku Girls; whale meat and cherry blossoms; lakes and a big, cool silver orb that, in its own odd way, sums up the reliable surreality of Tokyo.
It’s astonishing how pleasant and doable the weather was yesterday in Coronado, San Diego, what with hair-flustering breezes and temps hardly nicking 70. It’s nuts. I mad-love it, especially considering the 100-ish hell-wave I’ll be facing back on the East Coast. That’s nuts, too, but in a whole other way, the kind that makes you cussy and crazed.
Weather’s the worst. It’s almost never perfect. Climatic sweet spots are as slippery as quicksilver. But these days are pretty swell. I can wear pants. I can wear shorts. I can slip on a light jacket. Or not. Actually, it could be a dash cooler — mid-to-low-60s would be Edenic — but I’m being positive. Sunshiny, if you will.
So. San Diego. I haven’t been here since a wild weekend at my brother’s dorm at San Diego State University, where he went for one semester before beating it the hell to Cal Berkeley. Yes, of course he took the 17-year-old me to Tijuana, and, natch, what happens in Tijuana stays in Tijuana. So quit asking. (Frankly, I don’t remember a thing.)
Now, with six other family members, I’m on vacation at a place I would never choose on my own. But majority rules. We did the vaunted San Diego Zoo, a lush green compound where the exhibited animals play a mean game of hide and seek with gullible human visitors craving a glimpse of (and desperate selfies with) those cuddly koalas. Peek-a-boo at the zoo. No one wins.
The other major attraction here is, of course, splashy, clamorous SeaWorld, where yowling seal barks and the wet slap of bellyflops by multi-ton orcas fill the salty air.
Along with human screams.
That’s because the ocean park has perforce reduced its vulgar killer whale and dolphin shows after cries of demonstrable animal cruelty and have filled the entertainment void with, what else, rollercoasters and marine-themed thrill rides.
Like the Tentacle Twirl, Tidal Twister, and the fearsome Electric Eel, the “tallest, fastest” rollercoaster in all of — hang on — greater San Diego. It’s a bit like saying a place has the best, zestiest tacos in Des Moines, Iowa. It’s all comically relative.
But my sarcasm falls flat because the Electric Eel is a stellar coaster. We rode it today, and each herk, jerk, corkscrew, twist, twirl, drop and fling came out of nowhere. Usually you sort of know the layout of a rollercoaster, how many loops it has and such. The Eel was sheer breathtaking surprise, fast, furious fun.
Waddling, nose-diving penguin colonies; bulbous ivory beluga whales; tubby, slothish walruses; greedy, hand-fed manta rays; bullet-like harbor seals; the inevitable killer whale show, which is now solely an educational experience without dopey trainers standing on the animals’ backs like they’re water skiing. Thanks to foot fatigue, missing on our expedition were dolphins, otters, polar bears, sharks and the almost mythical narwhal, the so-called unicorn of the sea that I would like to ride around the Arctic.
Like yesterday, the weather held today at a tolerable 72 degrees, which still staggers. (And still left me sunburned.) This SoCal trip winds down tonight with tacos and tequila at the poolside cantina, called fittingly enough The Cantina.
This was an accomplishment. I survived all the trappings of a semi-swanky beach resort, swaying palm trees, children splashing (and shrieking) in swimming pools, grown men in flip-flops and tank tops, quaint downtowns, extravagantly famous theme parks filled with captive creatures and $10 beers. I spent time with family and realized its uncanny resemblance to the macaque. I pet a dog at a restaurant that growled at me fiercely. I splurged on too many beverages. I didn’t go to the beach. I didn’t fish. I ate scallops. I didn’t eat ice cream. I had a blast.
Time magazine recently wrote about this enchanting photo:
Capturing the thrill, the shock, the shared triumph-over-evil that the children feel at the very moment when St. George slays the mythical beast, Eisenstaedt’s picture feels as fresh as when it was made, more than 50 years ago.
Here, the picture tells us, is an innocence that can remind even the most jaded of what it was once like to believe, to really believe, in the stories that unfold before our eyes onstage, or onscreen.
The master photographer himself said of this very picture:
“It took a long time to get the angle I liked. But the best picture is the one I took at the climax of the action. It carries all the excitement of the children screaming, The dragon is slain! Very often this sort of thing is only a momentary vision. My brain does not register, only my eyes and finger react. Click.”
I can’t tell you how underwhelmed I am by the newly released photo of an honest to god galactic black hole — the first-ever snapshot of one of these largely invisible yet still whoa-awesome mega-vacuums.
“It’s like the universe had a royal baby: That’s how excited everyone is for this first glimpse of a black hole,” writes Slate.
My interest in royal progeny or anything about the Royal Family is several notches below my interest in macramé and pulling weeds, so right there we have a faulty analogy.
I like stars and planets, the sun and galaxies and Chewbacca, but I’m a solar system sourpuss on this one. I don’t frown upon astronomers finally clicking a picture of a black hole — “an abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it” — it’s just not emotional rocket fuel. It elicits a cosmic shrug. I was expecting explosions and ecstasy.
“The image is based on data from radio telescopes all over the world,” Slate says, “so it’s not technically even a picture of a black hole. It’s really confusing that everyone’s acting like we have a picture of one. This is actually a composite that shows the shadow of a black hole.”
Here is the image, released today by astronomers:
“A composite that shows the shadow of a black hole”? Maybe you can see why there’s disappointment amid the jazzed gawping. Not only is it not an actual black hole, but the photo really isn’t so hot. Blurry, amorphous, rather dull. Like a toddler accidentally took a picture of a lightbulb with his mom’s lame Android phone.
Some liken it to an orange donut, the bagel emoji, or a SpaghettiO — a junk-food fest. Others, like the New York Times, wax poetic, declaring the black hole, “55 million light-years away from Earth, resembling the Eye of Sauron, a reminder yet again of the implacable power of nature. It is a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.”
Deep. And quite lovely.
But really now, this is a black hole:
This is the black hole of our dreams and nightmares, the yawning, all-devouring abyss of a crappy 1979 Disney fantasy titled, aptly, “The Black Hole,” the cosmos’ most grandiosely epic sucker-upper, a whirling, phosphorescent monster maw, God’s unblinking eye, or the fiery, furious, inflexibly unforgiving gateway to Hell. It is glorious and mad, beautiful on a mind-altering scale, a spinning top dancing on the lip of the great beyond.
But it is also just a NASA illustration, a dazzling graphic vibrating with the curiosity and imagination of good speculative sci-fi. No one knows what a black hole really looks like, even after the new fuzzy photo. I’d love to see a crisp, clear portrait of one of those galactic phenomena that sucks up everything in its path. Alas, today’s picture just sucks.
My laptop, a tall drink and a fairy tale vista — about all I need in my travels.
This was the perch on the rooftop terrace of my Istanbul hotel in November. I went up there a lot for the trusty Wi-Fi; cool fall breezes; Efes Pilsener, the cheap local brew that hits the spot despite its unflagging mediocrity; and, of course, the pristine views of the fabled Blue Mosque and yawning Bosphorus strait.
At night the mosque lights up like a jeweled crown. The water shimmers. I sip my drink and tip-tap on the keyboard, writing nothing of consequence, most of it rot. Istanbul is paradisiacal, keenly removed from normal life, so transporting you sigh with an operatic flutter. It’s Paris of the East, a storybook nirvana.
I miss the mosques, the street food (döner kebabs, simits, etc.), unduly charming people, sweet stray dogs and cats, and ancient rococo scenery. It is where I want to be, right now.