You must remember this 

I own a stockpile of childhood memories (a disproportionate number of them featuring poo) that I access often and for the most part fondly — distant, dreamlike time travel that reminds me I’m alive and have lived. 

Randomly: There’s the time my mom got sprayed and drenched by a blubbery walrus at SeaWorld when I was 8. My first real kiss with Stephanie when I was 12. My dad taking us to a live taping of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” at 14. Playing drums in my first professional rock concert at 17. And when a kid peed all over my back while I was stationed at a urinal in the boy’s bathroom. I was 7, and wearing a brand-new shirt to boot. Yeah, I bawled. (The fact that I never made a voodoo doll of that kid is miraculous.) 

Those are youthful flickers. I’m skipping adult flashbacks — like when I was detained by Hezbollah in Beirut, or when I got acupuncture and almost puked — in favor of more faded scrapbook pages, not all of them fully innocent or delightful, but mostly far enough in the past that any sting has been blunted. (Strike that: a guy pissed all over me.) 

It’s smart to wax philosophical about these things. “Memories warm you up from the inside,” writes novelist Haruki Murakami. “But they also tear you apart.”

True that. I harbor some memories that are seared in my consciousness as if by a cattle brand, and I wince to this day. Still others are sublime and soaring, pleasures to revisit and revel in, visions that, as Murakami says, “warm you up from the inside.” Memories are agents of powerful, sometimes bulldozing, emotions. They hit you right here. They are not to be trifled with.

Summer memoriesMore remembrances, good, bad, ugly: At age 9, my best friend and I got our impish hands on some shotgun shells and threw them into a backyard fire in hopes they’d blow off (they didn’t). Selling lemonade from a curbside stand, my gal pal and I — we were about 7 — beseeched a passing teenage driver to buy a tasty beverage. He flipped us off. We were scandalized between giggles. My black Lab killed the neighbors’ cat. A few of us mischief-makers planned to dig a giant hole, cover it in leaves, and invite a neighbor kid over to fall into the pit. Digging the hole was so hard, I abandoned the plan within minutes. 

These are piquant memories, fragmentary yet oddly enduring. Evoking them — like seeing that dead horse in the road after it was hit by a car when I was 6 — is bittersweet.

I retain a catalog of episodic nostalgia, musty but living organisms that are easily accessible and flicker like short films across slabs of my brain: the hippocampus, neocortex and amygdala. Exhuming them is akin to fanning a Polaroid, waiting to see the image, with great and terrible affection.

Pandemic versus Paris. What will win?

I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” — author L.M. Montgomery 

About now, deep into spring, I start yearning for fall. Let’s skip the blinding, sweltering ordeal called summer and dive right into October as if it’s a pile of fallen leaves. Though it’s currently hovering in the 50s — my ideal weather — racing to a future of reds, yellows and browns holds possible virtues.

First and most importantly: the coronavirus could be conceivably kaput. Almost assuredly not, yet, save for some myopic governors and delusional citizens, most of us are working on it. The pandemic will haunt us for many more months and I, no expert, project the soonest we will be even remotely clear is October.  

At least I’m banking on it. I have plans for October. Amid the pandemic panic, I’ve taken advantage of slashed airline fares and bought a ticket to Paris for mid-October. I’m paying about half as much as a normal fall ticket, and it comes with the airline’s new flexible change and cancellation policies, so I have some wriggle room. I’ll probably need it. (Call that First World whining.)

Paris is in full lockdown, and that’s worrisome. I booked an earlier flight a ways back and the airline cancelled it because of Covid-19. Same with a hotel I reserved, which is now temporarily shuttered. If a whisper of disruption, fear or illness circles my slated travel dates, I’m cancelling. For everyone’s sake.

960x0.jpgThe Paris trip is almost fake, a soft-focus vision, a teasing hallucination. Mostly it’s a marker, something pleasant to look forward to after the pall of the pandemic and the swamp butt of summer. It provides dream fuel and stuff to do, like plan good meals — Frenchie! — and chart new itineraries — Musée du Luxembourg, La Cinémathèque Française. It allows me to picture a time cleared of crisis, no matter how quixotic that is. 

October is achingly far off, and peeking over the horizon causes eye strain. Just about my favorite month (I want more Octobers), it’s not immune to global realities. Instead of strolling Pont Neuf, watching a movie at Le Champo cinema or feasting on the city’s best falafel at L’As du Fallafel, chances are I’ll be reading, writing and learning the delicate art of putting a ship in a bottle or some such during self-captivity, and venturing outdoors swaddled in the now-fashionable face mask. My optimism is slowly curdling.

Bleak or bright, it will still be October. As a silver lining, that’s not so bad. And as a suave, chain-smoking rake once muttered, “We’ll always have Paris.” I can definitely wait.

Not much else to do but read (and read…)

Thanks to the collective corona cloistering, I’ve been ordering books online, greedily. With libraries and bookshops closed, I’m buying used books from third-party sellers on Amazon and new titles from New York indie institution McNally Jackson. 

Unquenchably, I’m ingesting words in the yawning vacuum of self-quarantine. Reading is nearly as nourishing as food. This is what’s on my literary plate. 

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I met “Birds of America” author Lorrie Moore at a book signing for that acclaimed 1998 story collection, and she wasn’t the most jolly person in the room. She was frosty to her gathered admirers, but I don’t hold that against her. Moore’s edge informs her tart, smart fiction, which is also infused with emotional immediacy and pocked with laughs. With stories like the award-winning “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the book is a contemporary classic that hasn’t aged a whit. 

Death looms these grim days, though mortality is always on the mind of this moody Cassandra. Long ago I read the updated edition of “The American Way of Death,” Jessica Mitford’s definitive 1963 exposé of the funeral racket, and I’m back at it, if not for the dazzling reportage and head-shaking stats — upshot: funeral peddlers are exploitative swindlers — then for purely great writing that makes a dismal subject pop. The book is not only essential muckraking, but lavish literary satire, nipping at a venal industry with the toothy, pit bull wit of Pauline Kael. This tangy volume is one big reason I will be cremated and thrown to the wind.

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51VIRgJYGcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_While rereading books like the above, I’m also rewatching some favorite flicks, including “Casablanca,” the evergreen masterpiece in which every element of fine filmmaking miraculously falls into place. I love a good movie book so I clicked on Noah Isenberg’s “We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie,” the gawky title of which tells you just what you’re delving into. I haven’t cracked it yet, but I’m hoping for historical Hollywood gold on par with the recent knockout “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood.”  

Dreaming about Paris, I tripped upon the site for fabled English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, that grand, musty emporium on the Left Bank, where I scrolled staff recommendations for Paris-set stories. Never mind its racy cover, I was lured to Elaine Dundy’s cult comic classic “The Dud Avocado,” a romp tracing the libertine escapades of a comely young American woman in the French capital who yearns to exist out loud. Called a “timeless portrait of a woman hell-bent on living,” the novel seems unlikely to disappoint this thwarted traveler pining for Paris.  41efY3TglbL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_On the note of cult classics, “Airships,” Barry Hannah’s award-winning collection, promises “20 wildly original, exuberant, often hilarious stories that celebrate the universal peculiarities of the new American South.” The book hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s highly anticipated after being called “one of the most revered short story collections of the past 50 years, remaining a vital text in the history of the American short story.” And this snippet from it makes me sort of love it already: “What a bog and labyrinth the human essence is … We are all over-brained and over-emotioned.”

51hhyhVwywLRaymond Chandler’s crackling and complex detective noir “The Big Sleep” scorches with style. The novel, a total delight, introduces private eye Philip Marlowe, literature’s great existential antihero, a shrugging loner with a gun, cigarettes and devastating wit. Chandler crams it with so many ravishing lines, images, similes, he elevates pulp to high literature. Marlowe, all slow-burn aplomb, speaks and thinks like the consummate smart-aleck tough: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners,” he grumbles. “They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.” Unknown.jpeg

“Death Comes for the Archbishop” is a western in priest’s clothing. Set in the mid-1800s, Willa Cather’s elegant epic about a gentle French bishop spreading Catholicism through Mexico and its southwest territories braids American history with lush spirituality and, at times, a mean Cormac McCarthy crunch. The title is a major spoiler, like Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” but Cather knew what she was doing, and the foregone conclusion hits hard — and beautifully. Her eloquence is breathtaking, and the glistening lyricism comes out of nowhere to stun. Here Cather describes two men running through the desert: “They coursed over the sand with the fleetness of young antelope, their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight.” 51qJIvsSX6L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

For introverts, self-quarantine isn’t so bad

Introverts tend to enjoy more time to themselves, are very aware of their internal thoughts and recharge more in solitude. Extroverts are just the opposite. Extroverts are more outspoken, outgoing and absolutely love being around other people. They’re talkative and like being the center of attention.”                                                   — Chelsea Connors, therapist

Extroverts chafe me. This certified introvert has spent most of his life avoiding them: the whooping jocks, chest-thumping frat boys, screechy sorority girls, cocky corporate management types, knee-slapping laughers, actors, garrulous social hambones who have to keep everyone rapt with hypnotic anecdotes and stories, the very loud and touchy.

These are the people who are having a hard time with “social distancing” during COVID-19. They’re on FaceTime and Zoom, keeping the party going electronically, lest life in self-quarantine shrivels them up into lonely nobodies. The outgoing who live to go out, hug and high-five and fist pump and kissy-kissy on both cheeks. And strangely cracking up, constantly.

friends_having_fun-1200x628-facebook.jpgIntroverts, on the other hand, are naturally adapting to the situation, even relishing it. This, pundits declare, is the year of the introvert, what with mandated social distancing during the pandemic, which demands people stay apart, social scenes closed or restricted, and families huddled in their homes. No sports events? Oh, darn it.

“Finally,” a tweeter rejoices, “something I’m good at: staying at home and avoiding people!”

Isn’t it great? 

In case I’m branded some sort of antisocial Hamlet or “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” I emphatically aver that I do (did) like to get out for a great dinner, good movie or a play, and some drinks. And my inveterate world travel is taking a heartrending hit. 

But it’s worth noting this shift in the social landscape: the meek shall inherit the earth, for a while. From the Twitter-sphere come these words of comfort for the eternally uncomfortable:

— “Any other socially awkward introverts out there feel oddly aroused anytime anyone mutters the phrase ‘social distancing?’ Asking for myself. Obviously.”

— “As single and an introvert, we’ve been social distancing since before it was popular.” 

— “Introverts have been doing this for years! Look who’s suddenly the cool kids at the party now!” 

— “Finally introverts experience a world that is suited to us. All events cancelled, we don’t even have to go thru the trouble of flaking. No one is making random small talk or physical contact. Everybody minding their own business.”

— “So ‘social distancing’ is gonna save us all from #CoronaVirusSeattle.YAY. INTROVERTS WILL SURVIVE AND RULE THE WORLD. Quietly, of course. But still.”

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Occupational hazards of the novelist

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand.”

— Olga Tokarczuk, from her Booker-winning novel “Flights,” a luminous series of human and existential journeys revealed in shards and fragments. A supernova of imagination and intellect.

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The Polish author won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature.

 

One of those grab-bag blogs filled with mad miscellany

— In New Orleans next month, I’m forgoing the vaunted National WWII Museum for the more mischievously skeevy Museum of Death, a labyrinth of the gross and ghoulish and other alliterative G’s (ghastly, grisly … ). Body bags, coffins, car accident photos, Manson family ephemera, cannibalism — and, well, I’m making a poor case for my mental stability. Why not do both museums? Because I’m booked for a cemetery tour (I know, I know), a paddleboat cruise on the Mississippi, a French Quarter tour and a hop through the Dixie Brewery, which is $5 compared to the war museum’s nearly $30 entry, which is twice as much as Museum of Death tickets. And, really, aren’t both museums monuments to mortality in their ways? (Plus, I’ve seen “Saving Private Ryan.” It didn’t go well.)

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— People slap flashy stickers and decals all over their laptops, without realizing the machines are not skateboards and are anything but billboards of hip. A Dell? Fine. A Mac? Plain vandalism.

1hFFNNJHOVyul0OLXpKgpcKM2MOF6S_large— Best movie from the ‘70s I recently re-watched: rattling rock melodrama “The Rose,” starring an atomic Bette Midler, shrill and crazy, on a Criterion DVD. Directed by Mark Rydell, the tipsy tragedy, loosely based on Janis Joplin’s hasty flame-out, was shot by storied cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, with assistance on the feral concert scenes from lens legends Conrad Hall, László Kovács and Haskell Wexler. Toni Basil choreographed Midler’s bestial gyrations. The movie, a buckling downer, holds up rapturously. (Watch it with “A Star is Born.” Discuss.) 

— I saw the trailer for the new Wes Anderson movie, “The French Dispatch.” My eyes bled. My mind sizzled in its teeny brain-pan. Once upon a time, Anderson was one of our most exciting young filmmakers (“Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore.”) He’s now one of our most exasperating. And cloying. And irritating. And incurably cutesy.

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“All gunfighters are lonely. They live in fear. They die without a dime or a woman or a friend.” — Burt Lancaster, philosophizing in 1957’s otherwise poky “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” Sometimes I wonder: Am I a gunfighter?

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— I liked but didn’t love Oscar history-maker “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho’s catchy Korean comedy-thriller-horror flick. It swept the Academy Awards, becoming the first foreign-language movie to win Best Picture, which I’m all for. But the movie doesn’t explode. It’s not “Crash” or “Green Book” bad, somehow and embarrassingly snatching top honors — not even close. It is, simply, the most overrated movie of 2019. I placed it #8 on my top 10 list. It is very good. And I am so happy it shut-out “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” patently one of the year’s worst films. For those who haven’t seen “Parasite” but have followed its triumphs, I’m afraid some shade of disappointment is possible. 

Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker is one of the sharpest art critics I’ve read, and one of the lushest, most literate prose stylists around. Gifted as he is, he still says things like, “I’ve toiled all my life, in vain, to like myself.” He adds, “Writing is hard, or everyone would do it.” It is humbling.

—  This is the most poignant line I’ve read in a book in some time: “There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.” It’s from Jenny Offill’s deep and droll new novel “Weather.” I also liked this: “I’m too tired for any of it. The compromise is that we all eat ice cream and watch videos of goats screaming like women.”

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— Winter is fast receding. Son of a bitch.

— I noted above that “Saving Private Ryan” and I had a dubious relationship upon its 1998 release. As a full-time movie critic, I gave the summer blockbuster two stars out of four. I recently located my love letter to the film, part of which reads:

“The World War II epic ‘Saving Private Ryan’ begins with a screen-size image of the American flag. The banner ripples in the breeze with patriotic solemnity, as John Williams’ score puffs its chest and gives a stern salute to our tear ducts.

“Dissolve to a scene of soft-focus Americana plucked from Norman Rockwell, featuring a family borrowed from a life insurance commercial. As this ideal of scrubbed, middle-class solicitude walks quietly toward a white cross in a military cemetery, the screen fairly creaks with labored pathos. You start to wonder if you’re watching a parody of a Steven Spielberg movie.

“Actually, it’s an inadvertent self-parody, for this is a Spielberg movie, his latest and most contrived attempt at serious adult filmmaking. Despite its unflinching (almost desperate) depiction of battlefield carnage, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is marred by mawkish indulgence and counterfeit drama, Spielberg’s twin weaknesses. The man can’t help it: He lards the film with freeze-dried sentiment, tingle-inducing declarations and cello cues. The considerable gore is largely separate from the main story; it’s a bombastic stage setter.”

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Save me, Private Ryan.

Sin City vs. Sin City

Let me say, between America’s two premier party towns, New Orleans kicks Las Vegas’ gilded, ersatz ass, that Emerald City conjured from desert pixie dust into a flashing mirage of gambling, chintz and sloshing oceans of open containers. 

Scripturally do I believe this: New Orleans, jewel of the Deep South, stomps Vegas, that spendthrift voluptuary of the West. I’ve been to both cities and can vouch for the Big Easy’s superior party bona fides, its inebriating beauty, gnarled history and lavish multiculturalism. On all counts, Vegas is bereft, a kind of gimcrack DisneyWorld to NOLA’s organic abundance, its French-kissed joie de vivre and bon viveurs, its patina of worldly class.

It’s mossy swamps vs. desert scrub. Beads, boobs and Bourbon Street vs. chips, glitz and the Strip. Indelible musical heritage (blues, jazz, zydeco) and culinary complexity vs. karaoke and Guy Fieri. It’s the rich mythology of Mardi Gras and voodoo vs. the dancing Fountains of Bellagio and hokum-pocus of Criss Angel.

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Neither’s perfect. Both burghs are powerful magnets for slavering douche-baggery, cruising sidewalks nursing two-foot-tall girly drinks. (The rank cluelessness of these swaggering alpha males is adorable.) Both often display the collective mentality of a pimply 17-year-old boy (repeat: boobs) or a tequila-tottering bachelorette queen. Liquor rules. And there are no rules.

Having just returned from Vegas — where I won a whopping 50 cents at an airport slot machine and walked away with a spring in my step (I beat ‘em, by gosh!) — I can attest to the town’s vacant neon soul. It’s plastic, garish and grubby. It’s all facade, robbed of emotion — unless Christopher Cross, recently serenading the Strip with cloying power ballads, warms the cockles of your heart.   

And yet, like millions before and after me, I liked it. Truly, if not excessively. The booze, the vulgar resorts, the cacophonous casinos, a solid comedy show, my slick yet cheap hotel, some world-class meals that rival New Orleans’, fine weather and endless people-watching by turns transfixing and obnoxious. 

It was my second time in Vegas, and on this trip I learned how to enjoy myself by doing a little research and a lot of relaxing. Not poolside relaxing, but a mental, non-judgmental kicking-off of the shoes. I let Vegas do its Vegas thing.

Which is quite different than the similarly storied New Orleans thing. I’ve been there twice, on my 21st birthday and a hasty two-night stay during a Southern road trip about 15 years ago. I typically prefer a different kind of city — Chicago, Kyoto, Istanbul, Florence — but NOLA exudes a neat Big Little City vibe, like Charleston, South Carolina, or Austin, Texas. 

It’s southern to the core, twangy, tangy, congenitally ecstatic, weird and wonderful and proud of it. It’s one of those towns that always wants to get it on. (Though I’m not fond of strolling, badgering brass bands that strain to suck you into their high-stepping, hand-clapping, nightmarish street parties.) 

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Here’s where I say I’m heading to New Orleans for a few days next month, a week after the big, beady, booby bash that is Mardi Gras. (There’s more to it than that, of course, but it looks like a psychedelic bad trip from here, never mind all the deep-dish tradition. Explains journalist Chris Rose: “Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once.”)

I have plans, none of them fantastically original. While I’m strenuously avoiding Pat O’Brien’s and its barfy Hurricane cocktail (been there, done that) and skipping the gorgeous green gatory goo of the swamps (done that, too), I will get lost in the pastel, fern-festooned, bar-clogged French Quarter, cruise the murky Mississippi on a Twain-ish paddlewheel steamboat and stroll famed cemeteries, those crumbly cities of the dead. 

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My bad, but I’m eschewing the heralded art and World War II museums for the morbidly unhinged Museum of Death, and I will duck the city’s voodoo jive, most of which is about authentic as the eye-rolling “ghost tours” haunting the area with the spookiness of a ghoul out of  “Scooby-Doo.” 

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One of the nation’s finest food capitals, crackling with heritage, race, culture and love, New Orleans is synonymous with smorgasbord, from beignets to Po’ Boys, crawfish to jambalaya. Here’s where I’m going, to name a few: Peche (seafood inspired by the Gulf, Spain and South America), Cochon (Cajun and Southern cooking), Gris-Gris (Southern eats) and NOLA (a fusion of Creole, Acadian and Southern cuisine with global influences by local legend Emeril Lagasse).

For music and drink there’s the obvious, like world-famous Tipitina’s. I’ll skip it for the hip Bacchanal Wine, a laidback music-food-vino joint in the Ninth Ward that some regard the best bar in the city, if not the world. I also plan to hit popular jazz club The Spotted Cat, a cramped, sweaty spot where those damn brass bands, blaring with cheeks ballooned, may get to me yet. 

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“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

 Tennessee Williams