Reckless randomness in scary times

Like many of you, we are grumblingly housebound during the seismic spread of the coronavirus, aka the Trump Pandemic, a little scared, a lot curious, shuffling clenched and downcast in a novel world of social paralyzation and dystopian edicts, woozy with the surreal and unthinkable. Enter: takeout, Amazon, streaming movies, books we should have read eons ago, board games, bottomless web surfing, asphyxiating boredom, idle nose picking, staring contests, etc.

The end is nigh. 

Or not. 

Yes, bars, restaurants and even Starbucks are shuttering, and it’s a cataclysmic cluster-boink. I can’t even get a haircut now, so by July I’m going to look like Weird Al Yankovic.

But if you have the gall, guts and lunacy, there are ways out. Like zooming to far-off lands that may well be (yes, they will be) infected. Peek yearningly at PlanMoreTrips, a new site that promises, with a pinch of perversity, to “Find the Best Corona Virus Flight Deals,” like: a $137 roundtrip from New York to Lima, Peru; a $43 roundtrip from Dallas to Las Vegas; or a $231 roundtrip from New York to Barcelona.

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Lima, Peru

All of that makes me want to travel badly; I strain at my leash. But it’s a global crap-storm out there. I don’t want to go to Paris when the D’Orsay and the Louvre and Frenchie restaurant and my three favorite cinemas in the Latin Quarter are closed. (Though I still kinda really do.) And of course I don’t want to get ill or make anyone else sick. So we sit. We stew. We play Scrabble. Shit.

Now for some random, corona-free stuff (just what you were waiting for) … 

—  Cubby the hirsute hound finally got a haircut. In puppy parlance, he was groomed. While his body is shorn and tiny now, almost tubular, like a Pringles can, the Baron Munchausen beard and mustache remain, rather regally. And all that hair removal revealed something we always suspected was there, but never saw: a bright pink butthole. Sorry, but it’s true. And it’s strangely alarming, yet delightful too. He’s got one! He’s even less freakish than we thought! Good boy.  

  Spring dispirits for many reasons. Besides sunshine and heat and bugs and pollen, and everybody chirping about such delirious wonderfulness (they’re all wack), there are insane allergies some of us contend with. Actually, I combat them daily, through all climes, so I can’t blame the new season, as much as I detest it. (Did I mention swimming pools, barbecues and shorts?) Thing is, my allergy meds barely work, if at all. Runny nose, watery eyes are my main symptoms, and they could not vex me more. I’ve tried an array of meds. This week I’m moving on to Flonase. Can anyone vouch for this pricey nasal spray? (Gross, right?) 

  Timely thought: “Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.” — Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith”

—  Serious film fans know Werner Herzog — prolific auteur of mind-tweaking features (“Fitzcarraldo,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”) and consciousness-rattling documentaries (“Grizzly Man,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”) — as a brilliant iconoclast, Germanic chaser of “ecstatic truth,” and venerated pop culture polymath (he’s voiced himself on “The Simpsons” and plays a villain in the “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian”). This week, he’s interviewed in a New York Times Magazine Q&A under the unsurprisingly prickly headline “Werner Herzog has never thought a dog was cute.”It’s typically profound and brain-expanding. “How do we give meaning to our lives?” Herzog says. “That question has been lingering over my work and life. That’s what I’ve been pursuing for a very long time.” And from there, he’s off.29mag-talk-jumbo

—  The other day, Yahoo!, the oddly antiquated web server, rapped my knuckles with a stern warning to be a nice boy. An admonitory email landed in my rarely used Yahoo! mailbox, part of which reads: 

“It has come to our attention that you may have violated the terms of service on Yahoo! Please reread the terms and cease any use of your account that may violate them. If your use of your account is brought to our attention again, we may terminate it without further notice.” 

I’m shaking in my sneakers, big bad Yahoo! (Thank you for providing the exclamation point I otherwise would have furnished in that sentence.) My crime: replying to a couple of comments on a Trumpian news story on the site, which unaccountably attracts a large, semi-literate, far-right readership. The comments, dumb as dirt, borderline racist, the usual vile cant, set off my volcanically anti-Trump triggers and, helplessly, I typed some half-baked responses, teeth grit, smoke poofing from orifices.

Perhaps stooping to the commenters’ level, I called them ignorant hillbillies who should skitter back down the holes they crawled out of — or some such balderdash of which I am not proud. I used no curse words (wait, isn’t “hillbilly” an expletive?) and hardly drew outside the lines. Yahoo! is having none of it. I broke the rules. I upset some Neanderthals and a corporate legal department. To the corner I go. Such a bunch of … yahoos.

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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

Japan-tastic

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.

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Oh my god(lessness)

So I’m watching the Democratic primary debate last night on CNN, and amid the candidates’ kerfuffles and catty crossfire, a moment of clarity sprung up during a commercial break. In a 30-second ad, a pouchy-eyed man, self-possessed and wearing the teensiest smirk, spoke animatedly to the camera. The man happens to be President Ronald Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan, and this, in its entirety, is what he said:

“Hi, I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed at the intrusions of religion into our secular government. That’s why I’m asking you to support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep church and state separate, just like our Founding Fathers intended. Please support the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I’m Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”

This remarkable bulletin at first registers as a jape, a mock commercial on “SNL,” especially with that wonderfully puckish parting shot. (Watch the ad HERE.)

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But, thank heaven, it’s no joke. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is an honest to god (ha) society devoted to “promoting non-theism and defending the constitutional separation between religion and government,” says its website. “With more than 30,000 members, FFRF, a non-prophet non-profit, works as an effective state/church watchdog and voice for free thought (atheism, agnosticism, skepticism).”

Refused by ABC during the Sept. 12 Democratic debate, the ad last night was a hit. “Ron Reagan” was the top trending Google search after it aired. Twitter twits tweetle-deed with abandon. Though Reagan “wasn’t among the 12 candidates on the stage in Ohio, his appearance in a commercial promoting atheism clearly caught folks off guard,” said one news outlet. It was his sign-off about not fearing “burning in hell” that had people reeling, or, like me, laughing.

Speaking of hell, it’s the devil-may-care defiance, brazen irreverence and arch humor of the godless (heathens! pagans!) that endears them to skeptics and agnostics. Their highly evolved strain of enlightenment certainly doesn’t hurt the cause. These are savvy individuals who’ve weighed their stance with logic, philosophy, empirical evidence and bullet-proof common sense. Biblical fairy tales have only sowed their doubt and disgust. 

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Satanic Temple protesters

There are myriad groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation — the muscular American Atheists and the mischievous Satanic Temple, profiled in the provocative new documentary “Hail, Satan,” come to mind — and FFRF is one of the largest. I appreciate what they’re doing, these Constitutionally correct freedom fighters. And if this brief blog post sounds like one big ad for them, well, that’s all right by me. Perhaps I am going to hell. I kind of don’t care.

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A sacred place. Even for heathens.

I last visited Notre-Dame just over three years ago, in fall 2015. When in Paris, I invariably duck into the grand Gothic cathedral several times, because it’s there, because it’s beautiful, because its draw is irresistible. It is Paris splendor epitomized.

I’ve been to Paris on five occasions, which means I’ve been to Notre-Dame at least 15 times. It never gets old. Rather, each visit rewards with something new and startling. Sometimes I just hang out on the plaza in front of Our Lady — the sprawling Place Jean-Paul II Square — sipping coffee, people-watching, marveling at the twin bell-tower facade and those maniacal, sniggering gargoyles perched way up high. 

A Catholic apostate and mid-level opponent of organized religion, I don’t worship in Notre-Dame, which went up in flames yesterday, mostly surviving the catastrophic blaze that had the world aghast. (Maybe there is a God.)

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Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames Monday in Paris

I don’t go for the holy experience, but the wholly experience — a soothing spiritual state of serenity and rumination, reflection and introspection, inspired by the vaulting, dimly lit sanctuary’s artwork, architecture, luminescent stained-glass and twinkling constellations of prayer candles. And that’s just the interior. 

Agnostic natives are with me, according to a piece in today’s NY Times: “France is one of the least religious countries in Europe. Urbane, intellectual Parisians often dismiss religion as archaic and unenlightened.”

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Notre-Dame facade, fall 2015

But like other transporting religious structures around the world — from the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi to the Wat Arun Buddhist temple in Bangkok — Notre-Dame is staggering to even this peevish secular humanist, with its gilded grandeur and gravity-defying architecture that toils so magnificently to transcend crude corporeality and reach for the heavens. In all her glory, Our Lady, I think, tickles the firmament.

(This goes for scores of religious sanctums I’ve traveled long and far to be dazzled by: the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St. Peter’s in Rome, Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and on and on. All instill dizzy awe, even if I’m not always buying what they’re peddling.) 

Even without the slightest religious propensity, I bewail the damage to Notre-Dame. Like most, I was sickened watching flames devour the cathedral, my old friend, on the news. More is there than a quaint, history-encrusted, 850-year-old church. It is the ineffable, the mystical, the irrefutably sacred.

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Standing tall, fall 2015.

The cathedral, with a wingspan from Joan of Arc to Victor Hugo to Disney, “is universal, Western, religious, literary and cultural, and that’s what makes it different from any other object,” says a French analyst in the Times. “It’s the whole spectrum from the trivial to the transcendent, the sacred to the profane.”

In other words, it is stubbornly irreplaceable. Its survival, by a hairbreadth, an act of God, divine intervention, is something I am loath to believe in: a naked miracle.

Whatever saved it, I think it was more the skill, action plans and water hoses of the Parisian fire fighters than, say, the conquest of virtue vs. evil. But it doesn’t matter. Notre-Dame didn’t collapse or burn to cinders. It is, they declare, structurally sound. No lives were lost. And for that, all of us should sigh a collective amen.

But do note, those devilish gargoyles survived the flames, and they are still sneering.

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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.”

The pictures, and pull, of Istanbul (Turkey Part I)

Like regular human ardor, a love affair with a city is complicated — prickly, passionate, vexing, ineffable. We adore our favorite cities, which are not breathing creatures but quasi-animate entities that are unquestionably alive, pulsing and forever mutable.

When pressed, the two cities I enjoy the most intense romances with are Paris and Istanbul. Paris is my baby, but sometimes I think I love them equally. (Sorry, ma chérie.)

I fell in love with Istanbul in the spring and fall of 2008, two trips comprising some of my very peak travel experiences. There were times when I actually lost myself, and, this is spectacularly unusual, crawled out of my muzzy head, breathed a little and existed, if momentarily, in a vacuum of Edenic placidity, even contentment. I flew.

Ten years on, the country has hurtled into political tumult: multiple terrorist attacks, violent anti-government protests, an attempted coup and the burn marks of President Erdogan’s tightening authoritarian chokehold. The guidelines of a culinary walking tour in Istanbul actually state: “We are not responsible for acts beyond our control, including but not limited to …  acts of war, or other unrest caused by state or non-state actors.” Terrific.

I could boycott Turkey, but that’d be my loss. I miss the generosity of the people, the grandeur of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, the majesty of the sun-twinkling Bosporus, the exquisite food, the dazzling cultural and religious breadth of East meets West. So I am returning this fall, with a two-day excursion amid the fairytale moonscapes of Cappadocia in Central Anatolia. (See them here. Ignore the festering hot-air balloons.)

These shots of Istanbul, snapped on my long-ago journeys, remind why I’m going back.

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