Easter not so easy

We rummage about the day, seeking a good book, ambient pleasures, deep meaning (why is that dog squatting so?), and a fine, frothy whiskey sour. The last first, please.

The days are long, the books are long — like the 600-page Mike Nichols biography I just polished, with joy — and the drinks are long, or, more precisely, tall. Either way, pour. Now. 

Temperatures are amping to the mid-60s, heralding spring’s ominous simmer and summer’s damp, gaseous inferno, both of which, I need not tell you, I abhor. (I only partly exaggerate when I say my favorite utterance is brrr. My second favorite: “I’ll get that.”) 

For some, who I will surely offend, today is all about the embarrassing folly of Easter (Jesus, the great escape artist — a Holy Houdini!), celebrating that boulder-rolling feat of celestial sorcery so magnificent it befits a children’s picture book, ages 2 to 5. And, somehow, the whole zany thing — the tomb, the missing body, the resurrection, the Holy Spirit (insert spit-take here) — boils down to Cadbury’s ooze, Peeps’ chews, synthetic grass and ham. 

What would Jesus do? Probably puke, like most of us.

So hallelujah. Now onto cursing: It’s a sunshiny Sunday, blue and bold and obnoxious, just what everybody delights in, because isn’t life one grand fairyland, dusted in gold, roofed with rainbows and burbling with birdies? 

Actually, it is pretty nice out, for now. I just dread when the sun-worshippers get greedy, Mother Nature listens, and everything gets hot and ruined. (Dear October: Step on it.) Look, get your unflattering beach garb, go to the tropics and leave the rest of us alone. 

Travel. Now? Right. I should be in Paris. But while I’m freshly vaccinated for Covid, France is redoubling its pandemic shutdown. The place is a festering contagion and no one’s going in or out. I bought a flight to Paris in March 2020 for an October trip, and we know how that ended. We sit. We wait. We read 600-page artist biographies. 

Or we read (and re-read) short story collections, like Joy Willliams’ delectably edgy “The Visiting Privilege,” Tobias Wolff’s comfort-foody “Our Story Begins” and the tough, granular realism of Richard Ford’s “Sorry for Your Trouble.”

Art saves. Sort of. I have a birthday coming up and no book of short stories will blunt the bite. Yes, I’m at the point when birthdays make you scrunch up your nose. I’ve been doing this for years; the last time I actively celebrated my birthday was age 13. I believe in getting older as much as I believe in Christ’s Penn and Teller routine in the desert. 

Started as a random riff, this is turning out to be my annual jeremiad about changing seasons, warming and wilting. This week I add a year, perhaps finally becoming an anachronistic artifact, shriveling like a vampire in slashing shafts of sunlight.

I need a flotation device in this sea of self-pity. More to the point, that whiskey sour is sounding pretty terribly perfect right about … now

Not a team player

In a story in The New York Times Magazine titled “Sports Meant So Much to Me. Why Wouldn’t My Son Play?,” an exasperated father whose 5-year-old shows scant interest in ice hockey finally blurts, “Boys play sports! That’s what boys do!”

Really? Let’s hope not. If I had a boy I’d want him to play an instrument, not sports. I’d want him to draw, read books and watch great movies, maybe start a band or attend art school. A nightmare for me would be going to youth sports matches, sitting among baying, overwrought parents who take competition absurdly seriously, as if it actually matters. (Maybe it does. What do I know.) 

I understand my minority status on this issue, and I own it. Even when I played youth soccer for six years I felt this way. I was never a great player because I never had the passion for the game, the whole gung-ho enterprise. I am not a competitive person and I don’t get the competitive mindset. I don’t flex my muscles and growl much. Go team. 

Bluntly, I dislike sports, sports culture and, generally speaking, sports fans. There’s the sluggish, unbroken tedium of baseball and football; the slavering disciples, those chest-thumping, bellowing boors; the fanatical tribes with their ugly jingoism and clannish groupthink; and the players’ off-putting egomania and braggadocio that make me cringe. Plus, it’s all so barbarically LOUD. Put down the air horn, Jethro.

The madness of the mob

When I say sports I mean team sports, save for soccer, which I enjoy in small, low-scoring doses. Team sports are my cultural blind spot. I don’t follow them. I don’t know players, leagues or stats. I’m sure March Madness is a wild new cocktail. Body paint is laughable. There’s scarcely a sports strand in my DNA (which stands for Don’t Need Athletics). I’ve tried to get with it, but my brain promptly glazes over. I couldn’t be more bored or turned off. This isn’t anti-sports snobbery; it’s willful ignorance.

What I do go for are individual sports, which is why I prefer the Olympics, replete with solo athletes striving for personal bests. The gymnasts, snowboarders, sprinters, skaters and divers — they excel, they triumph, and do so without group hugs or embarrassing dog piles. It seems there’s a spiritual aspect to these fiercely focussed athletes — it’s them against the world, their minds and bodies zen-like weaponry — and I respect that.

Next to drumming, BMX and snow skiing were my passions as a tween and teen (politely ignore my hapless flirtation with skateboarding). The reckless freedom of flight propelled the joy of these sports. Taking a gnarly jump off a dirt mound on a tricked-out bike or tearing down a mogul-studded mountainside on spindly skis released me from gravity’s fetters — a singular high achieved without teamwork.

The freedom of flight

Team sports simply don’t align with the prickly contours of my personality. For the same reason I shun clubs and organized religion — the social Velcro, zealotry, conformity — I turn away from most sports. People want so desperately to belong. A classic introvert, I don’t siphon energy from others. I go to movies alone and travel the world solo. Reading and writing couldn’t be more solitary. I run with no pack. (And I never run.)

I’m the kid who dreaded gym class, if only because you had to mingle with damp, grunting meatheads who prized bulk over brains. Or so I viewed it then. And, to be clear, I’m not some obese, bespectacled, non-athletic cliché, although I really hate sweating. And jogging. And inflated balls. 

The virtues of team sports don’t escape me. I’m sure they’re salutary. Perhaps only in the Marine Corps are character-building lessons of discipline, perseverance and cooperation more thoroughly drilled into its members. In that, sports is a fine influence on our youth (unless BMX and Black Sabbath are your thing).

I’ll pass. Give me a good book or movie, my drums or a ticket to Spain and I’m thrilled. I’d rather walk the dog than endure the hysterical hyperbole of the Super Bowl. For all its aggressive theatrics, hockey is a powerful soporific. Basketball — pass the remote.

“Boys play sports! That’s what boys do!” exclaims the dad in the magazine article, who, to be fair, quickly recognizes the lameness of his outburst. Google the subject and you get musings like, “Is it OK for guys to not like sports?” The sheer naïveté of that question has me despairing. It’s hopelessly outmoded, fit for 1921, not 2021.

While women’s sports have been making lengthy strides, male athletics seem mired in Neanderthal notions of manhood. Which will lead some to call me a wuss, pansy, pick your pejorative. It’s exactly that kind of attitude — snarling machismo, musclebound showboaters — that makes me abhor sports culture, to write it off as sordid, violent and monstrous. And with that gesture, like a deliberate kick in the shins, I’m pretty sure I’ve been ejected from the game. For good. So good.

College, the great mind-blower

In my first semester of college, Marlon Brando blew open my bitty blinkered brain.  

I was 18 and watching the actor at a small on-campus screening of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Elia Kazan’s 1951 film of Tennessee Williams’ torrid fever dream of a play. I was mesmerized, disturbed, rattled. 

Who is this guy? I wondered. What is this guy?

I had seen Brando in “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” on VHS, but this was different. This was the young, bristling Method actor, a radical of modern performance, searing the screen with unseen naturalism — a combustible churn of physical and psychological muscle, animal charisma, brute sexuality and roiling menace. 

He was a new kind of screen male. He hollered and knocked things over. He was sensitive, a raw nerve. He was scary, feral. He was gorgeous. He was hideous. He was fantastic.

This, I thought, is what college is about: revelation, learning, getting gobsmacked by the greats. All at once, in that Brando bombshell, was a liberating feast of ideas and culture. The very next day, I borrowed a Brando biography from the library. I craved more.

A curious kid at a university in a wildly diverse, culturally rich city, I gulped it all, from Hong Kong action flicks to Zippy the Pinhead comics. In a city of famed seismic activity — yes, San Francisco — Brando was one of the first icons to rock my late-teen world.   

Brando, smoldering

He wasn’t alone. Other cultural forces who uncorked my brain included, in no order: Beethoven; Sartre; the Marx Brothers; Shakespeare; Freud; Stanley Kubrick; the Beatles (I’d always known their music; I just didn’t know their music); Orson Welles; Buddha; Nietzsche; John Waters; Dalí; Bogart; Buñuel; Kafka; the Ramones; Fellini; Charlie Chaplin; New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.

(Woke alert: I realize there is only one woman and, save for Buddha, exclusively white people on the list. This is just before I fell for Toni Morrison, García Márquez, Miles Davis and all the rest. As it’s the past, there’s very little I can do to remedy the situation.)

I adored my school. It was an institution that showed scant regard for sports and frats. (I sort of felt sorry for our neglected little football team, but not really.) It was the kind of liberal arts college where August Coppola — brother of Francis Ford Coppola and father of Nicolas Cage — was Dean of Creative Arts and the city newspaper’s erudite pop critic taught my History of Rock ’n’ Roll course. 

Protests were big — pro-Palestine, anti-apartheid. The Red Hot Chili Peppers played the stamp-sized Student Union for five bucks a head. Director Sydney Pollack gave a seminar on filmmaking. Free movie screenings abounded. You barely needed class when almost everything around you was an education.

Take the campus library: nerdy, for sure, but a free, all-you-can-eat buffet of intellectual stimulation. There I’d watch esoteric documentaries, listen to concertos and symphonies and pore over rare books. It was all part of this teen’s great game of cultural catch-up.

And isn’t that what college is, a way to get young minds up to speed on the world, culture, history, life? It’s about my freshman geography professor dismissing the Bible as a book of fairy tales and the above rock history teacher expounding on the lush productions of Phil Spector, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” and Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

It’s about watching bad improv groups perform in the dorms and serving as Opinion Editor on the fiery campus newspaper. It’s about eating falafel for the first time and meeting Allen Ginsberg at a reading of “Howl” at City Lights bookstore.

College as entrée to life’s rich pageant, untrammeled exposure — that’s how I took it. There were city museums and concert halls — at 19, I got a student subscription to the San Francisco Symphony — the Haight-Ashbury, its own mad cultural-historical corridor; movie theaters like the Castro, Red Vic and Roxie; plays at ACT and the Magic Theatre. Not to mention the cultural cornucopia awaiting just over the bridge in Berkeley.

I got my first good camera as a freshman, styling myself a shutterbug about town, a wee, wannabe Weegee. I got deeper into my drums, soaking up sophisticated masters like Steve Gadd and Terry Bozzio, learning to kick things up while toning them down. 

It was all about finesse, those early college days, about forging newly freed passions into a prismatic worldview that made sense to me. And it began with a revelatory sensation that was balled-up in the raw, sweaty brio of Marlon Brando.

Not for a moment has that novel feeling stopped. Once launched on the journey of discovery, you’re pretty much stuck. College lit a fuse; the explosions keep on popping.

Even travel letdowns are worth it

I’m a jaded traveler, asking much, with high expectations and a low threshold for disappointment. 

So naturally I’ve at times been disillusioned during my many journeys around the world. It happens. And it’s not a terrible thing. After all, how letdown can you be by, say, Madrid, a great city that pales a bit compared to its more lustrous and colorful cousins, Sevilla and Barcelona? Not much.

In a previous post I told how I recently unpacked piles of my travel journals from cold storage after several years. Written in blue ink in black notebooks — usually on barstools after long days wending wide-eyed through cobblestone streets and spindly alleyways — the pages are filled with the magic of travel, the mirth of discovery, the shock of the new, amazing people and far-out food (like the whole cobra I ate in Vietnam). 

The journals are also laced with descriptions of those isolated times when I was dissatisfied, underwhelmed or — what! — plain bored. I’ve re-read these bits with a kind of dismayed surprise: Really? That’s how I felt about Rome? Rome? 

Well, yeah, on that particular day. Travel experiences are colored by everything from jet lag to daily frustrations (taxi rip-offs, getting lost, language hassles). They are mutable. What deflates one day might electrify the next. 

My journals reminded me of this in bold strokes. These are some examples of thwarted expectations and little letdowns on travel’s twisty, rugged road: 

In 2000 I went to Israel a hardened agnostic bordering on a true atheist. Astounded by religion and the mindset of its believers, I wanted to go to the desert nation that’s home to the big three, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and see what makes them tick. Scenes from my journal:

“Today in Bethlehem I arrived at the perhaps blasphemous idea that the region is a historical Disneyland, a realm of fairy tales. ‘Here’s where Jesus was crucified and resurrected.’ ‘This is where Mary slept.’ We might as well be told, ‘This is where Snow White ate the fateful apple,’ or ‘Behold the tomb of Cinderella’s stepsisters.’ It’s psychotic that pilgrims succumb to the fanciful whims of Constantine’s mother, who randomly appointed holy designations to places here. Paraphrasing something I actually heard on a tour: ‘Here’s King David’s tomb and the site of the Last Supper, but, uh, not really, because they’re lost somewhere far below the city.’ And people eat this stuff up.”

Later I noted:

“Believers hoisting giant wooden crosses follow ‘Christ’s final footsteps’ on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City. It’s maniacal, and not half as fascinating as you’d think. That’s how religion is for me now. Just silly, impossible to be contemplated in the higher regions of the mind. It absolutely fails to astonish. So this trip, which is wonderful thus far — peaceful, pleasant, edifying — is innocent of any celestial wallop, of a blinding halo glow and spiritual intervention. I am unmoved. I am unchanged.”

Then there’s Prague, which I visited with inflated enthusiasm in 2002. I should have known better, especially since so many blinkered Americans just love the tourist-clogged Czech capital and callow expats infest the place. I got there and sighed, writing:

“Not entirely impressed by the city. Like an Eastern Amsterdam: beautifully antiquated, charmingly European, painted with time and soot, tired but proud. And yet rather vacant. It’s all show, with a familiar, generic Euro tang. My true feelings are stifled from sleepless flights. My impressions are, for now, Cubist — fragmented, jumbled, unreliable. But, so far, a fine, sturdy European city of great charm and Old World wealth. A Disneyland-like anachronism, bursting with pastel façades and fairy-book antiquity, tourist throngs and souvenir kitsch.” 

Two days later I wrote: 

“I like Prague, and yet needing to write that means I’m working at liking it as much as I’m supposed to.”

On my second trip to Italy, in 2003, I revisited Florence and Rome, with a day trip to Pisa to see that teetering tower. My scribbled impressions:

“Pisa is a university town with a tower. Not sure why Italy doesn’t touch or connect with me the way Paris does. It’s less refined, more brusque. Its virile, violent history isn’t as deep and textured. It’s less intellectual, less progressive and less interesting. It’s about gelato and church.”

And about Rome specifically:

“Rome is OK. Trevi Fountain, Vatican, St. Peter’s — all numbingly familiar and inert, just there, edifices radiating gray. The city is sort of like Madrid or Berlin — popped expectations.”

What’s notable about the Italy trip is that when my girlfriend finally arrived to meet me there, everything shimmered to life with a giddy radiance. The Trevi Fountain at night was a splashy thrill, the Sistine Chapel an almost spiritual swoon. I loved my girl, and I loved Italy. 

I’ve learned that the fluctuating charms of travel cannot be underestimated. They should be greedily embraced. Up, down, it’s all about the ride, the swirling ecstatic journey.

A step backward for Sophia

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. 

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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