Covid chronicles, part 2

I’m in the clutches of Covid, as I wrote upon my discovery two days ago, and my symptoms, from a light wheeze to a drippy schnoz, are getting cute on me. Just when it feels like they are receding, they jack-in-the-box back up, all flailing arms and googly eyes, heckling me with a mighty, Ha!  

So I thought it wise that I ordered a two-pack of DayQuil and NyQuil “liquicaps” for cold and flu stuff, from headaches to sneezing. It arrived yesterday and I promptly popped some DayQuil, which doesn’t contain the depressant effect of the sleepy NyQuil caps, I’m guessing.

Ha! again, because the DayQuil failed me like a two-bit placebo. My chest is still heavy, head thrums, throat sizzles, sinuses swell. This is why I rarely bother with so-called cold medicines, those blister packs of impotence, those doses of disappointment.

Compounding things, I look beastly. I’m brushing the Mickey Rourke phase. I’m sallow, splotchy, puffy. My eyes are poached eggs. And I have a zit on my cheek that could pass for a siamese twin.

I’m at home, isolating for at least a few more days. It’s a lonely spot, a kind of plush solitary confinement where complaining has no place, because, for one, no one can hear me. The pharmaceuticals might not work, but life continues mostly uninterrupted. I have my books, TV, computer, phone, food and a reservoir of self-pity. The dog looks at me and just shakes his head.

Being sick is never a Disney pleasure cruise. It’s more like “The Exorcist.” Since I started this post, I took the NyQuil half of the gel caps — it’s now past midnight — and the result seems preordained. I feel no better. I feel the same shade of blech. And I had high hopes for this one, with its shimmery emerald hue suggesting a soothing shot of absinthe. 

But no. The absinthe is absent. The NyQuil hasn’t made me drowsy and for some reason my ears feel like they’re stuffed with gauze, which means I have a brand-new symptom: deafness. 

Three more days of this, but of course it could drag on. I’ve quit the ‘Quils and will coast on bladder-bulging volumes of water and isn’t that the oldest home remedy in the book when you’re sick — fluids, more fluids. I think I saw that on “Little House on the Prairie” when Pa or a tween Laura Ingalls Wilder caught a chill. They drank like whale sharks. 

For now, that’s me. Bound for bloat on the good ship Covid. Glub, glub.

Thinking on my feet

Almost everyday I take a brisk, modest-sized walk through the hyper-suburban neighborhood, an asphalt idyll of buckled sidewalks, buzzed lawns, old two-story houses, big porches, and the sporadic American flag and Black Lives Matter sign. People walk dogs. New moms push strollers. Birds chirp and squirrels scamper. 

God, is it tedious. And it’s all in my head. 

The luxuriant boredom I experience on my walks is tenacious and tiresome. My brain won’t shut down, churning as it does with bland thoughts and uprooted memories that flitter like confetti. Everyone says they walk to clear their head. I don’t know what they’re talking about. 

Ah, but there are remedies, I am told. And yet this mind is too distracted by mental detritus to concentrate on the airy, erudite gabbery of a podcast. And the sound of music isn’t powerful enough to muffle the noise echoing in my head. A precious cure eludes the mighty AirPods. 

Extract yourself from the leafy suburbs, I nudge myself. There’s more stimuli in the city — shops, traffic, people, the vast, raucous urban tapestry — or in nature — trees, paths, brooks, snakes, deer poop. Or find a walking pal with whom to chat. 

Yes. Sure. Maybe.

There’s the easily amused and the easily bored. Guess what I am. Sometimes I even glaze over while playing drums to records I love. I’ll zone out, stare at the wall, go through the syncopated motions, finish a tune without quite knowing it. This is rare, but it happens. It’s sort of like sleep walking, with sticks.

I just took a walk and it was fine. I didn’t bore myself silly. Kissed by the breeze, warmed by a soft sun, I actually put my mind to something: this blog. Amid the riot of thought shards, I was able to organize a through line, if only intermittently. The chaos in the cranium still throbbed, but I plucked some ideas from the storm. Nothing major, as you can see, but still.   

It’s like rubbing your head while patting your belly: two disparate tasks at once. Walking and talking is easy. So is wandering and wondering. Muzzling the mind is something else entirely. That’s called meditation, which is not easy. I’ve tried many times. I’m terrible at it. 

My addled brain whirs like a broken fan. On it goes as I walk, each step taking me further into the storm, and that much more away from peace. I welcome the simplest of detours, one where I can quiet the cacophony and harness a madly reeling mind. A cake walk, maybe?

Crumbling teeth

Recently I went to the dentist for the first time since “The Simpsons” was actually funny and the good doc noted that one of my top front teeth is chipped. She asked why. I could provide no good explanation. I could only theorize, and it went like this: I chew holy hell out of my fingernails, then I file them on the ridges of my front teeth. It’s a foul habit, but it saves me a bundle at the nail salon, where I occasionally get my toes done. (I wish I could nibble those things off, too.)

To my surprise she chuckled and admitted that she also bites her fingernails. Yes, but do you file your nails on your teeth?, I thought but didn’t bother to ask. I doubt she does. She seems prim and proper and she’s a dentist, after all. (Then again, she was wearing a mask, so maybe her mouth is as pugilistic as my battered pie hole.)  

Seriously, I never really noticed the chip in the tooth until she mentioned it. I sort of vaguely recalled it when she did, but it seemed simultaneously new and foreign and exciting. I suddenly felt like Mike Tyson, or that kid Jason who face-planted off the monkey bars in third grade.

I examined it when I got home and it was both less and more than I imagined it would be. Sort of “Fight Club”-y and meth-heady and pitifully prosaic at the same time, like I absently bit too hard on a piece of ice in my drink while doing Wordle.

And where did this chip off the old toothy block go? Did I swallow it? Spit it out? Ugh. I’d love to see it. From what I can tell, it would be about the size of a tiny fingernail shard — nothing dramatic, but substantial enough to react to (which in my case would be: “cool”). I can feel the vacated groove with my tongue and I definitely see it now that it’s been highlighted.

For all its aesthetic possibilities — gnarly or character-making? — the chipped tooth doesn’t have much use. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t make me money. It has not upset the space-time continuum. Yet one thing is sure: It files fingernails fantastically. 

This isn’t totally new for me. A long while ago, I was eating something hard  and a splinter of enamel from a bottom tooth shaved off and landed on my tongue. I spit it into a napkin, its demise anonymous and ignominious, and for that I lament. 

As far as I know, that was my first tooth chip. It was novel and neat. It was painless, almost imperceptible. What I kinda perversely like: It certainly won’t be my last. 

Teeth are ever-evolving, generally for the worst, be it cavities or wayward wisdoms. The mouth is a monster, filthy, festering, fragrant. And despite it signifying that one’s teeth are slowly disintegrating, a little chip here and there is nothing to spaz about, as even my dentist showed. She simply pointed mine out as if it was a birthmark or a cute little dimple. Yeah, it’s just like that.

Oral apprehensions

In a feat of magnificent self-control, the dental hygienist did not flinch. There she was, peering into my gaping maw, inspecting, poking and scraping teeth and gums, and miraculously she didn’t throw up.

Pro that she is, you wouldn’t think she would. But my mouth hasn’t been examined by anyone with “dental” or “dentist” in their job description since the Obama administration for a plethora of reasons, none of them interesting, credible or justifiable. “Massacre” is the word I figured would spring to her mind as she toiled in my mossy abyss.

I’m a mad brusher and flosser, but I dumbly dropped the ball on getting my choppers checked, and after a while I just let it slide, perhaps the least responsible thing I’ve done since paying good money to see that Spin Doctors tribute band.  

Going into the eons-belated dental appointment, I braced for catastrophe. I entertained Dantesque visions of cavities, gingivitis, cracked crowns, mouth cancer, hairy tongue syndrome, or worse. I imagined my teeth encrusted with piles of plaque, towers of tartar. Dentist? Get me an archeologist.

Dentistry isn’t gorgeous. It’s violent, invasive, queasy, medieval. Still, dentists don’t scare me much. I’m not one of those characters who whines and quivers over the periodic oral exam. My mouth has been through a lot, including braces, a few crowns, scads of fillings and wisdom teeth extraction (all four). 

When I was 14, a dental surgeon propped up a few of my receding gums by slicing strips of skin from the roof of my mouth and using the flesh to support the sliding gums. That happened.

I’ve rode merry clouds of nitrous oxide and been jabbed with novocaine needles the length and girth of bratwursts. I’ve seen my own blood smeared on the minty-green dental bib. What else can they do? I’m pretty much ready for anything. 

And so I went to the dentist this week, steeled, as I said, for that scene in “Marathon Man.” I pictured drills and pliers, sandblasters and buzzsaws.

Instead, I got teddy bears and lollipops. The hygienist couldn’t have been more pert and welcoming, a living bubble machine. (Not only that, but the ceiling television was set to “The View”!) 

She proceeded to do the poke-and-prod routine with hooky metal utensils and rather than recoil at my neglected mouthful, she actually complimented the super job I’ve been doing maintaining my oral health. Clearly, she said, I take my toothsome hygiene seriously. I would have smiled if seven of her fingers weren’t jammed in my mouth. 

And so I won Round One in the dentist ordeal. Of course I had more in store, the big stuff: the x-rays and the photos and the exam by the capital-D Dentist. This gig wasn’t over by a long shot, and with my luck I’d be getting some kind of shot with the longest needle available. 

I was ushered into a new room, where the official dentist’s chair spread before me, the full-length recliner straight out of Torquemada. Once you lie back in this chair, it’s over. Once you open your mouth, you’re doomed. Rinse, spit, repeat, scream.

As it’s been 135 years since I last saw a dentist, the young doctor who eventually entered, after a pair of technicians took x-rays and photos, was of course new to me. And to my delight, she was just as chirpy, enthusiastic and calming as the angelic hygienist — a human puff of nitrous oxide. 

But she was serious, too, and got down to business. The upshot: I am a fastidious cleaner, but I grind my teeth and need a tooth guard for sleep; I have two slightly cracked molars that will eventually require crowns; and I have one “baby” cavity that did not concern the good doc a bit. 

In fact, she practically laughed it off. And at long last, relieved, disabused of my festering fears, and with no fingers and pokers clogging my mouth, so did I.

Why I’m never going to my high school reunion

My high school reunion is fast approaching. There is no way in hell I’m going. 

The reasons are obvious: the cringing awkwardness, the burning mortification of being reacquainted with people you could barely stand to look at decades ago, the screaming wish to not be there, the horror, the horror.  

I’ve skipped all of my high school reunions and have no plans to attend future ones. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed a coterie of close friends in high school, not to mention several satellite buddies and many gal pals. I was popular with all kinds, even though I generally abhorred the conceited, pathetically delusional jocks and cheerleaders. 

I had the time of my life with those friends, especially my best friend, Ian. The two of us even went to the same college, where he met his future wife, gleaned new interests (like money), then our paths began to diverge. 

We were doomed to lose touch. By late college and beyond he’d become something of a boor, intellectually incurious, cerebrally inert. His cultural immaturity, which manifested itself as an irrational hostility towards the arts, books, fine food and world travel, made him a hopeless philistine, a materialist contented with easy mediocrity and smug conventionalism. (I can only imagine how he’d deem my very different life.) Except for wine, women and song, so to speak, we had zip in common.

It’s a shame. We’ve exchanged occasional emails over the years, but nothing’s clicked. We are different people, only vaguely relatable, and that happens. Still, if there’s one person I’d go to a high school reunion with, it’d be him. 

But that won’t happen. From what I’ve gathered, I think he’s also boycotted the reunions, those sad, saggy assemblies of forced jollity and shattered dreams. Now, I know oodles of people genuinely enjoy these things, going so far as to head organizing committees and track down fellow alumni and all that crap.

What a dismal business. High school was mostly rotten, with the exception of my friends and our extramural activities (huh-hum), the rock bands I played in, and my junior year English teacher, who taught me about 80 percent of what I know about art, life and literature. Recently I wrote this about those days:

“My California high school was a miasma of mediocrity: Clorox-white, suburban, middle-class, filled with dullards and animated by cliquey teen clichés — jocks, stoners, nerds, punks, cheerleaders — ‘The Breakfast Club’ writ eye-rollingly real. This callow pimple-verse was of course dominated by the chest-thumping jocks, those entitled, vainglorious meatheads, who actually believed they were special and that anyone but them gave one goddam about a Friday night football game.”

I was an angry teen, see, which is scarcely uncommon. And it sounds like I hold a grudge, which I kind of do. Yet I’m not blaming anyone for my misery. People are who they are, and who they are as teenagers isn’t necessarily who they become.

But all I know are the characters I knew in high school. And yet maybe that bullying jerk is a benevolent, cherub-cheeked pastor now. And maybe that overbearing chirpy cheerleader is an amazing New York sculptor. Could be. 

I’m not chancing it.

Setting my sights on new specs

At long last I need prescription eyeglasses. I figured it, the doctor confirmed it. I am the most olden and wizened man on Earth. 

And yet I am not devastated. I am hardly ruffled, didn’t even blink. I’ve been wearing reading specs for some time now, used namely for books, food labels and computer stuff, and without which I couldn’t type these words and how that would break your heart. 

I can see people, cars, trees, raccoons and the general environment with spectacular clarity. No one appears fuzzy like a gelatinous apparition or a melting snowman. In fact, I’d reckon my vision is at least 80 percent normal and healthy. 

Yet, as I have just learned, I am clinically far-sighted: objects at a distance are clear but those up close, like book pages, laptop screens and microwave buttons, are distressing smudges. They look like amoebas, or roadkill.

So this week I elected to get a fancy, full-blown eye exam, my first in about 15 years (and my second ever). I pictured, blurrily, a speedy, comfortable procedure featuring paper eye charts and other quaint peepers paraphernalia. 

Instead, for almost an hour, I was subjected to a harrowing battery of high-tech tests featuring Kubrickian contraptions, yellow-dye eyedrops, blinding photos of my wide-open eyeballs, all while being ushered in and out of apparatus-cluttered rooms by two assistants and a doctor who maintained a scary, chirpy detachment. The lab coat, an unsettling touch.

Eventually, I was done. I blinked about 585 times, wiped the gooey yellow dye from my lashes, examined, with the trio, disconcerting snapshots of my bulging, bloodshot orbs, and listened to the dilated diagnosis. I am going blind. 

No, but a prescription was prescribed: progressives. These are glasses, or specifically lenses, or, as I snatched off the web: “a type of prescription eyeglasses that let you see your whole field of vision without switching between multiple pairs of glasses.” That’s a bit reductive, but it makes the point.

The upshot: I need real glasses.

At least I sort of know what having glasses is like, what with my onerous readers and all. Those I have to fetch and fumble for, be it at home or in the tahini aisle at Whole Foods, or at the ATM, etc. (and that’s a very long etcetera). 

The new glasses I ordered will be glued to my face with utmost convenience and questionable aesthetics. I wanted dark blue, even cobalt, frames, and I selected a blue-blackish pair from the sterile racks and rows of spiffy eyewear. The frames run pricey, the lenses even more. Discounts are involved, so the damage isn’t blinding. Still, the money might be spent more festively on my approaching voyage to Portugal, on, say, museums, or octopus platters. 

Color me excited. Blurs be gone. The whole world crystalline. Granny glasses, the cursed readers, in the dustbin. I foresee all of this, and I haven’t even tried on the new glasses. I envision a brighter future. I call this far-sightedness.

Making hay

I never liked horses. I have my reasons: The massive height and rippling musculature. The crazed eight-ball eyes, rubbery mouths and domino choppers. The lurching giraffe necks and screeching neighs. The rearing, kangaroo-punching hooves and kicking hind legs. The bratty obstinacy. The abundant, free-falling poop. 

Frankly, horses scare me. I’ve rode horses. It’s like riding a displeased minotaur.

For all that, I don’t hate horses. But I know someone who does. That’s the person behind the website I Hate Horses, which is now, sadly, just a lowly Facebook page. The writer launches with “I hate horses. They are stupid, fat, nasty, brainless wasted space in this world.” It doesn’t get much more erudite than that, I’m afraid, though some of the rants are funny despite the inescapable barnyard humor.

What spurs this little blog post is a line by journalist extraordinaire Susan Orlean in her new essay collection “On Animals.” She writes that as a child she experienced “that golden moment when I, like millions of young girls throughout human history, fell into an adolescent swoon over horses.”

Why is this? It’s a fact that many young girls become smitten with those glossy, galloping pasture pets. Growing up I knew girls who collected pricey model horsies that stood in regal poses and, if lucky (or rich), actually owned one or two of the animals. I, who was busy burning model airplanes and catching snakes and listening to KISS records, never grasped the fascination with the big snorting beasts. Dogs, yes; horses, nay. 

And yet horses exude an undeniable majesty, a strange, ravishing nobility that can only be summed up in the fancy word equine. They are shiny, demonstrably wise (watch them buck dimwit riders), tough, fast, strong, with billowing manes and dancing tails, despite an overwhelming perfume of hay and horsiness. 

I’ve ridden these gorgeous monsters, these mythological creatures that might have sprung from Homer or Ovid. It was not pleasant. In Egypt I rode a dumb, galumphing camel that gave me more delight. I found the horses disobedient and nearly uncontrollable. I cursed them and dug my sneakers into their ribs. I am surprised they didn’t hurl me off onto the dusty plain and stomp me to death.

I’m no cowboy, and farms are as foreign to me as, say, the opera stage, or a Lamaze class. Horses may not be my thing — there are horsey people and sane people — but I appreciate them for their might and mystery. They are wondrous but weird, and they definitely have a demonic streak, but I kind of like them for that, too. Giddyup.

One memory launches a hundred more

There was the one-legged kid with the giant mouth who sold us homemade firecrackers for 25 cents a pop on the playground. That was Clayton, grade four, with a wooden leg and a broad freckly face topped by a shaggy pageboy. I still don’t know why Clayton had one leg. But he got along, though with a strenuous limp that made him look like a lurching scarecrow.

Those were some times, grade school in Santa Barbara, Ca., when John Travolta, John Ritter and Jonathan Livingston Seagull soared. When skateboarding became a bowl-swooping craze and the Boogie Board vaulted bodysurfing to radical crests. And when Pong and Space Invaders rocked high-tech recreation with bleeps (and, face it, creaks). 

Jim Jones and “The Devil in Miss Jones.” Darth Vader and “Dancing Queen.” The time machine churns and Clayton, poor Clayton, is probably selling TNT to demolitionists in Arizona these days. Light the fuse …

Boom! That’s KISS, circa 1978. All fire and folderol. And, for a fourth grader, everything alluring wrapped in one blinding bundle: sex, rock ’n’ roll, explosions, noise, mayhem, tongue-flinging personas in makeup and costumes.

Not a good look. Things rarely age well, unless it’s wine, or Cheryl Ladd.

Some things last. Queen and the Ramones. “Annie Hall” and “Apocalypse Now.” Bowie and Belushi. Richard Pryor and Richie Cunningham. Didion and De Niro. Rodney Allen Rippy and priggish Charmin pitchman Mr. Whipple. And yes: “Maude.”

What we’re getting at is memory and endurance, how they’re braided, and the randomness of it all. It started with Clayton’s cheap firecrackers — painted silver, with the fuse strangely in the middle, not the top — a fond memory from when I wore Keds sneakers and Sears Toughskins and had hair like Adam Rich. 

Apparently out of nowhere I had a flash of Clayton, always with that enveloping smile, his disability be damned, and everything came rushing back in mere seconds, and with it the world.

I can’t do karma

I was just thinking about the childlike knuckleheadism of karma, that form of magical thinking summed up as “what comes around goes around” that’s as easily dismissed as so much mystical poppycock.

What triggered this thought was how some unpleasant things have happened to me recently with little rhyme or reason and how some people, using karma as lazy shorthand, might reduce my miseries to retribution for some naughty past behaviors. 

Was it the time I shoplifted records when I was 14? Or when I flipped off a fellow driver who cut me off ? Could it be that I ghosted a girl I was dating because she didn’t read books? I doubt it, on all counts. I just don’t think the universe works that way.

Karma is synonymous with cause and effect, destiny and fate. It’s a measure of the luck one deserves and an incentive to do good deeds: you helped starving children, now you will be rewarded with a wish-granting genie! And it’s a deterrent from wrongdoing: you probably got in that fender bender because you never call your mother, you selfish wretch.

It’s not about getting a wicked hangover because you drank too much. That’s not karma; that’s ill judgement. Nor is it getting a promotion for a job well done; that’s hard-won exceptionalism.

No, karma is about the intangible, rooted in coincidence. It’s a strenuous leap of faith. A bit of chance. It’s not unlike the gauzy fictions of astrology or palm reading, though it’s probably less harmful and deceitful. 

In college, a furry Grateful Dead fanatic — a bona fide Deadhead — chided me for talking about scalping some Dead tickets at inflated prices. “Oh, dude, that’s bad karma, man,” he whined. I ignored him. I sold the tickets. The only adverse effect was the wad of cash I gleefully made.

But maybe karma was at work there. Had my hippie friend refrained from calling me dude, I might not have sold the tickets. Peace would shine upon the land and a few less Deadheads would noodle in druggy bliss to inexplicably horrible music. Then again, nah.  

The term karma is from the Sanskrit for “action, effect, fate,” and it echoes the biblical notion of reaping what you sow, not to mention such needlepoint philosophy as: “Life is a boomerang. What you give, you get.”

I don’t buy it. While I believe you are the author of your life, that your choices navigate where, to an extent, things will take you, I also think most of it is out of your hands. There are no messages in the universe, no cosmic justice. There is, however, striking coincidence, dumb luck, chance. Life as the Lotto.

Karma, ergo, is a cockamamie crutch. It’s got woo-woo written all over it. It’s as plausible as Santy Claus, spirits, or my friend Tom picking up a check at lunch.  

And now that I’ve spouted off here, with snark and a smirk, you just know something is going to get me.

Photo phobe

Look at that, I think, watching citizens on the street interviewed on the nightly news. So composed, so poised, so extemporaneously eloquent, fluid and alive, all with a thrusting camera and flood lights in their makeup-free faces, knowing this is a one-shot performance for the big TV show, posterity even. How do they do it?

Me, no. Cameras are my kryptonite. I am so camera shy, from still photos to shaky video, that even in these starved, socially distanced times, I will not do FaceTime or Zoom with even my coolest pals. They know this, so they don’t try much. No. They never try.

I’m ruthless: The last time my own mother tried to FaceTime me — on my birthday — I declined her three times. After that, we had a brittle phone chat. It was a short call.

Cameras are performative devices; they make you assume an artificial skin. I personally find this embarrassing and uncomfortable, and it’s not just because I dislike seeing my own image, although I certainly do. Hammy poses, coerced smiles and theatrical displays of affection — it’s all so plastic and painful. Every time my picture is taken, I feel like I’ve sold my soul to Lucifer. And he wants a refund. 

I used to be quite photogenic, if I may say so. I do not believe this anymore. And so, amid group shots in particular, I try to hide as much as possible. My resulting image is invariably spectral — that of a Native American spirit hovering with ritual solemnity in the background, very displeased with my historical lot. 

I’m a wuss. Not only do I shun pictures, I dread public speaking, including toasts, and prefer to interview others instead of being interrogated. 

Of many offers to be interviewed on television and radio for my last job, I made only two exceptions. I was so fumbly and fidgety when I appeared on TV that I can hardly even remember the incident, except that I hated it. Seeking a segment for “This American Life,” NPR guru Ira Glass interviewed me from New York. Naturally, I choked with nerves. 

Traveling alone, I used to snap selfies for the visual record. I have a lot of those and they’re not bad. Even my distorted self-image can’t ruin all of them. But I don’t do that so much now, yet I have, in these Covid climes, surrendered to FaceTime for the occasional doctor appointment and such. I don’t like what I see. Not one bit.

So how do those regular folks on the news get so natural and comfortable and chatty, besieged by lights and cameras on live TV? I’d dash if a camera crew approached me.

If they indeed snared me, I’d gleam with flop sweat and stammer like a fourth-grader giving a book report. I’d botch the take and wind up on the cutting room floor. Then I’d shamble off, relieved, yet again, that the camera didn’t get me.