Dreams to die for

When I died in a dream last night, which I did, it was so weirdly serene and surreal that everything sort of meshed into a dark, enveloping calm and, refusing Dylan Thomas’ famous appeal, I went gentle into that good night. I died, and it was exhilarating. 

But is this right? Isn’t actually dying in your dreams against the rules of reverie? Doesn’t the dreamer have to live in order to carry on as the dream’s first-person protagonist and spin the id’s nonsensical narrative? Isn’t the musty lore true, that dying in a dream means you die in real life? 

Well, I died and lived to tell about it.

In last night’s dream — a nocturne of murky black and white, with wisps of color — I contracted an illness that I voluntarily succumbed to after rejecting treatment, hence, of course, my demise. As a kind of perverse medical suicide, it was anything but a violent death, lacking a crashing plane, alligator mauling or the classic tumble off a cliff and the interminable, gasping fall. 

Though I perished, I don’t consider the dream a nightmare — close, but not. It was freaky and unsettling, yet it transcended the sort of fright-scape that claws the subconscious, jolting you awake clammy and stricken. I instead slipped into a peaceful, hugging blackness, poof, gone. That’s the way to go, I thought, even as I vaporized. 

Sleep specialists wouldn’t be surprised at this cushioned departure, noting that dying dreams are anti-climactic, even strangely euphoric. “The most striking and consistent characteristic of dying dreams is their overwhelmingly pleasant content,” says one. 

As counterintuitive as this sounds, dream interpreters, who, face it, are about as credible as psychics and senators, claim dying in one’s dream signifies rebirth and life, new beginnings and personal growth. It’s like the Death card in the equally eye-rolling Tarot deck, which doesn’t symbolize death at all, but renewal and life change. 

I call bullshit. I don’t think for a second my dream death points to anything but my own compulsive morbidity. At most it denotes a longed-for escape hatch, a kind of permanent vacation, no matter if it is in Hades. 

And it obviously doesn’t denote real-life expiry, unless I’m an industrious wraith with pretty good typing skills. Dying in your dream does not equal actual death. (Then again, if you’re cast in “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” you’re screwed.)

I croaked and the show rolled on. That’s different from previous nocturnal ruptures I’ve had, which could be called near-death experiences. Those are the ones where I incur a fatal blow, jab or smash and, instead of vanishing, I spring back to life and complete the dream as a vital character, shaken but stirring. Death gets the middle finger. 

I like the other kind better. As the sleep experts attest, my dream death was tinged with quiet euphoria and surprising OK-ness. It was otherworldly, a little spooky and, somehow, exquisite. There was finality, until there wasn’t. Sometimes RIP is just REM.

You are getting sleepy. Not.

The other night I couldn’t sleep, so I took a dog sedative. 

That will do it, I thought. That will put me down like a tranquilized caribou. The Benadryl isn’t working, the Xanax has flopped. It’s 3 a.m. and time for the big guns, even though the dog, Cubby, weighs about as much as a couple of gallons of milk.

So how much doggie dope to take? I haven’t the foggiest. I don’t want a measly Cubby dose. Well, this chunky pill looks about right for an adult human. Gulp.

And it worked. A little before 4 a.m., the tossing, turning and cursing ceased. I was out, and it was good. I woke up with paws and a tail, but it was worth it.

My accursed insomnia comes in waves. I’ll have a few months of it, then it clears up and I sleep like a normal person, six to eight hours if I’m lucky. But those sleepless stretches are agony. So I medicate, with reckless abandon. 

And it rarely works. I’ve tried Ambien, melatonin, Benadryl, booze, Xanax and Clonazepam, sometimes all at once. Maybe they’re cancelling each other out.

Everyone sings the drowsy praises of Benadryl, a common over the counter antihistamine. I know people who can’t even wake up the next day if they take one and a half pills. That’s insane. I’ve taken up to eight Benadryl in one night and got zero winks. I think I need a shot of sodium Pentothal.

I don’t like how many drugs I ingest, everything from Pristiq and Benadryl, to Zyrtec and Xanax, to Clonazepam and Advil. My blood must be a sludgy brown, or a nuclear green. It can’t be good.

In college, the pharmacist at the student health center told me he puts nothing in his body medicinally, not even aspirin. I mulled if that was even humanly possible. I wonder where he is now. Probably a heroin addict. 

Last summer was especially slumber-free. When insomnia strikes, the mind reeling in futile spin cycles, I typically get up and try to make myself tired by doing stuff. I write, read, plan trips, watch videos, get a head start on the day’s online news. Once I went ahead and shaved in the middle of the night, an existential triumph of baby-soft smoothosity. And I rarely neglect my journal, like this bit from August:

“2:40 a.m. I cannot sleep and I’ve taken two Clonazepam, a Xanax, three Benadryl and three more just now, making that six Benadryl. I am tense and restless, bored. Went downstairs at 1 a.m. to read and sip a splash of rosé and still nothing. I’m so damn antsy. … 5 a.m. Cannot get to sleep. Two more Benadryl and whole body cramping and restless. No sleep whatsoever. Zonked in the head yet my body wants to run a 5K.”

Those are the tedious musings of a fatally bored, somewhat drugged individual. Where’s the dog pill when I need it?

About that pill: Turns out the sedative given Cubby to calm him before vet visits is an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication for humans, so it’s not like I was eating dog food or committing a creepy interspecies caper. The pill is Trazodone, which in 2017 was the 30th most commonly prescribed medication in America. So I’m in good company.

Sleep shouldn’t be so elusive. While it’s a precious and pleasant commodity — cuddling, dreaming, flipping the pillow over to the cold side, snoring with roof-rattling gusto — snoozing is also mandatory. I for one become a deep-fried ogre without sleep. Just as scary: some reports say up to 50 percent of adults suffer chronic insomnia.

That’s a rotten figure, yet one that makes you think. Those hours swiped of sleep, when you’re desperately, hopelessly awake, can be surprisingly fertile. I can’t tell you how much world-travel mapping I’ve accomplished in the wee morning gloom of sleep deprivation.

Sure, I’d rather be unconscious and under the covers, but maybe some good can be wrung from the midnight malady. Maybe in the restless hush books can be read, letters written and Tokyo hotels booked. Maybe we can commune with ourselves with a kind of meditative calm and aloneness. Maybe, after all, sleep is for suckers.

One magnificent mollusk

Coiled near its rocky den, the octopus slowly unfurls a tentacle like a flower blooming in a time-lapse photo to the human hand before her. It glances the hand then suddenly sucks it, gently pulling it toward her. The moment carries the pitter-patter of courtship, of holding hands for the first time. Could this be love?

“That’s when you know there’s full trust,” says the owner of the suction-cupped hand, free diver and filmmaker Craig Foster, in his remarkable documentary “My Octopus Teacher.” A viral smash, the Netflix film has been shortlisted for the best documentary Academy Award. Really, it deserves a special accolade, say, Best Buddy Picture Between Man and Mollusk. The movie is something else: devastating octo-poetry. 

A simple story about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery cephalopod in the swaying kelp forests of South Africa, the film depicts the burly, soft-spoken Foster as a dedicated student of the ocean who is truly moved by the relationship he forges over a year with the sea animal that remains unnamed. (I suggest Octavia.)

Part of his lesson is noticing the striking similarities between us and these “alien” creatures, the way connection, interspecies or not, is essential and a well of bracing contentment. “It does give you this strange level of octopus joy,” notes Foster, saying words that have likely never been uttered before.

As a pupil, Foster is a keen observer, learning by watching his silent friend do what she does: hunt, hide, jet, crawl, swim and, sometimes, walk on two legs on the ocean floor. That trippy spectacle, both funny and boggling, is one of many scene-stealers.

She’s a gelatinous chameleon, enacting stunning physical transformations with her bulbous head, serpentine legs and polka-dot suckers to blend seamlessly into the Day-Glo surroundings. Her effortless shape-shifting is part of the movie’s multi-pronged magic.

“My Octopus Teacher” reminds me of many oceany things, like the charmingly odd adopt an octopus campaign at the World Wildlife Fund, where for a $55 donation you get a plush stuffed octopus, a photo, an adoption certificate and other tentacular goodies. It never occurred to me that octopi were endangered, but WWF says they’re “vulnerable to toxins and pollution,” yet doesn’t that cover just about everything? (Please send me $55. I am endangered. My plush doll is amazing.) 

As much as I love watching the delightful octopus in the movie, I love even more putting octopus in my mouth. Almost unavoidable on midscale restaurant menus — perhaps another reason they’re endangered — grilled octopus is hot stuff, up there with bone marrow and short ribs. Both chewy and silky, the meat has a mild sea-foody flavor complemented by a good fiery sear. Here’s a spectacular piece I scarfed in Barcelona:

I don’t want to eat the movie’s affable octopus. She’s a darling — adorably clever, wily and pretty, much like the picture itself, which is also fairly wrenching (brace for some drama). 

It’s an elemental tale rife with homey pleasures: the hand holding, the snuggling, the mutual respect. The bond is inexplicable but palpable, right there on screen, like when Foster’s new BFF seems to be tailing him through the sea.

“That’s one of the most incredible feelings,” he beams, “to be followed by an octopus.”

It’s fantastic, and it almost breaks your heart.

An EKG? WTF?!

So I tell my doctor that I think my heart is fluttering, murmuring, skipping a beat or doing something wiggy that makes me worry I’m about to have a heart attack. I like my heart to beat to a steady 4/4 tempo — your basic rock beat — and not do paradiddles and drum solos. I want Ringo Starr keeping time, not Keith Moon. 

The doctor raises an eyebrow but is distinctly untroubled and prescribes me an EKG, or electrocardiogram, which goes like this: “An EKG measures the electrical activity of the heart. It tracks these beats and electrical impulses and tells how the heart is functioning.”

An EKG? I frown. But what did I expect? I whine about my impending cardiac arrest and suddenly I’m hooked up to an octopus of cables. Did I think the doctor would just check my blood pressure and stethoscope things away? (Yeah, a little.)

Like any sane person, I loathe medical procedures. They’re intrusive, worrisome, expensive, and they smell funny. But I quickly learn that an EKG is rudimentary health stuff, like a blood test, or a digital rectal exam (sorry). Of course I do it. 

This is what the whole thing looks like (that isn’t me, and that certainly isn’t my nurse):

The procedure is so fast and easy — 10 minutes tops — that I’d barely call it a procedure. More like a way to have some chest hair ripped out. 

Just doing it makes me feel healthier. I’m unaccountably certain the results will be peachy and I can go on living a questionable lifestyle. 

Later, the doc summons me. Things are suddenly not so glowing. Irregularities appeared on the EKG. She wants me to get an echocardiogram, which is: “a test that uses ultrasound to make pictures of your heart.” It’s what they do on a pregnant woman’s belly to see the fetus, but on your ticker.   

Terrific. Now I’m not just stressed, I’m nearly beside myself. 

And for good reason. The echocardiogram I eventually get bears unsettling news. Apparently my heart is in distress: I have a dilated aorta and a “bundle branch block” on the left side. The doctor tells me to see a cardiologist and gives me the name of one. 

I sigh, hard. What’s wrong? the doctor asks. Well, I say, you just gave me a pile of shitty news. She tries to soften the blow: At most, he’ll examine you and tell you to come back in a year, she says. I sigh again. I’m a big sigher. 

Convinced I’ll soon be getting a triple bypass, or a baboon heart, I nervously see the cardiologist, a man bald of pate and kind of soul. Why are you here? he asks right off the bat. Well, I was told I was about to die, I say, if not in those exact words.

Not even close, he says. The abnormalities that appeared are actually totally normal, nothing to worry about, now get the hell out of here and live your life. 

Amazing! I’m free! I’m healthy! My chest will not explode in the next six months! This is a huge turnaround. A new lease on life. I almost kick up my heels like a leprechaun.

And then a dark curtain drops and it occurs to me that good health is fleeting. We are all decaying, breaking down, each breath the beginning of the end. The cardiologist’s warm, mellifluous words become so much empty prattle. Sigh.

But I am undeterred. I will seize the good news and slap the heavens with a high-five. I will take it day by day, adopt a zen perspective, stay calm, reside in the moment. The proverbial bus may smoosh me, or I’ll die a shriveled twig under hospice care, age 101. Really, I don’t know what’s next, how this life thing will play out.

I know only one thing: I kinda don’t want my heart to stop. Hit it, Ringo …

Royal pain

Exactly one week after Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris, in 1997, I stumbled upon a sprawling ad hoc memorial for her just above the Pont de l’Alma tunnel, where the catastrophe occurred. My arrival was strictly serendipitous; I don’t even remember why I was in that part of Paris at that particular time. I was just a gawking tourist ambling along, probably whistling like an idiot. 

Yet there it was, an ocean of bouquets, effusive notes and photographs placed by milling mourners paying their respects. It was September 6, the very day of Diana’s funeral, which was held at Westminster Abbey in London and finished at her resting place in Althorp Park, the Spencer family home. 

Diana’s makeshift shrine in Paris, September 6, 1997

My reaction to the spectacle was a rush of surprise tinged with ambiguous sorrow. Not for a moment had I ever thought about Princess Diana — or any of the Royals — before this chance encounter. I found their soap opera travails — marriages, divorces, deaths, births and betrayals — perversely overplayed and monumentally tedious. (Only the recent season of “The Crown,” featuring a star-crossed Diana, came close to holding my attention to royal hooey, and raptly at that.) Yet I was dimly moved, despite myself.

The Royals live their own fractured fairy tale, without the court jester (or is that Philip?). Drama, oodles of drama. The latest swirls around Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s self-exile to shiny California and if I cared a whit I’d rewind to juicy bits about Fergie, Philip, Charles, even poor Diana, who was groomed for sainthood by an adoring public.

Why the undying interest in the Royal Family? Who are these people? They’re obscenely rich, for one, leading charmed if crushingly idle lives in monstrous palaces fit for, well, a king. Yet they’re only human, pitifully so. Their crises are legendary, fed to the public in a manner fitting congenital spotlight whores. Their reign serves no discernible purpose, rendering them privileged waxworks, oxidized totems of antiquity that just sort of sit there, performing the robotic “royal wave” to the glazed masses when not shooting skeet.

It’s a twisted phenomenon, the whole royal-watching rigamarole. And it’s hardly trifling. Google “royal watching” and you’ll get some 613,000,000 results. Compare that to a search of “Barack Obama,” who I’d argue is far more interesting and consequential, and you get a paltry 132,000,000 results. Then again, the British monarchy has been around since the 10th century. But still.

The American analogue is JFK and Jackie’s self-styled Camelot, that dreamy, idealized, media-genic Arcadia that spawned a (rather jinxed) political dynasty. Kennedy’s 1,000-day presidency in no way compares to the Royals’ 1,000-year run, at least in duration, but both are subject to fawning scrutiny by lovers and haters alike. The glamor and intrigue, triumphs and tribulations! It’s a tea-time telenovela, with two cubes of schadenfreude.  

I guess that’s what gets us: human frailty played out on the public stage. It’s Shakespearean, irresistible, satisfying yet not so much. They’re our heroes and our villains; we spit-shine them with a loogie. Such empty-calorie ogling has been a pop-culture sport through the ages, whispered in gossip, screamed in tabloids. And it doesn’t require a king’s (or princess’) ransom. Talk, after all, is cheap — and royally seductive.

***

Speaking of stumbling on monarchy malarkey: In 2004 I chanced upon the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace in London, an irony-free shuffle of hollow pomp and frivolous circumstance. Since I just sort of materialized without a plan, I wound up unmoored on the street instead of obediently queued on the sidewalk. As you can see, the glaring horseback bobby was having none of it. Maybe he sensed my royal revulsion.

Buckingham Palace, 2004

Tales of a teenage screw-up

I got busted a lot as a teenager, twice by the law, but mostly by my parents, who were, in hindsight, exceedingly levelheaded but had their limits when it came to teen tomfoolery. Especially the smart-ass kind. 

Lessons learned: Don’t lie. Don’t smoke pot in the house. Don’t back-talk like Judd Nelson in “The Breakfast Club.” And don’t sneak out at night and sleep in some kid’s tree fort with your girlfriend. Just don’t.

That last one burned bad, because the punishment fit the crime. Not only was I grounded for two weekends, but any chance to see Ozzy Osbourne in nearby San Francisco was promptly jettisoned. 

I didn’t know my parents had discovered my tree fort escapade when I excitedly showed them the newspaper ad for the show. Seethed Mom: “You have the balls to ask us if you can go to a concert?” I crawled to my room, chastened, shut down. Did she really say “balls”? I thought.

Of course, months later, I sneaked out again to meet a girlfriend late at night — at a golf course of all places — so you can call me a recidivist, or, more accurately, a bonehead. This time I wasn’t caught. And this time I didn’t sleep over near the ninth hole. I pedaled my Mongoose BMX back home and was tucked into my twin waterbed (which was way outdated even then) before dawn. My antics were par for the course.

And then the fuzz found me. Senior year of high school. Four guys in a beaten brown Pinto parked on a hilltop in a suburban housing development. Drinking beer, puffing pot. Red and blue lights. Two of us cited for weed, me and my friend Mike, by one Officer Burt, whose notoriety for chasing down teen scofflaws was legendary and feared.

The upshot: I spent a weekend on a modern-day chain gang, minus the chain, digging up shrubs on street islands in the blazing sun, wearing a reflective vest. (I can’t believe I’m telling you this part: At lunch, three of us peeled off and lit up. Seriously: bonehead.) 

Not only was I cited for marijuana possession that night, I was also hit with underage alcohol possession — a little boo-boo I soon repeated. (Bone. Head.) I was doing 42 in a 30 zone when I was pulled over. Unfortunately, on the backseat I had a cooler containing a six-pack. “What’s in there?” asked the unflappable officer. I was more saddened that he confiscated my beer than getting a speeding ticket and a yet another citation. 

But I shouldn’t have been, because that second offense landed me in what’s casually called alcohol school, which is really a series of weekly night classes for young drug and booze offenders. I had to go for a month.

Busted. Again.

The “teacher” was one of those self-consciously hardened scared-straight types, scowling and threatening like he wanted to beat holy hell out of each of us loser drug-addict criminal hooligans. Too bad for him he was about 5’5” and 110 pounds. Still, it was a sobering lesson in naked unpleasantry. 

As vigilant as Mom and Dad were, they were curiously unruffled by my run-ins with the law. I don’t even think I got grounded for either citation (no, wait, I’m sure I did). They certainly weren’t shocked or affronted. I vividly recall presenting my pot possession ticket — a folded-up yellow carbon copy — to them that night and confessing my sins in full. And I recall utter calm. And I recall getting high after they went to bed. 

The teen mind boggles. Restless and wild, it pushes, tests and risks in a haze of addled morality. Often, it knows not what it does. It’s stubbornly stupid that way, and the learning curve is steep. Maturity comes at a price. See you on your next tour, Ozzy.

I found ways of getting grounded with almost self-flagellating consistency. Because Mom was around more and shared my fiery temper, most of my domestic devilry featured face-offs with her. It was never pretty and nothing to be proud of, particularly since I almost always lost. I once overheard my Dad telling my Mom that I was a “problem child,” which happens to be the name of a pretty good AC/DC song.

So I was a poor pupil in the School of Not Getting Busted. But I straightened out. Mostly. I was something of a voluptuary in my 20s and 30s, a confirmed singleton with a penchant for potent potables and an imperishable wanderlust that still whirls me around the globe. Encounters with cops dropped to nil and a safe and sane credo was duly adopted. 

I’m still a bit bonkers — where’s the fun in going totally straight? — but I’m no longer foolishly unruly. That’s kid’s stuff. And despite some good memories, I don’t miss it at all.

OK. That’s pretty much a lie. So ground me.

Loving animals, doggedly

As I was scratching the dog’s belly today, he squeaked out a tiny fart that I excused him for since, as far as I know, he can’t speak English and isn’t versed in basic human etiquette. I kept scratching and he emitted customary groans that I tend to interpret as vague doggie ecstasy. Sounds coming from both ends, très stereophonic.

Cubby the Wonder Mutt likes to lie on his back, supine, head tossed back, eyes squinched, rear legs spread-eagle, his pee-pee out in all its centerfold glory. He’s a good dog, as they say — always “good,” never “great” or “fabulous,” why is that? — even if he resembles one of those diabolical pygmy hellions, an Ewok. Compare, contrast: 

OK, not exactly, but sometimes I glance at him and scream in fleeting horror.

Animals, like ol’ Cubs, are always on my mind. For some reason, I’ve been watching more YouTube junk than normal and it seems like half the videos are prefaced with ads for heart-curdling, soul-gutting animal causes. 

They’re the kind that show emaciated puppies and starving bony horses and shivering dogs with so much eye goop they can barely see. It screws everything up. I don’t even feel like watching the video I was set to watch after those damn commercials. 

They get me every time. So there I go, helplessly dropping cash into the coffers of PETA, the Humane Society and other groups, like the crazy one for abused donkeys in India and the World Wildlife Fund’s stupendous adopt an octopus program. 

And I recently joined the ASPCA’s modest monthly membership, which amounts to an obscenely affordable 63 cents a day. I told them to save resources and keep the free t-shirt, which would only wind up as a dust rag. Pretty soon, thanks to all my donations, I’m going to own about 14 complimentary animal calendars that I really do not want.

I think I’m so nuts about animals and their welfare because I was raised with a rotating menagerie of pets: dogs, cats, rats, turtles, fish, rabbits, hens, salamanders. And I was scarred by “family” films like “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” that only make you love animals more and hate sadistic filmmakers. Even “Charlotte’s Web” planted a screwdriver into my heart, and she was just a crummy spider. (Even now I don’t kill spiders. I scoop them up and plop them outside.)

I hate to rate my animals, but since Cubby is in the other room probably flashing the neighbors on his back, I present the best dog my family ever had, a black Lab dubiously named Spooker. That’s her below, the one flicking her tongue. (I’m the one with the righteous tiger slippers; my brother Craig sports the scandalous red onesie.)  

Usually when I profess my love of animals I essentially mean dogs. I care a lot about monkeys, mice and manatees, but I can’t say I love them. Even as tykes, you can see how much we love our big black Lab, our companion, our third parent, protector and pal. Dogs are furry clichés: loyal, cheerful, eager, bursting with unconditional love, even if that means the occasional, totally misguided leg hump. That’s a pretty good package. 

Cubby fits the bill. He sort of represents all animals for me — penguins, porpoises, platypuses, the random narwhal — and so by caring for him I’m embracing the whole animal kingdom. 

That sounds super corny, and re-reading that sentence makes me shudder. But it’s true. Cubby contains multitudes. He’s small in body, big in heart. He lavishes affection on us and only asks in return walks, food, and heartfelt belly rubs, the kind that make him groan and wheeze like a 79-year-old with emphysema. Sometimes if you press just right, he produces the tortured warbling of bagpipes. Then he slowly passes out.

A good dog indeed. No. A great dog. How about a fabulous dog.

Rating life, and everything else

Once a former colleague and I were talking about how overrated most movies are. We were actually astonished and pretty disheartened. (“Avatar”? Christ.)

Then I took a big leap and mused that life is overrated, and I wasn’t really kidding. My pal nodded, even softly repeating my words. We traded wry grins that belied a deep sadness. We went back to work.

Funny thing is, even that sadness was overrated. Because it wasn’t quite sadness so much as bluish resignation, a minuscule sigh. Life, overrated as it may be, goes on.

Isn’t everything sorta, kinda overrated? All right, not everything. There’s family, romantic love, learning, travel, dogs, bourbon, art, Billy Wilder, anything concerning Doritos.

Still, the very question is unnerving. It’s not the most joyous thing to realize I can think of a kajillion things that are overrated, yet I’m sure you can, too. Let’s go for it. I’m totally just spitballing here:

  • empanadas
  • “The Wire”
  • Johnny Depp
  • most rap
  • “The Queen’s Gambit”
  • Sofia Coppola
  • dinner parties
  • all things Harry Potter
  • “Twin Peaks”
  • sports
  • music festivals
  • celebrity/celebrities
  • chicken breast
  • fake breasts
  • almost every Netflix comedy special
  • Twitter
  • zombies
  • Quentin Tarantino
  • road trips
  • “The Office”
  • late Red Hot Chili Peppers, including “Californication” (but not “My Friends”)
  • giant Ferris wheels in major cities
  • “Fargo” (the 1996 movie)
  • Brazilian waxing
  • Dave Eggers
  • Prague
  • politicians
  • “Vertigo”
  • year-round warm weather
  • Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Nickel Boys”
  • David Sedaris 
  • convertibles
  • “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
  • video installations

Excuse the haphazard tally; I was just getting started. I could have tossed in podcasts and pork rinds. Hell, I think I’m overrated. Put me in the top slot.

The thing with overrating stuff is how impossibly subjective it is. I can say life — or, for that matter, “Titanic” — is overestimated and there’s a 90-plus percentage you’ll disagree. Surely one of you thinks David Bowie is overrated, but I’d argue he is not, to my grave.  

But subjectivity is part of the pleasure. Sports fans (grossly overrated) forever gauge teams and players in heated arguments of gladiatorially subjective rating games. 

And it is a game. In Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy rattle off members of their own “Academy of the Overrated,” including Vincent van Gogh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce and Ingmar Bergman, formidable figures that seem name-checked just to piss off a breed of urban intellectual. (Woody himself goes apoplectic listening to them.)

As a game, cataloging one’s personal overrated (movie, food, person, book) is a cathartic kick. The characters in “Manhattan” are having a giggling ball airing their pointedly curated Academy. Tossing together my list above was fun and purgative, despite its sloppy incompleteness. (Though I did self-edit as I went. I felt some inclusions would offend sensitive readers. Like God, and jellybeans.) 

Is life really overrated? Sometimes, especially when you consider sickness, loss, debt, all those Tyler Perry movies. But it’s underrated, too — getting lost in a European city, succulent bone marrow in a good restaurant, fond memories, Al Pacino roaring his way through “Heat.”

Maybe it’s an even split. Maybe life and all its facets, good and not-so good, are what make things interesting. Maybe Coldplay (overrated) and cold weather (underrated) can coexist. And maybe, really, overrating things is itself overrated.

Retreat of the Jedi

When I was 9, “Stars Wars” was the shit. That movie and “Jaws,” two years earlier, jounced my cinematic world off its axis and into, well, outer space. (This of course happened to 95.9 percent of every kid of a certain age, so I’m sort of stating the obvious.)

I devoured “Star Wars” action figures, posters, a cool TIE fighter model, even bed sheets that were blue like the cosmos. “Jaws” — same. I was shark-crazed for about five years. I owned a real shark jaw from Tijuana, a “Jaws” t-shirt (see my About page), many shark books, and a dorky “Jaws” game, where you tried to fish junk out of a plastic shark’s mouth without his toothy smile chomping down on your pole. I sucked at it.

My grade-school teachers grew concerned about my constant drawings of sharks munching the limbs off hapless swimmers in blood-filled waters. Thing is, I’m still a bit batty about the misunderstood ocean predators, which are perfectly evolved, hyper-efficient killing machines, much like the creature in “Alien.”

But my starry-eyed view of “Star Wars” dimmed at a dramatic clip — almost light speed, let’s say. I only half-heartedly went to see 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” a movie that inspired no more expenditures on franchise merch. (By then it was a cultural arm wrestle between “Star Wars” and KISS — George Lucas vs. Gene Simmons. The latter spit blood. He won.) 

Jedi jaded as I quickly became — the Force was now farce — I never did get around to 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” I wasn’t interested. I didn’t care. Hard rock and girls had hijacked any alliance to “Star Wars,” and, besides, I was obsessing over more interesting movies like “An American Werewolf in London,” “The Elephant Man,” “Alien,” “The Dead Zone,” “The Fly” and, dare I say it, Woody Allen’s entire oeuvre. 

But a third “Star Wars” installment, no matter how disappointing its description, was still news — if not a cultural earthquake, then a rippling aftershock. Crowds flocked and you couldn’t help being exposed to trailers, photos and fan regurgitations of the episode in which Darth Vader famously croaks.  

Furry bundle of unrelenting embarrassment

And what I saw was repellent: frenzied Muppet creatures; the unforgivable Ewoks (tiny, fuzzy Jar Jar Binkses); the grinning ghosts of Yoda, Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker (together at last!); and the coda’s mortifying Ewok celebration, featuring gibberish music and creature dancing (Chewbacca boogies!). And I vowed I would never watch “Jedi.” Ever. 

Until I did.

This is where I admit that I watched “Return of the Jedi,” a full 27 years after it was released. It was an impulse rental, done under a cynical cloud of camp: “This is going to be so gorgeously godawful,” I thought, “that it will furnish a galaxy of perverse pleasures. I will howl with laughter at the Razzie-worthy writing and titter at the labored excesses of puppet pandemonium, including the hopelessly lame Jabba the Hutt, who reminds me of a big burp.”

My plan, alas, backfired. 

The movie completely surpassed its build up of rank horrendousness. But the experience wasn’t fun or funny. In fact, the sheer naked badness of “Jedi” served as a bludgeon that beat me into one of my darkest post-movie depressions ever. I actually felt physically ill watching it, and by that satanic climax of dancing Ewoks and high-fiving heroes I had died a few deaths. To this day, I consider “Return of the Jedi” one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. (Yes, worse than “Jaws 4: The Revenge.”)

At least critic Chuck Klosterman puts a humorous spin on it: “‘Return of the Jedi’ is quite possibly the least-watchable major film of the last 25 years. I knew a girl who claimed to have a recurring dream about a polar bear that mauled Ewoks; it made me love her.” 

And yet at the ever-vexing Rotten Tomatoes, the movie boasts an astonishing 82% approval rating. Opines the Denver Post: “It’s everything it ought to be — glorious, exhilarating, exciting, absorbing, technically wondrous.”

No, no, no, no and no. The movie is absolutely none of those things. Just watch this scene and try not to vomit. 

Jabba the Hutt, looking like an unspeakable bodily excretion.

It’s true that I’ve way outgrown the whole “Star Wars” dweeb-o-sphere, much as the Marvel universe is to me so much sophomoric hubbub. I’m not watching the latest “Star Wars” spinoff, “The Mandalorian,” and I have a terrible urge to squish baby Yoda’s head. 

That pretty much disqualifies me from the Way-Out World George Lucas Built, and that’s fine. Who needs Ewoks and Wookiees, Jabbas and Jedis, CGI and C-3PO, third-rate mysticism and fourth-grade mythology?

And yet “Jaws,” my other grade-school movie crush, remains one of my favorite pictures ever. Its arresting grainy realism is still fully convincing. Its adult’s-eye view of human frailty and interpersonal politics makes no concessions to the popcorn crowd. So finely orchestrated are its grisly thrills, you can allow yourself to be terrorized by a 25-foot plastic mechanical shark that’s as supple as a redwood.

It helps that Spielberg is 5,000 times the filmmaker Lucas is (OK, “American Graffiti” is pretty great). But it also helps that “Jaws” is Muppet-free and doesn’t traffic in cockamamie mythos. It helps that its only creature is sincerely menacing with very high stakes, and that all of “Jedi’s” itty Ewoks would make so much tasty shark chum.

Talking to myself

When traveling alone, my inner mind buzzes so feverishly with thoughts, words and soliloquies that I often forget myself and think I’m making a racket that everyone can hear.

But no one can hear me, I realize, and I fall back into the hermetic hum. The brain rattles in verbal commotion, synapses chatting away, echoing through cranial canyons. It’s the classic internal monologue, an incontinent loop. (Do I ever get tired listening to myself? And how.)

In countries where I don’t speak the language — most of them — I can go hours, even whole days without uttering a word. Transactions are reduced to semaphore and sign language. There’s lots of pointing. The lingua franca of a candid smile goes a long way.

Talking aloud is good and healthy. Being a mime all day can be suffocating while alone on the road. You need to air out. I’m always relieved to hear my voice stir to sonic life at the end of the day when, say, I order dinner at a nice restaurant and converse with a waiter, or, if lucky, when gabbing with patrons at the local pub.

I blush to admit I’m terrible about learning languages of places I visit. It’s pitiful, really. I’ve never used a phrase book and only bother to learn terms for “hello,” “goodbye,” “please” and “thank you.” (In French and Spanish, I also know “Do you speak English?”)

And that’s always been enough (except with cab drivers, who invariably need written directions). English is so uniformly familiar around the world that I find getting by something of a breeze. 

Still, those basic words — spasiba (“thank you” in Russia); proszę (“please” in Poland); bro! (“hello” in Las Vegas) — are invaluable social tools that make life easier amid the exoticism of a new land. 

But there I am, tramping across jungle villages and cluttered cityscapes, locked in my own head, mostly mute but open to vocal interaction, the human touch. I can tell you there’s nothing like laughing with a local during a far-flung voyage. 

When you’re going solo, getting out of your head takes an effort, as does anything worthwhile. It’s easier than you think. And the rewards are rich. Just watch as the elderly shop lady goes from mirthless money taker, pensive her in her task, to beaming with gratitude all because you simply said xiè xiè (“thank you” in Chinese ) with a smile. It’ll make your day, and possibly hers, too. Nothing is lost in translation. Everything is gained.