4 for fall

1. Au revoir, France — hello, Ireland? That’s how it looks right now, especially since I’ve swapped my flight to Paris for a ticket to Dublin. So I guess I’m going to Ireland in October (insert a wee leprechaun kick). Or I think I am. The tyranny of the pandemic can upend everything, so while Ireland has relatively open tourism guidelines, things can change in a depressing snap. I scotched Paris because France’s Covid rules have become groaningly prohibitive — très crappy. I’m not torn up about it. I’ve been to Paris a few times, but this purportedly worldly traveler has never made Ireland. Frankly, it hasn’t lured me to its bucolic charms: rolling green hills, craggy ocean cliffs, mossy castles, obsession with pubs and, suspiciously, Guinness beer, minor museums and churches. It’s been on my index of non-bucket list destinations (including Australia, Iraq and pretty much anything Caribbean) until now. What clicked? The idea of something far and uncharted (and not tropical). Focusing on Dublin and, briefly, Galway, it will be a mellow journey, eight lolling days of food and drink, mild tourism, immersive history and lots of questionable Irish music. If I really get there, I’ll be lucky, charmed.

2. With uncluttered elegance, the film is called “Lamb, and it will chill you to the bone. Coming October 8, it’s described by hip indie studio A24 as “Icelandic folktale on top, Nordic livestock horror on bottom,” and it flows in the vein of A24 creep-outs “The Witch” and “Midsommar.” This one, by Valdimar Jóhannsson, is about a childless couple adopting a creature that is neither lamb or human: a sheep has given birth to a hybrid animal that has the body of a baby and the head of a lamb. Watch the trailer here. It’s unsettling. It’s eerie. It’s glorious.

3. I’ll take sweaters over sweat anytime, and I cherish every cool breeze that cuts through this soggy, sloggy summer. Let’s call it a wrap. I have things to do this fall and the chaotic weather, be it soak or scorch, is proving a deflating victory for climate change. It’s time for 50s and 60s and the end of wildfires, heat waves and floods. Yes, I hate summer, but no season’s perfect. Even autumn, the best of them all, has its pesky drawbacks, from confetti storms of leaves and Mandalorian costumes on Halloween, to football and corn mazes. We can deal.

4. And we curl back to Dublin, via Irish author Sally Rooney, whose new book “Beautiful World, Where Are You” arrives September 7. A globally celebrated wunderkind for her twin novels “Normal People” and “Conversations with Friends,” both written before she was 28, Rooney returns to her familiar milieu of middle-class millennials swirling in career, interpersonal and libidinous distress. Couplings and uncouplings of bright young things juice the story and, if her other books are any indication, things will get hot. And bothered. A Rooney fan, I’m looking for artistic growth in the new novel, her longest yet. Rooney’s not the most assertive stylist, her stubbornly lean prose tweezered of metaphor. In a 2019 post, I concluded that “Rooney’s smart little beach reads — people boast about how they gulp her books in one sitting — are crisp divertissements. But they are lacking in weight, import, poetry, the stuff of lasting literature.” That said, they’re nourishing and human, and I’m banking on “Beautiful World” to be a frothy palate cleanser after more vinegary fare this summer. Then, for some tang, I’ll grab E.M. Cioran’s self-explanatory “The Trouble with Being Born,” and the world will sleep well again.  

Happiness is relative

Every once in a while a writer says something that has you nodding like a madman in unalloyed agreement. I’ve been reading essays by Meghan Daum, and much of what she writes strikes a mean, piercing chord. Far from negative, Daum trades in an admirable candor, some of which is rimmed with bile but is mostly benign and boldly human.

Take this paragraph from her collection “The Unspeakable.” It could have — should have — been written by me at my most exposed. And though it makes her sound morose and malcontent, she is not. She’s merely describing how some people see her — including, sometimes, herself.

“Clearly, I am a killjoy. Clearly, I have problems with pleasure, with letting go. Surely, I am an unhappy person. I do not enjoy most activities that are commonly labeled ‘fun.’ Moreover, I’m weary of ‘happiness,’ both as a word and a concept.”

Daum grazes dysphoria (a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life) and hints at anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure). But, like me (mostly), this isn’t quite accurate. Daum lives big and loud and gulps life, in all its pitiless unpredictability. She’s a humanist, not a pessimist, even if unhappiness creeps in with unsettling frequency.

Philip Roth, ranked

Good, bad, worshipful, scandalous — writer Philip Roth is making boldfaced headlines again, four years after his death. His largely acclaimed new biography and its author Blake Bailey are under fire, while publications like The New York Times are issuing fresh appraisals of his almost 30 novels and memoirs, like this and this.

This longtime Roth fan joins the chorus. I haven’t tackled all of his books but I have read his most celebrated titles, from “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959) to “Nemesis” (2010) and many in between. What follows are my five favorite Roth novels, with an obligatory postscript about a glaring omission.

 1. “American Pastoral” (1997) — Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winner may be the best novel I’ve ever read. It’s deep, thorny, complex, timely and so rich with perception and wisdom — communicated in ferocious, passionate prose — that you’re stuffed after each sitting. But it’s not difficult. Tracing the life of one Swede Levov and his daughter’s radical political terrorism in 1968, “Pastoral” gradually becomes an epic tragedy about recent American history and our hero’s inevitable descent. A biting, indelible masterpiece.  

2. “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995) — Raunchy, stylized, rip-snortingly funny and  aggressively profane, this cathartic gush of undiluted id is Roth at his sweatiest and most swinging, a big bite of eros that “shows off his linguistic verve and his unparalleled ability to stare unblinkingly into the psyche of a depraved scoundrel,” raves one critic. Winner of the National Book Award, this feverish, in-your-face opus isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be. What it is: crudely sublime. 

 3. “The Human Stain” (2000) — A dean of a college faculty is ousted after he makes a loaded, if ultimately benign, remark interpreted as racist. He holds a shocking life-long secret close to his vest in this, “one of Roth’s most complex moral conundrums,” which came out during similar dramas unfolding in academia and beyond. The book bristles with Roth’s fanged moralism; the writing is poignant, alive, uncompromising. 

4. “Operation Shylock” (1993) — What could have flopped as an elaborate literary stunt winds up one of Roth’s richest masterworks. “His best use of autobiography and his most incisive use of meta-techniques,” a critic writes, “the novel pits Philip Roth against an imposter, a man going around using Roth’s name and identity to proselytize about the necessity for Jews to return to Europe.” Crazy, but that’s its brilliance. Roth’s facility with form proves, again, formidable, his wit and playful intelligence on dazzling display.

 5. “Everyman” (2006)— A meditation on “one man’s lifelong skirmish with mortality,” this slim book, part of a quartet of late shortish novels, marks Roth’s return to the profoundly personal following the speculative politics of “The Plot Against America.” Haunted by death, the protagonist looks back on his life, from childhood, marriage and divorce, to old age and sickness, all the while reflecting on the inevitable — his own impending demise. Bracingly elegiac.

P.S. About that other famous book everyone so adores, the one in which the hero masturbates with a piece of liver: Don’t overestimate the frenzied gimmickry of “Portnoy’s Complaint,a worthy early volume (1969) whose onanistic perversities, both smug and farcical, fuel the novel’s shrill pitch. I like this ribald coming-of-age comedy well enough, but it’s more exhausting than exhilarating, minor Roth at its most breathlessly attention-hailing. It made him a literary star. 

The naked truth about a job I had

Slash was bored. The iconic shredder from Guns N’ Roses, famed as much for his seething guitar licks as his Niagara of dark curls, surly sneer and non-ironic top hat, paced the film projection booth at the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre as he waited for the strip club’s notoriously hard-partying co-owner Artie Mitchell. 

A magnet for lustful and plain curious celebrities, including on this night the freshly famous bandmates of Guns N’ Roses, the upscale flesh emporium in San Francisco, home to some 100 dancers, was anointed the “Carnegie Hall of sex in America” by none other than gonzo journalist and Mitchell Brothers confidant Hunter S. Thompson. 

Famous and infamous, classy but trashy, a spotless venue filled with dirty deeds, the O’Farrell was where I worked for three months when I was 19. It was novel. It was exciting. It was a droning bore.

So there was Slash in my workplace, a quintessential rocker I didn’t recognize. Guns N’ Roses was relatively new, despite having just sold two million albums, and was in town shooting a scene for Clint Eastwood’s latest Dirty Harry movie, “The Dead Pool.” The group’s hit “Welcome to the Jungle” revs the film’s soundtrack.

A fellow longhair, I shot the breeze with Slash, who explained that, no, he was not a member of Bay Area metal band Exodus (my bad), and that his actual group, GNR, wears its influences on its sleeve, from the Stones to Aerosmith. I still didn’t know who the hell they were. 

Enter Artie. “You look tired. Let’s chop one,” he tells Slash.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal later that night:

“Slash’s eyes glow and a malicious grin cuts across his sagging mug. We’re in the projection room and they go to the counter and Artie begins to nonchalantly cut a fine white powder and shape lines. And he slurs, ‘Let’s make the first rock ’n’ roll porn film!’ They howl with laughter.”

The job was surreal that way. 

A callow journalism student at San Francisco State, I was lured to this unusual gig at “one of the most infamous and oldest erotic dance clubs in the country” by rumors that Hunter S. Thompson, an ink-stained hero, was working at the club as night manager to write a book. (He did work there for a bit in 1985. The book never materialized.)

When the place closed last fall due to Covid-19, right after its 51st anniversary — it opened on July 4, 1969 — many appraisals appeared about the O’Farrell Theatre’s checkered history. 

For instance: the Mitchell Brothers, Artie and Jim, were the defendants in over 200 court cases involving obscenity or related charges. (They were never convicted.) In 1991, Jim fatally shot Artie and was sentenced to six years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. (Jim died in 2007 of a heart attack.) In 2000, their story was dramatized in the movie “Rated X” starring real-life brothers Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez as Artie and Jim.

The postmortems are expectedly zesty. Yet I haven’t read a better physical snapshot of the den of debauchery than this one from SFGate.com:

“Like most strip clubs, the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre is a plush, disorienting palace. Upon entry, the walls are smattered with headshots of dancers and pornographic memorabilia. The walls are mirrored; the curtains are velvet. For decades, beneath the scintillating glow of disco balls and red rotating lights, the carpeted kingdom has provided anything from nude lap dances to ‘flashlight shows’ for San Francisco’s ‘weirdo’ strip club clientele.”

The writer does neglect to mention the hallways lined with gurgling aquariums, the Green Door Room (three women and a working shower), the glass case stocked with pink sex toys, and that those flashlight shows were far more gynecological than titillating. (The writer also wouldn’t know what my manager told me on my first day: “Don’t touch the girls. It’s like fucking the boss’ wife.”)

To some, my job sounds breathlessly, unimaginably sexy, each shift an hours-long orgasm of totally unclothed ladies with frisky stage names — Bambi, Trixie, Roxie — doing things with and to each other many people couldn’t (or wouldn’t) conceive.

But a job it was — fun, alive, yet often grinding. I not only ran the old-school film projectors, I also DJ’d live shows, did floor “security” and made beer runs for the brothers and their guests. (Because the women were all-nude, no alcohol was sold in the club, and the brothers confined their partying to the upstairs offices and, in Artie’s case, the projection booth. I eventually split a DosXX with Slash there.) 

Besides the random celebrity client — GNR, Aerosmith, Billy Idol, in my day; Trevor Noah and Justin Bieber more recently — the famous folks who dropped in were usually working girls. These would be “golden age” strippers and porn stars, from Marilyn Chambers and Nina Hartley, to Hyapatia Lee (who generously lactated on the audience) and a geriatric Tempest Storm (who, dubbed “The Queen of Exotic Dancers,” died in April at age 93).

Backstage with two of my coworkers (photo not by me)

Call it an education. Chatting with male patrons, I learned what made them tick and why they kept coming back week after week or more. Chatting with female coworkers, I learned what leads one to strip and, in many cases, perform XXX acts in public. 

Rarely I got hit on by a dancer (“Anytime you want some excitement, let me know,” offered Sasha), or even a male customer (“Are you sure you wouldn’t take a tip to be touched somewhere?”). I learned how mundane the human body really is (and isn’t) and the contortionist lengths we’ll go to be turned on by it.

My stint at the O’Farrell was meant to be a life experience and, truly, fodder for my own writing. That implies I was enchanted and starry-eyed the whole time. I wasn’t. After my very first shift, I was effectively inured to the supposedly sexy spectacles. A fantasy for some, there’s little fantastic about it. It’s nude ladies. It’s horny men with rolls of cash. It’s a dubious lap-dancy, pelvic-thrusty, semen-stained subculture. It’s a job. 

Says one of the theater’s longtime (jaded?) DJs: “Being a male-bodied man in your 20s and being around naked women, it’s the shit, but after a while you’re desensitized, and they’re your sisters.”

Exactly. And that’s not so bad, is it?

The O’Farrell’s famous backside mural

Books, movies, threads — a summer medley

Some things I’m reading, watching and wearing as the hot months satanically descend …

Mieko Kawakami is big in Japan. And her fame is spreading globally with verve and velocity. Called a “feminist sensation,” the writer is best known for her big novel “Breasts and Eggs,” and she’s gleaning renewed praise for her just-released fiction “Heaven.” 

She’s good, really good, and I’m drinking her work up in chugs and gulps. I read the slim “Heaven,” a taut drama about middle-school bullying laced with philosophical echoes (think Nietzsche), in two days. And I’ve made it half-way through the 400-page “Breasts and Eggs” in the same amount of time. (And, yes, the title makes total sense.)

Kawakami is a deceptively simple read, limning pressing social issues in prose of polished glass. The crisp writing rattles with ideas about female body image (ever thought of bleaching your nipples?), donor pregnancies, family secrets and teen torments. It’s frank, funny and squirmily real.

Japan’s preeminent novelist Haruki Murakami experienced “pure astonishment” reading “Breasts and Eggs,” a best-seller in Japan that’s become a controversial feminist talking point, flagged (flogged?) for its graphic discussions of bodily ownership among two women and a teenager. The grumblers? Mostly men.

In the new book, “Heaven,” a boy with a lazy eye is tyrannized at school — he’s forced to eat chalk once he sticks it up his nose, for starters — and befriends a girl outcast, making a dweeby, beleaguered duo that’s not going to take it anymore. “Heaven” ends hellishly. It’s unsettling, it’s shocking. And it’s near-perfect.

The trailer for the new Netflix movie “The White Tiger” is frenetic, hyper-stylish, abundant and ambitious. It presents a messy, modern India of epic proportions, with glitz, guns and girls. 

Which is confounding considering the film’s writer-director is the great Ramin Bahrani, who’s earned arthouse cred for wondrous micro-budget dramas like “Man Push Cart,” “Goodbye Solo” and “Chop Shop,” a gritty miracle that Roger Ebert named the sixth-best film of the 2000s, while hailing Bahrani as “the director of the decade.” I agree.

Based on the rollicking Booker-winning novel by Aravind Adiga, “White Tiger” is conspicuously Bahrani’s biggest film to date, inviting comparisons to staunch minimalist Chloé Zhao, who’s making a Marvel blowout after this year’s hushed Oscar-winner “Nomadland.”  

I haven’t seen it yet, but Bahrani’s zesty crime drama looks to have the heft, the dazzle, of something new and career-altering. I’m aching to see what this indie miniaturist and unswerving humanist does with the novel’s byzantine riches.

When shopping for clothes, I wait till August, when, as they say, the fall collections land: blacks and beige, layers and long sleeves, boots and beanies.

It’s not even summer and already I’ve plucked attire with a defiantly wintry flair, including a thick New York Times sweatshirt — black with a brash Gothic “T” across the chest — that complements the tasteful Times ball cap I bought last year (no, I will never wear both together; there’s only so much the world can take).

Call me a walking billboard, a corporate hussy. Actually, I’m just an ink-stained fiend for crack reporting, crackling prose and kicky Gothic fonts. I love newspapers in general (see my newspaper coffee mug collection, Chicago Tribune to the Austin American-Statesman, Gothic type both). The Times is tops. I wear its merch with pride.

That’s right, it’s barely summer and I’m buying cold coverings. Like the knitted crochet slippers from Russia I bagged at Etsy (see this post). They’re made to look like classic black and white Nike running shoes. They’re goofy. They’re funky. They’re walking punchlines. The photos alone bust me up. That won’t be the case when my feet freeze off.

I’ve acquired lighter weight clothing, too, including two movie-themed t-shirts: one of cerebral creep-out “The Witch,” featuring an eerie prancing goat on the print; and a simple black T elegantly screened with “A John Woo Film” in English and Chinese.

This film wonk also snatched a pair of A24 socks, A24 being the thriving boutique outlet releasing cult hits like “The Witch,” “Midsommar,” “The Florida Project,” “Moonlight,” “Eighth Grade,” and a raft of other extraordinary indies. The socks are grey and too long, and the company logo looks stitched by elves. But I like them.

A24 socks. It’s come to this.

I love this book title: “Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch.” Sold! 

So I grabbed this buzzy novel by Rivka Galchen, released this week, lured by the chatty euphony of the title and Galchen’s rep as a literary wunderkind. I’m still on “Breasts and Eggs,” so I’ll get to this soon, tackling what’s billed as a harrowing and humorous tale of witches and hysterical fear in 1618 Germany. (“The comedy that runs through the book is a magical brew of absurdity and brutality,” says the Washington Post.)

Also on my hypothetical IKEA nightstand, all cheap and rickety, is David Diop’s slim war drama “At Night All Blood is Black, winner last week of the 2021 International Booker Prize. The Franco-Senegalese author specializes in 18th-century French and Francophone African literature, and the novel was shortlisted for 10 French literary awards. 

A wrenching description that makes you want to ball up and hide:

“Peppered with bullets and black magic, this remarkable novel fills in a forgotten chapter in the history of World War I. Blending oral storytelling traditions with the gritty, day-to-day, journalistic horror of life in the trenches, Diop’s novel is a dazzling tale of a man’s descent into madness.”

A perfect beach read, no?

Dogs with blogs

This actually happened. From 2012 to 2015, the Disney Channel aired a sitcom called “Dog with a Blog,” which was about the loopy shenanigans of a cookie-cutter suburban family whose dog just so happens to talk. 

And type. And write. So good is the dog, Stan, at writing that when everyone’s in bed, he slinks off to the glow of the family computer and authors a blog entry, reflecting on the day’s events, affairs and lessons. He does it in a wry voiceover mash of Steven Wright and Woody Allen (furnished by comedian Stephen Full). 

In the TV-spotless house of five, only the kids know Stan can talk. Of course the parents, big dopey grownups, have no clue the mutt can mutter. A show description: “The children learn of Stan’s talking ability and agree to keep it a secret from their parents, fearing if the world finds out that Stan can talk, he will be taken away for experimentation.”

(Experimentation?)

I watched “Dog with a Blog” with my pre-tween nephews, and it was one of the few kid’s shows I survived (the essential, wackadoodle “Adventure Time” is another). It’s actually very funny; not excessively clever, but wreathed with Stan’s dry, sardonic quips, which have a soft adult edge. 

Now, my dog, Cubby the Incandescent, also happens to blog. He’s followed my lead and decided he needed a forum for his daily observations and deep contemplations, things the world should know. Blogs: the great dumping grounds.

I’ve got Gnashing and, Cubby, as a canine, aptly has Gnawing. He’s quite adept at navigating the laptop keyboard, even if he occasionally hits the wrong key. As Stan says on the show, “Delete. Well, that couldn’t be clearer. Or more hurtful.” (Dear doggies, man isn’t your best friend; Command Z is.)

Though the kids know Stan talks, no one on the sitcom is aware Stan blogs. I sort of wish no one knew I blogged, and in fact, most of my closest friends are oblivious. If they find this place, great. I just don’t feel like advertising it. 

Why? Plain shyness. Writing is partly a private act, I think, though obviously I want to get some of it out there. It’s complicated. (Notice I post no recent photos of myself or my last name on this site. I’m the stealth blogger.) 

Cubby is more of a hambone. (Stan, I don’t know. It’s never clear who his readership is, if anyone.) Cubby will carry on about chasing the cats away from his bone, like a big hero. He’ll crow about yelping maniacally at the FedEx guy, as if the FedEx guy gives one goddam. He’ll lament the trauma of getting groomed (even though he takes sedatives before his haircuts). And somehow he wrings material from napping 16 hours a day. I’m pretty sure that’s where he cooked up the entry about hunting dik-diks on the Serengeti.

Me, I go for the absurd, offbeat, anecdotal and reminiscent, with some straight-up travel dispatches and lots of made up phooey. Unless you’re hawking a service — all those preening fashion, workout and health sites — the point of a blog, I think, is to entertain, elicit a laugh, enlighten with fun facts and regale with good photography. It’s to get personal, reveal who you are, and sometimes wrap it all in old-fashioned folderol. 

Like this whole post. Purely asinine. Though it goes to show the variety of blogs and bloggers out there doing hard work for their respective audience. We’re a motley crew. 

Stan’s a dog with a blog. 

Cubby’s a dog with a blog. 

And me? I’m a dawg with a blog.

Cubby gazing perplexedly at his own photo on the computer. He’s working on his next blog entry. More navel-gazing.

Fur, feathers, and folderol

On the About page of this blog, I caution that my writings here are “forever random and rambling.” Rarely has that been so true than right now … 

*  *  *

The Tao of Cubby 

Cubby, the über-mensch of mutts, scurries across the wood floor, his nails recalling the tip-tap of a typewriter. (If only he could actually type. That would save me tremendous carpal tunnel distress.) 

He is fleet, balletic. Though he resembles a gray Oscar the Grouch — bodily bedhead, articulate brows — the dog is chipper and civil, venting frenzied yaps only when evolutionarily expected (read: Amazon). 

Cubby is also mindful and meditative. He follows the flow of the universe and the whiff of tacos. Part Chinese sage, part Scooby-Doo, he adheres to the Taoist tenets of simplicity, patience, compassion, and the canine tenet of raw sirloin. 

Spiritual but godless, Cubby finds solace in Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” — self-deception! free will! — but not in Scripture. He likes to quote Socrates: “I am the wisest dog alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

For Cubby, things just are. Why this, why now? As Cubs might say, Because. Just because.

*  *  *

In anticipation of Easter, a short tale featuring baby chicks

When I was five, we had a pair of baby chickens, a female (yellow) and a male (black). They scuttled around our backyard and slept in a wood and wire coop, also in the backyard. The birds were strictly decorative. We had no intention of consuming their flesh.

One night a possum tried to get the chicks. Hearing the ruckus, my Dad went outside and our black Lab followed, charging and half-killing the hissing marsupial. Distressed by the injured animal — drama in suburbia — Dad tried to put it out of its misery using a broomstick (why not a spatula, or a straw?). 

He failed, unsurprisingly. The possum was either unconscious or playing dead. Because the next morning the creature was still moving in the garbage can in which it was placed. A man sans a plan, Dad left it there to die on its own, to the collective horror of his family. 

Soon after, we gave the chicks to a cousin who cared for them on his sprawling farm. I’m sure they were delicious. 

*  *  *

Speaking of chickens …

Braided with wisdom, wit and woe, Jackie Polzin’s “Brood” is a deceptively slight novel about a woman caring for a small brood of chickens as she copes with the personal tragedy of a miscarriage. 

Not sold? Be, because Polzin’s debut is sublime. It’s steely, and gentle as a breeze.

The chickens are both main characters and peripheral walk-ons in this compact book, so don’t fear a poultry-centric story. In fact, there’s not much of a story at all. Deeply contemplative and minutely observed — à la Jenny Offill (“Weather”) and Marilynne Robinson (“Gilead”) — Polzin limns her nameless narrator’s life with by turns clinical realism and dazzling impressionism. There is much to learn about chickens, and life.

The precision of the prose, so nipped, tucked yet vital, is a marvel. Even the chicken passages, with their homely brown eggs, scratch feed and scaly feet, are poetic reveries. A human- and chicken-scale miniature, “Brood” loses none of its emotional texture next to its lo-fi humor. It’s one of the most lulling and pleasant books I’ve read in a spell. 

*  *  *

The larger worth of small talk

Strolling down the sidewalk, you run into an acquaintance — someone you know only faintly, yet well enough for a stop and chat; say, your mechanic or a few-houses-down neighbor — and you find yourself beaming hello, how are you, and before you know it things have devolved into vapid chitchat, the dreaded small talk.

Small talk eats the soul — the empty jawing about weather, work, kids, traffic, assorted gossip and platitudinous pleasantries. Defined as “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters,” small talk reeks of the banal, the trivial, the sort of airy transactions saved for your Uber driver, that guy you went to high school with and haven’t seen in years, or the faux-cheery barista you encounter each morning. 

Still, while it can be painful, what with the groaning predictability of the exchanges, small talk serves a purpose: it fills the dead space we all fear. It’s a buffer, prosaic padding, a time-killer of minor moments that would otherwise be awkward, excruciating, or both.

Words. They will save us. No matter how crudely utilitarian.

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.

Turning the page, in literature and life

These days, I seem to only get high on the fumes — the thick, inebriating perfume — of words. I just read a fine passage in my current book and it brushed the orgasmic. To write like that, to make literary music, is the best thing, the very best thing. It matches, maybe surpasses, love.

Too much? Too loopy? Probably. But great art does that — it makes you dizzy. During the pandemic captivity, I’m reading with fiendish greed, in oceanic gulps. I’m buying with crazy zeal. And you probably can’t get that book you want at the library because I already checked it out. Terribly sorry.

More than ever, I grab the written word for solace, inspiration and spiritual nutrition. Yet while I crack mounds of books, I don’t always finish them. I am a notorious book-slammer, shunting aside titles that don’t rivet me by page 50 or so. Mediocrity won’t cut it. I’ve had enough meh, oof and blah. Especially this year.

These are grim days — both of my parents died in the past year; the Covid terror seethes; the Trump shit-show blunders on; some personal turmoil has body-slammed me; pick your catastrophe — and lots of us look to art for escape, empathy and temporary amnesia. 

Art extends beyond the written word, of course, so I’m still listening to music, watching films and TV shows and streaming all manner of streamy abundance. 

Stuff that stands out: the wise, tartly funny Pamela Adlon comedy “Better Things,” in which Adlon plays a frazzled single mother of three offbeat daughters and simply tries to, well, cope; the bizzaro “Pen15,” a cringe comedy starring two 30-something women playing seventh graders with boggling juvenile verisimilitude; and “The Crown,” that tea-time telenovela about British royalty that entrances, despite me caring less about the real Royals than I do about carbuncles.

“Pen15” (yes, these ‘girls’ are really in their thirties)

I always have to nitpick at year’s end, too. Always. If the just-fine though room temperature chess drama “The Queen’s Gambit” missed the sublime, it ably outclassed other hot streamers, like the broad, shrill “Schitt’s Creek” and the animated “BoJack Horseman,” whose mordant mopiness was mistaken for hip profundity. (Speaking of adult animation, does anybody still watch “Archer,” the subversive, devilishly clever cartoon on FX? Join me.)  

Thanks to Covid-contorted release formats, I’m behind on new movies, especially presumptive Oscar contenders. I did try to watch David Fincher’s tediously diffuse “Mank” but couldn’t finish it, and, yes, I can tick-off all of its esoteric Hollywood references. I’m skipping Spike Lee’s Vietnam fantasia “Da 5 Bloods” for two reasons: It doesn’t look very good and Lee’s track record of great films is plain disheartening. (I will also be skipping “Wonder Woman 1984,” grumbled grandpa.)

This is what kind of year it’s been: Mere weeks ago I watched and can recall almost nothing about the admired indie “First Cow” by Kelly Reichardt, one of my favorite minimalist filmmakers, except that some guys make yummy biscuits. I’m renting the scruffy period piece again to see what I’m blanking on.

Movies I’m looking forward to include the adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” (by the director of 2017’s extraordinary “The Rider”); the viral documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery mollusk; and Frederick Wiseman’s typically sprawling doc “City Hall.”

“My Octopus Teacher”

And yet for all that — let’s swoop back to the start of this entry — books are my sweet spot right now. In the past few tumultuous months I’ve savored “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the ravishing third novel in Elena Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan series; Jess Walter’s jaunty period saga “The Cold Millions”; and “Leave the World Behind,” Rumaan Alam’s quiet thriller about race, class, marriage and other thorny things.

But what’s providing the most satisfying literary kicks are titles from the New York Review Books Classics series, an eclectic spread of fiction and nonfiction from the past, each book a minimally designed paperback that bespeaks worldly elegance. Called “discoveries” by the publisher, the books are “established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected and unheard of.”

I now own 13 terrific novels from the series, with another  — Leonard Gardner’s gritty boxing drama “Fat City” — on the way. Today I’m reading the noirish “Nightmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham (midgets, mediums, mendacity). Before that was the twisty, eerily timely crime thriller “The Expendable Man” by Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote cult classic “In a Lonely Place,” part of the series I also devoured. 

My NYRB Classics collection

What’s getting me is the power of words, the emotional and psychic heft, the sheer salve of art, and the attendant awe. I’ve always loved books and any words on paper (and screen), but I seem to love them more in the rotten times, a stretch so shitty, I haven’t touched this blog in over three months. I hadn’t the urge nor the heart. Fall, my favorite season, gone wasted. 

Maybe I’m uncoiling from a prolonged flinch. I don’t know. But this, now, during some of the very bleakest days, is where I’m at. Turning the page in another chapter.

Quote of the day: on writing

“Understood: language would end up falsifying everything, as language always does. Writers know this only too well, they know it better than anyone else, and that is why the good ones sweat and bleed over their sentences, the best ones break themselves into pieces over their sentences, because if there is any truth to be found they believe it will be found there. Those writers who believe that the way they write is more important than whatever they may write about — these are the only writers I want to read anymore, the only ones who can lift me up.” 

from “What Are You Going Through,” the brilliant brand-new novel by Sigrid Nunez