Typing instead of griping

The natty new baseball cap I ordered from The New York Times arrived the other day, and it’s a solid accessory/hair-hider. Though gaspingly overpriced, the black cap embossed with a gothic Times logo is as plush as a teddy bear and slips on with snuggly élan. (Now where’s the New Yorker tote promised with my subscription? Does anybody actually use totes?) 

The cap came speedily, an anomalous on-time arrival. The mail’s a mess. Of seven books I’ve ordered, three have gotten lost in transit and the rest have taken up to a month to come. I’ve received four refunds. The pandemic’s to blame, and The New Yorker was civil enough to apologize for the tote delay, citing the crisis. (I so don’t need a tote.)

The crisis. Damn. We’re whipped and we never had a fighting chance. Stuffed indoors, grounded from going out to play, we are occasionally embalmed in boredom. But there are things to be done. Typing beats griping. Thumb wrestling: a reliable time-passer.

This whole topic is as tired as we are, a cliché looking for a new angle, a brand-new nag. What am I going to do, write about the dog again? Regale you with what I ate for lunch? Chat about the movies I’ve been watching? 

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    The Marx Brothers: comic chaos

Done. I’ve rewatched some Marx Brothers, riotous rapscallions of Dada-esque anarchy, and the peerless noir “The Big Sleep,” in which Bogart’s smooth, smoke-wreathed private eye falls dangerously hard for the dangerously young Lauren Bacall while on a gnarled murder case. Howard Hawks crisply directs William Faulkner’s script, which is based on Raymond Chandler’s pungent detective classic. The movie sits in my personal pantheon of bests. Likewise the Marx Brothers masterpiece “Duck Soup.” (Speaking of soup, that’s what I ate for lunch.)

Outside, children shriek and gambol — my shriek and gambol days ended at 35 — their exuberant simian antics echoing through the streets and the trees and surely breaking social distancing guidelines. So what! They’re young and invincible! Barring them indoors is like corking a volcano. It’s gonna blow.

Children are not my tribe. I have none, and I’m grateful for that. I do not feel bereft in the least. Parents do not arouse envy in me. (In fact, I consider it this way: bullet dodged.) My nephews are terrific and as close to parenthood as I ever want to get. The only creature that calls me Poppa is the dog, which affirms twin beliefs that I’m part canine and he is made of magic.

After reading and a walk, it’s back to the keyboard, one of my few comfort zones. Warmth is not a comfort zone. Temperatures are rising, summer’s rottenness creeping in. People love this stuff — heat, sweat, sun — another popular phenomenon I spurn, like dinner parties, reggae and the American version of “The Office.” (I’m typing and griping.)

Which means summer hibernation will come naturally. I love A/C, loathe UV. But really, will there even be a summer, or will it just be streaming? Will people sit in wide, loose circles on patios, sliding down face masks to sip rosé and eat guac? The annual September block party — will that too be nixed? Maybe not. Eighty households can Zoom together at once, right? Surely. Hot dogs and deviled eggs, those are your responsibility.

When going to CVS is a BFD

We have to get out, things need to be done. Let’s go to CVS. 

Last time I went to CVS, the local drugstore, in these fraught times, I forgot to bring a face mask. So I hiked the collar of my sweatshirt over my nose and mouth, like a two-bit bandit. This time, the other day, I was equipped with a downy mask and steely resolve. 

The automatic door stutters open, a blast of A/C, the odd perfume of consumerism …

It’s strange to get outside in a public space, especially one awash in a thrumming florescent glow and paved with homely, hard, high-traffic carpet, Blistex and Duracells dangling from corner racks and Us and Oprah regarding you with sparkly eyes.  

Actual real-life people, there they are. Social-distancing is paramount. I find myself heading toward another customer and I abruptly pivot left, down Aisle 4 (toothbrushes, Tums), bodily contact nimbly avoided. Pac-Man pops to mind. (Another comes! Wheel right, into the spread of Hallmark treacle.)

I finally reach the pharmacy without incident. I keep adjusting my mask. I slip on my blue reading glasses for the coming transaction and they instantly steam up, the hot breath in the mask billowing up onto the lenses. I remove the glasses. I can do this. When it comes to pharmacies, I’m all-pro.   

At the counter, a laminate folding table is erected between register and customer, a makeshift moat blocking the bugs from infecting all involved. When it’s time to pay and retrieve your items, you have to bend yourself in half, stretch your torso across the table and protract your arms like you’re trying to reach a child in peril. Think yoga, or a hernia.

I get what I came for, a prescription for mellow-yellow pills, 30 tabs for 86 cents, a solid month of cheap chillaxing. (The pills really are yellow — a dull yellow, more like grainy chalk than, say, a glistening Skittle.) They aid in anxious times, or, in my case, any times. 

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The unimaginable notion that going to the drugstore is a treat.

Passing Pringles, People and Purell (snatch it while you can), I make my way out. I suddenly stop at the one-hour photo center and wonder why CVS passport photos are so much cheaper than where I got my last (ghastly) one. I once got a passport photo at a CVS in Texas, and the kid just set me against the freezer glass and took my mug with a flimsy point-and-shoot. (Oh, that’s why they’re cheaper.) It wasn’t great, but I didn’t shudder whenever I looked at it. 

I exit the sterile box, which is naturally set in a drab strip mall, nestled between, what else, KFC and Dunkin’, totemic Americana right there. And I think how weird but good it feels to slip quarantine for less than an hour. And how pathetic it is, too. How the most mindless, mundane, unrewarding errand has become a Big Event, a tingly excursion, a literal breath of fresh air. How encountering real humans, not video versions, is at once alien and exhilarating. How once out, there’s no going back. And yet, sadly, there is.

Things are getting hairy

Like many people’s hair during these epic days of cyber-hibernation (cybernation?), when electronics provide disproportionate company, mine is doing its growing thing, filling out, fluffing, turning unruly and cruel and comical. It is mutating, rising like a very fine soufflé whipped up by a Michelin-star chef crossed with Vidal Sassoon.

A follicular brushfire is what we are on the verge of, and it needs to be extinguished before I’m mistaken for Angela Davis circa 1971. Obviously I cannot make a rendezvous with my hair technician — I do not reside in Georgia, thankfully — who I see once a month or so. I realize now in this moment of unsupervised hair — it plays in the street and gambols across the meadows without a leash — I could probably go longer between appointments without scaring the neighbor kids.

I worry. We are going to be locked up for a long time, indefinitely. Yet some facts. One: very few people will see me. Two: I’ll be able to join a Led Zeppelin tribute band. 

A home cut is out of the question. Just see what we’ve done to the dog. Unfortunate home-cut stories on the web give me mental razor burn. I could do the simple buzzcut, but just typing that makes me quiver. It smacks of capitulation, semper fi, and Velcro.

There used to be an extraordinarily smart and funny satirical magazine called Spy. It published for 12 years in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I liked it so much I bought a Spy baseball cap, black with a yellow Spy logo. I wore that thing all the time, especially on bad hair days or lazy hair days.

And so, the cap. A lightbulb dinged above my haystack of hair and I started hunting for a quality, stylish baseball cap to conceal the coming tonsorial torrent. No actual baseball team or any sports-themed cap would do. If they made writer caps — I’d kill for a Philip Roth topper — I’d be in hat heaven. 

Then I thought of publications I read devoutly, namely The New York Times and The New Yorker. Journalism merch is my catnip. I wore-out a vintage San Francisco Examiner t-shirt and, over some years, broke a set of Chicago Tribune tumblers. I still own a collection of newspaper coffee mugs, from the Philadelphia Inquirer to the San Francisco Chronicle. 

While noncommittally surfing the New York Times store the other day, mulling over handsome sweatshirts and t-shirts (all of them free advertising for the newspaper, I’m aware), I hit upon the black and grey logo baseball cap. A plush twill, it’s not exactly cheap; the price made me blink twice, hard. But I went for it. 

‘Cause I’m going to need it. The hair, growing like bamboo with no machete in sight, will be its own entity by June. It’s already talking back to me, acting up, not doing its chores. The modest cap should do wonders to muffle, tame and smoosh the mutinous tumble. 

Then of course a whole other nuisance will blossom: a little thing called hat head.

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                       A lot like the one I ordered

 

Pandemic versus Paris. What will win?

I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” — author L.M. Montgomery 

About now, deep into spring, I start yearning for fall. Let’s skip the blinding, sweltering ordeal called summer and dive right into October as if it’s a pile of fallen leaves. Though it’s currently hovering in the 50s — my ideal weather — racing to a future of reds, yellows and browns holds possible virtues.

First and most importantly: the coronavirus could be conceivably kaput. Almost assuredly not, yet, save for some myopic governors and delusional citizens, most of us are working on it. The pandemic will haunt us for many more months and I, no expert, project the soonest we will be even remotely clear is October.  

At least I’m banking on it. I have plans for October. Amid the pandemic panic, I’ve taken advantage of slashed airline fares and bought a ticket to Paris for mid-October. I’m paying about half as much as a normal fall ticket, and it comes with the airline’s new flexible change and cancellation policies, so I have some wriggle room. I’ll probably need it. (Call that First World whining.)

Paris is in full lockdown, and that’s worrisome. I booked an earlier flight a ways back and the airline cancelled it because of Covid-19. Same with a hotel I reserved, which is now temporarily shuttered. If a whisper of disruption, fear or illness circles my slated travel dates, I’m cancelling. For everyone’s sake.

960x0.jpgThe Paris trip is almost fake, a soft-focus vision, a teasing hallucination. Mostly it’s a marker, something pleasant to look forward to after the pall of the pandemic and the swamp butt of summer. It provides dream fuel and stuff to do, like plan good meals — Frenchie! — and chart new itineraries — Musée du Luxembourg, La Cinémathèque Française. It allows me to picture a time cleared of crisis, no matter how quixotic that is. 

October is achingly far off, and peeking over the horizon causes eye strain. Just about my favorite month (I want more Octobers), it’s not immune to global realities. Instead of strolling Pont Neuf, watching a movie at Le Champo cinema or feasting on the city’s best falafel at L’As du Fallafel, chances are I’ll be reading, writing and learning the delicate art of putting a ship in a bottle or some such during self-captivity, and venturing outdoors swaddled in the now-fashionable face mask. My optimism is slowly curdling.

Bleak or bright, it will still be October. As a silver lining, that’s not so bad. And as a suave, chain-smoking rake once muttered, “We’ll always have Paris.” I can definitely wait.

Pin the tail on a good cause

I don’t care what they’re doing, where they are, or what condition they’re in — donkeys unfailingly crack my heart. That includes old brooding Eeyore, even if his despondency seems almost willed, like the chump shrugged and gave up and became a droopy black cloud of clinical donkey depression. (How does chipper Pooh put up with him?) 

Eeyore, a stuffed animal held captive by Disney, isn’t my concern. It’s real donkeys, which always look pitifully downcast, afflicted and abused. I’ve seen them in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, China, Thailand, India, Mexico, Morocco. These distant relatives of horses are exploited largely as beasts of burden, weighed down with pound after backbreaking pound of cargo, whipped and lashed, mostly in Asia and Africa. In China, which owns the bulk of the world’s 41 million donkeys, donkey meat is a delicacy. (Alongside cat, dog, rat, shark, horse, snake, porcupine, raccoon, deer — it’s a hell of a menu.)

I was reminded of the donkey plight — I generally try to banish thoughts of wretched pack animals — when I was distracted by an online ad for the Indian animal sanctuary Animal Rahat, which rescues cows, bulls, dogs, birds, camels, snakes, donkeys and more from rampant hazards, neglect and abuse across the despairing subcontinent.  

2007-03.donkeys-hauling-bricks-at-brick-kiln-4.jpgThe ad spotlighted donkeys, which, as mentioned, I reserve a soft spot for. Photos of emaciated, crestfallen, injured animals accompanied a plea to sponsor donkeys for as low as $12. That donation would provide vaccinations and antibiotics for 30 donkeys. I immediately clicked my PayPal account. (The donation funnels through PETA, which sends it to Animal Rahat.)  

The creatures have it as bad as imagined, and worse. Says Animal Rahat: 

“It’s a common belief in India that ‘beasts of burden’ don’t need as much nourishment as other animals, so they are commonly left to scavenge through garbage piles to find food scraps. It’s only a matter of time before our vets are called out to provide these neglected animals with emergency treatment after they swallow plastic and sharp objects.”

I read more, I donated more. I’m in the mood. I know this is Covid-19’s moment, but animal causes are in perpetual panic. The virus is exacerbating the situation. I’ve also given money to PETA, two local animal shelters and the SPCA. I’m sure I’ll do more.

The damn donkeys. They captured my heart, with those big dewy eyes, pointy vertical ears and stout mini-horse bodies. The mounds of bricks strapped to their backs didn’t hurt. Maybe I’m a pushover, a fool. Maybe I’m one of them, just an incurable jackass. Fine.  080319-8-blog-3-768x576.jpg

(“Rahat,” incidentally, means “carefreeness” or “insouciance” in Urdu. I like it. For more about Animal Rahat, go here.)

Finding form in shapeless times

Following an acute infection diagnosed on Easter, my appendix is just super. A regimen of antibiotics, a pill as chunky as a grave adult multi-vitamin, has snuffed the appendicitis, vaporized the pain and eased worries. But not all worries. No, of course not.

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The surgeon who’s my supervising physician cheered my improvement but cautioned that the infection could return in three weeks, three months, a year, who knows. He’s suggested preventative surgery relatively soon to snip out that hateful organ. 

Such dreamy thoughts for the quarantine — just what I or anybody needs right now. Boy, when this all blows over, I get to have belly surgery! 

Surgery sucks and so does house arrest, but distractions are plenty. Sort of. Not really. I toggle between reading and writing and watching the occasional movie (“Little Women,” “The Lighthouse,” “La Collectionneuse”). I spit words into my journal, take a brisk walk, shop for books online, practice my French (lie!), donate money to animal causes and ponder the meaning of life, this stuffy, neutered, unmoored version of it. 

Chat with friends on FaceTime, you say. I don’t do FaceTime, yet I had to with my doctor a few times to discuss my ailment — his idea. It was my first time, my iPhone deflowering, if you will, and I cannot say I wasn’t mortified. It went swell. 

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The appendix episode has lightly anchored this adrift vessel for now, furnished a focus, given me something to gnaw on, something to be more anguished about.

My journal jots reflect some of the days’ monotony, some of the dread of what’s out there (COVID-19, a maniacal leader) and what’s inside me: “I’m cured. I am not cured. This thing, I fear, will return like a cancer,” I wrote yesterday about my pesky malady. I muse about the pets with withering boredom: “The gray cat’s eyes weep and glisten with viscous slop that congeals into a tar-like goop.” And I note time’s quarantine creak: “Grinding forth, the day leaves skid marks.” One entry reads simply: “Blech.”

Chalky-gray is the new black. Specificity has fled. Vagueness as an existential condition is unsettling. Stasis lurks. We waft, not run. Atrophy, hovering near, sees its chance.

Where are we headed? That’s the burning question, one I’m not sure I want answered.

The smart, tart prose of Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore astonishes, still, her writing shiny, poetic and brainy, the best kind of literature. It’s massively, richly human, striking each note, from humor to horror and all in between. She’s a blistering deterrent for ever trying to commit fiction. If I can’t be that good, I don’t want to be anything — that’s my thinking. My stabs at fiction have been leaden, lame, laughable. 

I am re-reading Moore’s acclaimed story collection “Birds of America.” On its release in 1998, a writer friend and I were both reading the book, and I told him that her writing made me jealous, defeated. “Oh, not me,” he said. “It inspires me.” (That from the guy who was a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in his early 20s.) 

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Today Moore’s ecstatic prose inspires me, too, provides oomph, a kick to my motivational motor, spurring me to tap the keys and say something, anything. That can be dangerous. If it’s any good, most writing is. (I know — that’s axiomatic.) 

What I mean is, I can write stuff so sloppy, witless and rancid that it’s actually toxic — it wounds and discourages. Then I can pick up a book by Moore or her peers (say, Alice Munro or Tobias Wolff) and be pacified by sheer beauty and slashing craft and get revved again at the possibilities — the old can of spinach. 

Moore’s written four story collections: “Self-Help,” “Birds of America,” “Bark” and the brand-new anthology “Collected Stories” from the prestigious Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classics. And three novels: “Anagrams,” “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” and “A Gate at the Stairs.”

I read the latter and liked it, but I don’t remember much about it. “Birds of America” is different. It’s stickier, droller, more dynamic, more prismatic. It’s spiky, empathic, bright and cynical. Though she’s no maximalist, less isn’t Moore: Her words contain worlds. (And her titles are often titillations: “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People”; “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”)

I forgot to mention the stories are also crackingly funny. Moore’s effortless humor, mostly of a mordant strain, ribbons through the dramas organically. She’s no stand-up comedian like novelist Gary Shteyngart, who’s forced and erratic. With sociological rigor, she locates the dark laughs baked in the everyday.

Lorrie-Moore.jpgShe is particularly good at the jolt-laugh of the unexpected:

“The next time Bill saw her, it was on her birthday, and she’d had three and a half whiskys. She exclaimed loudly about the beauty of the cake, and then, taking a deep breath, she dropped her head too close to the candles and set her hair spectacularly on fire.” 

And she’s bracing when she goes darkly wise:

“This is what he knows right now, with dinner winding up and midnight looming like a death gong: life’s embrace is quick and busy, and everywhere in it people are equally lacking and well-meaning and nuts.”

My next book purchase will be “Bark,” Moore’s 2014 story collection, which I find hard to believe I don’t already own. I’ve put it off, sure that it can’t touch the brilliance of “Birds,” that it’s a disappointment in waiting. But revisiting her masterpiece blots out doubt. How can it be weak or wan? It can’t, I say. It can’t.