Writing relentlessly

Joyce Carol Oates has written roughly six-thousand books. I’ve read one. I’m currently working on number two, a slim novel titled “Black Water.” Boy is it boring. Dry and colorless as a sun-baked cow skull. It’s not even trying to pull me in. It’s stingy like that.  

“Wonderland” is the other Oates book I read, some time ago. Unlike “Black Water,” which runs 154 pages, it’s unmistakably Oatesian, meaning it’s fat, multi-chambered and densely populated. It’s also pretty great, an epic family drama spanning generations that quakes with urgent, thrumming incident. It’s known as one of her best books and was a finalist for some big award or another. 

Oates is famously prolific. I call her relentless. Her torrential output, starting in 1963, includes 58 novels, numerous plays and novellas and several volumes of short stories, poetry and nonfiction. The novels are rarely anorexic. They are epics pushing 500, 700, even 900 pages or more. When I see her shelf in bookstores, I quietly scamper past. 

That’s why I picked up the acclaimed “Black Water”: it’s a finger sandwich next to the author’s standard ten-course feasts. A modern retelling of Senator Ted Kennedy’s infamous Chappaquiddick incident, the book toggles through time to trace a young woman’s life and death by drowning in a Toyota that crashed upside-down in a lake.

The novel purports to be a scathing statement about women who are tragically drawn to powerful men, which I suppose it is. But that doesn’t interest me, at least not right now. It doesn’t help that Oates’ breathless, jagged prose feels awkwardly stylized, hardly the case with the lyrical “Wonderland.”

A force of nature, Oates is the epitome of a writing machine, matching the creative incontinence of Stephen King. She poops out literary doorstops with boggling regularity, making her contemporaries look downright slothful. I’m not knocking it. It’s something to envy. To be so productive would be miraculous, if exhausting.

A sliver of Joyce Carol Oates’ output

But such churning industry casts a light on the idea of consistency: how many of those piles of books are really, truly good? Surely a lot, or the author wouldn’t be the celebrated bestseller she is. Yet there’s probably a mountain of misfires there, too, which perhaps dilutes such voluminous achievement. 

In a 2015 essay, King himself confronts the notion “that prolific writing equals bad writing,” citing a truism in literary criticism that goes “the more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be.”

He’s rightfully a little defensive, having published some 60 novels since “Carrie” in 1974, including four very thick books in a single year. As a writer, King is admittedly, and unashamedly, possessed. 

He insists it can’t be helped, that once his creative ideas catch fire, there’s no quenching them. “I never had any choice,” he says. “There were days when I literally thought all the clamoring voices in my mind would drive me insane.”

That must be the case with Oates, an artist so overcome with ideas, she has to put them down before they devour her, for good or ill. Her well-publicized work ethic is austere, regimented and, yes, wildly fertile. King writes: “I remember a party where someone joked that Joyce Carol Oates was like the old lady who lived in a shoe, and had so many children she didn’t know what to do.” 

Most good writers work painstakingly — they “bleed,” as Hemingway said — which tends to produce a modest yield. Take Donna Tartt (“The Goldfinch”), who’s written three novels in 25 years. The books were smashes, and she is fabulously rich, but Tartt might represent the other side of the equation: by taking few risks, rarely publishing, can you call yourself a bold and vigorous artist?

Then there’s filmmaker Terrence Malick, who represents both sides. In 25 years, he made only three films, all masterpieces, including “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.” Then, starting in 2005 with the sublime “New World,” he went on a tear of productivity, making almost a film a year that returned six back-to-back stinkers that he’s yet to recover from. (Let’s not even start with Woody Allen’s late, lame film-a-year output.)  

There’s a cautionary tale in there somewhere. It seems moderation — not too slow, not too fast — is the way to dole out one’s art. Still, if Oates, as the party wag cracked, “had so many children she didn’t know what to do,” I wouldn’t mind being that old lady who lived in a shoe, writing and creating and making magic by the ton, no matter how imperfect. We should be so lucky.

In space, no one can hear you woof

Sometimes I want to shoot the dog into outer space. Suit him up, slide on a big round helmet, and strap him into a tin-can capsule, ready go, boom

Really, I want to keep old Cubby on terra firma, safely earthbound, away from martians and pesky space debris. Still, when he barks and wails and scratches the paint off the door when visitors knock, I think: Jupiter, yes. Jupiter would be a fine place for a dog park.

Such was the fate of Laika the space dog, a small, blameless pup who was hurled into orbit for the Soviet space program in 1957. A stray street mongrel with a skittish gaze, Laika was really three animals in one: a dog, guinea pig, and sacrificial lamb. 

Laika the cosmic canine

Many critters had flown to space before Laika — monkeys, mice, mutts — but she was set to be the first to orbit Earth. Probably quaking with terror, surrounded by lab-coated apparatchiks, Laika was loaded into the satellite Sputnik 2 for an experimental flight to prove that a living passenger could survive a launch into orbit and weightlessness. 

It was a suicide mission, or more accurately, murder. Laika was never expected to survive; once they sealed the capsule, the Soviets knew she was toast. 

And toast is practically what she became. Within hours of her spectacular orbit, Laika died from overheating and panic. Even the Soviets were mortified: the true cause of her death was not made public until 2002. They initially said she was euthanized with poisoned food before her oxygen ran out, a classic, blundering cover-up. The dead dog floated around up there for six months. She was incinerated when Sputnik re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

The world mourned the pioneer pooch. She’s gone down in lore as an unwitting hero, nicknamed Muttnick, and honored with commemorative stamps, dolls and children’s books. A monument to Laika was erected in Moscow in 2008.

Muttnick. I like that. Maybe, with a nod to David Bowie, she’s Major Dog. Or Apawlo 13. Or Chewbarka. Never mind. What matters is that Laika lived as a Moscow street hound and died for Soviet sins. A would-be martyr — Joan of Bark — she’s a helpless symbol of the sketchy side of science and progress.

Cubby should be so symbolic. But he’s of a different breed, and an entirely different kind of nobility. And though he wouldn’t last as long as brave Laika in space — I give him two, three hours tops — he’s ready for lift-off and would do NASA proud.

I could see him as a stowaway on the Mars rover (did you say Rover?) Perseverance, which is up there sniffing for signs of ancient Martian life. Or he might hitch a ride to the Moon on one of Elon Musk’s radical SpaceX rockets, joining other civilians who are nutsballs enough to pay millions to pierce the wild blue yonder. That would be fitting, because the dog is definitely daft, a total and irrevocable space cadet. (Fun facts: Laika means “bark” in Russian. Cubby means “preposterous” in any language.)

I’m glad Cubs is still on Earth to provide happiness and headaches, and I hope he sticks around before zipping off to Andromeda. Laika, well. She did the impossible for all mankind. She gave us enlightenment. She cracked opened scientific universes. She kissed the stars and the heavens, where she now eternally resides.

Laika’s monument

Turkey’s tots

This post might better be called “Turkey’s tots and tweens,” as it’s really a mix of youths I took snapshots of as I got lost in the serpentine streets of Istanbul. In my travels kids are hands down the most fun to photograph. They’re eager, giddy and attention-hungry, all the while laughing and bursting with curiosity, asking questions (“Where you from?”) and grabbing at the camera with often sticky hands. Below are just a few of those characters, ebullience, boogers and all.

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.

Going to the movies with your girlfriend

“When I’m getting serious about a girl, I show her ‘Rio Bravo,’ and she better fucking like it.”

— Quentin Tarantino

It’s a truism that when you’re dating, or deep in a relationship, you want the one you adore to like what you like, be it a book, band, meal or merlot. That typically takes shared exposure, an excursion to a favorite restaurant, museum or bookshop. 

And, of course, to the movies. 

Romance in the flickering dark of a theater may be a dating cliché — shared popcorn, awkwardly slinking your arm around her shoulder — but it’s also a communal act of culture. It filters preferences and underscores taste. Will she like it? Did she like it? (She better fucking like it, as Tarantino says.)

I’ve taken risks on movie dates, bringing girlfriends to foreign arthouse films like “Fellini Satyricon,” Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” and Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali.” (I never willfully tortured them with a Bergman dirge.)

‘Seven Samurai

These aren’t the easiest movies. They can be long, slow, thorny, with subtitles to boot. I don’t force it. If the film is proving a slog, I’m flexible. We walked out of “Satyricon” when I noticed the corpselike look on my girlfriend’s face (I’d seen the movie before, luckily).

New mainstream movies are fine, but, when possible, I lean to classics, rarities and art films. I got most of my cinema education at great revival houses in the serious movie towns of San Francisco, Austin and New York. Those funky theaters — the Castro, Alamo Drafthouse, Film Forum — are where I lapped up, wide-eyed, gritty film noirs, widescreen westerns, merry musicals and foreign essentials. It’s where I met Buster Keaton, Rita Hayworth, John Wayne and Anna Magnani and fell in love. 

Sharing this love is part of a good movie date, and I’ve had wonderful experiences with women at “Casablanca,” “Duck Soup,” “Annie Hall” and “All About Eve,” as well as brainy documentaries by Werner Herzog and playful French New Wavers like “Breathless.”

They’re movies I want to see and expose my lovers to. I become an enabler, a tutor perhaps, unspooling new cultural experiences. I am, for one, forever grateful to my brother for introducing me to the fun, frenetic bliss of Hong Kong action flicks, from Jackie Chan to John Woo and movies like “Peking Opera Blues” and “Hard-Boiled.” You never forget the impact of that, much like your first kiss. 

‘Hard-Boiled

Going to current movies is different. It means we’re taking a shared ride of discovery in the dark. A serious girlfriend and I watched “Dazed and Confused” and “Pulp Fiction” during their first runs (she loved them as much as I did, thank god). We got our classics fix watching “Sunset Boulevard” and Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” on video, rapturously. 

It doesn’t always work out so well. One date rejected the virile operatics of Michael Mann’s crime masterpiece “Heat” (fail!), while another huffed and ridiculed my choice of adjective when I called “Reservoir Dogs” “astonishing” as we left the theater. 

I know the feeling. I’ve been in the other seat, when I scorned a shared movie experience. My rants and tiny tantrums after sitting through the brain-dead “Titanic” and “Independence Day” come queasily to mind.

Then there’s the movie mistake, like when my brother took a girl to the emotionally devastating downer “Sophie’s Choice” on their first date. Nice libido killer, bro. She married him anyway.

Movie dates, then, are a fraught enterprise. What seems an innocent night out for easy entertainment can reveal telling value judgements about taste and temperament (she actually liked “The Notebook”?). They can even be deal breakers. (Again: she actually liked “The Notebook”?)

You take it personally. If I pick a movie I’ve seen before, I sit giddy and expectant, trying to gauge my date’s response, praying she likes it or at least endures it. As seriously as I am about film, however, I’ve never broken up with a girlfriend over a movie disagreement. That would be petty and asinine.

But I do keep score. 

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

College, the great mind-blower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brando, smoldering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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