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.

Bedlam in the belly

I either have colossal gas or appendicitis. I am enduring fantastic abominable distress right where my appendix sits with, frankly, blatant purposelessness. (The medical world still hasn’t figured out the function of the troublesome caterpillar-shaped organ. It’s the platypus of human anatomy.)

Of course I’m a tad concerned. Now is not the time to rush to an urgent care center for surgery. A certain pandemic has priority over my sword-in-the-belly pains, even if appendicitis can, in rare cases these days, be fatal. Plus, you never know about what insurance will cover and, besides, hospitals make me woozy with multi-pronged dread. All I can see in my predicament is a hot mess, but in more profane language than that. 

Getting nervous as I seized my stomach, I phoned a doctor friend, whom I hoped would ease the angst. He sort of did, sort of didn’t. Ending the call, my face bore the glacial, expressionless visage of Michael Myers’ rubber mask. The good doc said the cramps and pain could be caused by constipation. Whew. Then he added that I might require a CT scan to identify the culprit. Oof. If the pain spreads I should worry, he said; if it decreases, I’m probably in the clear. 

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That is not me. I don’t have a goatee, and I’m not quite at the pillow-hugging stage.

Good signs: I have no fever. While deep breaths hurt, I can walk with minimal discomfort. And, after chewing Gas-X and popping Advil, I woke today with far less pain than the excruciating night before.

But I’m not out of the woods, and there’s this reminder from one of those frightening medical sites: If you don’t get treatment for an inflamed appendix quickly, “it can rupture and release dangerous bacteria into your abdomen.”

So I remain in a wait and feel pattern. It’s a delight.

Déjà vu has smuggled itself into this picture. As a kid, I had unreasonable hypochondria, leading to near hysteria when, at 7, I felt a sharp pain in my left side that I swiftly self-diagnosed as appendicitis. For hours I curled up tearfully in my parents’ empty bed and envisioned horrors of surgery and gloom and, naturally, death. (Never mind the appendix is on the right side.)

This is different. This bears signs of something moderately serious. It’s painful and fraught with the unknown. I’m not sure where the symptoms point to: hospital, surgery, gastrointestinal earthquakes, the all-clear thumbs up? As I type this, pangs besiege my belly. Something must be done.

* Update: On Easter Sunday, I elected to go to urgent care and get a CT scan at the urging of the doctor friend. After blood tests, a urine sample and the fairly harrowing CT scan (aka CAT scan, all whizzing machinery and sci-fi shivers), it was discovered I indeed have minor, early-stage appendicitis. This normally requires in-and-out surgery, but the surgeon suggested I stay away from COVID-slammed hospitals and prescribed an oral antibiotic regimen, two pills a day for a week or so. The non-surgical treatment is increasingly common for appendicitis, he and my doctor told me, and quite effective.

I grinned widely. Hell, yes, I thought. Hell, yes.

The blessing of boredom

Get outside.

The experts speak this as an imperative. The words throb with anxious urgency.

GET. OUT. SIDE.

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They urge us to recess from in-house isolation, get fresh air and do brisk exercise near home. It is health-smart, holistic and good for the body, mind and, if possible, social maintenance, though the latter is rife with rules: keep a six-foot spread between bodies; no physical contact; wear a face mask (we all look ridiculous, like third-rate bandits); spray hissing mists of Lysol® all around, including on your friends, who will thank you later. Or not.  

About all that’s left in outside activity, besides risky trips to the store, is a lone jog, a bike ride or a walk with a fellow homebound relative through the apocalyptically empty neighborhoods of Coronaville, whose population, once robust, plunges by the day.

So there I am, taking a stroll about our idyllic, all-American hood, which is suddenly shrink-wrapped in dread. It’s a breezy 60-something degrees with hazy, semi-blinding sunshine. Blooms and petals swirl everywhere, polka-dotting streets and sidewalks, celebratory confetti for spring’s arrival.

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I wear burgundy track pants and a burgundy hoodie, looking like a tall glass of pinot noir, something I wish I had with me to offset the tedium of aimless ambling. But Cubby the unflappable fur ball is with me (pandemic, shandemic, he woofs) and we walk up the hill, to the thriving rose gardens, him stopping, sniffing and tinkling every two feet, doing the one-leg-in-the-air thing, a kind of yoga that instills both wonder and winces. (Is this Downward Dog?)

We are not alone. I count six other mutts and their masters walking about, puttering and peeing, shouting across the way to waving friends who are well over the prescriptive six feet apart. The gist: Be well, take care, say hello to so and so! Oddly, I hear no one say, This sucks! Spirits are high. We are the healthy ones, strolling in the sunshine. For now.

Despite the fine weather — I strain to call it that, for spring is my second least favorite season — it’s time to go back inside and resume being a stolid, musty homebody who reads, writes, sees movies and does a bit of what you’re looking at. As boredom overtakes outside, it’s time for a new brand of boredom inside, one filled with sighs and gripes and yawns and, in those precious moments of clarity, a reasoned muttering: Thank heaven.

Far-flung human connection during enforced disconnection

A few days ago I received this brief email: 

Hi. 

Hope you and your family are staying safe in this pandemic. Keep prayerful.

— Kalpten

It was from a Turkish woman I met 10 years ago in Göreme, Turkey, in the magnificent region of Cappadocia — all fairy-tale spires, ancient cave churches and local stone dwellings. I was scribbling in a Moleskine journal at the whimsically named Flintstones Cave Bar, a glass of Efes beer at hand. I was mostly alone until about 9 p.m., when bodies suddenly filled the white-stone grotto, music began to pulse and about a dozen people danced by their glass-filled tables. 

A young woman, petite with dark pixieish hair, approached me, asked where I was from, and invited me to join her small party. I politely declined. About 10 minutes later, I decided what the hell and sat at their table and bought the group a round. The woman was Kalpten, whose name I still find distractedly unusual and pleasantly exotic. She danced with her friends, shyly, when I was there.

Kalpten explained how each weekend she and her friends made the hour drive from Kayseri, a city of nearly a million people in Central Turkey, where the airport which I flew into from Istanbul is located, to Flintstones Cave Bar for music, beer and boogie.

We hit it off, but eventually I ambled into the night, up the hill to my lovely cave hotel. As I was checking out the next morning, a message from Kalpten awaited. (In our flurry of small talk, she had asked the name of my hotel.) I called her back and she insisted on driving to Göreme, picking me up and taking me to the Kayseri airport. Yes, I said.    

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When we parted in the terminal she said she’d take a bus to see me in Istanbul at the end of the week. And she did. We spent a long, sunny day together, during which we broke up a vicious fist-fight between two young boys, sipped Efes beer, hung around the waterfront, strolled historic Sultanahmet and took a ferry to picturesque Princes Island.

And that was that. When I returned to the States, we exchanged several fond emails, then, inevitably, the flow trickled off, and a years-long silence followed.

Then the email at the top of this post came.  

I promptly wrote her back, five or six enthusiastic lines. Three days later, she responded, part of which read:

So much time has flown since we mailed each other. And now we both two as all other people experience the same troubles, feelings and thoughts, we are all passing through historical and tough times. 

Exactly. In these days of universal trauma and global grieving, our overdue reconnection takes on a slightly unreal complexion. It is strange, wonderful, serendipitous. Magic is not an idle player, I think. Yet tragedy is also part of the equation. 

Connection is important to me, yet not as important as it is to most. A loner at heart, I prefer people in small doses. Yet this reaching out by Kalpten struck me differently, poignantly. Of course there’s the nostalgia factor — long time, no see and the triggering of a dozen warm memories — but it’s more than that. She’s a distant friend I have only wondered and dreamt about, a phantom face I can visit in a few photographs.

And now she’s real all over again. It’s not necessarily a romantic thing; it’s a human thing. That’s about all we have in these fraught times, and in any time. 

Kalpten wrote: “It is really big pleasure to write you as always.”

Then she signed off.

How are you feeling?? Write me anything you want to write …

I’m going for now.

Take care

K.

Faces of India

The giggly, beatific smile on a bedraggled beggar girl on the steps of the Jama Masjid Mosque in Old Delhi. Three eager children bounding up to their cow for an impromptu snapshot in the backstreets of New Delhi. A red-eyed, dye-smudged wise man looking meaningfully into the distance in Udaipur.

They’re but a few of the images I snapped some years ago while traipsing about northern India, including Old and New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur. During the long days of corona cocooning, I recently flipped through travel albums and found a theme: wondrous, troubled India — and its magnificent people, so kind, polite, funny and alive. These are some I met:

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Beggar girl, Old Delhi
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Women just outside of Taj Mahal, Agra
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Tough girl, New Delhi
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Religious man, Udaipur
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Random woman near orphanage, Jaipur
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Woman, Old Delhi
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Woman peddling water, Jaipur
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Kids and cow, New Dehli

Not much else to do but read (and read…)

Thanks to the collective corona cloistering, I’ve been ordering books online, greedily. With libraries and bookshops closed, I’m buying used books from third-party sellers on Amazon and new titles from New York indie institution McNally Jackson. 

Unquenchably, I’m ingesting words in the yawning vacuum of self-quarantine. Reading is nearly as nourishing as food. This is what’s on my literary plate. 

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I met “Birds of America” author Lorrie Moore at a book signing for that acclaimed 1998 story collection, and she wasn’t the most jolly person in the room. She was frosty to her gathered admirers, but I don’t hold that against her. Moore’s edge informs her tart, smart fiction, which is also infused with emotional immediacy and pocked with laughs. With stories like the award-winning “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the book is a contemporary classic that hasn’t aged a whit. 

Death looms these grim days, though mortality is always on the mind of this moody Cassandra. Long ago I read the updated edition of “The American Way of Death,” Jessica Mitford’s definitive 1963 exposé of the funeral racket, and I’m back at it, if not for the dazzling reportage and head-shaking stats — upshot: funeral peddlers are exploitative swindlers — then for purely great writing that makes a dismal subject pop. The book is not only essential muckraking, but lavish literary satire, nipping at a venal industry with the toothy, pit bull wit of Pauline Kael. This tangy volume is one big reason I will be cremated and thrown to the wind.

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51VIRgJYGcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_While rereading books like the above, I’m also rewatching some favorite flicks, including “Casablanca,” the evergreen masterpiece in which every element of fine filmmaking miraculously falls into place. I love a good movie book so I clicked on Noah Isenberg’s “We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie,” the gawky title of which tells you just what you’re delving into. I haven’t cracked it yet, but I’m hoping for historical Hollywood gold on par with the recent knockout “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood.”  

Dreaming about Paris, I tripped upon the site for fabled English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, that grand, musty emporium on the Left Bank, where I scrolled staff recommendations for Paris-set stories. Never mind its racy cover, I was lured to Elaine Dundy’s cult comic classic “The Dud Avocado,” a romp tracing the libertine escapades of a comely young American woman in the French capital who yearns to exist out loud. Called a “timeless portrait of a woman hell-bent on living,” the novel seems unlikely to disappoint this thwarted traveler pining for Paris.  41efY3TglbL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_On the note of cult classics, “Airships,” Barry Hannah’s award-winning collection, promises “20 wildly original, exuberant, often hilarious stories that celebrate the universal peculiarities of the new American South.” The book hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s highly anticipated after being called “one of the most revered short story collections of the past 50 years, remaining a vital text in the history of the American short story.” And this snippet from it makes me sort of love it already: “What a bog and labyrinth the human essence is … We are all over-brained and over-emotioned.”

51hhyhVwywLRaymond Chandler’s crackling and complex detective noir “The Big Sleep” scorches with style. The novel, a total delight, introduces private eye Philip Marlowe, literature’s great existential antihero, a shrugging loner with a gun, cigarettes and devastating wit. Chandler crams it with so many ravishing lines, images, similes, he elevates pulp to high literature. Marlowe, all slow-burn aplomb, speaks and thinks like the consummate smart-aleck tough: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners,” he grumbles. “They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.” Unknown.jpeg

“Death Comes for the Archbishop” is a western in priest’s clothing. Set in the mid-1800s, Willa Cather’s elegant epic about a gentle French bishop spreading Catholicism through Mexico and its southwest territories braids American history with lush spirituality and, at times, a mean Cormac McCarthy crunch. The title is a major spoiler, like Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” but Cather knew what she was doing, and the foregone conclusion hits hard — and beautifully. Her eloquence is breathtaking, and the glistening lyricism comes out of nowhere to stun. Here Cather describes two men running through the desert: “They coursed over the sand with the fleetness of young antelope, their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight.” 51qJIvsSX6L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

For introverts, self-quarantine isn’t so bad

Introverts tend to enjoy more time to themselves, are very aware of their internal thoughts and recharge more in solitude. Extroverts are just the opposite. Extroverts are more outspoken, outgoing and absolutely love being around other people. They’re talkative and like being the center of attention.”                                                   — Chelsea Connors, therapist

Extroverts chafe me. This certified introvert has spent most of his life avoiding them: the whooping jocks, chest-thumping frat boys, screechy sorority girls, cocky corporate management types, knee-slapping laughers, actors, garrulous social hambones who have to keep everyone rapt with hypnotic anecdotes and stories, the very loud and touchy.

These are the people who are having a hard time with “social distancing” during COVID-19. They’re on FaceTime and Zoom, keeping the party going electronically, lest life in self-quarantine shrivels them up into lonely nobodies. The outgoing who live to go out, hug and high-five and fist pump and kissy-kissy on both cheeks. And strangely cracking up, constantly.

friends_having_fun-1200x628-facebook.jpgIntroverts, on the other hand, are naturally adapting to the situation, even relishing it. This, pundits declare, is the year of the introvert, what with mandated social distancing during the pandemic, which demands people stay apart, social scenes closed or restricted, and families huddled in their homes. No sports events? Oh, darn it.

“Finally,” a tweeter rejoices, “something I’m good at: staying at home and avoiding people!”

Isn’t it great? 

In case I’m branded some sort of antisocial Hamlet or “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” I emphatically aver that I do (did) like to get out for a great dinner, good movie or a play, and some drinks. And my inveterate world travel is taking a heartrending hit. 

But it’s worth noting this shift in the social landscape: the meek shall inherit the earth, for a while. From the Twitter-sphere come these words of comfort for the eternally uncomfortable:

— “Any other socially awkward introverts out there feel oddly aroused anytime anyone mutters the phrase ‘social distancing?’ Asking for myself. Obviously.”

— “As single and an introvert, we’ve been social distancing since before it was popular.” 

— “Introverts have been doing this for years! Look who’s suddenly the cool kids at the party now!” 

— “Finally introverts experience a world that is suited to us. All events cancelled, we don’t even have to go thru the trouble of flaking. No one is making random small talk or physical contact. Everybody minding their own business.”

— “So ‘social distancing’ is gonna save us all from #CoronaVirusSeattle.YAY. INTROVERTS WILL SURVIVE AND RULE THE WORLD. Quietly, of course. But still.”

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