In praise of small pleasures

Stay away. We’re contagious. First my nephew caught Covid, then I did. Now my brother has it. Next up: the dog. 

This too shall pass, this rottenness, and I’m happy that the virus, for now, is behind me. It’s just one small blessing in muddled times, a jagged slab of flotsam to hug while the ship sinks.

There are other things. Like Elif Batuman’s new novel, “Either/Or,” which I’ve plugged here before briefly. It’s one of few passing pleasures right now, be it a startling observation about love or a suave turn of phrase that knocks me dizzy. 

Or a jab of insight glinting with wry misanthropy: 

“Of course, you couldn’t have a party without alcohol; I understood this now. I understood the reason. The reason was that people were intolerable.” 

Or any number of absurdist gems: 

“I hadn’t a clear mental picture of his new girlfriend, Lara, and realized that I had almost expected her to look blurry.”

But what’s a small delight to me may be imperceptible to you. 

Unless you’re traveling abroad and you’ve just learned that the U.S. has lifted its Covid testing requirements to return to the States — a major hassle deleted from an already stressful travel climate. I recently had to take the test in Portugal and Italy to get back home and the logistics were near-traumatic. 

So rejoice for that minor miracle. And why not the same for Monkey 47, a richly aromatic, botanically fierce, impishly named gin that I’ve rediscovered and is well worth the price. Even the gin-averse extol its ample virtues. It may be the best gin on the shelf, a smooth bracer for rough days.

What else is keeping me warm, now, when the skies are dark? The crack and screech of Brandi Carlile’s voice on her song “Broken Horses.” The zesty mazeman noodles at Ani Ramen House. Penélope Cruz’s febrile, heartrending performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s stirring melodrama “Parallel Mothers.” My unquenchable wanderlust. Bongos. That woman at the cafe. Books, mountains of them.

The dog. 

The dog. 

The dog.

Culture in the time of Covid

My Covid’s gone and I feel strong as an ox, even though I barely know what an ox is. A big cow? Paul Bunyan’s interspecies BFF? Actually, I just looked it up. An ox is a “castrated bull used as a draft animal.” So let’s scratch the whole ox analogy entirely. 

Point is, I’m back — non-contagious, symptom-free, fit as a fiddle. (I don’t know what that means either. Skip it.) It took about five days to vanquish the virus, and it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. It was like a mild cold, but without mucus violently erupting from my lungs. This was a dry cough, little hacks, as if an infant was smoking a cigarillo.

As hoped, I got a lot of reading done during my convalescence. I wrapped up “The Sportswriter,” Richard Ford’s extraordinary, bittersweet novel about life, love and letdowns, and started three more books, all highly acclaimed and released in the past few weeks.

Alas, two of them tanked. Those would be Ali Smith’s “Companion Piece” and Mieko Kawakami’s “All the Lovers in the Night.” 

I’m not sure what critics are going on about with Smith. They go bananas for her Seasonal Quartet novels — I failed miserably to warm up to two of them — and seem to regard the new book as the prosaic sublime. I read 175 pages of “Companion Piece” and surrendered with a mere 50 left. She’s a slog, oblique, flirting willfully with incoherence. I wasn’t having fun. I was having a migraine.

I enjoyed Japanese super-author Kawakami’s earlier novels, the shrewd and touching “Heaven” and “Breasts and Eggs,” which sounds like a particularly provocative breakfast dish. But her latest, though not totally displeasing, never takes off. It’s slow going … going nowhere.

But I hit pay dirt with “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s sequel to “The Idiot,” tracing the turbulent interior life of a female college student who’s trying to figure it all out. It’s at once wildly funny and erudite, catchy and sparkling, and that’s about all I can ask for in a book. Bonus: the author’s name is Elif.

For someone isolating with time to burn, I watched very little in the way of shows and movies. I did stay abreast of the series “Hacks” (hilarious), “Top Chef” (harrowing) and “Barry” (hilarious and harrowing). And I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into “Irma Vep,” the great Olivier Assayas’ dramedy about a vamp, vampires and the insanity of making movies.

Meanwhile, everybody and their easily-scared tweens are bingeing Netflix’s gimmicky genre mash “Stranger Things.” I preferred the show when it was called “Scooby-Doo.”

I also got to anticipate my July journey to Buenos Aires as I was spread out, aching and sniffling with dramatic moans of self-pity. It’s something to look forward to, and, from a piece I read recently, that’s not only a good thing, it’s a healthy thing: “Having something to look forward to boosts your mood and lowers your stress. It can increase motivation, optimism and patience and decrease irritability.” Huh.

Not quite a Covid cure, but it can’t hurt. So much so that I started looking forward to my annual October trip, leap-frogging the July trip I haven’t even taken yet.

I’m thinking Budapest, a European joint I have yet to visit. Or perhaps a return to Krakow. Or Berlin. I’ll have to see what Covid is up to in those places. I might be cured, but the tenacious bug, mean and mercurial, still has the world in its gooey grip. 

Covid chronicles, part 2

I’m in the clutches of Covid, as I wrote upon my discovery two days ago, and my symptoms, from a light wheeze to a drippy schnoz, are getting cute on me. Just when it feels like they are receding, they jack-in-the-box back up, all flailing arms and googly eyes, heckling me with a mighty, Ha!  

So I thought it wise that I ordered a two-pack of DayQuil and NyQuil “liquicaps” for cold and flu stuff, from headaches to sneezing. It arrived yesterday and I promptly popped some DayQuil, which doesn’t contain the depressant effect of the sleepy NyQuil caps, I’m guessing.

Ha! again, because the DayQuil failed me like a two-bit placebo. My chest is still heavy, head thrums, throat sizzles, sinuses swell. This is why I rarely bother with so-called cold medicines, those blister packs of impotence, those doses of disappointment.

Compounding things, I look beastly. I’m brushing the Mickey Rourke phase. I’m sallow, splotchy, puffy. My eyes are poached eggs. And I have a zit on my cheek that could pass for a siamese twin.

I’m at home, isolating for at least a few more days. It’s a lonely spot, a kind of plush solitary confinement where complaining has no place, because, for one, no one can hear me. The pharmaceuticals might not work, but life continues mostly uninterrupted. I have my books, TV, computer, phone, food and a reservoir of self-pity. The dog looks at me and just shakes his head.

Being sick is never a Disney pleasure cruise. It’s more like “The Exorcist.” Since I started this post, I took the NyQuil half of the gel caps — it’s now past midnight — and the result seems preordained. I feel no better. I feel the same shade of blech. And I had high hopes for this one, with its shimmery emerald hue suggesting a soothing shot of absinthe. 

But no. The absinthe is absent. The NyQuil hasn’t made me drowsy and for some reason my ears feel like they’re stuffed with gauze, which means I have a brand-new symptom: deafness. 

Three more days of this, but of course it could drag on. I’ve quit the ‘Quils and will coast on bladder-bulging volumes of water and isn’t that the oldest home remedy in the book when you’re sick — fluids, more fluids. I think I saw that on “Little House on the Prairie” when Pa or a tween Laura Ingalls Wilder caught a chill. They drank like whale sharks. 

For now, that’s me. Bound for bloat on the good ship Covid. Glub, glub.

Sick daze

Well, I got it. Or it got me. Whatever. It’s my turn. For Covid, that is. 

Some crabby cold symptoms — the usual gunk: light cough, wet nose, swimmy head, a generalized ick — proved to be the real deal today. A test said so. My achy-breaky body bears it out.

Now what?, I wonder. First, I’ll be isolating for five days. Then I’ll take another test. Meantime, lots of fluids, rest, crushing boredom, gratitude that I haven’t lost my taste or smell (yet!), and some reflecting on how foolish I was to think I was impervious to the virus, as I took all the precautions — two rounds of shots plus a booster, regular mask-wearing, mega doses of arrogance, etc. Small irony: I was slated to get my second booster this afternoon. 

They say most of us will get Covid, so I don’t feel completely singled out and picked on (mmm, yes I do). Still, it’s a drag. I’ve had to rearrange my schedule, cancel appointments, and, sorely, I will miss a public reading of one of my brother’s stellar plays. Plus, I have a wee dry cough that sounds like a choking Munchkin.

Reading. I’ll catch up on some reading. I’m already waist-deep into a re-read of Richard Ford’s beautifully observed 1986 novel “The Sportswriter.” A piercing slice of contemporary realism, the book is tinged with rue and humor and grit, and profoundly meditative about the everyday struggle. It’s oddly comforting, despite the sting. 

On deck is “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s brand-new sequel to her hit novel “The Idiot.” Like its predecessor, critics adore it (“This novel wins you over in a million micro-observations” — NYT) and the way it sweeps you into a bright young woman’s woolly world of self-discovery. (That’s all I got. I haven’t read it yet.)

I can get all philosophical about contracting the virus, or not. It’s plain as day, and because it’s physical, intellectualizing it, cataloging the myriad ways the body betrays us, is just so much wheel-spinning. So far, the malady feels like a mild head cold — every so often I wonder if I really even have it — and I’m banking on it staying that way. 

Covid can kill you, but so can the flu, or a drive to the pharmacy. I know lots of people who’ve had it and each one pulled through famously. So I’m not too tangled up about it. Everything will be just fine … right?

As the lead in “The Sportswriter” says, “Sometimes I’m afraid … It’s natural to the breed.”

‘Tis the season to chillax

2020 bit, hard. Somehow 2021 was just as rotten. 2022 looms — turn the page and all that. Don’t hold your breath. It’s going to be another shit show.

What’s been on the menu of wonderfulness? In short: family deaths, illness, Covid and its spawn-of-Satan variants, political/racial/social outrages, chronic insomnia, that gnarly pimple on my forehead last summer — the usual maelstrom. 

Complaining about, even inventorying, these things is by now beyond trite. So we saunter ahead and seek purpose and palliatives, things that distract and dull the pain. 

Like … hell, I don’t know. A stiff drink? (Yep.) Christmas carols? (Bah!) How about just a mindset adjustment, a way of looking at the world in a soft-focus haze rather than the cold, klieg-light glare we’re currently deploying? 

Things are pretty bad, but for most of us, most of the time, they’re not catastrophically bad, are they? Maybe they are. I’ve had my share of catastrophes in these gloomy times — some bad, some badder — and yet I’ve still found resilience, wisps of hope.

It’s a matter of focus and self-possession. If at all possible, we need to mellow. Take a deep breath wrapped in a sigh. We’re starting to hit the I’m-over-this-shit button, yet we’re in for more bone-cracking cold. Hang tight. But not too tight.

Maybe this is a call for self-improvement. For our quirks and foibles — our hideous flaws — to get tweaked and kneaded into something softer and more accepting. And more helpful.   

Me, for instance. I own a roiling anger that springs from fighting life, resisting and pushing, sparking off it, flint-like. I strain and recoil, writhe and seethe. It isn’t helping. I need to cork it. Clonazepam does only so much. 

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions — hardly a novel stance — but if I did one it would be to ride the next wave with the mettle and determination of that young surfer who got her arm bit off by a shark but keeps on shredding half-pipes like nothing ever happened. Limbs are missing. Still, we carry on.

Bird balm

My good friend Tiva just bought her young daughter a pet parakeet. It’s blue-green with a sloped yellow head and small enough to perch on the girl’s slight shoulder. Tiva texted a photo:

“You see a cute birdie,” I texted back. “I see dinner.”

This sentiment is more pressing when she tells me the tweetie thingy’s name: Pickles Billabong. (Pickles Billabong!) Naturally, I demanded to know who cursed the poor creature with this name, which is straight out of Dickens or Dr. Seuss at their most baroque, or most high. Her daughter, of course, is the culprit. 

“She came up with the name by looking at a list of bodies of water (river, brook, etc.) because the bird is a kind of aquamarine color and a billabong is a pond that is created when a river changes course. Pickles is because the bird is shaped like a pickle,” Tiva explains. I am impressed. 

“The bird is her best friend,” she adds, and I don’t know if I should smile or sob. 

She goes on to say that the daughter and her twin sister are having a turbulent time during Covid — they’re not sick, just bored and longing — and so Pickles serves as a kind of therapy animal. It’s the Prozac parakeet. 

Birds. Indeed. They’re the one pet, besides a rhino and a manatee, I never had growing up. I stuck to dogs, rats and cats, with the occasional fish, salamander and turtle thrown into the mix. 

No birds, and I can only guess we skipped them because our friends had parakeets and they were awful. They didn’t really do anything that’s anthropomorphically charming, like dogs, which are half-human anyway. There was no fetch or leg humping. I mean, really.

The birds seemed stuck in a poo-encrusted cage, bopping around, whistling occasionally, cocking their robotic heads. When they got out they flew all over the house, perching high up on the curtains to avoid human clutches, and were generally an avian pain in the ass. I desperately wanted to open a window and watch them flap away.

Not so now. I hope Pickles Billabong thrives as a bright, animated companion, although, according to experts, parakeets can live 10 to 20 years. On that note, I immediately start thinking about the best sauce for a tiny, braised bird. And what are the best sides — carrots, potatoes, pet rabbit? 

But this is somewhat serious. The girls are in a needy space. Covid has cut a hole in so many lives, and kids especially are confused and adrift. They wanted a friend, exotic, potentially chatty, therapeutic — some thera-keet. The bird then is a balm, sweet, attentive, pretty, and other things I’m sure. They do have a dog, but it’s more Tiva’s baby than the children’s. We’ll see how this whole thing flies.

Meanwhile, I wonder: Does the dog look up at old Pickles and go, “Yum, yum”? Good dog. 

I plan for Paris. Covid laughs.

Last fall, Paris went kaput. That is, my planned trip to my favorite city was scrapped with a muscular assist from the pandemic. Covid, that magnificent killjoy, effectively squelched the October vacation, along with so many of your precious plans to get out and live life freely and safely. 

Woe is me. I know this is a first-world, big-baby complaint, but actually I’m not complaining. The trip was doomed from the start, founded on chutzpah and delusion. The pandemic would pass by October. Right. What a dope.

But I couldn’t resist the $430 round-trip flight bought last spring and the airline’s policy of crediting the ticket if trips were cancelled by Covid. Considering how grim everything was, it was sort of win-win.

I used that credit yesterday when I decided, rather rashly as usual, to take another shot at Paris in the fall. It cost a little more money, but the price was still right. Eight days in mid-October, starting where I left off during my last visit in fall 2015. 

Paris is slowly stirring from its Covid coma, when life was hamstrung by onerous rules and restrictions that made visiting pointless, if you could even get into Europe. I’m banking on more normalcy in the next few months as cafes, museums and bistros cautiously unlock their doors. (Alas, Notre Dame remains closed to worshippers and tourists after the blaze of 2019.)

Notre Dame, fall 2015

Must-dos: Musée d’Orsay; Musée Picasso (essential); Musée de l’Orangerie; citywide cinemas (I always see three or four classic movies in Paris); Centre Pompidou; and the skull-crammed Catacombs.

This time, my sixth in Paris, I will skip my beloved cemeteries: the lushly rococo Père Lachaise and the more classical Montmartre and Montparnasse cemeteries, which together house the graves of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, François Truffaut, Susan Sontag, Edith Piaf, Chopin, Balzac, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (Why visit cemeteries? Because they’re haunting and beautiful and, in Paris, they’re like strolling walks of fame for artists and intellectuals.)

Centre Pompidou, 2015

The Parisian foodie experience is paramount, and I have several places in my crosshairs: the peerless Frenchie; Michelin-star Le Chateaubriand; Buvette; and famed falafel joint L’As Du Fallafel in the Marais. For cocktails, it’s the vaunted Little Red Door — named one of the world’s 50 best bars for seven consecutive years — also in the Marais.

This all sounds super on paper, like most vacations do. The planning, the reservations, the advanced tickets, the accommodations (Hôtel Jeanne d’Arc Le Marais), the raw, giddy anticipation. But it’s a crap shoot.

I’m all in. I’m ready to split this burgh for a few days, sip wine on the Seine, see an old Eric Rohmer film, walk the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens, skip the Mona Lisa, and be blown away by the city’s exuberant beauty. Again.  

I don’t know if I’ll actually get there. But I’m making a bid for it. For Paris, and for life. 

Symptoms that flu away

Today I got my second Covid vaccine. I’m bracing for a world of agony.

This I know: My sister-in-law got both shots. The first was fine. The second flung her into a tailspin of flu-like symptoms — chills and aches, fever and mild nausea. She wished she had taken the next day off from work. Suddenly a knitted blankie was her BFF. It made a sweet, snuggly tableau.

Her first shot yielded the same aftershocks as my first shot: a wrathfully sore upper arm, like you were punched good and hard where the needle jabbed in. And then someone pinched the spot, with evil passion. 

It’s the second shot, my in-law warns, that will “knock you on your ass.” Cute. Can’t wait.

All this is expected. Docs and the CDC have sternly cautioned that these side effects are common. So this isn’t one of those cockamamie anti-vax screeds. I want the vaccine. I know it works. I think everyone should get it. I’m just a little whiny poo-poo baby.

In Vietnam, I was practically asking for some florid flu-like side effects. Take me to a good cobra restaurant, I hounded my hustler guide, who zipped me around Hanoi on a rust bucket moto-bike to see all, from Soviet-style architecture to a dirty dog-meat market.

He delivered me to a roadside snake farm/restaurant, where slithering caged cobras and other “wild animals” awaited the plate. After cutting out the snake’s still-beating heart and drizzling its bile into a glass of rice whisky — which I was expected to guzzle, and did — the servers dished up a 15-course cobra lunch dazzling in its breadth. The feast is not for the faint of heart. I barely finished my portions. A forkful of exoticism goes a long way.

That night, as a reprisal for my snake-killing gluttony, I was hit with unmistakable flu-y symptoms, including fatigue, body aches and a swimming head. I was told later this was likely from trace amounts of snake venom I ingested at lunchtime. So this, sorta, is what being bitten by a snake feels like? I wondered with weird relish. (What’s worse, swallowing a whole cobra heart or being bitten by said snake? Chat among yourselves.)

Cobra feast

Afternoon report: Four hours after today’s vaccine and I have zero symptoms, not even a sore arm. My sister-in-law strongly suggests I take three preemptive Advils and I do just that. I sit down, crack a book, and await the plague.

The needle wasn’t bad today, though it stung more than my first shot a month ago. Was the first needle smaller? The nurse today told me to take a deep breath when she pricked me, which wasn’t the case last time. On that occasion the needle lanced a stick of butter; today it jabbed raw chicken breast. Now that I’ve wrecked your dinner plans, let’s see if the vaccine is wrecking my evening plans. 

Evening report: It’s now eight hours since the shot. No chills, aches, stomach turmoil or brain tumors. And my arm is miraculously not sore. Am I getting off easy? Will I bolt up in bed at 3 a.m., drenched in sweat, racked with medieval pain? Oh, I did forget to mention this small side effect: My post-shot pee smells like a raging tire fire.

In about two weeks, after the vaccine has sluiced through my veins and cells, I will be immunized against the coronavirus. That’s the plan. If it works, and it will, it’s a miracle of science. Lab coats are sexy.

Late evening report: It’s now 10 hours since today’s needle. My upper arm is pretty sore, right where I was stabbed. This incurable hypochondriac will have none of it. I can see it now: every noxious flu symptom crashing down on me in the next 24 hours. Here’s what I need: fistfuls of Advil, heaps of pity, and a plush knitted blankie.

I’ll update things if developments warrant it. Just know, if I’m in the ICU, I probably won’t be able to type.

A matter of taste, bud

My tastebuds are in crazy revolt. Food that’s typically delicious is suddenly too strong, too rich, overabundant and on the attack. I’m having to rely on mild pastas, soups and salads — food I often eat anyway — for my primary sustenance. Savory sauces, meats and cheeses gag me with their power, and are for now banished. Alas, I can’t even taste the brine of my teardrops.

I know Covid erases one’s sense of taste (and smell), but I’ve never had the virus. My doctor says it’s likely some meds I’m on and recommends, get this, that I suck on sour candy before meals to stimulate the tastebuds. I’ve been eating lemon sours fiendishly, but they aren’t doing much, besides turning my tongue a ravishing shade of urine.   

Speaking of sucking, this predicament sucks. Gustatory delights are a big deal — pizza to pesto, sushi to scotch — and I feel crippled and swindled every time I chomp into a thick, leaky burger, anticipating mad scrumptiousness, but instead getting a big bite of blech.

My tongue feels a smidge numb, upping the awful factor. And it’s slightly whiter than usual, like I just licked a wedding cake. I tend to think I have a handsome, healthy tongue, cuter than, but not longer than, Gene Simmons’ mouth serpent. For now, the pink muscular organ has betrayed me, even compromising the indisputable delectability of the onion rings I nosh while I write this. 

You know what tastes good? Chicken noodle soup. Tea. Mac and cheese. Toast. Fish. Beans. Ice cream. Water. Sounds like the menu at a nursing home. 

I’ll just have to suck it up, though I’d much rather lick it up. This is minor stuff in the big picture, and I can live with it temporarily, no matter how obnoxious, even if it means my main appetizer is a tangy lemon sour. I should plate the little translucent lozenge.

These onion rings are excellent, a good sign. Yet I’m wary. I’m worried. And I’m starving. 

Uber ride, über-terror

What do you do when your Uber driver is apparently psychotic?

I had one of those rare trips from hell yesterday in a ride-share Jeep Cherokee, a 30-minute voyage of carelessness, irresponsibility and stinkiness, many near-swerves off the road, hacking coughs, phone call-making, improper mask wearing, etc. It was a real white-knuckler. I would have stunt-rolled out the door, one of my specialities, but we were on the freeway and, besides, I was on a clock.

After shambling out of the vehicle, I reported my experience to Uber, feeling like the playground tattle-tale, but about an issue of life and death. I wrote: “erratic and distracted driving, possibly intoxicated, wore a ratty old face mask that he slipped off his nose repeatedly, and filled the car with scary, raucous coughing.”

I didn’t mention the unbearable stench of Marlboro smoke and the man’s sub-hobo appearance, or that he was fidgeting like a mangy dog (or a meth-head), with barely one hand on the wheel. The only time I piped up was to exclaim “Dude!” when he about crashed into a guardrail doing 70 for the umpteenth time. Did I mention he came this close to rear-ending a shiny burgundy Honda?

A little miffed and rattled, I rated the driver two stars, which is “bad,” only because the one star “terrible” rating looked so harsh. After all, he did deliver me to my destination, though neither of us exchanged a customary “thank you.” He can only dream I tipped him for that fright ride, that possibly infectious (Covid!) and deadly ride. Now that I think about it, I should have pressed “terrible.”

When you rate a driver that low, Uber asks for a report from the aggrieved, which I noted above. They were quick to refund the $27 ride and assure me, “We are investigating this situation further to evaluate whether or not the driver will continue to have access to the Uber app” 

Oh, crap. Did I just get this driver fired? The whole thing is unpleasant and could get ugly. I don’t feel too bad for the guy — he kinda sucks — but I don’t want that much negative power. I hope they straighten it out, that he was just having a bad day, that he wasn’t driving under the influence, and that he has a super Christmas. (Also that he takes a shower, quits smoking, goes to driver’s ed and does something about those crazy jitters.) 

I’m trying not to be flip here, but it’s all out of my hands, and for all I know he destroyed me on my rating (drivers, of course, being able to rate riders, too). 

But, really, what’s he going to get me for — leaving deep fingernail marks of naked terror on the armrests?

Someone else’s tough-love rating, for reasons more innocuous than mine.