Random reflections, part III

“We die — that may be the meaning of life,” said author Toni Morrison, who died Monday. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

I‘ve tried many times to watch “The Princess Bride,” “Stand By Me” and “When Harry Met Sally,” but I’ve never been able to get through any of them. They are ham-handed. They aren’t funny. They clunk. That Rob Reiner directed all of them is strictly coincidental.

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The famous “orgasm” scene, which gets more embarrassing with each viewing.

I swear, Cubby the dog has a perverse crush on the female cat Tiger Lily. He gawkily flirts with her, and her eye-rolling indifference is touching. Such inter-species passion is a spectacle. I sure hope I don’t see a newborn kitten that barks.

I jot in my journal pretty much every day with purpose and the fugitive hope of substance. The author Yiyun Li writes, “How did I forget to start each and every page of my journal with the reminder that nothing matters?” My head nods vigorously.

The last time I went to Japan I got hooked on the sizzling pop art of Takashi Murakami, whose work spans painting, sculpture, fashion, merchandise and animation. It’s fun and whimsical and dazzlingly colorful — and not a little geeky. His subject matter is cute (kawaii), psychedelic and satirical, with well-trod motifs: smiling flowers, mushrooms, skulls and manga culture. Murakami could be the Jeff Koons of Japan. I’m going there soon. My goal is to get Murakami’d, big time.

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My phone’s current wallpaper.

A few years ago I discovered I had an adult-onset allergy to shrimp and prawns. It’s like the second worst thing that’s ever happened to me.

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A fan of novelist Colson Whitehead, I’m deflated by his new, lavishly overrated book “The Nickel Boys.” It lacks energy, momentum and finally fizzles at the halfway mark. So I put it down (I also couldn’t get into his early novel “John Henry Days,” though I’m all about “The Intuitionist” and “The Underground Railroad”) and picked up Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood.” I’ve read one other Murakami novel, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” and I almost threw it against a wall. The edge is where I live.

Tonight we popped a bottle of Suntory Whisky Toki, “blended Japanese whisky that is both groundbreaking and timeless.” It is silky and smoky with strong, sweet vanilla notes. I think none of us is going to bed.

Quentin Tarantino has made movies. He has made only two masterworks, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” That was a very long time ago. The rest of his oeuvre seesaws from juvenilia to junk. As critic David Denby wrote on the release of the imbecilic “Inglourious Basterds”: “Tarantino has become an embarrassment: his virtuosity as a maker of images has been overwhelmed by his inanity as an idiot de la cinémathèque.”

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Intimacy is scary. Love is scarier. Someone recently dubbed the phenomenon “the terror of loving.” I like that. Its precision is chilling.

I am typing most of this in the air, row 45, seat G, on United flight 497 to San Francisco. You might say I’m skywriting. Forget I just said that.

Dogma of the dog

I’m pretty sure Cubby the dog doesn’t believe in many things — God, playing dead for treats, how wonderful I am — though I’m convinced he believes in some things. Like meatballs and bully sticks and tummy massages and bedtime snuggles and brisk walks and peeing on the rug. He’s a good dog. And like most good dogs, he’s ridiculous. Neurotic, but nourishing. 

Rescued from a shelter, Cubby has, in the past year or so, learned how to act like a tried-and-true doggy, a small, curly-haired mutt with a pleading gaze and a tail that swoops up and over into a large Spaghetti-O. 

He now knows how to worry a bone, chomp stuffed toys, play tug of war with said toys, scurry after the bone when it’s tossed then make you chase him around in a game of try and get it, sucker. All this is heartening. He’s maturing. He’s getting sillier. 

But I think he’s deeper than all that stock dog stuff. Cubby is a wise old soul, beyond his four or five years, attuned to his lot in life, his place on the totem pole of existence, and, with a melancholy tinge, his impermanence.

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No, I don’t believe in God. Death, yes.

This struck me last summer, detailed in this blog post, where I observed: 

“The dog seeks the meaning of life, this is plain from his searching brown eyes, furrowed brows and the alarming way he wipes his butt across the carpet. Freud’s pleasure principle manifests itself in his frequent calls for belly rubs. Sartre’s existentialist theory, which states that our individual responsibility in defining our own lives is almost debilitating in its enormity, has the dog a little down. Knowledge of his own mortality is something of a buzz kill.”

Cubby may be a Buddhist. He is mindful and meditative, his solace arriving many hours each day. (Some call these naps; I call them rumination, deep cogitation, mini comas.) He is a passive soul. Barking he does sparingly, almost exclusively when the mail comes, then he claws the paint off the front door and cries like an aggrieved banshee. It is the yelp of an injured Indian spirit, whose dead have been gravely molested. Then he shuts down, curls up, and ponders the teachings of Siddhartha and the joys of a good tennis ball.

We wonder. What does this animal believe in? Tasty bones, yes. Death, alas. A vigorous rub behind the ears, certainly. Bacon Beggin’ Strips, no doubt.

Yet the question resounds: Can animals really believe?

Cats — pshaw; they believe in their own supercilious godliness. Forest dwellers — a humble group deeply in accord with nature’s bylaws, true believers. African wildlife — a hot mess, as seen on “Planet Earth,” strictly heathens and satanists that believe in ritualistic bloodletting and organized torture on the Serengeti.

None of that for Cubby. He’s a fuzzy little wiseman. He should be wearing beads and vestments and lighting incense. He is a philosophical creature; don’t let his crazed, leg-scratching greetings fool you. When you gaze into his small eyes, worlds are revealed. One’s heart softens and the soul cracks open. He is telling you something, and not just “Get the leash, I gotta poop.”

Was it Nietzsche who said “The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs”? Or was it Harpo Marx? No matter. This is an inversion of the master/slave equation, wherein the master (you) succumbs to the overpowering ardor and joy provided by the slave (doggy). That is this dog’s wisdom. He has our number. And he calls frequently. Collect.

Cubby’s beliefs are better than his bite. In his canine universe, he is disciplined, devout, enlightened. He has found meaning and purpose. The dog is, indeed, dogmatic, a mutt with a mind. And, uh, yes, that’s him over there, avidly licking his genitals.

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Dog-doo afternoon

Warning: This post discusses poop. Specifically dog poop.

The dog’s poop is marbled with blood. (I told you.) He relieved himself on the basement’s honey-hued carpet, which now bears permanent crimson splotches, some of them in the shape of small nations and rural flyover states. It’s a fecal atlas. 

Flippancy aside, recall: poo, blood, dog. This is eyebrow-raising on one hand, panic-time on the other. Bloody dookie is nothing to snicker, or snarl, at. It’s a call-the-vet-pronto affair, especially when said doggie, Cubby, is also behaving strangely and doing this regurgitation thing in which he chews and swallows whatever he’s just hacked up. It’s coming from both ends. It’s abnormal. We fear for the furball.

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Cubby in healthier days.

Should I worry if my dog’s stool has blood or mucus? That’s an actual question posted at Pet Health Network, a, well, pet health network that will either assuage your nerves or trigger the trots. 

If you, like me, are a hypochondriac, then you shouldn’t even be visiting sites like this or the human version, WebMD, where I often go to learn that my tennis elbow is likely an inoperable tumor and my heartburn is assuredly a minor stroke.

(Doctors hate sites like WebMD for spawning a nation of needlessly freaked out patients. I used to carry a sheaf of so-called diagnoses that I printed from the internet when I visited my doctor. He wanted to strangle me.)

The answer to the “my dog’s stool” query has several answers, making for something of a rollercoaster ride. Causes might be: an upset stomach from eating bad food (whew); inflammation of the colon (also, probably, whew); internal parasites (some antibiotics and we’re good, right?); cancer (Jesus!); allergies (we can deal); autoimmune disorders (egads). 

Cubby the über-hound is at the vet as I type. (No matter the diagnosis, I won’t let him read this.) The sun is dipping, kicking up skies of charcoal and embers. It’s 35-degrees out, just right, and somebody has to clean up the basement carpet. If Cubby’s OK, he can do it. 

And now a text arrives from Cubby’s mom at the vet: The doc can’t tell what the problem is but the bill, counting all manner of exams, including a stomach X-ray, is a soul-shriveling $901. Almost a thousand dollars in less than an hour. I’m gobsmacked until I remember how I once spent roughly $500 on an ailing pet rat. Animals will do that — break your heart while breaking the bank.

So it appears to be wait and see for schlubby Cubby, despite the red-streaked poop, which is actually the least of the vet’s concerns. The dog has a fever of 103, says the vet, who gave Cubs an antibiotic, anti-nausea meds and fluids for dehydration. The tummy X-ray was sent to a specialist, even though the vet saw nothing unusual in it like, say, a toothbrush or an iPhone.

This non-vet will tell you the animal has been unusually lethargic, and has picked up some odd habits over the days (he’s suddenly fond of karaoke and mojitos) and has dramatically altered his cravings (he wants nachos and Popeye’s). He isn’t chewing his beloved bully stick, which is, literally, a dried bull penis. He canceled his subscription to People and has gone to watching the dreadful third season of “True Detective.”

He’s one sick pup.

When the pup popped pills

We OD’d the dog. 

Cubby the magic mutt was supposed to get one sedative pill before his visit to the vet yesterday. He’s a nervous guy, especially around the ominous sterility of the doctor’s office and creepy paper-sheathed exam table. So he pops a chill pill. (We should all be so lucky.) 

An hour before his appointment, I dipped a tablet in peanut butter, tricking him into swallowing the large pill. It’s an anti-anxiety med made for, get this, humans over age 25. It’s called Trazodone and it’s prescribed for any “stressful event.” I am seriously considering stealing a couple. 

Then this: Minutes later, my sister-in-law, unaware her dog was already medicated, gave him another Trazodone. Within a half hour, it was clear: Cubby was cooked. 

A smallish dog covered in gray curls, Cubby suddenly looked heartbreakingly lost, a Who-what-where am I? expression on his Ewok face. Dazed and confused, he started lurching and stumbling in slow-motion, like a wagon with a wobbly wheel, or Dean Martin.

His eyes little pinwheels, he looked like Joe Cocker on his first acid trip. He furrowed his brows and those eyes filled with vacant perplexity. 

He tottered up the stairs and onto the low bed, where he looked around wondering what was going on. His wet-noodle limbs did him no favors. He was a fuzzy stumblebum. He followed me into the bathroom and tried to leap atop the closed toilet but slipped and fell on his butt onto the floor, where he remained, shrugging, Whateva.

It was an unnerving spectacle. I felt at once bad for and envious of the doped dog. This was some drug. Trazodone is also an anti-depressant and off-label is used as “a hypnotic to initiate sleep.” (Seriously. I’m taking some. Shhh.)

And why did Cubby need this mega-med? He was going to the vet to get his nails clipped (really?) and to have his anal glands expressed,” or emptied (really!). You know it’s time for that undignified procedure when your animal starts scooting across the floor, sphincter in the carpet, sliding like he’s on wheels.

Cubby survived the vet visit. Of course, he was baked, so maybe he even enjoyed it. The doctor said it would take 12 hours for the pills to wear off and for his expression to stop resembling Cheech and Chong’s.

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Not actually Cubby, but this is exactly how he wound up that night.

By night, the dog wore a look of blissed bewilderment. He passed out. There he was, zonked on his back, legs sticking straight in the air like an overturned table. Gone. 

A few of my year-end enthusiasms

People, places and culture — little consolations — that are turning me on (saving me?) in the waning days of a sometimes unbearably tumultuous year …

  • Courtney Barnett — Guitar rock lives. Or so we can dream, a reverie persuasively advanced by grungy guitar-slinger Barnett, a pop-punk pixie who’s making some of the crunchiest, catchiest, folky-fuzzy rock around, music that sounds improbably lasting. A devout DIYer with a Grammy nod and fervent following, Barnett traces the raw, minimalist contours of Nirvana and the Pixies, with squalling distortion and a voice so uninflected that her Australian accent claws right through. That voice echoes the talk-singing and slightly nasal tones of Liz Phair, Patti Smith and The Hold Steady. Wincingly intimate, her jagged, jangly songs are shot through with personal drama and cutting irony. Often they’re downright hilarious. Choice cuts: “Pedestrian at Best,” “Debbie Downer,” “Avant Gardener,” “City Looks Pretty.” Watch her in concert HERE. And visit her squiggly world HERE.

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  • “Night Train”: New and Selected Stories by Thom Jones I didn’t even know Jones died two years ago. He’s one of my favorite short fiction writers and I kept wondering where in the hell he went, when he would publish again. I was alerted to his fate by this posthumous assemblage, plucked from Jones’ classic ’90s collections “The Pugilist at Rest,” “Cold Snap” and “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine,” each worth owning, and cherishing. But with this chubby tome, featuring seven new stories, including the typically mordant title tale and spanning the biting, semi-autobiographical Vietnam War epic “The Pugilist at Rest” to the absurdist vermin mayhem of “Mouses,” Jones’ spare, sinewy, mean and bust-up funny realism comes into exhilarating focus. Fueled by grit, violence and the tough tenets of his hero Arthur Schopenhauer, this is essential contemporary fiction.

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  • Gin and tonic at Angel’s Share  Last month I drank a gin and tonic with a Japanese gin I criminally did not get the name of at Angel’s Share, the dark, elbow-jabbing speakeasy in New York’s East Village. It was the smoothest, lightest, tastiest G&T I’ve ever sipped, spritzed with a gorgeously un-cloying tonic that was gently fizzy, not nose-tickingly fizzy. The drink was a perfect alchemical mingling of alcohol and mixer, a frosty masterpiece. (If only I could afford the $17 elixir more than once a year.) 

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  • “I Am Dynamite!” by Sue Prideaux — Penetrating and punchy, with an attractively light touch for the weighty subject, Prideaux’s new biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my dearest great dead thinkers — atheism! nihilism! iconoclasm! self-invention! and more furrowed-brow brilliance — is like literary windshield wipers, a slashing text of clarification and demystification. Despite the luxuriously daunting walrus mustache and monumental scowl worthy of a grumpus Mount Rushmore, the German polymath — yes: a prickly, willful malcontent — wasn’t the poisonous philosophical force we’ve been warned of. (For one, he abhorred antisemitism.) Reason reigned, until it crumbled amidst the famous crack-up that would kill him at age 56. Dead: first God, then him. 

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  • Istanbul — First come the post-vacation blues: the immediate despondency felt when you return home from a great trip. Crap, it’s over. And then there’s the afterglow: the crazy satisfaction and rapture you feel when the depression burns off. Damn, that was the best trip ever! I got back from Turkey last month and I’m basking in the afterglow. I was mostly in Istanbul, one of few cities that can hurl me into a dream state that’s as wondrous as it is ineffable, an otherworldly stupor of sights, sounds and flavors, pocked by the lovable multitude of stray dogs and cats and the unfailingly caring and splendid people. I still savor my Istanbul lodgings, the über-charming boutique Hotel Ibrahim Pasha and, in Cappadocia in Central Turkey, the Pumpkin Göreme Restaurant and Art Gallery, where the cheap and divine fixed menu delivers the allure of Turkey on many plates. If I sound a little intoxicated by it all, I am. 
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Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
  • “Skate Kitchen” — The young women of this scruffy 2018 skateboard drama are hell on wheels — or is that Chanel on wheels? No way. The tribe of shredding female street teens are all about the clacking and scraping of boards on New York concrete, smoking spliffs and coupling with the opposite (or same) sex. The star here is bespectacled Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a taciturn 18-year-old from Long Island who defies her mother for the skate parks and subways of Manhattan, where she’s promptly absorbed into a rowdy posse of all-girl skaters. The film is predictably sincere about teen rebellion equating to freedom and addressing, softly, teen politics and gender politics. Yet it works; it has kick. Crystal Moselle (2015’s hit documentary “The Wolfpack”) shoots with a meandering vérité camera, the city captured with gritty love and bloodied-knee realism, and music to match. The movie is on DVD and streaming. The trailer’s HERE.

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  • Cubby the Wonder Dog — The perennially pampered pup, huge heart, small bladder, gives as good as he gets — hugs and snuggles, mutual adoration, tricks and treats, ribald chit-chat over Scotch and cigars. We love the mutt with our lives, no matter if he begs, bedevils the cats or poops and pees on occasion and off the Wee-Wee Pad. Spiritual creatures, dogs are fuzzy founts of friendship, besting humans, I’m afraid. I’m rotten when I wake up, until I see that damn dog wagging his curled tail and things fall into place. Mused author Thom Jones (see above): “Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have.”
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Cubby

Cats and dog sweetly coexisting. Mostly.

The dog pounces at the cat, stopping short, directly in her expressionless face. He thinks he’s fulfilling his role as a tough-guy mongrel, a canine Cagney, intimidating his housemate, the ice-cool kitty. They lock eyes and stand nose-to-nose. She doesn’t flinch, budge or blink. She has seen him coming, fast, and she holds her ground, not a single whisker aquiver.

The dog, Cubby, is small. The cat, witheringly, seems to be saying to him, “You’re too short for that gesture,” as George Saunders tells Anne Baxter when she swings open the door and tries to eject him from a room in “All About Eve.” In the end, the dog capitulates, and the cat sashays away.

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It’s really not like this, at all.

For the most part, the animals, including another cat, coexist impressively peaceably. They are very mature about their roommate situation. Drama is minimal, and, when it happens, laughable. No one gets hurt.

Poor Cubby. He’s all bark and no bite (except in play, when he nips fiendishly). He loves to hear himself yap, yelp and yowl when the mail carrier mounts the porch, producing a piercing cacophony and, somewhat comically, a rousing display of feckless theater. He growls, spins and crouches, a shrimp-size showman, his nails doing a fine tap dance on the wood floor.

Yet open the door when someone rings and he clams up, giddily sniffing the newcomer, tail wagging, a bundle of excited curiosity. The animal is operating on pure instinct, doggie DNA, so we try not to make fun.

The house cats, Tiger Lily and Spicy, tolerate Cubby, despite their frequent sighs. They mostly ignore him and his occasional manifestations of machismo. They are unflappable, standoffish. Basically, they don’t give a shit. And when they do, they swipe a samurai paw at his face. He recoils.

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Cubby: a badass in his own mind.

Yet sometimes he gets their goat. Periodically, he will chase one of them up the stairs and the cat will bolt, scramble, fly. But not without emitting a long hiss, like a leaky tire or a king cobra. Cubby doesn’t relish that sound, and he stands down and returns to worrying one of his irresistible bully sticks (which are actual 100% bull penises, dried and seasoned).

The whole cats and dogs as mortal foes narrative is a hoary myth. Of course some dogs antagoznie some cats. (As a kid, our otherwise dreamy black Lab tore apart the neighbor’s cat in a scene out of “Cujo.”) It’s nothing personal. It’s biology and psychology: genes and instincts run amok.

There’s a fluffy black cat in the neighborhood that ambles right up to Cubby when he’s on his walks, and the animals casually sniff each other out, the cat practically rubbing against the dog, purring. Cubby is mostly indifferent to this, and promptly moves on.

But he can’t help needle his pet-mates in the house. Close proximity, boredom, jealousy, general annoyance — many reasons spring to mind, all of them conjecture. Sometimes he gets feisty when a cat gets too close to his bully stick, as if they’ll snatch it. Other times he’s just asserting his virility, his wishful doggie dominance.

The cats and the dog are in many ways classic shotgun roommates: imperfect fits, possessive, a little irritable, eating each other’s food, each from different worlds. One roommate likes rap, the other likes Rachmaninoff. The cats want their space, Cubby wants to invade it. He wants to be the pack leader, the alpha male honcho. It’s sad yet funny.

Don’t tell Cubby, but it’s pretty clear: Tiger Lily could lick him.

Let sleeping dogs lie (and dream)

The dog lies at my feet. He is upholstered in unruly, charcoal-gray curls, like a pile of macaroni. Gently breathing, his belly oscillates at a steady pulse. And then, suddenly, his body contracts: He has tumbled into a dream.

His short legs twitch and his paws scratch the air. He snorts and softly whines. He is spasming. In his furry head, he’s maybe chasing a surly kitty or gamboling outdoors in an open field, pursuing an unattainable rabbit.

I haven’t the foggiest idea. Could he be getting his wee doggie heart broken by a comely pooch, hence the whine? (Dreams are charming that way.) Then again, he might be reliving his school days: He has forgotten to study for a big exam, or he has to perform onstage but doesn’t know his lines. Maybe he’s flying. Or maybe he’s falling from the sky.

Off he goes: shuddering, kicking and jerking in the unsettling manner of a seizure. “Run, Cubby!” I want to say. “Fly, boy!” He’s stretched on the floor, doing a miniature St. Vitus dance, or some funky popping moves. It’s a lot more interesting than the book I was reading before becoming transfixed by the canine convulsions.

Whatever I do, I don’t dare wake the mutt.

He could be having the time of his life.

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Cubby, sprawled on his back, dreaming things we’ll never know.