Japan-tastic

As I sit here, speeding through Tokyo on the bullet train (or shinkansen), I gobble an egg salad sandwich, as simple as it sounds, bought at a ubiquitous FamilyMart  convenience store. I have no idea why the abundant convenience stores here — be it 7-Eleven or Lawson — make such famously tasty little sandwiches, so humble and dainty even the crust is removed. America, lick and learn. 

Day Five in electrifying Tokyo, I’m now on the train to this jovially mad city’s near polar opposite, ancient, placid Kyoto, a major urban center flavored with temples, shrines, gardens and the fading tradition of the rosy-cheeked geisha. I envision relative quietude, and mounds of soba noodles and many yakitori skewers. (For now, I’ve had my fill of sushi, though more is assured later. In fact, once in Kyoto, I was quick to mark a conveyor-belt sushi joint next to my hotel.)

Tokyo, as American kids would say, is lit. And lit (well, lighted, blindingly) it is, vibrating with a friendly freneticism, thrumming with courteous, controlled chaos. It lacks New York’s pavement-pounding determinism and San Francisco’s self-satisfied beauty and bohemianism. Order reigns and rules are followed — you’ll never see a jaywalker and there is absolutely no litter, not even a stray cigarette butt, bizarre for a city totally bereft of sidewalk garbage bins — but it’s not the slightest iota oppressive or authoritarian.

Far from it. This is a city filled with laughter, a robust nightlife (several nightlifes, as the many neighborhoods, from Roppongi to Shibuya, boast their own partying personalities) and a staggering overall kindness and politesse. The locals are approachable and often approaching, just to see where you’re from or if you need anything, and also to practice their English. They are unfailingly accommodating and vigorously helpful. People don’t yell, don’t argue in public, hoot or holler. Truly, the only vocal noise to break the sound barrier I’ve experienced is laughter.  

Now, a couple days later in Kyoto, I find, unsurprisingly, the same congeniality and penchant to oblige, but in a far more compact if still bustling setting. As with Turkey, it’s the people who make the deepest impression here. I’ve been pegged a misanthrope (who me?), a bit inaccurately, but whatever. People just make me nervous. I blame my own ample timidity, baseless anxieties, feeble fears that rattle the mind and inflame the stomach. The point is I find the people here wonderful, even wondrous, comforting; cool, models of affable composure to be emulated.  

There’s lots to write about this trip — the food, the drink, the stores, the temples, the shrines, all that electric overkill — but I’m vacating, so I’ll let pictures do the blabbing.

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Sushi, sake and 7-Eleven: My top 8 eats and drinks in Japan

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In two weeks I head to Japan, one of the best food and drink cities in the world. Last time I was there, I was green, gullible and a little lost. I ate at places I stumbled on that simply looked good — I had no reservations — and bought drinks at random bars or even from beer vending machines. This time I’m prepared. My eats itinerary is tight and structured, and I’ve wisely left a few days open for discovery. Below are eight of my top food and drink destinations in Tokyo and Kyoto:

1. Tokyo boasts more Michelin Star restaurants — 230 — than any other city, making the neon-marinated metropolis the world’s number one food destination, according to France’s revered (and feared) Michelin Guide. I can’t afford a 2-star or 3-star outing — like Sushi Jiro, whose stardom skyrocketed after the worshipful documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” — nor will I subject myself to the fussy rigmarole of trying to reserve a spot at one of them, itself an Olympic event demanding backflips, secret handshakes and blood oaths. I did, however, after some patient, nimbly maneuvered reservation action, land lunch at Ginza Iwa Sushi, a 1-star Michelin destination, whose fixed-menu fee ($101) makes me blanch. One of the most popular sushi joints in Tokyo, Iwa serves a 12-course lunch and is known for its elegance, tradition and finesse. And wallet-thinning powers. 

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Ginza Iwa Sushi

2. Though I never dream about it (unlike Jiro and his sushi) and only eat it about every three years, yakitori is one of my tongue-tingling tops. It’s primarily grilled chicken skewers, but also features eel, myriad meats and grill-happy veggies. For my yakitori fix I’m going to Sumiyakisosaitoriya Hitomi in Kyoto, an unpronounceable place so popular I had to secure a reservation through my hotel concierge months ago. It’s considered the best yakitori in Kyoto. Online reviews speak of chicken transcendence.

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Yakitori at Sumiyakisosaitoriya Hitomi

3. I know, well, nothing about one of Japan’s national drinks, sake. (It’s rice wine, right?) I’m here to learn. And drink. Hence the Sake Tasting and Lecture I’ve booked at the foolishly early hour of 1:30 p.m. (on Halloween, no less). It’s set in an izakaya — a snug local bar where a variety of small dishes and snacks are served with alcoholic drinks — where pupils of the potent potable will taste eight to 10 kinds of sake under the affable tutelage of a guzzling guru named Murata. I’m actually not a big sake sipper, though I had some the other night at, what else, a sushi dinner, and it was cold, smooth, savory. Teach me, master (small bow).

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4. My last time in Tokyo I visited the legendary Tsukiji Fish Market at the crack of dawn, extremely punchy from staying up all night, mildly partying before quaffing Starbucks. I was a beet-eyed mess, weaving through the warrens of stalls and stands filled with fresh-off-the-boat fish and sea creatures, snapping zesty photos, lost in the briny commotion of frenetic commerce. Rudderless, I just wandered where my soon-soaked sneakers took me. I didn’t know where to eat some of the fresh catches, which is something you definitely do at the market, and I didn’t know where to go next. I needed a guide. That’s what I’ll have with the Tsukiji Fish Market Food and Culture Walking Tour, a 3.5-hour expedition, starting at 8:30 a.m., through the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, and one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. Sushi, sake, fried fish cake, tea and a Japanese omelette are just part of the menu. Sobriety is another part. 

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5. I’m in Japan, one of the supreme culinary capitals in the world, and what I’m craving, with impish urgency, is … an egg salad sandwich from 7-Eleven. This, I swear, is a thing. Convenience stores (or conbinis) are rampant across the country — there are at least 50,000 — with three reigning chains: 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart. Here’s where you find whack Japanese to-go cuisine, from dried squid and deep-fried quail eggs; to insta-noodles and syrup-filled pancakes; to 9% alcohol beer and ongiri (seaweed-wrapped rice stuffed with savory fillings). And, of course, the homely, homey egg salad sandwich (tamagosando). Celeb chefs Anthony Bourdain and David Chang have sworn by their tastiness and websites are devoted to them. 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart offer variations on a simple theme, using fluffy crustless white bread and the Japanese mayonnaise Kewpie. “Japanese mayo tends to be more tart than American mayo, with a mild sweetness and robust umami that gives it a bit more flavor,” writes a blogger, who conducted an egg sandwich showdown between those at the three major conbinis. (Spoiler: 7-Eleven stuffs the most egg in its sandwiches, as seen below.)

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Egg salad from FamilyMart, 7-Eleven and Lawson

6. Hailed by many cocktail connoisseurs as one of the best bars on the planet — and easily the best in Tokyo — Bar Benfiddich, in the city’s sleepless Shinjuku district (where my hotel is, conveniently), pours classics with radical twists. Show-runner Hiroyasu Kayama has been dubbed an alchemist, whose design for the bar was a “moonshine den, dark and mysterious, with dusty 19th-century bottles and jars of arcane herbal infusions.” It is intimate. How so? Try eight seats and two tables. I’m lining up. Now.

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Bar Benfiddich

7. I lust for ramen — I’m partial to mazemen, or brothless — and it had better be excellent. I like my noodles thick and savory and chewy. The best ramen in Kyoto, they say, is Kyoto Engine Ramen. No reservations, so I’m crashing the place. I only know what I’ve read in the noodle-sphere, the bulk of it stellar, exalting the omnivorous varieties and vegan options. Ordering’s a breeze: From a vending machine you purchase a ticket with your selection on it, then slip it to the server. “The space itself is groovy and modern. Cool jazz was playing. A nice touch was the cute little Shintō shrine behind the bar,” writes a guest. I wanted more about the ramen (photos show mouthwateringly complex bowls). Then I read this: “The ramen is bomb!!!” Pow.

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8. Beyond the go-to Suntory brand Bill Murray shills in “Lost in Translation,” Japan distills several top-shelf whiskies, most of which can be sipped at LiquorMuseum Pontocho in Kyoto, a seatless, stand-at-table whisky pub run by surpassingly knowledgable whisky whizzes. They serve 1,000 types of drinks at the esteemed bar. All drinks are 500 Yen (including tax), or about $4.65. And there’s no service charge. I’ll have another one, bartender-san. 

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LiquorMuseum

When Halloween gets lost in translation

Pretty much kaput, Halloween means just about nothing to me nowadays. The thrill is gone. The chill is gone. I’m not 7, dig. 

Yet something about Halloween sticks, hovering like a blanket of graveyard fog. Each year I gladly inhale the occasion’s residual festive fumes, pumped in like so much giddy-making nitrous oxide. Hey, unlike zombies, I have a pulse.

Though costumes are long — and forever — doffed and I’ve retired the habit of sneaking morsels from the communal candy bowl (It’s for the kids, dammit!), I remain devoted to this perverse, very North American celebration of the gross, grim and ghoulish. (And, yeah, I lied: the Reese’s cups are mine.) 

But I effectively don’t partake in the big-picture party, unless you count sometimes serving as the eve’s Doorbell Dork, doling out Snickers and Tootsie Pops, smiling like the village idiot on cue when a particular and rather mystifying catchphrase (starts with trick) is shrieked by decked-out kiddies (and a few shameless, straggling grown-ups who can only dream they’re getting a Kit-Kat from this finger-wagging candy dispenser).

It’s a festival of enforced flamboyance. Excess is enshrined. Generally sane people douse themselves in corn syrup blood. Sex is flaunted in racy micro-fashions: cats and maids and devils. It’s masks and makeup and Marvel; wigs, witches and wizards; Pokémon, pirates and pop stars (and, yes, Pop Tarts) — the palette is as infinite as it is infantilizing. The id comes out to romp. 

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Halloween in Sevilla, Spain, 2016 — amateur hour.

In placid suburbia, lawn dioramas have grown ambitiously disgusting. I love the sinew-chewing zombies (with staticky sound effects), life-size, yoga-posed skeletons and tombstone-cluttered cemeteries, gnarled limbs popping out of the ground. I beseech you: gross me out.

It’s a bacchanal of fantasy and horror, whimsy and steroidal imagination. It’s pop cinema — slashers to superheroes — sprung to life. And it’s uniquely, wildly American (and, I hear, Canadian). 

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Halloween, Beirut, 2008 — not cool.

I’ve done Halloween in London, Paris, Beirut, Ho Chi Minh City, Kathmandu and Sevilla. As the locals tried to summon the spirit, they invariably botched the holiday, blundering with gauche costumes (er, blackface in Beirut and Paris) and feebly attended parties — strictly amateur hour, training wheels required.

Except when they’re not. Except when the night has been co-opted with the verve and vision matching the western prototype. All eyes on … Japan. It’s said that Japan has only been practicing Halloween in earnest for five years. But amateurs? Hardly.

The Japanese were born pros, built for Halloween. Nothing is lost in translation. Dress up and cosplay are daily mainstream occurrences. Stroll anytime through Tokyo’s Harajuku district for teen fashion so high, so rococo, it passes as a perpetual street costume party.

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Harajuku teen, Tokyo, in April 2006.

Which should make this year’s Halloween something special. I land in Tokyo on October 30, giving me less than 24 hours to steel for whatever that hyper-charged city has in store in the way of a woozy wingding.  

Because there is no way I’m not wading into the most outrageous Halloween hotspots — like bustling, youthful Shibuya, where a million revelers are expected — to get the full Japanese treatment: anime and cosplay characters, J-horror ghosts and vampires, video-game avatars and the universal diet of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Power Rangers and other mega-brands. (Oddly, Where’s Waldo? seems to still be popular. I’ll look into it.) 

This is what I wanna see, Halloween with kick (I’ll return with a full, bloody report):

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Witches? Zombies? No idea but I’m thrilled. 
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Nerd, nerd, nerd, nerd and nerd. That’s five nerds. God bless them.
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Grisly Disney: zombie versions of famous cartoon characters, including Minnie Mouse and Snow White.
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A gaggle of zombie fast food (flesh food?) servers. Do you want fingers with that human hamburger?

And the best for last …

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Summer’s sweet cessation

When last I checked, the world was in tatters. But that’s a trifle for another day. Thing is, I have a wicked splinter in my finger and a bodacious pimple on my forehead that’s a little too Cyclopsian for shrugging off. Then there’s the boy dog, whose sphincter-sniffing flirtation with the girl cat might soon require rings, roses and rice. We remain calm. 

Summer subsides and the late-August slash Labor Day doldrums set in like a hard crust over the celebratory season. Things are dying down. Things are dying. I for one had no idea that Denise Nickerson, who played ravenous gum-chomper Violet Beauregarde in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” died in July at age 62. She and Gene Wilder — gone. Let’s hope Charlie doesn’t kick the bucket. 

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Speaking of blueberries — recall Violet inflates into a gigantic blueberry and must be rolled away by Oompa Loompas — that finger-staining fruit is my single breakfast comestible each day. I gobble them by the handful, a disgusting image but we’re all adults. They’re a summer fruit and so make a timely cameo in this post, which is sort of about the end of summer, the now, but we’ll see where it takes us. Already I’m rather lost.

It was a short summer, merciful, not too warm, and it moved with benign velocity. So glad it’s shuttering, as I look forward to crisp breezes, light coats, brisk walks without drenching humidity, Oscar-caliber movies, my Tokyo sojourn, obscenely short days — it’s 8 p.m. now and almost pitch-dark — and my usual litany of fall and winter joys.

At the cineplex, I dodged the onslaught of summer sequels and superheroes — brain-beating blunderbusses — for “artier” fare like Tarantino’s sophomoric garble “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” a shambolic misfire, and the cathartic Australian horror-thriller “The Nightingale,” a savage, soulful gut-punch of vengeance and violence. For early-summer froth, the delirious comic excess of “Booksmart” can’t be forgotten. Fall brings promise: Joaquin Phoenix as “Joker,” “Little Women” and Scorsese’s “The Irishman.”

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“Destroy All Monsters”

Movie mad, I always watch films from the country I’m going to visit next. So, Japan. I re-watched the 1954 version of the original “Godzilla,” which is startlingly melancholic. (The monster dies a slow, sinking death. Oh: spoiler.) In 1968’s full-color “Destroy All Monsters,” a menagerie of kaiju creatures, from Godzilla and Mothra to Gorosaurus and Rodan, unleash murderous mayhem on the world’s largest cities. Aliens are somehow involved. Silly — and spectacular. (Lest it seems I’m just watching monster movies, I’ve also re-watched Ozu’s “Floating Weeds,” Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses,” Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” and Suzuki’s “Branded to Kill” and “Tokyo Drifter.”) 

As I cut short my late-summer reading of Haruki Murakami’s timid, ultra-bland novel of youthful romance “Norwegian Wood” I picked up Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” which has more literary panache in its first 20 pages than Murakami’s snoozer has in 150.  

51pY6F589HL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgAutumn looms and I have a pair of fall novels picked out: “Doxology” by Nell Zink and “The Topeka School” by virtuosic young writer Ben Lerner, whose “10:04” and “Leaving the Atocha Station” are rhapsodic in their essayistic intelligence and gliding beauty. “10:04” is one of my favorite novels of the past 10 years. I’ve read it twice. So far. 

I admit I struggled with Zink’s acclaimed 2014 fiction debut “The Wallcreeper.” We didn’t jibe. The new book has been called her best and most ambitious, “a ragged chunk of ecstatic cerebral-satirical intellection … bliss.” I am all over that.

But first, after Morrison’s promising “Sula,” it’s back to Japan and Banana Yoshimoto’s international cult hit “Kitchen,” a bittersweet novel whose “whimsy” and “simplicity” are frequently hailed as virtues, making me wary. Those words could be code for “precious.”

Now that I’ve mentioned Japan three hundred times, it might be a good place to state why I’m really exalting summer’s end — my October-November trip to Tokyo and Kyoto. Which, lucky you, you can read more about as plans unfold.

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Tokyo

Yet so much is great about fall, not just a fleeting vacation. Autumn is coming fast — the calendar says Sept. 23, but we all know it starts on Labor Day — sucking summer back into the gooey abyss from whence it came. Japan, new books, new movies, new weather — all good and well. But fact is, fall is its own prize. It’s all fine, shimmery sublimity.

Monkey see, monkey don’t

There’s a monkey on my back.

Several, actually. And they want my money. Every time I open a website, they are there, pawing at me.

The animals are macaques, with pomegranate faces and heads hooded in fuzzy Eskimo parkas rimming wise, frowning visages of grizzled monks or mystics. They are bathing and grooming and picking at each other in hot springs at the Jigokudani Wild Snow Monkey Park in Japan. They look to be suffering chronic mites and fleas.

-20121121232817-39B6918F7B8D4ED4BEC436470B0205E1.jpgThey are world-famous monkeys; you see them in every other wildlife documentary, steam rising around their half-submerged bodies. These simian superstars are chillaxing in a simmering jacuzzi nestled amid frosty mountains. And they pick and pick.

I, for one, can’t avoid their pink, pensive faces. They want me to come visit them, terribly. Ever since I began researching hotels, food tours and day trips in Japan, the insistent monkey pop-up ad, hectoring click-bait, has infiltrated all of my most visited sites, from The New York Times to Rotten Tomatoes. I can’t get the goddam monkeys out of my sight. Fortunately, they’re cute and furry. Unfortunately, they’re expensive. 

For about five seconds it’s tempting to actually take the ad up on its offer with a simple click: $146 for eight hours of touring, including one (one!) hour at the monkey sanctuary; time at the famed Zenko-ji temple; lunch; some sake sipping; and, really, not much else. Bullet train transportation is not included (rip!).

And can you believe this: “Guests are not permitted to touch, feed or bathe with the monkeys at any time.” I guess I won’t be bringing a towel and a bar of Dial.

So the deal effectively stinks, even if you do get a brief (dry) encounter with the enchanting, lightly parboiled macaques.  

Yet more caveats abound, and they are dire. I came across an alarming blog post titled “Why Seeing the Snow Monkeys in Japan Sucked” (read it in full HERE). A grisly excerpt:

“Instead of a snow-covered paradise, I was standing in what felt like a construction site full of rubble, with piles of rocks and exposed cables forming a backdrop against the commotion. I watched in dismay as staff at the Jigokudani Monkey Park threw food at the agitated macaques until they began to screech and fight on the damp mud. This was one of the worst animal encounters I’d ever experienced.”

No monkeys for me. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Click no evil.

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Tokyo visions

So I return to Japan in late October, my first time in several years, and the anticipation is giving me fits of insomnia. The capital, Tokyo, is one of my favorite and most indelible cities, part of a troika that includes Paris and Istanbul. I was skipping through some photos from past trips — people and places inside and outside of that teeming, gleaming metropolis: pagodas and Harajuku Girls; whale meat and cherry blossoms; lakes and a big, cool silver orb that, in its own odd way, sums up the reliable surreality of Tokyo.

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(Yes, I’m afraid this is a whale feast.)

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Random reflections, part II

I wish I played chess, even so-so. At this point, I have zero interest in learning how. 

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The best book I’ve read this summer is the acrid novel “Fleishman is in Trouble” by the regrettably named Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Terrifically observant, mordant and relevant, it’s dubbed a “timely exploration of marriage, divorce, and the bewildering dynamics of ambition.” I’m too lazy to describe it. But it’s superb, and superbly smart. If you’re married, or divorced, beware. It has teeth.

It’s in the news today. Never in a million years would I want to climb Mount Everest. Or any mountain for that matter. I don’t do tents. Or canteens. Or oxygen tanks. Or death.

I booked a flight to Tokyo for late October. I’m going to eat sushi and more sushi and sip sake and Japanese whiskey and absorb on a granular level Shinjuku nightlife. I may barf.

When I was 8 I saw big white beluga whales at SeaWorld. They made me kind of sick, all bulbous and albino, their big, meaty cow tongues showing when they smiled. Many years later — last week, in fact — I saw the belugas again at SeaWorld. They still make me ill. 

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Charismatic badass and “Blade Runner” actor Rutger Hauer has just died. So, alas, has presidential impeachment. R.I.P. 

A movie my mind keeps returning to is the new documentary “Honeyland,” which is about a lone female beekeeper in the unforgiving mountains of Macedonia and her struggles with her unruly neighbors, her sick mother and the mere notion of survival. It sounds terrible. It is sublime. I could see it winning an Oscar. See trailer HERE.

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My brother and I have reservations next month at Alice Waters’ legendary Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse, where we will dine on such succulent fare as, quote, “Sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli with chanterelle mushroom and garlic brodo” and “Sonoma County duck confit with frisée, haricots verts, fig vinaigrette, garlic crouton, and sage.” I don’t know what half that means. I don’t care. I will delight, as my wallet gently weeps.

I promised I would never mention my Sea-Monkeys again. I lied. There are a half-dozen survivors, swirling through the briny tank, each one as big as Moby Dick. I hope the cats are hungry.

Too many critics and other dopes are declaring season two of the amazing Amazon Prime comedy “Fleabag” superior to season one. Wrong. Season one is fresher, funnier, wiggier, better. Season two is splendid, no doubt, and you should watch it, as it’s the best comedy on TV. I’m just saying.

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Speaking of TV hilarity, the lamest, most overrated “comedy” is “Bojack Horseman,” a Netflix show so consistently and embarrassingly unfunny, such a bizarre misfire, it just makes me tired. (If you find this show amusing, please leave a comment and explain.)

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Some years ago, my Dad took us to an incredible slew of jazz and comedy shows. A few luminaries we saw live: Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as live NBC tapings of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and, way back, “The Goldie Hawn Special” featuring then-pop idol Shaun Cassidy. The whole thing’s a head rush.

I recently bought a can of sardines. I keep looking at it, baffled and fearful.