Dying is easy, writing is hard.

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The quote about writing from “Death in Venice” novelist Mann has for decades been my favorite assessment of the craft, even, if you will, my mantra. I present it because just days ago in The New York Times an op-ed writer echoed it crisply: “If you find writing easy, you’re doing it wrong.” This is something I have staunchly believed, and still do. Writing’s a bitch.

I’ve written so long and hard that my head hurt, that I’ve become physically wobbly, a wet noodle. And compounding the physical complaints was the inexorably depressing notion that what I just spent hours extracting, exhuming, molding and crafting was irrefutable crap.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” — Ernest Hemingway

A journalist colleague once called me a bleeder, because I am so slow and painstaking a writer. I’ve spent six hours on a 700-word article, I’m ashamed to admit. That isn’t the norm, but it also isn’t uncommon. Every word — no: every syllable — counts.

My best friend as a writer is so rudimentary I shouldn’t even have to mention it, and that’s reading. Yet I know many writers who don’t get this. What reliably dumbfounds me is how little so many of them actually, actively read. Television has usurped reading as a cultural pastime, confused as literature as it is. I guarantee watching TV is not going to improve one’s prose skills (teleplay-writing skills, maybe). Too many would-be writers are aspiring illiterates. A fact.

As the greats have harrumphed :

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson

“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.” — Larry L. King

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” —  Stephen King

26stephens-web-blog4277Done correctly, writing is work, grueling toil. It’s fun (when it’s going well), but not that much fun. Still, creating and thinking are so gratifying that it’s worth it. It takes time, hours and hours. Listen to Louis Menand of The New Yorker:

“Writing, for 99-percent of people who do it, is the opposite of spontaneous. Chattiness, slanginess, in-your-face-ness, and any other features of writing that are conventionally characterized as ‘like speech’ are usually the results of laborious experimentation, revision, calibration, walks around the block, and recalibration. … Writers are not mere copyists of language; they are polishers, embellishers, perfecters. They spend hours getting the timing right so that what they write sounds completely unrehearsed.”

That’s as hard as it sounds, and, without the most gimlet-eyed editor, failure is inevitable. But we try. We do the work. We grind, grope for the felicitous simile and metaphor, strive for the perfect punctuation, the poetic stroke, the tickling aside. We do, yes, bleed. Sympathy is unfitting for such a self-involved venture. The only reward is to be read.

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There’s no pride in my Jane Austen prejudice

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I can’t do Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” I’ve tried to read it three times, and each time, at around page 20, I crinkle my nose, toss my head back, issue a fluttering sigh, then slap the book shut. Slap.

Pinched and prissy, the prose is like flossy streamers of chirp and chatter, candied and precious and irritating. I can’t comment much further since I haven’t cut a very long swath through the novel, which turned 204 this year. That’s endurance: Readers still love this book, along with other unimpeachable Austen classics, from “Persuasion” to “Emma.” She retains the mantle of literary goddess, and to cross her is blasphemy.

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I’m not buying it. Neither are a lot of other readers, individuals far more distinguished than me. Charlotte Brontë, Emerson, Woolf, Mark Twain, Stephen King and Lee Child are but a few with allergies to those charming Austen tropes of money-lust, snobby class divisions, giggling and gossip, society fetes, courting and coupling, husband-hunting and, of course, life’s gilded apotheosis, heavenly nuptials.

“The one problem in the mind of (Austen),” wrote Emerson, “is marriageableness. All that interests any character introduced is: Has he or she the money to marry with, and conditions, conforming? … Never was life so narrow … Suicide is more respectable.”

I know more than I let on about Austen’s work, via literature, criticism and film. What grates is a little of the “Downton Abbey”-syndrome inflicting her work and her world, the unctuous materialism, the superficial scope of humanity, the tea-sipping, pursed-lip superciliousness. Henry James dubbed Austen’s heroines “she-Philistines,” which will be called misogynistic, namely for an author whose work is so exhaustively feminist. (I’m torn on that one. Send comments with the subject line “Jerk.”)

I must be fair. My affection for 19th-century English literature is finite. This will reveal scandalous volumes about my taste for it: I cannot get through Dickens, despite valiant essays. I’ve cracked “A Tale of Two Cities” three times — fail. Both “Great Expectations” and “David Copperfield” parried my great expectations. His books are cluttered, fancy and fussy. Everything reads like a hyper, heightened children’s tale, which is why as a third-grader I so adored “A Christmas Carol.” (Donna Tartt’s cloying “The Goldfinch,” supposedly an adult novel, was so redolent of Dickens I had to put it down halfway through. My teeth hurt.)

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When it comes to 19th-century novels, I pledge fealty to Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and “Sentimental Education,” Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” There are others, but not many. (Apologies “Moby Dick,” of which I’ve read two-thirds. Fail!)

Speaking of Twain, I allow him, king of the caustic and our satirical sire, to encapsulate my feelings about Austen and her most celebrated novel:

“I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone!”

Oof.

But what is Twain saying? “Every time” he read “Pride and Prejudice”? He read it more than once, or did he just dip into it occasionally, glossing passages to confirm its unreadability, as I do whenever I pass it on the bookshop shelf?

I’m a humble hater. I am certain “Pride and Prejudice” spills forth with aesthetic virtues: bounding wit, robust guffaws, social acuity, perspicacious wisdom. I do believe that. But I am blind to it — blinded in those first excruciating pages by the twee, twittery and bogusly confected. Austen trafficked in realism. What an insufferable reality.

Feral photos: Travel encounters of the animal kind

A monkey yelled at me in Jaipur. Another snatched a banana from my hand in Cambodia. A gang of them exploded in all directions, thumping on cars, flying onto rooftops, screeching and scaring the holy bejesus out of me in Delhi. Monkeys: the devil’s minions.

I adore animals and I’ve met many on my journeys, mostly skinny street dogs, but also water buffalos, cows, painted elephants, a mammoth tattooed pig, Egyptian camels, those accursed simians and more skinny street dogs. Because I haven’t been to sub-Saharan Africa or deep into tropical jungles, I haven’t encountered anything wildly exotic, say, a panther or platypus. (I did meet a king cobra in Hanoi. And then I ate it. Eleven courses, including its beating heart in rice wine. I am still recovering.)

Never, ever do I visit zoos on my travels. The mere idea is a great depressant. The sad, ramshackle Shinagawa Aquarium in Tokyo helped snuff my appetite for captive-animal displays.

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Cappadocia, Turkey.

Of course I meet milling mutts wherever I go. Dogs are the best, even if they can break your heart. In Kathmandu a young punk randomly kicked a stray dog in the ribs. It let out a terrible yowl. I grabbed the kid and chewed him out and promptly befriended the dog, which seemed alright. We still email.

In Tokyo I hung out with a guy and his shambling black Lab. In Paris I played with a pooch wearing one of those medical cone-collars. I took his picture, but didn’t include it here. For now, I offer these creature features:

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The Three Muske-steers: a trio of bovines in New Delhi, India, just chilling.

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My best pal in Istanbul, a homeless hound I hung out with during two visits to Turkey. I fed him well. We talked politics.

 

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Monkey with child going ape-shit in India. Something I said?

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Kitten with pierced ear (evil-eye earring) at carpet shop, Istanbul.

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Sheep to the slaughter, awaiting the knife at a mosque in Istanbul.

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Stray mama nursing pups in Old Delhi, India.

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Water buffaloes cooling off in the filthy Ganges, Varanasi, India.

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Kids and their kid, New Delhi.

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Stray snoozing, Istanbul.

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Kinder, gentler monkey, Varanasi. 

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A little too late to befriend this guy in Vietnam.

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Festive bovine, Mumbai.

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Sad, sickly stray in Mumbai. I shattered.

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That dog, above, belongs here, Agra, India.

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A clown and his kitty, Istanbul. I need a large polo mallet.

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Bonus shot: Remains of 11-course cobra feast, Vietnam.

When traveling, putting reality on vacation

I’m starting this with a longish quote from journalist Janet Malcolm. Don’t let its length deter you. It’s quick and breezy and devilishly smart — and, for seasoned travelers, likely very apropos.

“Without knowing exactly why, I have always found travel writing a little boring, and now the reason seemed clear: travel itself is a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison with ordinary life. … (Our homes) are where the action is; they are where the riches of experience are distributed. On our travels, we stand before paintings and look at scenery, and sometimes we are moved, but rarely are we as engaged with life as we are in the course of any ordinary day in our usual surroundings. Only when faced with one of the inevitable hardships of travel do we break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.”

Despite the faint bite of the discontent, Malcolm doesn’t sound like a traveling grump to me. She crystallizes, I think, the realities of moving about, strenuously seeking the kind of transcendence concomitant with the very best travel.

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Meeting people is easy. (Tokyo)

But it’s only part of the picture, which is, of course, far richer than the one she paints. She’s right: travel is largely a “pallid affair” compared with actual daily living, which thrums with family, friends, work, pets, a house — all that fluid, unpredictable, tangible, huggable life stuff. And true, staring at paintings and cathedrals can sometimes be a static, numbing, “low-key emotional experience.”

Yet for this hardened solo traveler, it can be a challenge to keep the noise of real life on mute. Alone, I have to seek human contact, that great distraction from oneself, though mostly on my journeys I will go hours, even a day, without speaking so much as two or three words. I live largely in the bustling mental metropolis of my mind, Pop. 1. It is very noisy. Reality isn’t easily shaken.

Naturally, I see all the sights, monuments, museums, theater, ruins, vistas, cemeteries, etc. of a place. The beaten path does have detours: I’ll observe the riverside cremations of human bodies in India and Nepal or witness the ritual slaughter of sheep at a mosque in Istanbul. These extracurricular excursions pry open the head to strange wonderments and infuse a journey with reality-excusing exoticism.

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My cave hotel, Cappadocia, Turkey.

Yet it’s never so perfect. Life’s banalities and hassles don’t just vaporize once you’re negotiating the lunatic streets of Tokyo or chilling in your stunning cave hotel in Cappadocia. Workaday concerns, from money and transportation, to waiting in lines and surmounting language barriers (that’s always entertaining, even fun, I find) barge in, upending the illusion of Being Far Away.

I hate to admit to boredom while traveling, and I combat it fiercely. I get restless and disappointed when I linger for more than 20 minutes in a cafe reading the paper or simply decompressing. I like to move, sustain a momentum. But then you risk rushing and, the upshot of that, running out of things to see and do. You max out the city, at least for a time. Even when this happens I invariably rally, recharge, suck in a second wind and begin to discover all over again.

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Cool guys I met in the Grand Bazaar in Aleppo, Syria, before the war.

I’ve blogged that taking photos of locals profoundly enriches the cultural experience. You meet people that way. Or vice-versa. I have met dozens of terrific humans around the world by pure serendipity — at a bar or bazaar, in a museum or on a train. Meeting people is easy.

But some effort is required. In India, during Diwali, the Festival of Lights, I bought a wad of fireworks for a gaggle of kids who were gathered in front of a convenience store. They lit them off and had a ball. So did I.

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Kids, fireworks, India.

It was one of those transporting, non-static moments of travel that happens when you crawl out of your head, search, stretch and explore, and, as Malcolm says, “break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.”

But in this case the real is peerlessly human and rapturous, the very definition of surpassing lackluster reality for something almost impossible to attain in everyday life — the transcendent.

After 40 years, the great debate rocks on: KISS, or kiss-off?

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In the stinky-rotten TV movie “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park,” a mad scientist — lab coat, underground lair, sinister cackle, the works — sets out to destroy the world using the rock band Kiss as his unwitting agents.

That’s odd. I thought Kiss was doing a fairly good job of that all by themselves. Apparently the scientist hasn’t heard Gene Simmons’ solo album or seen Ace Frehley without makeup.

Kiss rules. Kiss reeks. You’re either on this side or that side. Being on the fence means you’ve checked out. It means you listen to Enya.

After 44 years festooned in grease paint, chains, platform boots and yards of what might very well be aluminum foil, Kiss remains a great pop-culture polarizer, an easy critical bull’s-eye and delicious guilty pleasure, the worst rock band ever and the greatest rock band ever. The Michael Bay and P.T. Barnum of rock ‘n’ roll showmanship — kabloom, suckers — Kiss is just a typo for kitsch. Kiss-up. Kiss-off.

A pair of shows spans this good/bad divide that Kiss has gleefully carved. The good is “Gene Simmons’ Rock School,” a droll and gimmicky reality show that aired in 2005 on VH1. The bad (wretched, ghastly, kill me) is “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.” The professional hecklers of the comedic Sinus Show present the movie in Austin, Texas, lambasting it until it cries. Expect nothing less than a massacre.

“Gene Simmons’ Rock School” is more proof Kiss will not die. Simmons — Kiss bassist, blood-spitter, boffo music mogul — crashes a classical music class of 13-year-olds at an English boarding school. Blustering and snarling with practiced disdain, a makeup-free Simmons arrives to tutor the rather stuffy kids in the ways of heavy-metal stardom. “To create little rock gods,” he says.

Simmons roars, folds his arms and appraises the children through affixed sunglasses. His scowly grimace suggests he has taken a whiff of the famous codpiece he dons on stage. “I wear more makeup and higher heels than your mommy does,” he taunts the crisply composed class.

The pupils at first recoil. “I think he’s really scary, because he’s really in your face and stuff,” says a girl. (Some of the children’s accents are so thick that subtitles appear.) Declares another: “I don’t like him at all.”

But of course they soon will. As in the Jack Black comedy “School of Rock” and the documentary “Rock School,” the show is about coming together for a collective purpose — in this case to open for Mötorhead — while learning how to cut loose and be yourself. Simmons even lets the kids in on a little secret: You can be a lousy musician and still rock hard and get preposterously rich.

He should know. Except for lead guitarist Frehley, a bona fide whiz, Kiss are flaccid musicians, lazy tunesmiths and appalling lyricists. Some Kiss poetry: “If you wanna be a singer, or play guitar/ Man, you gotta sweat or you won’t get far.” Sounds like a pop quiz out of Gene’s “Rock School.”

With “Kiss Meets the Phantom,” Kiss nearly courted the Kiss of death. Premiering on NBC in October 1978, the band’s first and last movie casts its members — Simmons, Frehley, Paul Stanley and Peter Criss — as rock stars with murky supernatural powers. The bandmates are sort of like superheroes, but the movie is so badly conceived you can’t tell what they’re supposed to be. You have to be acquainted with the special edition Marvel comic books that star Kiss to make any sense of it.

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In the comics and the movie, bandmates are literal incarnations of their stage personas, going by the snickerable names Star Child (Stanley, who has a star over one eye), Demon (Simmons: lizard tongue, bat wings), Cat Man (Criss: painted whiskers) and Space Ace (Frehley: more silver sequins than a Bette Midler show).

The evil scientist (Anthony Zerbe, who was in “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Matrix Reloaded” and probably wishes this article would go away) kidnaps Kiss, builds robot replicas of the band and sends the imposters on stage to change the chorus of the Kiss song “Hotter Than Hell” to “Rip, rip/Rip and destroy,” which is supposed to incite fans to riot and ruin everything. That could be the lamest scheme ever in the annals of mad scientists.

So disastrous is “Kiss Meets the Phantom” that even the bandmates, who are not known to criticize their splendiferous empire, disowned the movie. Fans reconsidered their allegiance. Critics drove in on bulldozers. And a camp masterwork was born.

When the movie aired, Kiss was at the peak of their popularity, knocking out hit records like “Destroyer,” “Love Gun” and “Alive II” and peddling mountains of Kiss paraphernalia, from trading cards and dolls to belt buckles and bed sheets. (Today you can even get yourself the $5,000-plus Kiss Kasket. Right. A coffin.)

 

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I’ll take the KISS urn instead.

The band has always targeted young boys, exploiting their fascination with science fiction and horror movies, comic books and fire. Forget childhood sports. Some of us were mesmerized by books and movies, the wide-open realm of the imagination, which happily accommodated the dual fantasy force of Kiss and “Star Wars.” It’s a few paces from a fire-breathing Demon to a growling Wookiee.

In 1978, my best friend brought “Kiss Alive II” to a sleepover. I knew Kiss only from “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special,” an utterly weird exhibition that aired on ABC in 1976. I liked their kabuki makeup, spandex meets armor costumes and the clouds of smoke. But the loud music and exciting photos of “Alive II” — “Calling Dr. Love,” Simmons drenched in stage blood — hooked me. I dressed up as Simmons and Stanley, collected the trading cards, smothered my walls with Kiss posters, bought every issue of 16 Magazine featuring Kiss gossip, owned the dolls and ordered all of the group’s vinyl albums from the Columbia House Record Club. I was 9.

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“KISS Alive II” centerfold.

And then came “Kiss Meets the Phantom.” This was huge. My excitement was uncontained. Finally, my friends and I would see our favorite band in the whole world actually move and speak. We were too young for Kiss concerts, and this was way before MTV, so bad TV had to do.

Produced by kiddie-show kings Hanna-Barbera, the movie plays like a discarded “Scooby-Doo” episode. Robot werewolves kung fu fight the Kiss guys, who strike back with animated laser beams that shoot from Stanley’s eye and cartoon fire that buzzes from Simmons’ mouth. Stuntmen who look nothing like Kiss stand in for the band during the “action” sequences. There is mild genius behind this kind of ineptitude.

While the movie was a ratings hit for NBC, it was a calamity for Kiss. The group’s “street credibility, which had taken four years of nonstop work to develop, was undone frame by frame in just under 100 minutes,” writes Kiss connoisseur Ron Albanese.

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This budding Kiss freak didn’t care. Still, I think I knew the movie had failed us, that it was merely grotesque advertisements for the group and Magic Mountain, the California amusement park where it was filmed.

Today, the music of Kiss is hardly more than a cheap nostalgia trip for an older, wiser me. It sounds tinny and slapped together. And the band has changed. Frehley and Criss have been booted from Kiss (again), while Simmons’ voracious greed metastasizes unchecked. (His latest reality show, “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” is nothing if not a showcase for his slavering cupidity.)

Yet something appealing remains. With an atavistic charge, Kiss blew me away live in 2000 and 2009. Kiss photos and concert footage pump my blood. My brain can’t shake ancient Kiss trivia. I still have my Kiss dolls.

Straddling the great Kiss chasm, I fend off mockery with the shield of original-fan pride. My arrogance wears a wink, my devotion is full of holes. I am not torn, but at peace with the contradictions. And if you ask me if Kiss rules or reeks, the answer is easy: both.

Snapshot: Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia

One of the most tremendous places I’ve been is Istanbul — I’ve said it before — and one of the most divine places I’ve been in Istanbul is the grand Byzantine cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum, the Hagia Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom. Defining it is a bit complicated. Built in the 6th century, in what was then Constantinople, by Byzantine emperor Justinian I, it was turned into a mosque after the Turkish conquest in the 1400s, minarets and all. Its knotty history is tidily shrink-wrapped here.

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The park dividing Hagia Sophia, background, and the Blue Mosque.

All of these photos I took about eight years ago, my last of three trips to the European-Asian metropolis. Expect new photos when I return. (Soon.)

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Islamic panels added to the cathedral when Muslims overtook and designated it a mosque.

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Christian mosaics discovered long after the Muslim conquest. Muslims covered them up, but did not destroy them.

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Each day after visiting Sophia, I’d make the infinitesimal stroll over to the Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet Camii, pop my shoes off and watch the devoted pray while ogling the at once ravishingly ornate, calligraphically tasteful 17th-century architecture. A preview:

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Coruscating culture quotations of the day

These are a few quotes about the arts that I’ve carried around for a while. I believe they’re intellectual gold:

On art:

“Art, love and God — they’re dumb words, and probably the dumbest is art. I don’t know what it is, art. But I believe in it, so far.” — Damien Hirst

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 “The last hope is that art may transmute the disappointments of life into something more radiant and stable; the lasting bitterness is that although art may guide ‘what pangs there be/Into a bearable choreography,’ it does not repair the original life-rift.” — Helen Vendler, with excerpts from poet James Merrill

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On theater and art:

“The new generation of theatergoers are suburban know-nothings dumbed down to the point of expecting art to be some kind of inclusive, fraudulently life-affirming group-grope, instead of what it is: arrogant, autocratic, and potentially monstrous!” — David Hirson, “Wrong Mountain”

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On acting:

“If you intend to follow the truth you feel in yourself — to follow your common sense, and force your will to serve you in the quest for discipline and simplicity — you will subject  yourself to profound despair, loneliness, and constant self-doubt. And if you persevere, the Theatre, which you are learning to serve, will grace you, now and again, with the greatest exhilaration it is possible to know.” — David Mamet

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On writing:

“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.” — Hart Crane

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“What writers hear when they are trying to write is something more like singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that voice down on paper is a depressing experience. When you write, you’re trying to transpose what you’re thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music.” — Louis Menand

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“More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.” — Katie Roiphe

Woody Allen’s prophetic ‘antifa’ stance

Today’s New York Times looks into the new movement called “antifa,” a “controversial force on the left.”

Antifa, the paper explains, is “a contraction of the word ‘anti-fascist'” and “describes the loose affiliation of radical activists who have … openly scuffled with white supremacists, right-wing extremists and, in some cases, ordinary supporters of President Trump.”

neo-nazis_1387321i“You need violence in order to protect nonviolence. … It’s full-on war, basically,” antifa activist Emily Rose Nauert told the Times.

In a life imitates art moment, this brings to mind a startlingly prescient scene from Woody Allen’s masterpiece “Manhattan,” from 1979:

Issac (played by Allen): Has anybody read that Nazis are going to march in New Jersey, you know? I read this in the newspaper. We should go down there, get some guys together, you know, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to them.

Man: There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed page of the Times. It is devastating.

Isaac: Well, well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point.

Woman: Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical force.

Isaac: No, physical force is always better with Nazis. Because it’s hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.

Watch the scene here.

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Freaking out, sometimes, about circus freaks

When I was eight, sleeping at my grandparents’ house, I had a sheet-crumpling nightmare. A hairy woman made me cry.

Hearing my distress, my grandpa stumbled into the darkened bedroom. I pointed at the closet door. There. She’s in there, I whimpered. Grandpa had his hands full. Christ, I’m sure he thought. Right, the ugliest woman in the world is in that musty little closet. I was inconsolable, until sleep enveloped me. Miffed, grandpa went back to bed. My persistent visions of sideshow freaks had receded. For now.

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Lionel the Lion-Faced Man.

Ever since I received on my eighth birthday the book “Very Special People” — a gift I expressly asked for — I think about circus freaks and human anomalies with worrisome frequency. I’m mildly obsessed with Joseph Merrick, aka The Elephant Man, and I still wonder about Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy and Lionel the Lion-Faced Man and how much they saved on razors.

But I also reflect on Julia Pastrana, a 4½-foot-tall Mexican woman who was carpeted in black, bristly hair, a victim of hypertrichosis terminalis, and cursed with an abnormally huge jaw, lips and ears. She also sang like an angel. A sideshow super-celebrity in the 1800s, her stage names varied from the Ape Woman to the Nondescript. She was mostly billed as “The Ugliest Woman in the World.”

Her life was a disaster.

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Julia Pastrana

She married her conniving manager. They had a child. The baby was covered in thick black fur. Julia died of a broken heart days later.

The husband-manager saw his meal ticket full. So he made a business decision. He had both Julia and the baby mummified and exhibited their bodies around the world in one of the most grotesque and morally reprehensible exploitations in the annals of showbiz. Eventually he died. More than a few people were pleased.

Julia’s story doesn’t end there. Her body was eventually stored at the University of Oslo, Norway, before, after protracted bureaucratic folderol, she was finally laid to rest in Mexico in 2013 — 153 years after her death.

BuzzFeed has an excellent report about Pastrana’s bizarre history. Or you can pick up the slim 2005 book “Julia Pastrana: The Tragic Story of the Victorian Ape Woman”, an intriguing précis of her life and an exploration of the bonkers culture of old-time freak shows. Coming in October is “The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home,” which describes the painstaking return of Pastrana’s body to her native Mexico.

The freak shows of yore groan with heartache, abuse, loneliness, rank exploitation and the flagrant theft of human dignity. Joseph Merrick’s years in Victorian sideshows as the “terrible” Elephant Man are well-documented, filled with physical and verbal abuse and life-threatening illness, not to mention the wholesale degradation of body and spirit.

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Chang & Eng, apparently good in bed.

Yet many of these “freaks of nature” were extravagantly compensated, sometimes making $1,000 a week or more — a royal wage for the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They married, had children. Chang and Eng, known as the original Siamese twins, joined at the sternum, had 21 children between them and lived in middle-class prosperity. (They even, reportedly, owned slaves.)

America’s most famous bearded lady, Annie Jones, enjoyed a superstar’s life in the late 1800s, hirsute and happy on the high life — a furry Myrna Loy. She worked for showman P.T. Barnum as a top-billed circus attraction, and had the good sense to lobby to have the term “freaks” banished from the shows. She married twice, divorcing her first hubbie to marry her childhood sweetheart. Jones blossomed early: She had a mustache and sideburns at age five, putting many a latter-day hipster to tearful shame. So famous was she that photographer Matthew Brady, the Richard Avedon of his time, had her pose for him.

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Annie Jones, living high.

Tennessee-born Myrtle Corbin was tagged “The Four-Legged Woman,” the reason manifest in the photo below. “However that moniker was slightly misleading,” according to bodacious site The Human Marvels. “While at a glance one could plainly see four legs dangling beyond the hem of her dress, only one pair actually belonged to her. The other set belonged to her dipygus twin sister.

“The tiny body of her twin was only fully developed from the waist down and even then it was malformed — tiny and possessing only three toes on each foot. Myrtle was able to control the limbs of her sister but was unable to use them for walking.”

(I just totally shuddered.)

Myrtle appeared under the banners of P.T. Barnum, Ringling Brothers and at Coney Island, hauling in $450 a week in the late 19th century. She married at 19, and “it was then that other aspects of her bizarre anatomy became evident,” says Human Marvels.

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Myrtle Corbin

“It seems that her twin sister was also fully sexually formed — thus Myrtle possessed two vaginas. She had four daughters and a son and it has been rumored that three of her children were born from one set of organs and two from the other.”

(Long shudder.)

So maybe I shudder and shake my head sometimes when I reflect on my very special people. Their unimaginable lives, their fantastic plights, can overwhelm a sensitive soul. Childish nightmares aren’t implausible, haunted dreams quite likely.

But I don’t have those nightmares anymore. I no longer believe some long-dead sideshow oddity is lurking in my closet. They lurk instead in the mind, crowding it with wonder, curiosity, not a little pity, and a soupçon of sadness. Nightmares or not, I can’t shake them, and I don’t think I want to.

 

Unsung culture: a reclamation

The headline above says “a reclamation,” by which I mean a reclaiming of bits of culture that have been acknowledged or acclaimed yet buried beneath indifference, ignorance or more accessible cultural detritus.

unsung |ˌənˈsəNG|not celebrated or praised; unacknowledged.

From food to film, I’m highlighting the forgotten, the forsaken and the downright dissed, retaining due respect to exceptional cultural finds.

These are the unsung. Some of them are the merely undersung — things that either had their day in the sun and were left for dead, or never got the plaudits they deserved.

Any culture buff worth his “House of Thrones” or “Game of Cards” knows where the good stuff is. So accept this as Quality Unsung Stuff 101, a nudge, some tips, a torch alighting on the unjustly obscure.

Film

Quick: Have you seen “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), “At Close Range” (1986), “Naked” (1993), “The Dead Zone” (1983) or “Tangerine” (2015) ? If not, then you have some serious, very pleasurable, movie viewing in store.

But I’m not here to discuss those under-sung films, which are largely known and well-regarded. From a sea of ignored or lost titles, I’ve tapped three under-appreciated, fairly unseen movies, the minimalist masterworks “Locke” (2014), “Chop Shop” (2007) and “Wendy and Lucy” (2009).

 * “Locke” — A desperate everyman (the brilliantly intense Tom Hardy) is in the driver’s seat, literally, for the movie’s entire 85 minutes. Yes, he’s driving the whole time. The camera never leaves him as he negotiates by smart phone the personal tumults on the winding highway of life. It sounds grueling, squirmily static. It’s not. It’s gripping, utterly.

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* “Chop Shop” — A small-scale drama about an orphan boy in Queens who works for an auto chop shop and how he deals with suspicions that his teenage sister is dabbling in prostitution. The writer-director, minimalist maestro Ramin Bahrani, is, like the neo-realists before him, a steadfast humanist, and this fascinating slice of grubby life brims with heart — and heartache.

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* “Wendy and Lucy” —  A girl and her dog. There you have it in Kelly Reichardt’s grim but soulful tale of a homeless woman (Michelle Williams) and her faithful hound Lucy as they get by as best they can. Lucy gets lost. Drama unfurls. It’s sad, funny, and inexorably stirring. The dog, a natural, is something special. (See my full review here.)

Wendy-and-Lucy

***

Pop Music

Alt-rock’s embarrassment of riches in the ‘90s — Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Breeders, Soundgarden, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Beck — birthed its share of one-hit/no-hit wonders, from Spin Doctors to Blind Melon.

Somewhere in between it all was Jellyfish, a Bay Area power-pop band that tossed the harmonic velcro hooks of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Queen, ELO, Supertramp, Cheap Trick and even, gulp, the Partridge Family into a bottle, shook it up and let it fizz all over the place. It was poppy, heady psychedelic bliss, both dreamy and driving. It sounded like Skittles.

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Jellyfish

On only two albums, “Bellybutton” and “Spilt Milk,” the woolly quartet confected soaring, careening, crashing four-part harmonies over surgical melodies and thwumping beats. The songs were so catchy and joyous that each one sounded like a hit from a bygone time. Band members looked like a Haight Street circus and their shows, like their music, were carnivalesque.

“Is Jellyfish the great lost band of the 90s?” a music site recently wondered. Decidedly, yes. The band was soon elbowed out by the grunge assault, eclipsed by angst, drugs and scratchy flannel — and some of the best music of the past 25 years.

An obvious Jellyfish forebear, Supertramp is hardly an unsung pop group. It sold millions of its 1979 album “Breakfast in America,” a masterpiece of jangly, sophisticated, hyper-harmonic rock that spawned four chart-topping hits like “The Logical Song” and “Take the Long Way Home.”

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Supertramp’s 1979 smash “Breakfast in America,” which seems all but forgotten.

But where’s that record now? FM radio and the general public seem to have forgotten it, paying excessive deference to the Billy Joels and Led Zeppelins. If not unsung, “Breakfast in America” is an example of the under-sung, a victim of cultural amnesia. Stream it sometime. The pop perfection you’ll hear is kind of overwhelming.

***

Food

For food tourists and inveterate foodies, it’s by now hackneyed to actively consult career food adventurer Anthony Bourdain on where to go and what to eat when you get there. But that’s just what I did before a recent London trip. Watching one of his shows in which he prowls London for the tastiest, highest quality dishes, I took notes and underlined what he called his favorite plate — his “death row” meal — the Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad at St. John in the East End.

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My bone marrow feast, London.

Though you can find it on many fine-dining menus — it was rather trendy a few years ago — bone marrow remains an unsung specialty that repels the squeamish and excites daredevil palates. At St. John the bone segments were hot, the oily, meaty marrow even hotter. There’s a special way to eat marrow, and the server carefully tells you how. With a thin scooper, you scrape out the marrow and, like brown-pink butter, spread it on crusty bread, top with chunky salt granules and parsley sprigs. Excavating the marrow isn’t always easy. Eating the delicious protein is.

Japanese ramen, that soupy, slurpy noodle bowl, is a longtime favorite, but lately I’ve been almost exclusively forgoing the broth, opting for liquid-free ramen called mazeman, which still, despite growing popularity, hovers in the sphere of the unsung yummy. I rarely see people ordering it at my go-to ramen spot, safely sticking to the traditional hot soup.

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Without broth, ramen is like a bowl of zesty, hearty pasta, thick, seasoned noodles topped by a medley of meats, veggies and a shiny soft-boiled egg. You mix it all up and an umami tsunami emerges, dangling between chopsticks.

The dish is lionized in season two of the fine Netflix comedy “Master of None,” when Dev (Aziz Ansari) has it for the first time. After his second bite, he exclaims, “You know what? Fuck broth!” I must concur.

***

Books

“Stoner” is a stunner. John Williams’ 1965 novel, tracing the wearied footsteps of professor William Stoner, was reissued in 2006, and, despite a surge of attention, remains, alas, relegated below the unsung heading.

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A shame, because the writing is surpassingly exquisite, the characters and place crackling with verisimilitude, the emotional dividends reverberant. Though Stoner is quite the sad sack, locked in an unsatisfying job, fissured marriage and the shackles of a deep existential malaise, the book is too splendid to be depressing.

Also unsung: Nicholson Baker’s ridiculously cerebral satire of the everyday “The Mezzanine” — something of a cult item — and Richard Yates’ devastating marital drama “Revolutionary Road, which, despite being a Leonardo DiCaprio film, seems woefully overlooked as literature.

And, as I’ve mentioned a few times here, seek out Eve Babitz, especially her zesty ’70s novels, freshly reissued, “Eve’s Hollywood” and “Sex and Rage.”

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Cities

It seems only elite travel scribes and savvy globe-trekkers talk much about the resplendence of Istanbul, one of my very top cities, a paradisiacal world of ancient mosques and prayer-swirling minarets, exotic eats, riotous bazaars, deep-dyed tradition, and some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.

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My Istanbul, 2008.

Straddling the best of Europe and Asia, Istanbul’s distinctly Middle Eastern tang and cobblestoney Old Europe patina is singular. It has seas and waterways and tall hills cluttered with colorful buildings, both old and breathtakingly modern. The whole city braids the new and the historic, and the result is the exhilarating essence of truly transporting travel.

If you can blot out the hypothetical perils and hypocritical politics, Jerusalem is a delirious fount of history and culture. Nudge aside the vexing fanaticism infesting the Old City — actually, spectacles of devotion, like a Christian pilgrim hauling a giant cross down the Via Dolorosa, are pretty enthralling — and suddenly you’re in a Disneyland of the devoted.

The Western Wall, Temple Mount, Mount of Olives, East Jerusalem — it’s all utmost fascination, even for this unbudging agnostic. Short bus rides away are Masada, the Dead Sea and Bethlehem. The volume of history, religion and culture is gobsmacking. I’m going back.

For unhinged nightlife, try suave, seaside Beirut, where taxis cram narrow, bar-riddled streets and well-attired revelers roar and carouse. During the seven nights I was there, I hit both bustling, elbow-jostling bars and cozy cafes. The partiers were friendly, the drinks strong and the troubled city’s old sobriquet, “Paris of the Middle East,” seemed fitting again.

***

TV

Many of you will think I’m nuts for this one, but I really do believe Chris Elliot’s wacko ’90s sitcom “Get a Life” was underrated, unloved, misunderstood and, of course, completely unsung. I also believe it was a giddy Dadaist exhibition of minor genius. All right — full-on genius.

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Elliot — balding, tubby, irretrievably nerdy and awkward (and weird as hell) — played Chris Peterson, a 30-year-old paperboy who lived above his parents’ house. He had a best friend, went on the occasional, entirely improbable date, took his first driver’s test, built a submarine in his bathtub and nurtured a mordant enmity with his best friend’s wife founded on hilarious fusillades of sarcasm.

The show, which didn’t last long on Fox (surprise!), operated on an alien wavelength that either annoyed or enraged viewers who didn’t get it. There was a pinch of the Marx Brothers’ anarchic DNA in the show’s ambient absurdism. But mostly it was Elliot’s screwily non-sequitur sense of humor that shaped “Get a Life.” Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” etc.) was a contributing writer on the program, if that helps explain things.

mv5bzwjhogfizwmtyty5ni00ngu1lwe5owitnza5nthknwuwyzc4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynta4nzy1mzy-_v1_uy268_cr30182268_al_.jpgThis one’s a no-brainer: “Freaks and Geeks” had Judd Apatow producing and starred Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini and Martin Starr. The whip-smart dramedy about outlier high school cliques, the stoners and the nerds, captured school days more incisively, humorously and humanly than any work of art since “Dazed and Confused.”

And because it was so good, it was naturally cancelled after 12 episodes, in 2000, only to mushroom into a cherished cult darling that reliably makes magazines’ “best TV shows ever” lists. Unsung? This one’s pretty sung.