The welcome problem of where to go next

Wanderlust is a malady, chronic and unquenchable. It’s a greedy thing. It wants, desires. It pulses with passion. A lust to wander — exactly as advertised. Lust isn’t a neutral word. It implies the untamable, the uncontainable. It’s hot to the touch.

I’m forever locked in wanderlust’s fevered clutches, craning my neck in search of the next journey somewhere far away. I need to move. I demand experience. I devour culture. I like airplanes.

This year found me bounding near — D.C., Philadelphia, Boston — and swanning far — London, Montreal, St. Petersburg, Russia. Last year was Spain, for the second time; the year before, Paris, for the fifth time. If all that hadn’t broke the bank, I’d now be giddily racking my brain and scanning maps to locate my next adventure.

Let’s do it anyway. Where next?

Obvious contenders are places I haven’t been, from Central and South America to Kenya and Iceland; from Indonesia and Ireland to Singapore and Stockholm.

But I’m picky. I won’t name names, but some places just don’t seem culturally rich enough, or they’re too mojito-on-the-beach boring, or they’re totally repellent in an I-don’t-want-to-be-beheaded way. Too hot. Too cold. Too aesthetically barren. Let’s not forget places with unconscionable alcohol bans.

Though I enjoyed insanely sweaty jaunts in Thailand, India, Egypt and Vietnam (the latter was best), I mostly spurn hot, tropical climes. I don’t do palm trees. Sand: the great deal-breaker. No matter where I go, early spring and early fall are my optimal travel times.

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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I go for cities, jostling, clamorous metropolises, be it Shanghai or Barcelona, Berlin or Mumbai, Tokyo or Hong Kong, Istanbul or Marrakesh. That to me is where the action is, not enveloped in frothing seawater on a Boogie Board or panting across sinuous mountain hiking trails.

Before choosing Russia for my recent fall trip, I looked hard at South Africa, but decided it was both too expensive and too outdoorsy. There is fairly cosmopolitan Cape Town, known mostly for its seaside “scenery” — cliffs and water and the like. Victoria Falls and overpriced safaris could not seal the deal. I’m not mad about seeing hyenas in their natural habitat, when all is said and done. (Why do tourist safaris seem so canned, so kind of phony?)

Some time ago I came close to buying tickets to Argentina — zesty Buenos Aires! Wine! Steaks! — and Brazil, until I peered closer at the year-round temperatures and the Brazilian proclivity for volleyball and Speedos. Only Rio’s storied favela piqued my interest in the end, so I swiftly looked elsewhere for the next journey.

I picked Istanbul for its European patina and Ottoman exoticism, and, once there, was instantly won over by its luminous culture, wonderful people, Old World beauty, dazzling mosques and cobblestone-y charms. A weekend trip to the fairy-tale cave village of Cappadocia topped a perfect two-week vacation. I have since returned to Istanbul, and will surely go back.

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Blue Mosque, Istanbul

But not now. I’m looking for the new, the untouched, the virgin vacation. Japan oddly beckons, but I’ve been there twice, though I’d like to dedicate more time to Kyoto; I think I rushed it. Swaths of Northern Europe — Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark — fail to excite. I’ve come close to trying Hungary, mostly for the Gothic visions of Budapest, but there doesn’t seem to be enough cultural ballast to sustain a full trip. Prague is near Hungary, but I’ve done that and wasn’t bowled over. A bit too touristy, a bit too lightweight.

I’ve been to Poland, Mexico, China, Austria, Nepal, Cambodia, Beirut and Israel. But I’ve never been to Australia, and I don’t yen to go, for many of the reasons noted above. (“Sun and fun” as an ideal does not compute.) Toronto looks lackluster. Indonesia seems too balmy, if unspeakably gorgeous.

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Angkor Wat, Cambodia

This is a crazily superficial, obscenely first-world conundrum to be stuck in. I’ll pry myself loose when the time comes, when I’m ready for the next big trip (Chicago? Taiwan? South Korea?). Meanwhile, I gaze at my suitcase with longing, hoping to fill it soon, even if I have nowhere to go. Wrote Stephen Sondheim: “Stop worrying where you’re going … If you can know where you’re going/You’ve gone.” 

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Animals pulling heartstrings

If seeing animals in distress upsets and ruffles you, you may want to skip the new documentary about primatologist and famed chimpanzee doyenne Jane Goodall, simply titled “Jane” (in theaters). While most of this fascinating film is a frank, intimate portrait of Goodall and an enthralling overview of her groundbreaking studies with the wild chimps of Tanzania’s Gombe, there’s enough heartache to plunge you into an unrelenting funk. A sickening wave of sadness rushes over me whenever I think back on it.

(Spoilers follow.)

Maybe it’s me, but watching an old chimp we’ve come to know and adore contract polio, becoming so crippled that he has to drag himself across the ground, no longer able to climb or feed himself, and so ill that his human observers at last shoot him, is unbearable.

There’s the momma chimp that falls sick and dies slowly under the crestfallen eyes of her grown but dependent son, rendering him an inconsolable heap that stops eating and dies two weeks later. If you’re not shattered by now don’t miss the full-blown chimpanzee war between rival groups that leaves the jungle floor strewn with furry corpses. (And then there’s the obligatory scene of a poor lone zebra getting taken down and torn apart by a pride of lions.)

It’s powerful material that makes for a powerful film, one that I fully recommend despite that fact that I carried my heart in various pockets on the way out.

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I’m a softie. Animals make me sad even in the best of circumstances. I worry about them. I wonder if they are comfortable and happy. From the wildest fauna to the most domesticated mongrel, I ponder if creatures get nuzzles and belly rubs, eat tasty and plentiful food, play and frolic, read good books and dance occasionally.

Street Dogs in IndiaStreet mutts, of course, rip me asunder. I’ve seen them all over the world and so many are suffering in some capacity, be it malnourishment or crippling traffic injuries. Almost masochistically I’ve volunteered at animal shelters. Next to the glee of successful adoptions are haunting images of broken, damaged, hopeless animals confined to veal-sized pens. And service dogs for the blind and handicapped — let’s not start. That’s a double-whammy, when I feel terrible for both animal and human.

I enjoy seeing healthy dogs with healthy owners on walks, out and about. But weirdly that wasn’t the case on my recent trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. Bounding dogs on leashes ambled the city sidewalks and parks. Happy and hale, they were the picture of doggie luminosity. Yet at some point I hoped I wouldn’t see any more dogs on my trip. They were bringing me down, making me blue. I unaccountably felt bad for them, even though they were clearly fine.

This is pathos at its worst. It’s feeling so much that the emotion becomes misplaced. I recommend a strong prescription medication.

Goodall’s puckish chimps buckle me, but it’s a contained anguish. Animals, from the suburbs to the Serengeti, will always disquiet me, reasonably or not. Yet of course they also furnish joy and wonder, comfort and companionship, which can’t be underplayed. Like people, they are prickly conundrums, fascinating if so terribly fragile.

Bury me in the ball

What to do with your body after you die?

For me, it’s easy. I’ve instructed loved ones to cremate me, then put my ashes in a pickle jar, drive down the interstate doing 70 and dump the powder out the window — although the car behind, wiper blades slashing furiously, likely won’t be overjoyed by the Mount St. Helens-esque storm.

It’s simple, it’s cheeky, and it’s entirely illegal. For someone bent on cremation — I’m not getting leeched of my precious fluids, then pumped with toxic chemicals and put out to rot in an obscenely overpriced box for eternity — there must be another way. And of course there is.

I think about this stuff with unseemly frequency. For as long as I can remember, the specter of death has had its talons lanced into my gelatinous psyche. I read about it, I watch movies about it, I dream about it, I visit cemeteries all over the world to get close to it.

I mull mortality, yours and mine, every single day. I’m a realist, but it’s a quivering kind of reality. As mortician-author Caitlin Doughty writes, since childhood “sheer terror and morbid curiosity have been fighting for supremacy in my mind.” It’s a bifurcated fascination, marbled and complex.

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Cremation is flat-out horrifying, but for me it’s the only option, none of which are especially appetizing. But then what? Ashes and bone kibble stored in a handsome urn and set on the mantel like an ornate candy jar? Cremains scattered over the San Francisco Bay or some other picturesque point of personal poignancy?

No, I got it. Bury me in a ball.

What’s that? It’s this: the wonderful underwater reef ball, an eco-friendly, reef-building sphere of cement in which your ashes are placed and then sunk to the bottom of the sea. First you’re cremated. Then your ashes are stirred with concrete and shaped into a hollow, hole-pocked reef ball, which can be up to six feet wide and five feet tall. Resting on the seafloor, its goal is to provide a teeming marine habitat for fish, coral and more.

image.jpgSeveral companies do reef burials, but Eternal Reefs of Florida specializes in more personal balls. Three sizes of reef balls run from about — hang on — $4,000 to $7,500, according to AtlasObscura.com, which goes on:

“The larger reef balls can accommodate multiple sets of remains, so that families can be ‘buried’ together, turning the ball into a sort of underwater mausoleum. Surviving friends and family can leave handprints, markings, and messages in the wet cement.”

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The reefs are fashioned from “environmentally-safe cast concrete” and are “placed in the permitted ocean location selected by the individual, friend or family member,” says the Eternal Reefs site.

I grew up on the Pacific Coast, from Santa Barbara to the SF Bay Area, and I’ve always loved SeaWorld and I’m a big fan of grilled octopus. The reef ball sounds like a ball, smack in my bailiwick for the eternal snooze. I’m intrigued by its eco possibilities, that it can nurture fishies and coral and plants and sea anemones and, if lucky, some impish sea otters. In the picture above, it’s not the prettiest grave on the lot, cankered and barnacled with squiggly mysteries of the sea, despite the dazzling Van Gogh hues. (Kind of looks like a six-month-old jack-o’-lantern.)

We should figure this out before it’s too late, while we’re still here, cognizant and, well, alive. We plan for vacations with great care and great expense. This is the most epic journey of all, the final destination, one-way ticket in hand. Not sure about you, but I want to go out with a splash.

Happy Halloween.

Frustration to ‘The Firebird’ — the sublimity of St. Petersburg

In St. Petersburg, Russia, catching an Uber the hell out of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery was nigh impossible and immaculately exasperating — client and drivers just could not connect and a flurry of cancelled rides ensued — so I found myself trekking down bustling Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare in this wonderfully massive city, pocked with shops and banks and restaurants, groceries and souvenir kiosks. I strolled contentedly (ignore the steam poofing from my ears) till I could stroll no more, and located a spot at a landmark from which to finally hail an Uber ride. (Did I mention the average Uber fare ran me about $1.50 US? A dollar-fifty. Yes, at this point I’m grinning.)

What I was doing at the famed, winsome Alexander Nevsky Monastery, at the tippity-top of Nevsky Prospect, was looking at graves, mostly those in the famous Tikhvin Cemetery, where Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other brand-name bodies lie.

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For about $7 US, one is invited to amble the leafy paths of the 19th-century burial grounds and, with map in hand, á la those furnished at the unsurpassed cemeteries of Paris, seek out the eternal mattresses of the famous and infamous. The weather was cool, distinctly autumnal, the leaves turned and fallen. It was bliss.

Dostoyevsky lurched at me:

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As did this distressed woman, who perhaps witnessed my Uber travails:

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For this visitor, St. Petersburg was glorious that way, in its vibrant, tumultuous history, which is epic and bracingly complex, riddled with shake-ups, triumphs, reversals, oustings, wars, creeps (that’s you, Rasputin), revolutionaries (that’s you, Lenin), and cataracts of blood. Where else would there be this, the knockout, perversely titled Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the spot where Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist bomb:

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Endless canals stream through St. Petersburg, requiring scores and scores of small bridges, reminiscent of Amsterdam and its canals, or Paris and the regal Seine.

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And, as I boasted in an earlier entry, I located unfettered beauty at the ballet in the legendary Mariinsky Theatre. I watched, and reveled in, Stravinsky’s landmark fairytale “The Firebird,” perched in a fine dress circle seat. It was lush and extravagant. My view:

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Bonus shots: The Winter Palace, once the official home of the czars in the 1700s, in the sprawling Palace Square. This is the main building of the boggling Hermitage Museum.

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Below, a Hermitage guide describes Leonardo da Vinci’s exquisite “Madonna and Child” from 1478:

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And that’s all from Russia. I’ll spare you the food porn.

Tippling, Russian style

In St. Petersburg, Russia, recently, no one in a bar bumptiously offered me a shot of vodka as I had been cautioned they would. (Sad face emoji.) The only offers came from poised waiters in nice restaurants — not from chummy, drunky, rambunctious imbibers who wanted me to be their new American comrade in guzzling. This, surely, is a good thing.

I took it slow and easy, tossing back my first shots of the typically clear, but sometimes amber, libation in the controlled environment of the illuminating Russia Vodka Museum, an expansive and engrossing shrine to Russia’s national beverage.

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Guide Veronica explaining the vodkas I was about to gulp.

In a brisk and fact-packed 30 minutes I was shown the place by the delightful, fluently-English Veronica as my personal guide. I learned scads about the history of Russian vodka, from pre-Ivan the Terrible days in the 12th century to Putin’s relationship with the gullet-stinging spirit. The museum is top-shelf, full of text (in Russian, alas), colorful bottles, distillery artifacts, Stalin-era propaganda and unintentionally comical human wax figures. It’s thorough and classy.

If you opt for it — and you must — the tour concludes with a vodka tasting of three regional samples, and includes “chasers” of pickle, herring and onions and something else that escaped me but was fishy and delicious. The tour and tasting cost barely more than $10 US, a steal.

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Three shots, three edible chasers.

Before my only official shot of vodka in a bar-restaurant setting, I became a regular at the enchanting Dead Poets, a relaxed, stylish gastrobar where the bartenders are hipster mixologists with expert instincts and eye-crossing dexterity. They fashion quite the concoctions — like my favorite, the whiskey sour, which they do with care and panache — that are elaborate and fanciful but just the right amount of modest and unembarrassing. Nothing was too fru-fru, too tawdry, despite the simpatico bartenders’ twee haircuts and rococo facial hair.

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Best whiskey sour, ever. Notice the egg-white froth.

No, my sole shot of ice-cold vodka (curiously, the shots at the museum were room temperature) occurred at the acclaimed Duo Gastrobar, a tiny, mid-range restaurant, serving delectable meals, like amazing bone marrow with ginger sauce and crunchy apple pork rib.

Dessert menu? Pass. Let’s move on to liquid pleasures. For about $4 Duo offered one kind of vodka, the classic Beluga Noble, in a shot. Vodka in Russia, they say, must be served chilled, otherwise send it back. This was a frosty, good-sized shot, with lemon slices to bite after quaffing it down. Vodka, of course, is the smoothest liquor to shoot, as it tastes of hardly more than alcohol fumes. It has character if scant flavor.

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The lone chilled vodka shot in Russia.

As he delivered it, my server volunteered his confusion as to why vodka is his country’s national drink when tequila and whiskey, for instance, contain so much more texture and nuance. True, I nodded, and we laughed. But it was bracing and fine and if I wasn’t heading over to another bar, the youthful, disco-lighted Mishka, where drinks are two-for-one during a very long happy hour, I’d have ordered another. When in Russia …

Those jarred babies — not quite jarring enough

As promised I made it to the Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, last week. Also known as the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography — the oldest museum in Russian, opened in 1727 — it’s also known to connoisseurs of the grisly and gross as the Great Hall of Deformed Human Fetuses in Jars (not really). It’s a delight.

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And yet there aren’t as many specimens as I was hoping for, nor was there much in the way of the truly macabre. A few tweaked human skeletons — that fella’s really gigantic — a two-headed stuffed fox and some rusty surgical tools complemented the array of squishy, floating babies. Those twisted wee ones delivered the goods, a frisson of the freakish that some of us crave.

I was expecting more in the way of anatomical and medical exhibits, but the museum is largely dopey ethnographical artifacts — Native American beads and pottery, African huts, Eskimo furs, in tiny dioramas — you can see at your local natural history museum, but newer and brighter. There’s just one small floor of jarred bambinos and gnarled bones. It’s up top. Follow the arrows, greedily.

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It’s pretty good — three stars — but not quite enough to nourish its reputation as a world-class repository of the ghastly. I went for the morbid, not the ethnography, and found myself in and out in 30 minutes or less.

Philadelphia has Kunstkamera beat. Its famed if smaller Mütter Museum is a richer, more concentrated, more intense experience: jarred fetuses; innumerable human skulls both ghoulish and elegiac; various startling skeletons of the diseased, deformed and degraded; cankered floating body parts; chilling surgical devices; and the topper, Chang and Eng’s death cast and conjoined livers.

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Giant’s skeleton at Kunstkamera Museum

I don’t want to knock its Russian counterpart, but the Mütter, as specifically a physician’s institution, is more complete and well-rounded, satisfying the more ambitious demands of creep-seekers. Kunstkamera is very much worth a visit — do go — but know its limitations. While it offers a world of wonder, the Mütter offers galaxies.

 

Travel travails: trying to jettison on-the-road angst

Just before I embark on my vacations people reflexively ask if I’m excited and looking forward to it, assuring me I’ll have a wonderful time and wads of other tinkly bromides. Invariably I grimace and nod, “Yeah. I think so … Sure. OK, thanks.”

But I’m never sure, and it’s not OK. As I pack and prepare I’m a minor wreck, wracked, withdrawn — enthused, yes, but freighted with the cargo of myriad far-off what-ifs and other terrifying variables.

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I have no qualms about flying; I like flight. My innate angst resides in about, well, pretty much everything else: Flight on time! Make my connection! Will it rain at my destination! Will my Airbnb be as cool as the photos! Will I be able to communicate with the locals! Will I get robbed! Will I contract a food-borne illness! Is that baby-jar museum as rocking as it looks!

I had a small stroke applying for my Russian visa recently. As I’ve noted earlier, it was a multi-tentacled task and very pricey. With the stroke, I developed a bleeding ulcer. For some reason this trip — much more than my jaunts to China, Vietnam, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria — has me more angsty than ever.

I write this today attempting to relax in United Airlines Terminal C at the airport, from which I’ll depart to St. Petersburg, Russia, with a brief stopover in Zurich, Switzerland. I have mere minutes to catch my connecting flight. The layover is impossibly miniscule.

It is not promising. I have four stomach-twisting inklings: 1) I will miss my connection. 2) I will be spending the night in Switzerland, on my dime. 3) My luggage will be in Russia. 4) I will lose a day in St. Petersburg. (Bonus inkling: I will sob.)

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Besides that eventuality, I am also worried about the fact that you can’t drink the water in Russia — it will do a number on you. That’s barely a concern. Bottled water is a cinch and I’ve done the don’t-drink-the-water routine in several countries. But will the hair dryer work sufficiently? Will I fumble financial transactions, not knowing well the rubles/dollars exchange? Will my accommodations’ TV have satellite or simple local cable (I kinda need my CNN)?

These are obscenely, stupidly first-world worries, of course. I do swimmingly out of my comfort zone while traveling and I revel in the developing-country experience. I’ve proven it repeatedly. But I’m weirding out a little this time.

Relax, you’ll have a great time, they say. And I believe them, shakily. I’m conjuring my own anxieties via my own dark thoughts. These are fictions. I’m in the airport, through security, decompressing, with hours till my flight. I have a glass of wine. The journey has begun, and it’s not half bad.

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The Himalayas, out the window, above Nepal.

The strange allure of the Progressive Insurance girl

She’s bubbly and beaming, high-volume, with a flip of dark hair and a face like a lollipop. She irks as she endears, bemuses as she bewitches. She’s a bundle of energetic contradictions, bursting here, retracting there. Her expressions blink and change like a neon sign. Her eyes are popping globes. And she just sold you a bunch of car insurance.

Flo is her name. She’s the spokeswoman for Progressive Auto Insurance, lighting up televisions in a series of commercials in which her perky cashier pitches the money-saving merits of Progressive to customers. She works in a sterile, all-white big-box store, and her florid makeup stands out like paint spilled in snow.

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First she caught our eye; now she’s snatched our heart. Viewers are smitten. They’re crushin’. They want to know: Who’s that girl?

From a blog at HoustonPress.com, with the headline “The Cult of the Progressive Car Insurance Chick”:

“Am I the only one completely and totally enamored of the woman in the television ads for Progressive car insurance? You know, the ones starring that babelicious brunette named Flo with her ‘tricked-out name tag’ and her ’60s style eye makeup and her kissable red, red lips?”

No, sir, you are not. There’s more where that mash-note came from, out there in the blogosphere’s infinite confessional space: “She’s hot.” “She’s weird but, God, she’s fine!”

Others have naughtier ideas that they’re perfectly comfortable sharing with the world, even if we can’t do so here.

“It’s so weird,” says Stephanie Courtney, the actress who plays Flo.

We spoke to Courtney because we had to. We had to know if she was real or just a cartoon character. If she was at all like the effervescent Flo. If she really wore that much make-up and, hey, who does your hair?

Courtney has been playing Flo for several years. Which makes her the face and voice of Progressive, a peer of the Geico gecko (do they ever hang out, compare rates?) and the old Verizon guy. She follows in a heady tradition of corporate mascots, from Palmolive’s Madge to Tony the Tiger.

It’s been quite a ride for Courtney, a senior member of famed Los Angeles improv troupe the Groundlings. It began with a simple audition for a commercial. She showed up in a polo shirt and ponytail. She did some improvisation.

“They wanted someone with a lot of personality,” Courtney says by phone from her Los Angeles home.

They liked her and signed her.

Then, the look. That look.

They cut her hair, gave her bangs. They subjected her to two hours of hair and make-up.

“They tease my hair, spray it and stick the headband in it,” Courtney explains.

“And the makeup is like painting a portrait on my face,” she says, laughing. “It’s insane. It totally changes things on my face. It’s like having a mask on.”

One of Flo’s best-known lines is: “Wow! I say it louder.” (You had to be there.)

Courtney has popped up in the movies “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Blades of Glory,” and was one of four leads in the smart adult comedy “Melvin Goes to Dinner,” which won the audience award at South by Southwest in 2003. She also had a recurring role as a gossipy switchboard operator on the hit show “Mad Men.” And you may have seen her doing yoga in a Glade commercial.

The job pays well, Courtney hints. She doesn’t have to worry anymore about pesky things like rent.

How much is Courtney like flamboyant Flo?

“It’s me at my silliest,” she says. “You start off with a script, but at the end they usually let me put a little zinger in there. We put a little mustard on it. That’s when it gets fun.

“Flo could be one of my improv characters, always on and sort of cracked in a weird way.”

But who is Flo? What is she? People wonder …

Like this blogger: “Is it her fabulous comic timing, her over-the-top facial expressions, her cute-as-a-button retro flip? Or is it the slight hint of a bad girl that lies just under the surface? The promise of a tattoo under that checkout girl uniform? The possibility of a motorcycle parked out back?”

Her character has been compared to a vintage Vargas pin-up girl, ’50s burlesque dancer Betty Page and, adds Courtney, a “fetish chick.”

“I don’t know what it is,” she says. “The way I play her, she’s pretty much the most asexual thing on TV right now. I think the Geico lizard puts out more sexual vibes than Flo does. But I do think the cavemen are totally crushable.”

Though Courtney is married to a sixth-grade teacher, Flo appears alluringly single. So pine away, in the same brunette-crush way you did with Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island” and Velma on “Scooby-Doo.”

Because things couldn’t get much stranger than they already are for Courtney. Top this: People are dressing up as Flo for Halloween.

“That makes me so happy. But I do have to warn them that it takes two hours in hair and make-up,” she says. “I wish them luck.”

Stray, dogged thoughts about the world’s street mutts

The coolest friend I met on back-to-back trips to Istanbul was a dog.

I met the stray during a May visit and then, staying in the same area of Sultanahmet, met up with her again in October. She recognized me immediately and we enjoyed a fast, happy reunion. She jumped on me and her tail swept like a furious broom.

Stray dogs are plentiful in Istanbul and are protected by the city. Each dog is registered, one of their ears pierced with an official tag. My pal wore a red tag on her floppy left ear, leading me, with a poverty of imagination, to call her Red Tag.

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Medium-sized, camel-colored and sweet as a peach, Red Tag wasn’t always around and she didn’t follow me through the city. She had a life of her own. I would see her by my boutique hotel in the morning and in the evening, and she would sit near me at my nearby watering hole at night. One night she hung out with a group of people as we caroused by the Hagia Sophia, staying up till dawn, a trooper.

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Red Tag at dawn after staying out all night with human revelers.

I didn’t spoil Red Tag, though I did occasionally buy her a can of tuna to nosh on as a treat. Street dogs unavoidably crack my heart, and my first instinct is to feed them. Near Gallipoli, Turkey, I bought a stray puppy a can of tuna that she gobbled up gratefully.

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Tuna for a puppy in Turkey.

It’s not always so. In India I bought some peanuts, the only nearby food, for a crazy puppy that ignored the offering. Another Indian dog rebuffed the samosa I tried to give it. Rice wasn’t appreciated by mongrels in Vietnam. For some reason I assumed these derelict doggies would eat anything.

These memories bubbled up while reading a recent story about street dogs in The New York Times titled “Stray Dogs Started Turning Blue. Then the Street Mobilized.” It’s a great, heartening article about how well strays in India are treated and protected. Even though I’ve been to India, it’s an eye-opener:

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India pup, with cow hoof.

“India has some of the most pro-dog laws on the planet. It is illegal here to kill healthy strays, and the result is millions of them — perhaps as many as 30 million across the country. Packs of dogs trot through the parks, hang around restaurants for scraps (which they usually get), and sprawl on their bellies inside railway stations as rushing commuters leap over them.”

This is a far cry from, say, China, where dogs are rounded up as people food or killed outright as pests. Sickening.

In Hanoi I saw an actual “dog restaurant.” Outside was a silver bowl filled with cooked dog paws and, ironically, a chained German shepherd serving as a guard dog. Eating dog is a kind of virility ritual — it’s a guy thing — and when a table of drunken men spotted me spotting them, they tried to rope me to their table, yelling and gesticulating. Later, in an open-air market, I saw dog carcasses basted like turkeys for sale.

Is this cruelty or culture? A culture of cruelty, I say. But let’s not wade into pitched arguments of moral relativism and abject hypocrisy here and now. Later. Maybe.

Red Tag, terrible as it is to think, has probably passed by now. It’s been a while and she seemed to have some age-related arthritic issues when we hung out. She was kind of a loner, but I saw she had friends that curiously looked a lot like her. She was protected by a big-hearted city that coddles its stray dog population, much as India is demonstrating to its mutts and mongrels. I always feel so bad for street dogs in my travels — mangy, mistreated, malnourished. This delivers a whisper of hope.

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Street hounds of Istanbul. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Brushing aside loneliness to bask in solitude

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“Solitude must be welcomed rather than feared. In the mental and moral equipment of a radical or critical personality, this realization is of the essence.” — Christopher Hitchens

I’m the inveterate navel-gazer, the incorrigible woolgatherer, the loner who picks his moments in the spotlight and never gets dragged into them. Hardly the social butterfly, I prefer the cozy gloom of the cocoon. While getting out is good, solitude is golden.

I’ve traveled the world with girlfriends, but usually it’s a solo affair — much easier, more peaceful, more relaxed. I meet people on the road, lots, and those fleeting encounters are just the right measure of intimate human contact.

I once had a friend meet me in Japan for part of a vacation and I wrote in my journal, almost as a reminder, semi-dreading the company, “I walk the Earth alone.” I was being facetious. Unfortunately my friend read this. She was light years from amused.

“Hell,” said Sartre, “is other people.” One wonders if he said this with a wink or a wince.

“Let me tell you this: if you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it’s not because they enjoy solitude. It’s because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.” — Jodi Picoult

I’ve never understood people who can’t be alone. I have friends who would never conceive of going to a movie by themselves. I’ve never understood extroverts. I’m the sort who ducks down a different aisle if I spot an acquaintance in the grocery store. I’m sort of like a film noir antihero, alone in my trench coat, head bowed, buckled with ennui, smoking like a fiend, trying to make my way in an unjust world. (Ha.)

I have a mild misanthropic streak, an anti-social strain, though I’m no solitudinarian — actual word! — or recluse. It’s nothing severe enough to prevent me from enjoying a good party or get-together, even if I’m occasionally the guy who leaves early through the back door without saying proper farewells. (“People-proof your heart,” sang the Posies.)

My own skin doesn’t fit well. Which means comfort among others doesn’t come easy. Traveling, I love to read in cafes, scribble in journals at bars, roam streets, cathedrals and cemeteries alone, without the nattering of companions. I move to my own beat, that of a different drummer — and, as a longtime drummer, a pretty good drummer.

“I don’t like being able to be reached. I enjoy my solitude. Even people having my phone number seems like too much.”Brie Larson

Yes, I quoted Brie Larson. But I like her style here, despite her unbridled exhibitionism as an Oscar-winning actress and all the happy-face fraudulence that it demands. I searched her images and they’re topless this and bikini that. She shares that brainless visual cotton-candy with a boundless global viewership. So much for solitude. And yet I believe her quote, and wholly relate.

She probably doesn’t like to be reached because she gets six thousand calls a day. I don’t get any, maybe two, and it’s still too much. Even marketing calls feel like an invasion on my solo-hood. When my phone rings my first response is, Who the —-?

“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.” — May Sarton

There is indeed a difference between loneliness and solitude, and the gulf is dramatic. Loneliness yearns for something more, usually other people, to fill an existential hole. There’s a neediness, even a dependence and desperation, there. It enshrines incapacity.

In solitude one reaps energy from oneself, without the jumper cables of outside forces. You create your own space on your own terms, with your own powers, cultivating your mind, with the option of joining the wide world at anytime. Great freedom defines solitude. It’s the incubator of creativity and art. It’s the locus of self-communion. And, far from being bereft and desolate and unduly selfish, it’s all rather invigorating, nourishing and exhilarating.

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